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Last Updated: Friday, 5 March, 2004, 07:15 GMT
Hurt and pain of the Coal War

By David Williams
BBC Wales political editor

David Wilkie
David Wilkie's death symbolised the desperation of the dispute
Revisiting the 1984 miners strike for our documentary, The Coal War, borders on an intrusion into personal grief.

Every individual who takes part in the programme has his or her own personal and often painful memory, of a strike which transformed the industrial and political landscape of Britain.

It is unlikely that we will ever see the likes of it again, but the passage of time has not healed the deep wounds which opened up in a dispute which degenerated into open warfare.

And it was the worst kind of war. It was civil war which saw miner against miner, coalfield against coalfield, and the forces of right and left ranged against each other in a titanic struggle for the political heart of Britain.

The industrial turmoil dragged on for 12 months; dragged down a union, its people and their industry.

Perhaps the most vivid, if not the most poignant, memory of the deep hurt caused in that exhausting year resides with Janice Reed. Her partner was killed in an incident which came to symbolise the desperation of men consumed by frustration and hardship.

Oh I detest him [Scargill]. I did then, I do now, and it's mutual. He hates me as well. And I'd much prefer to have his savage hatred than even the merest hint of friendship from that man
Neil Kinnock

Janice Reed was pregnant with the second child of taxi driver David Wilkie, who died in November 1984 when a concrete block was heaved onto his car by two young miners.

He was taking one of the few strike-breakers in south Wales back to work at the Merthyr Vale colliery, when the pair dropped a concrete block off a road bridge onto his car.

Janice Reed's continuing quest for information surrounding the death of her partner illustrates just how deep the wounds run.

But she is not the only one to have suffered.

Families who believed they were fighting for their communities as well as their livelihoods speak of their hardships and the images they evoke are painful to behold.

Maureen Palmer, the wife of a striking miner from Maerdy, recalls her scavenging trips for coal. In a memory reminiscent of the 1920s, the young mother re-lives an experience when her own father was on strike.

Maureen Palmer
Maureen Palmer remembers having to scavenge for coal

While she foraged for coal, the strike was being lost by a leadership which had failed, or refused, to realise that the government was prepared for the miners. Huge stocks of coal had been built up at power stations around the county.

Margaret Thatcher was determined that she would not lose in the way her predecessor Ted Heath had lost 10 years earlier.

The lights stayed on and two of her lieutenants, Energy Secretary Peter Walker and spin doctor Bernard Ingham, condemn the then National Union of Mineworkers President Arthur Scargill for his 'stupidity' in taking the government on when he did.

But their criticism is not confined to the miners' leader.

Both Mrs Thatcher's men are highly critical of Ian MacGregor, the American brought in to run the Coal Board. Sir Bernard Ingham, as he is now, says: "The government got it wrong."

Lord Walker, also ennobled, explains just how wrong Ian MacGregor was when he predicted that the strike would end when the miners' social security payments ran out:

"So, I said, you're dealing with a totally different strike. This is a strike about politics, and Mr Scargill won't go into a settlement when the social security runs out."

Terry Thomas
NUM vice president Terry Thomas was physically attacked
How right Lord Walker was and how wrong was his coal board chief.

Painful political memories, though, are not confined to Tory politicians.

Neil Kinnock, who was elected leader of the Labour Party a few months before the strike began, confesses that his biggest regret was not to call for a national ballot.

Now a European commissioner, back then he says he was determined not to give Arthur Scargill what he calls an alibi. The depth of his animosity towards Mr Scargill is staggering.

"Oh, I detest him (Scargill). I did then, I do now, and it's mutual," he said. "He hates me as well. And I'd much prefer to have his savage hatred than even the merest hint of friendship from that man."

It is a vivid illustration of the underlying tensions which prevailed during the miners' strike.

What could not be revealed at the time were the covert efforts being made in south Wales - where the strike was solid - to protect the coalfield from long-term damage.

In making the programme we obtained the diaries of the late Phillip Weekes, the former director of the National Coal Board in south Wales.

The programme also dispels many of the myths which have grown up around the strike.

This was not a strike which south Wales miners wanted.

We lost. We lost the strike. The trade union movement lost its battle against Thatcher and we lost an industry, and we lost thousands of jobs, and we all played a parting in bringing that about, believe me, not just Arthur Scargill
Kim Howells MP
Initially, the collieries voted overwhelmingly against the strike, but a group of the 'unofficial left' organised the picketing of those pits which had voted to continue working.

"It was completely unconstitutional and completely undemocratic," according to one of the organisers, Kim Howells.

But it worked.

Something deep in the soul of south Wales miners prevented them from crossing picketing lines. Without the solidarity of the south Wales coalfield the strike would have collapsed.

It was, perhaps, fitting then that it was south Wales who led the miners back to work without an agreement.

The men and their families were exhausted and the pain of that decision.

One of them was Terry Thomas, the vice president of the NUM in south Wales, who was spat at and kicked for leading the move back to work.

The pain continues too for the leader of the north Wales miners, Ted Mackay, who was also spat at, kicked and punched, but for different reasons.

North Wales coalfield consisted of only two pits, but it was hopelessly split and Mr Mackay, one of three moderates on an otherwise militant union executive, argued that the men deserved a national ballot.

It was not to be and Mr Mackay had to take his family into hiding, but he tells the programme that their faith in what they believed to be right helped them endure.

It does indeed feel like an intrusion into private grief and the effects of those 12 months are, perhaps best summed up by Kim Howells:

"We lost. We lost the strike. The trade union movement lost its battle against Thatcher and we lost an industry, and we lost thousands of jobs, and we all played a part in bringing that about, believe me, not just Arthur Scargill."

The Coal War is broadcast on BBC1 Wales at 1035 GMT on Monday to mark the 20th anniversary of the miners' strike


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