The Breaking of the British Working Class

by Tom Mills

Marking thirty years since the end of the miners' strike of 1984/5, NLP's Tom Mills reviews two collections looking back on the iconic dispute.

First published: 03 March, 2015 | Category: Book Review, History, Labour movement

Granville Williams, ed., Shafted: The Media, the Miners’ Strike & the Aftermath, London: Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, 2009.

Granville Williams, ed., Settling Scores: The Media, The Police & The Miners’ Strike, London: Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, 2014.

Thirty years ago today a vote by the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) officially brought an end to the miners' strike which had begun in March the previous year.  Only the most hardline of Conservatives now crow about that victory, and liberals would rather forget the whole ugly business.  But the victors' victims will not – cannot – forget.  Drinking to celebrate the death of Margaret Thatcher in 2013, one 75-year-old former miner told the journalist Paul Routledge: 'I'm sorry for those who cannot be here today.  Those who passed away before she died.' [1]

The strikers themselves, their families, and their communities, have had to live with the grim legacy of that defeat.  But whilst it has been most acutely felt in Britain's former mining towns, its impact has been much broader.  Having isolated and beaten the most politically potent section of the British working class, the Thatcherites were free to transform British society in the interests of the class forces they represented; privatising much of the country's publicly owned utilities, restructuring its financial markets and dismantling or emasculating the partially democratised functions of the state.  The strike thus not only marked the political defeat of the country's organised working class, but a shift towards an anti-democratic form of politics which would come to dominate not just Britain, but much of the world.  As Thatcher's PR advisor Tim Bell remarked, 'the miners' strike has absolutely changed the way we live in our society... [it was] the seminal moment in which the left lost and the right won.' [2]  Key to the Conservative Government's final victory in March 1985 – which was by no means guaranteed – were some of the most powerful, corrupt and corrupting institutions in British public life; notably the police and the corporate media.  The brutality of the former and the partisanship of the latter were shocking at the time, but it is revealing to look back on this episode given what we now know about these institutions and their place in the neoliberal order they helped usher in.

These two collections, produced by the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, bring together quite a number of reflections on that seminal class conflict, mainly from journalists.  Shafted, which was published in 2009 to mark 25 years since the strike, focuses largely on the role of the media, whilst Settling Scores, a shorter collection, which was published last year to mark the 30th anniversary, considers also the role of the police.

The lie machine

'Arthur Scargill warned that this was only the first attack on the working class and that if the NUM went down everyone else would be vulnerable,' the late Tony Benn writes in the foreword to Shafted, 'and how right he was.' [3]  Throughout the dispute Scargill claimed there was a secret plan by the National Coal Board chairman Ian MacGregor to close 70 pits.  This was officially denied; indeed Thatcher called Scargill a liar.  But as Nick Jones reveals in his contribution to Settling Scores, MacGregor had in fact advised Thatcher within months of becoming chairman that he intended to close 75 pits.  Newly declassified documents, Jones writes, reveal 'how closely Thatcher was personally involved in a calculated campaign of misinformation' during the strike. [4]  Thatcher ordered that there should be total secrecy over MacGregor's targeted pit closure and authorised a letter from MacGregor to every miners' home 'categorically and solemnly' stating that Scargill's claim that jobs were at risk was 'absolutely untrue'. [5]

Readers will not be surprised to learn that the media failed to expose the government's lies and to interrogate its case against the miners.  Throughout the nearly yearlong dispute, the perspective of the striking miners was largely absent from reporting, whilst the leadership of the NUM were subjected to relentless attack from the corporate press.  As Grenville Williams, the editor of both collections, writes in Shafted:

The national press in 1984, with the exception of The Guardian, Daily Mirror and Morning Star were slavishly pro-Thatcherite. [...] The result was a stream of front-page headlines, news reports and photographs which projected an inaccurate and distorted picture of the strike: ('Godfather Scargill's Mafia Mob', News of the World, 7 October 1984; 'Scargill's Real Aim Is War', Sun, 5 April 1984).  Readers were left with a view that the strike was precipitated by the power-crazed antics of Arthur Scargill, and that the extreme measures taken by the police both at the pit gates and in the courts were caused solely by picket-line violence. [6]

