Ballad of 84
( August 2004 )
At the beginning of April 1985, at the end of a year long struggle which had seen the National Union of Mineworkers take on the entire power of the British state in an attempt to protect their industry, their jobs and their communities from the threat of being wiped off the face of the earth, I was taking part in an event in Woodburn Miners Welfare Club in Dalkeith, Midlothian, with the local miners who had been sacked and victimised during the strike. While the rest of the miners had marched back into the pits with heads held high, banners flying and bands playing, these were the ones left at the pit gates with no jobs to return to.
I had spent that year trying to do whatever I could to give my support to them and most of them were friends and comrades. I knew exactly how they felt as I felt the same. and I also felt I had a responsibility to do something which would help to reduce the pain and try to lift their spirits a wee bit.
This song was the result and I sang it for the first time that night. The "Coal Not Dole" sticker I had put on my guitar at the beginning of the strike was still there and I vowed it would stay there until either it rotted off or the Victimised miners had been reinstated.
Come gather round me people and I'll sing to you a song
About a famous battle that went on for so long;
It's a tale of grief and courage, of pain and bravery,
One of the finest pages written in our history.
We all know songs that tell of workers' struggles long ago
Of UCS, Tolpuddle, Shrewsbury, Pentonville and so I'm here
To sing to you the praises of the women and the men
Who dared the might of Tory spite the future to defend.
On the 3rd of May 1979, the people of the United Kingdom elected their first ever woman Prime Minister. Unfortunately, the woman they elected was a very Right wing, passionate free-marketeer who viewed the British organised working class as The Enemy. This was a very radical departure from the cross-party consensus which had existed since 1945 and was a return to the Victorian conservative view that the world would be fine if only the poor knew their place and did the bidding of their superiors without argument.
At the end of the Second World War Britain had elected a radical Labour government, one committed to complete social change. The British working class had been politicised by a long war against Fascism and, more importantly, were armed to the teeth and highly trained and disciplined. They also remembered the promises made during the First World War about building "a land fit for heroes" and how that promise had been dumped at the end of that war. The immediate pre-WW2 period had been one of mass unemployment and poverty and people were determined that this time it would be different, with a massive swell of support for socialist policies. The ruling class were pushed very much on to the defensive, and although the Labour government retreated from the logic of the times, it did introduce a National Health Service and a much increased level of social security than had previously existed. Health care for all, universal access to state-funded education, and the right to organise in Trades Unions for defence of pay and working conditions and to have free collective bargaining, all became realities and the consensus among the political parties was that these institutions were sacrosanct and irreversible. This consensus held until 1979.
What has since been described as "Thatcherism" could just as accurately be described as "Joseph-ism" or "Howe-ism" or "Ridley-ism", although all would be inaccurate, as calling something an "-ism" tends to imply that it is something new and was invented by the person named. It was nothing of the sort; it was simply a rejection of Keynesian economics and the resurrection of the old fashioned belief that the free market was the best possible method of social organisation. This breed of political dinosaur truly believed that a modern economy could be run on the same principles as a corner grocery shop in Grantham.
One of the central planks of this Tory ideology was the funding of income tax cuts for the better off through the wholesale dismantling of public services and through privatisation of the major nationalised industries. In order to make these attractive to potential shareholders, they would need to be "made profitable"; this meant shutting down any part which was perceived as not producing sufficient profit, with subsequent loss of massive numbers of jobs.
Industrial production in Britain could not compete in the free market with that of developing nations which had no labour organisations and could therefore maximise profits through subsistence wages and appalling working and safety conditions, so British industry would be abandoned as unprofitable and we would become a service economy. Economic madness, but all governments since 1979 have followed this route, including so-called "New Labour". If "Thatcherism" was anything, it was the shifting of the political consensus between the two major parties from social democratic "capitalism with a human face" Keynesianism back to the unbridled ruthlessness of free-market capitalism.
