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How Thatcher broke the miners' strike but at what cost?

On the 5th of March 1985, a crowd gathered in a South Yorkshire pit village to watch a sight none of them had seen in a year. The villagers, many of them in tears, cheered and clapped as the men of Grimethorpe Colliery marched back to work accompanied by the village’s world-famous brass band. The miners and their families had endured months of hardship. It had all been for nothing. The miners had lost the strike called on March 6th 1984. They would lose a lot more in the years to come. But was it a good thing for the country that the miners lost their last battle?

The miners had gone on strike twice in the previous decade. In 1972 and 1974, strikes shut down every coal mine in Britain, and a combination of solidarity strikes by the steel and railway unions and targeted picketing of coking works, ports and industrial sites brought the country to a standstill. This led to power cuts, the introduction of a three-day working week and the downfall of the Conservative government of Edward Heath. The miners were on top of the world in the 1970s, able to hold the country to ransom to stop pit closures and raise wages. But galloping over the horizon would be the woman who would prove to be their nemesis – Margaret Thatcher.

Thatcher had taken note of the way the miners had brought down her predecessor and was determined the same thing would not happen to her premiership. After coming to power in 1979, she had her ministers and civil servants draw up secret plans that would keep coal moving around the country were the miners to attempt another strike.

By the early 1980s, domestic coal production was becoming ever more unprofitable. The industry relied heavily on government subsidies. Thatcher appointed the ruthless Ian McGregor to the head of the National Coal Board in 1983. McGregor was a Scottish-American metallurgist who had already streamlined Britain’s nationalized steel industry, stripping it of 95,000 jobs, closing down plants and bringing British Steel from making an annual loss of £1.6 billion to near profit. This turnaround in steel’s fortunes made it possible for Thatcher to privatise the industry – something she also had in mind for coal.

McGregor’s approach to the mining industry was the same as it had been towards steel – close unprofitable pits and drastically reduce the workforce. He determined that at least twenty unprofitable pits must be closed immediately for economic reasons, which was met with great suspicion by the National Union of Mineworkers, in particular the union’s leader, the firebrand Arthur Scargill.

Scargill had risen through the ranks of the National Union of Mineworkers in the 1970s. His use of so-called ‘flying pickets’ – striking miners sent to specific plants, usually to prevent the transportation of coal – had been a notable success in the strike of 1974, and his forceful personality had brought him to national attention.

Scargill refused to entertain the idea of any pit closures save for those that posed safety risks. As far as he was concerned, there was no such thing as an unprofitable pit, and he saw McGregor’s proposed closures as a way for Thatcher to weaken the NUM, close down far more pits than McGregor was claiming and lead the way to privatisation. When a walkout at Cortonwood Colliery in South Yorkshire occurred on the 6th of March 1984, the Yorkshire branch of the NUM sanctioned a strike across the county. Scargill used this as an excuse to call for a nationwide strike. The fact that he had not called for a national ballot first would soon come back to haunt him.

With no national ballot, not everyone was on board with the idea of a UK-wide strike. While the miners of Kent, Scotland, the North East, Yorkshire and South Wales downed tools and took to the picket lines, their counterparts in the Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire, South Derbyshire and North Wales coalfields carried on working. This would lead to bitter tussles between miners who carried on working throughout the strike and pickets who were quick to label strikebreakers ‘scabs’.

In the 1970s, the police had treated the miners with kid gloves. This time around the gloves would be off.

The NUM’s strategy for thwarting McGregor’s plan was simple. The aim was to shut down both coal production and its transportation to all but vital services such as hospitals and nursing homes. This had worked spectacularly well in the 1970s, but this time around McGregor and Thatcher were ready for the miners. Thatcher had secretly stockpiled supplies of both coal and coke in strategic sites around the country; her government had also entered into agreements with non-unionised haulage firms to break the pickets and carry the coal from storage facilities and coking plants to power stations and factories. This meant that, unlike in 1972 and 1974, there would be no power cuts and no forcing the government’s hand to come to the negotiating table. And Thatcher had another powerful weapon on her side – the police.

In the 1970s, the police had treated the miners with kid gloves. This time around the gloves would be off. Police from outside affected counties were bussed in to prevent picketing and strike action, and to ensure no disruption to supply lines. This led to violent clashes between the police and pickets, most notoriously at the Battle of Orgreave, where 5,000 miners faced a similar force of police officers. The police launched mounted truncheon charges against the miners, leading to 51 pickets and 72 police being injured.

The stalemate produced by Thatcher’s preparations ground on for a year. As the months went by, life for the miners and their families got progressively harder. A change in the law meant that the dependents of miners were not entitled to benefits, as they had been during the strikes of the 1970s. At first, this was not a problem as local union branches had deep pockets and could pay miners at least some of money they were no longer receiving from the NCB. However, as funds ran dry and families found it harder and harder to put food on the table, destitute miners started to trickle back to work through picket lines where they were branded ‘scabs’ and sometimes physically assaulted.

The strike was officially called to a halt on March the 3rd 1985. The pit closures the miners had fought so hard to prevent began in earnest. In 1984 there were 174 deep coal mines in the UK by 1994 – the year the industry was finally privatized – there were just 15 left.

Where once there had been a steady source of employment for generations of men, there was now nothing.

So, was it a good thing that the miners lost? From a purely economic point of view, it can be argued that it was. Deep mining for coal was already on its death bed by 1984 as cheaper exports from abroad combined with a reluctance on the part of government to continue with subsidies, a changing energy culture and a rising environmental movement all conspired against the industry. Coal was a profit-losing business in a country increasingly turning towards a services-led economy. Logically, coal mining had to go.

However, was it really right that almost an entire industry was completely obliterated, with nothing to replace it in so many places? Mines were the beating hearts of communities stretching from Scotland to Kent. Mining had provided generations with a steady income, homes for life and a strong sense of belonging. A whole culture and identity had grown around coal mining, and with the loss of the mine, much of the cultural activities and infrastructure that had grown around it, from brass bands, to working men’s clubs to NCB-sponsored sports and leisure facilities disappeared along with it. The loss of the UK coal industry caused devastation across large swathes of the country, and some places are still only now recovering from it.

As they prepared to march back to work on that frosty morning in March 1985, the men of Grimethorpe Colliery had no idea of the destruction to come. Their pit would last a mere seven years. By 1992, Grimethorpe Colliery had ceased operating and the miners had all been made redundant. By 1994, not a trace of the pit existed above ground.

Life for the residents of Grimethorpe got worse following the closure. Unemployment rocketed to 50%. Crime increased by 30%. Facilities once maintained by the NCB fell into a state of disrepair and several local businesses closed their doors. A 1994 European Union report named Grimethorpe the poorest village in England. It would take years and millions of pounds of investment before the situation in Grimethorpe was reversed.

Grimethorpe’s story was repeated up and down the land. Replacement jobs failed to materialize, businesses closed down and young people got used to the idea of either moving away or wasting the best years of their lives on the dole. Where once there had been a steady source of employment for generations of men, there was now nothing.

The UK deep mining industry has now completely disappeared. The final mine, Kellingley in North Yorkshire, closed for good in 2015. The once mighty NUM is now reduced to just 100 active members.

Was it a good thing that the miners lost? From an economic and ecological point of view, the answer is yes. The days of British workers digging lumps of coal out of the ground to burn in power stations were numbered. There was little point in delaying the inevitable. However, there was nothing good about communities being smashed to bits while a government that appeared more interested in the increasing economic success of the south east of England did very little to help them. The miners, their families and their communities deserved better than that.