After the Great Coal Strike: The government, management and strikes, 1985-92

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After the Great Coal Strike: The government, management and strikes, 1985-92

Chris Wrigley, School of History, Nottingham University

The defeat of the coal miners in 1984-5 appears in retrospect to have been decisive and irreversible. The Conservative government appears to have become free to operate unfettered market forces in a strike-free zone. Yet while the dispute was an ominous turning-point for the coal industry, it is clear that the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, for some time feared a second round of struggle with the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). An examination of strike statistics and daily reports to management of even the smallest disputes display an industry still on a short fuse. Moreover, various sources relating to the major ministerial players show that Mrs Thatcher had considerable fears of a resumption of industrial action by the NUM. In this context she was very willing to downgrade market forces considerations in favour of buttressing the Union of Democratic Mineworkers (UDM). Perhaps she felt more grateful to the UDM members than some of her colleagues as she had been in Edward Heath’s cabinet and so experienced first hand the mining events of 1972-4.

The levels of unrest after the 1984-5 dispute bear some similarity to the unrest in the coal industry after the 1926 general strike and coal lock-out. After both there was a propensity for embittered miners to strike over any friction between them and local management. In both periods miners rebelled against many workplace decisions by management and worked inflexibly by the book on such matters as numbers of workers or their skills for particular tasks. The post-1926 unrest lasted longer. Then there was unrest of almost a guerilla warfare kind, down to 1939. The unrest of the late 1980s was foreshortened by the privatisation of the industry. The post-1985 unrest was reported in micro-detail from the various mines. Two examples of telexed/faxed daily reports provide a flavour of coal-face concerns.

2 June 1987 South Yorkshire

Askern Face B53s Shift Afternoon NUM

Due to shortage of manpower only 14 men sent to the unit. Men demanded full team of 17. There were no more to send to the unit. Men came out in dispute. Loss estimated: 420 tonnes.

4 June 1987 Western

Hem Heath (North Staffs). Face 303 Shift Noon NUM

Continuation of dispute concerning face team who walked out on noon shift of 3 June. Team arrived for work but did not go underground. Awaited the outcome of a discussion between the deputy manager and union representatives. The manager instructed the men that they must agree to the deployment to the work required and then discuss their concerns. Men refused and went home. 303s face team on the night shift refused to work. Day shift of 5 June working normally. 4 June noon shift: 19 men affected, 1100 tonnes lost. 4 June night shift: 19 men affected, 800 tonnes lost.

After Margaret Thatcher's departure, ministers were less susceptible to waiving market forces in favour of defending UDM jobs. The scale of closures was even greater than Arthur Scargill had feared. Indeed, the government’s announcement in 1992 of a huge closure programme with privatisation even made Scargill and the NUM briefly popular with the general public. Closures came faster in Nottinghamshire than in Arthur Scargill’s South Yorkshire heartland, an outcome emphatically not desired by Mrs Thatcher. The closures went beyond the levels required by likely future demand. As a result British power stations came to rely on dearer imported coal. The coal industry increasingly looked to ‘clean coal’ technology in order to maintain coal as part of the UK’s energy mix. By December 2007 David Cameron, the Conservative leader, was pledging his party to clean coal. The events of 1985-92, as well as 1984-5, disrupted the UK’s energy options.

Andrew Perchard ( is Research Fellow at the University of Highlands and Islands Centre for History at the UHI Millennium Institute at Dornoch, Sutherland. He is the author of The Mine Management Professions in the Twentieth Century Scottish Coal Industry (2007), and ‘Aluminiumville’: Metal, the British Government and the Scottish Highlands (forthcoming, 2009).

Jim Phillips ( is Senior Lecturer in Economic and Social History at the University of Glasgow. His publications include The Great Alliance. Economic Recovery and the Problems of Power, 1945-1951 (1996), and Cheated Not Poisoned: Food Regulation in the United Kingdom, 1875-1938 (Manchester University Press, 2000), the latter co-authored with Michael French. His most recent book is The Industrial Politics of Devolution: Scotland in the 1960s and 1970s (Manchester University Press, 2008).
Chris Wrigley ( is Professor of Modern British History at Nottingham University. His books include David Lloyd George and the British Labour Movement (1976), British Trade Unions since 1933 (2002), AJP Taylor: Radical Historian of Europe (2006) and an edited three volume A History of British Industrial Relations (1982-96).

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