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Book Review: Backbone of the Nation, Mining Communities in the Great Strike of 1984-5

The Workers Party has received a review of the book Backbone of the Nation which we are happy to reproduce below.

Nicholas Wroughton, former mineworker and Workers Party activist

I am myself a former mineworker. In the main I agree with Dave’s analysis of this work. Perhaps like him I believe personal messaging to be preferable to washing dirty family linen in public. I refer to whatever disagreements arose (said openly or stifled) continue between the rank and file miners and certain larger than life personalities at the heart of the NUM leadership. I was an underground and, after a serious wrist injury, later a surface mineworker before the apparently successful overtime ban and Ian McGregor’s fomenting of the strike. Initially (while they could still get through the Dartford Tunnel) the S Derbys Area was initially picketed with some success by Kent miners.

Right wing anti-strike/anti-Scargill Area Secretary Ken Toon organised an area ballot with underlying sentiments such as ‘what did e.g., Yorkshire ever do for us in the 60s as our pits were closed‘, and blame the membership statements like ‘we haven’t succeeded in the past so I don’t think I’ll be able to get them out this time‘. The decision not to strike naturally enough without solid leadership was over 80%. A Sunday morning big meeting was held at the Miners’ Welfare which could have turned very ugly especially for me and a few other comrades arguing for strike action. The area NUM/NCB management made it plain that anyone still on strike on Monday would be considered merely absent from work. All of us returned to work myself and others being victimised with the resultant loss of job. I was replaced in the control room and became a toilet cleaner in the surface electric shops. With pickets being prevented from reaching local pits a few of us held a meeting and decided to strike. NCB figures were 17/3300 but probably less than that were involved. The smallest area minority striking group. During the strike we received support from comrades in Kettering, Milton Keynes, Corby, and Middlesex Polytech. More local support came from the executive of Derby Co-op, the Indian Workers’ Association and individuals such as Chris Williamson.

The National Union couldn’t enter S Derbys due to the federal nature of the NUM. With the strike over we returned to work after we’d been subjected to a meeting with the NUM S Derbys hierarchy flanked by NCB management. The former in the person of Area Secretary Ken Toon posed a scenario where his members wouldn’t work with us and said that we’d need to make good missed area union dues. Naturally we refused. With yet more victimization (eventually softened) we returned to work to be pitched into a situation where S Derbys would ballot (with previously disdained simple majorities and open pithead meetings now embraced) to join Notts in a UDM breakaway. The supervising Electoral Reform Society should have seen the wisdom of not allowing an interested party i.e. the local NUM area to take the ballot boxes back to their HQ and more scrupulously checking the validity re current membership still alive before supplying ballot papers.

Daw Mill Colliery, source WikiCommons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Daw_Mill_colliery2.jpg

Assisted now by Arthur and the national union who sent in Frank Watters to help us we ran an incredible campaign to keep S Derbys NUM supposedly losing by just 51-49% ie 26 votes. In the High Court Toon admitted that my pit had voted (replicating a pithead show of hands vote at which a comrade had suffered a cowardly and serious assault at the hands of a sociopath) to stay NUM. My colliery was expected to abide by a spurious area decision with the UDM poaching Warwickshire Area’s Daw Mill Mine on a pit-wide decision. All area members union subs were then directed to the UDM which we reversed with threats of legal action. We re-founded the NUM S Derbys Area, persuaded neighbouring Leics Area Secretary Jack Jones to mount a pro-NUM campaign, and, in effect, stopped the UDM’s domino tactics from succeeding throughout ‘moderate’ coalfields.

Nicholas Wroughton, East Midlands Workers Party GB, former mineworker, and NUM activist Derbyshire coalfield, Cadley Hill pit representative reformed South Derbys Area (post 1985) NUM


Yale University Press HB ISBN 9780300266580 RRP £25

Book Review by David Douglass:

Backbone of the Nation, Mining Communities in the Great Strike of 1984-5 by Robert Gildea

When I first encountered this book I thought it was remarkable, stayed up all through the night reading it cover to cover.  My first impression was a truly powerful book, a unique insight into how the great mass of participants in the epoch struggle of 84-5  seen the strike at the time and now see the strike.

