Steer for the deep waters only

Robert Day's thoughts on his photography, his writing and his business

The dead past lives….

with 4 comments

The news agenda in the UK today is occupied by two fairly big political stories about the past. In one, the annual release of Cabinet Office papers under the Thirty Year Rule* has taken place, and these reveal interesting things about the conduct of (amongst other things) the Miners’ Strike of 1984-85.

Daw Mill Colliery, North Warwickshire

The Miners’ Strike became an iconic event in British labour history. Arthur Scargill, then hard left leader of the Yorkshire branch of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), led his members out on strike over a programme of pit closures. The Government of the day claimed that his accusations of an extensive round of closures were not true, and that Scargill was leading a politically-inspired campaign to bring the government down, as had resulted from another miner’s strike some ten years before (though the fall of the government then was based mainly around a political miscalculation by the then PM, Edward Heath, who decided to go to the country on the question of “Who runs the country?” and got the answer “Well, certainly not you, sunshine.”).

The miners’ strike became highly divisive because Scargill had not sought a ballot of the miners before calling the strike. Certain coalfields, such as Nottinghamshire and Warwickshire, continued working (see below). The NUM mobilised “flying pickets” to picket locations where coal was distributed as well as working collieries. These were met by mass police actions, and there was considerable violence. Evidence is now emerging that in some cases, strikers were prosecuted for public order offences on the basis of fabricated statements from police officers; in other cases, there were acts of violence perpetrated by some who supported the strike. It was very much like a civil war; the fallout from the strike has persisted in some former mining communities, with families irrevocably split. Margaret Thatcher was assumed to have an intention of destroying the NUM and, by extension, the trade union movement generally. It was seen as the start of the de-industrialisation of Britain, and the fallout from the  events of 1984 are things that every working person in the UK has had to live with since, because it set the whole industrial/labour relations landscape for years to come.

The decimation of the coal industry followed within a few years of the end of the strike in 1985, as Arthur Scargill predicted. Britain has now only got three deep pit coal mines working, due to economic factors and the impact of environmental legislation. There remain considerable coal resources underground that are not now going to be worked in the foreseeable future. A fourth colliery, Daw Mill, is just a couple of miles from my home; it was due to close this year but actually shut down in the Autumn of 2013 due to a serious underground fire. I drove past the site in daylight for the first time in a couple of months a few days ago, and was surprised to see that the site is being cleared with almost indecent haste.

My grandfather was a collier at Bolsover, in north Derbyshire; I was brought up in areas with a long connection with the coal industry. So I have a great appreciation of what the industry was and what it means, both industrially, and as a former trade unionist, socially. The Cabinet Office papers released today have shown that the Government did have an extensive programme of pit closures that went beyond what was publicly announced at the time; that Margaret Thatcher in particular knew that this was going to be a political dispute (though it is a truth that any industrial dispute involving an arm of the state, be that government or a nationalised industry, is as political as either side wants to make it, irrespective of whether the issue at stake is the closure of collieries or the length of a tea break), and that the Prime Minister is now publicly revealed as having considered declaring a State of Emergency and bringing in troops to move coal and keep other essential supplies moving.

I remember these things from the time and since, and I offer these recollections without further comment.

1) At one time, I had a family connection with the treasurer of the independent UDM (Union of Democratic Mineworkers), a rival union to the NUM who organised within the coalfields that worked during the NUM strike. Their argument for not joining the strike was that they had not been balloted on the strike action; the likely reason was that the outcome of the vote in the Nottingham coalfield would most likely have been rejection of the strike call. In turn, the reason for this was based around the strategy that Arthur Scargill had followed in the years before the strike. Many of the Nottinghamshire colliers by that time were relocated Scottish miners (there were also a number of Scots miners in the Warwickshire coalfield, which I later became familiar with). Many of these Scottish miners were on their third or fourth pit, and they held a certain amount of animosity towards Scargill, because many of them said “Where was Arthur when OUR pits and OUR coalfield was being closed down?”

2) On the Good Friday of 1984, I was travelling on a train from Derby to London. As it was a Bank Holiday, the train was so crowded that I could not get a seat, so I stumped up the extra £5 to go in First Class. There I found myself sitting next to two camera crews, one from ITN and the other from the BBC who were travelling back to London after covering the picket at Orgreave.

