Sunday, 15 March 2009

Thatcher's defeat: the miners' strike reinterpreted

The British media were dominated a week ago by stories marking – celebrating is not the right word – the twenty-fifth anniversary of the start of the Miners’ strike. This was a titanic conflict in which the National Union of Mineworkers, under its leader, Arthur Scargill, took on a Conservative Government, led by Margaret Thatcher. The strike’s goal was to prevent closures of mines, or pits as the people who worked in them used to call them, and protect coalminers’ jobs: Scargill claimed that he had seen secret plans to close 95 of the country’s 170 collieries making it urgent to defend the industry.

The strike started in March, just at the beginning of the period in which energy demand starts to drop. It lasted a year. At the end of that time, the miners went back to work with no guarantee on jobs or pit closures.

Arthur Scargill has been generally quiet in recent years, but he spoke out with an article in The Guardian to mark the anniversary. The National Union of Mineworkers required a 55% in a ballot of all miners for a national strike to be official, and Scargill famously never called one. His article makes it clear that he was under no obligation to do so. As he has always argued, what was taking place was not a national strike, but a series of regional strikes which the other regions were called on to support. A ballot would hardly have been appropriate. So the failure of the Nottinghamshire miners to support the strike without a ballot was a failure on their part, not a failure by the leadership. And the failure of the other unions and the Labour Party to get fully behind the strike – they tended, like the public, to be much more supportive of the miners than of the strike itself – was not a consequence of the failure of the union leadership to get the support of all its own members before calling on the support of others, but simply a deliberate act of betrayal.

In any case, it turns out that leading a divided union and starting an energy strike in the spring didn’t have consequences quite as disastrous as many of us believed. Scargill told us that ‘the greatest victory in the strike was the struggle itself’. At the start of the strike, Britain had 180,000 miners working 170 mines. By 1994 there were just 16,000 miners left in 16 mines. If this is the way things went with even a partial victory in the strike, it’s hard to imagine what defeat would have looked like.

It’s also comforting to know that Scargill feels he won any kind of victory over the Thatcher government. Had she been allowed to triumph, her government might have been let loose to pursue its agenda of ‘light touch’ regulation in Business and above all, in Finance. The consequences could have been truly tragic. We might have seen the deregulation of the banks and the deliberate stoking up of an artificial boom in credit and in house prices. After several years of apparent success, the ideology of greed might have become so firmly entrenched that even a Labour government following hers would have been powerless to resist it. We might have heard a centre-left Minister declare himself to be ‘relaxed’ about people becoming ‘stinking rich’, on the Reagan-Thatcher trickle-down premise that if enough people become stinking rich, the poor might stink less. By now, we would have had 25 years of a credit and property bubble in danger of blowing up in our faces, precipitating a major credit crisis, a slump in property prices, the collapse of the stock market and potentially the worst recession since the 1920s.

It seems we owe more to Arthur Scargill than some of us sceptics might have imagined.

1 comment:

Awoogamuffin said...


The best thing to come out of this crisis is this video explaining it:

I finally can pretend I understand what happened!

As always, loving the blog