This week is the twenty-fifth anniversary of the British miners’ strike, the epic confrontation over pit closures between the National Union of Mineworkers and Margaret Thatcher’s government that ended with the breaking of the labor movement’s backbone. The miners’ defeat marked a point of no return in Britain’s shift to a post-industrial economy, and paved the way for the Labour Party to morph into New Labour. You could say it helped the country become what it is today: a former financial giant floundering near the brink of bankruptcy.
After a quarter century the wounds have still not healed, and bitter memories of the strike have flooded the British media over the last few days. Arthur Scargill, the stubborn and now reclusive leader of the NUM, published a long apologia in the Guardian newspaper, in which he expressed no regret for the refusal to hold a national strike ballot–a decision that split communities and families and cost the NUM a great deal of public support. Scargill’s tactics–all-out war with no time for the niceties of democratic process–played right into Thatcher’s hands. But the rage that fueled them was entirely justified.
Margaret Thatcher came to power determined to break the unions–industrial action had brought down the previous Conservative government and the Labour one that followed it–and did not hesitate to provoke a confrontation. Thousands were hurt in violent clashes between pickets and police, who trampled them on horseback, beat them up in alleyways, banged batons against riot shields to drum up more aggression. The media were often complicit: In its report on the Battle of Orgreave, which lasted some ten hours, the BBC reversed the order of events, so that it looked as if the miners started throwing stones before the police charged.
The government had no compunctions about starving the miners out. For all the organizing that changed many lives–especially women’s lives–they had no choice, after a year, but to go back to work. Most deep pits in Britain were closed without alternative jobs for the men who had spent years digging in the dark. Many communities died. From Thatcher’s point of view, the pits were uneconomical and the unions were intransigent; A became the pretext for taking care of B.
If it weren’t for the scars that remain, all this might seem like ancient history: protesters are more likely now to picket coal-fired power stations than support striking miners. The strike’s defeat has taken on the air of inevitability that settles over the past: it looks now like the moment when a shift in the balance of forces finally became clear. And yet that transformational moment resonates with the present. We are caught up in enormous changes no one can yet name; confrontations are brewing as the recession deepens. The British police, rather melodramatically predicting a "summer of rage," have been keeping tabs for some time now on those they see as potential troublemakers, including journalists. If there’s a message in the miners’ strike for modern organizers, it goes something like this: keep a cold, clear eye on reality; don’t stint on democracy; and never underestimate the power of those in power.