Citizen Action Monitor

“Counterpower” by Tim Gee – Pt 9: How Thatcher destroyed Britain’s National Union of Mineworkers

No 387 Posted by fw, January 13, 2012

To put this and past posts in this Counterpower series in perspective, the purpose of the series is to help activists understand and overcome the tactics used by government and corporate power elites. It is said that if you know your opponents and know yourself, you can win a hundred battles without a single loss. If you only know yourself, but not your opponent, you may win or may lose. If you know neither yourself nor your opponent, you will always endanger yourself.

To set the scene for this post, Part 9 –

According to Wikipedia, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), once a powerful force not only in the British union movement, but also in British politics, is today a small union with little political power. “Its influence was destroyed by the failure of the 1984-85 strike and by the closing of most of Britain’s coal mines.

This post summarizes how then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher decimated the NUM.

By way of background, a successful strike by mineworkers in 1972 weakened Edward Heath’s Conservative government, contributing to his party’s defeat in the 1974 general election. In a 1975 leadership review, Heath fell to Thatcher’s challenge, making her the first female Leader of the Conservative Party. In the 1979 general election, Thatcher led the party to victory, thus becoming the UK’s first female Prime Minister.

Thatcher took very personally the humiliating 1974 election defeat of the Conservatives, brought down by the triumph of the 1972 miners’ strike.  As the new PM, Thatcher was determined to succeed where Heath had failed by eliminating unions as power players in British politics.

With the scene set, here’s a summary of the key elements of the tactics Thatcher used to destroy the NUM. These key elements were excerpted from Chapter 3 of Tim Gee’s excellent handbook for activists, Counterpower: Making Change Happen.

How Thatcher destroyed Britain’s National Union of Mineworkers

  • Thatcher’s combative personality made her ideally suited to take on the powerful NUM. Her political philosophy and economic policies emphasized deregulation, particularly of the financial sector, flexible labour markets, the sale or closure of state-owned companies, and the withdrawal of subsidies to others, all of which were anathema to unionized mineworkers.
  • In 1979 Thatcher adopted the Ridley Plan to overpower the miners. In the wake of the Conservative 1974 election defeat, radical right-wing Conservative MP, Nicholas Ridley, formulated his Ridley Plan, outlining how the next Conservative government could fight and defeat a major strike in a nationalized industry.  In Ridley’s view, trade union power in the UK was interfering with market forces, causing inflation, and had to be checked in order to restore the “profitability” of the UK. The plan for the coal mining industry, which was successfully deployed in response to the industry’s 1984-85 strike, included these tactical contingencies —
    • build up coal stocks at power stations;
    • encourage and facilitate coal imports from non-union foreign ports;
    • recruit non-union lorry drivers from haulage companies;
    • diversify Britain’s energy mix with a “dash for gas” policy;
    • subsidize investment in nuclear power
    • install dual coal-oil firing generators in power plants at great extra cost;
    • cut off the money supply to the strikers and make the union finance them;
    • train and equip a large, mobile squad of police, ready to employ riot tactics in order to uphold the law against violent picketing; and, last but not least
    • Government would trigger the strike.

Of significance, although the Ridley Plan recommendations were leaked to The Economist and published on May 27, 1978, six years before the pivotal 1984-85 strike, the unions and in particular the NUM showed no interest in adapting or altering their own tactics in response.

  • Idea power to prep the public for what was to come — In her first term as Prime Minister, Thatcher and her ministers began a series of speeches to build public antipathy towards unions.
  • Legislation to clear a path for action – The Thatcher administration passed new anti-union legislation.
  • The Falklands War victory in 1982 more than doubled Thatcher’s personal approval ratings from a low of 25%. Though the War delayed implementation of Thatcher’s NUM plan, the boost in personal approval ratings served to strengthen her political power base and her public appeal as she positioned herself and her government for the forthcoming battle with the mineworkers.
  • Thatcher’s political power was further enhanced by a landslide election victory in 1983. All the pieces were in place.
  • Wily Government action triggered the 1984-85 mineworkers’ strikeIn March 1984, with coal stocks at their peak and winter over, the National Coal Board — the statutory corporation created to run the nationalized coal mining industry — proposed to close 20 of the 174 state-owned mines and cut 20,000 jobs out of 187,000. Two-thirds of the country’s miners, led by the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) downed tools in protest. Thatcher refused to meet the union’s demands and compared the miners’ dispute to the Falklands conflict two years earlier, declaring in a 1984 speech: “We had to fight the enemy without in the Falklands. We always have to be aware of the enemy within, which is much more difficult to fight and more dangerous to liberty.” A classic use of Idea Power.
  • In response, miners missed an opportunity to respond with creative Idea Counterpower of their own. In a tactical blunder, they simply followed the winning formula of the 1972 walkout.

