40 years on from the Miners’ Strike and the Battle of Orgreave

40 years on from the Miners’ Strike and the Battle of Orgreave

It’s hard to believe now that some 40 years ago the unexpected announcement at the beginning of March 1984 by the National Coal Board that it was to cut the amount of coal mined in this country by some 4 million tonnes and close 20 pits with the loss of 20,000 jobs would lead to perhaps the most bitter and divisive industrial dispute ever seen in UK history.

The announcement went on to say that the first of those pits, Cortonwood Colliery, a pit that was sunk over a hundred years previously, in my hometown of Rotherham, was to close imminently. From that day on, conflict with the National Union of Mineworkers and its President, Arthur Scargill, was always likely to happen.

And it took just four days after the announcement was made for the workers at Cortonwood to strike, an action that saw miners all over the country also walk out in solidarity with their South Yorkshire colleagues. And so began what became known as the Miners’ Strike – an industrial dispute that would last for just three days short of a year, a dispute that would define and split communities for years to come and a dispute that many would argue saw the start of the decline in Trade Union power.

Mission to break the trade unions

Arguably, from the day that she took over leadership of the Conservative Party in 1975, Margaret Thatcher was on a one-woman mission to break the trade unions and the power that she felt they held over the workforce of the country.

And the Miners’ Strike of 1984 was her opportunity.

Prior to the strike being called, the National Coal Board was one of the largest employers in the country. It had an estimated 170 pits nationwide and a workforce of approaching 190,000 but was seen as being controlled by the unions, was hugely inefficient and uncompetitive, and was considered a drain on public finances.

Having seen the 1974 Miners’ Strike effectively bring down the last Conservative government, when the 1984 strike was announced Thatcher was determined that her own government would not suffer the same fate.

Riding high in the popularity stakes given her response to Argentina’s invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982, Thatcher was confident that she would beat the NUM, and its high-profile leader, Arther Scargill. Her determination was built on the belief that the trade unions had too much power in the country and this, alongside her desire to transfer large, nationalised industries to the private sector where, she argued, they would become more efficient and profitable, meant that the battle with the NUM was one that she could not afford to lose.

The Ridley Report

Following the fall of the Heath government after the 1974 strike right-wing Conservative MP, Nicholas Ridley was tasked with putting together a plan that would form the blueprint of how any future Conservative government would look to fight and defeat any major strike in a nationalised industry when they returned to power.

Some of the key recommendations that were made in the report encouraged the government to build up coal stocks at power stations and to ensure that adequate plans were made to import coal from non-union foreign ports to keep the power stations generating.

Further, it recommended that non-union lorry drivers be recruited by haulage companies to transport coal around the country as well as installing dual coal and oil-fired generators to reduce the reliance on coal-generated power.

But perhaps the most controversial of the Ridley Report recommendations was that to train and equip a large, mobile squad of police officers that were capable of being deployed anywhere in the country at short notice. This mobile squad would be trained in and able to employ riot tactics aimed at upholding the law against violent picketing.

Policing of the strike

Policing of the strike was and remains hugely controversial, largely because of the recommendations of the Ridley Report. Police officers were duly posted to mining towns and villages from forces across the UK. They had little or no understanding of the industry or of the communities in which they were operating. Given the powers they were given and how they implemented them, the police were often accused of being heavy-handed and of using extreme violent tactics to repel the picketing miners with the sole aim of breaking the strike.

Perhaps the fiercest confrontations and the images that remain etched on many of our minds come from the so-called Battle of Orgreave. Orgreave was pivotal. It was where coal was turned into coke which was used to power the furnaces of British Steel. But when the striking miners found that more coke was being released from the plant than agreed it became the target of their actions.

The coke wagons were taken in and out of the plant under police escort and the area immediately around the plant and in the local vicinity was effectively a no-go area as the police battled against the pickets to keep the coke supplies moving.

It was the 18th June when what became known as the Battle of Orgreave took place. This was the day a mass picket was organised at the gates of the coking plant with an estimated 10,000 miners in attendance. They were met by a substantial police presence, some estimate as many as 6,000, many of whom were in riot gear, on horseback or with police dogs. The resulting confrontation saw more than 100 miners injured whilst some 95 were arrested and subsequently charged with riot or violent disorder offences.

The result?

After the Battle of Orgreave, the strike continued. But with union funds running low and little sign of a resolution the NUM held a special conference to principally discuss the future of the strike. On 3rd March 1985 conference delegates held a vote on whether to end the strike with delegates narrowly voting for a return to work. This happened just two days later, the 5th March.

The aftermath

Following the return to work the industry and its communities were never the same. The pit closures that had caused the strike in the first place were only the start, they continued apace once the miners had returned to work. So much so that by 2005 it was estimated that the workforce had declined to less than 7,000 from its peak. Some 10 years later, Kellingley Colliery in North Yorkshire closed, significant for the fact that this was the UK’s last deep coal mine to cease production.

The social impact of the strike was also profound. Many communities that were previously sustained by the pits that they surrounded were devastated and many have never fully recovered. Many of those former mining communities remain amongst the most deprived areas in the country.

Working in a mining village during the strike the devastation and suffering of everyday life was evident all around. People couldn’t afford to pay their bills; poverty became endemic and social unrest was almost a daily occurrence. This was devastation and suffering on a scale that no one would really come to recognise for its significance until many, many years later.

Looking back

Some 40 years on the economic landscape of our country has changed almost beyond recognition. It is almost inconceivable these days to ever imagine that another industrial dispute of the size and length of the Miner’s Strike could be seen again in this country. However, it is a significant part of our social history and one that has and will continue to define industrial relations for years to come.

However, what hasn’t changed is the desire and expectation amongst workers to receive a decent wage for a decent day’s work and some of the actions that they are prepared to take to achieve that. The recent cost of living crisis that we have all lived through and the amount of workforce unrest that we have seen as a result remains a pertinent testament to this.