John Watson: True story of a strike that cost miners so much

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BRASSED Off and Billy Elliot are excellent films. They were both set against the backdrop of the Miners’ Strike in 1984. So far as many people are concerned, particularly those below 50, the films have provided almost all that they know about the strike itself. In both, the Government’s case remained entirely unstated.

In both, it was the sufferings and hardships of the miners and their families that penetrated the consciousness of their audiences.

Many young people see the conflict as a deliberate attempt by Margaret Thatcher to smash the unity of mining communities – partly to punish them for voting Labour and partly to pave the way for privatisation. Rarely has the gap between perception and reality been greater.

In 1983 there were 202,000 people employed in the industry. It was being subsidised by taxpayers to the tune of £1.3bn per year. Some 75 per cent of all the pits were losing money. Earlier attempts to make mining competitive, by Ted Heath and by Margaret Thatcher herself, had failed at the hands of the NUM. Taking on the miners for a third time was clearly going to be a high-risk strategy.

Possibly Arthur Scargill, having led his union to victory in 1974 and 1981, had come to believe in his own invincibility. Possibly, he realised in 1983 that the sooner the inevitable “big conflict” came the more likely he was to win it – because the Government was stockpiling coal in anticipation of just such a conflict. Either way, it was Scargill himself who embarked on the biggest gamble of the lot. He called the miners out on strike without the clear authority of a ballot. Consequently the Nottinghamshire miners, whose pits were amongst the most economic, refused to strike. Also, he failed to secure, in advance, the support of the Colliery Overmen and Deputies – which meant that when strikebreakers wanted to return to work the pits were open for them to do so. I was a Parliamentary Private Secretary in the Department of Energy at the time and we simply could not believe that Scargill had chosen to move so quickly.

His move was brutal. Ian MacGregor, the man chosen by Margaret Thatcher to run the National Coal Board, proposed a very generous scheme of voluntary redundancy in January 1984. Under it, a miner would have received, tax free, £1,000 for every year worked. MacGregor estimated that the scheme would attract 20,000 volunteers, enough for him to achieve the initial reductions he was seeking. Early indications were that the enthusiasm for the scheme was greater than anticipated and his estimate was increased. By acting when he did, Scargill effectively put a stop to the scheme – ensuring that if redundancies were to take place at all they would only be after a long and bruising strike in which the NUM had emerged the loser.

The strike was called in March 1984. It lasted a year. By the end of that year Britain’s coal stocks were very low indeed but, at least, the summer was approaching. The Nottinghamshire pits had continued working throughout. The strike itself was crumbling and by the end of February more miners were working than were on strike.

So the Government had its “victory”. From my own perspective it had been a very close-run thing. The public support for the Government was crucial throughout but frequently imperilled by the PR disasters created by MacGregor himself.

Could Scargill have won? Well, possibly in 1984 he could. It would, though, have been a hollow and short-lived victory. What he was seeking was, ultimately, unattainable and undesirable. The obstacles he put in the way of any individual pit closure or any system of redundancy revealed that his real desire was to keep the industry exactly as it was – regardless of the rising cost to the taxpayer.

If his respect for facts had been at least as great as his command of oratorical English, Britain might even now have a healthy and internationally competitive coal industry.

And was there ever a “secret hit list” of pits being lined up for closure? Ian MacGregor had such a list but he kept it in his desk drawer. Peter Walker had seen it but did not agree with it. I don’t think the Prime Minister ever knew about it at all.

• John Watson was MP for Skipton between 1979 and 1983, then Skipton and Ripon from 1983 to 1987. He was a PPS at the Department of Energy during the Miners’ Strike.