Four Nations History and the 1984–5 Miners’ Strike
Dr Ben Curtis (Cardiff University) argues against the tendency to assume an essentially uniform British national perspective in writing the history of the 1984-5 miners’ strike.
One of the most interesting aspects of a Four Nations historical perspective is that it has the potential to offer new ways of looking at various aspects of British history – sometimes problematising them and offering a more nuanced view of the past, sometimes offering extra levels of insight and understanding. From the standpoint of my own research, I would suggest that this is certainly the case with the British coal miners’ strike of 1984–5.
A very significant aspect of the history of the British coal industry was its strongly regionalised character. Historically, there were coalfields across mainland Britain: across central Scotland, in north and south Wales, and across England from Northumbria to Kent and the Forest of Dean. In addition to pronounced geological differences, each coalfield had its own industrial relations traditions, differences in customs and practices, and political culture. Although many of the smaller coalfields had ceased production before the later twentieth century, this regionalisation remained, retaining an important role. The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), for instance, was in practice less of a truly ‘national union’ and more of a federation of distinct pre-existing coalfield unions – a feature which was to have fateful consequences in 1984–5.
There is a widespread tendency in historical representations of the 1984–5 miners’ strike to offer a caricatured depiction which focuses on the dispute’s ‘high politics’: on the clash of personalities and politics between the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the NUM President Arthur Scargill, on the instances of picket-line clashes and violence, and on the failure of negotiations between the leaderships of the National Coal Board (NCB) and the NUM. This is certainly the case in most television documentaries on the subject but is also prevalent in the historiography too, to varying extents – the books The Miners’ Strike: Loss Without Limit by Adeney and Lloyd and Marching To the Fault Line by Beckett and Hencke are prominent examples of this, for instance. One of the main problems with this historiographical approach is that it is predicated upon the assumption of an essentially uniform British national perspective – and in doing so downplays and disregards much of the context and complexity of events within the various coalfields.
In contrast to this, the utilisation of what we might loosely call a ‘Four Nations’ approach to this subject offers the possibility of a much more insightful analysis. I would suggest that a ‘Four Nations’-informed perspective on the 1984–5 strike starts from the understanding that different coalfields across Britain had different experiences – and that the interactions between these and their influence on ‘national’ British developments are one of the important ways of understanding the dynamics driving the events of the strike. Several monographs have appeared in recent years which utilise this regional perspective to discuss the events of 1984–5. These include my own book on the south Wales miners and also the interesting and informative Collieries, Communities and the Miners’ Strike in Scotland by Jim Phillips. Crucially, the common denominator in these two studies is that they show that in the coalfields of Scotland and south Wales, support for the strike was not something foisted upon the miners by an unrepresentatively militant national NUM leadership but instead drew its strength from the resilience and determination of the regions’ coalfield communities themselves.
The events of the strike themselves can only be fully understood by a ‘Four Nations’ approach which places the differing experiences of the various coalfields, with all their complexities and contradictions, at the centre of the analysis. The strike was not simply imposed by Scargill – indeed, strikes that were already underway in Scotland and Yorkshire were the factor that spurred the national NUM leadership into action in March 1984. Similarly, the widely differing levels of support for the strike across the coalfields – from the solidity of south Wales through to the refusal of Nottinghamshire to participate in it – are in many ways the defining feature of the year-long dispute. The response of each coalfield was the product of its miners’ responses to the interplay of their own particular circumstances and histories.
From a Four Nations perspective, it is also interesting and important to consider how the impact and legacy of the 1984–5 strike played out differently in the various coalfield regions. Devolution in Wales is one example of this. Proposals for devolution for Wales were crushingly defeated in the 1979 referendum but were accepted (albeit by a small margin) in the referendum in 1997. This shift was in no small part due to the change in opinions in the coalfield of south Wales, which overall voted ‘yes’ in 1997. It is impossible to explain the dramatic turn-around in attitudes towards devolution in Wales without considering the impact of the imposition of unpopular policies on Wales by a Conservative government in Westminster for eighteen years – not least its policy towards the coal industry. A piece of graffiti which appeared in the early 1980s on a railway bridge in the heart of the coalfield, in Nelson in Mid Glamorgan, encapsulated this perfectly: ‘We voted Labour, we got Thatcher’. (The local council obviously was not too opposed to this sentiment: I remember clearly that the slogan was allowed to remain in place long enough for ‘Thatcher’ to be crossed out and replaced with ‘Major’ in the early 1990s!).
In conclusion, the 1984–5 miners’ strike is a massively significant event in twentieth-century British history. Yet, as I have tried to show briefly here, a ‘Four Nations’ regional-orientated perspective is better placed to offer a fully contextualised understanding of it than a simplistic approach which presupposes a monolithic and uniform British experience. The history of the strike – and the British coal industry in general, to a certain extent – can only be fully understood via focussing on the centrality of workplace and community experiences; the dominant ‘British’ emphasis in the historiography on high politics and leaders’ personalities has been in many respects a distortion and a distraction from this.
Ben Curtis is a historian at Cardiff University, specialising in the history of modern south Wales, the coal industry, and industrial disability. He is the author of The South Wales Miners 1964-1985 (published in 2013), as well as numerous other articles and book chapters. He is also the treasurer for Llafur, the Welsh People’s History Society, as well as the general editor for the South Wales Record Society. Twitter: @DrBCCurtis.