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 the final part.
Chapter 15: A View to a Kill: Part 3
Paul Whetton was eventually sacked from Bevercotes for his union activity. He, too, had pinned various pro-NUM materials to the notice board. “We took his case to a tribunal,” says Richardson, “and we won. The judge said he should be reinstated. It were blatant discrimination for trade union activity.” The NCB only partially obeyed the ruling with Whetton transferred out to Manton colliery instead of going back to Bevercotes. “The first day at Manton there were a strike on so his first day there, he goes on bloody strike!” laughs Richardson. “He said, ‘brilliant pit! This’ll do me!’ He were a right bogger, were Paul.” Whetton’s and Eric Eaton’s experiences contrasted vividly with those of their UDM counterparts. NCB management had facilitated the breakaway union visiting South Wales pits on a recruitment drive. With management’s assistance, UDM recruitment material was placed into the locker of every miner at the various pits they visited.
Initially, Nottinghamshire NUM membership grew steadily. “I’m sure that’s why they shut Newstead,” says Stanley. “We were getting really close to a majority at that pit and that terrified ‘em. Mind you, it was the men that shut Newstead. They had a ballot in 1987 to vote on whether the pit stayed open and they voted to shut it.” NUM members boycotted the ballot as, in Stanley’s words, “Ray told us, and I totally agreed with him, what right had we to vote a younger man out of a job?” Refusing to give legitimacy to the process, while understandable and principled, left a clear field for those who wanted out and the pit closed in 1987.
Stanley worked tirelessly to rebuild his beloved NUM in the County. Elected as President of the Nottinghamshire Area, on Chadburn’s retirement in 1992, he combined his full-time job at the pit with the Area Presidency after hours. Sixteen to twenty hour days were the norm and, for a period, without any union pay as the Area simply couldn’t afford to employ another full-time official. Slowly, bit by bit, due entirely to the commitment and loyalty of Stanley, Eaton and others, the NUM regained a footing in Nottinghamshire.
It was tough going as the new generation of NUM militants battled not just the UDM but bribes from the NCB. After a year on strike, part of NCB strategy was to offer enhanced redundancy terms with an even greater one-off bonus if men left before a certain date. Thereafter, the enhanced element of the package would be withdrawn. A combination of bribery and blackmail saw even previously loyal NUM stalwarts taking the cash and getting out. Demoralisation was rife and many had simply had enough. Some of the sums on offer were enormous. Upwards of £80,000 wasn’t unusual.
David Amos agrees that this was a major factor both in Nottinghamshire’s decision not to strike in the first place and in the rapid run-down of the coalfield thereafter. “I think you will find that the enhanced redundancy scheme for the over 50s, introduced circa 1981, was a significant factor in the lead up to the start of the 1984-85 strike – many of these men had strong memories of what went off in the coal-industry in the 1960’s, largely under a Labour Government. Also like my old man and some of my uncles, when you have forty years-plus in the coal industry, it was time to bail out in the 1980’s to rescue a bit of what was left for retirement. As Dave Goulder put it in his song lyrics about the railways in the 1960’s: ‘sixty-five his time has come, he’s swopped his soot and oil, for a smart gold watch that bears his name, then at sixty-six he’s covered in soil’ .” Throughout the 80s and 90s a steady stream of miners left the industry as it continued to contract and pits closed. From 1985 to 1990, ten of Nottinghamshire’s twenty-seven pits closed.
The immediate post-strike period also saw the NCB and the UDM working closely together to marginalise the NUM. In 1986, a meeting at Eastwood Hall saw the two organisations meet to discuss the way forward. Some NCB strategists were concerned that Lynk’s organisation was struggling to make headway outside its Nottinghamshire-Derbyshire base. Others were unconcerned. Those privy to the NCB’s and Government’s most secret and long-term plans knew that over one hundred pits would close in the period from 1985 to 1990, with the loss of nearly 120,000 jobs, and as long as the UDM dominated the lucrative Nottinghamshire and Midlands coalfields, it would be doing exactly what it was intended to do. Apart from anything else, the idea of two competing and two conflicting trade unions in the industry suited the Government and NCB very nicely.
Typical of the moves made by the two bodies was this; The UDM had suggested the NCB pay their members a higher rate than that paid to NUM men. This would make UDM membership a tempting proposition. The NCB were more than willing to give it a try. Still smarting from Leicester slipping through the UDM’s fingers, NCB chiefs selected one of its pits, Ellistown, which contained UDM sympathisers, to trial the plan.
On the 27th January, the NCB announced that any UDM members at the colliery would be paid a higher UDM rate, backdated to 1st November 1985. The UDM and NCB then sat back and waited for the stampede as miners rushed to join the breakaway. Unfortunately for them it never happened. The NUM took the NCB to an industrial tribunal and won its case. The judge ruled it illegal to bribe one set of workers with a higher pay rate denied to a second group with the express intention of tempting the former into a specific trade union. The NCB appealed only for the Court of Appeal to uphold the ruling. The Board had contravened section 23 of the Employment Protection (Consolidation) Act 1978.