Though not explored in either collection, the lack of balance in reporting was a symptom of changes to the political economy of the industry.  In the decades leading up to the dispute the left-wing and social democratic press had gone into decline under the pressures of the capitalist market, whilst large media conglomerates had expanded their holdings.  Rupert Murdoch had taken control of The Sun in 1969 and turned the once popular left-wing working-class daily into a cheerleader for Thatcher's assault on the 'post-war consensus'.   The Sun's gradual political transformation was finally complete in 1981 when Murdoch appointed public school boy man-of-the-people Kelvin MacKenzie as editor.  MacKenzie was a bigot and a bully, and The Sun under his leadership viciously attacked the left whilst lending valuable support to the neoliberal movement with a crass yet accomplished reactionary populism for which MacKenzie showed some talent.   The same year he was appointed to head The Sun, Murdoch – with the blessing of Thatcher – took control of The Times, which had for a time been assiduously non-partisan, but had shifted to support for the Tories in 1974 as the left of the Labour Party grew in strength.

Like the owners of the Express and the Mail, News International was implacably hostile to the trades unions.  Perhaps the most notorious example of the Murdoch empire's reporting during the miners' strike was the front page of The Sun on 15 May 1984, which showed Arthur Scargill apparently making a Nazi salute under the brilliantly witty headline, 'Mine Fuhrer'.  Except that the front page never saw the light of day.  The then still strongly unionised print workers refused to run it, and instead the front page that day read: 'Members of all The Sun production chapels refused to handle the Arthur Scargill picture and major headline on our lead story.  The Sun has decided, reluctantly, to print the paper without either.'  As John Bailey notes in his chapter in Settling Scores, print workers used their influence during the strike to ensure 'those vilified an equally prominent Right of Reply... a radical form of protest not previously exercised in Britain, inspired by the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom'. [7]  Industrial actions such as this tempered the most extreme propaganda emanating from the reactionary press, but this 'radical form of protest' would prove short lived.  As Bailey goes on to discuss, the miners' strike was soon followed by the Wapping dispute, the other decisive industrial dispute of the 1980s in which Murdoch, with a little help from his friends in the Metropolitan Police, broke the power of the print unions, and thereby consolidated the corporate control of the British press.

Hostility to the NUM was not limited to the right-wing press.  As Pete Lazenby notes in Settling Scores,

It was the supposedly Labour supporting Daily Mirror which led the attack [on the NUM] in 1990, with allegations that during the strike Arthur [Scargill] and Peter [Heathfield]had stolen money to pay their mortgages.  That was followed by Central Television's Cook Report, with the same allegations.  Outright lies of course, as subsequently proved. [8]

The Mirror editor at that time, Roy Greenslade, would later apologise for that 'deplorable saga', which is central to Seanus Milne's account of the 'dirty tricks' campaign against the miners by MI5. [9]

The role of the 'secret state' during the strike itself is, well, secret.  Nick Jones notes in his survey of the newly released National Archives files that the papers from MI5 and GCHQ have been removed, but that some clues of their activities remain. [10]   Journalist Peter Lazenby claims that his phone was tapped during the strike, [11] and scraps of evidence suggest that the 'secret state' played an important role.  This is the subject of a short chapter in Shafted by Lobster editor Robin Ramsay.  Heading MI5's operation against the NUM during the strike, Ramsay notes, was its head of F2 branch, Stella Rimington, later the Director General of MI5.  Rimington has admitted that her organisation investigated those thought to be 'using the strike for subversive purposes'.  This was justified by the false claim that the NUM leadership were supported by the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) – making them, by association, agents of foreign powers.  In fact, Ramsay notes, Scargill names the CPGB as being among 'a number of people and industries that deliberately betrayed the miners'.  Rimington has denied that MI5 ran agents, or tapped the phones of the NUM during the strike.  But as Ramsay notes, it would in any case have been Special Branch running agents and GCHQ and the NSA which headed surveillance – and the fact that they did has been confirmed to the Guardian. [12]

