The Great Miners‘ Strike mobilised whole communities and transformed lives. Sally Campbell speaks to some of the many fighters about what they did at the time.
North Staffordshire Miners‘ Wives Action Group
The strike was a year-long struggle in which a community was attacked on all fronts - not only in the way the state was acting at the picket line level. In Staffordshire women were on the picket line because the area was subject to a lot of scabs. So women were absolutely critical to the strike. We had to be on the picket line as well as building support at all the other levels. Throughout the whole of the strike women got involved with speaking tours, organising major events, collections and so on.
North Staffordshire Miners‘ Wives Action Group was established then and is still going today - we‘ve been involved in the Stop the War Coalition here in Barnsley, where I live now. Brenda in Stoke-on-Trent is involved in anti-fascist work because they have a BNP councillor there.
There is a line in the media that the strike ’politicised‘ miners‘ wives - I think this is very simplistic. Miners‘ wives were political, by the very nature of the mining community. The difference with the strike was that women became politically active in a way that they hadn‘t been before. The strike threw up the possibility of organisation that wouldn‘t have been necessary before. The nature of the struggle meant that it crossed national boundaries and crossed struggles. All of us benefited from that. You got a cross-fertilisation of all sorts of struggles. For me, what was wonderful about it was that it demonstrated that in a time of struggle we can come together - as the left, with all our different groupings and different campaigns. I was involved in a single-issue campaign - domestic violence and women‘s refuges - but that didn‘t mean that I thought politics was about single issues. I thought what I was doing was a priority. As soon as the strike came along it was quite clear, within that community, where you had to put your energies. That happened with all the different groups. We all came together and formed a united front, and that was what was so wonderful about it. We know that when there is a serious attempt to destroy our class we can all unite. I can‘t think of anything more inspiring than that.
Aylesham Miners‘ Wives Support Group
We formed our Miners‘ Wives Support Group here in Aylesham at the time of the 1972-74 strike. It was very different to 1984 - more of a community support group, not very political. But we kept it together, so when it came to 1984 we already had the basis for a group.
We called a meeting to relaunch the support group after hearing about the miners going back to work in Nottingham. We were expecting maybe ten or 15 women, but we got 50. There were mixed feelings about what we should do, but we decided to go and hold a women‘s demonstration up there. We went to the local NUM and they said that, as the Kent mines came under the Leicestershire region of the Coal Board, we should demonstrate there. It was one of the first women‘s demonstrations in the dispute.
I was politically aware before the strike - I read the papers like everyone else - but I wasn‘t involved in anything. The experience of the strike made me aware of the political situation of other minority groups - the Greenham Common women, people in Ireland, blacks and ethnic minorities. I saw how corrupt society was, and how the police were used against those groups.
A group of the local NUM, including my husband, went to picket the Wivenhoe docks in Colchester to stop coal imports coming in. They were all arrested and put in jail. We had a women‘s meeting that night, and on the spur of the moment we decided to get in a Dormobile and go down there. There were only about 12 of us, and we weren‘t even dressed for a demonstration! Some of the women had come to the meeting dressed for a social gathering, not in warm clothes, but we decided that was what we were going to do.
It was the first time we had ever been in a confrontational situation with the police. We couldn’t believe how many police there were, and only a handful of us. They threatened to arrest us for walking on the road. We felt very intimidated by them. We were conscious that some of them weren’t police - they didn’t have police numbers. We knew the state used the military to police the strike.
I’m much more confident and much more involved in local issues today, and I’m more aware of the world political situation. I can give my own view now, whereas at one time I might have just taken my husband’s point of view, or wondered whether I was right. It was an eye-opener, not just for me but for everyone involved.
Lewisham Miners’ Support Group
My father is from the Caribbean and my mother’s Irish. The black community in south east London at that time was under constant abuse from the whole structures of society - the police, the government, the executive. The ‘sus’ laws had gone, but in terms of police brutality, mental health issues, housing, no one really cared what was going on. What struck me was the huge collective nature of the struggle. We got a collective spirit from a part of society that I didn’t know and that was completely alien to me. There was a great sense of these people getting to know and understand what we suffered in terms of oppression, and vice versa. In a sense, we were somewhat cocooned by Thatcherism: we’d not had the same levels of redundancies, etc, in London as they had in the north of England. I got an understanding of what was really happening north of the Watford Gap.
Small events had a big impact: a miner from Dennington colliery came to stay with me and my family while he was in London collecting money. He came down to breakfast one morning and said, ‘I’ve got to apologise.’ My parents looked at each other - we thought maybe he’d broken a vase or something - and said, ‘What for?’ He said, ‘I worked in a mine in South Africa in the early 1970s, and I feel really guilty about it now.’ Things like that politicised people. There’s a culture that miners and miners’ support groups and Women Against Pit Closures hadn’t been aware of before, and there’s a culture that we took on as well.