Before the '79 election, Nicholas Ridley had submitted a report to the rest of the Conservative party leadership detailing what a Conservative government would need to do in order to privatise the nationalised industries and bring about a return to unbridled free market capitalism. Central to this was the urgent need to curb the resistance of the working class. Through Tory eyes, the working class organisations had become far too powerful and were getting in the way of business by resisting "flexibility of labour" and placing the emphasis on decent wages and safe working conditions before that of profit-making. In Thatcher's words, "trying to buck the markets". To this new ruling faction within the Conservatives, the old-fashioned paternalist "one nation" Toryism was dead and the market was god. The only question necessary was "does it make a profit?" All else must come second to that if the markets were to operate effectively.
Ridley's proposition was that, in order to allow the markets freedom to make profits, it was necessary to restrict the ability of Trades Unions to obstruct "efficiency". Ridley's vision of Unions was the US model of company unions where, in effect, the role of the union was to police its members on behalf of the employer. Free collective bargaining was anathema as was any form of collective action. All negotiation should be restricted to the individual workplace, if possible to the individual worker, and no worker should be able to act in solidarity with any worker in any other workplace. Negotiation meant asking the bosses for what you wanted then accepting whatever they felt inclined to dispense, meekly accepting their bland citing of market forces as the reason for their refusal to pay a worker a living wage while handsomely rewarding themselves.
The question was how to achieve what was, when we cut through all the verbiage, the unconditional surrender of the working class and the loss of everything we'd gained in a century of struggle.
The Tories were haunted by the memory of the '72 and '74 disputes with the National Union of Mineworkers which had brought down the Conservative government led by Edward Heath. They regarded the miners as the shock troops of the labour movement and Ridley believed that if they could only crush the NUM, the rest of the Trades Unions would accept defeat and leave the Tories free, as one leading Tory put it, to "sell off the family silver".
Ridley was determined to learn from the mistakes Heath had made. He knew that beginning the war with a direct confrontation with the miners would lead to disaster, as it had for Heath, and so he drew up a strategy in which he outlined exactly how a Conservative government could bring about the objective of neutralising the Trades Union movement. He proposed that a Conservative government, on taking office, should provoke a conflict with a major industrial union, one which had no real history or experience of industrial action and that it must win this dispute. This would have a decisive effect on working class morale and make it clear that no opposition would have any chance of success. He also proposed the piecemeal introduction of legislation which would shackle the unions. The government should also build up massive reserves of coal at power stations and remove restrictions on the importing of coal before provoking a full-scale confrontation with the miners. And it should provoke such a conflict at a time of year when a stoppage of coal production would have least impact. In other words, spring.
On being elected in 1979, one of the first acts of the new Conservative government was to shift the burden of taxation from direct to indirect taxation, or in fact, from the wealthy to the poor. They reduced the standard rate of income tax by 3% but reduced the high-earner rate by 23%. To pay for this, they increased VAT from 8% to 15%, overturning, except to the most pedantic mind, their election pledge not to double VAT. As a result, inflation rocketed. Combined with high interest rates, this forced many companies into liquidation and the economy effectively went into free fall, pushing unemployment - which had been a central election issue - to over 3 million. The Conservatives had been elected on a wave of discontent over high inflation and high unemployment. What many Thatcher disciples and apologists conveniently forget to mention is that as a direct result of her policies, both inflation and unemployment doubled in her first term.
Almost as soon as they'd taken office, the Conservatives began the implementation of Ridley's strategy. The steelworkers, although a major industrial union, had not been on strike since 1926 and had a right-wing leadership. Steel production, a nationalised industry, was such an essential basic industry that the merest hint of conflict was usually enough to bring both sides to the negotiating table. The steelworkers were the perfect target for the first stage of the Ridley plan. At the end of 1979 the government announced its intention to close several steel plants and on the 2nd January 1980 the steelworkers went on strike to prevent closures and loss of jobs. In what was a dress rehearsal for the miners strike in 84, mass police deployment was used to break picket lines, the media was used to overwhelmingly condemn the strike and characterise the steelworkers as anti-democratic wreckers, and the full power of the state was used to ensure that the government won.
