Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Miner's Strike

This month has seen the 25th anniversary of the start of the year long miner's strike. The Government announced a closure program for pits which would close around 20 pits with the loss of 20,000 jobs, some pits were placed on an accelerated closure program which meant they would close within 5 weeks. Without using a national ballot of the NUM's members, Arthur Scargill called the miners out on strike and to a large degree they followed his lead.

Flying pickets from the most threatened Yorkshire coalfields appeared at some of the least threatened pit areas in Nottingham, the Government under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher mobilised vast numbers of police and five months into the strike she denounced the striking miners as the enemy within saying "We always have to be aware of the enemy within, which is much more difficult to fight and more dangerous to liberty."

At the time I thought this was a clear cut issue, the strike was illegal under recently changed laws, a previous strike in 1974 had brought about the demise of Edward Heath's Government, and no one group in society, however strong, should be allowed to so challenge the legal rule of democratic law.

Today though, I look back on my younger self and I am not at all sure that his right wing views were correct. The miners claimed that the government would implement a massive pit closure program if the strike failed, and they were right, in the ten years after the end of the year long strike the British coal industry was cut apart and the vast majority of working pits closed down, including those in the non striking areas like Nottinghamshire where the miners seemed to have been promised jobs for life.

The worst thing about the pit closure program was that like so many things that governments do, it had no forward planning. It was decided to close the pits, but at the time there were hardly any plans in place to provide training for the now unemployed miners or to try and bring new jobs into the communities most harshly hit by the closures. In many small towns and villages the pit was the major employer, and the customers of the shops, pubs, garages and other business' were the miners and their families, when the pits closed the other amenities followed. Without any hope of employment thousands were forced to leave their home towns, villages became almost ghost towns, ten years after the strike a third of the houses in Fitzwilliam stood empty.

Unemployment in some former mining towns reached 50%, Grimethorpe was classified by the EU poverty investigation as the poorest town in the UK, every single ward around Wakefield was noted as qualifying for EU Objective 1 Status, meaning that "the GDP per capita for the region must be below 75% of the EU average".

At the time, the government succeeded in demonising the miners, Scargill became a hate figure portrayed in large parts of the British media as a man hell bent on the overthrow of democratic law, and a Marxist (which he probably was) seeking the downfall of capitalism.

The men who formed the membership of the NUM though were just working blokes, they knew what the future held for them if the pits were closed and their livelihoods lost, they were not striking for more pay or for more generous working hours or extended holidays, they were just working men who wanted to be able to continue working.

It cannot be denied that the miners were amongst the best paid manual workers, but they were well paid for doing a difficult and dangerous job. Years later some of the unknown dangers of pit work made appeared amongst the miners as Vibration White Finger (a condition similar to advanced arthritis), early deafness and various strains of lung disease.

I feel very keenly now that we as a nation did a tremendous disservice to the miners, although there is no question that the mining industry as it was could have been saved in the face of changing power needs and vastly increased foreign competition, the economic destruction that was wreaked across the mining communities was shameful.

A quarter of a century later, there are still bitter divisions caused by the strike and its aftermath, there are still families where the father who stayed out on strike will not talk to his own son who crossed the picket lines because his family was going hungry and he could not afford to heat his own home in winter. Many of the old mining towns now have a new lease of life, the Glasshoughton colliery's transformation into the Xscape skiing and leisure centre with it's 800 jobs is often held up as a shining example of what can be achieved, but often these changes in financial fortune took years, even decades to take place.

Is our society today any wiser and any more compassionate ? I'm not sure. If suddenly changing economic conditions make a current industry unviable it is of course no longer likely to be in public hands, the governments of the past two decades have pushed most of the nationalised institutions into private ownership. The politicians have in a sense washed their hands of the danger of large scale industrial action, and of the consequences of ailing or failed industries.

We all get a bit nimbyish about these sort of things, as long as it is someone else's job or pension being threatened and not our own we seem to largely ignore what happens. We're not really going to march in the streets to save the Post Office workers pensions, we won't protest outside parliament about the disgusting way in which the government has treated the Gurkhas, and we didn't do enough when many of the miners were condemned to a generation of poverty.

I look at our elected politicians and see people doing the same old thing time after time, allowing sections of the community to fail whilst people's "I'm all right jack" attitudes stop them from protesting too much. I'd like to meet that younger man, my previous self with his righteous right wing beliefs and see if I could get him to see that although the miners jobs couldn't have been saved, there was no reason to villianise them and destroy them in the way the government did.

1 comment:

  1. Probably most of us would like to go back and have a chat with our teenaged/young adult selves. I know that I'd give mine a stern talking to and a mighty shake or three.