Like many people in the South Wales Valleys, I live on the side of a steep hill. From a back window you can look through the valley: the rows of terraces, the shops, the woodland, farms, and hillsides. From the front door, you can look upon the old colliery site. Now the site is landscaped, barren but for some quite hardy plants, grass and trees that have taken to the soil and reclaimed it for nature after over a century of industrial working. Thirty years ago, however, the same view would have been of an iconic pit wheel – the winding gear mechanism that took men and coal up and down from the bowels of the earth. The Lady Windsor Colliery survived the miners’ strike, just, and was one of the few pits in the country that did not experience some form of slip back to work before the final return in March 1985.
My approach to the strike, here as elsewhere, is entirely as a historian: I was not born until the following year and my parents grew up in Somerset. Mine is not a mining family – their entry into the industrial revolution was as railway workers, and for much of the twentieth century my direct male ancestors were actually policemen. My great-grandfather was a village constable in the Garw Valley during the 1921 and 1926 lockouts and my grandfather was a constable during the 1972 and 1974 disputes – he was sent to the picket lines of the Somerset coalfield near Radstock during the former and by the time of the later the last pits had closed in that part of England. Both were Labour voters, however, and firmly working class. In those days, the relationship between the local policeman and his community was quite warm – this was fundamentally challenged during the strike itself, which I’ll talk about another time.
How do we begin to assess the strike? I’ve been thinking about this for quite a long time – at least since 2004-5 when the 20th anniversary was marked and I was away studying at Oxford. Some of the themes I’ve already mentioned on the blog, and others deserve thinking about as well – the rise of more radical education amongst the miners, the growth of left-nationalism, the bitter aftermath of the 1979 devolution referendum and the coming to power of Thatcher, the transformation of the Labour Party into a conservative force, the rise of equal rights campaigns (be they related to gender, race, sexuality, or language), international solidarity, and the activism of the NUM leadership. The last named may seem to be the most important – certainly the figure of Arthur Scargill is used by both to personify the miners – but I now wonder whether this was true beyond a surface level? The miners’ strike was undoubtedly about more than the miners and their jobs: it was a battle for a way of doing things in Britain that we have lost sight of. By this I don’t mean working heavy industrial jobs, having young, working-class people leaving school at 16 and going straight into work without any possibility of further education, or any of those aspects of ‘the past’ that are traditionally posited against the radical effects of Thatcherism. No. What I mean is a society that was grounded in the principles of fairness and equality and the dignity that that affords.
If we begin at the end: on the weekend that the miners’ strike was called off, the members of LGSM (Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners) were visiting the miners’ support group in the Dulais Valley. Those left behind in London opened their meeting by discussing the implications of the return to work resolution for the group’s campaign – they resolved to continue because their friends in the Dulais Valley still needed the support and that if the group suddenly came to an end their own actions would go unrecorded. They refused to let that happen (although a Bafta-winning film was surely not in their wildest dreams back then). Only a matter of weeks before the support group had shown visiting members of LGSM their new van emblazoned with the group logo. It remains to be discovered whether or not a ‘massive lez-off’ was ever carried out in Swansea!
There was undoubtedly an atmosphere of sadness – even anger – in the South Wales Coalfield when the strike came to an end, particularly over the NCB’s refusal to reinstate everyone who had been on strike. Miners from Maerdy told gathered radio journalists on their return to work on Tuesday 5 March, that:
We’re sick as pigs about it, because of the boys we’ve left behind. But they will be re-instated. […] We’re all going back because of the Union altogether, sir. We’re feeling sick as bastard pigs about these poor boys who are not coming in with us this morning. […] We’ve got to do something for them, we can’t desert them. All they’ve done is try to fight to keep our bloody jobs.
This would remain a major issue and although, as Hywel Francis points out, anger and bitterness against local management was ‘kept under control by lodge discipline and fear of victimisation’ out in the community it was another matter. Flashpoints such as the trial of the two miners accused of murdering David Wilkie, the Cardiff taxi driver killed when a brick was hurled into his window on the A470, showed that community solidarity would not be broken in quite the same way.
Behind the scenes, of course, certain lines of division were more obvious, even in villages such as Maerdy which tried so very hard to maintain a united front. The main issue was how and when to bring the strike to an end: would it be an organised, united return to work, or would South Wales (which was the most solid strike area in the country) eventually succumb to the drifts back to work evident elsewhere, particularly in Yorkshire. This was a live issue – the pits in Monmouthshire were probably kept out by the development of the Gwent Food Fund and, in Carmarthenshire, Cynheidre Lodge, which saw over 500 men break ranks during the strike, became a talismanic symbol of what could happen even in South Wales. Cynheidre Lodge, incidentally, were actively supported by Bristol South Labour Party (especially the Southville and Windmill Hill wards). Street collections for money and food, together with visits back and forth, proved one of the success stories of the twinning movement. In the context of LGSM, it’s worth pointing out here that many of those active in Bristol South Labour Party were also heavily involved in the Bristol branches of CHE (the Campaign for Homosexual Equality, at least before its demise in 1983) and the Labour Campaign for Lesbian and Gay Rights. The CLP were also foremost in discussing the development of the Labour Party’s black sections and the women’s movement, too.
