Saturday, 4 January 2014

British Archives: Army on-call in Miners' Strike

STATE papers, put out yesterday by the National Archives, show Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher during the 1984/5 Miners Strike secretly planned calling in the British military to truck vital supplies of food and coal up and down the country, and seriously thought about declaring a state of emergency to defeat the miners in July 1984, as the dockers appeared ready to come out in support of the miners strike.  This was evident in government papers, which had been previously classified, released by the National Archives, thus throwing new light on a period of history that has shifted the politics, ideology, and nature of labour relations for generations up to the present day. 

The smashing of the trade unions, traditional politics and establishing the market as central to economic thinking, was only accomplished as part of a well worked out government strategy and cunning planning, in which Thatcher and her government had been stockpiling supplies of coal since 1981.   At that time coal was vital to the British electric power industry and the Tory government had been getting ready form a face-off with the miners for years. 

In contrast the TUC and the unions had been smug and Arthur Scargill, and the other miner's leaders seemed to lack a strategy to counter the governments manoeuvres against them; relying instead of brute force and ignorance, and believing their own propaganda that the workers were united and solidarity would come about by a kind of spontaneous combustion. 

In the end the government came to believe that military action would make matters worse:
'It was not clear how far a declaration of a state of emergency would be interpreted as a sign of weakness, nor to what extent it would increase docker support for the miners' strike,' the record of the government senior cabinet minister's meeting on July 16th, 1984, the papers show.

When one reads the third volume of the former miner Dave Douglass's autobiography dealing with the miner's strike, one gets the impression that in 1984-85 Arthur Scargill and the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) were like flies stuck to a fly-paper wriggling around, and fatally dependent on the solidarity and support of other British workers in other industries.  That was the risk that the government of Thatcher took when they set about their strategy of defeating the miners, and smashing trade union power.  In 1984-85, unlike the pit disputes of the 1970s, the support and solidarity of other workers came in dribs and drabs:  the union bosses couldn't command the backing of their own members for the miner's cause on that occassion.  As things turned out the dockers in July 1984, ended their strike in support of the miners after only three days. 

The British left often deludes itself about workers' solidarity, showing a lack of understanding of British workers, and depending too much on wishful thinking.  British workers, even at the peak of so-called trade union power, were more fragmented and tribal than most of us on the left realised.

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