Miners strikes 40 years on: Lord Heseltine hails 'benefit' of battle with unions

Lord Heseltine
Lord Heseltine said police 'had little choice' in their actions during the Battle of Orgreave. Credit: ITV

Lord Heseltine has said the government's victory over striking miners in the 1980s brought "great benefit" to pit communities.

Today, 5 March, marks 40 years since miners at Cortonwood Colliery in South Yorkshire walked out in what signalled the start of one of the most acrimonious industrial disputes in British history.

Lord Heseltine was at the heart of Margaret Thatcher's government when the party took on the National Union of Mineworkers, led by Arthur Scargill, following the announcement that 20 pits would be closed, with the loss of 20,000 jobs.

The dispute resulted in the severe weakening of the NUM and, ultimately, the closure of most of the country's coal mines, along with the loss of tens of thousands of jobs in the communities built around them.

But Lord Heseltine said he had no regrets about the "battle to bring union militancy under the rule of law".

"I had great sympathy for the consequences for the community, I knew what it would mean, but I also knew this was a dangerous and unhealthy industry and finding alternative employment for those people engaged in it [was important].

"That was the final battle and it was to the great benefit of the country at large, to people at large, and in the end to many of the communities themselves," he said.

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'An issue which had undermined the economy for decades'

The strikes saw about three quarters of the country's 187,000 miners walk out in protest.

The dispute lasted a year, before miners agreed to return to work in March 1985.

Lord Heseltine said the Conservatives government had inherited problems left by the previous Labour administration.

"The beginning of the dispute in political terms was 1968, when the Labour government produced a white paper indicating that there was a problem with militant trade unions, which had to be dealt with by government. Labour didn't do anything.

"I was part of the government elected in 1979. We knew we had to confront this issue of unions outside the law of the land and of course that was the background to the miners strike of 1984.

"The issue was not a new one, it was an old one, which had undermined the British economy for decades, we had to deal with it and we had to bring the unions within the law of the land. That was the issue and there was no doubt in our minds of what we had to do."

Police officers pushing against striking miners outside the Orgreave Coking Plant Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

At times there were violent clashes between those on the picket lines and the police drafted in to manage the strikes, including during the notorious Battle of Orgreave in Rotherham, on 18 June 1984.

Ninety-three people were arrested. Many are still trying to clear their name.

Lord Heseltine said police had "little choice".

"You've got to ask what the pickets were doing and what techniques they used, and the violence they used to stop other miners who wanted to work from doing so," he said.

  • Lord Heseltine said the police had 'little choice'

"The police were left with the most uncomfortable set of circumstances, one can argue about the odd detail in part of the process, but you have to see the whole situation and this was a determination by a group of people to impose their views on another group of people, miners, who didn't want to go on strike and they were made to do so.

"The rule of law, the fair play that we believe in in this country, demanded that the public interest was prevailed and the police had to do that."

The miners' ultimate defeat signalled the end of an era for the trade union movement. It preceded the nationalisation of more industries and utilities, including steel, railways, gas and water.

Over the coming years dozens more pits shut and the industry was reduced to a shadow

Kellingley Colliery in North Yorkshire, the UK's last deep coal mine, closed in December 2015.

While many working in the industry insisted the mines had a future, Lord Heseltine disputed the claim

"People will say that, but how many were re-opened?" he said

He added: "I don't think Arthur Scargill was a man with whom you compromised."

Asked if he had been back to South Yorkshire since the pit closures, Lord Heseltine was unsure.

He said "must have been", adding: "Almost certainly I probably have."

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