One would have thought that coming up to the 40th anniversary next year that everything which could be said on the strike has now been said. Mostly the authoritative books or those that claim to be, like the rash of TV documentaries recently, is deeply disappointing. They retell the tale according to well laid down myths and half truths wheeled out during the strike, and rarely seek to ask the folk involved or challenge the standard story line.  This book at least is the real voice of those who participated., for the first time an oral history delivered straight from the mouths and memories of those who fought their corner so bravely in that year.  As well as an equally loud voice of those who did not, this is blackleg oral history too. Here we have roll call of the most extraordinary people from Scotland, County Durham, Yorkshire, Nottingham, Leicester, Wales, London and the USA. It is this story and THE story of the miners, and our history, communities and perceptions, our ethnicity almost, as told from the inside out.

 Or is it ?

You would have difficulty finding fault with this book on the basis of who the voices are, because indeed it is how these people, one hundred and forty of them in their own way seen the movement they were involved in. (there are only a couple of people interviewed who were not miners or not involved in the actual dispute)  One could argue whether any respective one of them should have felt the way they did or perceived what was happening the way they did, but not that this is how they actually seen it. In this sense I think it is a faithful cross section of thoughts at the time and since.  Indeed after reading it through again word for word this time, it remains a deeply moving testimony.

Robert Gildea does of course offer the framework, and some background precise of situations and people. I’m proud to say he uses much of my evidence throughout his book. Much of it is gleaned from my Histology ‘Stardust and Coaldust’, as well as interviews . I make that point because the summary of my indulgences at University are his and not boastful responses from me. (You know how shy and retiring I am). I think the piece on my former wife Maureen also rather  misleading. Probably due to her own modesty and failing memory these days, her key role in helping found the first a Women Against Pit Closures group in 1983 at Hatfield, and in starting the women’s flying pickets gets understated.  The author depends upon the contributors to recall their own roles fully and accurately and I think overwhelmingly this is achieved. One of Maureen’s outstanding achievements was in confronting mass assemblies of miners, many of them young single lads about their attitudes to the women in the community and movement. When first the wild and rebellious young lads of the pits burst loose from the mines and into the sunshine, boundaries were over run. So it was mass demonstrations of miners passing through big cities would cat call en-mass any young lasses walking on the pavements. “Get ya tits out for the lads” being a favourite. Some of the chants were thoroughly sexist, “Maggie Thatcher’s Got One Ian MacGregor is one”. Maureen demanded on public platforms that they respect  not only their own wives and daughters, but other peoples who they didn’t know and women as comrades and fellow workers. It got some embarrassed giggles at first and some shame faces, but by God it stopped.  But Gildea also misinterprets what he is being told about different groups of women in the same village with different perspectives. . There were inevitably a large body of women who intervened into the struggle playing the traditional roles they played at home, cooking and caring, while others were more overtly political and interventionist, picketing and marching and speaking on public platforms. Mostly it was one field or the other though some did both.   The implication of the book is that somehow the politically conscious women were ‘outsiders’ middle class or educated and not part of the ‘real’ working class community.  Such a perception would be hugely wrong. Women such as Maureen, and Betty Heathfield, Ann Scargill, Betty Cook, were part of the mining communities and working class but were highly politically conscious and activist.  They had of course engaged with socialist feminism and working class feminism in counter distinction to middle class ‘anti male’ feminism in earlier formative decades.  Maureen had helped found Doncaster Socialist Womens Action Group in 1970 two thirds of whom were miners wives and daughters. She was the co editor of the Mineworker our revolutionary miners periodical, had stood on picket lines in 1972 and 74, helped organise our miners Marxist class in the Welfare with guest Marxist and revolutionary speakers, had founded Hatfield Main Women Against Pit Closures in 83 and lobbied and picketed for Lewis Merthyr that year, as well as helping found the National WAPC movement and speaking at its founding conference. She organised the first women’s pickets in 1983- 84/5 and they effectively took on the whole campaign in 92/3 , she remained a coalminers wife for 25 years so women like her although highly political were members of the working class and mining communities albeit someone who had passed the 11-plus and took a degree.  These were not ‘outsiders’ . Women in the mining communities were already class conscious, were already highly political, were already engaged in class struggle, they were not waiting for the Miners Strike of 84/5 to propel them into it.  The legend that picketing was a ‘masculine’  trait  along with violence, is demonstrably  wrong, since women’s pickets and women’s hit squads on scabs and premises  could also be violent.  A classic image in my collection is that of a Rossington miners wife attacking a super scab with her stiletto heeled shoe. The scab was killed soon after the end of the strike at Thorne Colliery in mysterious circumstances.  The assertion “ It was in South Yorkshire that the sharpest conflict arose between miners wives and middle class socialist feminists many of whom had come from outside the area”  I have no recollection of , indeed I go further and say it is untrue.  The socialist feminists in the Doncaster and South Yorkshire coalfield were by enlarge miners wives and daughters, who had been active within their communities and the miners disputes for  decades before the 84 strike broke. That they didn’t tend to man the kitchens  is hardly surprising although some did that too, many formed the network of the support groups  fund raising which fuelled the kitchens,  as said they formed independent pickets, they spoke at union meetings, they sang and they marched, they were miners wives from generations of such political class conscious women.