The TUC indulged in much rhetoric but no action. The Labour Party leadership largely ignored the steel strike and began an internecine war between its various factions, the process of cannabilising itself which was to last for 15 years and result in the coup by so-called 'New Labour'.
On the 17th January, British Steel further announced that Llanwern and Port Talbot steel plants were to be closed on the 31st March with the loss of 11,287 steel workers' jobs. On the 14th February, Thatcher announced that state benefits paid to workers on strike would be cut in half. The next day, 15th February, a conference of managers in British Steel passed a motion of no-confidence in their senior management saying they were failing to protect the industry. The steel strike lasted for 13 weeks before the leadership under the right-winger Bill Sirs capitulated. On the 1st May, following the defeat of the steelworkers, Thatcher brought in an American hitman, Ian MacGregor, to take over as head of the British Steel Corporation. He presided over the sackings of around 100,000 steelworkers and the decimation of the British steel industry.
In the first of Thatcher's terms as Prime Minister there was rioting in the streets of London and Liverpool, university grants cuts, hunger strikes in Northern Ireland, massive reductions in industrial capacity, companies closing down all over the place, the People's March for Jobs, unemployment at its highest level since the Depression of the 1930s and the economy in deep recession. The Tories ratings in opinion polls plummeted and the government was deeply unpopular.
The right-wing factions within the Labour Party leadership responded to the crisis in the country by largely ignoring it in favour of their continuing obsession with themselves, resulting in the formation of the utterly ridiculous SDP, an attempt to restore some kind of momentum to the woolly-headed policies which had just lost Labour the 1979 election. On one demonstration in London, some wit handed me a spoof leaflet entitled "10 Reasons Why I Support the SDP". The first was, "I think it's time the Don't Knows had a voice."
In 1981 the government retreated from a confrontation with the NUM over pit closures and it began to look superficially as if they were being forced to abandon their all-out war on the working class. Then, in 1982, Thatcher was handed a golden opportunity. Argentina invaded the Falkland/Malvinas islands, a remote group of islands off the coast of Argentina, and one of the last relics of the British Empire. Britain retaliated with overwhelming military force and the dramatic surge of jingoist propaganda created a tide of "Britannia rules the waves" reactionary flagwaving. Riding on this, Thatcher's spindoctors reinvented her as some kind of latter-day Churchill, wrapped her in the Union Flag and she coasted home with an increased majority for a second term in June 1983. One of the first measures after her re-election was the privatisation of cleaning, catering and laundry services within the National Health Service, making crystal clear her plans for the Welfare State.
Armed with an unassailable parliamentary majority, and with the weapons of the threat of unemployment in one hand and the threat of sequestration of union assets for "illegal" action in the other, the government signalled that the decisive battle of the war was imminent with the moving of Ian MacGregor from BSC to become Chairman of the National Coal Board.
The final preparations for the crucial assault on the miners seemed like two unlikely battles.
The first was when a small anti-union outfit in the North West of England owned by a Tory buccaneer called Eddie Shah forced a dispute with the printworkers union over the introduction of new printing technology, heralding the deskilling of the print industry. He was given the full support of the government. The TUC and Labour Party, now under the leadership of Neil Kinnock, a former "left-winger" turned committed fence-sitter, did nothing.
The second was when the government announced that it was banning employees at the General Communications Headquarters in Cheltenham from belonging to a trades union. This was a direct assault on the very existence of Trades Unions in Britain, but again, the TUC and Labour Party did nothing more concrete than make a few feeble noises of dissent.
To Thatcher these were confirmation that the leaderships of both TUC and Labour were on the retreat and effectively neutralised and would present no serious obstacle to the real fight which lay ahead.
