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Last Updated: Wednesday, 10 March, 2004, 10:07 GMT
Head to head: The miners' strike
Was the miners' strike inevitable? BBC News Online asked Lord Peter Walker and Kim Howells MP, who were involved on opposing sides during the dispute.


The Conservative Government wanted to avoid any strike or confrontation.

Lord Peter Walker
When I was asked to do the job, Margaret Thatcher said to me: 'Almost certainly in this Parliament we'll have an attempt by Scargill to have a major strike. He tried three times in the last government and I'm sure he'll keep on trying. I want you to handle it.'

I went to cabinet suggesting a package for the miners which, if approved, I thought would mean there could be no way he could ever get a strike ballot.

It included: no compulsory redundancies; early retirement if they wished it at the age of 50 on incredibly generous terms; expanded mobility allowances if they moved to another pit; a good pay increase; and an 800m capital investment programme for the coal industry.

Scargill knew it was an impossible demand, that's why he kept to it
My colleagues agreed, so I presumed Scargill would never win a ballot. Where I got it wrong was that he managed to get a strike for the first time in the history of the NUM without a ballot.

The important thing is that nine coal fields, against his wishes, held a ballot and eight of them voted overwhelmingly against strike action. Only one voted for strike action - by a majority of just 2%.

Then he used violent picketing to cause a strike. Not a single union in the country supported the strike and Scargill didn't have the Labour Party's support.

If the strike had not happened, mining areas would have obviously been better than they are now because they did suffer a great deal and a lot of pits had to close because they had been flooded.

In terms of the total political effect, the question is what would have been the political effect if Scargill had succeeded in that sort of strike action. It wasn't a strike for pay or for industrial reasons, it was a strike totally for political motives.

If the strike had not happened, mining areas would have obviously been better than they are now

The demand he made and stuck to until the very end of the strike was that the government should guarantee that no pit would ever close if it had any coal in it at all. There's no mining industry in the world under Communist governments or anybody that's ever done that.

He knew it was an impossible demand, that's why he kept to it because he wanted to bring down the economy and a democratically elected government.

If he had won, it would have shown that if you use militant picketing and force people in key economic areas not to be able to get into work you bring down a democratically elected government.

The consequences of that would have been devastating.


Margaret Thatcher had already taken on a number of unions, such as in the steel and print industries.

Kim Howells MP
She had attempted to close a 'hit list' of collieries, mostly in South Wales and had withdrawn, showing very good strategic nous.

But there was an inevitability to it. They saw the subsidies to the coal industry as a big strain on Exchequer funds, they saw the NUM as the last remaining bastion of a kind of trade union power which they felt was an anathema.

I suspect that had the industrial relations in the industry been anything other than those constructed by Mrs Thatcher and Arthur Scargill then a large amount of the cost of the strike - put at 10-30bn - could have gone into the modernisation of collieries, some of which would have remained open to this day.

A lot of the blame must fall on Arthur Scargill's shoulders but he was by no means alone

The economics did look very bad, however, and the reason South Wales was hit first was because the collapse of the steel industry hit demand for the very high quality coal we produced.

But it should not have meant a strike. We should have had arrangements with the industry like those in place in the 1960s where there were gradual closures of the most uneconomic pits and concerted attempts to find those men jobs.

That was done without strikes because it was done in a civilised way, it was not a question of trade union power being challenged.

A lot of the blame must fall on Arthur Scargill's shoulders but he was by no means alone.

It was the last great test of two philosophies

We were all in a mood by 1984 where we were determined that we were going to try to withstand all pit closures. That had widespread support, but not the type of support the NUM had won through the national ballot in 1972 and 1974.

I don't know Arthur Scargill well enough to judge whether he wanted to bring down the government, but there was a large impact on the Labour Party as a consequence of the industrial disputes in the 1980s and the Winter of Discontent.

There was a large part of the trade union and labour movement which believed real political power lay at the point of production.

Others, like Neil Kinnock, argued that real power lay at the ballot box and no special interest group, including the trade unions, could override that role - it was the elected government which had to make decisions about subsidies.

It was the last great test of those two philosophies.


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