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“Eighty-four was the changing of a world. There is a way of life in Britain being wiped out here. Not just for the miners, but for society in general. Values of community, of worth, of solidarity and of looking after each other rather than dog-eat-dog. All of that. It was a fight worth having and we didn’t deserve to lose it.” - Striker Dave Douglass, Hatfield Colliery
This new documentary marking the 30th anniversary of one of the biggest industrial disputes in British history, tells the experiences of the men and women whose lives were changed forever by the year-long struggle between striking miners and Margaret Thatcher’s government.
Featuring new interviews with miners who were featured on television at the time, their wives, the men who returned to work and were labelled ‘scabs’, policemen who were on duty at picket lines, then-cabinet minister Lord Heseltine, and extensive archive footage, The Miners’ Strike and Me pieces together the bitter struggle between the factions and provides an insight into how mining communities were changed forever.
In March 1984, the National Coal Board announced the closure of 20 pits they had deemed uneconomic, with the loss of 20,000 jobs. Arthur Scargill, President of the National Union of Mineworkers, believed the threat to the coal industry was far greater and the miners called a strike. It was a confrontation the Conservative Party had been planning for nearly a decade. Lord Heseltine, who later announced the closure of 31 pits in 1992, says: “There was no doubt at all the most meticulous planning had been put in place. We had got coal stocks at every pit. Coal stocks at every power station and the better weather was coming. What I think then happened is that it was necessary to have redundancies. Arthur Scargill was teased onto the worst battle ground at the worst time for him and the rest is history.”
To control picket lines, the government deployed one of the largest mobile police forces ever used in an industrial dispute. Ronnie Mott, a miner at the Dearne Valley Colliery, says strikers who were face to face with officers on the front line were goaded by them: “They used to wave ten pound notes in front of your face. When was last time you've seen one of these. They used to call them ‘Scargill’s Notes’. They were on overtime, obviously. Then if you lost your temper and sort of went for them, they would grab you. You were arrested. Take you into a Black Mariah [police van] and give you a good hiding. You could hear lads screaming in Black Mariah.”
As the strike went on, more and more miners were making the fateful decision to cross the picket lines - returning to work as ‘scabs’. For those who supported the union, it was the ultimate betrayal, and strikers abused them as they were driven into work on armoured buses. Ken Radford, a miner at the Orgreave and Dinnington Colliery, says: “I’ve never forgiven them. And I still won’t talk to some. They sold their class out in my eyes. I can still walk with my head held high – they can’t, not in my eyes. B-------s.”
Stephen Whyles, then only 22, wasn’t just risking the wrath of his fellow miners by crossing the picket line. His father Ian, a staunch trade unionist, rejected him and the rift hasn’t healed in the 30 years since. Stephen says: “He said, ‘A son who is a scab is no son of mine and don’t forget that you will have to live with that for rest of your life.’ I were in bits. I were in knots. I came to the realisation that it was going to cost me my family or at least my mam and dad.”
While the strike put picket lines against police and broke up families, it brought others together - including miners’ wives, who marched in support of their picketing husbands and partners. One of them, Aggie Curry, says: “I tell you something, Maggie might have had thousands of boot boys, but she never banked on having thousands of miners’ wives come in. She never banked on that. We were backbone of miners' strike, were most of the women. We were backbone. If there were no women, strike wouldn't have gone on as long.”
During the strike, families of picketing miners would face incredible hardship. Having ruled the strike illegal, the government introduced new laws to cut state benefits – not only to the miners, but their wives and children. Marilyn Johnson, who helped run the soup kitchen at Easington Colliery where her husband Jimmy worked, revisits the kitchen where she served thousands of meals to impoverished mining families. She says: “We knew it was going to be a long strike and we wanted to keep people together. We were all in the same position and we didn’t want people to starve like Thatcher wanted. She wanted to starve us back to work. This here was the barrier.”
Some clashes between police and miners turned violent - including one particularly notorious event at Orgreave coking plant in Yorkshire in June 1984 when 6,000 miners congregated hoping to stop trucks of coal leaving. They were faced by thousands of police officers, and a battle began. One of the striking miners, Russell Broomhead of Houghton Main Colliery, was seen in TV footage being beaten by a police officer with a truncheon. He says: “I hadn’t done anything wrong. I couldn't have outrun them anyway and so I just stood there. The officer come who were shown on television and he attacked me with his truncheon. In fact he broke it on my head. And then they dragged us round behind lines and there were lines of them queuing up and they held you and they were just kicking you one after another.”
A total of 95 picketers were arrested but the prosecution case later collapsed and police later agreed to pay compensation to 39 of them. Yet the miners were losing public sympathy, and by the start of 1985, an increasing number were returning to work. Miner Jimmy Johnson says: “More men were going back to work and we knew it was crumbling, but we still tried to carry on and carry on. It got very difficult into the New Year. That’s when marriages were starting to go onto the rocks and people getting houses repossessed. We really got together and told them we wanted to go back to work.”
In March 1985, the longest-running national industrial dispute in British history was called off by Scargill. In the intervening years nearly all the pits closed and the sites turned into retail parks and other developments. But some mining towns simply never recovered from the loss of their pit, says Jimmy Johnson: “When the pit closed all the miners they just drifted away. The houses became empty and they moved people in from all over the country. The loss of a community that I’ve lived in all my life and in the end I didn’t want to move, but in the end I had to move. It was getting us down. I was starting to have problems.“
Yet those who were there on the picket lines should feel proud, says miner’s wife Carol Greathead: “The miners' strike will never be forgotten. They should celebrate it and stand tall each and every one of them stand shoulder to shoulder and feel proud of what they did.”