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Unfinished Business


If Spirit Alone Won BattlesDiary of a miner’s year on strike

The great miners’ strike for jobs of 1984-5 continues to inspire books, analysis, comment and debate almost three decades later. Just published is the diary of one of the Nottinghamshire strikers, John Lowe, edited by his grandson. Peter Arkell reports. 

A largely passive family man before the strike, John Lowe became one of the leaders of the 3,000 miners who stayed true to the union in the area and struck for the full year in the most difficult of circumstances.

The coalfield was the weak link for the strike, and it was here that the government concentrated its resources and propaganda to isolate the 30,000 Notts miners, and build up an anti-strike movement.

NUM strike: The message from the Clipstone strikers at a rally in Yorkshire
The message from the Clipstone strikers at a rally in Yorkshire

Lowe and his 60 fellow miners at Clipstone Colliery who remained loyal until the last, found themselves suddenly living in a hostile village where former friends would not look him in the eye, and where long-held basic principles of solidarity and selflessness were trampled underfoot by the stampeding majority.

NUM strike: Police road block on the Notts-Yorks border
Police road block on the Notts-Yorks border

Thousands of police from all over Britain were on hand night and day to protect the scabs from the mass pickets that swept in from Yorkshire. The police arrested 10,000 miners in total during the year-long strike, many of them on these mass pickets. And they harassed the Notts strikers in every possible way, taking advantage of the fact they were in a minority in their communities. 

NUM strike: Coal lorry ignoring the pickets at a Nottinghamshire power station
Coal lorry ignoring the pickets at a Nottinghamshire power station

The diary is a moving personal account of a man thrown into an event of huge significance, evaluating his beliefs and then standing up for them. There is an entry for every day of the strike, and shining through each report is the honesty, dedication and humour of a man who is at ease with his stand.

In spite of the daunting job of organising pickets, meals, premises for the strike centre, collections for funds and everything else besides, in a hostile village, with a shoestring budget, he has no doubts about his commitment. He has moments of pessimism, despair and anger at the treachery of some of the local NUM committee and Labour councillors who called themselves socialists, but also an unshakeable belief in the justice of the strike that allows him to see clearly what is happening.

He becomes a man of action able to make judgements and take decisions with others based on this conviction of principle. His observations are witty, precise, and sometimes emotional with his fury particularly directed at the scabs and the police. The daily writings, taken together, have that rare quality in a diary. They hang together as a whole to make an exciting and developing narrative, revealing not only the story of the strike in all its local detail but the character of one of the participants.

Not one to blow his own trumpet, Lowe, who died in 2005, would probably be surprised to see his daily scribbling turned into a book. His grandson, Jonathan Symcox, recognised the quality of the diary and has done a superlative job in editing it, researching the pictures and illustrating it with documents from the strike. “I hope the reader will see this man, lost to us these last few years, within the pages and recognise a true working-class hero,” Symcox writes in the introduction to If Spirit Alone Won Battles: The Diary of John Lowe.

John Lowe
John Lowe during the strike

Here are some of the diary entries:

Sunday 15 April. Monthly branch meeting at 9.30am and 12 Derbyshire lads were outside lobbying; approximately 600-700 men inside. Discussion centred around the dispute. At one point I stood up and asked just how much we were prepared to take or if we were going to stand up and fight the closure programme. Here I was shouted down... Such was the disgust that I felt, my final words were: “If there are any men left here with red blood in their veins, they’ll follow me outside now and stand beside those Derbyshire lads”. The invitation was accepted by around 50 men almost immediately.

Thursday 19 April. The police have been threatening to arrest anyone found distributing the leaflet entitled “portrait of a scab” by Jack London...

Tuesday 24 April. Good turnout for the early picket... with quite a few Yorkshiremen here — very noisy but orderly. Branch officials were, as we understood it, to talk to the men in the canteen and explain that we were an official picket and as such should not be crossed... Full pit meeting at Clipstone Welfare at 8.30pm. This resulted in the most disgraceful reaction that I have ever seen: speakers from both sides were numerous but when Spencerism was mentioned as a danger, the result from the other side was cheers and shouts. When the break-up of the union was brought up, this was openly encouraged again, to cheers. We made ourselves heard, but with no commitment from any of our elected officials, the many, many waverers were not felt to be with us. I felt physically sick.

