Nicholas Jones - Blog and Archive Website

Being asked to apologise for the BBC’s reporting thirty years ago of the 1984-5 pit strike comes as no surprise to the journalists who covered the most divisive industrial dispute of post-war Britain.

To this day miners who took part in the strike accuse the BBC and the rest of the main stream news media of siding with Margaret Thatcher during the year-long struggle in which the South Wales coalfield played a pivotal role.

It was perhaps only to be expected that the bitterness of the National Union of Mineworkers’ defeat at the hands of Mrs Thatcher should resurface during my lecture hosted by Cardiff University (18.11.2014), as it has during other talks I have given in the once mighty coalfields.

Former miners and their supporters from the wider trade union movement accuse journalists of failing to report the true extent of what they contend was police brutality on the picket line and for doing too little to highlight family hardship and for not recognising that the pit villages were in a fight to the finish to maintain the mining communities.

I have already acknowledged my own soul searching: in the final months of the strike broadcasters did become what I call the cheer leaders for the return to work.

After analysing the contradictions and cover-ups exposed in Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet papers about the 1984-5 pit dispute, the National Union of Mineworkers has called for “a full, transparent and open debate” about her government’s tactics during the strike.

 While secret information about the role of the police and security services continues to be withheld from public scrutiny, the union says the men and families affected by the strike will never be able to secure the full truth about the extent of the government’s involvement.

But the consequences of the action taken by Mrs Thatcher and her ministers were undeniable and the time had come for an explanation as to why her government saw fit to “sustain a vicious and brutal attack on hundreds of thousands of tax-paying, law-abiding citizens”.  

Eye-witness statements from strikers, police reports and parliamentary answers have been used with great effect to give added insight to the revelations contained in the cabinet office records.

When pieced together, along with data collected under Freedom of Information and from documents held by the Margaret Thatcher Foundation, the NUM has produced a compelling account of secret measures taken by both the government and the National Coal Board during the year-long stoppage.

Of the recent run of films and plays scripted around the 1984-5 miners’ strike so far only Pride – and its celebration of the role of lesbians and gays – has succeeded in illustrating what might have been achieved if violence and intimidation had been scaled back in favour of seeking support from the wider community.

If the crossover demonstrated by Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners had been replicated with direct help and action from a multitude of pressure groups, Margaret Thatcher might well have been forced to give far greater assistance to the coalfield communities and their hard-pressed collieries.

Sir Tim Bell, her favourite propagandist during the pit dispute, said the Prime Minister had wanted to see the strikers “drag themselves back to work, their tails behind their legs”.

Just like lesbians and gays, the miners were traduced by the national press. In Mrs Thatcher’s opinion the strikers were the “enemy within”. The strike breakers were the heroes and although perhaps not intended, radio and television became a cheer leader as the Conservatives as they condemned the militancy of the strikers for undermining the rule of law.

Many of the events taking place in coalfields around the country to mark the 1984-5 pit dispute are celebrating the outcome of the strike as an unprecedented achievement for the mineworkers: their victory was to have held out for as long as year against Margaret Thatcher’s government and the full force of the state.

Wonderland, Beth Steel’s new play about the miners’ eventual defeat and return to work, is a faithful portrayal of their struggle and will be a source of great pride and encouragement to activists who are determined to seek justice for the mining communities.

From the moment the play opens (at the Hampstead Theatre until 26 July 2014) the audience sense the physical challenge, heat and even brutality of life underground.  The set is dominated by a pit cage; constant crashing and banging along the carriageway to the coalface add to the reality.

The contrast could not be greater when events switch to London and the offices of Peter Walker, Secretary of State for Energy, Ian MacGregor, chairman of the National Coal Board, and David Hart, the rich, shadowy adviser to Mrs Thatcher.

Beth Steel’s inspiration was that she came from a mining family.  Her father worked as a miner for thirty-five years and she draws on a deep understanding of the family conflicts that arose among men of the Midlands pits as they struggled to come to terms with the strike and then endure months of hardship.

Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet papers for the 1984-5 miners’ strike have raised as many questions as answers – not least about the behaviour of the South Yorkshire Police – but once again a missing voice has been that of Arthur Scargill.

Perhaps his absence from the debate provoked by publication of secret government papers was only to be expected given that the former president of the National Union of Mineworkers remains mired in a complex series of financial disputes between himself and the current leadership of the NUM.

In recent years Scargill has refused repeated requests to give radio or television interviews reflecting on his role in the year-long strike and his union’s defeat by the Thatcher government.

His close ally, Ken Capstick, the former editor of The Miner, said Scargill had refused “on principle” to give interviews; they would simply be used to “attack Scargill’s leadership” whereas the cabinet papers had proved yet again the truth of the NUM’s claim that the National Coal Board chairman Ian MacGregor intended to close 70 pits and butcher the coal industry.

Capstick’s messages on Twitter give an indication of Scargill’s reasoning for refusing to engage with the news media: