The Inquiring Mind

Should there be a separate Scottish inquiry into the policing of the miners’ strike? If, like me, you’ve still got some lefty instincts even as you head yearly into the Cardigan Zone, the default answer is Yes. It was a cataclysmic event of the last fifty years defining the attitude of a British government working against the interests of its own people. There was no mature dialogue to streamline the industry, invest in new techniques and retain what capacity was needed for our energy needs. There was no relocation or retraining programme or investment and diversification for communities devastated by closure and unemployment (there would be an EU fund though).

It was centrally controlled and the police were used as a political weapon, not just a security one. The imperative was to crush the miners and hit the union movement which had humiliated Heath’s Tory government and blocked the way to Thatcher’s liberalisation programme. It was planned for years and timed to coincide with huge stockpiling of coal. In essence, it was a class war. Somebody had to be punished and the powers of the state were utilised to beat the workers, up to and including imprisonment. Criminal records were established for petty offences of dubious legality. How did the Scottish Office respond? Who did what? How did the police supervisors react? Who stood up for the rule of law? Did anyone in authority resist in the name of a separate home affairs and policing administration in Scotland? Is there a case for a mass pardon of those convicted?

So is there a case against?

I suggest there is. All the above is a traditional left-of-centre view of a major industrial dispute handled badly by a provocative leadership – a leadership under Arthur Scargill which was the perfect fit for the ‘modernising’ Tories to portray to the country as volatile and scheming. The fact that Scargill was detested by just about everybody with any public presence in the Labour movement – the parliamentary party and the TUC – meant at a personal level, support was going to be lukewarm.

Any inquiry will reveal again all the cracks in the Labour wall including a common view that the Kinnock leadership failed. There was ‘…the deadening effect of the Labour Party’s role in the strike. The Party rank and file were with the miners. Labour Party activists, premises and equipment were involved in the miners’ strike to a degree probably not seen in any dispute since the 1920s. The National Executive Committee backed the miners and called for a levy to support them. Conference condemned police violence and defied Kinnock’s request to condemn pickets’ violence.

But what most people saw, courtesy of TV, was the public weaseling of Kinnock, Hattersley and others. We should not underestimate the role played by this in dampening the spirits of the labour movement.

To rally around the miners and against Thatcher, the movement had to have the feeling of being a movement, the feeling that it could win, that its leaders wanted to win and would fight. It had to have its leaders saying, with political boldness to match the boldness of the NUM’s industrial challenge to Thatcher: “there is an alternative to Thatcher”. The leaders had to say it, mean it and fight for it, and in the first place back those already engaged in the fight against Thatcher.

A politically confident movement could have boosted the industrial solidarity by countering the fears, depression and hopelessness that held back many workers from acting who sympathised with the miners. Kinnock and his team played a fatal role here. Instead of creating a movement against the Tories around the miners, they made the emergence of such a movement impossible. They acted like acid corroding the links and sinews of the movement.

The leadership could have swayed it. A leadership which puts the issues squarely and is visibly prepared to fight to the end can rally the faint-hearted. In the charged atmosphere of summer 1984, there was a lot of potential militancy that could be rallied.’ (This from Workers’ Liberty)

However tightly you focus on aspects of the strike, the background and the role played by Labour will emerge. Today Labour propagandists like Neil Findlay are allying the SNP with the Tories (by both failing to open up to inquiries on Orgreave and Scotland). Make no mistake, reminding everyone of the miners’ strike will reopen wounds that today’s decrepit Labour Party will regret. Like so much else in recent history, it was not Labour’s finest hour as the party tried to appease the Press and the public while claiming the mantle of workers’ champions.

There is lingering sourness over the history of Labour in failing to stand up for strikers. It is a theme from the early years of last century when hundreds of stoppages occurred and four strikers were killed. It continued under Arthur Henderson in 1912 who tried to make striking illegal. Ramsay MacDonald made a state of emergency when threatened with dock strikes and declared it unsocialist to stop work. Labour did little better in the General Strike in ’26, MacDonald saying: ‘It was one of the most lamentable adventures in crowd self-leadership of our labour history’ For Labour this is a can of worms that can be prised open by artful witnesses. Be careful what you wish for.

Another issue is that there was no separate Scottish government in the 80’s. There was a Scottish Office but it was, and is, answerable to Whitehall. Even if government witnesses were willing to attend (can they be obliged to?) do they have the authority to speak to events they may argue are still covered by official omerta? And who can it blame when it reaches a conclusion: surely only one side – London government. Are we content that again the finger is pointed away from ourselves…?

Does the Scottish public think this is best use of parliamentary time and resources? It seems a prosaic question until you remember that we are confronted as a country with the historic quagmire of Brexit which will take years to unroll with collateral damage across the economy and national life even as we contemplate second referendums. The public is told these are the pressing issues of the age – while the opposition say one week it’s education and the next, it’s health – only to find that there’s now time to organise a (possibly year-long) review of an event from thirty years ago. Labour tell us we need Scots to pay more in tax, so dire are our national services, yet they’re happy to find a few million for a pet project – as many will regard it.

