• Lawrence Bailey

It was never about the price of coal

Updated: Mar 29

It's strange how some perspectives can change over time while others remain firmly fixed.

The same can be said I suppose about what we now call the 'Miners' Struggle' - the strike of 1984 .

Whatever your perception or prejudices, then or now, the truth is that it was never about the price of coal.

It had been coming for years. Everyone knew it. Everyone expected it.

Union leaders exhorted the working class to join in a desperate last-ditch defence of a 'failing' industry. In Parliament, government ministers spoke uncompromisingly from the dispatch box about confronting the enemy within.

What should have by rights been a one-term Conservative government had not just survived but thrived. Thanks to the Falklands factor, Margaret Thatcher was back in office claiming a renewed mandate to roll back the socialist state.

Pit closures were now firmly on the agenda. A trade union movement, already diminished by successive 'reforms' prepared itself for battle with varying degrees of realism. Meanwhile, coal was judiciously stockpiled at power stations and other strategic locations. Contingencies were quietly made in Westminster & Whitehall to stamp the rule of law where necessary.

Back then, as now, my grasp of events was essentially from the sidelines; someone who carried a placard and shook buckets on street corners. The political ramification of a strike called without a ballot didn't really bother me — although it probably should have.

What did fire my concern over time, however, was the inevitable human impact of the dispute on mining communities.

Along with others from the car working industry, I joined the 'food-runs' that provided supplies to strikers' families in the Swansea and Neath Valleys.

This activity was conducted at night for a couple of reasons. The first was that new laws designed to isolate main disputes from secondary support had made things a legal minefield. The other was that support involved 'borrowing' a van overnight from the security compound.

A typical run would begin with a stop at the works canteen kitchen (night shifts usually went without veg on such evenings). After a few more pre-arranged collections, we'd commence a cat-and-mouse game with police patrols on the back-roads to Seven Sisters, Crynant and elsewhere.

I recall being stopped one evening, less than a mile from the last drop-off. Things were getting a little heated between us and the cream of the local constabulary when a car came rattling down the road and a guy in a leather jacket emerged.

He loudly berating the officers, intimidating them with enough legal sounding threats that they shrugged and let us go.

That was the first time I met Kim Howells.

Of course, the backbone of the support effort was the fundraising. This was varied and often creative. Our biggest success was a limited edition commemorative mug bearing a specially-designed logo. They were an immediate sell-out.

We eventually sold close on 700 and at a mark-up that showed an alarmingly effective grasp of the capitalist ethic.

There's no denying that many of us younger men enjoyed the crack of being part of an underground movement of supporters and the hard sense of humour this entailed.

But all that changed with the death of taxi driver David Wilkie at the hands of two striking miners.

I remember stacking tins in a community centre in the Neath Valley when the news came through. I was struck by a sudden quiet among the women. The look on their faces told me the dispute had taken a different turn and not for the better.

When the miners marched back to work some months later, I stood at the colliery entrance and applauded. But among the brass bands and cheering, I saw men and women struggling to put a brave face on things.

There was despair, which you would expect, but more pointedly, a bitterness towards the coal board, the government and also towards their own leaders.

Knowing what I know now, it is clear to me that the strategy behind the strike was poorly conceived and irresponsibly led. The government of the day was better prepared and inevitably better resourced.

That said, I remain of the conviction that the lasting damage wilfully wrought by the state upon its own people is a stain on this nation's history. That it was done for little more than reasons of ideology makes it all the more shameful.

As I said, some perspectives do not change.



© whiterock wales (2020)