I had at first thought a strength of the book is in not trying to come to any definitive conclusion. Where two or more points of contention exist, they are all presented by the folk who hold them. So it is the Welsh miners still believe they were let down by Yorkshire when they sent out pickets in 83 and this resulted in them voting against action in 1984. The book sets out the facts as seen by Yorkshire and Wales, (although I can tell you the Yorkshire miners voted for strike action in support of Lewis Merthyr at the Area Council meeting. We were pre-empted by the South Wales Executive putting it to a National Ballot which we lost  nationally but just failed to achieve by less than 1% the 55% required in Yorkshire.)

But then after having enjoyed the general thrust’ and you sit to digest it, I started to feel no it wasn’t without flaws.  I mention that Gildea offers a framework, but he offers no definitive commentary, no fact check on the statements and allegations. Conflicting accounts and analysis are allowed to stand side by side but which is the reader to believe ?  Can you turn to this book to discover what actually happened during the strike and its run up ? No I’m afraid you cant. So quite a number of assertions genuinely made and genuinely felt by their authors are nevertheless inaccurate.  The belief still popular in Wales that the Yorkshire miners refused to back them up in the Lewis Merthyr dispute  prior to the 84 clash, that this is why they in return didn’t vote to support the strike in Yorkshire when the chips were down at Corton Wood,  was actually untrue and I show it be in my own work, quoted from in the book.  Actually it was the Scottish Area who formally rejected strike action both for their own threatened collieries and Lewis Merthyr at that time, whereas we voted to back them.  The notion, perceived or not that Yorkshire didn’t join South Wales because they wanted to be the ones which led the engagement is just childish nonsense but it is stated without comment from the author.  Likewise the assertion from some of the Welsh pickets that it was they who picketed the country, Yorkshire being confined to Yorkshire. A footnote could have pointed out the number of power stations in Yorkshire which needed picketing and whole of the Humber Ports, docks registered and unregistered.  steel works at Scunthorpe, as well as picketing Lancashire and Derbyshire and Nottingham which tended to take up rather a lot of our energy, North Wales and Leicester from time to time was gifted into my domain both as picket targets and welfare aid for strikers.

 There were actually 31 miners on strike in Leicester but the Dirty Thirty didn’t discover that until they went back to work at the end of the strike and found there had been another diehard all along, albeit one who stayed in his garden rather than on the picket lines.  Manton was in the South Yorkshire NUM Panel not the Doncaster one. These wee nit picks are  sort of illustrative  of small facts one would have expected to be unearthed in a history with aspirations of thoroughness.  The vexed question of Doncaster pickets pouring over the border to picket the closest Nottingham pits  as soon as they themselves had come out wasn’t  in fact one I directed or planned. It was premature for a number of reasons not least we were not sure yet if all the Yorkshire mines and Depts. were falling in line. Plus we had been asked by the Nott’s Executive to all allow a ballot of their area to be conducted without pickets at their gates. The charge into Nottingham was an unofficial one organised by the rank and file and more than a little influence from the SWP convinced we were going to sell everyone out.

The popular belief from all and sundry that the army was deployed in police uniforms  at Orgreave and other flash points popularly believed but is it actually true ?. . Its something I pursued to the end of the rainbow in my book Ghost Dancers and I cite every legend and heartfelt story but found no evidence no tangible evidence or legally admissible statement. I concluded it wasn’t true.

