A CIVIL WAR WITHOUT GUNS -20 YEARS ON
The book sets the scale of the action as "the longest lasting, most bitter industrial dispute in the second half of the 20th century in Britain and was undoubtedly the most widespread in its effects on society generally." I would go a little further and say it is probably true of the whole century, certainly in terms of violence and mass resistance 84/85 exceeds the actions in 1926.
Ken , is at pains to challenge the idea that the strike was lost from the beginning, that in fact we came close to victory on a number of occasions. By October 1984 six months into the strike, the future of Thatchers government hung in the balance- when there was less than six weeks coal stocks left. Frank Ledger of the CEGB director of operations revealed that they had only planned for the strike to last six months, power supply by this time was "catastrophic"
Former Chairman of the Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB) Sir Walter Marshall spelt out what this meant "our predictions showed on paper that Scargill would win certainly by Christmas. Margaret Thatcher got very worried about that...I felt she was wobbly."
Ian MacGregor was summoned to Downing Street and recalls Thatchers comments in his memoirs "Im very worried about it. You have to realise that the fate of this government is in your hands Mr MacGregor. You have got to solve this problem."
The proposed strike by the pit supervisors union NACODS threatened to close down all working pits . NACODS to their credit had voted in an individual secret nation-wide ballot 82.5% in favour of strike action . Thatcher describes how provocation's on behalf of the NCB against NACODS almost led to her downfall "We had to make it quite clear that if it was not cured immediately then the actual management of the Coal Board could indeed have brought down the government." This demonstrates that Thatcher was well aware how delicately balanced the strike was, an intervention by NACODS as their members had clearly wished and voted for, would have swung the defeat into a massive unparalleled victory. Ken Smith doesn't tell us, and this book does not explore ,just what was done to get NACODS leaders to break the movement away from crushing victory to crushing defeat. Certainly it wasn't a deal to save their jobs since NACODS were killed off with the pits and the deputies and overmen now sit on the scrap heap along with the miners in the same socially deprived former pit communities.
Ken was right to identify that the leadership " were still reliant on the tactics of 1972 and 1974 to win their next strike. It was not that the tactic of flying pickets and mass picketing were wrong or inappropriate. However because of a number of fundamental differences they could not be the sole means of winning victory in an all out bitter political dispute that 1984-1985 was to become."
One of the burdens we faced in the 84 strike which we hadn't in the earlier successful strikes of the 70s was the presence of large numbers of non striking miners. Their existence was no accident, they had been carefully created.
In the case of Nottingham given the legacy of Spensorism, perhaps re-created. The key element of this was to break the identification of the miners nation-wide with national conciliation and pay bargaining. The effect of the 1965 National Power Loading Agreement had been in ushering in a national wage scale which would include miners all
over the island on a single nationally negotiated pay scale and terms and conditions. This meant that miners would identify with national negotiations and miners interests nationally would supersede those of local bargaining and local pay schemes. The imposition of the incentive bonus schemes, based upon Area negotiations, came around in 1978. It was a plan probably drawn up and elaborated by Labours back room academics as a means to disarm the miners during their turn at running the country. The plan had been bitterly opposed by the miners and when put to a national ballot was rejected by 55%. Gormley, who we now know was in the pay of state security forces, turned heaven and hell to get the scheme in place. It was clear he had a good idea what a crucial piece of strategy it was in derailing any future miners action. Firstly he defied a national conference decision to reject the schemes, by going to the High Court to demand a national ballot of the membership, over the head of the national conference decision. When the ballot was held, and it went against Gormley and the scheme, the NEC then decided that the scheme should go ahead anyway. The progressive areas then went back to the court to plea, that all the decision making bodies of the union were being ignored. Mr Justice Watkins ruled " The result of a ballot nationally conducted is not binding upon the national Executive Committee". The schemes were then steam rollered through and started about undoing the effects of the NPLA, creating divisions in wages and terms and making fish of one and flesh of another. Miners in prosperous, moderate areas with harmonious relations with the employers would start to see an easy life and collaboration as an alternative to national demands and actions. This was just what the plan was intended to create. As the clock moved on into the 84 struggle, those same area started to demand a national ballot replying with bollocks to the ballot became a response drawn from that earlier experience of ballots and democracy and hypocrisy.
If the national incentive scheme was Labours method of disarming the miners, the Tories had been for some time working on their own plans. First off was Myron (which Ken seems to have overlooked) a Midlands NCB chief who drew up a whole plan for defeating the NUM, breaking the membership from it, and privatising the coal industry largely as a non-union emasculated industry. More famously was the Ridley Report . This was first leaked to the Economist in 1978 . At the time it was just plain Nicholas Ridley, but his worth was seen in the wholesale adoption of his plan, his promotion to the Tory cabinet and subsequent entry into the House Of Lords as a Peer of the Realm. His plan :_
Build up stocks of coal and strategic stocks at power stations to outlast any miners strike.
Switch coal and fuel transport any from unionised rail and onto individual, non union private lorry drivers.
Ensure joint oil as well as coal burn facilities at power stations.
Build up police powers and equipment, combined with anti- union and anti-picket legislation.
As we know these plans were implemented to the full together with the expansion and retention of the nuclear option regardless of cost.
