Arthur's army: The strike that rocked Britain

The pits have disappeared, the towns have changed beyond recognition - but those who witnessed the miners' strike will never forget the brutal clashes, bitter divisions and desperate sacrifices. 25 years on, Donald Macintyre recalls the turmoil
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Just as the images document that extraordinary year, so the sounds continue to echo down a quarter of a century. They are the chants in the set-piece battles between strikers and police – "Here we go, here we go!" and the martially rhythmic "The miners united ... will never be defeated!" But even more memorable, perhaps, is the tersely poetic taunt of a striker asked about his colleagues who had defied the picket lines to return to work before the end of a the year-long walk-out: "I won't always be skint, but they'll always be scabs."

So here's an idea for a television documentary, one almost worthy of the great French film-maker Marcel Ophüls. Just as Ophüls went to Clermont-Ferrand in the late Sixties to interview both resisters and collaborators during the Nazi occupation, so perhaps someone should this year return and talk at equal length to those who returned to work and those who remained on strike for that long and bitterly divisive 12 months, asking them whether the scars have healed. There is of course, absolutely no comparison between the Britain of 1984-85 and German-occupied France. For one thing, this was no war, even if at times it had some of the characteristics of one. The strike began 25 years ago today, over plans to close "uneconomic" pits and cut up to 20,000 jobs. But, as the late Labour Party leader John Smith once described it years afterwards, it was "like a war without guns".

Six pickets died during the strike, as did three children scavenging for coal as the hardship set in among striking families in the winter. And a Welsh taxi driver was killed when two strikers – subsequently jailed for life – dropped a concrete slab on his car from a road bridge above. The Thatcher-mobilised MI5, as well as a huge police presence, closed many roads and made over 11,000 arrests in repeated and often serious clashes with picketing strikers. Squads from the Met and other forces had to be brought in when some local policemen were judged too sympathetic to the miners. But the divisions between communities and the state (Margaret Thatcher evoked the Falklands spirit and talked about "the enemy within"), and even more so inside communities, were imbued with their own sense of trauma. How do the strikers see it now? And is the miner's prophecy correct? Have those who went back to work – including even a few committed union activists, like the young ballet dancer's father in the movie Billy Elliott, who endured the humiliation of doing so to fund his son's dream – ever stopped being "scabs"?

The past, even when it's just 25 years away, is a foreign country now. To any one under 30, these images must seem completely alien. Can out-of-control mounted police really have launched a cavalry charge against miners and bystanders through the streets of the small Yorkshire village of Orgreave in June 1984? The mass picket had tried to stop coal being shipped into the local steelworks, and later some £500,000 in compensation for wrongful arrests had to be paid out. These images are postcards from another economic and social planet, signifying an epic, year-long struggle, the outcome of which is in every sense historical – which marked the moment when Margaret Thatcher was widely perceived as having secured – at least until the present recession – Britain's future prosperity.

It did not seem – and perhaps wasn't – that simple at the time, though. True, the miners weren't united and they were – in the end – defeated. But this hardly seemed inevitable at the time. The strike pitted against each other two equally uncompromising leaders: Ian MacGregor, the Scottish-born National Coal Board chairman, and the National Union of Mineworkers' president Arthur Scargill. Each was, in his own way, respectively outside the mainstream traditions of British capitalism and trade unionism. MacGregor, having learnt what he knew about industrial relations from the Reagan years in America, understood nothing of the culture of a British nationalised industry. This was, no doubt, an advantage in the eyes of Mrs Thatcher when she appointed him. But it led to crass mistakes which at best endangered the government's chances of victory.