 The so-called “sweetheart deal” between the South Wales miners and their steel works, to allow enough coke into the plant to keep the furnaces intact and in return not make any steel, was in fact a deal common to all areas, including Yorkshire, when Arthur over rode the agreement, this was the spark for Orgreave and Hatfield’s picket of the Immingham docks , the solidarity action and the National Dock strike.  It was the cause of the clash at Ravenscraig . Its quite a crucial landmark in the story of the strike but is given no special attention or focus here.

The whole question of the national ballot is rather confused between area responses and national decisions. The decision to bring around a rule change from 55% majority to a simple majority was in fact something  most of us in the leadership had planned before the strike broke because we actually, including Arthur expected to hold a national ballot but during an active strike already on the streets, rather than while still at work. We were in fact already on strike when the rule change was made. The book confuses the resolution of the Durham Area and that of the Durham Mechanics  .but in anycase the substantive mistake here is not recording the fact that seven different resolutions were presented and hotly debated and passionately argued for and against. At the end of the debate areas had seven chances to vote, on each of the resolutions, as one fell another was presented. If your resolution fell you could vote for the next closest to it. The book suggests the vote was simply to endorse the actions being taken or not, It was far more democratic and vexed than that.

I do not think as the book suggests we “were slapped down at Orgreave” the tale as it has come to be told is that we were a band of gentle picnickers enjoying a summer laze in the sun when we were subject to an unprovoked attack by the heavily equipped and weaponised cops. Nothing will excuse the police actions on that day, but we went there to shut down the plant and stop the scab lorries, quite a lot of police officers were ‘slapped down’  that day also. That people were not killed on both sides is sheer luck and not perhaps for want of trying. But we actually closed the plant, the cops declared they could not sustain another battle like that, neither could we of course, and the tactic of Orgreave is something me and Arthur disagreed about then and since, but we were not ‘slapped down’ or robbed of our masculinity nor were we “humiliated” as the book suggests . The mass picket didn’t end at Orgreave though it gave the clue to the other side to change tactics and install a token scab at every pit, in an endeavour to keep us picketing our own collieries and this break up the concentration of our forces.

Nor is true that after Christmas the ‘trickle’ of miners returning to work ‘became a stream’ that may be true of parts of Durham but not the big village based coastal pits, in some of the small Scottish pits its true,  in Yorkshire by the last week of the strike 5% were back at work while Doncaster had 1%. Not really ‘a stream at all’

A key feature of the states war on the strikers families was through vindictive interpretation and reinterpretation of the rules governing income support and Family Benefits,  and other means tested benefits, the book talks of pickets families having the £1 picket money deducted from benefits, or  dinners in soup kitchens deducted. But it was far more serious than that. After six weeks every miners family in Britain who had been without any income would normally qualify for the full range of supplementary benefits and income support. The Miner would himself get nothing. The DSS did two things, one they declared that the miner was getting £17 per week strike pay, which nobody actually was. They deducted £17 per week from the basic subsistence payment to wives and children. This meant the family of the Yorkshire Ripper was £17 per week better off than a striking Yorkshire miner.  Income support was assessed on the last six weeks of wages, after six weeks all miners families would qualify , they changed the interpretation to say that the last six weeks of earnings , many many months before the strike was the ‘income’ they would assess eligibility on. Thus disqualifying all claims.  The cruellest twist came where strikers families lost  an old relative or children during the strike and had to apply for destitute funeral grants to bury their loved ones, they then deducted the notional £17 from the base payments leaving families to raise the money for the funeral from neighbours and friends and family.

One of the thing touched on in the book though not in any detail was the position of those with mortgages. Many miners had small mortgages since the NCB had decided to sell off all its property with large discounts to the miners who occupied them. I am pleased to say, I had been instrumental in at first getting the Halifax  to suspend mortage payments for the duration of the strike without penalty, it had been an agreement with the encouragement of large pickets outside the banks just as a show of force and in good humour. After Halifax, came Natwest and then the others, getting mainly Labour councils to do likewise with rents was achieved without much effort. What stuck in my mind was at the end of the strike, the leaders of the big Yorkshire Councils had told me by law they had to make some efforts for people to make some attempt to pay off the arrears. In Doncaster I was told every single person mainly the women of the house, paid off every single penny as an act of pride and gratitude.