To what extent was the whole thing a set up has been the subject to speculation. The Tories needed little
excuse to engage the miners in battle, they had been a persistent and belligerent class opponents over the preceding two and a half centuries. The miners represented a social block to everything Thatcherism stood for. Her economic and social programme, centrally the control of labour, could not proceed unhindered while the miners remained undefeated. "The Enemy Within" was a correct description in terms of class conflict. Certainly she had aspired to lop off what was seen as marginal capacity in the industry which stood in the way of super profit and a more privitisable coal industry. This would be unlikely to be achieved without a defeat of the NUM. For these reasons, the host of economic facts suggesting that there were actually few if any unprofitable pits in macro economic terms, doesn't matter. It wasn't really an argument about unprofitable pits, a closed pit producing nothing, with an unemployed workforce earning and spending nothing, was far more uneconomic than a one fluctuating between individual profit and loss. This fight among other things, was about slimming down the coal industry for privatisation, at the same time stamping the managerial right to manage on the work force, that meant taking them on .
Ken rightly illustrates the stop go attempts to generate industrial action over closures. Miners were proving very reluctant to take up the fight for areas outside of their own. This was illustrated in the stalled battle of Lewis Methyr, which encountered little enthusiasm for solidarity action outside Wales. When it came to Cortonwood in Yorkshire, the Welsh miners returned the complement and were highly hesitant to come out for the Yorkshire miners. It took days of argument to convince miners nation-wide that this fight was on, and was for all of them.
The book is mistaken in its description of the way in which the Yorkshire strike started "At Cortonwood...the miners came out by themselves and forced the area executive to endorse their strike." It was the Area Council meeting, of all the pits in Yorkshire, who after mass meetings at pit heads and welfare's voted to join the strike at Cortonwood against pit closures, implementing an earlier Area ballot decision to strike against compulsory pit closures. Smiths description of the Northumberland Area as "a traditionally militant area" is also wide of the mark, Northumberland had become a moderate area following its red raging days in the 1920s. The area was to become repoliticised and reradicalised in the course of the strike.
He is mistaken in assuming that Scunthorpe Steel works, the reason for the Orgreave target was landlocked. Not true, Immingham terminal stands cheek by jowl to the Steel works, in addition to which Scunthorpe Steel Works had its own wharf and its own piece of railway line from the wharf to the plant. It is precisely for this reason that we questioned the necessity of BSC running coke from 40 miles away through strike solid Yorkshire pit villages. It is another of the reasons why we always felt Orgreave was a rat trap and distraction. It wasn't mass picketing that was the wrong strategy though, it was mass picketing in the same place everyday, with the full knowledge of the police and the glare of the media which was the failure. We never had enough pickets to slog it out day by day with a stronger force equipped and licence to kill if necessary. We were best when we were guerillas using hit a run tactics and mass surprise pickets around the country. Orgreave tied us down. We always suspected groups like the SWP liked the tactic because they could get us all in one place to try and sell us papers.
The author comes to the same view as myself ,that whatever the reasons for not having a ballot initially, and there are many sound ones, as the strike progressed , it may have been opportune to call one. All the pundits and opinion polls, judging both strikers and non strikers results, suggests we should have won something like a 70- 75 % yes vote nation-wide, even 42% yes in Nottingham. He tells us of the process of the union toward such a ballot, and the special conference of April 84 and the changing of the rule from 55% to 51% for a successful yes vote. But " it never came". Ken doesn't tell us why. He assumes "the NUM leaders (would) not be bounced into a ballot by the Tories, the reactionary pressure by their allies in the Labour and trade union movement." But it was a decision of the rank and file at mass meetings at Welfare Halls and mass assemblies all over the country which made that decision, not the "leaders". In truth the rank and file suspected "the leaders" were trying to sell them out with such a call. Like they were looking for a ballot defeat in order to call off the strike. Whatever one thinks of Arthur Scargills role during the strike, and I think overwhelmingly favourable, it wasn't Arthur who denied the ballot, he was chair of the conference and didnt express a view let alone cast a vote.
As said this book is the best summary of the strike I have yet read. It lacks what may be a key chapter and in saying this I suppose we have a reversal of roles. What was the process which snatched leadership of the Labour Party away from Tony Benn and give it Neil Kinnock ? What were the back room shenanigans which would ensure his own constituency would disappear and he was given a no-hope solid Tory seat to run for, and thus deprive him of a voice on the NEC and the leadership of the Labour Party throughout that strike ? As an anarcho-syndicalist the role of the Labour Party wouldn't normally interest me, except in this case one can clearly seen pawns and even some knights being moved around the chess board in anticipation of that great forthcoming clash. We know now what a knives edge that strike rested of between victory and defeat. The presence of Neil Kinnock in the Labour leadership, with all that means in terms of anti strike propaganda and oceans of cold water, couldnt but help to tip the balance the other way. It seems it would be leaving too much to coincidence for this merely to have been an accident of time and place. We know how much else was manipulated during that strike, the law, the courts, DSS regulations, Union Leaders, the TUC, possibly the armed forces, MI6, special branch, the political assassination of Tony Benn as a strategic year of his life may just have been another one of them. Whatever ones views of The Labour Party the rise of Kinnock and Blair are integrally linked to the dumping of Benn in the process of helping to defeat the miners.