Being a Notts lad with previous generations of my family working at Notts pits (but having not lived there myself since 1964) and a life-long trade unionist the 1984/85 miners strike has always interested me, yet strangely I knew little of it on the ground in Notts.
I was a trade union officer in the civil service on Merseyside from around 1979 until 2013 so the work and conditions of my members was so far removed from that of coal miners to be almost of another world. Obviously, I recall the miners strike from my early days working for my union together with the political and social turmoil that flowed from it. However, considering I was born in a mining community and had relatives who were or had been miners I have little knowledge of what they felt about the strike. It’s not that my branch of the family living on Merseyside wasn’t in touch with relatives living in Notts but I really don’t recall the crisis that was the miners strike being the subject of family discussion. But, as I have recounted before, I do recall general talk about the run down of the mining industry.
Both my grandads were miners, one died from pneumoconiosis (a disease of the lungs due to inhalation of dust, characterized by inflammation, coughing, and fibrosis) and the other of lung cancer if I recall correctly. I also had two uncles who were miners. Here’s a link to my previous posting about coal mining and my family connections with it:-
So I wanted to know more about the miners strike and particularly about what went on in Nottinghamshire. Eventually I plumped for a book titled ‘Look Back In Anger – The Miners Strike in Nottinghamshire 30 Years On’ by Harry Paterson published in 2014.
Harold Wilson’s Governments closed more pits than Thatcher
The first thing which jumped off the page at me was the revelation (to me anyway) that Harold Wilson’s Governments had closed far more pits (290) than Maggie Thatcher did (160). Coal mining in the UK had clearly been in significant decline well before Thatcher came along, she just brought that decline to a swift and extremely bitter end.
TUC and Labour Party leaders didn’t throw their lot in with the miners
That the miners strike was a class based conflict i.e. the ruling elite against the working class colliers is a given but it was fight instigated by the ruling elite who were determined to break the power of 1980’s trade unions. And don’t think that the TUC and Labour Party leaders threw their lot in with the miners because they didn’t. Indeed, you could say that they stood to one side with embarrassed looks on their faces whilst making the odd supportive but meaningless comforting comments to the strikers.
Police used by state to deny freedom of movement
The role of the Police throughout the strike was at best worrying as they were being used by Government to stop the free movement of striking miners around the UK. Yes that’s right UK citizens were having their right to travel around the country curtailed by the forces of law and order. A parallel to some extent with our present somewhat bizarre Brexit situation where the leaders of the Tory and Labour Parties back a Brexit which will stop the free movement of UK citizens across the EU. Of course, there were outbreaks of terrible violence throughout the dispute and fingers have been and still are being pointed at the Police for being the cause of it as opposed to them being tasked with bringing it to an end as you might expect!
UDM was not formed until strike was over
Another interesting fact is that the UDM (Union of Democratic Mineworkers) was not formed until after the strike had ended so the strikers and non-strikers were members of the same NUM union. Both unions went into very significant decline in terms of their membership after the strike as so many pits closed over a relatively short period.
But what of Nottinghamshire where the vast majority of miners worked through the strike? Clearly there had been times before the strike where Notts miners had worked through disputes so Notts miners holding views in conflict with their national trade union was not new. There also seems to be a strand of thought that says the Notts working miners throughout the dispute felt that they would not be significantly affected by pit closures and where pits did close the miners would simply move to other (local?) pits. How wrong that proved to be.
Coal miners had a history of following work around the UK. One of my Grandads was from a family which had moved from the Sunderland to Notts probably because of plentiful mining work. Of course it was not unusual for pits to close because they had hit a ‘white wall’ i.e. the pit had been exhausted of coal. Pits had also closed over generations because the remaining coal was uneconomic to extract.
My view is that the book comes to the conclusion that there were many historical, economic and social reasons why many Notts miners did not take part in the strike and that individual miners will have held differing views, but with a common thread to them. That Notts miners were in conflict with their own union leadership most of the time seems to be a given. They seemed to value the federated nature of the NUM highly probably to a far greater extent than any other mining area in the UK.
Working Class Conservatism
Working Class Conservatism also plays into this too. My grandparents on one side were of this political belief, living in a council house but running a fruit and veg business; a shop and after my grandad came out of the pit and horse and cart round. I don’t know much about the politics of my Mum’s parents, who were from the same Notts community, but as Mum was a Chapel Liberal I’m guessing that they may well have been too.
We look at Conservatism these days as being mainly a political creed of the wealthy and probably, after Brexit, of the far right too. But back in the day and probably to some extent now (Mansfield has a Tory MP) working Class Conservatism lives on, but why it has clung on so much in the former Nottinghamshire coalfield is an interesting question. Whatever the reasons are it clearly played significantly into the Miners Strike.
As a radical Liberal of the left I struggle with class based politics as I don’t subscribe to tribalism in politics or in life generally. To that end the book I’ve just read being full of references to socialism and trade unionism being what class based politics is all about jarred with me at times. However, it is actually a great and informative read and I feel better informed having read it.