NEVER in the field of industrial conflict had so many been insulted by so few. Margaret Thatcher may have idolised Winston Churchill and compared herself to the wartime prime minister on more than one occasion, but when it came to crafting the English language into Churchillian prose to uplift and unite against what she perceived was a common adversary, she succeeded only in revealing the contempt she harboured for those desperate men from the pits.
A short sentence in a speech one balmy July day, that’s all it was. But it will be remembered as one of the defining moments of the 1984 pit strike, and it sent a wave of disgust through the nation.
“Galtieri and the Argentinians were the enemy without. Arthur Scargill and the miners are the enemy within.”
POLICE PRESENCE: Easington was under police siege for much of the strike
For families who had lost sons and fathers during the Falklands War only two years earlier – including many mining families – the words were an insult of the most insensitive and most wounding kind.
They revealed another side to the Prime Minister, to the woman who had pledged to bring harmony and hope.
They revealed a politician fuelled by the spite and bitterness of being defeated by the miners in 1974; the lower middle-class grocer’s daughter waging a tit-for-tat battle to settle old scores with the perceived workingclass rabble who had injured her pride.
The Northern Echo wrote in its leader column of July 23: “We know, courtesy of the Michael Aspel show, that Mrs Thatcher doesn’t like being called horrid and hurtful names.
“Can this be the same Mrs Thatcher who likens Arthur Scargill to Galtieri and questions the patriotism of workers who – rightly or wrongly – exercise their option to strike?
“Her ‘enemy within’ speech to Tory MPs was not the speech of a national leader attempting to replace discord with harmony. In many homes it will have been read as a declaration of the class war that Mr Scargill and his ilk have for many years accused the Government of waging.”
In the Durham pit villages, the so-called enemy within were organising for a long and bitter battle with what they believed to be the real enemy of society – a Tory government determined to destroy their union, their jobs and their communities.
In short, a government hellbent on destroying their lives and everything they held dear.
THIN BLUE LINE: Police at a Tow Law opencast, in April 1984
Organisations such as the Hetton Emergency Committee, the Save Easington Area Miners campaign, and the Miners Wives Support Groups sprang up to offer assistance in the community.
Donations were given by Easington District Council and Durham County Council, and feeding centres were set up across the coalfield.
Miners were sent around the country to raise money for the strike, standing outside factories and shipyards, and in town centres to collect funds from sympathetic workers and shoppers.
Meanwhile, once the Durham pits had ceased production, flying pickets were sent to opencast sites around Tow Law, in northwest Durham, to steelworks at Redcar and Hartlepool, and the main power stations in the region.
Following a plea from Scottish miners’ leader Mick MaGahey, Durham pickets were sent to the huge Ravenscraig steelworks complex, at Motherwell, and Bilston Glen Colliery, near Edinburgh. In August, Durham men were picketing the Staffordshire pits of Hem Heath, Florence, Littlehorn and Lea Hill.
As well as picketing, there was an economic argument to be won regarding the cost to the community of closing so-called uneconomic pits.
The NUM commissioned a study into the effects of dismantling the industry – The Economic Case Against Pit Closures, by Andrew Glyn of Oxford University – which stated that the cost to the Government in benefits, redundancy payments, lost tax revenue and lost coal production would be greater than the cost of subsidising collieries.
For example, the subsidy paid to Herrington pit, near Sunderland, averaged £82 a week for every miner. The cost to the Government if the pit was to close would be £281 a week, a net loss of £199.
LOCKED ARMS OF THE LAW: Police and miners’ pickets battle outside Eppleton Colliery, near Houghton-le-Spring, in November 1984
Mr Glyn wrote: “Closing the so-called unprofitable pits, while perfectly in tune with the NCB’s task of increasing profitability, would have imposed losses on the rest of society as well as the miners concerned. In no sense, then, can these ‘unprofitable’ pits be labelled ‘uneconomic’ from the point of view of society.”
The report also warned that if the Government continued on its present course, 70 pits would close before 1990 – a figure often predicted by Arthur Scargill – and not the stated 20.
