By Dr Katy Shaw
The UK miners’ strike of 1984-5 was a defining moment in the history of the United Kingdom, one that not only illuminates the country’s near-history, but functions as a prism through which to understand the social, political and economic challenges of the twenty-first century.
Despite promises of reduction rather than extinction, the 1984-5 miners’ strike was the beginning of the end for British coal. As remaining mines continued to close, national demand for fuel was increasingly met by foreign miners in distant coalfields. The year 2000 saw a familiar irony actualised, as the Port of Tyne authority began importing coal to Newcastle. Even Margaret Thatcher was finally forced to concede that the post-strike review procedure did not save a single coal mine.
Despite this “restructuring” of the national industrial core, the mining industry and its proud heritage of protest did not fade into the recesses of memory. As workers’ magazine Militant argued in 1985, “the miners’ strike of 1984-5 will never be forgotten, certainly not by those who took part, nor by future generations… Society will never be the same again. The miners have brought class politics back on the agenda. Theirs will be the standard by which all struggles are measured” . Even The Times forebodingly warned in June 1985 that “the dispute some politicians hoped would break the power of the NUM has actually created new cadres for the future”.
As predicted, this fighting tradition was taken up by future generations. In the strikes of the new millennium, the language and politics of 1984-5 was resurrected to narrate the fire-fighters, postal and baggage handlers disputes of 2003, with the insult of ‘Scargillism’ liberally applied to discredit union leaders. The UK university lecturers’ dispute of 2005-6 similarly inspired Sir Peter Knight, Vice Chancellor of the University of Central England, to ask of those lecturers striking while on full pay, “can you imagine Arthur Scargill leading the miners down the pit, then telling them not to dig any coal but still expecting them to be paid?”
2011 marked a new era of discontent, dubbed by the press “a Scargill moment” of economic pressure, austerity measures, pension reductions and mass redundancies, during which the very right to strike was challenged by the new Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government, as commentators predicted the biggest walkouts since the 1926 General Strike. In the ensuing public sector strikes, Unison General Secretary Dave Prentis declared that his members would “not be starved back like the miners”, while striking teachers caused government ministers to warn police that their handling of the strikes should reflect the fact that “this isn’t the miners’ strike”.
Elsewhere, leader of the pilots’ union, Len McCluskey, was dubbed “the Scargill of the Skies”, while the late leader of the RMT Bob Crowe was accused of mobilising the language of the miners’ strike to encourage conflict during a series of strikes on the London Underground. Defining the conflicts of the present through the events, personalities and language of 1984-5, the press framed these contemporary disputes as a product of the miners’ strike, an unwelcome and continuing manifestation of militancy and discontent.
In the years following 1984-5, Margaret Thatcher acknowledged that “the coal strike was always about far more than uneconomic pits. It was a political strike”. In her resignation speech, she claimed that one of her greatest achievements in office had been defeating the strikers. Bestowing a political weight to the conflict initially denied in action, the Prime
Minister foregrounded the benefit of hindsight, the power of time and the significance of reviewing historical record. Revisiting the past and rethinking our approach to historical events can, she suggested, enlighten us in the present. As Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn reflects, “if only the coverage now given to personal accounts of the strike and its hardships had been allowed… in 1984-5. People… seem to think that history is safe—it’s only the present that’s not”.
In his own study of the strike, The Enemy Within, Seamus Milne suggests that the 1984-5 miners’ strike “is an episode which demands a ‘revisionist reassessment’, not least due to the evidence which emerged after the dispute suggesting that alternative accounts of the conflict were not wholly driven by ‘in-built’ bias or the bitterness of defeat”. At the first post-strike NUM conference on 1 July 1985, Scargill used his Presidential address to communicate an important message to his miner members: “you have written history”. However, history seems to have proved impervious to the many lessons of the UK’s most significant post-war labour conflict.
For a generation born in the ‘Cool Britannia’ of 1990s New Labour, there is a new motivation to look back to the Conservative legacy that bore the political conditions of the present day, to re-examine decades of unrest, division and disquiet both at home and abroad. Since the turn of the millennium, the Thatcher years have become a particularly popular period to reappraise as a result of the global credit crunch. The economic downturn that defined the first decade of the new millennium was relayed by a Western media eager to mobilise the boom and bust, recession and unemployment discourses of the 1970s and 80s, making the politics of the recent past a more immediate, relatable and felt presence.
Thirty years on, the strike remains a profound focus of cultural, social and political interest because its legacies are as much about the future of the UK as its past. From cultures of worklessness and social damage, to the role of regional development agencies and community initiatives, the 1984-5 UK miners’ strike was instrumental in establishing a range of discourses that came to define the subsequent decades. As the most divisive dispute in our recent history, the 1984-5 miners’ strike remains a spectre that continues to haunt our contemporary world. Just under the surface of recent events, 1984-5 is with us still.
Dr Katy Shaw is Principal Lecturer in Contemporary Literature and Director of Centre21: Centre for Twenty-First Century Writings at the University of Brighton, UK. She is editor of the internationally peer reviewed C21 Literature: journal of 21st-century writings and the author of Mining The Meaning: Cultural Representations of the 1984-5 UK Miners’ Strike (CSP, 2012). Her research interests include contemporary writings, working class literatures, regeneration and the languages of comedy. She has published extensively on working class women’s writings, the contemporary novel and twenty-first century literature. Her forthcoming monograph Crunch Lit examines fictional responses to the global credit crunch.