Nottinghamshire & the Miners Strike

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:-

tonyrobertson.mycouncillor.org.uk/2016/12/03/deep-coal-mining-has-come-to-an-end-in-the-uk-should-we-miss-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.

When the Right is controlling British politics – That’s most of the time!

It really is the majority of the time whether we on the left are willing to admit it or not.

There have only been 4 General Elections since the 2nd World war when the the left has had a significant majority in the House of Commons. Then again it could well be argued that whilst Tony Blair had a huge majority his was hardly a government of the left and probably it was only just left of centre. Could the same or similar be said of Harold Wilson’s Government?

What started this line of thought was that I happened upon a lecture by Vernon Bogdanor being shown on the BBC Parliament Channel recently. It was actually about the history of the Conservative Party. Now whilst I don’t care to be told about the regular electoral success of the Tories Bogdanor is always interesting, impartial and factual in his work.

One thing he mentioned has long been a matter of great interest to me and that is the working class Conservatives who have regularly helped put a Tory government in power. You could be forgiven for thinking that the working class (not a term a personally subscribe to but one that is widely quoted) will usually be voters of the left and therefore for Labour, but up to a third of them are not. What’s more many of them may be conservative (with a small c) or simply right wing whilst at the same time tribally aligned with the Labour Party.

I have regularly been fascinated by the group of Labour MP’s (and there have always been a fair number of them in each Parliament) who come over as reactionary, right wing, anti progressive politics or just Tories wearing a Labour rosette. I saw similar people in the trade union movement in my time as well. They must come from families that are loyal to Labour yet their stance on things such as equality issues, gay rights, crime and punishment, immigration etc. are firmly based on the politics of the right. Often these MP’s and trade unionists will be from the industrial midlands and the north and they will be utterly loyal to Labour, no matter what it stands for.

That loyalty will stem from the early days of the trade union movement and the need for trade unionists to stick together through thick and thin. It will have been inbred into them through families, trade unions and the Labour Party, yet often these people will be as far away from progressive politics as you can find. Sticking together is the most important thing, backing their leaders almost come what may is also big for them and I think it is what is in part driving the cult of Corbyn.

He’s either a very, very late political developer or he really is a second division politician of the left who has, almost by chance, found himself leading a political party. If you look at his history prior to being elected as Labour Leader he had pretty much no positions of responsibility in public life much at all. The Labour left will say that was because he had always been down-trodden by the right wing of the Labour Party (the Social Democrats) and held back and that he was always going to be a working class hero of the left one day. Well it’s a view but hardly a credible one I would venture to say.

Corbyn’s big problem is that he has some right wing tendencies and Brexit is the one that really stands out. Brexit has always been about internal battles within the Tory Party. UKIP was set up as those within the Tory Party who could not get the Tories to back leaving the EU felt they had to take a different route. Of course they succeeded in turning the Tories into a Brexit Party and they won over many people within Labour too. Remember the successes of UKIP electorally have often been in areas of England that are working class and where they won council seats they were often in Labour areas. Now UKIP has all but expired its supporters have drifted back to the Tory Party or indeed Labour. That Corbyn backs Brexit is bizarre to many of us on the left of British politics but he does and the Labour Party is backing him despite, we are told, the vast majority of Labour voters not backing Brexit.

But Corbyn is loyal to his right wing working class supporters who of course were the part of the Labour vote that helped the Tories/UKIP give us our Brexit. His party prides itself, or at least it used to do, on being a very broad church. At one end true socialists looking to break up the capitalist system and at the other people who would be at home in a Bluekip type Party if only it was called the Labour Party. That is indeed a very broad church, you could say so broad that internal power struggles would be almost impossible to to stop. The Social Democrats within Labour have gone very quiet these days (with a few exceptions) especially those in elected public positions as their stance is particularly unwelcome in Corbyn’s Labour Party and they need to be seen to be complying with the wishes of Momentum if they are not to be deselected.

So at face value Labour is presently seen to be a party of the hard left under McDonnell and Corbyn but, with Brexit in particular, they are peddling a Bluekip line. Also the party is having more than its share of infighting over racial issues at present and this is another indication of people of the left holding what seem to be intolerant right wing views.

Across Europe in many counties Social Democrat and Socially Liberal Parties have been a part of the mainstream. Labour has tried to be that in the UK but the drag of having illiberal and far left members in the same party has meant that it has struggled far more more than it has succeeded. Many thought that the victory of Tony Blair signaled a new (or New) Labour Party with broad center ground and moderate appeal but the medicine did not work and now Labour is in the hands of both the socially illiberal and hard left at the same time!

The point of all this? To show that the right has a huge influence on UK politics and that’s not just in the UKIP and Tory parties. Labour has it’s right wingers too and it can be quite easily argued that even the Lib Dems all but ceased to have a Socially Liberal leadership during Nick Clegg’s unfortunate time as Leader. Thankfully and even slightly surprisingly, under Cable, it seems to be regaining its radical and socially liberal edge though.

Which ever way you look at it the right usually predominates in UK politics and its because, in my view, there’s no electorally successful Social Democrat/Liberal Party at the heart of our mainstream politics and I say that as someone who looks upon some Social Democrats as being too right wing.