The return to work movement gathered momentum in the winter of 1985. Living on such rations, together with the strain of maintaining a family in the midst of rent and electric and gas arrears, took its toll, and it came on the back of an extremely hard Christmas period. In Bedlinog, television news interviewed residents about how they were coping for food, one woman explained:
Food parcels we do every week, so it’s not so bad – that’s a good help that is.
But Christmas presents were in short supply. She continued:
I haven’t bought nothing. I’ve got nothing to give them anyway, to tell you the truth. They’re lucky to have food now, aren’t they.
Many organising the strike, including Dai Donovan, recognised that the major weakness lay in the well-being of the family. In the Dulais Valley, the support group formalised food parcels shortly after coming into existence in early May 1984 and set up a strategy that held for the rest of the strike. A family would be given a tin of meat, 8 potatoes, 6 carrots, a tin of peas, a loaf of bread, a tin of baked beans, a packet of cereal, and some fruit, in each parcel. A single person would get a reduced parcel consisting of a tin of meat, 3 potatoes, 3 carrots, 1 tin of peas, half a loaf of bread, a tin of beans, and half a packet of cereal (typically Weetabix). You feel hungry just thinking about how to survive on such a ration.
Early in 1985, a number of miners from Maerdy met with Kim Howells and others in Ynysybwl to discuss an organised return to work. Howells, the research officer for the South Wales Area and a major local figure during the strike, was a key advocate in favour of an organised return. On St David’s Day, 1985, the South Wales Area Conference resolved by a sizeable majority to return to work – it was imperative, in the words of Emlyn Williams, the Area president, ‘not merely to come out on strike under leadership, but also to go back under leadership’. It was, and amongst certain sections of the old workforce still is, somewhat controversial. For miners such as Tyrone O’Sullivan it was a defeatist step and the strike should have carried on with a view to an agreement but others insisted on it being necessary to preserving the vitality of the NUM and its ability to fight another day. That day will never come, now.
The strike stands at a particular moment in modern Welsh history. In an article published in the New Statesman in 1985, the historian Raphael Samuel suggested that the strike had taken on the character of a ‘regional crusade’ and that its consequences would be more far-reaching than the immediate nuances of an industrial dispute would imply. This is a valuable perspective and allows us to tease out some of the other themes that I mentioned earlier. There can be no doubt that the miners’ strike sums up just how poorly the Thatcher government treated those it sought to leave behind, those whom it saw as an enemy. In his book, Wales Since 1939, Martin Johnes has sought to show the benefits that were brought to Wales during the 1980s, principally because of the active role taken by the Welsh secretaries Nick Edwards and Peter Walker. Martin suggests that the Tories helped to ‘remake’ Wales between 1979 and 1997 with much of the process begun during Nick Edwards years at the Welsh Office. I’ve often thought that Martin has a bit of a soft spot for him, bonding perhaps over Pembrokeshire, where Edwards was MP from 1970-1987. Martin’s reminder that we need to use colour, not black and white, to view the Thatcher years, ought not to gloss over the fact that those whom Thatcher treated as enemies faced an extremely bleak time.
One young miner told the BBC that, at the age of 26 most of his friends were unemployed:
Eighty percent of them are unemployed, they’ve worked, then get laid off, get a job and work a month, then get laid off […] it’s ridiculous […] I’m twenty-six years old and this is my third pit I’ve worked.
With nearly 3.5 million people drawing the dole in the early 1980s, the cycle of temporary employment and longer-term unemployment was a difficult one to break. No wonder that the plea from the women’s support groups was often, ‘give us employment for our youngsters to have life’. There was an undoubted turn away from politics amongst young people – this isn’t strictly a case of the politics of the past being stale, but a very clear recognition that the political decision making process did not work for the young. It would eventually resolve itself in taking redundancy payments and spending them on a quick ‘fix’, rather than lamenting the long-term demise of an industry that spelled the end of a way of life. After years of living without stability, who could blame them. This, it seems to me, marked the crystallisation of youthful apathy in coalfield areas and the beginning of the long decline in interest in politics and, as a consequence, utter stagnation in the Labour Party. Young, working-class men, simply absented themselves from the traditions of earlier generations knowing that nothing would change even if they were active – it’s a legacy we live with today. Passivity is always the easier choice.
For women in the mining communities, a different choice lay before them (although eventually the same degree of apathy would kick in). We should be careful, I think, in romanticising the women’s support groups but this should not prevent the historian from recognising just how important they were. For every participant such as Margaret Donovan (Dai Donovan’s wife) who was already political and who became increasingly so during the strike, there were those who took part and learned a new kind of activism. This would be expressed in local support groups, the South Wales Women’s Support Group, the regional committee which brought together women from across South Wales, and the national Women Against Pit Closures organisation. Women were separately active in their engagement with LGSM, too, travelling to London to attend the LGSM conference on 30 March 1985. Some of the momentum from the women’s support group in the Dulais Valley would be carried into the DOVE workshop situated in Banwen.
