Thirty years ago this month the miners’ strike began. One of the defining moments of modern British history and Margaret Thatcher’s government, in March 1984 Arthur Scargill led the National Union of Mineworkers out on strike in protest against proposed mine closures. The strike has been viewed as a stark battle between the Thatcher government, determined to privatise the British coal industry and undermine the power of the Trade Union movement, and the Marxist Scargill who believed the industry should be protected. The mines themselves were losing money and the closures were part of the government’s attempt to make the industry profitable.
The Labour party, labour movement and mining communities were divided throughout the strike, especially after Scargill had failed to hold a national ballot before taking the miners’ out. Violence erupted, both on picket lines between strikers and police and between those for and against the strike. For the miners and their families it was a period of great economic hardship, and after a year they were forced to return to work.
Our oral history project, which records the life stories of former MPs, offers perspectives from all parties and across the country on the strike. The Conservative MP and Minister Patrick Jenkin, now Lord Jenkin of Roding, was a strong supporter of the economic changes. He remembered the strike as a major test for Thatcher:
Nevertheless, it was a very very bruising encounter, which she had to win. She had to win.
Although the strike was seen as several Conservative MPs as a great battle between the government and the labour movement, memories from Labour MPs demonstrate that there were strong divisions within mining communities. Joe Ashton was Labour MP for Bassetlaw, a constituency which included both Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire mines. The Nottinghamshire mines were at the time still profitable, and the miners continued to work throughout the strike. In this clip he discusses the divisions within his constituency, and his decision to support the strike:
The Labour MP for Rhondda, Allan Rogers, also supported the strike; yet he too saw divisions within the community. For example one local miners’ organisation, controlled by the Communist party, resented his involvement. Rogers himself did not support Scargill, in this clip he explains why he would not share a platform with him:
This did not stop Rogers and his family from supporting the strike and the miners. Rogers spoke of his time on the picket lines and lending his car to picketers, and he, his family, and Joe Ashton gave up part of their salaries to miners’ support groups.
For all those who were involved, the strike was a divisive and difficult time, but a major event in their political careers. Patrick Jenkin remembered facing angry crowds in Yorkshire (although he also remembered others in the Labour movement apologising for the treatment he received). John Powley, Conservative MP for Norwich South, spoke of his surprise that pickets arrived in his constituency. For the Batley and Spen Conservative MP Elizabeth Peacock, who supported the government (but later voted against her party’s plans to close pits in Yorkshire), she remembered a strike in early 1984 as cause for an early TV appearance. In this clip, she discusses her nerves about the interview, and how she prepared figures on the costs of the mining industry:
For more on our oral history project, see our website.