As The Northern Echo launches a week of articles to mark the 40th anniversary of the Miners' Strike, Stephen Guy, chairman of the Durham Miners' Association, offers his view and reflects on the impact of the region's industrial heritage. 

The miners’ strike of 1984/85 was an industrial dispute often considered a ‘battle’  involving 184,000 miners, their communities, the state, including most of the British media, the National Coal Board (NCB) and the Tory Government, led by Margaret Thatcher.

The dispute was not about pay and conditions but rather a fight to preserve an industry, communities and a way of life.

For decades, coal mining in the UK was the backbone of the economy, not least in the North East, employing hundreds of thousands of people, hence the importance of victory in the struggle.

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By any measure, the 1984/85 Miners’ Strike was a pivotal moment in British history and had no parallel in terms of its voracity, duration, size or impact then and which continues to endure across many workplaces and communities.

Without a doubt, The National Union Miners was considered one of the most powerful and politicised trade unions with a history in the 1970s of winning industrial conflicts, often humiliating central Governments.

Thatcher was determined to curtail or even prevent Unions from exercising their collective powers and knew that if she defeated the NUM, then she would have removed the vanguard of the Trade Union and Labour Movement.

The sheer determination of the then Government is evidenced by the deployment of Police, in their thousands, in the pit villages of Durham, contemplated utilising large-scale military operations, declaring state of emergency and the expenditure, estimated at £6million in 1985, used by the Tory Government during the bitter 12 months commencing March 6, 1984.

The Northern Echo: Police arrest a striking miner in Easington Police arrest a striking miner in Easington (Image: Keith Pattison)Nationally, more than 11,000 arrests were made and more than 8,000 people were charged, mostly for breach of the peace, simply for seeking to preserve jobs and communities.

Thatcher’s Government even invoked amendments to legislation that prevented the dependents of miners from accessing social security benefits, as they had been entitled to during the strikes of the 1970s.

This move was a deliberate and barbaric attempt, in our view, to starve our members back to work.

The emergence of the heroic women support groups that emerged in 1984/85, faced off Thatcher’s attempts to starve miners and their families.

Their collective endeavour in the soup kitchens and their fierce determination on the picket lines to support the struggle, standing shoulder to shoulder with their men, will never be forgotten.   

The Northern Echo: Women worked together to help support the strike Women worked together to help support the strike (Image: Keith Pattison)March 3, 1985, saw the end of the strike. Striking miners, proud but angry, were cheered and clapped as they and their families, with their heads held high marched back to work with their lodge banners and brass bands.

NUM members and their families had endured 12 months of hardship, but the hardship and suffering didn’t end in 1985, as a visit to any of the pit villages or towns across Durham Coalfield will reveal.

The Coalmines of Durham were the beating hearts of communities. Mining had provided generations with a steady income, homes for life and a strong sense of belonging.

A whole culture and identity had grown around coal mining in Durham, and with the loss of the mine, much of the cultural activities and infrastructure that had grown around it, from brass bands to working men’s clubs to NCB-sponsored sports and leisure facilities disappeared along with it.

The loss of the coal industry in the North East caused devastation across large swathes of our region, and some villages are desperate for support to recover having been left behind by successive Governments.

Despite the fact that 40 years have passed since the start of the strike, memories remain vivid and emotions run high.

Division between striking miners and scabs still exists and is unlikely to ever be repaired. Supporters of the 1984/85 strike are organising numerous events to mark the occasion across the UK.

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The topic of the 1984/85 strike will be a prominent feature at the 138th Durham Miners’ Gala on July 13 and will allow former striking miners, their families and supporters to gather, reminisce and protest as the country builds towards a General Election.

Jobs, infrastructure, better schools, housing and transport for former left behind communities will be top of the agenda.  

The Durham Miners’ Association (DMA) current leadership know that it is not wise to simply rely upon Governments to deliver for our towns and villages.

History teaches us that the DMA and the communities it has served since 1869 have it within their gift to initiate programmes of work to enhance our lives.

There is no better example than the DMA-created charity Redhills, created not only to refurbish the Pitmen’s Parliament but to reach out to our communities and work with them to unlock potential cultural and economic regeneration.

Redhills was once the democratic heart of the Durham coalfield. A place where the matters of industry were debated and decided upon by those who were most directly affected - and action taken at a local level. 

Community life and wellbeing above ground were considered given the same consideration as safety below ground.

The Northern Echo:

Miners came together to organise and create things that wouldn’t otherwise be available to their communities - healthcare, housing, reading rooms, sports grounds and welfare halls with stages for performance in each one.

Now the Pitman’s Parliament will come to life with the sounds of debate once again.

These debates will not be led by miners but the young people of County Durham; coming together to learn from our inspirational past and gain the skills to help shape their own futures, possibly to become leaders themselves who can influence and deliver for our proud people.