Forty Years Since the Outbreak of the UK Miners' Strike: A Defining Moment in the Capitalist Assault on the Working Class

A comment from a CWO sympathiser based in South Yorkshire, near where the 1984–85 miners' strike started.

In his first volume of Capital, Karl Marx wrote that capitalism “comes into the world dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and gore”. Child labour, slavery and slums, this all enabled the owners of capital to bring in unheard of profits. On a more recent, national scale, the same process could be said to have introduced the latest phase of British capitalist history, with which we are currently contending. This more recent bloody episode came in the shape of the 1984-85 miners’ strike, the violent suppression of which allowed British capitalism to turn the screw on the working class with the predictable results we see accumulating day by day in terms of deprivation, inequality, political oppression and incremented exploitation all for the sake of prolonging the life of an unsustainable economic order which has nothing bar worse to offer the vast majority, either in the UK or globally.

With the 40th anniversary of the outbreak of the strike being the basis for new media on the issue, once again the miners’ strike is thrust into the public arena though for many, its long shadow has been blighting lives ever since the actual ill-fated strike. And of course, as the historic process relentlessly marches on, a generation has grown up who did not directly experience or witness the sharp events which defined the strike and so a very brief recap of the main factual points is in order.

The Background

The miners' strike was officially declared a national strike on 12 March 1984, although in reality miners, in places like Cortonwood (South Yorkshire), had already struck much earlier as soon as they heard their pits were due to shut. It was sparked as an attempt by the miners to prevent the closure of 20 collieries across the UK. Any closure (including the mine and all additional buildings or offices) meant almost certain death for the mining communities built up around them. As these towns and villages were often built solely around employment in the mine, closures meant mass redundancy in an area with little-to-no other employment opportunities. In the early 80s, unemployment was often worse in the coalfields even before the outbreak of the strike. Mining villages were almost the last working class communities where the people lived and worked together. They had not seen their terrace houses replaced by anonymous tower blocks and people could still meet on the streets. This sense of community was both their strength and weakness in the strike. Thatcher thought that “the property owning democracy” would tame the class war but ended up raging against building societies that would not foreclose mortgages (the local managers would have had to shut down whole villages and calculated that it was better to wait for repayments to resume). On the other hand the miners had a long and proud history of fighting alone in the past, such as in 1972 and 1974, and thought they could do the same again.

Few remembered 1926 and those that did thought only of the nine day General Strike. The miners though remained on strike throughout the summer of 1926 (when it was so hot “you could fry eggs on the pavement” according to one comrade’s coalmining grandfather). By November, they were starved back to work, forced to accept the wage cut the bosses had imposed. That was in the days of private coal owners and much was made of the nationalisation of the mines in 1947. The former coal owners were richly compensated for decades of underinvestment whilst the Labour Government proudly announced that every pit was now managed “on behalf of the people”. But the capitalist state is not “the people”. This lie was put on hoardings at the top of each pit. Nationalisation was soon followed by rationalisation. From 1 January 1947 the new National Coal Board (NCB) operated the mines. It immediately began a programme of shutting pits starting with the least profitable. Under the Attlee Labour Government, 101 were closed in 4 years and followed by a further 86 under Churchill in the subsequent four years. Under Macmillan another 260 or so went as cheap oil began to replace coal.

This was an industry in decline. Mining costs had been on the rise throughout this period while the demand for coal had started to fall. Nevertheless the miners were able to win two big strikes over pay in 1972 and 1974. In this they were assisted by a wave of strikes across industry after industry as workers sought pay rises to combat inflationary levels not seen since the Second World War. The colossal destruction of that war had permitted a period of reconstruction and a bounce in capitalist profitability. But when that post-war boom dried up the capitalists tried to make the working class pay via real wage cuts in the face of this rampant inflation. Successive governments in the 1970s tried various ways to prevent workers defending themselves. Whilst Labour called for “a Social Contract”, Edward Heath’s Conservative Government capped public sector pay rises as well as promoting a cap on private sector wages. Wages effectively were cut through price increases. This extended to the majority of industries, including coal mining, which at that time provided most of the country's fuel.

