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  • Lawrence Bailey

It was never about the price of coal

Updated: Dec 8, 2020

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 in Wales.

Thirty years ago union leaders depicted the fight as a last-ditch defence of the working class. In Parliament, ministers spoke uncompromisingly from the dispatch box about a need to confront the enemy within.

Whatever your perceptions, 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.

What should have by rights been a one-term Conservative government had not just survived but actually thrived, thanks to the bloody Falklands factor. Margaret Thatcher was back in office claiming a mandate to roll back the socialist state and a bunch of hard-fought freedoms into the bargain.

Pit closures were on the agenda. A trade union movement that had already been diminished by successive reforms prepared itself with worryingly mixed degrees of political realism.

Meanwhile, coal was judiciously stockpiled at power stations while contingencies were made in Westminster & Whitehall that would ensure the rule of law was stamped upon any future suppressive actions.

Back then, as now, my grasp of events was essentially gained from the sidelines. I was 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 touch my concern, though, was the dispute's degrading and demoralising effect on self-respecting mining communities.

Along with other car workers in region, I volunteered for the 'food-runs' which provided supplies to strikers' families in the Swansea and Neath Valleys.

New laws designed to isolate an official dispute from secondary support had deliberately made things a legal minefield for trade unions. Accordingly, the runs became clandestine and largely done at night. The main reason though was that was the only safe time to 'borrow' a van from the compound.

A journey would start with a pit-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 by the police one evening, less than a mile from the last drop-off. Things were getting a little heated between me and the uniform when a car came rattling noisily down the road and a guy in a leather jacket emerged.

He started 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, 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 willfully 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.

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