On March 5th it will be exactly thirty years since Britain’s miners marched back to work at the end of their titanic struggle to preserve their jobs and communities. Thirty years since I ‘celebrated’ my eighteenth birthday by weeping into my pint in a now long-closed miners’ welfare.
To commemorate the occasion I’ll be posting excerpts, up to March 5th, from the chapter in my book, Look Back in Anger: the Miners’ Strike in Nottinghamshire – 30 Years On (print edition available here and e book here) that deals with the end of the strike and its aftermath. Here’s Part 1.
Chapter 15: A View to a Kill
“Defeat is not the worst of failures. Not to have fought is the true failure.”
– George Edward Woodberry
After months of wrangling, votes and meetings, Nottinghamshire Area NUM officially scrapped the overtime ban at the end of February. NACODS, however, had a shock in store. The pit deputies’ Midlands Area announced they would not be supervising any overtime. Without them, of course, miners could not work. The Area’s officers referred the matter to their NEC, due to meet the following week but, in the meantime, as far as they were concerned, the ban would be observed.
NACODS’ Ray Hilton also made it clear that his Region would be making no recommendation to the Executive, either. He said, “This Area has decided to follow the instructions that were given by our National Executive back in October 1983, and that means we will not take part in the supervision of any overtime work until we are instructed to do so at national level.” With an obvious dig at the Area’s strike-breakers, he added that NACODS was a bona fide trade union and not a breakaway; therefore they’d be following their Union’s rules.
Prendergast was less than thrilled and appealed to the NCB to step in and resolve the matter. “It is a problem that the Coal Board must face up to. They should intervene in order to find some solution. It is very disappointing after the breakthrough earlier this week but our men are ready to work at weekends if they are asked to.”
Charles McLachlan, by contrast had a much better week. At the Nottinghamshire Chamber of Commerce’s 125th anniversary dinner, the guest of honour, Employment Secretary Tom King, lavished praise upon the County’s working-miners and the police chief whose valiant efforts had thwarted “extremists” and enabled the “brave working-miners” to carry out their duty to the nation. The Employment Secretary was on fiery form and his address was peppered with scathing condemnations of “militants” and “wreckers” who had underestimated “the good sense and bravery” of the heroic Notts men. The strike still had a few days to run but the establishment had started the celebrations early.
On Sunday 3rd March, 1985 the miners ‘Great Strike for Jobs’ officially ended. The Delegates made the decision, as they’d made all the major decisions throughout the dispute. The NEC met in the morning and split 11 – 11 on the question of returning to work or continuing to fight. Conference sent them back to try again. Still the leadership split 11 – 11 and returned without a recommendation. It was then up to the Delegates. There were four main motions to consider; one each from Scotland, South Wales, Yorkshire and Kent.
Kent – Conference demands the right to negotiate freely with the employer and agrees not to discuss any other motion or make any recommendation until an agreement is reached that reinstates those members who have been sacked during the course of the present dispute.
Scotland – Conference proposes that there should be an organised return to work on the basis of achieving a general amnesty to protect those members who have been victimized during the period of the strike.
Yorkshire – This Area views the situation in the coalfields with grave concern and in order to safeguard the members at the five pits and the amnesty of the men dismissed, supporting the aims of this Union, the Area Council believes that the best way to achieve these aims is: that we affirm our previous position until we are able to clarify and safeguard the above aims and that Officials, National or Area, immediately take the necessary steps to resolve the position; and that Special Council Meetings be convened on a) Saturday 2nd March 1985, in order for Delegates to return mandated on the situation; and b) Monday 4th March 1985, to hear the report of the National Delegate Conference taking place on Sunday 3rd
South Wales – In view of the fact that there has been a) a drift back of members to work in all Areas, and b) that is has now become clear that the Coal Board have no intentions whatsoever to have any discussions with the Union unless they sign the document presented by the TUC to the Union on Sunday 17th February, that the National Union should now organise and authorise a return to work of our members that are still on strike and that this return to work should commence on Tuesday 5th March 1985 without any signed agreement. The National Executive Committee should also be called upon to negotiate with the NCB on a national basis an amnesty for those men dismissed during this dispute.
