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Much has been written about the miners’ strike of 1984–85 – as many as 120 books have been published and they still continue to appear. The strike itself lasted 51 weeks, although some pits in Yorkshire came out a week earlier while others went back later. Some pits also started later while others didn’t start at all. This complexity was a feature of the strike.
As a piece of drama it was of epic proportion, and during that year people talked of things ‘never being the same again’, of never imagining that they would ‘ever do anything like this’. Throughout the coalfields help was coordinated through support committees and collective kitchens, which led the Financial Times to write of an ‘alternative welfare state’. It was a period of intense emotions, often changing dramatically from day to day, as men and women followed ‘the news’ as they had never done before.
The strike has been widely regarded as one of the defining events of the post-war era in Britain. It was remembered throughout the old industrial areas last year on the occasion of Margaret Thatcher’s funeral, and again since March, in countless meetings and reunions commemorating the 30th anniversary.
More than 10,000 miners were arrested during the strike. Two were charged with murder after a concrete block was dropped on a taxi taking a strikebreaker to work. The president of the Kent miners spent two weeks in jail. Five miners were killed on, or en route to, picket lines. In the coalfield areas convoys of police vans – 40 or 50 at a time with motorcycle outriders – became regular features of the roads and motorways. There was a deep sense of oppression, the unnerving upset of liberal sensibilities.
It is this (rather than the strategy of the NUM or the experience of the strike) that is central to Seamus Milne’s account, something revealed in the subtitle, ‘the secret war against the miners’. First published in 1994, and now reissued in a new, updated edition, the book throws light on the manner of the attack organised by the state against the NUM and its leadership. Its focus is on ‘an entire dimension of politics and the exercise of power in Britain usually left out of standard reporting and analysis’, the neglect of which makes it ‘impossible to make proper sense of what is actually going on [and] lets off the hook those whose abuse of authority is most flagrant’.
It’s an account that is both persuasive and disturbing. It provided the framework for David Peace’s GB84, bringing together the two worlds of the strike. Central players in Milne’s account are the prime minister, head of MI5 Stella Rimington and the owner of the Mirror Group, Robert Maxwell. Those who opposed the miners were ably abetted by spies within the union and Labour Party.
As Milne puts it, ‘The government unleashed the full force of the state: a militarised police occupation of the coalfields, a commandeered and manipulated criminal justice system, mass sackings and jailings – and the use of MI5, GCHQ, the NSA and Special Branch to bug, infiltrate, smear, manipulate the media and stage dirty tricks against the union and its leaders.’
Given all this, the achievement of the miners and their union seems especially remarkable. All the more so when we remember that the union’s funds were sequestrated by the courts in the summer, making it dependent on donations and elaborate borrowings from other trade unions. All these transactions were conducted in cash, and this provided an opening for scurrilous and unfounded charges of corruption orchestrated in the years that followed the strike by Maxwell and others through ‘Operation Cyclops’.
In this they were assisted by some of the moves and arrangements previously organised by MI5. Milne quotes an unnamed informant on what the security services hoped to achieve. The answer was simple: ‘To “fuck up” the NUM.’
In spite of all this the miners still retained popular support and, with this, a capacity to resist the closure of their industry. In order for the ‘secret war’ to succeed it needed to be combined with a bullying and threatening style of management in the mines and the adroit manipulation of inflated redundancy payments. Taken together, these state strategies (the secret and the overt) achieved the privatisation and then closure of the deep mines in Britain. They represent some of the most corrosive and undemocratic elements that were developed during the Thatcher period, and which persist today.
The surveillance activities of GCHQ, the police infiltration of protest groups and the use of agent provocateurs are obvious examples of this ongoing secret war. The heavy-handed side is seen in the day-to-day policing of protest though military-style organisation and tactics such as ‘kettling’. Through Seamus Milne’s unique reporting into the dark side of the miners’ strike, we can find roots of the repression that Britain continues to struggle with.