Still fighting, 20 years on

The mine is closed, the welfare club is empty. Barrie Clement and Ian Herbert report on a pit village's struggle to survive the strike that divided a nation
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The Independent Online

"This is the important bit. It's where the Alamo stood," said Frank Hodgkiss, with all the authority of a local tour guide as he stood on a desolate track near the South Yorkshire village of Brampton.

Mr Hodgkiss, a former miner aged 55, was talking about Pit Lane, the place where, 20 years ago last midnight, the colliers of the Cortonwood pit threw up a makeshift wooden shack, ignited a brazier and launched the miners' strike.

The scene Mr Hodgkiss that presented revealed everything about the outcome of that famous stand. Large gates were held together by a rusting chain and padlock and beyond them was a track, littered with disposed rolls of insulation, a burnt-out car and supermarket trolleys.

When Cortonwood employed 1,000 miners, Pit Lane would be teeming with men, going down at 4am and back up by lunchtime to drink in the miners' club, half a mile away in Knollbeck Road. Yesterday, the road was a short cut for mothers pushing prams to a supermarket where the pit baths once stood, and a B&Q retail outlet where the old coal store was.

Mr Hodgkiss, a local councillor, was recently invited to talk to staff at the DIY store. He said: "I was able to say that where they were standing was where the conveyor belts used to bring up the coal and where the pit-head offices used to be. It was the strangest feeling of my life."

For years, Cortonwood has been fighting a losing battle to hold on to its past. A group of miners hauled an eight-ton war memorial from Pit Lane to a prominent place in the village after the mine closed. It stands beside half of the red winding gear which hauled the last of Cortonwood's high-quality seam of silkstone coal.

But at 3pm yesterday, there was not a soul in the rundown miners' welfare and social club - the strike's control centre from where Channel 4 broadcast live and television crews from Holland and Germany filmed reports in 1984. Before the closure, it would be teeming with the early-shift men. "It still stings us, even now, and this week has brought back what we've lost," said Barry Morgan, a trustee.

The club was built in 1925 with threepence-a-week contributions from miners and it gave Brampton a famous vibrancy.

There were at least three cricket teams, which helped develop one of the village's most cherished sons, Johnny Wardle, who went on to play for Yorkshire and England. Now Brampton doesn't even have a team. The neighbouring town of Wath upon Dearne uses the pitch instead. There are only three miners left in the village, according to Sid Bailey, 66, one of the many ex-colliers who chased around pits in South Yorkshire for jobs before giving up in 1989. "There's no great pride for those left because it's Dickensian these days," he said. "The mine owners say 'you work when we tell you'. They've got the lads over the barrel."

After the pit closed, the club was preyed on by vandals, who inflicted £13,000 of damage in one year. But there is life and hope in the old place.

In a village of just 3,000 residents, the club's membership still numbers a healthy 520 plumbers, caretakers, shop fitters and call centre staff - as opposed to 800 in the old days. And upstairs there is Brampton's Healthy Living Centre, funded by £200,000 of money from the EU, and home to classes on how to stop smoking, a credit union and - soon - a centre for people recovering from serious illnesses. "We've seen 75 per cent of welfare clubs in South Yorkshire close down but this is still at the centre of the community," said Mr Hodgkiss.

The retail stores, attracted by the A1/M1 link that runs beneath Pit Lane, have also ensured that people are still working in the Dearne Valley. "They call it Silicon Valley out there," said Mr Bailey. "It pays the way I suppose - even if it doesn't bring the pride back."

Much of the pride disappeared during the strike, which became a battle of sorts between two people. On one side was Arthur Scargill, the red-blooded and egocentric socialist who believed his beloved National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) could be an engine for revolutionary change; a battering ram with which to lay low the hated Conservative government and defeat capitalism.

On the other was Margaret Thatcher, the right-wing prime minister with a hatred of trade unions and a deep conviction that all the engines of the state should be used to emasculate the labour movement. Both brooked no argument, both were convinced of the righteousness of their viewpoint. Some said they deserved each other.

In the middle were Britain's coal miners who sought to defend their livelihoods. At the beginning of the 1984-85 strike there were 169 collieries employing nearly 140,000 miners. Now there are 13 pits and just 8,000 employees.

About a third of the collieries working today are under threat of closure. The stated purpose of the strike was to stop the state-owned British Coal closing collieries. Mr Scargill still claims that the strike was a victory.

Apart from the privations suffered by striking miners, their union also fell victim to the conflict. Once the praetorian guard of the union movement and a voice to be reckoned with in the Labour Party, the NUM now has little political influence and just a few thousand members in a privatised industry.

Worse from the labour movement's point of view, the strike spawned a split in the union. Employees in Nottinghamshire who defied the strike call set up the Union of Democratic Mineworkers (UDM), an organisation that exists to this day.

The UDM and the NUM did not succeed in stopping pit closures. Neither moderation or militancy was allowed to influence the economics of the industry as perceived by successive governments. The Department of Trade and Industry points out that with just 5 per cent of the workforce, Britain's coal industry today produces 45 per cent of the pre-strike output.

