FORTY years ago on Saturday, the miners’ strike had been under way for a month.

It would last for almost a year, ending on March 3, 1985.

The strike was known as a “civil war without guns”. It was by far the biggest battle between the state and unions since the 1926 General Strike, accounting for some 30 million days not worked.

It pitted Margaret Thatcher and her Conservative government against one of the strongest and most militant unions, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), led by Arthur Scargill. Just as the NUM’s future was at stake, so too was hers and that of the Tories. Despite the tremendous resilience of the miners, their union and their communities, and support from other workers and unions in Britain and abroad, it ended in a crushing defeat.

Pits were to be closed. The general feeling among workers was: “If the miners can’t win, what chance do we have?”

This cemented the already in train “new realist” accommodation of the Labour Party under then leader Neil Kinnock (below). 

The National: Labour leader Neil Kinnock throws roses to delegates at the end of the 1990 Labour Party Conference in Blackpool..

After Thatcher’s 1983 General Election victory and previous defeats after long and bitter strikes by steelworkers in 1981, train drivers in 1982, and gas, water and sewage workers in 1983, this “new realist” accommodation became a headlong rush after the defeat of the miners.

But even before the miners’ strike, another bastion of strong militant trade unionism was beaten, in the form of the NGA print union at Eddie Shah’s Stockport Messenger printing plant.

And just before the miners’ strike started, Thatcher on March 1, 1984, banned union membership among staff at GCHQ – Government Communications Headquarters – in Cheltenham. Those refusing to give up their membership were sacked.

The feeling that “if the miners could not win, how could anyone else hope to?” immeasurably strengthened Labour’s move to the right under Kinnock. It was believed that the only way to defeat Thatcher was not only at the ballot box but also by being increasingly moderate.

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We are still living with the legacy of that defeat today. Thatcher may be no more but her fans in the Tory and Labour parties are still in the driving seat. Starmerism is but Blairism and “New” Labour 2.0.

There were still major strike battles in the 1980s after the miners’ dispute. Most obviously, there were the Wapping News International dispute from 1986-87 and the dockers’ fight to stop the abolition of the National Dock Labour Scheme in 1989. These, too, ended in terrible defeats.

It was no surprise that the level of strike activity fell away quite dramatically and has never recovered. This includes the uptick in strikes since 2022 over the cost of living crisis.

The feeling of despair and disillusionment among workers was so palpable that few remember there were actually some victories in the late 1980s and early 1990s, such as the 1988 unofficial postal workers’ strike, the ambulance workers’ action short of a strike in 1989, the pay revolt in 1989 with the likes of steel erectors, and the engineering unions’ strike campaign to reduce the length of the working week.

Part and parcel of understanding why the miners lost and why that legacy still lingers on is that the Tories deliberately increased unemployment in order to tame the working class.

The National: SNP badges

They also successfully used a plan to take on and defeat the strongest unions one at a time in a divide-and-rule strategy. Often this meant making concessions over pay to other workers to stop inter-union alliances being formed.

But there is another part to the explanation. Labour as a party failed to support the miners in any meaningful way. Indeed, Kinnock took a so-called neutral, non-partisan position, condemning the picket line violence whatever its source. It is

from this here that we can identify the development of the SNP as a political vehicle that was able to displace Labour as the focus of electoral loyalty of many workers in the Central Belt.

The SNP did so by deploying the language of social democracy even though it seldom practised social democracy, whether because it was not in office or was acting opportunistically.

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Social democracy centrally concerns the intervention of the state in the processes of the market to ameliorate its outcomes.

The move prevented political opponents being able to label the SNP as “Tartan Tories”, concerned primarily with the interests of the farming and fishing communities in the north-east of Scotland.

This was because the leading SNP lights were taking up the mantle of “radical Scotland”, precisely at a time when Labour was increasingly found to be wanting. The arrival of the hated poll tax in 1989 merely solidified the movement of the political tectonic plates.

Professor Gregor Gall is a research associate at the University of Glasgow and author of Mick Lynch: The Making Of A Working-Class Hero (Manchester University Press, 2024)