EDITOR'S CHAIR: How two huge egos destroyed the mining industry
YESTERDAY marked 30 years since the start of the last significant national strike in this country.
On March 12, 1984, National Union of Mineworkers leader Arthur Scargill declared that a number of strikes at various coal fields across Britain were to become a national strike.
And so started a year-long battle between the government and the miners that destroyed an industry and changed the industrial face of Gwent forever.
The strike was ultimately a titanic struggle between two huge egos – Mr Scargill and then prime minister Margaret Thatcher.
Mrs Thatcher wanted revenge on the miners for the 1974 strike that brought down the previous Conservative administration. Mr Scargill wanted to bring Mrs Thatcher’s government down.
It was a clash of ideologies and it cost tens of thousands of jobs.
I grew up in Cwmbran but moved to live in England in 1978, when I was 12. At that time, heavy industries producing coal and steel were the main employers in Gwent.
Blaenavon, Bedwas, Abercarn, Cwmfelinfach, Oakdale – a handful of the long list of places dominated and defined by mining.
When I returned to this area to work at the Argus in 1989 at the age of 23 they had all gone.
All that was left of a mighty industry was Big Pit at Blaenavon – and that was already a museum.
Who you believe was to blame for the decimation of an industry and the decades of economic woes that then befell areas like Blaenau Gwent depends largely on which side of the dispute you were on in 1984-85.
Mr Scargill’s supporters will say Cabinet papers released earlier this year prove his claims of a government hit list of more than 70 pits to be closed.
Mrs Thatcher’s backers will say defeating the miners was the only way to control the trade unions and that the strike was motivated by Mr Scargill’s politics rather than concern for his members’ jobs.
The reality probably lies somewhere in between.
Mrs Thatcher was ready for a miners’ strike.
She did not want a repeat of the 1974 strike that led to power cuts, a three-day week and election defeat for Edward Heath’s Conservatives, who went to the country under the slogan ‘Who governs Britain?’
A potential strike in 1981 was averted after a climbdown by Mrs Thatcher’s first government. Coal stocks were low at the time and she knew she risked a repeat of 1974.
In 1984, buoyed by a second election victory with a much-increased majority, Mrs Thatcher was ready for the miners.
Coal had been stockpiled, some power stations converted to burn heavy fuel oil instead of coal, and fleets of lorries were at the ready to transport coal if railworkers backed the miners.
However, it is too easy to say Mr Scargill picked the wrong time for a fight. Yes, he made monumental mistakes – not least in calling a national strike without a ballot – that played into the government’s hands.
But what choice did he really have? Despite being adamant that only 20 pits were up for closure, the reality is the government wanted to close 75. Mr Scargill knew it and he knew this was fight or die.
Many of those who stayed out for the duration of the year-long strike knew they could not win. But they also knew they could not stand by and watch their jobs go without a fight.
Perhaps two leaders less divided by ideology would have found a way forward. It may not have saved the mining industry but it could have extended its life by a few more years.
Instead, we had two people who would simply not back down.
The result was the bitterest industrial dispute this country has ever seen. Communities were torn apart, particularly as other mining unions – notably the National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirers – refused to join the strike.
There were bloody battles between striking miners and the police. Families were split. Men who had been friends for years never spoke again. People died.
Those who suffered most, of course, were the mining communities.
Many areas that relied almost entirely on the pits for work became unemployment blackspots for decades to come. Some have never truly recovered.
The abiding shame of the miners’ strike is that its two main protagonists were probably the two people least affected by its outcome.
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