Mr Scargill led his men into a trap carefully by laid by the Thatcher cabinet. The miners' strength always came from their ability to affect power supplies. Coal-fired power stations had been gradually replaced and at the beginning of the strike coal stocks were mountainous.

Moderate trade unionists and more thoughtful left-wingers urged caution. Refusing to countenance a national ballot, Mr Scargill led the charge.

Even some of the most sympathetic trade unionists felt the strike was ill-advised. Their view was expressed most graphically in words borrowed by Eric Hammond, the right-wing union leader. The miners were, he said: "lions led by donkeys".

The conflict had a seismic impact on trade unionism. If Mrs Thatcher could take on, and beat, the miners, there was no hope for the rest of the movement. The dispute came amid a legislative onslaught on unions, which reduced them in many workplaces to pariah status.

Thatcherism was so influential that the Labour Party was only able to gain power by stealing some of its clothes. Under the present Labour Government, unions have not regained the rights they enjoyed before Mrs Thatcher and there is no sign that they will do so.

Gone are the days when unions were able to take strike action "in sympathy" with other workers. Tony Blair's Government appears to rejoice in the fact that Britain's labour laws are the most restrictive in Europe and run counter to the standards laid down by the United Nations' International Labour Organisation.

The Labour Party marched progressively to the right, prompting Mr Scargill to set up the Socialist Labour Party - a tiny group he still leads.

Mining constituencies are no longer of consequence to Labour's high command.

Yet the memories of the conflict live on. Life-long friendships ended when one miner worked through the strike and another stayed out. To this day in towns such as Shirebrook on the Nottinghamshire-Derbyshire border there are pubs for those denounced as "scabs" and for those who kept faith with Mr Scargill's NUM.

THE POLITICIAN

Neil Kinnock

"My memory is of the agony that could have been avoided; of the impact on the people and the industry because it resulted in the power to close the pits. The tragedy is that there was no mandate for the strike. The fault has to lie with Scargill. The legacy of the strike is mass unemployment for the industrialised areas."

THE TORY STRATEGIST

David Hart

"My memory of that time is my anger at the way Scargill treated the miners, the awful thuggery. People who no longer work in pits, for the most part, are better off than they were. There were no assurances about keeping the pits open. The unions had vast power and the country was grinding to a halt."

THE POLICEMAN

Bill King

"I remember it [Hatfield colliery in 1984] very well: being dog tired, very early starts, bitterness and abuse. I remember the torrent of stones raining down - the sky just fell on us. I looked up and the sky was black with missiles. I was proud of my officers, but felt sorry for the miners and their families."

HENRY RICHARDSON

Union official

Mr Richardson, general secretary of Nottinghamshire NUM in the strike: "The strikers were in the minority at Creswell, where I had worked for 32 years. I was sacked by members who broke away and formed the UDM, and we reformed the NUM. Now the village is derelict, nearly everyone is unemployed."

THE STRIKE-BREAKER

Neil Greatrex

Mr Greatrex, now president of the UDM, worked through the strike in Nottinghamshire: "My father wouldn't speak to me because I was against Scargill. My daughter Colette was 10 at the time and I stopped her going out of the house. They threatened to kill my wife, Sheila, and burn the house down."

THE STRIKER

Eric Lippitt

"I picketed and encouraged others to, and at times we got in trouble. I was accused of damaging a coal board van. In court I was found guilty, and I got the sack. I went down the pit at 14, I did 37 years' service. I lost my benefits and have not had a job since. I stand by the strike but it cost me and I never really got over it."

THE FAMILY

Anne Jones

"We had a 24-hour job distributing parcels for striking families, working in the food kitchens and picketing. I would sometimes wake at 4am and travel across the country to picket. The family was in it together to save the industry. The men would never have sat out the year without the women's backing. It was a joint effort."

THE STRIKER

Ken Ambler

"I was arrested four times. Before that I was what you'd call a moderate person. But I saw things on the picket line which turned me into a militant. I was sacked on the last day, we lost our bungalow and had to move from Selby, North Yorkshire. But I would not swap that experience for anything."

1984

On 5 March 1984, when miners began their strike after hearing that National Coal Board (NCB) intended to close the Cortonwood pit, 191,000 men were employed in an industry which dominated the economies of northern England, Scotland and South Wales. The next day, the NCB announced plans involving the closure of 20 pits and 20,000 redundancies. But, while the industry was in decline, it still ran 170 collieries. The miners brought down Edward Heath's Tory government in the 1970s with a strike and they were a significant enough force for Margaret Thatcher to think that they could do the same to her.

2004

Today, the British coal industry is entirely privately owned. The Department of Trade and Industry says that with just 5 per cent of the workforce the industry produces 45 per cent of the pre-strike output. There are now 13 pits, mainly concentrated in south Yorkshire, and just 8,000 employees. The industry is dominated by UK Coal, which is Europe's largest independently owned and most efficient coal mining company. It produces nearly 20 million tons of coal a year, 16 million from its deep mines and four million from surface mines. The company employs 7,000 people at 30 locations.

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