Between March 1984 and March 1985, British miners fought one of the great epics of working-class history. In scope, intensity and duration their strike is unique in the history of the British labour movement.
At issue in that strike was the fate of the “social democratic” welfare-state “compromise” between the ruling class and the working class that had held since the Second World War.
When the Tories launched their offensive, the miners responded with a head-on challenge to Thatcher and Thatcherism. Implicitly, they challenged capitalism itself.
The miners’ rallying cry, “no economic pit closures”, was the demand for a radically different society. It implied a society whose mainspring is not profit but need. It implied socialism.
The miners fought for the whole working class; the tragedy was that the working class movement did not rally to ensure the victory of the embattled miners.
The miners’ strike came very late in the Thatcherite day. The miners faced a government that was militant, class-war-making, relentless, intent on using the state to break the working class and, immediately, the National Union of Mineworkers.
The miners were divided: striking miners had to appeal for solidarity from other workers while they were denied solidarity by strike-breaking “working miners”, mainly in Nottinghamshire.
When NUM leader Arthur Scargill told the truth about the Tories’ intention to close many coal mines, the Tories denied it, and their press echoed and reinforced their lies. The striking miners and their families were the victims of police violence, but the press, the Tory politicians, and — too often — Labour politicians, succeeded in making miners’ violence on picket lines a major propaganda weapon against the miners.
The idea of class allegiance and class solidarity was sharpened for those who already had it, or a half-petrified residue of it; and it shone like a searchlight into the activities, the purposes, the understanding, and the lives of new thousands and tens of thousands.
Whole layers of the working class felt themselves profoundly alienated from the way the British economy and British politics were organised. The women of the mining communities were roused to action and self-assertion as never before.
Around the embattled miners, many groups and individuals rallied and clustered, mobilised and threw what they could into the struggle.
The miners were defeated. After the defeat the working-class movement would experience decades of destruction and decline. ... Those who fought and led the miners’ strike will yet be recognised in working-class history as the labour movement champions and heroes they were and remain. Those who led that strike, the glaring political faults of Arthur Scargill — a good man fallen among Stalinists — and the NUM leaders notwithstanding, will be recognised as the farsighted and principled labour movement leaders they surely were.
The strike will be the greatest of the sources from which the British working class draws “historical experience, understanding, power and idealism”.
— Extracts from The Miners' Strike 1984-5, introduction