By the middle of 1973, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) passed resolutions for a 35% wage increase, regardless of any government guidelines but a national ballot rejected strike action by 143,006 to 82,631. Instead, an overtime ban was implemented with the aim of halving production. In response Heath announced several measures including the Three-Day Work Order, starting at midnight on 31 December. Commercial consumption of electricity was thus limited to three consecutive days each week. On 24 January 1974, 81% of NUM members voted to strike, having rejected the offer of a 16.5% pay rise. The strike began officially on 5 February. Heath responded by calling the February 1974 general election under the slogan "Who governs Britain?". The answer was certainly not him. A hung parliament eventually allowed Harold Wilson to form a minority Labour Government. The normal working week was restored on 8 March, even if restrictions on the use of electricity remained. The new Labour Government increased miners' wages by 35% immediately after the February 1974 election and then narrowly won a second election that year. Other public sector workers also won pay increases that compensated for inflation in those years but they were paid for by printing money which only added to the inflation which the Heath Government had started in the “Barber boom” budget of 1972. The rise in oil prices after the Yom Kippur War (1973) only added to the economic crisis. With growing trade and budget deficits as well as a run on Sterling, the Labour Government, now headed by James Callaghan, sought a record loan from the IMF. The price was a cut in services (starting with the NHS) which tripled unemployment (to 1.5 million) and a wage limit to increases of 5%. Workers’ resentment only increased and culminated in the wave of strikes, many of them started by the rank and file, known as “the winter of discontent” in 1978-9. The union leaders could not contain them and the complacency, incompetence and splits in the Labour Party brought about their defeat in the May 1979 election.

Many in the ranks of the Conservative Party could see a direct link between the fall of the Heath Government, and the rise of what their propaganda depicted as an ineffectual "socialist" Labour regime unable to control the trade unions, as a direct result of the 1974 miners’ strike. All of this serves to explain the vehement class hatred the government displayed in the eventual 1984-85 dispute. When Thatcher came to power in 1979, she had no intention to repeat what she saw as the mistakes of the past to accommodate organised labour. Alongside the pursuit of the agenda of privatisation and deregulation, Thatcher, who played up her image of the "Iron Lady" for her uncompromising stance against unions and strikers, was on a mission to restore the profitability of British capital, and that meant, in her book, reducing the influence of organised labour. The closure of coal mines and the broader restructuring of the coal industry were central components of Thatcher's agenda, driven by a desire to “modernise” the economy and reduce reliance on traditional industries. Thatcher's Government initially announced plans to close 23 coal mines, prompting threats of strike action from the miners. The government backtracked, one reason being the lack of preparation in the shape of a large reserve of coal. But this was only a temporary blip, the government had its agenda and was simply biding its time. Subsequently, the campaign against the miners continued, even at a gradual pace. Over the course of three years, coal mines were one by one closed by the NCB. Some workers were transferred to other pits, which sweetened the pill of job cuts. There was even the opening of the Selby coalfield in Yorkshire which provided much needed employment in an area struggling with job losses. But the big picture remained; the coal industry continued its trajectory of gradual decline, with only 173 mines remaining in operation by the end of 1981, a year which had seen intense rioting up and down the UK as unemployment ruined so many lives and the police harassed communities with little illusions of a brighter future. Nevertheless, for the Thatcherite ruling class, the perceived threat posed by the powerful miners' union necessitated decisive action to neutralise it. This imperative drove ongoing preparations to suppress the union in the near future. Of great importance to these preparations was the Ridley Plan, formally known as the Ridley Report, commissioned in 1977 to address the challenges posed to Conservative administrations by nationalised industries and their related unions. The origin of this plan goes back to the aftermath of the 1973–74 coal strike, which was a direct cause of the downfall of the Heath Government. Conservative MP Nicholas Ridley, a prominent figure within the right-wing faction of the party and a member of the "Selsdon Group" of free market Conservatives, was instrumental in the development of the plan. Its major thrust was a set of proposals on how to defeat a major strike in a nationalised industry.(1) As it transpired, this was to materialise in the shape of batons, blood and prison. Figures vary but the numbers of victims were shocking.(2)

The Strike Itself

Initially a wildcat strike, the dispute was soon officially led by the NUM against the NCB. However, it was widely perceived as a much larger class battle being waged by the Thatcher government against the working class which had begun to exert organised power over the previous decade or so before Thatcher came to power (on a platform promising to put an end to a tide of class conflict). On the one hand, the government, along with the NCB, highlighted the lack of profitability and costs of the mines, along with the fall in demand. The closure of the mines was considered a necessary step to contribute to the rescue of a failing economy. This had no time for the plight of the miners. Many had been part of multi-generational mining families. Their loved ones relied on them, and mining was the only employment that they had ever known. The government had shown little to no interest in the impact of the closures on these communities and offered no alternatives or assistance options to support the closures. The threat was direct and brutal. The Thatcher Government were well aware that the closures would prompt strike action and spent time before the announcement stockpiling an extra reserve of coal.

