IT WAS a bitter conflict which has left wounds for decades and is now sparking continued calls for a public inquiry. This month marks the 30th anniversary of the start of the1984/5 miners' strike, and NATHAN BRIANT takes a look at whether there is an appetite for such a probe in Gwent.
THE 1984/5 miners' strike was a turning point in industrial history - a conflict which scarred a generation.
For some, decades on, it will never be forgotten.
in 1984, the support for the strike across South Wales' miners was huge.
Of the 21,500 miners in South Wales, 99.6 per cent of them walked out immediately or shortly after the strike was called by the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM).
And despite all the financial hardships, 93 per cent of them were still on strike a year later.
But in March 1985, after a gruelling twelve months, they returned to work after their South Wales leadership took a motion to the national conference for a return to work with no negotiated settlement.
The strike had failed.
There were only two regions with more miners than South Wales - Yorkshire and Nottingham - but the proportion of striking miners was never as high there.
Now Ian Lavery, a Labour MP for Wansbeck, has called for a public inquiry into the circumstances of the miners’ strike.
The former president of the NUM tabled an early day motion in the House of Commons, which “regrets that nearly 30 years after the strike ended, there are still men who were wrongly arrested or convicted during the dispute, who have never received justice.”
A total of 65 MPs supported the motion - including Newport West MP Paul Flynn and Torfaen MP Paul Murphy.
Mr Lavery told reporters: “Passions have not waned. In 100 years' time I am confident that people will say that their great grandfather was a miner and was proud to have taken part in the strike. That is how deep this thing runs.”
Cabinet papers released in January after 30 years revealed what many miners and union officials had suspected. Margaret Thatcher’s government and the National Coal Board had a list of coal mines it wanted to close.
The government always denied there was a ‘hit list’ of pits they wanted to shut; the National Coal Board said in the mid-1980s they wanted to close 20. But the papers show there were plans to shut at least 75.
For many in the South Wales Valleys, that is proof enough that a public inquiry is still needed.
Blaenau Gwent County Borough Councillor Graham Bartlett was a miner in 1984. He said: “The miners did not come out immediately. Some pits came out, some didn’t. I was working at the Marine Colliery in Cwm and the strike started on the Monday and we came out on the Tuesday.”
He is now the clerk of Abertillery and Llanhilleth Town Council.
He said there were 900 miners working at Marine Colliery before the strike. Only a dozen broke the strike and went back to work there during the conflict. The colliery was closed in 1989.
He said: “There should be a public inquiry into it because the actions of the police. They were used as a political football.”
John Taylor lives in Cwmbran and worked as a miner at the Blaenserchan Colliery near Pontypool. The mine closed in 1985, after the end of the strike.
He is another supporter of a public inquiry and believes the actions of police at the time of the strike need to be probed.
But he is unsure any inquiry will ever happen.
During the year-long strike, the father of three relied on the community for food and for gifts for his children.
At Christmas 1984, a Cwmbran church donated presents to miners’ families. The Taylors’ children were one of the recipients.
But the church got Mr Taylor’s son’s name wrong; they thought he was called Michelle and gave him a girl’s presents. His wife broke down when it happened.
He said the strike was impacting on their lives in every possible way.
When the miners went back to work – Mr Taylor soon had to find a new job. He said the miners were forced “to eat humble pie”. The colliery closed soon after and he became a labourer.
Former miner Michael James, now the town mayor for Nantyglo, said of that tough year: “It was hard times. It was very difficult. We relied on the charity of the community.”
His wife was working as an auxiliary nurse at the time of the strike so he said his family “had a little bit more than anybody else” but that him, his wife and three children were still dependent on donations from the community.
He said: “Everybody supported everyone. It was a terrible time in one’s life. I’m bitter. I’ve always been a union man. They wanted to smash the unions and it has proved right.
“My father-in-law, he’s 90: he was a miner; his brother was a miner; my brother was a miner.”
Caerphilly’s Labour MP Wayne David was involved helping miners from March 1984 onwards. He was involved with the Wales Congress in Support of Mining Communities, and is still seething about the impact of the closure of the Bedwas and Windsor collieries in his constituency. He said the lack of preparation for the pits’ closures is still being felt today.
And while he said he was not against the idea of holding a public inquiry into the miners’ strike, he said it is also time to look to the future and learn lessons about what happened.
He said: “I’m not opposing it but to be perfectly honest with you, 30 years later we need to move on from it.
“There was a hit list: we know that now. But I think we need to learn the lessons of the strike. Mining communities were right to fight for communities and jobs but the tactics of Arthur Scargill were completely wrong. They were doomed to failure. You’ve got to have clear objectives and Scargill didn’t have those.”
No need for inquiry - Monmouth MP
DAVID DAVIES, Monmouth's Conservative MP and the only Tory MP in Gwent, was 14 when the strike was called.
He said his grandfather was a miner in Nottinghamshire: he is aware of the hard work involved in mining – and he said he still supports coal mining today because of the huge supply left in the UK.
Yet he doesn’t support a possible inquiry.
He sees no need since he said much of the problems suffered by the unionised workforce was brought on itself.
He said the miners would not have been in such a precarious position at the end of the strike if it had not been for the NUM and tactics employed by Arthur Scargill, its president from 1982 to 2002, who was perceived by many of his opponents as being dangerously in favour of taking industrial action at any opportunity.
Mr Davies said: “This argument that it was wicked Tories doing people out of this wonderful job is dangerous.
“It was not a nice working environment and miners didn’t want their kids doing it.
“I’ve had schoolchildren telling me: ‘You did this to us.’ But it wasn’t supported by the Labour Party. It wasn’t supported by other unions. It wasn’t even supported by the public.”