The Miners' Strike: The Politics and Repercussions
As part of our Looking Back at Brassed Off feature, explore the historical context of the play in this programme article on the Miners' Strike by Andrew Fergus Wilson, Senior Lecturer in Sociology at University of Derby.
The miners’ strike of 1984-5 was the culmination of a number of processes that shaped the society we live in. The National Union of Miners was one of Britain’s most powerful unions, and symbolic of the strength of organised labour and working class unity.
As with much of Britain’s industrial past, mining was embedded in local communities. The industry’s main focus was the coalfields that stretched beneath Yorkshire, Lancashire, South Wales, Southern Scotland, the North East, Nottinghamshire, and Derbyshire.
The unity provided by the union gave the miners – and the hardworking, politically educated working class they represented – a source of power that had been confirmed by the 1974 Miners’ Strike. Having seen the working week reduced to just three days in the wake of an energy supply crisis, then Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath called a general election under the slogan, “Who governs Britain?”. A hung parliament and a second general election in which the Labour Party won seemed to suggest that a united working class was exerting an ever-greater influence in the governing of the country. At least part of the NUM’s power was manifest in national pay bargaining; with all miners earning a set rate it was in their interests to put on a united front.
This changed with the introduction of the Area Incentive Scheme in 1977. Support for the scheme was strongest in the East Midlands, with opposition to it most keenly felt in Yorkshire, South Wales and Kent. This fragmented the NUM and weakened the collective bargaining that the national pay agreement had previously allowed.
The Conservative government of 1979, led by Margaret Thatcher, aimed to capitalise on this weakening. In 1977 Conservative politician Nicholas Ridley identified key ways of defeating the power held by trade unions; power he believed to be a barrier to profitability. Ridley’s plan was drawn upon during the 1980s and tactics such as the use of non-union drivers, stockpiling coal reserves, adapting power stations to use oil not coal, and limiting financial support to strikers were used during the ’84-85 strike.
The introduction of American industrialist, Ian McGregor, as head of the National Coal Board in 1983 was seen to be an indication of the government’s intention to ‘deal’ with the coal industry. McGregor’s reputation in the UK had been established through his work as head of British Steel. He had brought the steel industry close to profitability but at the cost of roughly half its workforce. It was understood within the NUM that he was brought into the coal industry to bring about similar structural change.
The March 1984 announcement of the closure of 20 pits (bringing the loss of 20,000 jobs and rumours of further closures) confirmed many miners’ worst fears. Thatcher’s biographer Charles Moore suggested that it was her aim to destroy the power of the miners’ union, that she intended to take on the miners and, unlike in 1974, to win. It would seem she succeeded, as the NUM split regionally and nationally throughout the strike.
Miners from Manton, Nottinghamshire took the NUM to court to assert their right to work; they argued that a national ballot should have been taken and that local votes were an inadequate measure of support. The court found in their favour and demanded that the union not discipline miners who crossed picket lines.
Nottinghamshire miners’ support for the strike was further eroded by NUM elections during summer 1984, that saw the pro-strike leaders replaced by members opposed to the strike. This split with the national position formed the basis of the breakaway Union of Democratic Miners.
Derbyshire miners were split in their support of the strike with the North of the county largely supporting it and the South opposed. There were, of course, exceptions. Leader of the NUM in Southern Derbyshire at the time, Paul Liversuch, recently told the Burton Mail of the split his support for the strike caused in his family, with his father refusing to speak to him for many years.
Such divisions were not unusual and the communities around the collieries were deeply fragmented by the strike. However the strength of community was not entirely diminished. As the strike dragged on, the NUM’s funds dwindled and the union was unable to support miners and their families through the cold winter. Miners’ wives became organised and ensured that food and fuel to support the striking miners was collected and distributed to those in need.
The strike ended in March 1985 having lasted nearly a year. Its repercussions should not be underestimated. Since 1984 deep mines have been all but destroyed. As of September 2015, there is one remaining deep colliery in the UK; Kellingley in North Yorkshire. It is due to close in December 2015. As an industry, mining has lost almost 150,000 jobs. It is not simply an industry that has been lost; communities have fragmented, and the bond between fellow workers diminished.
1994, when Brassed Off is set, is significant because it came shortly after the announcement of the largest round of pit closures. After the hardships of the preceding decade and the reduction of Britain’s mining capacity, the call for the closure of thirty-one of the remaining fifty deep mines provoked a huge increase in public support. Despite this, the closures went ahead. In Derbyshire, only two pits were still operating at this time, Shirebrook and Markham. Shirebrook was closed in 1992 and Markham in 1994.
Despite this, the proud communities of the miners have not been entirely lost. The pits may have gone but the welfare clubs remain throughout Derbyshire; Marehay, Heanor, Shirland, Hilcote, Mastin Moor, and Eckington still have clubs; and in Shirland, the colliery band plays on.