The BBC

In her official history of the BBC during this period, Jean Seaton refers to it as 'the communicating part of the security state'.  Was the Corporation too drawn into the war against the 'enemy within'?  Whilst it undoubtedly presented a more balanced picture of the dispute than the private press, the BBC's reporting was overwhelmingly favourable to the perspectives of the Conservative Government and the National Coal Board.  BBC television news has probably received the most criticism, a particular focal point of which has been its coverage of the events of 18 June 1984 when police violently suppressed a mass picket at a coking plant in Orgreave, South Yorkshire – the famous 'Battle of Orgreave'.  At a News and Current Affairs meeting the following day – among the internal discussions revealed in a chapter on the BBC in Settling Scores – the Assistant Director-General Alan Protheroe said he had a feeling that the BBC’s early evening news coverage of Orgreave ‘might not have been wholly impartial.’  Peter Woon, head of television news, admitted that there may have been a ‘marginal imbalance’ in the reporting, though not, he claimed, enough to ‘justify the NUM’s view that the BBC was biased.’  The news and current affairs editors went on to discuss ‘how neutral one could be as between law-breakers and the police’ and to what extent ‘the BBC’s coverage must show the extent to which the miners were to blame.’ [13]

What was not discussed at that meeting was the fact that the BBC’s television news bulletin had altered the sequence of events that day to make it appear that the miners had provoked the police.  This came to the attention of senior editors only several months later when Protheroe referred in a news and current affairs meeting to ‘an extraordinary complaint from a miner alleging that the BBC had reversed sequences in a film so as to suggest that missile throwing by pickets had been followed by a police baton charge when in reality the police had moved first.’ [14]  It was not until 1991 that the BBC finally admitted that the sequence of events had indeed been reversed, explaining that this had been done ‘inadvertently’ in ‘the haste of putting the news together’. [15]

It has been alleged that such distortion was undertaken at the behest of the Conservative Government.  Writing in the British Journalism Review in 2009, the late Geoffrey Goodman, the Daily Mirror’s industrial editor during the strike, claimed to have confirmed with an unnamed ‘impeccable source’ that there were ‘specific instructions from the highest level of Government to the BBC to ensure that TV camera crews filming the conflict between miners and the police focused their shots on miners’ violence, but not on the police smashing heads.’ [16]  To date, no documentary evidence seems to have come to light to support this claim.

BBC Radio is generally thought to have presented a more nuanced picture of the strike, and its own review of its coverage, the BBC commended its labour correspondent for radio news, Nick Jones, for his ‘grip on the central and sensitive aspects of the story that was second to none’. [17]   Indeed, Jones was named industrial journalist of the year by the Industrial Society for his reporting.  Yet he admits, in retrospect, that his reporting inadvertently buttressed the Conservative Government’s political strategy.  In a chapter of Shafted entitled, 'The soul searching of a former BBC correspondent', Jones writes:

I have to admit that in the end I got ensnared by the seeming inevitability of the Thatcherite story that the mine workers had to be defeated in order to smash trade union militancy. […]  While I would contend that broadcasters like myself tried valiantly to represent both sides of the dispute, we did have to work within what had become an all powerful narrative: the country could not afford to continue subsidising uneconomic coal mines, devastating though that might be for their communities; the strike itself was a denial of democracy because there had been no pit head ballot and the violence on the miners’ picket lines, by challenging  the rule of law, constituted a threat to  the democratic government of the country. [18]

Towards the end of the strike, Jones acknowledges,

the balance of coverage tipped almost completely in the management’s favour. […] [A]ttention was focused on the ‘new faces’ who were going back to work.  For the newspapers these men were heroes; television pictures, filmed from behind the police lines, showed them being bussed into their pits, braving the pickets. [19]

