Your guide to the miners’ strike of 1984–85
The biggest rail strike in 30 years is causing severe disruption to passengers this week, with the walkout of at least 40,000 members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) union. Here, historian Dominic Sandbrook revisits the longest and most acrimonious industrial dispute in Britain’s modern history: the miners’ strike of 1984–85
The miners’ strike of 1984-85 was the longest and most acrimonious industrial dispute in Britain’s modern history. But it was more than that: to the communities involved, from Scotland and South Wales to Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire, it often felt like an undeclared civil war, pitting village against village, family against family – even brother against brother.
The origins of the strike lay in the gradual rundown of the British coal industry, with the workforce falling from a peak of more than 1 million between the world wars to barely 200,000 at the start of the 1980s. For decades, Conservative and Labour governments alike had been closing pits and shedding jobs. But as national unemployment mounted, it was obvious more closures would provoke an intense reaction.
At the end of 1981, the miners elected a new leader in the hard-left Yorkshireman Arthur Scargill, who made no secret of his eagerness for a confrontation with the government. Scargill predicted – rightly, as it turned out – that in an attempt to stem its heavy financial losses, the National Coal Board was bound to push for further closures. But Scargill denied that there was such a thing as an ‘uneconomic pit’, and argued that every colliery should be kept open, no matter how much it cost.
Three times Scargill pushed his members to vote for a national strike; three times they voted no. Then, in March 1984, the Coal Board announced plans for a new wave of pit closures. Desperate to preserve their jobs and communities, which often depended entirely on the local pit, the Yorkshire miners walked out, as did their Scottish counterparts. But instead of calling a national strike, Scargill encouraged the regions to follow suit individually. That way, he would still get a strike without having to run the risk of a national ballot.
From the start, Scargill was confident of victory. Twice in recent years, in 1972 and 1974, the miners had struck for higher pay, and both times they had won. But this time was different.
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The Thatcher factor
First, the miners were divided. In traditionally non-militant Nottinghamshire, many miners resented being strong-armed, as they saw it, into a strike without a ballot. Most Nottinghamshire miners refused to strike, as did smaller groups of miners elsewhere. So right from the start, the dispute was marked by intense bitterness and violent confrontations between striking and working miners.
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The second difference was that the government was far better prepared in 1984 than it had been 10 years earlier. Since Scargill had been so public about his enthusiasm for confrontation, ministers had been building up coal stocks for years. As a result, the strikers never really came close to causing the kind of coal shortages and power cuts that might have brought victory.
The third difference was the Thatcher factor. Like Scargill, Mrs Thatcher struck a remarkably aggressive, uncompromising tone right from the start. She encouraged the police to crack down on picketing miners and badgered local Chief Constables to block the mobile ‘flying pickets’ which had been so successful in the 1970s. Some commentators worried that she was using the police as a paramilitary wing of the state. But as the dispute went on, she became ever more outspoken, even describing the miners’ leaders as Britain’s “enemy within”.
Very quickly, therefore, the strike became a trial of strength between two exceptionally abrasive public figures. In the media, the striking miners, working miners and the police were cast as little armies sweeping backwards and forwards across the countryside. Meanwhile the newspapers played up every skirmish for all it was worth. Although there was clearly violence on both sides, miners’ leaders often complained that the press exaggerated strikers’ violence while ignoring the abuses of the police. In particular, the miners’ supporters were outraged by the so-called ‘Battle of Orgreave’ in June 1984, when mounted policemen charged pickets outside a South Yorkshire coking plant – an event that has gone down in political folklore.
Even at this early stage, Scargill’s cause was probably doomed. With coal stocks high, the miners divided and public opinion firmly against the strike, he was always facing an uphill struggle. According to a poll by the Opinion Research Corporation for the Evening Standard, published on 31 August 1984, some 94 per cent of the public disapproved of pickets' tactics and, when asked to pick between working and striking miners, 74 per cent sympathised with working miners compared to just 19 per cent with strikers.
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But with both sides refusing to compromise, the strike dragged on for almost exactly a year, causing immense hardship to thousands of families, before Scargill reluctantly conceded defeat in March 1985.
Although the strike was over, the scars never went away. To this day both sides have their impassioned partisans. Afterwards the pace of closures was accelerated, and many pit villages never recovered. Whatever people thought of the issues at stake, millions were appalled by the scenes of open fighting between pickets and police, which became emblematic of the conflicted, confrontational 1980s.
Dominic Sandbrook is a historian and television presenter best-known for his books about Britain since the 1950s. The most recent, Who Dares Wins (Allen Lane, 2019), covers the early 1980s, including the first Thatcher administration, the Falklands War, and the New Romantics.
You can listen to a podcast interview with Dominic about the early 1980s here