Historian Chris Bambery remembers the Miners’ movements in Scotland and Britain 50 years ago, and how groups of militant workers overcame the hangover of decades-old defeats.
1972 saw the working class movement in Britain reach heights not scaled since the revolutionary year of 1919. The British ruling class felt the sting of defeat. The Tory government of Edward Heath was humiliated and cast from office, causing a little known education minister, Margaret Thatcher, to vow she’d get revenge and put workers back in their place.
The official strike figures tell their own story. Between 1953 and 1964 the average number of days lost to strike action was 1,081,000. This rose to 6,876,000 by 1969. Between January and October 1972, a total of 22,202,000 days were lost with strikes lasting an average of 17 days.
1972 opened with the first national miners’ strike since the devastating defeat of 1926 when the general strike in their support was called off and they had to fight on alone for a year before throwing in the towel. The issue this time was pay, with the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) challenging wage controls imposed by the Heath government. Younger miners were very aware that their wages were substantially below what they could earn in the car or engineering plants. They wanted to bridge that gap. There was bitterness too over pit closures imposed by both Labour and Conservative governments. The NUM’s right wing leadership had to accede to that pressure and call a national ballot for strike action but backed away from openly confronting wage controls by claiming the miners’ demands were a “special case,” a line echoed by the Trades Union Congress.
In South Yorkshire, 1969 and 1970 had seen unofficial action in the coalfield as younger miners took action for a shorter week and pay rises. This action fostered the unofficial rank and file Barnsley Miners Forum, in which Arthur Scargill was prominent. These South Yorkshire miners also established a new form of struggle, the flying picket.
The national strike began on 9 January 1972. The Heath government were confident they could see off the NUM because of its overall lack of militancy since 1926. But from the beginning it was clear they had misread the situation. This was an active strike with the majority of NUM members joining the picket lines. Secondly, each district of the NUM was responsible for picketing and winning solidarity in specific areas of the UK. So the Kent and Midlands area were allocated London and the South East, while South Yorkshire was given East Anglia with its ports where coal from Europe arrived. Flying pickets criss-crossed the country.
In London the Kent miners met with the London Combine Power stewards ten days into the strike and it was agreed to set up liaison committees between power, gas and mineworkers. Mass meetings were called in the power stations.
NUM pickets were outside 21 power stations across the capital and at key coal depots. When scab coal was brought into Hackney power station the power workers switched off the supply. Power and railworkers blacked (boycotted) coal and, crucially, oil supplies to the power stations which began to grind to a halt. It was the same story across the country.
In Scotland the key battleground was Longannet, the country’s biggest power station. On Monday 14 February miners began arriving to form a mass picket outside. The first to arrive at 4.30am were five coach loads of Ayrshire miners. They were met with a heavy police presence. Eventually 2000 pickets faced 400 police.
Thirteen pickets were arrested and charged with “mobbing and rioting.” The Scottish miners’ president, Michael McGahey, who sustained a chipped leg bone from an ‘accidental’ – his word – kick from a policeman told the Glasgow Herald that the mobbing and rioting charges were ‘scurrilous’ but unsurprising: “There is no such thing as neutrality in society and the law is not neutral” he said, highlighting what he saw as the fundamental anti-working class bias in the laws used to control pickets.
The next day the 13 appearing at Dunfermline Sheriff Court, were refused bail and taken in handcuffs to Edinburgh’s Saughton jail. After high level talks involving senior government officials the miners were brought back to the Dunfermline court and released on bail to be greeted by 1000 miners chanting “Easy! Easy!” On 16 June amid further celebratory scenes they were all acquitted.
In the meantime the fight at Longannet went on with 1500 pickets present on the Tuesday and 700 next day, facing 600 police. On the Thursday 1500 pickets tried to unsuccessfully to close Longannet and another six were arrested.
Thursday 17 February saw 2000 miners on the picket line. The plant did not shut but management believed they could not continue working for long. Before that point was reached the NUM secured victory.
The biggest battle would come in Birmingham when the NUM discovered a huge stock of top quality coke at a depot in Saltley Gates. Arthur Scargill led 2000 South Yorkshire miners to picket it but could not stop lorries going in an out. Scargill met with the East Birmingham District Committee of the engineering union which agreed to call a solidarity strike. The Transport and Vehicle Builders unions followed this lead and on Thursday 10 February, 100,000 Birmingham trade unionists struck and 20,000 marched on Saltley.
Arthur Harper was president of the east Birmingham AUEW and convenor at British Leyland’s Tractor and Transmissions Drews Lane factory: “The march was practically the whole length of Drews Lane; there was the usual good humour and banter, but also a grim determination as to what was to be anticipated on arrival at Saltley… On the way other small factories joined us from side streets on the route. Morris Commercial workers in full force waited impatiently in Phillimore Road to join the long column – all told, I reckoned at least a good 6,000. At this point the march turned right off Washwood Heath Road onto Saltley Viaduct just over the bridge and we were there; crowds lined the pavements open-mouthed to watch this army pass by.”
Harper had told the police he would march past the depot and then disperse the marchers. He didn’t. Once through police lines they stopped outside the depot. The police found themselves trapped as other contingents marched in. The police officer in charge ordered the gates to be closed. To use Scargill’s words: “The picket line didn’t close Saltley, what happened was the working class closed Saltley.”
Reginald Maudling, the Conservative home secretary, later recalled the symbolic importance of Saltley Gate: “The number of strikers involved was so great, and feelings were running so high, that any attempt by the relatively small body of police who could be assembled to keep the depot open by force could have led to very grave consequences. Some of my colleagues asked me afterwards why I had not sent in troops to support the police, and I remember asking them one simple question: “If they had been sent in, should they have gone in with their rifles loaded or unloaded?”
Margaret Thatcher wrote later: “For me, what happened at Saltley took on no less significance than it did for the Left.”
Casting around for a way to surrender without having to raise the white flag Heath chose that classic tool of the British ruling class whenever faced with difficulties, an official inquiry. Lord Wilberforce was chosen to head this up in February 1972 and it reported a week later – what must have been a record – recommending wage increases of between £4.50 and £6 per week. The miners demanded an extra £1 but settled for an extra package of “fringe benefits” costing the government £10 million.
In the coming year, the image of class unity would spread from Saltley across the country. With the Miners giving the lead, other major groups of workers would raise industrial action to the level of a conflict with the government and even the legal system and state itself.
A second part of this history will chart the spread of the strike wave throughout the year.