It was hardly smart, when the moderate-led but increasingly infuriated colliery foremen's union, the National Assocation of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirers (Nacods), threatened to walk out in support of the miners in September 1984 and achieve the total national shutdown which had eluded the NUM itself – to suggest that he could replace their members with other workers, as striking air traffic control staff had been replaced a few years earlier in the US. And Thatcher's own deeply misjudged "enemy within" phrase prolonged the solidity of the strike in big coalfields like Yorkshire and South Wales. Whether wilfully or not, it wholly ignored the pride and capacity of the close-knit mining communities to withstand poverty and hunger – a hunger which rapidly deepened after a court decision that the families of strikers would no longer be eligible for state benefits, including school meals.

If this was last great struggle of the British labour collective, the miners – "lions led by donkeys" in the gibe of one of Scargill's right-wing union critics – were especially suited to it. Many miners' wives had their lives transformed as they found themselves travelling the country to speak to the hundreds of support groups that sprang up. Something of the spirit of the times in those communities is summoned up Billy Bragg's celebrated song of the strike "Which Side Are You On?" "It's hard to explain to a crying child/ Why her Daddy can't go back/ So the family suffer/ But it hurts me more/ To hear a scab say 'Sod you, Jack'."

Nor were the prodigious government efforts to crush the struggle helped by the fact that the miners, risking their lives on a daily basis in their notoriously accident-prone working lives, were relatively immune to danger when confronted with it on the picket lines. It was Thatcher's Conservative predecessor Harold Macmillan, by now in his eighties, who struck a more unifying and resonant chord when he lamented in the House of Lords during the strike the descent into conflict between the state and "the men who beat the Kaiser".

But you also cannot do justice to the course – and outcome – of the strike without considering the personality of its charismatic, but essentially Leninist leader. Arthur Scargill, with his odd and sometimes monomaniacal-seeming habit of referring to himself in the third person, was in some ways a throwback to turn-of-the-century radicalism, a syndicalist who thought that the power of organised labour could and should overturn the decisions of an elected government. The mantra followed by Scargill, and his left-wing but also instinctively more pragmatic lieutenants, was that the union would not be "constitutionalised out of action". This meant that it would do without a national strike ballot. To be caught out, as Scargill was, having despatched an NUM official, Roger Windsor, for talks with Colonel Gaddafi's Libya, was – deservedly – a public relations disaster.

It will long be debated whether Scargill threw away the chances of at least an honourable draw when he – entirely in character – rejected the compromise offers forced on the National Coal Board by the threat of the Nacods strike. He certainly underestimated the level of coal stocks in power stations, or the ingenuity with which the Central Electricity Generating Board switched to other sources of power, and miscalculated what he predicted – in his Napoleonic way – would be the helpful impact of "General Winter".

But the failure to hold a ballot was, as a local rank-and-file leader Ken Capstick from the "Big K" Kellingley colliery in Yorkshire would complain, "the monkey on our back". Against a background in which Thatcher had been determined to force unions to democratise and hold ballots, and when such a ballot was prescribed in the union's own rule book, it sowed the seeds of the miners' defeat. The key coalfield of Nottinghamshire had voted against the big national strikes of the 1970s but joined them when a national ballot voted in favour. This time, without a ballot, most of its miners did not, creating a formidable body of working miners that could not but undermine the impact of the strike. And that made it far harder to persuade the railwaymen, steel and power workers to offer the help the miners' desperately needed. Above all, it triggered in the late summer the spate of legal actions which saw the assets of the union progressively sequestrated.

Even if less vividly than those who were caught up in it, everyone who covered the strike throughout that year has his or her own memories it. One of mine is an encounter with Scargill after the March 1984 meeting in Sheffield when the national executive voted to strike without calling a ballot – resorting to the legally flimsy mechanism of calling separate area strikes throughout the country. He would not, he said, speak to me again until I told him which of the executive members I had persuaded secretly to tape the proceedings for my benefit. This was a tribute to the accuracy of the notes taken by a – now deceased – member of the executive's right-wing faction who then took the time to read them to me.