Friday 27 April. Early picket — more men back at work. Not as many on picket line — around 50-60... Finance is very low with more hardship cases coming in... One disgraceful incident today when a Yorkshire lad was arrested for parking his car: it was not illegally parked, was not causing a nuisance and was displaying a disabled pass. The man was obviously disabled and yet he was lifted by the police. The powers and authority that these people have adopted without challenge are awesome, sinister and very frightening. We learned today that C from Ollerton was arrested for the third time yesterday. He was kept in cells overnight and released this afternoon. He had had a rough time and had been taken to hospital with a suspected broken arm. His 15-year-old son was also handcuffed and taken with him... We were beginning to realise at the Clipstone picket line how desperate our position was becoming. We were without a strike centre, had nowhere to hold our meetings and, even worse, we had no financial backing of any kind to provide the subsistence we were beginning to need — how we needed a support group of our own. Our hopes were realised... when a group of our women decided it was time they took a hand. Their first venture was a stand on the Mansfield marketplace, for which they needed a heart as big as a dustbin lid: they collected over £50 which, in the circumstances, was a magnificent achievement... The abuse they received only served to fire their determination...

Wednesday 2 May. Our plan to toughen our attitude was to occupy the gated pit yard entrance opposite the pit baths... The police were caught totally unawares and their senior “brass” were hopping mad: their chief inspector went on the warpath, threatening to make wholesale arrests unless we vacated the area immediately. For his troubles he was told that if he arrested one man, he would have to take the lot. This response seemed to throw his brain out of gear and was obviously a new experience for him. He was so used to being obeyed that to have others making the decisions for him presented a problem, and in this instance, he backed off...

Wednesday 30 May. Disturbing events from Blidworth recently: the police action, in their search for Yorkshiremen, seems to know of no limits to their authority. There are eye-witness reports of enter-and-search; threats to arrest local inhabitants who have left their premises; and breaking in through the door of the women’s action centre, thus terrorising women and children who were eating a meal. Where can it end?... The special plain-clothes squads ordered into the village are reported to have adopted the name Fast Action Response Teams — until they realised the initials.

Thursday 7 June. With chance to sit and look back, I am really proud of the way that our lads conducted themselves: they could quite easily have become involved in the trouble, but kept their heads and sought to protect the ladies. What I have seen today has filled me with disgust for the so-called forces of law and order: when senior officers are openly calling us scum using loudhailers, when women and children are being abused and threatened, when there is no effort to disguise the intention of their violent tactics, we have every reason to fear for whatever freedom we have left in Notts...

On 27 June, Lowe was himself arrested during a mass picket. He had declined to move from his spot, protesting that he was not causing an obstruction. He was grabbed by two officers and all three fell to the ground.

I was conscious of at least 3 other officers on the floor holding me down: one said “put the handcuffs on him and then I received a clip to the right side of my jaw followed by a forearm brought viciously down across my throat.

On March 3, almost a full year after the start of the strike, NUM delegates voted narrowly to end the strike and return to work.

Sunday 3 March. This report is the hardest I have ever had to try and write. I feel so full of emotion — anger, frustration, shame, bewilderment. I’m finding great difficulty in putting my thoughts together... My wife cried tears for me that I could not cry for myself; they’ll probably come later... When the history of this dispute is written, the Elsie Lowes of this world will surely stand out above everything. Thatcher pales into insignificance and will never bear mention in the same breath...

Tuesday 5 March. I’ve tried to think through today of what the future holds. I feel anger at the outcome. We were let down by areas who lost their nerve when faced with the experiences that we lived with throughout. I feel frustration at our inability to do anything about the situation. Shame I feel for much of the trade union movement, the Labour movement, our own class and particularly the scabby sort that I now have to live and work amongst. That our own people could sell out to an administration like Thatcher’s should be unthinkable — well it’s happened...

8 March 2012

If Spirit Alone Won Battles: The Diary of John Lowe. The 1984-1985 Miners Strike in Nottinghamshire, by Jonathan Symcox. Pen and Sword Books. £12.99.

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