Twas in March of 1984 the gauntlet was thrown down
When MacGregor told the NUM, "These pits are closing down"
"Och, get on your bike, MacGregor", the miners' answer came
"We fought the Board in 74 and we'll fight you once again"
From S Wales across to Yorkshire, from Scotland down to Kent
The miners showed the NCB that what they said, they meant
Except the scabs who sold their future out to Thatcher and her gang
And turned traitor to their class, their names forever damned
On 1st March 1984, Ian MacGregor announced the closure of the Cortonwood pit. The choice of pit for closure was significant as Cortonwood had been given massive amounts of investment and given a full guarantee of remaining working until at least 1989. If Cortonwood was to close then no pit was safe. Yorkshire miners came out on strike against the closure on the 6th March. MacGregor then announced his intention to close a further 20 pits with the loss of 20,000 jobs. Scotland had several pits immediately threatened and it was clear that the entire Scottish coal industry was under threat, so the Scottish miners joined the Yorkshire miners on strike. The NUM Executive voted by 21 to 3 to make the action official and the Kent, Durham and South Wales miners came out.
Concerns were raised about MacGregor's mental condition as he became notorious for exhibiting some increasingly bizarre behaviour, such as a mock fainting fit when confronted by a picket and turning up wearing a brown paper bag covering his head and face for a crucial negotiating meeting with the NUM President.
In Fleet Street and in Downing Street, a wondrous sight was seen
New-found converts to democracy soon all began to scream
"You can't strike without a ballot", well-fed mouths were heard to bleat,
"You won't ballot us out of our jobs, we're voting with our feet"
Imagine a group of colleagues coming to you and saying, "A group of us have had a ballot and we've voted that you will lose your job while we, of course, will keep ours. Sorry, but that's democracy." You might be forgiven for thinking they were taking an extremely undemocratic "Screw you Jack, I'm alright" attitude. That was what the much discussed ballot would have meant. Had the issue been one of pay where everyone would have been affected equally, then a ballot would have been democratic.
But the very area which was being hailed as the saviour of democracy for demanding a ballot to kill off other people's jobs, Nottinghamshire, was the same area which had rejected the result of a previous ballot to introduce an extremely divisive productivity-based bonus scheme and which had acted in complete defiance of the ballot result. There were no newspaper headlines or politicians screaming about democracy then. In fact, on that occasion, the High Court ruled that ballots were merely "advisory" and that the result could therefore legally be ignored by the Nottingham area if it chose to do so. And it did so choose.
The reality was that an overwhelming majority of the membership of the NUM had voted for strike action in the most democratic way imaginable - they had joined the strike. I didn't hear one single miner whose job was under immediate threat calling for a ballot. All the calls for ballots came from the government, the media or those who wanted to break the strike. Too many people have been conned into believing that the only way of measuring democracy is by crosses on bits of paper.
It was quite simple, really. When pits were threatened with closure, those whose jobs were threatened took action and asked for and expected full support for their action from colleagues. Such solidarity is the very foundation of Trades Unionism. Basic Principles #1 - thou shalt not cross picket lines.
All but a tiny handful gave their support. But that tiny handful were given massive media exposure to make it appear that they represented the majority and that they were true democrats standing up to the tyranny of bullying leaders. Funded secretly by wealthy Tory supporters and given advice and assistance by the Tory party, they set up a scab association, with a tiny membership but vast resources and full access to the media. This was a real war and the scabs were a convenient weapon used by the Tories. To call them dupes might seem a bit harsh, but they were abandoned once the strike was over and their purpose served, so I can't think of a more accurate word.
The true story of government control of the media during the strike remains to be fully told, particularly the immense pressure brought to bear on television reporting. Some journalists and producers have since broken ranks and admitted what the situation was, how film footage was edited to make it seem as if the violence was instigated by the pickets. One infamous piece of footage shown on ITN's News at Ten showed the massed ranks of police opening to let mounted police with riot batons charge into a crowd of greatly outnumbered pickets accompanied by the reporter's voice saying, "The trouble started when pickets attacked the police," an assertion completely contradicted by the evidence of what was being shown on the screen. And, perhaps the most notorious example, when the BBC reported on the violence at Orgreave coking plant in May 84, the footage was edited and the sequence of events reversed to give the impression that the pickets had attacked the police and that the police responded when, as was later admitted, the exact opposite had been the case.
