In the face of Thatcher’s iron will, Scargill’s decision to lead the strike without a ballot was an error that sealed the miners’ fate
The miners’ strike, which began 25 years ago this month, marked a decisive moment in the period of the Thatcher government. More than that, it was also a watershed in postwar history. The labour movement emerged from the second world war far stronger than previously. The long postwar boom which lasted until the early 1970s further bolstered the unions; this new-found strength was tested during the Heath government when the unions successfully resisted its various attempts to weaken them.
At the heart of this militancy were the miners. When Margaret Thatcher took office in 1979, she was determined not to be thwarted in the way that the Heath government had been and her government prepared its ground for a future confrontation with the unions with a carefully-conceived political strategy and meticulous preparation.
She was fortunate that her adversary was Arthur Scargill, the miners’ leader. Although there was a deep reservoir of popular sympathy and support for the miners, which dated back to their suffering in the interwar period, Scargill failed to realise its potential. From the moment that he refused to ballot the miners on strike action, not only were the miners divided, with the Nottinghamshire coalfield refusing to join in, but the strike also lost a significant amount of public support.
It was a disastrous decision, which enabled the Thatcher government to claim that the miners were divided and that Scargill had railroaded the NUM into the decision to strike. Even without this, the miners would have faced a formidable task: the Thatcher government staked everything in its attempt to defeat the miners including a large-scale mobilisation of the state. But with the miners operating under such a huge handicap, it was only a matter of time before they succumbed. Looking back on the strike now, it is testament to the conviction, courage and determination of the miners that the strike lasted almost a year.
In many respects, the strike was a throwback to an earlier era: an all-out and bitter war of attrition, with no attempt at compromise by either side. This was a reflection of Scargill’s own political philosophy and also how the miners accurately perceived what was at stake; above all, it demonstrated the absolute determination of the Thatcher government to defeat the miners, destroy the NUM in the process, and thereby inflict an historic defeat on the labour movement from which it could not recover. It was successful in all three objectives. It marked the end of the power which the labour movement had exercised since 1945 and the position it had come to occupy in national affairs.
Was the defeat inevitable? This, of course, was not the only defeat that the trade union movement suffered during the Thatcher period, but it was by far the most serious. If the miners had enjoyed unity, then not only would the strike have been more effective, but they would also have enjoyed much broader public support. This would have made it harder for the Thatcher government to be so ruthless and uncompromising in its conduct of the strike. They would have been obliged to find ways of convincing the middle ground. As a result, it is conceivable that some kind of compromise settlement might have been possible which would have preserved at least part of the industry, saved the NUM from destruction and enabled the labour movement to emerge from the conflict in a less enfeebled condition. It was not to be; and, as Billy Bragg argued here, we are very much living with the consequences.
A quarter of a century on, I doubt that wide swathes of society feel good about what they allowed the Thatcher government to do to the miners. This was a brutal phase in British postwar history from which neither the Scargill leadership nor the Thatcher government emerge with credit. It spoke of the hatred of the Thatcher government for the labour movement and the values which it represented and the suicidal consequences of Scargill-style militancy and self-righteousness.