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Last Updated: Saturday, 6 March, 2004, 14:47 GMT
Iron Lady versus union baron
Patrick Hannan
By Patrick Hannan
Political correspondent

The Clash
Twenty years ago the National Union of Mineworkers set out on a course of action that was to alter irrevocably the industrial and political complexion of Britain.

It wrecked the union and the great traditions it represented. It marked the virtual end of the coal industry in places like south Wales where it had shaped society.

Understandably the story of that strike, which was to last for almost a year, is often told in personal terms.

Margaret Thatcher, a woman of iron resolve against Arthur Scargill, a single-minded demagogue who believed that the miners, in a bid for the survival of their industry, could shape the political destiny of the United Kingdom.

Mrs Thatcher, people said, sought revenge for historical events. Arthur Scargill wanted to repeat them.

And while it might be simplistic to describe matters in this way, it is by no means wrong.

And that is why it is impossible to understand the events of 1984-85 without also understanding what happened almost exactly 10 years before, when a Conservative government was driven from office as a direct consequence of a dispute with the miners.

In fact you have to go back even further than that. At the end of the 1960s a new militancy arose among Britain's miners, as indeed it did among other groups of workers.

It led, after some unofficial action in 1969 and 1970, to the decision by the NUM in 1972 to call the first official national miners' strike since the General Strike of 1926.

It was a crucial dispute, but in the light of what was to happen later one particularly significant event took place during that dispute.

A total of 15,000 pickets besieged a coke depot at Saltley, near Birmingham. The police were forced to close the gates and prevent supplies leaving.

People like Jim Prior, now Lord Prior, the then Leader of the House of Commons, believes it was the crucial event that led to the government having, in effect, to give in to the miners' demands.

Arthur Scargill
Arthur Scargill was an official from the Yorkshire area of the NUM
That action was led by an obscure official from the Yorkshire area of the NUM - Arthur Scargill.

The Scargill legend was born.

Encouraged by their success in this campaign the miners resumed their conflict over pay with the government not much more than 18 months later.

At the end of November 1973 they imposed an overtime ban. The government declared a state of emergency.

The next month, in a bid to conserve power, it imposed a three-day week on industry.

In January the NUM called an all-out strike.

The Prime Minister, Edward Heath, in a desperate bid to find a resolution, called a general election in which the essential question was: who rules Britain?

On 4 March Heath left Downing Street for the last time and Labour, led by Harold Wilson, returned to office.

This convulsive sequence of events gave the miners a self-confidence and authority they had never before enjoyed.
We had to prepare for the risk of another miners' strike but we were not motivated in any sense by revenge
Lord Howe of Aberavon

But it is clear, too, that they were to be a key influence on Arthur Scargill 10 years later when he embarked on a national strike, this time against pit closures rather than for increases in pay.

But early on in the 1984-85 dispute it was clear that he had seriously misread the lessons of 1974.

Then there had been a ballot in favour of strike.

That fact that one was not held in 1984 split the union irrevocably.

In 1974 the strike was held during the winter when coal stocks were low. That was not the case as spring approached in 1984.

The government was hamstrung by its own prices and incomes policy.

Crucially, in 1973 Arab countries quadrupled the price of their oil, giving the miners a priceless advantage. Nothing of the kind applied a decade later.

And while Scargill was misunderstanding the lessons of history, the Conservative government was learning from them.

It believed another confrontation with the miners would inevitably arise, particularly from an NUM led by Arthur Scargill, who had become the union's president in1981. It began planning early, building up coal stocks and increasing oil-fired power generation.

There has always been a suspicion that, as Prime Minister, Mrs Thatcher had deliberately engineered a confrontation with the miners to wreak revenge for the defeat of 1974, when she had been a member of the government.

Margaret Thatcher
Margaret Thatcher became prime minister in 1979
Cabinet ministers deny it, as you might expect.

Geoffrey Howe, now Lord Howe of Aberavon, was in the Cabinet in 1974 as he was in 1984.

His version is this: "We had to prepare for the risk of another miners' strike but we were not motivated in any sense by revenge.

"We knew that our society could not achieve foundations of prosperity and reasonable industrial tranquillity if we were constantly exposed to that kind of risk.

"We had put ourselves in a position as far as possible to make certain that we would not lose the contest if it came again in 1984-85. In that sense we were better prepared to resist the strike because in the end it was a contest that had to be won in the name of society."

There are plenty of people who will never be convinced by this case.

Arthur Scargill, they argue, was a charismatic leader whose defence of his members' livelihoods was crushed by the physical might of the state led by an implacable class warrior - Margaret Thatcher.

Others say that Scargill was a self-deluding and incompetent revolutionary trying to destroy an legitimate government while Thatcher was a great leader resolute in defence of democratic freedom.

Both these people, who loomed so large in our lives not all that long ago, are shadowy figures now.

But, more significantly, the industrial terrain over which they confronted each other so implacably is also a fading and insubstantial memory.

Perhaps most of us did not understand then the significance of those tumultuous years.

But we do now.

The Clash is repeated on BBC Radio Wales at 1803 GMT on Thursday.


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