Struggles Old and New

In 1984-85, miners and mining communities overcame the divisions sown by the state and challenged their own prejudices in the process, writes Margaret Petrie.

Forty years ago, the UK government led by Margaret Thatcher went to war with the National Union of Mineworkers. Her goal, working alongside the National Coal Board, was not only to close unprofitable pits but to sow division in communities and neutralise trade union unity.

While one part of the state was mobilising to erode workers’ capacity to defend their interests, another part, Fife Regional Council, decided to use Section 12 of the 1968 Social Work (Scotland) Act to support miners and their families. This law made local authorities responsible for ensuring the welfare of people living in their area, including helping them if they were destitute. The Council initiative was supported by one local Labour MP, a young Gordon Brown.

I was 24 years old in 1984 and was part of a team employed by Dunfermline North Social Work Department to distribute food vouchers to mining families during the strike. We visited mining communities every week, generally hosted in miners’ welfare buildings repurposed as soup kitchens, to meet miners and their families and give them the vouchers. Over six or seven months, I got to know many miners and their wives and heard their perspective on the developing strike.

Miners’ and women’s involvement in the action changed their attitudes. They would come in each week with stories from the picket lines, clearly shocked both by the hostile actions of the police and by the reports they read in newspapers they had previously trusted which printed accounts they knew to be untrue. They were stunned by the forces being mobilised against them. The state was using the police and the army to defend the interests of the National Coal Board at the expense of miners and their families. Some couldn’t quite believe what they were seeing. One woman saw ‘her laddie on the telly in a police uniform on a picket line in England!’ He was in the army and, as far as she had known, was on an army base in Northen Ireland.

Miners in Scotland were twice as likely as those in England and Wales to be arrested by police officers, and three times more likely to be sacked by the National Coal Board.1 The injustice of the Scottish criminal justice system towards striking miners was acknowledged by the Scottish Parliament in 2022 when it provided a collective pardon for more than 500 people with strike-related convictions. During the strike, however, these convictions bolstered Thatcher’s narrative that striking miners were greedy law-breakers unjustifiably disrupting ordinary people’s lives, rather than men trying to defend their livelihoods. Drawing on Gramsci’s theories, Jim Phillips has argued that Thatcher fought both a ‘war of position’ and a ‘war of manoeuvre’ –  positioning the miners in a negative light to justify government actions to a wider public, and outmanoeuvring them with the criminal justice system. The government uses similar tactics today. The new Public Order Act 2023 will increase the police’s ability to restrict and criminalise public protest by groups like Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion. Once again, the narrative presents activists as unruly law breakers disrupting public peace, rather than campaigners against the excesses of business which threaten the future of the planet for us all.

Mining communities in 1984 had a different narrative, and learned different lessons. Miners saw that the police and the criminal justice system were not just and neutral arbiters to protect us all from crime, but could be used specifically to defend the interests of capital – in this case the NCB – and its allies in government. Miners saw that print and broadcast media did not provide an unbiased account of events but was slanted to portray them negatively. They also saw that central government intentions could be disrupted locally by a regional authority choosing to interpret the law in miners’ favour. Meanwhile, their own prejudices and perceptions were challenged when support came from places they had not expected, like those in gay and lesbian communities who stood in solidarity with the miners, as the 2014 film Pride celebrates.

Women who were initially engaged in organising soup kitchens gradually became involved via alliances like Women Against Pit Closures with those in other mining communities across Britain. Their lives expanded as they travelled and engaged in public speaking to rally support for the miners. They became politically knowledgeable and gained confidence, as Jill Miller has documented in Wales.2 Traditional patriarchal communities were no longer being tolerated, and during our weekly discussions in communities, we heard about some of the tensions this created in families. As Amber Ward recently highlighted in this publication, this was part of a tide of change that would continue with the rise of identity politics and social movements that argued that class politics had not taken enough account of gender and race discrimination, or indeed discrimination based on sexuality, disability or age.3 Ward argues that the notion of self-autonomy – the freedom, or choice, to be who you want to be – should be incorporated into future strategies to defend democracy. Of course, identity issues have sometimes served to deflect attention from the widening gap between rich and poor. If you have money, irrespective of the multiple identities you inhabit, you have more choices. As Nancy Fraser has argued, we simultaneously must develop strategies to address redistribution (of wealth and resources), recognition (of multiple identities), and representation (equity in political participation).4

Working class communities have always incorporated a multiplicity of identities: Black and White, gay and straight, women and men, disabled and non-disabled. Communities have also absorbed dominant messages about which identities or ways of being are afforded the most value, creating power struggles, inequality, and division within communities. Division was created in mining communities by miners breaking the strike by working or returning to work, either because they considered the hardship too great, or because they were led to believe their jobs to be more secure than others’, such as those working in pits in Nottingham.When capital and the state sow and encourage divisions, communities must recognise and challenge them. No artist explores the capacity of working class communities to overcome such divisions better than Ken Loach, whose latest film, The Old Oak, draws on the 1984 strike to highlight the importance and challenges of building community and solidarity to counteract right wing narratives of division and hate. It tells how the pub owner sets up a food kitchen with Syrian refugees and community organisers that ultimately enables new alliances to overcome the divisions sown by disaffected racists. It brings old and new struggles into one narrative that shows how community building, united action and collective learning can challenge division and hate. Moments of collective action like the 1984 strike are vital in the long process of realising what social justice means and motivating communities to make a more just, united world.

Margaret Petrie has been a practitioner, researcher and educator in the broad field of social justice, community action and education for around 40 years, addressing issues associated with poverty, unemployment, homelessness, violence against women, disability rights and all forms of social discrimination.

  1. Jim Phillips, ‘Strategic Injustice and the 1984-85 Miners Strike in Scotland’, Industrial Law Journal, Vol 52, No.2, June 2023 ↩︎
  2. Jill Miller, ‘You Can’t Kill the Spirit: Women in a Welsh Mining Valley’, London: Women’s Press, 1987. ↩︎
  3. Amber Ward, ‘In With the New’, Scottish Left Review, Issue 138, February 2024 ↩︎
  4. Nancy Fraser “Social Justice in the Age of Identity Politics: Redistribution, Recognition and Participation.” pp. 7-109 in Redistribution or recognition? A political-philosophical exchange, edited by N. Fraser & A. Honneth. London: Verso, 2003. ↩︎