Another is joining a flying picket in its journey over the mountains in the dead of night to evade the police blocking the roads to Merthyr Vale colliery where a few miners were working. The picket – charged in the morning by the police – was led by the ebullient then researcher of the Communist-led South Wales miners, Kim Howells, who now just happens to be an eminently respectable former minister, Privy Councillor, and chairman of the Commons Security and Intelligence Committee.

It was in fact in South Wales that the way to end the strike was initially devised some nine months after it started. In the event, "General Winter" turned against the miners rather than the government. Instead of helping the strike to switch the power off, it deepened the already abject poverty of the miners and their families. The left-wing leadership in south Wales grew increasingly impatient with the antics of the Yorkshireman in Sheffield, and the authority with which they started to make their feelings known was all the stronger because the strike in their area, traditionally one of the industry's heartlands, stayed remarkably solid.

It would take until the spring for the settlement to take shape. It meant, of course, accepting defeat; most pits would close over the coming years. Scargill would say this showed his direst predictions had come true; but it is difficult to argue against the proposition that Scargill's own strategy greatly hastened that process. By March, and with no prospect of an acceptable deal with the National Coal Board, a special conference of the union was ready to vote to go back without an agreement. In several villages, miners' wives handed out carnations as the men followed miners' brass bands back to their pits. It was over. And the experience would embed itself deep in the memories of some 187,000 men, those who struck and those who worked, for the rest of their lives.

Donald Macintyre is Israel correspondent of 'The Independent'. At the time of the miners' strike, he was labour editor of 'The Times'

The Battle of Orgreave

Tom Stoddart, photographer, was 30 at the time, working for 'The Sunday Times'

"One of the last great events of the strike was the Battle of Orgreave, in South Yorkshire, on 18 June 1984, when tension between police and picketing miners at a British Steel coking plant reached its pinnacle. There had been trouble for weeks, and I was closely involved in covering the strike for 'The Sunday Times'. The strike was obviously the big story of the day.

One of the images that stuck in my mind was of the police sitting in vans rubbing money on the inside of the windows to get rid of condensation. They were teasing the miners, who hadn't worked for months. The police were being paid a lot of overtime. I thought that was particularly cruel.

On the day, it was very tense on both sides. There were lots of threats and a stand-off, and then it exploded into a riot situation. Lots of noise and stones and bricks were thrown. The media got hostility from both police and miners.

As a photographer, you're caught in the middle.I knew miners and knew the effect the strike was having on ordinary people. It was a dispute that went to the heart of working-class populations in the North."

The families' strife

Ken Wilkinson, 51, was 26 during the dispute, and worked at a pit in Askern, South Yorkshire, which closed in 1991

"I left school at 16 and went down a Yorkshire pit like my dad and my granddad. We knew if our pit closed it meant unemployment for a lot of people, so I went on strike for a year. My family didn't mind that I was striking because we didn't have a lot of choice, really.

"It was very hard getting by. I got married in the summer of 1984 because we had planned it. We had no money, but the family rallied together and helped us finance it. My wife and other female relatives used to go to rallies and picket lines. They would help run soup kitchens. The strike helped kick-start my future career. I used to take pictures of the picket lines. I gave those pictures to the National Coal Mining Museum in Wakefield, and I ended up as a photographer for the fire service."

The brutal response

Lesley Boulton, 64, was 39 at the time and worked for the Sheffield Women's Support Group

"A friend and I drove to Orgreave. We got there about 10am and it was gloriously sunny. By the time we got to the field it was quite busy with miners dotted here and there. The police, on the other hand, stood in massed ranks, many in full riot gear. Of course, we now know that the police had been instructed by their political masters that this was the day to show the miners what was what and who was who. When it kicked off, the police charged up the field, the miners retreated into the village, and both the miners and police set up barricades. A group of miners started throwing stones and the police charged them, at which point I dived behind a wall and came out once they'd gone. I then started walking to the bus stop; there was a short wall, and behind the wall was an injured miner who looked to have cracked ribs and was in a lot of pain. I was really concerned, and asked a policeman to get an ambulance, at which point a mounted policeman came out of nowhere, swinging his truncheon at me. I only just managed to get out of the way, thanks to a miner who pulled me to one side. And that's what John Harris captured in this picture. The police were enjoying themselves... they were excited, out of control... it felt a bit like Peterloo but without the swords."

