There is no alternative: exploring the options in the 1984-5 miners' strike.

Author:Darlington, Ralph


In the early 1970s, Britain was swept by a wave of militant industrial struggle, the depth and political character of which had been unprecedented since the 1920s, both in terms of the sheer scale of strike activity involved, and because the period witnessed some of the most dramatic confrontations between unions and government in post-war Britain. One of the most notable high points of struggle was the 1972 miners' strike for higher wages, which delivered the miners their 'greatest victory' (Hall, 1981), and inflicted a devastating defeat on the Conservative government headed by Edward Heath. The strike, with its mass pickets, provided a vivid illustration of the power and confidence of the shop-floor union organisation that had been built up in the post-war period (Darlington & Lyddon, 2001; Lyddon & Darlington, 2003). Although the miners won another victory in 1974, culminating in a general election that brought down the Heath government, that strike was altogether a much more passive dispute than that of 1972, with a tight control on picketing imposed by the NUM executive, under the TUC-supported guidelines of only six pickets.

A much more marked contrast occurred with the 1984-5 miners' strike, which took place against the backcloth of a deep economic recession, an avalanche of redundancies and closures, and a neoliberal Conservative government headed by Margaret Thatcher that displayed its resolve to fight with and beat any trade union (the 'enemy within') that sought to challenge its authority. During the period 1984-5, in what was to be the longest national dispute in post-war Britain, the government inflicted a bitter defeat on the miners (albeit not as great as that of the 1926 General Strike) in a battle over pit closures and redundancies. The outcome of the strike both symbolised the rapidly changing shift in the balance of power away from workers towards employers, and greatly accelerated this process across the trade union movement as a whole in the years that followed.

This article aims to reassess the defeat of the miners' strike of 1984-5 by comparing it with the victory of 1972. In the process, it aims to critically evaluate the predominant argument accepted by most commentators, whether hostile or sympathetic to the miners' struggles, that the 1984-5 strike was an heroic but inevitably doomed stand against the juggernaut of a Thatcher government determined to use unlimited resources in order to avenge its defeats of a decade or more earlier, in which the miners' militant tactics merely contributed to the scale of their defeat (Goodman, 1985; Wilsher et al., 1985; Adeney & Lloyd, 1986; Routledge, 1993).

For example, in The Trade Union Question in British Politics (1993: 292, 298), Robert Taylor argues that Scargill was an 'industrial Napoleon' who called a strike 'at the wrong time' on the 'wrong issue', and adopted strategies and tactics that were 'impossibilist', with 'an inflexible list of extravagant non-negotiable demands' that amounted to 'reckless adventurism' that was 'a dangerous, self-defeating delusion'. A similar historical assessment, albeit sometimes less vitriolic, has been made by many others, with Goodman (1985:48) expressing the widely-shared perception that central to the failure of the strike was the crucial tactical error of substituting the flying picket for the holding of a national ballot. It was this 'error of judgement' that alienated the majority of Nottinghamshire miners, weakened the NUM's position with the rest of the trade union movement, undermined the miners' cause with public opinion, and inevitably opened the door to picket-line violence which in turn strengthened the hand of the Coal Board, government and media.

Ironically, as George Bolton, vice-president of the Scottish NUM and chairman of the Communist Party, commented, reflecting the party's subsequent public rejection of 'Scargillism': 'you can't picket your way to victory' (Marxism Today, September 1984). Such a strategy, others have argued, meant that a brave and heroic resistance movement was arrogantly and recklessly led to 'loss without limit' (Adeney & Lloyd, 1986).

This article presents an alternative explanation for the 1984-5 defeat. It argues that it was actually the failure to replicate to the same extent the militant tactics of mass and flying pickets to stop the movement of coal that had been so dramatically adopted during the 1972 strike, combined with the relative lack of solidarity industrial action from other trade unionists in comparison with the earlier dispute, that was crucial.

The 1972 strike

Some of the key features of the audacity and militancy of the 1972 miners' strike that explain its success were: (1) effective picketing; (2) the extent of solidarity action; and (3) the strength of rank-and-file organisation and left-wing networks.

