It was New Year’s Eve 1971, and Labour’s Tony Benn was in a sombre mood. Just eighteen months into his new life on the opposition benches, he feared that his party was becoming ever more unelectable. Split over Europe and how to respond to rising unemployment, Benn felt that the election maestro, Harold Wilson, was out of ideas.
Constant press attacks had “knocked the stuffing out of him”, and as he looked across the other benches, he envied the strength of the government’s conviction. Edward Heath was, he concluded, “a strong and tough Prime Minister who is prepared to face battles and fight them out”. Never, a jaded Benn declared, had he “felt more like one of Yesterday’s Men.”
Coal was in long-term retreat, and new jobs were expected to replace them.
Benn had good reasons to feel despondent. After winning the 1970 general election against all expectations, people were surprised at how the Conservative Government went about their business. After promising to rebuild Britain as “one nation”, Heath won plaudits for securing the application to join the EEC and for a raft of proposals to revive British industry.
To the American commentator, Anthony Lewis, Heath succeeded because he was unlike the other political leaders: “He is not a master of compromise…He proclaims his own policies and sticks to them almost as articles of religion.” Another foreign correspondent observed how he was “showing a much greater assurance and confidence, of a national leader sure of himself and his destiny” than in previous years.
Much faith was placed in Heath’s Industrial Relations Act to bring “regulation to the economy” and to reduce the wage inflation that had occurred towards the end of the 1960s. Labour had attempted their own control of wage inflation through In Place of Strife but came unstuck in the face of backbench and trade union resistance.
So Heath held a meeting at Chequers to “discuss how to break the circle of inflation” on rising wages. What emerged was the “N-1” policy (to cap pay increases to 1% less than the previous settlement) which would “bind the Government in any negotiation, cut excessive pay demands and keep inflation in check” when dealing with pay in nationalized industries. Heath expected a confrontation with one major industry to test his resolve. The last people on earth they expected it from was their old enemy; the miners.
From its central position in the post-war years, coal had gradually faded from view during the industrial battles of the 1960s. Destined for permanent decline, the industry had borne the brunt of Lord Robens’ swingeing cuts, and over the decade, the number of miners dropped from 571,000 in 1960 to 280,000 in 1972 as small so-called unprofitable pits were closed.
Much of the decline happened on Labour’s watch. In A Future for the Miners, published in 1966, the government warned that they could no longer “burden the price of coal with the cost of uneconomic pits”. The report was stark in its conclusion that it would make no “economic” or “social sense” to maintain uneconomic pits, whilst slowing down the development of gas, “one of our most spectacular growth industries” and nuclear, which Britain had “a head start on the rest of the world.” There was some grassroots resistance to the cuts. In an explosive debate at the 1967 party conference, one Labour delegate decried the idea of replacing pits with factories and “taking a miner and getting him sewing knickers.” In reality, coal was in long-term retreat, and new jobs were expected to replace them.
His calls fell flat, and protesters hurled flaming candles and waxed paper torches at him
The miners won admirers by tolerating the closures in the 1960s. But the lack of industrial action had seen them steadily slip down the wages league table. Finally, under the stewardship of a more aggressive General Secretary in Lawrence Daly, the NUM demanded a substantial pay rise. In 1971, Conference passed two critical motions that directly challenged Heath’s pay policy: a pay claim of 47%, reinforced by a commitment to strike action and a reduction in the ballot threshold for a national strike. Thus, when the NCB stuck to Heath’s policy, Britain had its first official miners’ walkout since 1926.
The general strike of 1926 was still part of British folklore in the 1970s, and memories were soon revived of the miners’ historical failures. The Daily Mail confidently predicted that “a fight to the bitter finish would not only end in a defeat for the miners”, it would also “cripple morale”. The Telegraph warned that it could end in a general strike: “the last one, in more favourable circumstances, did not succeed; neither would one succeed now”. Most famously, on the eve of the dispute, Thames broadcast a documentary centred around the life of the pit village Armthorpe. They gave it the title: The Miners’ Last Stand.
Heath was confident that he could sit this one out. He had the coal stocks to sustain a dispute, and he maintained a line — as Margaret Thatcher would in the 1980s — that this was a dispute between the NCB and the NUM. Devoid of a coherent argument about why the miners did not deserve a pay rise, however, things soon began to unravel. The NUM drew up an emotive campaign advert to try and win public sympathies. It depicted the miner as an “honest” man working in an industry where “92 of my mates were killed, and 82,213 were injured: This is the price we pay for your coal”.
Journalists dispatched to the coalfields were shocked at the hardship that had taken hold. “In pay”, one miner concluded, “we are right down near the farmworkers now, and they’ve got fresh air!”. The New York Times discovered desperation at declining living standards. “It’s a limited life”, revealed one miner. “You have money for food, but you want more than that. You want a life too”. Another compared coal life to being an animal. “The dust, the water, crawling on your stomach half the day with the roof scraping your back….it’s a miserable way to earn a quid”.
Across the country, groups of different people, who had never encountered a miner in their lives, began to offer their support to the cause. Groups raised tinned food and toys for children to sustain them in their dispute. And when the miners travelled the country to picket workplaces, they were enthusiastically received. University students housed them overnight and helped them occupy student buildings.