The Kent motion fell by 170 votes to nineteen. Scotland’s fell by exactly the same margin while Yorkshire’s was much closer. It too fell but by only ninety eight to ninety one which just left South Wales.
Arguably, the most solid Area for the entire year (although one might imagine the Kent miners would have something to say about that), it was something of a paradox that a motion which called for unconditional surrender should have originated there. They had been warning for weeks that they’d struggle to hold out their men for much longer; it seemed that that day had finally arrived. The South Wales motion was carried by the same margin with which Yorkshire’s had been lost; ninety eight in favour, ninety one against.
Here, again, Scargill came in for serious criticism but this time it was harder to deflect. With the Executive tied 11-11 why hadn’t the NUM President used his casting vote? For his critics it was obvious; Arthur Scargill had bottled it. South Wales President, Emlyn Williams, who, if most accounts are to be believed, had come to detest Scargill, branded him a “coward.” In that final desperate hour, when the miners had needed leadership most, Scargill had abdicated his duty to his members. Others saw his refusal to break the deadlock, one way or the other, as his way of maintaining his revolutionary purity in a self-serving manoeuvre to avoid blame for whatever decision taken.
His supporters see things differently with one then Yorkshire Executive member stating that it would have been incorrect for one man to decide the fate of so many. He feels that with such a momentous choice to make, it had to be a collective decision to either fight on or end the strike and that he, personally, felt Scargill had chosen the correct course of action.
Dave Douglass, by no means an uncritical cheer-leader for the NUM President, sees things thus: “A recommendation was problematic. This was after all a movement of Area strikes; not a national strike as such. The NEC could declare an Area strike official, but it had no authority to tell an Area to call it off. The National Conference was convened to co-ordinate a return or continued action. Given that the areas were roughly divided, the NEC was likewise divided. Had Arthur cast his vote to make a recommendation, which way would the recommendation go; to stop out or go back? Whichever way the NEC, with his casting vote swinging it, went, he would be damned as the one man holding all those starving miners out on strike, or else the treacherous bastard who led us up the garden path then sold us out.” Only Scargill himself knew why he’d acted thus and in the thirty years since, he has remained tight-lipped.
At around 3.00pm the NUM President announced from the steps of the TUC Headquarters at Great Russell Street that the UK’s defining class-battle of the twentieth century had ended. He was greeted by tears of grief and anger and shocked cries of “traitor” from the strikers gathered outside. A chant of “We’re not going back! We’re not going back!” quickly struck up. But they would. They had to. There was nowhere else to go.
The following day, Monday 4th March, local leaderships made arrangements for their men to return and in a final, painful display of pride and defiance, many picket-lines saw even greater numbers as thousands assembled one last time. They were bloodied; terribly so but unbowed. The day after that, Tuesday 5th March, with heads held high, banners flying and brass bands leading thousands of them and their families and supporters through the streets of the coalfields, the strikers returned to the pits they hadn’t seen for a year. Well, most of them. Kent miners, it seemed, were incapable of giving in. Their men spread out across the country mounting pickets to prevent the return. Scargill himself, leading a procession back to work in his native Yorkshire, arrived only to turn around and march thousands back they way they’d come when greeted by the perennially obdurate Kent men. Scotland stayed out, too. It would be two weeks before the entire membership was back.
In Nottinghamshire, there were no brass bands. No banners. No proud march back for the men with the support and cheers of their communities ringing in their ears. Once back at the pits, it became clear that the days of the NUM enjoying unchallenged power were over. From the first day back, managers made it clear that the new regime would be imperious, unforgiving and tilted towards revenge. There were a few honourable exceptions; John Daniels at Clipstone colliery and Brian Evangelista at Bestwood Workshops, were seen by many former strikers as fair-minded, principled and decent men who eschewed the victimisation and intimidation of most of the NCB management. For the majority, however, it was pay-back time. ‘Facility time’, time allowed during working-hours for Branch Secretaries to attend to union business, was slashed or banned altogether. Militants were split up, isolated and heavily-policed by management looking for the slightest excuse to dismiss those refusing to knuckle under.
