It is a gloriously sunny afternoon in the late summer or autumn of 1984.
A year and a bit into Margaret Thatcher’s second elected term of office as our Prime Minister.
6 months or so into the ‘84/’85 Miner’s strike.
It is Great Britain. 1984. “Civil War”.
I am travelling south, towards London, from the North East of England, through South Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire.
A1, A1M, M18, M1.
Past the Edifices of Energy.
Ferry Bridge, Eggborough, Drax.
Selby, Prince of Wales, Killingley, Maltby, Silverwood, Orgreave.
Through the battlefields.
There are Police on motorway bridges.
On the M1 Motorway, south of Sheffield, there’s a changing of the guard in progress. Just south of Woodall services I start to see it. Hundreds of police vans are travelling north, up from their homes in the South.
Line after line after line after line after line.
Like a 150 mile long snake of ants.
Reinforcements. Plenty of them. Re-suppply for the boys in blue, the men on the side of the State and “industry”, ranked against the striking mine workers. They are men, those boys in blue, who are better equipped, better trained, better organised and better fed than the the blokes they face.
For the striking mine workers, there is no such support. Financial aid is all but drying up as the economic lines of aid (including from foreign countries) have been (or are in the process of being) shut down by the forces mounted against them. Sporadic aid packages from sympathetic dock workers and other trade unions are now about the best that they and their families can now hope for.
Six months on strike has economically crippled them.
Charity. The last resource. The only resource.
They are tired and hungry. They are poorly led (not that their leaders would agree with that opinion). They are fighting a fight they believe to be right. Fighting a fight, however, that their leaders had taken them into without (it would seem, but they would dispute) a strategy for victory.
Already (if truth be told) they are defeated by an opposition that was ready and waiting, willing and able.
It was bound to happen that way.
The boys in blue allegedly taunt the striking miners over the picket lines. Taunt them (by some accounts) about the strength of a copper’s overtime-fueled spending power by waving wads of money at the striking workers (in a manner that is later to be popularised by a Harry Enfield character “loadsamoney”). Make lewd suggestions (so it is said) as to what the striking miner’s wives might be up to whilst the men are on the picket lines.
It was a war.
A war in so much as the leaders on both sides would contemplate nothing other than victory by total defeat of the opposing side.
It was, in effect, a civil war.
That sunny afternoon, I saw, in that convoy, a chilling illustration of the power and strength of the mechanism that the State mounted on the one side. A mechanism mounted against its own people.
It was a cold and unappetising sight.
It left me in no doubt. The outcome was decided. It was to be delivered by force in numbers.
At the end of the strike, which, to the surprise of many, dragged on another six months or so into the near spring of 1985, the coal mining industry in the UK (such as it was at the start of the strike) had been dealt a fatal, bloody blow.
More than that, the trades unions in general were all but defeated.
It was a double victory.
And to the double victor, the spoils.
Their adversaries in “progress” were cleared away from the path ahead. A path of privatisation and monetarist economics.
To the losers, there was nothing but humiliation and the rapid decline of their industry and communities. The defeated army of striking mine workers were utterly humiliated. A heads-bowed return to work was nothing but utter submission. Their communities were devastated. Unrecoverable. Set for further rapid and squalid decline.
Decline set in at an alarming rate.
(despite a temporary recovery to pre-strike production rates, the UK coal mining industry declined further, rapidly, at an average rate of roughly 8% per year,to almost nothing compared to its past glories)
A year later than my drive south, a little after the end of the strike, in August 1985, I was in South Wales. Another heartland of the Strike.
I saw communities destroyed. I witnessed people cowed and humiliated. I observed an industry fatally wounded, never to recover.
It was shocking, that we could do this to our own. It was a disgraceful sight to behold. It was Shameful.
It was, I understood, what total victory looks like.
But at what cost was this victory?
Within just a handful of years, a nationalised industry that could have significantly helped secure UK energy requirements for many, many years to come, lay in ruin, never again to recover.
A national resource was abandoned, forever. It wasn’t just the pits that had gone, but a whole associated infrastructure.
Furthermore, a trades union movement that was there (in theory) to stand up for the common man against the power of “business” and “industry”, a movement portrayed as “The Enemy Within”, was cowed and (effectively) neutered.
