Being a student union officer during the miners’ strike in 1984 to 1985

IMG_6956In 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.

Fun times!

Crashing the National Grid for the miners

Seems a rather strange idea now but back in 1984 during the miners’ strike, we were told to fire up as many electrical appliances as possible between 6pm and 6.30pm to crash the national grid. The intention was to force a peak in consumption that would make the CEGB (Central Electricity Generating Board) burn more coal. This would reduce the stocks built up by the government to try and beat the strike. And so victory for the strikers would be hastened.

Well, that was the intention. In truth, I can’t remember anybody going for this ruse. If you did do tell me. Here was the postcard distributed at the time with instructions on what to do.

Miners produce their own version of The Sun and News of the World

During the 1984/85 miners strike, the tabloid newspapers owned by Rupert Murdoch – The Sun and the News of the World – took a very hostile stance towards the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). Murdoch was about to take on his own print unions so organised labour was in his sights. The Sun put the NUM’s president Arthur Scargill on the front page with the headline “Mine Fuhrer” – geddit?

In response, miners brought out their own right-to-reply version of the Murdoch tabloids that included adverts of support from Murdoch’s print unions and some journalists. That wouldn’t have gone down well with the press baron.

Here, from my 80s archives, is that mock tabloid from the miners:

When Thatcher caved in to the miners

We all know that Thatcher defeated the miners in 1985 because Meryl Streep told us so.  But Maggie’s fight with the National Union of Mineworkers didn’t go without some major hiccups along the way. When the Tories came to power in 1979, they were determined on revenge for the perceived role the miners had in bringing down the 1970-1974 Ted Heath Conservative government. The NUM was seen as the militant vanguard of the labour movement and if it could be cowed, then it would be a lot easier to push through the Thatcher agenda.

The government was determined to reduce subsidies to the nationalised industries, which in those days covered car making, steel, transport, gas, electricity and coal mining – amongst other things. So in 1980, legislation allowed Thatcher to remove operating subsidies from the coal industry. By 1981, the Coal Board was begging for more cash. The response was to announce the closure of 23 pits.

The NUM was led by Joe Gormley, who had been leader of the union in the Ted Heath years, and he demanded a reduction in coal imports and the restitution of subsidies to the industry. In a rare climbdown, Thatcher gave in. This was hailed as her first big U-turn since coming to power. So why did she do it?

You can rest assured it had nothing to do with the persuasiveness of Gormley’s arguments. What has since emerged was the existence of a plan drafted by right wing Conservative MP Nicholas Ridley – called the Ridley Plan. Drafted after the 1974 miners strike, he secretly urged Tories to prepare almost with military precision for a titanic battle with the NUM. Coal stocks would have to be upped, imports of coal increased, money cut off for strikers, etc.

The reality in 1981 was that these preparations were not nailed down. Thatcher needed more time to prepare. And by 1984 – when she announced 20 pit closures – she was ready for the year long battle that ensued.