Soon armies of blue uniforms were marching through the land
With horses, dogs and riot shields and truncheons in both hands
But the miners took on everything the government could throw
And went back again to battle on with shouts of "Here we go!"
Entire areas of Britain were solidly under police control, with the police becoming a law unto themselves and taking to themselves powers which should only have been available after a declaration of martial law and which were completely inconsistent with the role of a police force in a democratic society. The police stopped a convoy of miners' cars on the M1 in Nottinghamshire and smashed their windscreens to prevent them travelling to the picket lines. The Financial Times reported, with commendable irony, "The chief constable of Nottinghamshire, Mr Charles McClachlan, denied police officers used a crowbar to smash the windscreen of a picket's car. It was, he said, a truncheon."
But those who opposed the strike vehemently denied that such police methods were being used and those who simply could not accept what was happening to the rule of law in our country passively accepted the government line that our wonderful boys in blue were merely trying to keep the peace in the face of violent mobs of bullies.
The reality was that the police allowed themselves to be used as a strikebreaking force. Their job was not to keep the peace, their job was to ensure that scabs were able to enter pits and if that demanded that pickets be removed with extreme force, then that was part of the job they'd been given to do.
Not all police officers were happy about this. Police Inspector Peter Bartlett expressed his fears about the long-term consequences for policing in Britain in a letter to the Guardian newspaper where he said, "The police service has unwittingly allowed itself to be portrayed as Margaret Thatcher's puppets."
Others took a different view. One senior police officer replied to one picket's statement that the NUM would defeat the government with the statement, "You defeat our government, we're your next government."
The Dartford Tunnel was blockaded by police to prevent miners from Kent travelling north to join pickets in South Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire. The Morning Star summed it up in a cartoon showing a police officer detaining a heavily pregnant woman at the tunnel saying, "I am arresting you on suspicion that the child you're carrying may grow up to be a Kent miner and may some day attempt to travel to picket in Nottinghamshire."
Huge numbers of police were drafted in to mining areas and the overtime bill alone for that year was enormous. The government regarded it as money well spent. But there are numerous examples of this policy creating conflict with local forces. The local police were from mining communities and frequently found themselves facing relatives, neighbours and friends on the picket lines. Those drafted in had no such relationships and viewed the miners with suspicion and contempt as they had swallowed the propaganda about the miners being "The Enemy Within". It seemed almost as if some of them imagined they were refighting the Falklands War, with Arthur Scargill as Galtieri and the pickets as the Argentinian army. This attitude alarmed many of the local police and the incomers were often told to ease up - "It's alright for you, after this strike you go back home, but we still have to police this area."
One striking miner in Midlothian got sick of being stopped in his car every day by the same police officers and being asked to produce his documentation, so he went down to the local police station, demanded to see the Inspector and handed him his driving license. "Here, you keep it, you've had it more than I have." The harassment stopped.
Perhaps the whole police issue can be summed up by the fact that on the 31st March 1984, Chief Constable Anderton of the Greater Manchester police force, a man not known for holding any left-wing or anti-Tory sympathies, said - "The police have imposed a kind of curfew on the community as a whole, not just on the miners, and have restricted free movement. These features are things we normally associate with countries behind the Iron Curtain. The police are getting the image of a heavy-handed mob."
If a renowned right-winger like Anderton felt compelled to express concern in such strong terms, we can be certain that there was real cause for concern.
But this was a dispute the government had to win, and it was prepared to go to any length to ensure that it did. As the lines became clearly drawn, with the miners on one side and the government, police, courts and media on the other, with the leadership of the TUC and the Labour Party standing resolutely on the sidelines, speaking up only to condemn the actions of the pickets as presented by the media, a wave of revulsion swept through most of the rank and file of the movement.