The NUM’s insistence that it would not sit down with scab unions created difficulties and generated a lot of internal tension. It left the Union in the humiliating position of relying on the crumbs of whatever pay deals the UDM had agreed with the NCB. Roy Lynk wasn’t too happy with this state of affairs, either. At the UDM’s annual Conference in 1987, he grumbled, “It’s particularly galling to find after a great deal of time and effort has been spent on our part securing a negotiated settlement for our members that that very self-same settlement is bestowed on NUM members.”
The splits in the NUM in the post-strike period revolved largely around two questions: firstly the response to management’s increasingly draconian regime and secondly regarding the attitude to Nottinghamshire.
Some felt the NUM Left’s policy of purity in the wilderness served their members badly. The Union’s job was to best represent their members and secure for them the best terms and conditions. If it refused to sit down and negotiate with the Board – renamed British Coal Corporation (BCC) in 1987 – because of the UDM, what use was it to the rank-and-file? It wasn’t quite that simple, however, as the NCB also refused to talk to the NUM. Instead, it increasingly bypassed the leadership and its official structures and spoke directly to the work-force over the heads of the union’s leaders; an American innovation, much favoured by MacGregor as part of the new ‘Human Resources Management’ which swept the post-strike coalfields.
Pit-level incentive schemes, dividing not just pit-from-pit but man-from-man at the same pit became the norm; coupled with a stick for the NUM while the UDM dined on carrots. BCC’s strategy was intended to make the workforce identify with management; to embrace the idea that their interests were the same. The new regime suited the UDM perfectly. Except it wasn’t really new at all; it was Mondism resurrected. As internal UDM document explained, “It is UDM philosophy to negotiate with management rather than embark on collision courses. This approach does not preclude the possibility of national industrial action, but such action will always be a measure of last resort duly sanctioned by ballot. If it is not inimical to the interests of our members, we can see no sound reason for not cooperating with management if that cooperation brings benefits to the industry in which we work.” ‘New Realism’ infected the wider labour and trade union movement. Endemic was the view that class-struggle was dead. The miners’ defeat had proved the futility of challenging the market and submission to capital was now the only way forward. The wheel had turned full-circle; Spencerism in Nottinghamshire and Mondism everywhere else. Scargill was having none of it and launched a blistering attack on the New Realists. In a ferocious S.O. Davies Memorial Lecture, in 1987, he ripped into what he termed the ‘politics of fear’ and berated those inside and outside the NUM for succumbing to its poisonous allure, particularly the South Wales Area which had moved sharply into opposition to ‘Scargillism.’
At the same time, New Realism found its echo in the debates raging inside the NUM regarding the approach to Nottinghamshire. The militantly antagonistic sections refused absolutely to have any truck with the UDM while others suggested only by dialogue could men be won back to a unified national union. Ken Capstick brilliantly summed up the dilemma facing the NUM. “We had a lot of men back at work by the end of the strike. And I’ve got to go back to the pit and work for conciliation. I can see no other way forward. I can’t draw lines. I can’t have scabs, super-scabs and extra-super scabs! I can’t have a sliding scale of scabbery.”
Nottinghamshire’s strike veterans had assumed something of the status of untouchables in the aftermath of the strike. The most loyal of the loyal, the ultimate martyrs who’d refused to break and had suffered more than most, enjoyed a moral authority out of all proportion to their, by now, tiny numbers. Other Area’s were reluctant to be seen betraying Nottinghamshire’s stand by advocating recognition of the UDM. It was by no means as cut-and-dried as what Nottinghamshire said went but it wasn’t a million miles away either.
Ray Chadburn, despite criticisms from some during the strike, had resolutely kept the faith and when the crunch came, fell on his sword rather than betray the NUM. He spoke for the entire Nottinghamshire Area – diminutive though it now was – when he said, “I am fed up with people saying we should sit down and be pals and have some sort of compromise… as far as I am concerned, there won’t be any compromise. It is either us or them. If people think I am going to sit down with Roy Lynk, if Arthur Scargill ever sits down with Roy Lynk, it’s time we wrapped up as the National Union of Mineworkers. We are not going to accept advice from people who don’t actually work and live in the Nottinghamshire coalfield.”
By 1990 little had changed. At that year’s Conference, Scotland’s Peter Neilson asked, “What happens in, say, ten or fifteen years’ time if they [UDM] are still in existence? What do we do then? Do we still refuse to talk to British Coal on wages and safety? Do we sit outside the circle and allow the wages and conditions of the membership we are elected to represent to continue to fall further and further behind?”
The Nottinghamshire Delegate, in response, couldn’t have been clearer: “Watch my lips and I will say it slowly; we aint sitting down with the UDM.”
Spencerism had returned to Nottinghamshire with a vengeance but this time there would be no reconciliation, no mergers and no reunification. Lynk’s men had dealt the coup de grace to the British coalmining industry and now the clock was running down.