Alternative media, it should be emphasised, provided quite a different picture of the dispute and one of the stand out chapters in the two books is Tony Harcup's account of the role it played during the strike.  Of particular note in this regard is the Miners' Campaign Tapes project, a series of VHS films produced with the support of the National Union of Journalists, the radical broadcasting union, the ACTT, and Channel 4, which was then still providing a genuine alternative to the mainstream broadcasters.  One edition of the Miners' Campaign Tapes, entitled The Lie Machine, directly interrogated the distortions that had appeared in the mainstream media. [20]  The vibrant networks of alternative newspapers and film workshops described by Harcup, however, were themselves demoralised by the outcome of the strike, and subsequently went into decline.  Alternative media today, he notes, is largely focused on comment and analysis, and the capacity to report and thus to present authentically alternative accounts has largely been lost. [21]

Assaulted – mentally and physically

What actual impact did the biased reporting, misinformation and propaganda have on the dispute?  As Paul Routledge notes in Settling Scores, 'The men and women who lived in mining communities through the great ordeal of 1984-85 know what happened, because it happened to them.' [22]  Those most centrally involved in the dispute were not persuaded by the lies and distortions that emanated from Downing Street and the capitalist media.  But both collections seem to suggest that hostile media coverage and the campaign of misinformation had a demoralising effect on the striking miners and their families.  This was, in fact, precisely the intended effect.  As then Tory propagandist Tim Bell explained in 2009, the Thatcherites' strategy

wasn’t about winning public opinion.  It wasn’t about persuading the media.  It was about getting the miners to get back to work.  To give in on their strike and to drift back to work with their tails between their legs, heads hung low, having failed. [23]

This was what happened.  And it was achieved through a combination of 'ideological' and more 'material' means. 

In a manner now familiar to anyone who has been involved in radical activism, striking miners were physically attacked by police and the criminal justice system was used as an instrument of coercion and intimidation.  As Joe Owens, who provides another of the noteworthy chapters in Shafted, wrote in 1995, 'Illusions of the police as just another emergency service were literally beaten out of miners and their families in scenes of quite sickening brutality.' [24]  Indeed, it is amazing that the public reputation of the police survived the dispute.  Hilary Wainwright, in her chapter in Shafted on the role of women in the dispute speaks to a then miner's wife, Juliana Heron, who recalls how police brought into her area mocked the children of striking miners by waving money at them. [25]  Perhaps these particular officers were members of the Met, who a report on policing during the strike noted were 'valued in violent confrontation', but held 'attitudes' which it was 'harder for local people to identify with'. [26] 

The other now notorious police force which featured prominently in the strike was South Yorkshire police, the same force revealed to have fabricated evidence in relation to the Hillsborough disaster.  In October 2012, the BBC's Inside Out programme revealed that police evidence about the 'Battle of Orgreave' had also been fabricated by police.  Indeed, it appears the scale of the fabrication was even greater than at Hillsborough.  Thirty-one police officers from four different police forces, for example, used the following identical phrase in their statements: 'As we stood there in the line a continuous stream of missiles came from the pickets into the police line... there were no shields being used at this point.' [27]  Recall that this is the same incident about which the BBC misled viewers.  Evidence such as this was used by the courts to intimidate striking miners.  'The apparat of the judiciary and the legislature,' Joe Owens notes in his account, 'assiduously pursued every legal avenue, however obscure, to break the union.  Basic civil rights of assembly, freedom of movement and freedom from arbitrary arrest were curtailed, even suspended'. [28]  Newly released files, detailed by Nick Jones in Settling Scores, reveals the extent to which the Thatcher government lent both on the police and the courts to repress the strike.  Police were asked to take 'a vigorous approach' to pickets and were shielded from local democratic controls, whilst courts were pressurised to process criminal charges. [29]