(1) Effective picketing

While the tradition of secondary picketing in Yorkshire had been extended to some other mining areas in the 1969 and 1970 unofficial strikes, the 1972 strike saw it raised to an altogether different plane. In practice, the mass and/or flying picket became the key tactical weapon that was to prove devastatingly effective, often in defiance of the national union leadership (Darlington & Lyddon, 2001: 38-50). Despite official NUM instructions to its members to maintain safety work and allow pit deputies (members of the union NACODS) to do likewise, there was remarkable widespread unofficial action in many different areas of the country to deprive pits of NUM safety cover, combined with the use of mass pickets several-hundred strong to prevent the deputies carrying out their work. Similarly, union instructions to permit the union's white collar section (COSA) to continue working normally were defied with successful unofficial mass picketing across the country, which was then extended to National Coal Board (NCB) employees in the Clerical and Administrative Workers Union who did not join the strike at the large Coal House offices in Doncaster (and in South Wales and the North East).

Even more significantly, from the onset of the strike, miners in many areas started picketing other sites away from their collieries, with the union's national office only issuing official instructions along these lines a few days into the dispute. First, there was a move to stop the general movement of coal by dock, rail and road transport workers, and its use by power workers--with different NUM areas allocated responsibility for picketing coal-stock yards, open-cast mines, docks and power stations in different non-mining regions of the country. For example, the Barnsley Panel of the Yorkshire miners was given East Anglia to picket. When the tactic of spreading pickets thinly over too many locations (fifteen ports and seven power stations) failed, Arthur Scargill (1975) successfully pushed for mass picketing to be organised at each site in turn. Second, there was picketing to stop the movement of other essential materials--namely oil into oil-fired power stations, and the materials needed to make serviceable and ignite the coal in power stations (such as caustic soda, hydrogen, sulphuric acid, lubricating oil, and other chemicals). A dramatic example of this type of mass picketing occurred at the Coalite Smokeless Fuel plant in Grimethorpe, near Barnsley (Crick, 1985: 53-54).

In all of the above cases, picketing was carried out despite repeated violent confrontations with the police, often involving arrests--notably at the mass picket and blockade of Longannet power station in Scotland (Wallington, 1972)--and was characterised by its mass participation, with Vic Allen (1981: 200) estimating an average of 40,000 pickets each day. While this is probably an overestimate, there is no doubt that such activity involved a very high proportion of the 308,000 strikers, and probably dwarfed that of any other large strike. Crucially, 'the spirit of aggression and zeal displayed by rank-and-file miners' (Taylor, 1980: 367), exemplified by the use of flying and mass pickets, was so successful that it eventually led the government to declare a state of emergency in order to ration electricity supplies, leading to power-cuts and the laying-off of 1.6 million workers. Margaret Thatcher's subsequent reflections (1995: 216) confirm the shock the strike was to give the Conservative government, forcing it to capitulate shortly afterwards: 'The possibility of effective mass picketing which could prevent oil and coal getting to power stations, was simply not on the agenda'.

(2) The extent of solidarity action

A second feature of the 1972 miners' strike was the extent of practical solidarity action (both official and unofficial) taken by other workers: action that the miners' pickets themselves directly encouraged, but without which their strike could never have been so effective.

Such solidarity was expressed in numerous ways, most notably in the observance of TUC General Council guidelines, issued on the second day of the strike, which asked trade unionists to respect NUM picket lines, albeit only applying to the movement of coal (TUC Annual Report, 1972: 97-8). Rank-and-file transport and railway union members quickly respected picket lines (which often had to be maintained 24-hours-a-day), and sometimes went much further than official union guidelines. Dockers boycotted ships carrying imported coal for power stations, and train drivers boycotted all movements of coal by rail, with ASLEF responding to local initiatives by calling on members not to take oil into power stations where there were picket lines.

However, the national decisions of the railway and transport workers' unions to respect the miners' picket lines did not mean that all movement of coal magically halted. For example, road haulage drivers--who might be threatened with disciplinary action or even dismissal by their employers--often required robust picketing and...

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