The issue of violence is often associated with the strike. This came both from the miners and from the police who, especially after unleashing horseback charges and severely injuring miners at Orgreave coking plant – the so-called “Battle of Orgreave” – turned up their campaign against miners as urged by the Thatcher Government. As the CWO wrote at the time:

No amount of militant fight by the miners alone will defeat the bosses, who have ranged the whole of the might of the capitalist state against the miners; they have spent more on defeating the miners than in fighting the whole Falklands War, and turned whole regions of the country into mini-police states.

Break the Miners’ Isolation in Workers Voice 85, January 1985

While the miners’ attempts to strengthen the effectiveness of the strike were mostly non-violent, there were a few occasions where fights and protests broke out, with the bulk of the violence directed at strike-breakers – “scabs”, the workers who crossed the picket line and continued to work. “Flying” picketers travelled to other mines to stop local workers from continuing to work. This would often end in violent clashes with police. Strike-breakers often found themselves ostracised, the target of abuse and worse. Eight deaths were attributed to the strike, including picketers, workers, and a taxi driver.

The strike was declared illegal five months after it started in September 1984. The justification was that the NUM hadn’t run a national ballot of its members to approve the strike action. As the dispute dragged on, ever more miners returned to work nationally, and the Thatcher Government presented an ever more implacable, hostile position to “the enemy within”, as Thatcher called the strikers. The strike was finally ended on 3 March 1985, with nothing conceded to the NUM. 362 days of hardship for many miners. The defeat of the 1984-85 miners’ strike marked the end of a period of working-class militancy not just in the UK but across the world, from Barcelona to Buenos Aires. It was a particularly brutal episode in capitalist restructuring which was taking place throughout the advanced capitalist world in more subtle ways from the mid-1970s onward. The consequences for the class in these places have been lower living standards and greater job insecurity whilst the financiers of capital have enjoyed greater and greater wealth.

If the suffering of the miners during the strike was an obvious element of the assault mounted by the State, its aftermath continued to rack up victims. In any year for decades after the strike, media reports on the hardship endured by the inhabitants of the former coalfields, largely left to rot after the closure of collieries which had in many instances been the main employer of entire communities. We are here referring to highly significant numbers of people. By 1991, around 160,000 jobs had been lost from coal mining; by 1994, only 15 pits out of 174 before the strike remained. At its peak, the mining industry employed well over a million people, but with the closure of North Yorkshire's Kellingley Colliery in 2015, the end came for deep coal mining in the UK. However, those directly employed are only part of the story. The former coalfields comprised a combined population of 5.7 million people, located mainly in northern England, the Midlands, South Wales and Central Scotland. Of course, pubs, clubs, and shops closed, other industries were impacted, and they too haemorrhaged employment. More than thirty-five years after the strike concluded, the BBC could report that:

Former mining towns and villages across the UK have still not recovered a generation on from pit closures, a new report claims. It found issues including unemployment, ill health and social disadvantage extended beyond ex-miners. The research for the Coalfields Regeneration Trust said areas remained ‘scarred by the legacy of the past’ … these areas continue to have large numbers of people out of work and on benefits … to raise the employment rate in the coalfield areas to the national average would require 80,000 more people to be in work. It also found low earnings had triggered widespread entitlement to benefits but that welfare reform was hitting residents hard.

Perhaps the BBC as the voice of the British State refrains from painting the true extent of the desperation that the residents of the former coalfields faced, and continue to face, but headlines like “Ex-coalfields ravaged by heroin use”(3) point to the raw reality. When Covid-19 hit, this ulcer of economic inequality decades after the strike meant that it killed more people proportionately in coalfield areas than anywhere else in the UK.(4)

However, the damage goes beyond striking miners’ battered skulls and heroin addicts’ pierced veins. The entire working class, nationally and arguably globally, suffered a body blow. A powerful message, worthy of the most vicious gangsters, was painted in workers’ blood. This is what standing up to the ruling class means. And we continue to live under the heel, following the bloody, ruthless suppression of an entire period of working-class fighting spirit in defence of its conditions, in the UK and elsewhere, whilst the ruling class have filled their coffers over and over at our expense.

