In 1984, the students at Liverpool University saw fit to elect me as Deputy President of the Guild of Undergraduates (student union basically). That summer I began my sabbatical year, which would be far stormier than I could ever have reckoned.
From the spring of 84, the miners had already gone on what would be a one year mammoth strike. This wasn’t your usual kind of industrial action. It was a battle. A war even. Unionised blue collar labour versus Maggie Thatcher.
The miners had brought down the Tories under prime minister Ted Heath in 1974 and forced Thatcher to a climb down in 1981. But….she had bided her time. Coal reserves were built up. And in 1984, Thatcher decided to face down the NUM. For her, this was part of a strategy to break organised labour in the UK. The miners knew this full well regarding themselves historically as a kind of vanguard of the proletariat.
To say the stakes were high would be putting it mildly. So what did we do in the student union? Well, to be honest, students were a bit irrelevant to all the main action. However, my little office soon had a small mountain of old clothes donated by students who wanted to help cash strapped miners’ families.
There were also coaches organised to take students down to picket lines but always rather thinly attended as they did leave at the crack of dawn – around the time most undergraduates were going to bed!
I got to know a couple of miners and one of them, Garry Knowles, was interviewed by me for the student paper. From memory, and I hope I spelt his name right there, he was working at Bold colliery. Bold and Sutton Manor were our two closest pits. Garry somewhat challenged my image of a miner – as portrayed by novelists like D H Lawrence and George Orwell – by being a spiky haired goth.
People put up miners in their homes when they went around the UK to speak at rallies and meetings. There was sometimes a clash of cultures, shall we say. I recall one very middle class woman detailing to us how a very large miner had somehow managed to walk through her French windows without opening them – very drunk at the time needless to say. I’ve no idea what injuries he sustained but her windows were beyond repair!
We also wanted to make donations to the miners but as a student union we were barred by the ultra vires laws – because we were a charity and could only give to bodies with educational aims. The Socialist Workers Party were always goading us to breach the ultra vires laws. But we came up with a smarter ruse.
Apart from being Deputy President of the Guild – a charity – I was also secretary of the area National Union of Students, a body called MASO that was not a charity. So the Guild made a modest donation to MASO that then passed on this donation to the NUM. Incredibly, the Attorney General, Sir Michael Havers, wrote to the Treasurer of the Guild telling her to retrieve the money from the NUM as it still bore the “imprimatur” of the Guild.
It was decided by the Guild officers that the Attorney General was talking out of his highly partisan backside and we ignored the letter. Nothing happened. And we all knew that the college Conservative association had put him up to this.