We did a huge benefit at the Albany Empire in London with a Welsh male-voice choir, and a band called Test Department. I can only describe Test Department as a band which filled plastic drums with water and sand and banged them in a rhythmic way. It was a bizarre night - these Welsh miners came down in a coach and were stuck in the middle of Deptford with these punks banging plastic drums - but there were a thousand people there!
The miners’ strike created this level of cultural understanding in a way nothing else could have. I remember going to the Notting Hill Carnival the year of the strike, and one of the most popular badges was ‘Black people support the miners - oppose police violence’.
The 1984-85 miners’ strike was a time of great tension. It always felt as if we were just about to win when something tipped the balance in favour of Thatcher. As with all reruns of history, for moments it felt like the great victories of the 1970s, but there’s no question that Thatcher and Ridley were more wily than Heath had been. A key factor in the matter was that this was the time when Labour was beginning the march towards New Labour. What’s irritating about this is that the very same bunch who stabbed the miners in the back benefited in the end from the country’s disgust with Thatcher and Major, much of which carried over from the post-strike situation.
The point is that Arthur was right. It always was the Tories’ intention to shut most of the pits. I’ll admit it, I thought at the time that he was overstating it a bit, but if anything he understated it. If the unions knew then what they know now, would they have fought harder? Probably. This makes me think that the battle we fight on the ideological front in the midst of all struggles - whether they’re over things like the miners or over matters like Iraq and globalisation - means that we have to fight like mad to win the battle of ideas.
What the Tories got away with, backed up by some simpering from Labour, was that the mines were ‘uneconomic’. What we argued at the time was that the ‘market’ for energy is a false one. Massive subsidies, low interest loans, protective tariffs and the like sustain the main players in this ‘market’. One of the most revolting (and unremarked-upon) features of New Labour is to watch them propping up the nuclear industry at precisely the level that would have saved the mines. There is no ‘market’ in the pure capitalist sense. For whatever reasons, this was quite a difficult argument to get across at the time. Journalists and commentators accept the status quo and its terminology (like ‘market’ or ‘terrorist’) and let politicians off the hook time after time.
So it’s all mixed feelings for me. I remember some great marches and benefits. I met some brave people. And after it was all over, I went with Ian Saville, the ‘Marxist magician’, to do a kids’ concert in Grimethorpe. I would love to say that it was a great day, full of spirit and fight. It wasn’t. I got a glimpse of what I’ve seen on the TV since (my o my, don’t the journos do well at showing defeat and depression?!).
Birmingham TUC president
We Won’t Forget (Comrades For Life)
We’ll always remember the year of the strike
And the fifth day of March eighty-five
They can say that we lost; they can say what they like
But we had the time of our lives
And we’ve no regrets; we’ve no regrets
Though the flames of vengeance still burn (The flame continues to burn*)
And we won’t forget; we won’t forget
United we will return
We all fought together - women and men
To stop them closing down mines
If we had our time over we’d do it again
And we’ll have the bastards next time
The Congress House traitors had promised for years
Their support would be second to none
You could hear their hearts bleed; you got drowned in their tears
But precisely nothing was done
We marched in the streets till we blistered our feet
We withstood the full force of the law
‘The miners united they’ll never defeat’
We sang till our voices were raw
With their truncheons and horses they opened our eyes:
You hold on to what you can defend
Comrades in struggle are comrades for life
And stand solid and true to the end
The smug commentators can peddle their lies
We’re proud that we formed picket lines
We’ll build the resistance and we’ll organise
And be quite sure we’re ready next time
Paul Mackney 1985 (*2003)
The unification - Patrick Jones 2004
‘i wont call it a strike - i would call it a demonstration for existence... the miners in south wales are saying - we are not accepting the dereliction of our mining valleys, we are not allowing our children to go immediately from school into the dole queue - it is time we fought’
Emlyn Williams 1982
filed away into the redtaped self assurance of office regulations
newlaboured toried amnesia
of gutwrenched days of dust and blackened blood
this be the verse of commemoration
spitting out dignity
making miracles from everydayed work in the belief of a better
through this education
from walking miles
of creating a life
of communal obligation
of paying for the books in the library
through the lies of this fucking century
jubilee nation and mccartney’s obe
thatchered denial of our fragile history
now>br>blair sits in socialist splendour
as his subjects from abroad doff their cap and pledge allegiance
to the queen
you can call it politics
blind us with statistics
starve us with economics
lie to us with your campaign rhetoric
but you will never destroy our
our sense of purpose
and even though tomorrow breathes through the green haze of an oxygen mask
let us remember
the day when the world took notice
when voices were heard
that had never spoken
labour family dignity and meaning
and those lungs
let them exhale
and let them
that shimmering sad yesterday
people screamed no
in search of a better yes
and let them,
the whitehallednewfactoria scum
fear that that day
and carve out a tomorrow