Yet, the story of the defeat of the miners, and from there the suffering of a huge segment of the UK population and its retarding effect on working class confidence, is not simply one of a Tory faction hellbent on smashing what they saw as a threat to their political project to take the working class back to Victorian conditions and worse in a life-and-death struggle to restore the profitability of capital, the alpha and omega of the current social arrangement. Whatever their level of class hatred and audacity in the class war, their victory cannot be explained solely in these terms. Here we have to examine all those forces which claimed, and still claim, to be the friends of the working class, the spokespeople of the miners and their political perspectives. It may not take much to spot the open advocates of capitalism like Thatcher and her friends and identify their political vision as one at odds with the interests of the working class majority, but, arguably the real battle of the working class, the battle fought as much between the ears as all the physical manifestations of class struggle, is that to understand, at least enough to change, the world created in the image of capital, class society which uses every weapon, deception, means possible, to maintain itself at the expense of its proletarian host. As the CWO writes(5):

False friends are sometimes the worst enemies. In order to maintain its rule, capitalism supports itself on a series of organisations and currents which profess to wish to improve the position of the working class, but, in reality, work to direct all resistance into cul-de-sacs and thus make it harmless. In order to successfully carry out a struggle for its interests, the proletariat must become aware of its historical tasks and give all these forces a clear rejection.

The miners’ strike of 1984-85 gave a powerful example of this truth, perhaps all the more revealing due to the defeat and tragic aftermath of the oppressed, half-starved miners. Who were the players, the protagonists claiming to give leadership to the miners and the wider working class at that time (and before and since) who failed in 1985, failed to protect the working class in the aftermath of the dispute and continue to keep the working-class supine in the face of mounting capitalist attacks day by day as this article is written?

No doubt a reasonable place to start would be the leader of the NUM at that time, Arthur Scargill, a card-carrying member of the Labour Party. Presented in The Sun newspaper, amongst others, as some sort of a blend between Hitler and Stalin, before, during and after the 1984-85 strike, Scargill was a Labourite leftist despite his extensive time in the CPGB which itself was little more than a prop for the Labour Party, particularly its left face. In his own words, from 1975, the Labour Party was his first choice as a political home.

Well, my initiation wasn’t in the trade union at all. It was in the political movement. At the age of fifteen I decided that the world was wrong and I wanted to put it right, virtually overnight if possible. I did two things. First of all I wrote to the Labour Party and asked them if there was any youth organization which I could belong to, or if there was any association at all where I could play a part. Additionally I wrote to the British-Soviet Friendship Society; I was reading the Daily Worker at this time, and asked them if I could join because I wanted to further friendship between peoples. I got a reply from them but I didn’t get a reply from the Labour Party in spite of two more letters … And so I wrote to the Daily Worker and asked if there was a young Communist Party I could join. Within twenty-four hours they were at my house and I joined the Young Communist League. I was in the Young Communist League for about six or seven years and I became a member of its National Executive Committee responsible for industrial work. The secretary at this time was a very good friend of mine called Jimmy Reid, and we’re still close friends. A lot of other people on the National Executive at that time went on and became very respectable Labour mp’s in Parliament. Many of us started in the 1950s in the Young Communist League.

Evidently for Scargill, there was no real boundary between the Labour Party and the CPGB and he eventually did join the former. Of course, Scargill often appeared to be the best friend of the miners, for example, he refused to condemn the violence of the oppressed in the face of unprecedented levels of police violence. However, Scargill was never going to take a path beyond that offered by the political structures of capitalism to which he belonged, paid up, card carrying. In other words, he was in no position to formulate an effective strategy to mobilise the wider working class in a fight to overturn the rampant ruling class assault of that period on many fronts, the score being kept by the horrendous unemployment figures which were a threat to the entire class.(6)

Even if Scargill and the NUM made no serious appeal to the wider working class to take up the gauntlet thrown down by the resolute Thatcher government and the armed state, the generalisation of the dispute, which could have utterly changed the trajectory of the strike and the historic course over subsequent decades, was a possibility. However, once again, the dead hand of the so-called Labour Movement played its role in stifling such a possibility.(7)

In short, the working class, tied to capitalist structures including the Labour Party, the Trade Unions and the ever-changing alphabet soup of so called socialist and communist groups of varying magnitude backing such structures to whatever degree, however critically, was unable to meet the challenge, to grasp the opportunity to stop the ruling class assault in its tracks and we continue to pay the price.

