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Arthur Scargill and the Battle of Saltley Gate

By Phil Mackie
BBC News

Miners attempt to close the Saltley Coke Depot during their 1972 strike
The Battle of Saltley Gate is seen as a decisive point in the 1972 miners' strike

Trade unionists and miners are gathering in Birmingham to mark the 40th anniversary of "the Battle of Saltley Gate", a decisive moment in Conservative prime minister Ted Heath's losing battle with the unions led by Arthur Scargill over pay restraint.

In January 1972 the miners undertook their first national strike in nearly 50 years.

Their wages had fallen behind other comparable industries because of high levels of inflation, and they were demanding a 43% pay rise. The Conservative government, led by Edward Heath, was determined to keep pay deals to between 7% and 8%.

Archive: How the BBC reported the Battle of Saltley Gate

The pits had been closed by the miners' strike. The UK was far more dependent on coal 40 years ago including for its power stations.

The miners were determined to shut down any fuel depots still supplying industry and the national grid.

Four weeks into the strike, Saltley Coke Works in Birmingham remained open. Two thousand miners were brought to Birmingham to try to force its closure.

Female workers join the picket lines at Saltley
Female workers joined the picket lines at Saltley

It was the first time "flying pickets" had appeared in such large numbers away from the coalfields. They were led by Arthur Scargill, a defiant left-wing activist from the Yorkshire region of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM).

But thanks to the deployment of large numbers of police officers, the pickets were held at bay.

Scargill realised that he would need help from the powerful shop stewards at the huge factories in Birmingham. On 8 February and 9 February, he asked local engineering unions to come out in support of the miners and, on the morning of 10 February, meetings were held in factories all over the city.

Colin Fitzer was branch secretary of the National Union of Vehicle Builders at Land Rover. There was, he explains "98% support from our whole shop. I went back to the floor and said 'we're all out', and within 10 minutes we left the factory".

Thirty thousand workers walked out across the city to support the miners. At least a third of them marched on Saltley.

It was worth the effort. We closed the gates.
Colin Fitzer, former branch secretary of the National Union of Vehicle Builders

The police cordon was unable to hold and the gates were closed. "It was absolutely rammed, and then, when we heard that the gates had been locked, there was euphoria," Mr Fitzer recalls.

The consequences for the government were dire. While Arthur Scargill was celebrating victory, it was outlining plans for a three-day week.

Archive news footage from the time shows people scrambling in the snow through slag heaps to find coal, scenes not witnessed since the 1930s. Within weeks, the miners' demands had been met.

Peter Jackson from the Birmingham Trades Council, who is organising the anniversary rally, explains that the closure of the coke works was so significant because "had they managed to keep Saltley Gate open, I think they would have tried to open more.

"The victory on the 10 February was a battle between the working class and the government, which the working class won."

It was a key moment in British industrial history. As a result of its victory there, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) forced the government to agree to its demands.

Beyond this, it marked the moment that Arthur Scargill came to national prominence.

But was it a pyrrhic victory? Within 18 months, the miners were on strike again. The pattern of confrontation between the unions and the government, whether Conservative or Labour, was set for the next decade.

Arthur Scargill interviewed outside the coke works
Arthur Scargill interviewed outside the coke works

Professor Stan Siebert, from the University of Birmingham Business School, believes that in 1972 Heath had forced the unions' hands.

"Why was he printing so much money and then blaming the unions for the inflation? And then saying, 'We'll stop the inflation by having a wage freeze'?"

He thinks that the legislation introduced during Margaret Thatcher's government to restrict union power was a necessary step. "The 1984 strike was pursued in a very different environment, and I think that was the end of Scargill."

The giant gas holders and the Saltley Coke Works are long gone, replaced by retail and business parks.

But, more than a generation later, inflation, pay freezes and strikes are back. So, today, is Arthur Scargill. He will join others who took took part in the Battle of Saltley Gate at the rally to commemorate events of February 1972.

Despite what has happened since, Colin Fitzer does not regret joining the mineworkers at Saltley 40 years ago. "It was worth the effort. We closed the gates.

"And what is the position today? The industry has been decimated. Arthur Scargill has been proved right."

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