Other students sought to bend their student unions financial rules by offering miners £500 each to come and lecture them on the politics of the dispute. In Deal, Kent, a young manager of a local cinema, offered half-price entry to any striking miner: “I have sympathy for the miners in their struggle.” Sympathy even reached the pages of the Telegraph, where angry readers suggested that MPs and miners should try and swap jobs for a week. “One questions how many MPs in a working week put in the same hours as a coal miner”. Harold Wilson changed track too. He was now referring to the miners as “the forgotten men” of British industry, demanding that they be made a special case.
Tony Benn, once despondent, credited the miners with revitalizing the whole trade union movement
The success of the miners’ public relations campaign had been a surprise to everyone. Heath’s strength, of sticking to his guns, now appeared to be his weakness. In a speech in Liverpool, he attempted to turn public sympathy away from the miners. He promised to hold firm and speak out for the “silent majority” — the people who suffered most from the dispute; “The housewife, the elderly living on their fixed incomes, the people in need – the silent pickets in our society who have no unions to defend them, who create no violence, but number millions”. His calls fell flat, and protesters hurled flaming candles and waxed paper torches at him.
Once sympathetic newspapers, such as the Daily Mail, began to make the miners’ arguments for them. “There is a new spirit in the pit villages…they want to share in the affluent age,” said one editorial. “And if they can’t, well, why should a family man risk his life and health underground when he might be only a few pounds worse off on the dole?” The paper urged Heath to settle and get the miners back.
With neither side willing to back down, the miners’ attention switched to the distribution of coke, which was still being distributed to sustain the economy. The strike had seen the miners adopt a new style of picketing by targeting power stations, steelworks, ports, and coal depots.
Saltley, in the Midlands, had built an enormous supply of coke, and the miners’ leaders became convinced that they would need to shut the gates to win. A call was put out to recruit the striking miners from a nearby open cast mine to support a picket, and it quickly escalated. After a week, there were thought to be 15,000 people there. One relatively unknown miners’ official, Arthur Scargill, sent people down from Yorkshire. Legend has it that when Scargill sought extra support from South Wales, he was told the men wouldn’t leave as Wales were playing Scotland at Arms Park. “But”, Scargill replied, “the working class are playing the ruling class at Saltley!”
Over several days the Battle of Saltley Gate raged, and Scargill emerged as the new leader of the miners. Perched on top of a public toilet, he commanded the troops through his megaphone. Thousands more local workers joined until the pressure became unsustainable. Finally, a local Chief Constable decided that the game was up.
The gates were closed, and in front of the full glare of the television news crews, the miners rejoiced. A note was quickly sent through to a shocked Cabinet, and, the same day, a committee was set up under Lord Wilberforce to finally come to an agreement on pay. Douglas Hurd, then PPS to the Prime Minister, recorded in his diary that the government was “vainly wandering over the battlefield looking for someone to surrender to, and being massacred all the time”.
Lord Wilberforce not only settled at a 27% raise, but he also commended the miners’ spirit. They “often live in poor housing, in isolated communities and had ‘wholeheartedly cooperated’ in the streamlining of industry.” They had earned their victory. Lawrence Daly declared it to be revenge at last for 1926, and Heath finally turned to the trade unions for support. Tony Benn, once despondent, credited the miners with revitalizing the whole trade union movement.
For Mrs Thatcher, Saltley was when violence triumphed over the state
Two years later, the miners would further add to their mythical status when they were credited with bringing down the Heath administration following the “Who Governs?” election. In the space of two years, they had re-emerged as the most influential block of workers in the country, and Heath’s political career was finished.
Historians have since diverged on the importance of Saltley Gate. Some have argued that it was more a symbolic victory rather than a strategic one, while others believe that it was the critical turning point in the fall of the Heath Government. However, it is not disputed that both left and right mythologized Saltley for their own political ends.
At Saltley, the “legend” of Arthur Scargill was born. Scargill believed it was a template for all future industrial action, a moment when the working class had banded together. He claimed that the working class need only “flex its muscles and It could bring government, employers, society to a total standstill”. He would often frame arguments through the “glorious afternoon”, which he described as the greatest of his life.
Around the Cabinet table, that day was Scargill’s future opponent, the Education Secretary Margaret Thatcher. She, too, would mythologize Saltley in the hearts and minds of Conservative voters. For Mrs Thatcher, Saltley was when violence triumphed over the state. Reflecting in her memoir, she pinpointed it as the event which defined her attitudes towards the unions. The battle wouldn’t be fought in the House of Commons but “in and around the pits and the factories where intimidation had been allowed to prevail.”
When the final confrontation eventually came in 1984/85, many of the factors that enabled the miners to succeed in 1972 had been dismantled. The media and the trade union landscape was more hostile. The public, scarred by the high unemployment of the early 1980s, was much less sympathetic to the miners’ cause. And when Scargill tried to evoke the memories of Saltley, other workers failed to rally to his aid.
In the end, coal mining followed the path travelled by the other great industries that had shaped working-class life in the 20th century — cotton, textiles, shipbuilding and steel — into deep and irreversible decline. And while it may have seemed a premature statement at the time, the events of fifty years ago proved to be The Miners’ Last Stand.
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