From March to March: The Miners’ Strike of 1984 – 1985

Rab Amos

In this essay

Rab Amos was an active participant of the Strike in 1984/85. Here he addresses the dispute from the Lothian miners’ perspective, and provides an overview of the manoeuvrings of the participants. By 1984, all the East Lothian mines had closed. Nonetheless, the sizeable population of miners, most of who lived at the western end of the county, travelled to their work at both Monktonhall and Bilston Glen Collieries. As they, and their families, made a stand for their jobs, so began a year of trauma.

In the 1990s, the UK-wide destruction of the mining industry prompted a re-examination of the 1984/85 strike. Lothian miners organised a social get-together in Mayfield Labour Club to commemorate its 10th anniversary, at which the main speakers were Mick McGahey, former Vice President of the NUM and Arthur Scargill, the National President of the NUM.

Mick McGahey addressed the audience by answering a question that has been posed many times: ‘Did the miners have an alternative? The answer is “yes”: they could have capitulated and accepted the McGregor pit closure programme. Instead, to their credit, they chose to fight’.

Arthur Scargill outlined the features that caused the miners to fail in achieving the decisive victory they deserved. These included the role of the media, state security, the pit deputies reneging on strike action in September 1984, the Labour Party Leader’s (Neil Kinnock) failure to fully support the strike as well as his failure to use his office to call out the Nottinghamshire miners, and finally, the failure of the TUC to fully support the strike.

On the other hand, Lord Marshall , Chair of the Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB) 1982-89, in an interview in 1994 described the strike as ‘absolutely exhilarating – a war, a just war, a proper war, very exciting, much more exciting than everyday life’.

It is important to appreciate the problems that the miners faced after they had made their choice and entered the war. Why, given the unity of 1972-74, within ten years were the miners faced with divisions and splits?

United in Successful Struggle

In the mid 1960s, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), under the leadership of Will Paynter, had unified British miners through the introduction of the Power Loading Agreement; this provided parity of wages for all face workers. Uniquely, miners in high earning areas had accepted a five-year standstill on earnings, until earnings elsewhere caught up.

So, by the early 1970s, many miners had not had a pay rise in five years. At about the same time, Left-wing activists had targeted and won over the Right-wing area of Yorkshire (Allen, 1980 pp137-140); this meant that the organised Left were playing a dominant role within Yorkshire as well as in their historic stamping grounds of South Wales, Kent and Scotland. These factors created unity among miners, and the successful prosecution of the 1972-74 strikes. The industry was united by wages, the Union was united and leading successful struggles, and the Left dominated within major areas of the British coalfield. From this point on, conditions were created which undermined that unity.