The miners strike of 1984 – 1985 remains as controversial as ever. Being a Conservative from the mining heartland of Sheffield (we lived just the other side of the Sheffield Parkway from Orgeave) Ive always seen the need to square the circle.
Generally criticism of Margaret Thatcher and the handling of the strike breaks down into two propositions; That the Thatcher government and its lackeys on the National Coal Board destroyed a perfectly viable industry and, secondly, that they did it out of “vindictiveness”. How do these claims stack up against the facts?
Claim 1 – The Mines were perfectly viable when Thatcher came along
A bit of context is needed here. Just before the First World War the mines employed more than 1 million men in 3,000 pits and produced 300 million tonnes of coal annually. British coal accounted for over 10% of the world market. This was the peak of the coal industry. In 1923 employment peaked at over 1.2 million.
In 1947 only 958 pits remained to be nationalised and they employed just 700,000 men (on the back of a wartime recruitment drive) producing just 200 million tonnes a year. To improve the situation, in 1950, the first Plan for Coal pumped £520 million into the industry with the aim of achieving a production target of 240 million tonnes a year. This target was never met.
In 1956, the record year for post war coal production, 228 million tonnes were produced but this wasn’t enough to meet demand and 17 million tonnes had to be imported. Oil, a cheaper energy source, was growing in importance and British Rail ditched coal powered steam for oil driven electricity. 264 mines closed between 1957 and 1963.
Technology improved. In 1955 only 9.2% of coal was power loaded, by 1969 this had risen to 92.2%. Jobs were lost in numbers that the Thatcher years never got close to. 346,000 miners left the industry between 1963 and 1968, in 1967 there were 12,900 forced redundancies. Under the prime minister during that period, Harold Wilson, one pit closed every week yet there are few people planning trips to his grave with their tap shoes.
1969 was the last year when coal accounted for more than half (50.4%) of the UK’s energy consumption. By 1970, when the Conservatives were elected, there were just 300 pits left – a fall of two thirds in 25 years. By 1974 coal accounted for less than one third of energy consumption in the UK and NUM membership was down to 200,000.
By 1977, when Tony Benn published ‘Coal for the Future’, the previous predictions of production hitting 150 million tonnes a year had been scaled back to a target of 135 million tonnes.
In 1981 an attempt was made to impose cash limits on subsidies to industry. The NUM called for strike action and the Conservatives gave in. £50 million was given to industries which switched from cheap oil to expensive coal, early retirement payments were upped to £36,000 and £200 million was injected into the industry. Companies who had gone abroad to buy coal, such as the Central Electricity Generating Board, were banned from bringing it in and 3 million tonnes of coal piled up at Rotterdam at a cost to the British taxpayer of £30 million per year.
The industry was, by now, losing £1.2 million per day. Its interest payments amounted to £467 million for the year and the NCB needed a grant of £875 million from the taxpayer.
The Monopolies and Mergers Commission found that 75% of British pits were losing money. The reason wasn’t hard to find. By 1984 it cost £44 to mine a metric ton of British coal. America, Australia and South Africa were selling it on the world market for £32 a metric ton. Productivity increases had come in at 20% below the level set in 1974 Plan for Coal.
We were subsidising the mining industry to the tune of £1.3 billion a year. This figure doesn’t include the vast cost to taxpayer funded industries such as steel and electricity which were obliged to buy British coal. When Arthur Scargill was called before a Parliamentary committee and asked at what level of loss it was acceptable to close a pit he answered “As far as I can see, the loss is without limits”.
So the industry had been in decline for decades and was haemorraging cash. The idea that the Conservatives did anything other than remove life support is just not true.
Claim 2 – The Conservatives acted out of vindictiveness
Some claim that Thatcher and the Conservative party wanted revenge on the NUM for the defeat by the miners of the previous Conservative government in the early 1970’s. Many of these same people make the loopy claim that Thatcher deliberately provoked the Flaklands War so as to guarantee victory in the 1983 election so you have to wonder what they wont accuse her of. Even so, its a strange argument given that the miners strike of 1974 toppled the Conservative government of Edward Heath and brought Margaret Thatcher to leadership of the Conservatives.
In fact Thatcher wanted to avoid a conflict. On the eve of the strike, in March 1984, her energy minister Peter Walker who handled the strike (is a party being planned for when he snuffs it?) put together a deal which offered miners at pits slated for closure a choice of a job at another pit or a voluntary redundancy package and another £800 million ploughed into the industry. He put this deal to Thatcher, unsure that she would accept. He told her “I think this meets every emotional issue the miners have. And its expensive, but not as expensive as a coal strike”. Thatcher replied “You know, I agree with you”.
Scargill turned the offer down and the strike began.
Why would he do this? Well, if were looking for vindictiveness and desire for confrontation then we should be looking not at Thatcher, but at Arthur Scargill, open admirer of one of the 20th century’s greatest mass murderers and pal of the killers of WPC Yvonne Fletcher.
Scargill had been after a row for years. In late 1981, almost as soon as he became President of the NUM, he called a strike ballot for a 23% pay rise. The membership rejected it. After Thatcher won the 1983 election in a landslide Scargill said he would not “accept that we are landed for the next four years with this government”. So much for democracy.
“I do not believe compromise with the capitalist system of society will achieve anything” – Arthur Scargill