The idea of a regional crusade is probably given most visible credence in the form of the Wales Congress in Support of Mining Communities which was launched on 21 October 1984 at City Hall in Cardiff. Into it flowed support from across the Welsh left, from Plaid Cymru (typified by Dafydd Elis Thomas – known throughout at MP for the Miners), the Communist Party (typified by Hywel Francis, chairman of the Wales Congress), the Labour Party (Neil Kinnock became a supporter, having distanced himself from the strike itself), and the wider network of support groups, whether they be community support groups or those from the women’s movement and the lesbian and gay community – there were, it is worth reminding ourselves, two LGSM groups formed in Cardiff and Swansea. Many of the community groups would eventually turn themselves into local congresses – e.g. the Cardiff Congress, which began life as the Cardiff Miners’ Support Group. There was also the Wales-London Congress in Support of Mining Communities, which was launched on 9 March 1985, and featured speakers such as Ken Livingstone, Dafydd Elis Thomas, Illtyd Harrington (mayor of Merthyr), Anne Clwyd, and Hywel Francis. The following evening there was an anniversary benefit gig starring (amongst others) Elvis Costello and Billy Bragg.
If the London Congress was intended to become the focal point of continuing efforts in support of the Welsh miners – as the LGSM minutes record, the general consensus at the meeting on 9 March was that societies should dissolve themselves and activists work in the name of the London Congress instead – the Wales Congress took on a new role: proving that Wales could act as a united nation moving together on political goals separately from the wider British state. Just six years after the referendum debacle, the year of the struggle was apparently giving way to the year of hope. As Hywel Francis has written ‘the miners’ strike had […] created a Welsh unity and identity, overcoming language and geographical differences, which had failed to materialise in 1979’. It is perhaps significant that in his work on the period, Johnes does not mention the Wales Congress and historians have continued to overlook it. Ben Curtis, in his recent history of the South Wales Miners, records that the Congress ‘did not extent much beyond the struggle that gave it birth’. Both neglect and the conclusion that it was not that important are open to question, at least up to a point – certainly one of the major points of contention within the Congress was the extent to which it should support the Labour Party in the run up to the anticipated 1987 General Election and the extent to which it should remain independent. Coupled with the increasing rate of colliery closures, and seeping apathy, the Congress dissolved in 1986.
Its ongoing influence, however, lies in the construction of rainbow politics in this period. For most of the 1970s and early 1980s, the most dynamic party political elements within Welsh politics lay within Plaid Cymru and the Communist Party – about which I’ve written previously. The Labour Party was something of a barrier to change – conservative in its outlook and in its decision making. One of those present at the Wales Congress’s inaugural meeting in October 1984 told me recently that its ethos was more like the Anti-Apartheid campaign in which members of all parties came together to press for radical cultural change in South Africa and its neighbours. This, I think, captures the essence of why the Wales Congress proved influential in the long term: its ethos was sustained in the different pressure groups that came to the fore in the years afterwards – most especially the Wales Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign which was founded in 1986, and the Wales Anti-Apartheid Movement.
Notice that those were not ‘South Wales’ solidarity campaigns, but all-Wales ones. Likewise the Wales Congress. This was crucial in shifting consciousness. When Gwyn Alf Williams posed his famous question – when was Wales? – he knew there to be a complex answer. He provided the Gramscian reply that Wales is made by the Welsh people, if they choose too, because he knew, as all Welsh people do, that as a people we are often more divided than united. Even the miners were divided into South Wales and North Wales. If any future referendum was to succeed where 1979 had failed, politics had to provide the answer ‘now, Wales is now’ to Gwyn Alf’s interrogative.
If history is something more than a page of a book, more than a nice thing to read over a cup of tea or to watch on the television, if history is usable, it must be made relevant to the contemporary. Many of the issues faced by people in the miners’ strike remain current today. Apathy is still fundamentally a problem, the march of equality for women and sexual and racial minorities has yet to reach its end, the Labour Party is still largely moribund and devoid of new ideas to tackle deep-rooted issues, and there are still not enough jobs. The singular legacy of the miners’ strike, the thing that can be taken from then and still used today, is solidarity – people working together to change the world for the better, supporting each other through the hard times, and enjoyed, together, in the better times. At their meeting in late October 1984, the week after LGSM’s first visit to Onllwyn, those present at the Dulais Valley miners’ support group recorded in the minutes this:
We shall keep the friendship after our struggle, we can do for them as much as they have done for us.
We forgot how much we owe the miners and their communities. Without a miner, Britain would not have the National Health Service. Without miners, Britain would never have become as rich and prosperous a nation as she undoubtedly is. Without miners, we would not have the rights and responsibilities that we take for granted. Perhaps it is time to start worrying about those in need, especially if they were a Scargill man.