Margaret Thatcher against the miners: the Billy Elliot strike

When Margaret Thatcher died 11 years ago, her coffin covered in white roses passed through central London to applause.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
11 March 2024 Monday 10:25
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Margaret Thatcher against the miners: the Billy Elliot strike

When Margaret Thatcher died 11 years ago, her coffin covered in white roses passed through central London to applause. In some towns far from the British capital, however, they gave him a different farewell, although no less heartfelt: rounds of whiskey, jokes about hell and a common sentiment to which the president of the NUM miners' union gave voice: “I don't think shed not a tear."

The wounds of the great strike, which has been 40 years old, were and remain open. When the miners fought Thatcher for a year, the sector had 220,000 workers and 174 publicly owned mines. Today there is nothing left of that industry, as the country's last well closed in 2015. The strikers' slogan, “You close a well, you kill a community,” appears to have been vindicated. In the former mining areas, where six million Britons live, there is still less employment than in the rest of the country.

The strike had almost all the ingredients of a war: pitched battles, tactical duels, dead, wounded and civilian victims. The strikers attempted to paralyze the country and the British government employed thousands of police to suppress them, arresting more than 11,000 and changing laws to financially suffocate their families.

As seen in the film Billy Elliot, Thatcher also managed to confront the miners who could not continue without working with those who wanted to prevent scabs at all costs. And all of this was carefully planned.

In the eighties it seemed impossible that anyone could successfully confront the miners. In the previous decade they carried out two strikes that managed to block British industry, causing blackouts, and had even brought down a government. By using “flying pickets,” it was assumed that the union could strategically block coal transportation and the metal industry. However, Margaret Thatcher was not going to shy away from confrontation.

For the prime minister, with her speech of extreme economic liberalism, a huge, public and loss-making industry like British mining was the perfect example of everything that was wrong in the United Kingdom. On the other hand, the official position of the union was that no pit that had coal reserves should be closed, unless it was dangerous for the miners. When the person in charge of public mines appointed by Thatcher announced that around twenty unprofitable pits were going to be closed and their workers fired, the confrontation was ready.

However, this time the prime minister was better prepared than previous governments to deal with the reaction of the strikers. She had begun secretly storing large quantities of coal and had secured transportation of the mineral to power plants through agreements with companies that did not have large unions, thus avoiding the feared power cuts. Furthermore, unlike the strikes of the 1970s, this time the government planned an unprecedented police deployment to deal with the pickets.

When the strike began in early March 1984, the NUM had also made its preparations. It is estimated that some 140,000 miners left their jobs, but the union's resistance funds had enough money to help them financially for some time. However, no one expected the government to hold out this long: after nine months of confrontation, there was no rapprochement, and police protection of coal transport, combined with the use of government reserves, had managed to secure the electricity supply and minimize the risks. effects of the strike. Thereafter, the strikers' calculations collapsed, and many of the miners entered a desperate situation.

Thatcher's government had changed the law to ensure that the families of striking workers could not collect public benefits, forcing many to return to the mines in the face of picketing by their colleagues. She also used other means to divide the miners, starting with the distribution of the closures themselves, which affected mines in Scotland and Wales, where two out of three pits were to be closed, much more than those in England. Later, when the long strike began to take its toll on the unity of the NUM, the prime minister favored the emergence of new mining unions, secretly agreeing on more advantageous conditions for them.

Some of these tactics have only become known much later. During the strike, for example, the NUM denounced that, in addition to the 20 wells whose closure had been announced, there was a list of 50 more that were going to suffer the same fate. A declassification of official documents in 2014 showed that this was the case and that Thatcher's executive planned to close 75 mines and eliminate 64,000 jobs. In the same document it was specified that this list should not see public light.

Among the declassified reports, there are also those that show how Thatcher took a personal interest in speeding up trials against strikers and giving more publicity to convictions, while her Home Secretary insisted that the police use horses and attack dogs. against the protesters. Police repression was going to be one of the great keys to the conflict.

Yorkshire was the quintessential mining region and, in its southern part, the small town of Orgreave was the site of a large coal processing plant. In a town that today does not have 1,000 inhabitants, on June 18, 1984, some 12,000 people clashed, between the miners who formed a huge picket to prevent the passage of trucks and the police who came from all over the country to ensure that those trucks could circulate. The Battle of Orgreave, as it was known, was to become one of the most remembered events of the entire strike.

That day, almost entering the summer of 1984, the miners had been protesting for more than three months and it was already very clear that the police were going to act very differently than they had done in the miners' strikes of the seventies. The police presence was much more intense, and, far from limiting itself to avoiding clashes between pickets and coal transporters or workers who wanted to enter the mines, thousands of agents were going to directly confront the strikers.

The images of the battle of Orgreave are still impressive: thousands of police officers confronting the miners in the open field, charging at them on horseback, both of them hitting each other in the front row with batons and stones. There were at least 120 injured and the level of violence shown on television horrified even Queen Elizabeth II, who privately criticized the police's actions to some of her advisors.

Almost a hundred miners who had participated in the picket were arrested and charged with different crimes, but the government suffered a rather humiliating defeat in court. As soon as Orgreave's trial began, it became clear that the thousands of police officers arriving from different parts of the country had made dozens of generic and identical complaints that contained major errors and numerous evidence of having been dictated by their commanders. After 10 days of trial, the proceedings were suspended for the first defendants and the rest were informed that they no longer had any pending cases.

No police commander was held to account for what happened and attempts to establish a commission of inquiry into what happened at Orgreave have failed again and again in the last 40 years. The fiasco of the miners' trial was a setback for Thatcher's government, but it came after the end of the strike, which had been a complete victory for the Iron Lady. What had probably been the most powerful union in the world had lost the decisive battle and was on its way to disappearance.

At the beginning of 1985, the situation of the striking miners was already unsustainable. The government seemed capable of holding their own indefinitely, the union no longer had money and the solidarity they received was not even enough for the most basic needs: tens of thousands of families had exhausted their savings and were in poverty. Many committed strikers no longer saw any other way than to return to the mine, even if that meant crossing the picket lines they had been part of for months.

On 3 March 1985, a slim majority of NUM shop stewards voted to return to work, and two days later the workers returned to the mine. Thatcher's victory was complete: not only were the wells that the government had indicated closed, but after the defeat the sector was dismantled in record time. Of the 174 wells that existed in 1984, a decade later there were 15 left, and all of them privatized. British mining, Billy Elliot's country, was gone forever.