Marching to the Fault Line

Issue section: 

Francis Beckett and David Henke, Constable; £20

Marching to the Fault Line is a fascinating, if flawed, account of the great miners' strike of 1984-85. Francis Beckett and David Henke have unearthed important government material from the strike, and had access to the diaries and memories of a range of senior Labour Party and trade union figures for the book.

However, they have grafted their new material onto an old analysis that insists that the miners, if not doomed from the start, were condemned to ignominious defeat by the blundering of their union president Arthur Scargill.

This was the line argued during and after the strike by Labour Party leaders, the bulk of the trade union leadership and of many senior members of the Communist Party, whose members held powerful positions within the National Union of Mineworkers' (NUM) regional structure.

Scargill, tens of thousands of miners who took part in mass picketing, the SWP and others on the left argued then as now that the miners had no option but to strike, that despite many difficulties, the NUM could have won and that it certainly would have won if the TUC had delivered even part of the solidarity it promised.

What makes Beckett and Henke's book so fascinating is that despite its relentless attacks on Scargill and its digs at the SWP, much of the new material they have uncovered undermines their argument.

Beckett and Henke tell us, using briefing notes prepared for Thatcher, that when the strike began ministers were told they could hold out for "months and weeks, not a year. Power stations could last for another six months 'assuming build up to maximum oil burn over four weeks'.

"Large-scale industry like steel that relied on coal had only six weeks, while the privately owned cement industry had 14 to 18 weeks' supply for its furnaces."

Nine months on, in the run up to Christmas, we learn that, "whatever ministers officially said, there were fears that if there should be a bitter January and February, coal stocks could run out, handing a last gasp victory to Scargill."

Not only is this evidence that the miners could have won, but also that Scargill and the militants were right to focus picketing on economic targets. Len Murray, the TUC general secretary during the first half of the strike, is quoted saying the miners' strike was "against the coal board, the government and the TUC". Why then would Scargill trust him?

The authors attack Scargill for trying to shut down steel, and for trying to create a focus for that fight at Orgreave, but they also tell us that "the steel bosses were genuinely alarmed at the prospect of closure of Ravenscraig" (Scotland's largest steel plant at the time). What applied to Scotland also applied to plants in South Wales and Yorkshire.

Scargill's relationship with his fellow union leaders gets the Beckett and Henke treatment. His distrust of the TUC is treated as a character defect. In fact it was good sense.

Much of the book focuses on TUC efforts to broker a deal with the government, with the authors making good use of the diary of Bill Keyes, leader of the print union Sogat, who led a series of backroom initiatives.

Again Scargill is blamed for undermining potential settlements. However, Beckett and Henke's new material corroborates what we always knew, that whenever a negotiated settlement looked likely, Thatcher and her closest allies scuppered it.

We shouldn't be surprised at that. The miners' strike was to be the final confrontation with the labour movement. The miners' defeat would be secured at any cost, after which nothing could prevent the oft stated Tory ambition of driving down wages and living standards across the working class.

And though the Tories did eventually win, they paid a massive price for victory. The true financial cost, Beckett and Henke remind us, has never been fully calculated by Whitehall.

The miners' determination prevented the Tories and the bosses turning their victory into a rout of the working class.

Twenty five years on, in the face of a new onslaught on the working class, the battle for the legacy of the miners strike really matters. Beckett and Henke speak for those who believe the strike was at best a tragic mistake and that the key lesson is that industrial action should be avoided at almost any cost.

In reality the miners' strike was the finest struggle in British Labour movement history. We need to learn the lessons of 1984-85 and to rekindle the miners' fighting spirit across the whole working class.