Interview by Michael Bailey and Julian Petley. Taken from 'Shafted: The Media, the Miners' Strike and the Aftermath', Ed Granville Williams

The media effect

Granville Williams, 67, was 42 during the strike, and worked as a media lecturer at Salford College of Technology. He edited 'Shafted: The Media, the Miners' Strike and the Aftermath', published this month

"It is forgotten now, but the way the media portrayed the strikes was of considerable importance. There was a lot of resentment among the miners towards the newspapers and television, who they believed were not giving a balanced view of events on the ground.

"I was working a media lecturer in 1984, and had been involved in the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom. The organisation wanted to address this bias in the mainstream media by giving miners a right to reply. We tried to lobby newspapers with letters and telephone calls. Along with anger towards the media, I felt frustration against Mrs Thatcher, because I lived in West Yorkshire, and was right next to pits that were set to close. While our success was limited, there were some examples of low-paid workers rallying against the newspapers. There was a famous example of 'The Sun's print workers refusing to print a front page of the newspaper which had the headline 'Mine Fuhrer' above a picture of Arthur Scargill. This was due to appear on 15 May 1984. In the end, the page appeared in print without the picture and headline. The miners were receiving an incredible degree of sympathy from across the country."

The real king coal

Nick Jones, 66, was 41, covering the dispute as the BBC Radio 4's industrial correspondent. He is now a freelance journalist

"Scargill had been speaking at a National Union of Railwaymen rally in Llandudno, Wales, in June 1984. Scargill's driver asked whether I would give his boss a lift. I agreed, because I knew the driver quite well and I was heading back to London. It was also a chance that every journo would bite their arm off for.

"On the way, I had a long chat with Scargill. I got a lot of insight into his character, though he was firmly on his guard. What I noticed was how well suited he and Thatcher were to be pitted against each other during the dispute. He could distance himself from the hardship of the strikers just as much as Thatcher could insulate herself from devastation caused by all the redundancies.

"When I left the BBC in 2002, Scargill gave a speech about me to annual Trades Union Congress meeting in Brighton. He mentioned something about that day in 1984 which I had never realised had happened at the time. At one point during the car journey, we pulled in to a service station and I went inside to get a cup of tea while Scargill stayed in the car. When he was there a policeman approached him and asked him what he was doing. I had no idea this was happening. Scargill told the policeman he was going picketing and that I, the driver, was the picket leader. The policemen radioed someone and found out that it was in fact me, a BBC correspondent who was driving, and obviously realised Scargill was joking. But Scargill said during his TUC speech that it would have 'made his day' if I had been carted off to the cells. It was just another example of his mischief."

The Cortonwood clashes

Sid Bailey, 71, from Brampton, South Yorkshire, was an underground development worker who went on strike at Cortonwood along with his two sons. The announcement of the closure of Cortonwood on 5 March 1984 ignited the year-long protest

"The atmosphere before the closure announcement at Cortonwood was always good. I had been down the pit there for 28 years. The village was a very friendly place and everybody helped each other. We were all out on strike for the full 12 months. At the end of the strike I went to work at Barnborough [colliery] for three years but then that closed as well. I was 50 and out of work for a year before I got a job with Rotherham Council. I retired through ill health eight years ago.

"People did break the strike from November. We had been out since March and by Christmas it had all started to fizzle. I didn't do a lot of picketing. We got the unions and the management to agree to let us fill up a small lorry and deliver coal to pensioners.

When we went back to work all the debts had built up. Not a very good year but it is one you can look back on and say, we managed, we got through it."