We already have a four-year-long inquiry into abuse of children in care. No one can argue that isn’t current and justified but, however aggrieved the miners, will Scots think that of an historic industrial dispute from another political age – one before there even was a Holyrood Parliament?

I remember the miners’ strike well. I was, as they say, there. I heard first hand the weasel words of the pit management, shared midday drams with Mick McGahey and saw the rough stuff on the picket line. McGahey was a hero of mine. In an age of Tory smoothies and Labour apologists, his throaty directness cut through the coaldust. That rasping voice, the ferocious stare, the unbending belief…and beneath it a vulnerable man with weaknesses and a soft side that was affecting. The last time I saw him he was giving his time for the old folks in Gilmerton. Mick oozed a quality we overlook too much today – I call it pride. It’s a fierce conviction that challenges you to disagree. Alex Ferguson has it, Bill Shankly too. Mick also became a critic of Scargill.

I certainly saw rough treatment of individuals although it was difficult to know what else the police could do against a seething mob – which at Bilston Glen they often were. I saw more rough treatment by miners on the scabs who ran the gauntlet. Those men got away with it despite violence witnessed by police officers. I sometimes think events like this are of their time, that they unfold in the only way they could in those days. And, let’s be honest, that was a time when Thatcher was the revolutionary, not Labour, overturning a way of life and a vested interest in the most brutal way she could get away with. On balance I think she, her Tory ministers in Scotland and our senior police shouldn’t get away with being part of it. It is an important aspect of balancing history to understand who did what in the past. And it helps those who were part of it for better or worse.

Meanwhile, an idea for an investigation I have no doubts about – what happened to Scotland’s oil?

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16 thoughts on “The Inquiring Mind

  1. It is always interesting. Mick McGahey was disliked by my family – a loan during his tough early life remained unpaid – but they respected and backed him completely during the miners strike. That they did so, despite the personal enmity was entirely down to the fact that the Scottish miners were on strike (fully and completely) legitimately. McGahey had stuck by the rules, had balloted the members and received an overwhelming commitment to strike. It was a strike based on conditions, pay, safety and not on simply support for Scargill and his members.

    The strike was broken because the police acted illegally, both in terms of the way they dealt with the miners and in the way they allowed strike breaking haulage contractors to operate illegally (drivers hours, vehicles not MoT’d, insured etc). As Derek points out this was a class war and a political power struggle between the establishment and the working class. The police were Thatcher’s blunt instrument. Shades of the militarisation of the police back then have developed into a clear model for today, where even peaceful demonstrations are treated like conflict zones.

    • It is impossible to think of the miners’ strike without recalling the BBC coverage of Orgreave, where the BBC News showed miners throwing stones and other missiles at the police horses who then charged the miners … except that it was the other way about.

      The police charged first and the miners responded. The BBC has form in altering video sequencing to suit the establishment narrative, just ask Alex Salmond, or better still, watch London Calling, the film of G A Ponsonby’s book.

      If “the police were Thatcher’s blunt instrument” as Derek says above, then the BBC were and are, the Westminster government’s sharp scalpel.

  2. Could not agree more with this blog, this strike was planned by the tory party from the earlier 1972 & 1974 strikes, when these two official national miners strikes brought down the Heath goverment. It took Thatcher and her party ten years of devious planning, and at a massive cost to the country to get even. The decline of the Labour Party had started earlier but went into overdrive in the late eighties and nineties leading up to Blair and New Labour when the final nails were put in the Labour Party coffin.

  3. I was much younger (obviously) and very naive. I believed what I read in the papers and, of course, was, on a personal level, affected by the electricity cuts. It took me a long long time to realise that there was another side. I am older and much wiser now. Given what I’ve seen of the way ‘news’ is handled by the MSM and TV recently in all kinds of ways, we need to have a proper inquiry into what happened, so that we can try to ensure lessons are learned and that never again can people be fooled, even if it’s just some of the time.

  4. An Inquiry ? The heart says yes , but sadly , as shown by the Hillsborough disaster , it takes time and effort and enormous perseverance by many committed people to achieve even a modicum of success when fighting the British State .
    Are there enough people with the stamina and the fortitude to embark on such a long ( for it would be – the establishment will ensure that if nothing else ) struggle ? And what would be considered success ? No one who had any real say in the events of that time will be called to account – that is a given , knowing the way the British State covers its a+++ . Those who pull the strings are untouchable , as seen in the aftermath of the recent Chilcot Inquiry .

    In these Brexit days we can at least see , as will history , the real ‘achievements ‘ of Thatcher and her clique . Her legacy is the financial corruption of the City , the greed of the bankers , the boundless avarice and tax evasion of the corporate world and the complete absence of an iota of social conscience among the 1% whom Thatcher and her ilk have nurtured and protected in the last three decades .