The battle wasn't only by courageous mining men
For the women joined the struggle fighting side by side with them
In every area of battle women hurried to the fight
In rallies and at meetings and out on the picket lines
Disgusted and horrified by the media lies and the portrayal of their men as mindless hooligans, the women of the mining communities began to organise themselves into support groups and organisations like Women Against Pit Closures.
The first WAPC was in Barnsley and they rapidly spread until every area had its women's support group, working alongside the strike committees. In general the overwhelmingly male police forces tended to take a slightly softer aproach to women picketing but this was not universal and in many areas a woman was as likely to have her head cracked open by a truncheon as a man.
This picture shows Sheffield Women's Support Group member Lesley Boulton coming under attack while she was trying to call an ambulance for an injured miner.
( Picture by John Harris http://www.reportdigital.co.uk )
And in support groups up and down the land our comrades rallied round
The cry went up "They Shall Not Starve" and cash and food were found
To keep the miners and their families in solidarity
And show the world the working class would never bow the knee
The government started out by obstructing payments of benefits to striking miners and their families, trying to starve them back to work. When payments were finally made, they were subject to a deduction of 16 pounds per family, on the spurious grounds that their situation was of their own making by having gone on strike. Unmarried single miners were denied any benefits at all. This flew in the face of every principle of natural justice on which the British pride themselves and the cry from the 1926 strike was resurrected again - "They Shall Not Starve". It soon became a commonplace to see people collecting food and money on the streets of every city, town and village in Britain.
By the autumn of 1984 it was estimated that around 50% of the population was sympathetic to the miners' cause. My own experience as organiser of the Leith Miners Support Group is that that figure reflects what we were seeing on the streets when we collected money and food. Those street collections were important in other ways than the main core one of helping to feed miners and their families. We regularly encountered hostility from people whose only source of information was the media pushing the government line, and we were able to engage them in discussion and put the miners' case to them. It was often an advantage to be able to say, "No, I'm not a miner, I'm a guitar player, but I'm disgusted with the way ordinary working men and women are being treated by this government and the lies that are being told about them."
As a working class artist and activist, I was deeply aware that this was a real war which was going on, a war by the British ruling class against my entire community and way of life, and that if we sat back and allowed it to be done to the miners without a fight, we would be next. In Pastor Niemoeller's famous statement, "When they came for the communists I said nothing because I wasn't a communist ... etc ... by the time they came for me, there was no one left to speak up for me." So their fight was our fight. We weren't just fighting for the miners, we were fighting for ourselves. That's the real foundation of solidarity, the understanding that an attack on one is really an attack on all. Governments understand that principle only too well, or we wouldn't have mutual defence treaties or alliances like NATO.
Let's pause here to remember the men who gave their lives
Joe Green and David Jones were killed in fighting for their rights
But their courage and their sacrifice we never will forget
And we won't forget the reason, too, they met an early death
For the strikebreakers in uniforms were many thousand strong
And any picket who was in the way was battered to the ground
With police vans driving into them and truncheons on the head
It's just a bloody miracle that hundreds more aren't dead
So here's to Arthur Scargill, Heathfield and McGahey too
Who led the strike together in defence of me and you
Arthur Scargill was President of the National Union of Minerworkers, Peter Heathfield was General Secretary and Mick McGahey was national Vice-president and President of the Scottish area NUM. There were various propaganda attempts made to spread rumours that there were serious disagreements between them but during that year they stood shoulder-to-shoulder every inch of the way. No three people are going to agree unanimously on every detail of everything, especially people from Scotland or Yorkshire who are reknowned for being argumentative at the best of times. Attempts to present any such disagreements as being evidence of division were opportunistic weapons in the propaganda war.