In short, the many contributions to these two collections, which are of disparate lengths and quality, describe in considerable, albeit somewhat repetitive, detail, how a corporate-state machine swung into action against a popular working class mobilisation.  It makes for somewhat depressing reading.  Certainly a number of the authors give a feel for the inspiring solidarity and the sense of hope that inspired the strike.  But given that it is precisely the crushing of this spirit, and the lost capacity for effective collective action, that the end of the dispute has come to symbolise, the overall mood when not angry remains melancholy.  Contemplating the overall lessons of the historic strike in Settling Scores, Granville Williams quotes the French novelist Albert Camus's reflections on the Spanish Civil War: 'men [and women] learned that one can be right and yet be beaten that force can defeat spirit, that there are times when courage is not its own reward.' [30]

Tom Mills is a researcher and PhD candidate at the University of Bath and a co-editor of New Left Project. He tweets @ta_mills.

 

[1] Paul Routledge, 'The Enduing Story', in Granville Williams, ed., Settling Scores: The Media, The Police & The Miners’ Strike, London: Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, 2014, p.35.

[2] Quoted in Patricia Holland, 'After-memory: Documentary films and the aftermath of the miners' strike', in Granville Williams, ed., Shafted: The Media, the Miners’ Strike & the Aftermath, London: Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, 2009, p.111.

[3] Tony Benn, foreword, Shafted, p.9.

[4] Nick Jones, 'The Cabinet Papers: Misinformation and cover-ups', in Williams, ed., Settling Scores, pp.25-6.

[5] Ibid., pp.22-4.

[6] Granville Williams, 'The media and the miners', in Williams, ed. Shafted, p.38.

[7] John Bailey, 'From Orgreave to Wapping: The Real Enemy Within', in Williams, ed., Settling Scores, p.109.

[8] Pete Lazenby, 'The Media Barrage', in Williams, ed., Settling Scores, p.47.

[9] Seumas Milne, The Enemy Within: Thatcher's Secret War Against the Miners (London: Verso, 2004).

[10] Nick Jones, 'The Cabinet Papers: Thatcher and the Police', in Williams, ed., Settling Scores, pp.73-4.

[11] Pete Lazenby, 'Covering coal in Yorkshire', in Williams, ed. Shafted, p.55

[12] Robin Ramsay, 'The miners and the security state', in Williams, ed. Shafted, p.75

[13] Tony Harcup, 'Reporting the Next Battle: Lessons from Orgreave', in Williams, ed., Settling Scores, pp.96-7.

[14] Ibid., p.98.

[15] Ibid., p.101.

[16] Geoffrey Goodman, ‘War without end’, British Journalism Review 2009 20:79.

[17] Tony Harcup, 'Reporting the Next Battle: Lessons from Orgreave', in Williams, ed., Settling Scores, p.102.

[18] Nick Jones, 'The soul searching of a former BBC correspondent', in Williams, ed., Shafted, pp.81-2.

[19] Ibid., pp.82-3.

[20] Tony Harcup, 'It wasn't all about Arthur', in Williams, ed. Shafted, 66-67.

[21] Ibid., 70.

[22] Settling Scores, p.39

[23] 'When Britain Went to War', broadcast on More4 9pm, 20 June 2009.

[24] Granville Williams, 'Introduction: Look back in anger', in Williams, ed. Shafted, p.15

[25] Hilary Wainwright, 'We are women, we are strong...', in Williams, ed. Shafted, p.103.

[26] quoted in Settling Scores, 73

[27] Granville Williams, 'Setting the Record Straight: Inside Out on Orgreave', in Williams, ed., Settling Scores, p.60

[28] Joe Owens, Miners 1984-1994: A Decade of Endurance (Polygon, 1995), pp.7-8, quoted in Granville Williams, 'Introduction: Look back in anger', in Williams, ed. Shafted,  p.15.

[29] Nick Jones, 'The Cabinet Papers: Thatcher and the Police'. In: Granville Williams, ed., Settling Scores: The Media, The Police & The Miners’ Strike, London: Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom, pp.64-66.

[30] Granville Williams, 'Thirty Years On', in Williams, ed., Settling Scores, p.20.

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