They were quite exercised by the accusation that was being levelled at them of ‘media bias’. Their line was that no matter what footage they shot, they weren’t responsible for the final edit or how that package would be placed when the news broadcast was made; depending on how the news agenda worked out that day, three minutes of footage shown on the six o’clock news could be ninety seconds by nine o’clock and possibly 30 seconds’ worth on Newsnight…

3) Later in my life, I had a work colleague (now deceased) who was working for the Department of the Environment in the 1980s. Although stationed with the Birmingham Rent Assessment Panel, during the miners’ strike he was posted to the Civil Contingencies Unit. The preparations for the State of Emergency were more advanced than the released papers suggest. Working from a control room under the Government Five Ways complex in Birmingham, this colleague said that at one point they were on standby for a State of Emergency being declared within the next 36 hours. Just because the Prime Minister was “considering” declaring a State of Emergency, that did not mean that it was only ever a paper exercise. There were steps to be taken to bring the necessary machinery into action so that a State of Emergency could be declared, and those plans existed as part of the national Civil Defence programme. Of course, now all this has been devolved to local authorities; whether a Government now or in the future could declare a State of Emergency in the same way is an interesting question.


The second political story is that the current Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, has launched an attack in the newspapers on the current teaching of the history of the First World war. He criticises one of the main academic authorities on twentieth-century history, Professor Sir Richard Evans, for himself “crititcising” those who went to war; and he advances the view that the First World War was a “just” war. This link takes you to the full article:

(Interestingly, as someone pointed out, the view of the British troops on the Western Front as “lions led by donkeys” didn’t start with an analysis by a Left-wing academic, but rather with a book by an historically-minded Conservative MP, “The Donkeys”, by Alan Clark (son of Sir Kenneth Clark of ‘Civilisation’ fame).)

That piece by Gove is itself a piece of partisan rubbish. He quotes Richard Evans but does not actually understand what Evans said (or has deliberately misunderstood it). Evans is not ‘criticising’ those who went to fight; he says that they believed something but were wrong, mainly because they were not in possession of the facts.

Gove then carries on to repeat the simplistic explanation that the First World War was the fault of Germany and Germany alone. This was the view put about at the time in Britain, and it persisted at Versailles which put in place many of the conditions that would lead to the Second World War. It was a political view at the time, and it is a gross over-simplification. I’ve been reading around this subject for the past couple of years, and I’ve identified eleven factors that led to war in 1914. (I’m putting this into some sort of order and I intend to publish my views here – and possibly elsewhere – in due course.) A lot of these factors were due to common attitudes and failings held by governments across Europe, including Britain.

Gove says that he encourages “an open debate on the war and its significance”. But in making his story wholly about the loss of life and the direct British contribution to the war on the Western Front, he is trying to direct the whole argument entirely to an agenda which serves his political ends. I see no sign of any examination of the causes of the war, and I expect that there will be very little examination of the war on the Eastern, Balkan and Italian fronts (though I hope to be proved wrong on that, though I won’t hold my breath). (There were British troops involved on the Italian Front – Italy were on our side in 1914-18 – but their story is rarely told and their role was quite minor.) We’re going to be told that we were the key players in the Great War against Germany, and I don’t see Michael Gove or anyone else encouraging views that look elsewhere for a greater perspective on the war of 14-18.

And I lost a great uncle on the Somme; a whole branch of my family never came into existence. Every family in the land suffered some loss or another, and our histories were irrevocably changed. I’m not trying to undermine any of that; I’m just trying to understand the bigger picture.

The British government sent the families of all men lost in the First World War this plaque, which became known as 'the Dead Man's Penny'. This one commemorates my great-uncle, Ernest Wilcox, who was lost on the Somme. He has no known grave; his name is inscribed on the monument at Thiepval.

The British government sent the families of all men lost in the First World War this plaque, which became known as ‘the Dead Man’s Penny’. This one commemorates my great-uncle, Ernest Wilcox, who was lost on the Somme. He has no known grave; his name is inscribed on the monument at Thiepval.


* Note for non-UK readers and people who are not politics geeks: in the UK, the Cabinet Office is the section of government responsible for the running of the Prime Minister’s office and co-ordinating the administration of the country. It runs the Civil Service and acts as gatekeeper for a range of cross-Departmental issues. Minutes of Cabinet meetings and a lot of inter-Departmental paperwork, conserved by the Cabinet Office, are archived and are kept secret for thirty years, after which they are released into the public domain.


4 Responses

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  1. Intersting piece.

    While Scargill didn’t call a national ballot, the fact is that he didn’t need to. Joe Gormley had seen to that during his tenure as NUM President when the rule was passed to let individual Area’s decide their own way (see South Wales, Lewis Merthyr 1983). While there is a very strong argument that he SHOULD have called a national ballot to solidify the strike, the NUM didn’t have to do so. Rule 41 of the NUM constitution allows individual areas to call strikes as long as they have the backing of National Executive.