And Malcolm Pitt and Davy Hamilton and the rest of them as well
Who were torn from home and family and locked in prison cells
In the course of the strike, 11,312 arrests were made and almost 200 miners were imprisoned, most for trivial offenses such as obstruction or trespassing on Coal Board property. Many were initially charged with rioting but every one of these charges was dropped, supposedly for "lack of evidence". The very last thing the government wanted to see was a series of high-profile trials where the activities of the police would be brought under public scrutiny.
Malcolm Pitt was area President of the Kent NUM and was arrested and imprisoned on such a trivial charge. David Hamilton was Chair of the Lothian Central Strike Committee (he's now the Member of UK Parliament for Midlothian constituency) and was attempting to get medical assistance for an injured colleague when he was arrested. He spent three months in Saughton Prison.
But the battle will go on until the working class has won
For the right to work and decent lives belongs to everyone
We'll go forward now in unity, let's share the miners' load
There can only be one answer - socialism, here we go!
As I said at the beginning of this, that song was written at the beginning of April 1985, after the end of the strike. Why then does it finish on such a strident note of defiant optimism? Weren't the miners defeated?
To answer that, let's look back in this 20th anniversary year of that struggle and try to assess what was gained and what was lost. There was a massive propaganda effort put in to proclaiming it a disastrous defeat for the miners and a resounding victory for the government. This position was adopted by some sections of the working class movement and used to create a spirit of defeatism to justify their retreat from a left position.
As always in life, the reality is more complex.
The cost to individual miners and their families was enormous and must never be underestimated or dismissed. They had endured a year of hardship and deprivation, lost most of whatever assets they had had before the strike, suffered appalling brutality and assaults, been arrested and imprisoned on the most trivial grounds, had been subject to the entire wrath of the government and ruling class, been subject to a disgusting barrage of propaganda, disinformation and downright lies which had insultingly depicted them as violent thugs controlled by a megalomaniac, as anti-democratic forces trying to bring down the government, as being in the pay of Gaddafi, as being tools of Moscow. This was a group of working people doing nothing other than resisting the attempt to shut down their industry and throw them on the scrap heap.
It all sounds like some absurd fantasy now but at the time a lot of people believed this garbage being spoon-fed to them on a daily basis in the pages of the Sun and on the television evening news. No lie was too great nor could it be repeated too often. The media ran with whatever drivel they were given by Downing Street and when it was later proven to be untrue, no disclaimers were given, the story was simply quietly dropped and the next load of nonsense followed. It often seemed as if Josef Goebbels was in control of the British media and one frequently had to pinch oneself to remember that this was the United Kingdom in the latter half of the 20th century.
So was the government actually censoring the media? Not in the sense of a Minister for Propaganda issuing directives, no. But there was a rigid self-censorship imposed by those afraid of losing their jobs and by those who were devout believers in the Tory ideology.
For example, it would have been unthinkable for any publication belonging to Rupert Murdoch - a passionate believer in privatisation and a staunch ally of Margaret Thatcher - to be printing stories which put the miners' case in a positive, or even a neutral, way. Murdoch didn't have to explicitly state that he wanted his editors to take a pro-government line, they knew it was more than their jobs were worth not to do so. Having thrown his full weight into the campaign to get the Conservatives elected in the first place, it would have been absurd for Murdoch not to give them his full support in carrying out the policies he had helped to shape and had a vested business interest in having implemented. He was intending to do within his own industry what the government was doing in the coal industry, deunionise it as a prelude to deskilling and sacking large chunks of his workforce.
Murdoch had a huge vested interest in the defeat of the NUM and there was complete ideological accord between him and Thatcher. Why then would he do anything other than give her his full support in any way he could?
Anyone who believes that newspapers which are part of multinational corporations have any interest in impartial objective truth shouldn't be allowed out with money in their pocket. Individual journalists may have such principles and ideals - but they don't remain in the employment of people like Ruper Murdoch for long. Media barons like Murdoch aren't in the business of telling the truth, they're in the business of making money and wielding power. If Murdoch had placed the impartial seeking of truth above his own business interests, he'd never have built the transglobal media empire he has. The bottom line, then, now and always, was money. And the power which having it brings. When someone with the power and influence of Murdoch tells a government minister to turn up for dinner tomorrow night, the only question the minister is likely to ask is, "What would you like me to wear?" People like Murdoch wield an enormous amount of power, and we underestimate that at our deepest peril.