And we will continue to pay the price, continue to live under the gun, continue to play the part of the exploited victim until either the capitalist crisis results in its logical finale, another round of world war which is already manifesting in ever more deadly forms, or the working class refuses the descent into ever worsening conditions and creates the organisations necessary to take on the system and eradicate it.

This is the raison d’etre of the Internationalist Communist Tendency, to contribute to the formation of such organs that the modern conditions of relentless capitalist crisis and encroachment on working class conditions demand. Such organs are not restricted to any isolated section of the workforce, are not limited by acceptance of the capitalist framework, the fatal bondage that kept the miners in isolation and guaranteed defeat in the face of a ruling class which can no longer afford to maintain anything remotely “fair”. Regardless of how great the challenge this represents, we will steal Thatcher’s line and turn it against the class war faction she spearheaded. There is no alternative. It is beyond the scope of one article to make the entire case of the ICT for revolution, but the defeat of the miners and the mass suffering it allowed serves us a powerful justification for that revolutionary perspective. However, we can urge readers to study our materials, be they on the treacherous role of Social Democracy, Trade Unions, Stalinist and Trotskyist factions, all of which were complicit in the tragic outcome of the 1984-85 strike. The concise conclusion is that the problem is capitalism; its necessary drive to profit means the working class cannot be protected, accommodated, maintained even to the poor extent it was in the past. There are no official paths within the system or its political structures, all of which, even if apparently contradictory, serve in their totality to maintain capitalism and its structural class inequality. The only way out of the trajectory to destruction is revolutionary organisation today with the perspective of revolution tomorrow.

March 2024


Image: Amgueddfa Cymru (CC BY-NC 2.0 DEED),

(1) The proposals of the Ridley Plan were as follows:

  • The government should, if possible, choose the field of battle.
  • Industries were grouped by the likelihood of winning a strike; the coal industry was in the 'middle' of three groups of industries mentioned.
  • Coal stocks should be built up at power stations.
  • Plans should be made to import coal from non-union foreign ports.
  • Non-union lorry drivers to be recruited by haulage companies.
  • Dual coal-oil firing generators to be installed, at extra cost.
  • Cut off the money supply to the strikers and make the union finance them.
  • Train and equip a large, mobile squad of police, ready to employ riot tactics in order to uphold the law against violent picketing.

(2) “The [police] National Reporting Centre which co-ordinated mutual aid was able to call on a total of 13,000 officers in police support groups drawn from each of the 43 police forces of England and Wales. … 11,313 miners were arrested in the course of the year long strike, 7,000 injured, 5,653 put on trial, 960 dismissed from their employment and 200 imprisoned.” (

(3) "The equivalent of a smallpox epidemic is raging in the heart of Britain's former coalfields, a report says today, with heroin directly affecting one in three people living in north Nottinghamshire. But attempts to deal with the crisis, from overdose deaths to a huge increase in burglary and shoplifting, are described by a panel of investigators as "a shambles", with a muddle of funding providing cheap but ineffective help.” ( Nothing has changed since, and steep rises in shoplifting as the economic situation only declines, and the like continue to make headlines. No doubt, at the time of writing, the announcement that the UK has officially slipped into recession will only exacerbate matters.


(5) The quote comes from the pamphlet For Communism: An Introduction to the Politics of the Internationalist Communist Tendency, anyone who is on the least considering the possibility of societal change will have no better start point than reading this concise document.

(6) As the CWO wrote at the time: “Everywhere workers are facing the same problems as the miners; threats of redundancy, falling real wages, infernal increases in exploitation” (Break the Miners’ Isolation in Workers Voice 85, January 1985)

(7) "Despite being threatened with the sack many rail workers refused to transport coal to power stations. In August a proposed dock strike (also about job losses) would have cut coal imports but it was called off at the last minute by the union (and the dockworkers own misery would soon start up). In the same month [we now know] with the pound and stock market falling the Conservative government was also thinking of backing down, but when this crisis passed they hung on." (

Tuesday, March 12, 2024