  5. I see the rabid dinosaur Britnat has appeared here! Must be because he was dismissed from Wings as he couldn’t keep up.

    • i guess you have come across Peter before ,He certainly has a view of the world i haven’t encountered before , His views on current events should be ,eh Interesting , as they say .

  6. Peter a very interesting point of view you have on two past situations where the Police have been involved , not quite the opinion of most people i know but then again it takes all sorts i suppose , perhaps you might let us have your views on current events and the actions of the present Government , i am sure it would make interesting reading , it’s always good to have an alternative point of view.

  7. Thanks, Peter. and goodbye.

  8. Peter, you are Andrew Neil and I claim my five quid.

  9. Can’t see any comments from “Peter”. Have they been deleted?

  10. There is so much of the Thatcher dynasty that requires reinvestigation, that we would need to set up a dedicated Cold Case Unit and staff it with Old Dogs to even scratch the surface. The sinking of the Belgrano, the Murder of Linda Murrell and suspected Secret Service involvement because of her anti-nuclear activism, Ravenscraig, Westland Helicopters,and so on.
    Perhaps International Socialist Neil Findlay should be turning his guns on Ruth Davidson and her unelected Listory Boys since the benefits cap has been cut yet again, and our poorest children and families arer having their allowances, disability payments, and Housing Benefit cut by between £50 and £120 a week from Monday 7th November.
    Findlay and Corbyn are old style Militants. You may recall Kinnock’s Conference speech 1985, condemning Derek Hatton and Liverpool Council for hiring taxis and travelling throughout the City issuing redundancy notices to council workers.
    There is no doubt that there are rights to be wronged regarding the treatment of miners during the strikes. But not now as children starve and May takes us out of EU.

  11. Alastair Naughton

    Why is this only coming up now, after all this time? Did anyone ever make any calls before now to any previous governments or Scottish Executives? If so, what became of these? If not, why not? While I would agree that it is worthy of an investigation, is this not in fact a bit of mischief-making on the part of Neil Findlay, as part of the Labour Party’s relentless efforts to portray the SNP as the Tories’ Little Helpers when in fact they are the ones who fit in this role?

    • The So Called Scottish Labour Party is leaderless, rudderless, in fact pick a noun, add ‘-less’, and that’s the sorry state of the withering husk of Tony’s and Gordon’s New Labour Old Thatcher Conservative party of chancers and carpetbaggers Up Here.
      Neil Findlay epitomises the back bench councillor calibre of Unionist politician we have had foisted upon us by the Holyrood vote rigging system.
      What happened to his ‘constituent’ who was advised that there was a 7 month waiting list to see a consultant?
      Has he been beating on the door of Lothian Health Board’s Chief Exec demanding answers? Thought not.

      He stood shoulder to shoulder with the Blue and Yellow Tories last week to defeat the Government and send a message to the Old Firm knuckle draggers that it is not offensive to sing about being up to knees in Kafflick’s blood, or celebrate murdering British soldiers.
      They are ‘pretendy’ politicians. They are not interested in, involved in, nor would they be entrusted with the ‘wee things’ politically, like Trident, Brexit, Foreign Policy, the Brit Economy, by their Westminster handlers.
      They are coining it in for doing absolutely hee haw other than sabotage any initiative that would advance Scotland as a nation, a world economy, or a Self Determining democracy.
      Neil Findlay is the rich Red Tory Man’s Tommy Sheridan.
      18 years of Red Tory Government Down There.
      Dewar MacLeish, McConnell, Alexander…no independent inquiry into the miners’ strike. Why not? Why now?
      It’s time that Neil Findlay and the gang of Three Tories got back to the day job, and stop prattling on about the constitution.
      Holyrood Opposition? Aye, right.

  12. I agree, the aging lefty in me wants people held accountable. There is a want to see both the Tories and Labour answer for the systematic and callous dismantling of industry in Scotland. More to the point, for the impact of these actions on communities, lives and life chances.

    I grew up in the coal belt and saw the destruction of communities by Thatcher’s government first hand. I doubt I could look at both sides of the argument objectively, or consider other views and perspectives of the events calmly on a bet.

    What I will say though is that Mr Findlay is a hater. He’ll never meet opposition parties half way. He will never consider consensus politics. The opposition are there to be opposed (Bain principle), history to be rewritten as suits a party world view and more than anything, the SNP and wider independence movement are there to be despised.

    Such an attitude is systemic throughout what remains of Scottish Labour and it is why they are unfit for office, could they but step back and see it. They cannot govern for ALL of the population if they disregard the aspirations and opinions of (by now) half that population. If they regard us as an opposition to be derided and scorned on the most basic of levels, why on earth do they consider themselves worthy of our trust?

    As to what is a priority today? I think the Scottish Government have plenty on their plate trying to keep body and soul together for Scotland’s population. We think we live in hardening times right now? I suspect times are about to become a damn sight harder yet and every single penny is going to be needed. I somehow think that with what is now emerging, a governmental inquiry is a fiscal luxury many cannot afford.

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