So what was gained?
By the attack on the NUM, the ruling class had intended to crush decisively any organisations of the working class, and to return the balance of class power to that of Victorian Britain. They failed in that objective. Many people might find that statement a bit odd given the lack of militant Trades Union activity. They would be people whose contact with working class people is limited and they are falling into the mindset of only seeing the working class when we're hitting the headlines for being on strike. In the course of that year there was a quantum leap in consciousness among large sections of the working class. True, it has still to manifest itself in mass political organisation but the reasons for that are many-layered and this is not the place to discuss them.
The relationship between men and women in the mining communities changed forever during that year. Women found their voices and confidence in that struggle and have taken them into other areas. Women who would have been shy about speaking up at a small meeting suddenly found themselves standing on platforms addressing thousands. Many who might previously have found writing a letter a bit of an ordeal were writing and publishing poetry, forming choirs and theatre groups. As one woman said during the strike, "If you think I'm going back to the kitchen when this is over, think again."
Miners are just like everybody else. A predominantly male industry, it was as likely as any other such to harbour pockets of sexism, homophobia, racism and sectarian prejudice. But once they had become the victims of the full power of media distortion, reading the lies being told about themselves on a daily basis in the gutter press, it was but a short step to thinking, "Hang on, if they're doing that to us, what else are they lying about?" And that reached its logical conclusion when those with prejudices realised that the very people against whom they had held such prejudice were actually supporting them. It is a bit difficult to remain prejudiced against someone who is helping to feed you or carrying a banner behind you on a demonstration.
For example, I have personally had long conversations with people from the Lothians mining communities who had their views on Ireland changed by the strike. The Lothians has a history of anti-Irish, anti-Catholic prejudice and many people there, including miners, had connections with Orangeism. When they began to receive contributions from Nationalist Catholic families in Northern Ireland and found that Catholic people there were opening their hearts and doors to them and offering holidays to them and their families, that 300-year old prejudice was wiped out almost overnight.
The strike destroyed the myth of Thatcher's invincibility. Together with her intransigence over the N. Ireland hunger strikes, it created the public perception of her, not as a so-called "strong" leader, but as dogmatic, strident and ruthless, and gave courage to those who later resisted the Poll Tax, the issue which ultimately caused her downfall. Subsequent Tory leaders have tried to wrap themselves in her aura but have quietly distanced themselves from her actions and policies. The main keepers of the legend of the all-powerful "Iron Lady" are the Liberal and Centre-Left factions who use the myth of Thatcherism to justify their position that class politics are out of date and that there is no alternative to compromise between capital and labour, in other words, no alternative to the unconditional surrender of the working class.
But, above all else, the crucial factor in the 84-85 Miners Strike was that a large group of people had taken control of their own destinies into their own hands and said, "No, we are autonomous human beings and we're not going to lie down and passively allow you to treat us as pieces of machinery to be used and discarded for your convenience or at your whim."
The government's decision to destroy the fabric of British society in the name of profit, justified by insisting that "there is no such thing as society" was wrong and anti-human, was sacrificing human beings on the altar of economics and should be regarded as a crime against humanity. Those who opposed it in 1984-85 were acting in accordance with the principle established at the Nuremberg trials after the Second World War - that there are times when the individual has not just the right, but the responsibility, to resist that which they know to be wrong.
To conclude with the words of Edmund Burke, "In order for evil to triumph, it is necessary only that good men do nothing." It is my belief that those who did nothing in 1984 were meekly placing their own heads, and the heads of us all, on the block of tyranny. I believe that history will regard those who resisted and fought back as the true democrats, fighting for the good of all against the selfish greed of those who regard the lives of human beings as irrelevent when they threaten to limit their own lust for wealth and power.