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Class warfare has been part of the British coal trade since at least 1268. In her 2003 book Coal, Barbara Freese recounted a violent dispute between the Prior of Tynemouth, who owned coal reserves, and merchants from Newcastle, upwardly mobile ex-serfs who asserted rights to the waterways used to transport it.
Fast-forward hundreds of years to 1984, and coalfields in north-east England, Yorkshire, the Midlands, south Wales and Fife in Scotland would become the scene of what Robert Gildea, in a new work of oral history, calls “the last great industrial battle of the twentieth century”.
Drawing on 148 testimonies, Gildea, a University of Oxford historian, teases out a battle not only between the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government, but between different mining traditions and ideologies. These differences ultimately prevented the unity among miners that had forced previous governments to capitulate — as did Edward Heath’s in 1974, then Thatcher herself in 1981, when plans to close 23 mines were scrapped after the NUM ordered a national ballot for strike action. At that stage, the government wasn’t prepared, but it would be later.
In March 1984, when word got out that the National Coal Board was again planning to close 20 mines — in reality, a fraction of the closures signed off by Downing Street — miners walked out of Cortonwood colliery in South Yorkshire, calling for strike action across the country to protect their jobs.
But not all miners saw the necessity of organising. The NUM resisted calling a national ballot because it wasn’t confident that all coalfields would vote with it. Where communities were built around mining, as in Fife, County Durham and south Wales, the strike was “solid”. But in the Midlands, miners lived spread out, rather than in pit villages; anyway, their mines didn’t appear to be under threat, and other employment opportunities were available. Politically, they were more moderate, and had a tradition of settling with employers that dated back to the 1926 General Strike.
Divisions between “striking miners” and “working miners”, on picket lines or within neighbourhoods, provide a plangent counterpoint here to the police brutality that Gildea’s sources also recount, as well as legacies of poverty and addiction left by closures in former mining communities. “Brexit”, he writes, “was seized upon by many in the former mining communities as an answer to their sense of disempowerment.”
As a form, oral history has disadvantages. The pages of this book are dense with names and detail; with people who share a common purpose and reinforce each other’s beliefs in these directly transcribed quotes. Individuals emerge briefly, then become indistinct again.
Some figures remain vivid. There’s Dave Douglass, who organised “guerrilla” flying pickets from Yorkshire and drew up the battle plan for occupying Orgreave coke works. After his pit closed, he worked trying to unionise other sectors. His verdict on one poultry factory: “The only people who had any fight was the bloody chickens.” In south Wales, Siân James worked with Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, occupied pit managers’ offices, and would later be elected the first female member of parliament for Swansea East.
While Arthur Scargill is a pervasive but indistinct presence, his wife Anne is more substantial here. Women from mining communities, politicised by the struggle, play a central role. Some 10,000 women came to a rally in Barnsley in May 1984, calling for what they described as the “organic” formation of a feminism rooted in class struggle — away from the middle-class socialists who initially attempted to organise them, but whom they deemed “privileged” and “patronising”.
As we approach the 40th anniversary of 1984, things are coming back around. More gig workers are pushing for unionisation. American screen writers and actors are on strike for the first time since 1960, and show no sign of breaking.
Back then, their union leader implemented a strategy that allowed his own company to break the strike. Later, his policies would weaken labour laws further, which, mirroring sister policies in the UK, became perhaps the lasting western legacy of the 1980s. His name? Ronald Reagan.
Backbone of the Nation: Mining Communities and the Great Strike of 1984-85, by Robert Gildea, Yale University Press £25, 496 pages