Keith Stanley’s experiences were typical: “At Newstead, I got isolated. I got sent down to a part of the pit where there were no men and all that were down there were the team I worked with who were all staunch NUM. They took us off the three-shift system; put us on days regular so I wouldn’t see any of the men on the other shifts.” Managers viewed the loyalists almost as a virus that had to be contained; one that could not be allowed to infect the otherwise pro-management strike-breakers with militancy and rebellion.
Calling a strike-breaker ‘scab’ was to ensure instant dismissal and men who, prior to the strike, had held prestige jobs with good opportunities for bonus earnings were relegated to menial tasks with the express intention of humiliating them and consolidating their defeat. Stanley smiles as he remembers John Benson from Thoresby pit. “He were a brilliant miner and when he went back they had him digging latrines because he’d been staunch all the way through the strike. But it were water off a duck’s back. They couldn’t break him. He did it like Cool Hand Luke. ‘This is me digging, boss. I’m digging here, boss. I’m digging there, boss.’ Brilliant.”
There was an officially-sanctioned and concerted campaign of victimisation and intimidation of union activists. Ian MacGregor gloated, “People are now discovering the price of insubordination and insurrection and boy; are we going to make it stick.” The NCB chief, in an interview with the Sunday Telegraph, on 10th March, then went on to surmise that forty pits would be added to the closure list and then shut over the following two years. This, presumably, was the ‘list’ NCB officials had consistently denied had ever existed.
To the glee of the working-miners, NACODS once again came to their aid and that of the Board when the union u-turned on its earlier commitment not to supervise Nottinghamshire miners who wanted to work in defiance of the overtime ban. Ray Hilton announced, “We will supervise any miner who attends for work. I can’t say the men were enthusiastic about it but they have agreed to do it. We will be instructing the Coal Board and the NUM that we will be supervising overtime now.” It also fell to the clearly embarrassed Hilton to get his General Secretary, Peter McNestry, off the hook. The NACODS leader had previously completely ruled out his men working with non-TUC affiliated unions, breakaways and or ‘scab formations.’ Hilton wriggled and squirmed, eventually saying, “We have not said we will only work with unions which are affiliated to the TUC. What we are saying is that if Notts miners break away from the NUM or if they are expelled, we will continue to supervise them but we will not take any other action in support of their aims.” Generally perceived by NUM loyalists to be ‘treacherous’ ‘gutless’ and ‘mealy-mouthed’, Hilton’s statement pretty much killed off any lingering shreds of NUM goodwill that might have existed in the County where the Deputies were concerned.
Swimming with the tide, the Area Executive resurrected Liptrott’s earlier attempt to expel former strikers from the NUM by the back door, for non-payment of dues. With the Nottinghamshire Area free from the authority of the NEC and, to all intents and purposes, a separate breakaway union, Lynk felt confident in trying the move again. On the 12th, he sent out a letter to all the Area Branch Secretaries containing six points:-
- Persons who have been on strike shall be called upon to pay 50p for each week on strike, over and above the first eight weeks.
- Branch Secretaries, must submit to this office a list of members who have been on strike for more than eight weeks.
- In stating the number of weeks a member has been on strike, the first eight weeks should be ignored. i.e. if a member has been on strike for fifty-two weeks, your list should indicate he is to pay 44 X 50p.
- Payment of arrears must be made to the Branch Secretaries and no payment will be accepted at Area Office.
- Branch Secretaries must ensure that lists are delivered to this Office by no later than the end of March, 1985, when a receipt will be given. Arrears must be paid to Branch Secretaries within four weeks of this date of acknowledgment of receipt of this list at the Area Office.
- Steps must be taken by Branch Secretaries to ensure that details of the arrears of contributions are brought to the attention of the person’s concerned.
This was then posted to all the relevant members with a covering letter from the appropriate Branch Secretary, which read:-
I am instructed by the Area Executive Committee to bring to your notice that you are in arrears with your contributions in accordance with Notts. Area Rule 11e. The Area Executive has, therefore, agreed that persons who have been on strike shall be called upon to pay 50p per week for each week on strike, over and above the first eight weeks. You are, therefore, in arrears to the sum of £…………….. Until this amount has been paid, and for a further thirteen weeks from the date of payment, you are considered not to be a member of the Union as specified in Notts. Area Rule 11e.