The strike led to a humiliating and lasting defeat for the miners and a political triumph for Margaret Thatcher.
Glasgow, United Kingdom – Few confrontations in the history of modern Britain come close to the industrial dispute that gripped England, Scotland and Wales in March 1984. Fracturing communities, pitting workers against the forces of law and order and even causing lives to be lost, the bitter clash became one of the greatest trade union struggles since the British General Strike of 1926.
That struggle was the British miners’ strike and today marks 30 years since the head of Britain’s Coal Board, Ian MacGregor, announced plans to cut production – the equivalent of 20 pits or 20,000 jobs – leading to a year-long walkout that would see British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) President Arthur Scargill come to blows and change the face of Great Britain forever.
“It was the longest industrial dispute in Britain in the 20th century and directly involved roughly 120,000-130,000 workers from March 1984 onwards,” Dr Jim Phillips, a senior lecturer of economic and social history at the University of Glasgow, told Al Jazeera.
“It might be seen as pivotal in the sense of Britain’s economic trajectory – moving out of an industrial economy into a more service, finance, and capital-related economy. Some of the 150 or so pits that operated in 1984 were, in narrow economic terms, loss-making and so required some degree of cross subsidy from more financially viable pits to remain in operation… The coal industry was also losing business during the recession of the early 1980s.”
Change under Thatcher
Yet, just a decade before the strike coal mining had appeared to be a booming industry in the UK. The so-called Plan for Coal, a tripartite agreement endorsed by the Labour government, the National Coal Board and the mining unions, had been agreed just two years after the February 1972 miners’ strike, which saw Britons subjected to power blackouts. Output targets were set at 135 million tonnes by 1985 and 170-200 million tonnes by 2000. Yet, as Thatcher’s Conservative Party swept to power in 1979, change was in the air.
Thatcher had avoided a miners’ strike in 1981 by backing down because coal stocks were low – but she was unwilling to buttress what she considered a dying industry for long. After crushing the Labour Party in the 1983 general election, she knew a walkout was inevitable – and within a week of MacGregor’s announcement more than half the country’s miners had taken strike action.
“I started in the industry in 1982 when I was 16 and was told by the personnel manager that I had a good job for life if I looked after it,” Chris Kitchen, the current general secretary of NUM, tells Al Jazeera of his mining days in West Yorkshire, northern England.
“I was a trade union member from day one – not really politicised – but always supported the union… In 1984, when we went on strike, I didn’t know very much about Arthur Scargill – because I only knew my own branch officials – but in the meetings we attended and through the information we were given it seemed feasible to me that we had two choices: that we either rolled over and let them destroy us or we stood up to fight. I personally made the decision that we stood up to fight. And, I still think today that that was the right decision.”
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