On this list, at number 20, was the tiny Durham pit at Sacriston, which employed only 229 men and was making losses of £25 per ton.
At number 31 was Horden Colliery, near Peterlee; at number 36 was Bates pit, Northumberland; at number 41 was Herrington, near Sunderland; at number 43 was Ashington, Northumberland; at number 51 was Hawthorn, near Murton; and at the cut-off point of number 70, tragically positioned for doom with losses of £6 per ton, was the massive Easington pit and its 2,552 workforce.
Clearly, win or lose the strike, without a significant change in government policy, the North-East faced a bleak future.
Margaret Thatcher remained unmoved by the economic arguments for keeping the pits in production.
Renewing the stance she had taken over Consett and the steel cuts, she placed responsibility on National Coal Board chairman Ian MacGregor and the industry itself – rather than on the country which would foot the final bill – and distanced herself from the dispute.
From the outset, the strike had been far from solid, and in the absence of a national ballot – which was most probably Arthur Scargill’s fatal mistake – resolve began to crumble.
The groundwork for the strike had been prepared with a national overtime ban designed to deplete coal stocks.
But the flying pickets failed to close every pit, and the lack of unity in NUM ranks offered the perfect excuse for other unions not to back the strike with secondary action.
Durham pickets were never controlled by their full-time union executives, who were happy to remain ignorant of picketing tactics, knowing the rank-and-file would organise.
Mass pickets were arranged from the smoky back room of a pub, or in the welfare halls, by the men themselves and lodge officials.
Local pits were given code names or letters. The venue of the next picket would be phoned around on a grapevine system.
But the codes were often cracked by Durham Police, even before the miners knew where they were meant to be going, raising the belief that some lodge phones were tapped. Any pretence of secrecy was soon given up.
Only hastily convened pickets – such as those at Hartlepool nuclear power station – caught the police on the hop.
But by the end of August, ugly scenes began to develop outside the Durham pits as strike-breakers drifted back to work.
On August 20, one man attempted to return to Easington Colliery and four to Wearmouth, at Sunderland. Their action provoked a violent struggle as hundreds of pickets and police were drafted in.
By the end of the week, Easington was sealed off behind a police blockade in scenes that were later recreated in the film, Billy Elliot.
With no strike pay, and cuts to DHSS benefits to the families of strikers, the trickle back to work became a steady surge through the winter months. By January 1985, coal was being raised at Wearmouth, Herrington and Vane Tempest.
The strike was formally ended on March 3, almost a year to the day after the first men walked out.
The miners marched back to their pits behind brass bands and beneath their lodge banners, defeated by a Scottish-American businessman MacGregor determined to cut costs at any price, and a grocer’s daughter who had promised the country hope and harmony.
The one-sided arm of the law
THE violence at places such as Easington and Wearmouth, and further afield at the Orgreave coking plant, in South Yorkshire, left police and miners with a mutual distrust that lasted long after the pits closed.
It is a measure of how close Britain came to civil chaos under Margaret Thatcher that more than 10,000 charges were brought against miners during the year-long dispute.
Pickets and a taxi driver died. By October 1984, there had been 2,000 convictions with 43 carrying custodial sentences. But not one police officer faced a single charge.
The law’s response to the dispute became a contentious issue.
Centralised policing from a new London control centre and police tactics with horses and riot shields led the Labour Party into conflict with the Police Federation.
Police authorities fell out over the cost of policing the strike, and the democratic accountability of police chiefs was questioned.
Concern for civil rights spilled into the countryside and courts.
Sedgefield MP Tony Blair found himself banned from Nottinghamshire by a police road block.
The courts were used to sequestrate union funds, declare the strike illegal in Derbyshire and unofficial in Yorkshire.
Arthur Scargill’s arrest and subsequent acquittal on a breach of the peace charge made many members of the public cynical about police impartiality.
If respect for the law was a casualty of the strike, so was honesty.
Government claims that it had no part in the strike proved false when a Downing Street memo was leaked to the press.
In the memo, David Hart, a friend of Margaret Thatcher who helped to set up the break-away Democratic Union of Miners, urged the humiliation of the NUM before the strike was ended.