Thirty years ago this month, tens of thousands of miners went on strike in defence of their jobs and communities in England, Scotland and Wales. They defied the Thatcher government and the state in a year-long heroic struggle before returning to work without an agreement.
To mark this historic strike, we are publishing the introduction to Unfinished Business by Peter Arkell and Ray Rising, who were photographers during the strike, together with some of their amazing photos.
The 1984-5 miners’ strike against pit closures was the longest national dispute in British history, and one of the most decisive. Near civil war conditions prevailed in mining communities as the forces of the state descended on pit villages. Vast numbers of police prevented striking miners from moving around the country and smashed mass pickets like those mounted at Orgreave.
By rejecting the decision of the Thatcher government and the state-controlled National Coal Board to close pits that were deemed “uneconomic”, the miners challenged the very basis of the capitalist system of production. The miners’ insistence on jobs and communities coming before profit was rejected outright by the Tories, who mobilised the state in an unprecedented way.
Thatcher’s government that came to power in 1979 immediately pursued a series of aggressive shock measures in order to break the resistance of the trade unions and the working class. Her agenda was clear: to impose a new type of ruthless, free-market capitalism in Britain and to open the path to corporate-driven globalisation.
The strike, which took place during a serious recession, marked the moment when the plans of the government finally collided with the expectations of the masses. Miners answered the challenge of history, turned and fought back, in the reasonable hope and expectation of uniting all workers against the policies of mass unemployment, privatisation and poverty.
The miners’ strike for jobs inspired everyone who took part: the miners themselves, most of them young, the wives and women of the coalfields whose outlook was transformed in the course of the year, and for the hundreds of thousands all over the country who supported the strike actively.
At the start, the National Union of Mineworkers led by Arthur Scargill, unleashed a huge blast of energy from the rank-and-file and their supporters in other unions. Gradually, however, the strike became more and more isolated and eventually turned into a grim struggle for survival. Responsibility for this rests entirely with the Trades Union Congress leaders and the Labour Party under Neil Kinnock. They considered the strike an embarrassment and a challenge to their personal authority. Union leaders by and large sat on their hands, doing little or nothing by way of meaningful support, and presided over a betrayal more blatant, more calculated even than the sell-out in the 1926 General Strike.
Unfinished Business is not written as a reminiscence or to marvel at the courage of the miners on the 25th anniversary of the start of the strike, although no one who lived through the struggle could dispute that fact. Instead our book is intended to draw out the essence of the miners’ strike for jobs and its enduring significance for a new period of history. We are also publishing a series of photographs, some for the very first time, taken by us and others that show the extraordinary character of the strike.
The story and the lessons of the strike are thrown into sharp relief by an immeasurably more serious global economic crisis of capitalism, following the financial meltdown. Once again jobs are disappearing by the tens of thousands in Britain, while trade and manufacturing is collapsing across the world. Governments have desperately tried to re-start the capitalist economy by bailing out the very banks that share responsibility for the crisis. Ordinary working people rightly remain suspicious and hostile to these kind of measures because they leave the rich and the powerful untouched.
Now that the economic crash is joined by a deep political crisis within the British state, the opportunities are present for picking up where the miners were forced to leave off. Their insistence in 1984-85 on placing social needs before profit is just as critical and essential a quarter of a century later. It showed that workers will fight for an alternative to the wilful destruction of jobs and communities by the capitalist system if given a firm and principled leadership. Our challenge today is to build a movement that will complete the unfinished business of the miners’ strike.
Peter Arkell & Ray Rising: June 2009
News Line photographers during the 1984-5 strike