Two policemen arresting a miner at Orgreave

The miners' strike

Last updated: 15 August 2008

With coal a nationalised industry, and some British mines unprofitable, coal mining was ripe for repositioning - and even privatisation - by Margaret Thatcher's right wing Conservative government of the 1980s.

In the early 1980s, the National Union of Miners (NUM) was very strong, with high membership and strong links to the Labour Party. It was also defiantly left wing and militant, with no compunction against threatening industrial action.

In 1981, there was the threat of strike when pit closures were mooted, and the government backed down, not feeling its position was strong enough.

In 1983, Thatcher appointed Ian MacGregor head of the National Coal Board, which oversaw the industry. He had a reputation for swingeing cutbacks and closures from his previous role at British Steel.

The coal industry was ripe for further confrontation between the NUM and the government, and resolutions were passed by various NUM regions to strike if pits were closed for reasons other than geological or resource exhaustion.

By the end of 1983, with the Falklands War won and a mandate from that year's general election, Thatcher felt far more secure in her position and was willing to tackle the unions. The struggle over the mining industry would largely come to define her premiership.

The strike begins

In 1984, the announcement came that 20 pits were to close, with 20,000 jobs to go. It was later disclosed that the government, in preparation for the much-anticipated industrial action, had been stockpiling coal to take Britain through the winter.

Initial locally-organised strikes across the UK became a national NUM strike in March 1984. But NUM leader Arthur Scargill decreed that NUM regions could decide whether or not to strike on an independent basis.

Margaret Thatcher ratcheted up the pressure by referring to striking miners as "the enemy within". She continually referred to the action as "the rule of the mob".

Scargill, in turn, compared the government's techniques in crowd control to those of a "Latin American state". The dispute had little chance of ending amicably or quickly.

As the strike continued, strains and stresses began to be felt. The workers earned no money and were ineligible for benefits as the strike was deemed illegal; they had to rely on scrimping, saving and handouts.

Personal relationships strained and sometimes broke as some decided to work through the strike, becoming 'scabs' in the lexicon of industrial relations.

On the picket lines, buses carrying 'scabs' were attacked, and other disturbances took place. Miners clashed with massed ranks of police repeatedly and fiercely all over the country.

Some industrial unions supported the miners and some disagreed, to the extent that the government gathered information from them.

Observance of the strike within Wales differed from north to south. In the north, only 35% of the 1,000 men employed went on strike, and this had dwindled to 10% by the strike's end in 1985.

By contrast, the south Wales coalfield contained the staunchest supporters of industrial action. At the start of the strike, 99.6% of the 21,500 workers joined the action. This reduced to 93% by the end. No other area retained such a level.

With so many men not working in an area which was almost single-industry, South Wales suffered hugely with deprivation and community breakdown. Some areas broke down irretrievably, with the effects visible for years afterwards in ghost villages in the Valleys.


The end of the strike

One incident in south Wales accelerated the ending the strike and turned some otherwise sympathetic members of the public against the miners. The killing of David Wilkie, a taxi driver, was a tragedy and a public relations disaster for the NUM.

Wilkie was driving David Williams, a working miner, to the Merthyr Vale mine with a police escort on 30 November 1984. Two striking miners dropped a 21kg concrete block from a bridge onto the car, killing Wilkie instantly.

This coincided with a gradual slide in public and media support for the action, amid scandals and accusations. Families found it increasingly difficult to sustain themselves and the NUM funds were running too low to pay for pickets' transport.

The official end of the strike came on 3 March 1985, when a vote was passed to return to work even without a new agreement with management. The pits closed rapidly over the next few years, and in 1994 the industry was finally privatised.

In 1995 miners famously bought the Tower Colliery in the Cynon Valley, which opened in 1805, to keep it as a going concern. It became Wales' only working coal mine, and the oldest continuously worked deep-coal mine in the UK. That too, is closing due to dwindling coal seams, bringing to an end an industry which once employed almost 200,000 men.

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