Was the Miners Strike winnable?

At the beginning of the strike many (miners and non-miners alike) thought it would all be over within a matter of weeks. If it was not for the massive scabbing it would have been so. But, with a government bent on confrontation and no compromise, and with no clear overall industrial support from the key trade unions, it was obvious that defensive tactics needed to give way to offensive ones. To a limited extent this was done. Sabotage attacks – some blown out of all proportion by the media, others were merely a continuation of traditional picketing – had little effect overall as they were not adopted on a large scale and taken to the heartlands of the class enemy where direct pressure can be put. Instead, those groups and individuals who undertook offensive actions were few and alas disorganised.

The vast majority of miners were not fighting to overthrow the government or state or seek to create a revolution, but simply to keep jobs to keep their communities intact. They were not even fighting to take over their industry — theirs by right. True, there were some, both within and outside the mining communities, who were fighting for more. But it was not a political strike of the miners’ choosing, but as a direct result of government, that made it clear from the outset that their objectives were to smash the union, to defeat militant unionism and break up the communities.

The State sought industrial and community confrontation never before witnessed for decades. As for the strike’s progress, class warfare gave way to civil warfare. Community was set against community, village against village, union against union with the media pulling the strings. By the time the odds were realised — the legal processes, the new policing arrangements, the contingency plans, the role of the far-right extremists in helping to exacerbate the conflict between scab and striker with ‘return to work’ movements funding etc.; the importance of anti-union legislation, Courts fining and sequestrating, the end of civil liberties and the introduction of harsh picketting penalties against those involved in civil infringements (but charged under the criminal law), the use of the bribes and lies to win over more scabs by the NCB (Xmas bonus etc); the total inadequacy of the official trade union movement in lending effective industrial support also ground down the fight left in the resisting miners.

By the time it was realised that new tactics were needed – although many long forgotten ones were remembered and some new ones adopted – and to be practiced too, it was too late. 

At the NUM Annual Conference earlier this year Arthur Scargill was forced to defend mass picketing. He did so by stating that it failed, not of itself but because there was not enough support for mass picketing, or enough mass pickets.

He implied that Orgreave did not succeed because the pickets were in the end out-numbered, and that even so there should have been more attempts similar to Orgreave.

Unlike at Saltley Gate, in 1972, the support was not as great, while the police presence and tactics was far bigger and far more aggressive. That should have been taken into account in the wake of the rout and put as an argument for more mass pickets, organised on a far greater scale, employing a variety of tactics in addition to the set-piece battles that were so essential in terms of international (and national) coverage and their effect on the stability of the currency.

Near the end of the 12 month strike, mass picketing was outlawed by the Court leaving only a few, mainly in South Yorkshire, to challenge that ruling. The ruling came at a point in time when the mood within the South Wales Area leadership switched to supporting tactical withdrawal and mass picketing all but ceased in that Area due to the demands of the leadership. 

The Euro-Communists are trying for a softly, softly approach with everything they are doing, competing with the Trotskyists – and near well beating them – at their entryist games a la Militant Tendency. It began to become all too commonplace to see CP members policing rallies and demos looking for anyone who might try to resist police provocation and so upset the ‘glorious martyrdom’ label they attempted to fix. This was done in the hope that pity would win greater support from the moderates and liberal middle class etc.

They became a reactionary and restraining influence, together with their ilk in the TUC and the Labour Party, on the strike as the full weight of the State came down to bear.

Noble’ defeat was preferred to further ‘adventure’. Behind the scenes McGahey and other Area leaders decided to pull in the reins, seeing Scargill as a liability to their own ambitions and their own Party loyalties. Scargill the orator had by then in their view, served his purpose.

In the last weeks of the strike it was clear that failure was a strong possibility. The leadership of the NUM were demoralised and there were tactics not pursued which should have been tried and tested long before the strike had begun to deteriorate. One antidote for example, was that in the absence of massive rank and file industrial support, a mobilisation of all striking miners, support groups, rank & file workers groups and unemployed groups, could have led to a massive blockade of the East Midland power stations and scab coal fields, supported by diversionary and rearguard actions elsewhere.

Even in their hour of defeat the miners showed more courage and solidarity than the whole trade union and organised labour movement in Britain has been able to muster since its inception. The General Strike in 1926 began with the miners and they were the last to go back; the great miners strike of 1984/5 was a great feat of resistance by the miners and their few friends. The claimants mobilising and the international solidarity were inspiring to the miners and their support groups. 

But despite all the remained winnable right up to its demise, victory was always a possibility. At least through mass rank and file unofficial action, or through an escalation of widescale community resistance and revolutionary violence, leading to localised and open insurrections.

What was clear in retrospect, was that there was neither the will for mass solidarity action, in industry or generalised resistance against the forces of the State.

The miners were defeated in the end by their own class and by the trade union movement especially submissive to the governments’ attack.

Black Flag Supplement no.2 Miners Strike in Black Flag : the anarchist fortnightly No.139 9/9/85 https://libcom.org/article/black-flag-139-9-9-1985