(although many at the time feared the power of the unions, they were, arguably, never the ogre that they were sometimes portrayed as, and, in fact, spent much time quite rightfully fighting an “industry” that often disrespected the workforce and refused to invest in modernisation for the future. whilst there was, it is widely accepted, a lot wrong with labour relations by the end of the 70’s and the early 80’s, one has to question the methods that were used to deal with that “issue”, in particular in respect of what would then happen afterwards)
There was little doubt that the balance of power lay, after the strike, fairly and squarely with State and Business, both able to march on (side by side?) with little or no opposition from the workers and their unions.
It was just as much an unfair, unequal balance of power as it was claimed to be before, only this time, those in power held the upper hand and those who worked for them had little or no say.
From an energy point of view, we sold off the generation and supply of electricity to private industry.
Energy supply in the UK, a fundamental need that was (for 40 years or so) securely in control of the state, was now back at the mercy of private “profit making” industry and the “free market”. Those same sorts people from which it was nationalised in the first place.
In privatising the generating industry, we made sure that “coal” got the crappy end of the stick.
Over the next 10 years or so, the fuel balance for our energy supply was to be changed. We promoted the “dash for gas” through economic benefits to the generators. It was made attractive to use gas to make electricity.
We built pipelines to Russia to import more gas and we built or improved docks to import coal and oil from Russia, the USA, the Middle East and other places.
So, not only were we in hock to the generating industry, we were also reliant now on the goodwill of other countries in trade for the fuel supply.
We ended up closing most of the pits here and finally sold the rest off to private industry.
We abandoned further development of “clean coal” technologies.
From once generating 80% of our energy using UK mined coal, we are now generating less than 10% of it using UK mined coal.
What was the Government’s energy strategy for the future back in 1984? How did they plan to secure supplies? They must have had a plan, of course, for to take on the coal mining industry at the time without one would surely be a risk?
Nuclear Power was certainly heavily supported. But it has always been hugely expensive and (as we have seen) risky, with large environmental issues.
North Sea oil and gas? Well, that also has a limited life span.
Surely we could not plan for the long term certainty simply on imports (for which we are at risk from the markets), North Sea Oil & Gas and the building of the next generation of Nuclear Stations (which, even then, had only a limited life span)?
(we are, now, coming to the end of north sea oil/gas supply and also to the end of the working life of our nuclear stations, so are ever more reliant on imports).
Surely, in 1984, we must have somehow envisaged needing UK coal? At least for the foreseeable future?
Obviously not, because we did not take that route.
(by the time that “New Labour” came to power in 1997, the UK Coal industry was producing less than 28% of the output in 1979, when the Conservative Government came to power)
(in the 16 years of Conservative rule, the number of deep mines fell from 219 to just 22)
So, where are we today?
North Sea oil and gas has almost run out and accounts for only a small percentage of out fossil fuel needs.
Our nuclear stations are old, in need of replacement, and the private industry to whom we sold our energy generation tells us that it cannot afford to build us new ones (and neither can the Government). Our energy demands are far too high for renewables to ever take over the primary supply.
The majority of our fossil fuel (on which we still rely heavily) is imported, with all of the associated cost and security impacts of the “free market”.
So, I wonder, how long is is before the lights start to go out..?
And it’s not only the physical issues of energy supply, it’s the monetary aspects, too.
The North Sea Oil and Gas revenue that, along with the proceeds of privatisation over the years, was used to fuel nearly 20 years of Conservative and New Labour policy and rule has eventually just about run out. There is little left to sell (apart from the almost untouchables, like Education and Health).
Is it any coincidence that we are now in deep recession, running a sizeable deficit?
In our homes, too, we feel the financial impact. Our energy bills continue go up as the reliance on imports increases and we are hostages to the free market.
And still we do not seem to have a deliverable plan for energy.
Finally, let us not forget that the relationship between business and the workers who do its work was changed fundamentally by the events of ‘84 and ‘85.
As a consequence, the balance of power shifted firmly to business and now, it seems, not a week/month/year goes by without some workers rights being eroded, without some business wielding a big stick over its workers who have little to fight back with.
Who speaks for and supports the workers now?
Was the victory in ‘85 an example of long-term strategy sacrificed at the expense of “must win” short term objectives?
I think so.
Oh, they certainly changed things.
But did they do so for the better?
For the common good, I mean?
I think not. Certainly not in the longer term.
They call it progress. Don’t they?