The Miners’ Strike 1984: The battle for Britain – Power

5 March 2024 will be the fortieth anniversary of the start of the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike. Channel 4 have produced a series of programmes to commemorate the strike: ‘Miners’ Strike 1984 – The Battle for Britain. The three-part documentary is available on catch-up This review by Gary Ironmonger covers the third part of the three part series.

Gary was a 22-year-old miner at Cortonwood pit in South Yorkshire when the Miners’ Strike began. He was out on strike until the very end. His review of part one can be read here and his review of part two can be read here.

The final episode of the Channel 4 strike documentary trilogy is called Power and examines the bigger picture around the strike. It’s an interesting programme where the opinions of the establishment representatives were knitted together to put forward a familiar narrative along the lines that the miners were being misled by Scargill and his followers, who were only interested in the overthrow of democracy and were using undemocratic means to achieve this. Using the opinions of some of the interviewees and archive footage they also developed the impression that the Government didn’t at any stage want to or actually did intervene in the strike. 

The miners’ side of the argument was mainly put forward by Ray Chadburn, one of the leaders of the Nottinghamshire NUM (National Union of Mineworkers) at the beginning of the strike. Although a moderate in the NUM Ray Chadburn stuck with the NUM throughout and after the strike. However, the strength of his contribution was confined to the questions he was asked and his role was mainly restricted to explaining what was going on in Notts and the question of ballots in the role played by the scabs there.

The role of David Hart, an anti-strike business man and maverick was a central theme throughout this episode. He was a key figure in funding and organising the National Working Miners Committee (NMWC) and, according to his brother, the ‘Political SAS’. This episode also looked at the role of some of the members of the NWMC super-scabs like the ‘Silver Birch’ (Chris Butcher) and Roland Taylor who were instrumental in organising the extension of the scab operation nationwide. By being independent of the Government, the organising and financing work that David Hart was doing to help break the strike meant that the Government could claim they had no involvement with this aspect of the strike. However, it is clear that Tory Prime Minister Thatcher was fully briefed on what was happening and no doubt voiced her opinions on how his operation could help in the defeat of the strike. As well as providing help in organising the strike breakers, David Hart raised funds from the rich (John Paul Getty alone donated £120,000), which then allowed the super scabs to organise legal action against the NUM, using highly-paid barristers, and to organise a publicity campaign in the press. It was a result of these actions that the sequestration of the NUM assets was able to be organised.

The programme then moves on to the search for other funding by the NUM after sequestration. Rather than looking at the extensive networks of national and internation solidary that were being built – often form the bottom up – it concentrates on one incident. That incident is the journey of Roger Windsor to Libya to ask for strike funding from Colonel Gadhafi.  This was seized on by the British press and proved to be a PR disaster for the NUM, as explained by Ray Chadburn.

Much of the early part of the programme concentrates on the first five weeks of the strike and whether there should have been a national ballot before the strike was called. This was a contentious issue and Ray Chadburn was clear that in his opinion the only way to get Nottingham out was through a national ballot. 

At the beginning of the strike, I was expecting a National Ballot but one wasn’t organised. It was left instead to the hope that the picketing would be enough to bring everyone out. History has proved that this approached didn’t work. Although the organisation of the picketing was developed from the bottom up, and it had some positive effects in the early days, the question of how to expand the strike was one that only the leadership of the NUM could take. There was a fear amongst many in the leadership that a strike ballot would fail to get a majority in favour of strike action. This was in spite of the fact that in February 1981 a National Ballot delivered an 87.6% vote in favour of strike action to stop pit closures and had led to a management backdown at the time. 

Would a National Ballot, if won, have led to a decisive change of fortunes for the strike? It certainly would have changed the dynamics of the strike. In the early days there would probably have been more strikers, although it was unlikely to have resulted in no scabbing at all. However, it would have also led to a change of focus on the issue of where more effort could have been out into building solidarityy action. That solidary action wouldn’t have come from the tops of the Trade Union movement. It never does. But would have needed to be built from the bottom up. 

The three programmes give a good introduction to the strike. As with all these programmes there is a mix of facts and opinion, lots of opinion. A critical eye is required so the opinion can be weighed up against the facts and an overall view from a socialist perspective formed.

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