    The simple fact is that what came out today was always suspected by miners and their families since 1984 – the American was recruited after de-manning BSC with a derisory 2% pay offer in 1980 and the Conservative government paid £1.5m to get him into BSC. They were going to want more bang for their buck than just a de-manning of the steel industry. MacGregor was still sitting on the board of BSC when he went into the NCB.

    But the main reason the Conservative government ‘won’ was because of the scab pits of Nottingham, Derbyshire and Warwickshire. Even if a national ballot had been called, there was a very good chance that the pits in these three areas would have rejected the strike call and equally, a very good chance that they would have defied their own union and refuse to walk out. That would have split the strike before it even started and even without the ballot, their actions alone ultimatly led to the collapse of the strike.

    There is no point being a part of a union if you only act when asked to do something that you agree with. If the majority of members / voters, vote to strike then as a member of that union, you should strike, regardless of your own personal views.

    Another facet could well be that the pits the NCB considered viable in 1984 tended to be in the central coalfield, i.e. Notts, Derbs and Warwicks. South Wales had and always did have its geographical faults, Cumbria only had one pit left, North Wales had two and Kent just three. Investment had been concentrated in the central coalfield which might have given the miners in those areas the impression their pits were ‘safe’. One can see where the Nottinghamshire NUM (the pre UDM) were coming from in not really wanting to go on strike. Also, due to the investment by the NCB, miners of the central coalfield earned more (through bonuses) for working the same hours (there was an overtime ban in operation at the time) than those miners in other coalfields.

    As for the Scottish miners blaming Arthur Scargill when their pits were closed, what was Mick McGahey doing ? And Arthur for all his faults (and had many) had only been the NUM President since 1981.

    The biggest crime of all though is that once the Tories and the NCB eventually got their way, mines were closed forever, never to open again. Now that we need coal more than ever (if we don’t, why are we importing so much ?) and could export it to countries like India and China who can’t get enough of it, we can’t do a thing about it. If the mines were kept on C&M at a fraction of the costs of running them, it would have been very possible to re-open them again now when the demand is higher.

    As of June 2013, there were just 10 underground mines in the UK (deep and drift). Eight in England, two in Wales and none in Scotland.

    Sad times.


    January 3, 2014 at 9:10 pm

    • All very true. (I have to admit that I’m not fully up to speed on the details of the NUM’s rule book); and given the sort of people who were organising the UDM (the individuals I came across were one of my cousin’s boyfriends, and I never really warmed to them), the line about “Where was Arthur when…” could well be seen as self-justification on the part of some of them.

      Mining has never had the sort of investment it should have; by the 21st century, we should be looking at things like telefactoring (operating the face machinery remotely from the bank top) or in-seam combustion. Nye Bevan always said he looked forward to the day when miners didn’t need to go underground; but I suspect that these technologies were what he had in mind rather than mining being consigned to history.


      January 3, 2014 at 10:43 pm

      • Totally agree with you.

        A mine that was ‘uneconomic’ in the 1980’s could very well be economic today given that mining technologies have moved on so much. As you say, telefactoring, in-seam combustion, etc. could well be used in a large part of the 1984 UK coalfield (South Wales alone would be different in that the geology is so topsy-turvy that two pits less than a mile apart could be totally different to work).

        I still believe though that if even the pits the NCB deemed economical had been put on care and maintenance instead of being filled and cleared, the UK would have a credible coal industry today. I know someone would have to make the investment to get them working but such is the worldwide demand for coal (and prices aren’t as high today as they were even 12 months ago), thast the investment would soon pay its own way (within 1-3 years). A conservative estimate of the South Wales coalfield is that 70% of the reserves are still underground.

        Investment in 2014 is exactly the same as it was in 1984 – nobody wants to make the step in making the decision to invest with their money, be it a government or a private company. Daw Mill near you (one of the reasons I started following your blog when i read a previous blog entry) is a case in point. What has happened there does look like UK Coal wanted an out card and an underground fire gave them that card to shut up shop and close the pit.


        January 3, 2014 at 11:12 pm

  2. I too had an uncle I never knew, killed on the first day of the Somme. He has no known grave and is recorded on the Thiepval memorial. I’m as certain as I can be that soldiers were used in the miners’ strike. They had to be fitted with police uniforms and mixed with the “gardians of the law”. A sure sign of “Mad Maggies” determination to win at all costs and destroy the mining industry

    Ken Gosling

    January 7, 2014 at 2:37 pm

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