In the ensuing struggle, the Thatcher government overpowered and outmaneuvered the mineworkers. Miners were isolated, divided, smeared and ruthlessly crushed. Here’s a sample of the Thatcher government’s hardball tactics used against the strikers, along with some of the strikers’ own Counterpower moves —

  • Thatcher personally authorized the use of spies and agent provocateurs to infiltrate miners’ headquarters and report back to her. She made this operation a very personal vendetta to “Get Scargill” (Arthur Scargill is a British politician who was President of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) from 1982 to 2002, leading the union through the 1984–85 miners’ strike).
  • BBC edited a film to make it look like strikers had attacked police when, in fact, just the opposite was true. Six years later, the BBC finally offered a weak apology for its duplicity.
  • Rupert Murdoch’s Sun newspaper planned to publish a doctored front-page picture of Scargill as Hitler under the banner headline, “Mine Fuhrer”. In a Counterpower move, print workers refused to process the photo. In its place, the Sun ran the story without the offensive headline or the photo.
  • Government used its economic power to refuse benefits to strikers. In a Counterpower move, strikers’ wives set up food kitchens, delivering meals to the picket lines. As well, donations were solicited from union supporters across the country.
  • Mid-strike, the government won a court case against the NUM resulting in the sequestration of union’s funds. The Union was forced to operate without a bank account, transferring money in bags, boxes and suitcases.
  • The government exploited Nottinghamshire County’s decision not to join the strike. Miners there were awarded incentive payments which allowed coal stocks to last longer.
  • Another divide and conquer tactic saw the new leader of the Labour Party refuse to support the strike. Labour and Trade Union hierarchies followed suit and remained on the sidelines.
  • Government didn’t hesitate to use physical power, including, for example: police blocking picketers from preventing scab labour to enter mines and coking plants; in 1984, police displayed a new strike-breaking tactic of ‘kettling’; police used shields, horses and dogs to attack picket lines (20,000 NUM campaigners were injured); police at first denied striking Arthur Scargill  until confronted with photos of the incident; there were more than 10,000 arrests of miners (typical charges included breach of the peace and unlawful assembly); mass arrests were followed by immediate release without charge; those who were charged faced stringent bail conditions; agent provocateurs pushed miners from behind into police lines to incite violence; preventing striking miners from entering Nottinghamshire County to confront miners who had opted out of strike action.
  • After a year out on strike, on March 5, 1985, the NUM leadership conceded without a deal. The cost to the economy was estimated to be at least £1.5 billion, and the strike was blamed for much of the pound’s fall against the US dollar. The government closed 25 unprofitable coal mines in 1985, and by 1992 a total of 97 had been closed. Those that remained were privatized in 1994. The eventual closure of 150 coal mines, not all of which were losing money, resulted in the loss of tens of thousands of jobs and devastated entire communities.
  • Gee summed up the outcome in his own inimitable way: “Miners were starved back to work. . . . The determined Counterpower of the movement had been vanquished by the overwhelming power of the state.”

As difficult as it is to find any measure of solace from the sobering outcomes of the Thatcher-Mineworkers showdown, Gee offers these closing thoughts on Chapter 3, from which activists may find some measure of encouragement —

  •  It must be remembered that although these battles were lost, “the struggles for peace, trade unionism and a safe climate are alive and well.”
  • To paraphrase Gee, the lessons learned from these past campaigns help inform the knowledge and identity of campaigners today.
  •  “Until the moment of successful revolutionary take-over, each individual act of resistance usually fails. . . the rare moment in history which makes possible the final victorious revolutionary assault is a compound of a people and a movement with an accumulated heritage of resistance, which, through all the immediate ‘failures’, perpetuates and reinforces the tradition of struggle.” —Joe Slovo, South African activist


Miners’ Strike 1984. (About 5 minutes long). Uploaded Jan 11, 2009 by MinersStrike25Years . Video of the miners’ strike in 1984 to mark the 25th anniversary, this is some footage of the picket lines and the riots that ensued. During the strike the miners and their families displayed remarkable courage in the face of adversity.

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