The most vital turning point of the strike and the crossroads between outright victory and defeat was the decision of NACODS the ‘safety supervisres’ union to finally join the strike. The date was set and the victory was  in the bag, the agreed bottom line agreed by the three mining unions NUM, NACODS and BACM. Thatcher was on the ropes and ready to concede the whole issue, when NACODS NEC and leadership walked away. There is next to nothing in this huge book on that turning point. No interviews with NACODS rank and file their wives their families who of course shared our villages and lives. No interviews with the surviving leader of the union.  This is the blackest hole in the history of the strike and nothing in the book will enlighten anyone on that subject.

The sort of aftermath summary is also worthy of comment, in that it perhaps represents the political  schizophrenia of the current period, Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign has very few miners in it still less those who were there, even in its leadership, although it still attracts the authority of that issue, it has bled into a wide range of liberal left causes not necessarily endorsed in the villages. Many of the speakers invited to its platform to speak carefully ignore the reason we were in that field in Orgreave in the first place, to save the British coal industry and the miners union. A cause they certainly do not support,  Its ‘With Banners Held High’ Event annually certainly does not replace the Yorkshire Miners Gala and being dominated by climate alarmism and anti coal sentiment is actually the antithesis  of it. . The lads still march with their miners banners and enjoy a piss up but the message on the stalls and often from the platform is anti coal and anti miners. This tends to be the case on other platforms too where previous strike supporters have now moved on to academia and acceptance of liberal PC agenda’s which reinforce the conclusion that if the strike was happening now the bulk of the left would not support us certainly not the demand to save the coal industry.  NUM speakers in support of a revived coal industry never make it to the Mic, we are persona non gratis 

The author expresses the view that the decision after three independent enquiries to allow the winning of a new steel coal mine in Cumberland was met by “widespread criticism” not in the coal communities it wasn’t, not in the NUM it isn’t where it is supported, not by Union miners like myself who have campaigned for this mine for six years and gave evidence at all the enquiries in support of it. The mine needed 500 actual people to work down the mine, 6,000 applied from all parts of Britain including me, keen to restore a living breathing branch of the NUM to life again. Perhaps this and not 92/3 is the last stand of the miners. Gildea’s comment that the mine impacts on climate targets is simple ignorance of the fact, that coal is mined now to make coke to make steel before the mine is open, the emissions are being made now before the mine is open. The only difference is  us mining the coal here rather than across the globe in Appalachia will reduce the emissions added by transporting it across America and across the Atlantic, plus ours will be a union mine in job starved Whitehaven rather than environment destroying strip mined non union labour.

The same liberal agenda emerges at the end of the book where the subject of Brexit is broached . The coalfields voted leave and why wouldn’t they ? This same political class of all parties, the state, its civil service, its police and armed forces, the CBI and TUC all political parties, all knew what was best for us and that was in the EU, the coalfields and all post industrial areas concluded that if you lot are saying its good for us, we don’t want it.  Eight out of ten labour constituencies had voted leave, and Corbyn  promised to respect that decision if elected and leave, it caused a flood back to labour and behind Corbyn the old battle was over we were united again. The  Blairites in conjunction with  the liberal left turned the policy to one of campaigning for another referendum and a rejoin programme and sent Jeremy in to the election with a ‘shoot me’ sign round his neck. Traditional working class areas, abandoned and shit on mining areas concluded they were having their backs pissed up again, and abstained in their millions. Mostly the Tories were elected on a mass Labour abstention and some were so angry they even voted Tory . They were actually voting against this treacherous Labour leadership and nor FOR Toryism they had not converted to Toryism . It had little or nothing to do with race, or fear of migrants, it was two fingers up at the entire establishment and being stabbed in the back yet again.

One thing which may put people off the book is the recommendation on the back cover by Paul Mason. Of all people to have recommending this book Mason stands a few steps behind Keith Joesph. In a fit of pique following the overwhelming rejection the EU by the mining communities he declared  that industrial communities across Britain who voted overwhelmingly to leave the EU are full of racists and bigots. He called on Labour to embark on a “stop Brexit” tour of Britain by organising conventions of “progressive people”. He went further in inventing a miner’s welfare in which the miners sat denouncing migrants as cockroaches. He will never be forgiven for it in coal communities so perhaps the only nasty ink blot on an otherwise incredible book.

I have no doubt that work will be referenced again and again as an authority on the true feelings in the communities and rank and file in general,  Remarkable work.

David John Douglass

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