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Page last updated at 12:02 GMT, Thursday, 19 March 2009

In the red corner, Scargill. In the blue, Thatcher

Display on the miners' strike to mark the 25th anniversary

Different ways of seeing stats

Michael Blastland

The miners' strike was an epic industrial dispute, which left the coal industry bloodied and broken. But its output dropped before the Iron Lady became PM, says Michael Blastland in his regular column.

It's the 25th anniversary of the 1984 miners' strike, an event that's become a political epoch, remembered as knock-down fight to the finish, Thatcher v Scargill.

So here's a puzzle.

Each of the four lines in the chart below shows UK mining output over four 11-year periods: 11 years before Margaret Thatcher; 11 years after; 11 year of New Labour; and 11 years of Thatcher herself.

Mining output over 11-year periods

Note that the chart smoothes out the strikes of 1972, 74 and 84 to make clearer the general trends.

Surprised? I was. The story I thought I knew was that the Prime Minister's defeat of Arthur Scargill and the miners led uniquely to the devastation/streamlining (delete according to political preference) of the industry in a resolute search for market efficiency/settling of scores (ditto).

Once powerful enough to bring down a government, as a political force the miners were humbled by the Iron Lady.

All of which might or might not be true. We leave it to our readers to judge. But the figures aren't exactly a perfect fit for either side in the fatal-confrontation story. How do we interpret this data?

The decline in output, in percentages:

  • 11 years of Thatcher: 33%
  • 11 years before Thatcher: 45%
  • 11 years after Thatcher (Major and Blair): 72%
  • 11 years of New Labour (Blair and Brown): 64%

Here's the whole period as recorded in the Office for National Statistics production industries data, from just before the peak in post-war output in the mid-1950s until 2008 (2003 = 100). Again, the strike years of 1972, 74 and 84 have been smoothed because they cause a big, one-year drop in the size of the industry, and we want to see the trend of permanent change, not temporary change.

UK mining 1948-2008

The miners are often said to have ended the Heath government in 1974, and used their muscle to force higher wages. But is that the best measure of their power when they had been unable to prevent their industry halving in 15 years - before Margaret Thatcher even took office?

Final shift at Stillingfleet Colliery, 2004
The final shift at Stillingfleet Colliery

Of course, there are other ways to measure an industry than output: the number of miners employed, for example. But that chart looks much like this one. Half a million mining jobs were lost in the 30 years before Mrs Thatcher, 70% of the workforce. How radically different to what went before was the challenge from Mrs Thatcher herself?

We could also look (see last week's column on beer and bacon ) at the absolute numbers, not just the percentage changes in output. This shows that, under Mrs Thatcher, output fell by roughly 30m tons compared with a fall of about 50m tons in the period before, about 60m in the period after, and about 30m in the past 11 years, when there wasn't much left to lose.

The steepest falls were arguably the 1960s and early 1990s during privatisation. It could be said Thatcher's legacy made privatisation possible, though even here it might be argued this simply quickened a trend that soon slowed again and returned to normal - if we can call such a 50-year collapse "normal".

An injured picket is carried by ambulance men during the Battle of Orgreave
Clashes like the Battle of Orgreave scarred communities

It's true there are also other ways to measure the impact of an event than with statistics. Sometimes it's the psychological change that matters.

So none of this is to suggest that the miners' strike wasn't a dramatic political moment, terrible for many who endured it, and a powerful influence on the trade unions, for example. Those arguments could still be made.

But as the battle enters folklore, have we characterised properly the landscape in which it was fought, both before and after? Suggestions welcome, using the form below.

• Scared witless, calmed, unnerved, reassured… risk can turn you upside down and back again depending entirely on how it's presented.

Over at Understanding Uncertainty, the project of Cambridge University's new initiative on the public understanding of risk, there's a brilliant tool for visualising the different ways that a risk can affect us. The cholesterol-reducing drugs statins, for example. What chance of a heart attack if you don't take them? What chance if you do?

They break it down using emoticons. Here's a screen grab - one of the many visualisations available - to whet the appetite.

I'm told that you'll soon be able to embed the whole thing in your own website. Meanwhile, it allows you to animate the numbers with just a click, turn the risk this way and that, to see how bad, or good, it can be made to look, a trick worth knowing in a sometimes-scary world.

It appeared, coincidentally, the same day as last week's Go Figure introduced its own Risk-O-Meter. (We must look at coincidence some time, don't you think?)

Below is a selection of your comments.

A very interesting analysis that puts the dispute into much clearer perspective. Probably upsetting for the trades unions and labour left who try and make political capital out of 'Thatcher destroying the coal industry'. I am sure many 'middle of the road' miners did not want there sons going down a bleak mineshaft everyday of there working lives with a pick axe and shovel. Instead preferring them to gain their full potential with a good education and brighter prospects. And lets not forget global warming. Coal is best left underground than contributing to CO2 emissions.
G M Bailey, Congresbury

This is news why exactly? The peak for the British coal industry, in terms of employment and production, was 1913. It's been going downhill ever since.
Phil, Oxford

The various graphs look interesting enough but how do they compare with the graphs for actual pit closures? The number of pits actually working at any time would give a different picture I think and more clearly reflect what happened to our once important industry.
Peter Woolnough, Chatham

I was involved in manufacturing before Mrs Thatcher came to power. I was shocked at the decline which was similar. Too much supported by state purchasing. The state's money just ran out. It happened on her watch, but she did not actually cause it. We were used in adverts for coal, but later found that inconsistent quality caused downtime and increased costs. Trade Union members voted for Mrs Thatcher fed up with strikes.
Terence Wright, Crediton

This was a lily-livered article. It can be characterized as, "Here's a bunch of statistics - make up your own minds". What's the point of the BBC, or any other news organization, if it doesn't attempt to present us with some analysis of the the bald facts (albeit that 'facts' can be slippery customers)? Are you still scared of Margaret Thatcher after all this time?
David Williams, Southampton

The graph may make it seem that Thatcher had little or no effect. However it does not take in to account the massive Tory in promoting gas/oil power stations using North Sea resources more rapidly than necessary and closing coal fired power stations. It also ignores the collapse of Manufacturing Industry due to Conservative policy of promoting Britain as a Service Industry Economy( Banking and finance driving the economy) and where has that led us?
Paul, Swansea

Never thought it had anything to do with mining, which was already in terminal decline. It was pure a simply about battling ideologies. Collective Union power versus Government & Capitalist power. What is more telling is that Scargill would not have a ballot cause he knew he would lose. The final resort of the socialist when the world refuses to do what he wants is autocracy. Cause they always know better. Remind you of anyone?
Ben Shepherd, Farnham, Surrey

What a load of meaningless old rubbish. Of course the decline after Thatcher is much greater than before and the reason why is the coal industry was decimated after the strike
Geoff Brown, St Helens

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