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?by