Determined to win

Dave Douglass reviews Steve McGrail and Vicky Patterson Cowie miners, Polmaise colliery and the 1984-85 miners’ strike Scottish Labour History Society, 2017, pp146, £6

Polmaise was at the epicentre of the Scottish miners’ action in 1984. Like Cortonwood it was among ‘the first of the first’ to be threatened and pick up the gauntlet - the ‘single sparks’ that lit that prairie fire.

The struggle at Polmaise had started in February 84, and for those men and their families it ended 13 months later. The new, ‘get tough’ management style introduced into the Scottish and other coalfields prior to the Great Strike was a deliberate policy to prematurely kick-start the all-out action and break our long-term overtime ban strategy, which was relentlessly reducing stocks of coal at pitheads and power stations. There had been controversial closures in 1982 and 83, and half of Scottish mines were already engaged in forms of action around various disputes by February 84. Polmaise itself was out over the threatened closure of the pit.

We have long agonised over the end of the Great Strike, which lasted from March 84 until March 85 - even the most militant of us had seen the writing on the wall. Scotland and Yorkshire had proposed we stay out until we at least got a guarantee that our sacked comrades would be reinstated, but it was not to be and we walked from that battle leaving our men in the field - we went back without a settlement. We would not formally surrender, or agree with the logic of the closure programme, so we marched back (in theory) to regroup and continue the fight - by work-to-rules, overtime bans and non-cooperation. But the closures which went through left coalfield areas desolated and destroyed - most have never recovered.

The process of mass closure, which had started in the 1950s and was willingly taken up by Labour as well as the Tories, was especially marked in Scotland and Northumbria. As small pits closed, mining became centralised and a number of supermines came into being. As a result, the itinerant miner - travelling from his distant village to the working mine - became a common feature.

This book is a history of the miners from Cowie, whose pit closed in the 50s and who were now working in Polmaise, but still maintaining their identity and traditions. In this respect the Cowie miners had regretted the decision of the National Union of Mineworkers not to hold a ballot before calling national strike action. The question of public legitimacy and the targets that decision opened up for the tabloids are valid points, of course, but the idea projected here - that we would with a successful national ballot have constitutionally forced the Nottingham mines to join us on strike - is not credible. 80% of the Notts miners worked through thick and thin - despite police riots, pitched battles and miners’ deaths. If seeing strikers freezing on the picket lines and their fellow miners being battered on the TV did not stop them crossing picket lines, it is doubtful in the extreme that our crosses on a ballot paper would have changed their minds.

Polmaise had the proud distinction of being totally solid and staying out until the strike officially ended. They had no need of pickets at their own pit - a distinction shared only by South Wales, where many mines were also totally scab-free (even the fiery Doncaster coalfield had 1% of men back at work by the last week of the strike).

Ours, not Arthur’s

The book retells some of the key features of this strike, including the oft ignored fact that the strike was started, spread and owned by the miners themselves, not by Arthur Scargill. Interestingly it reveals the methods of organising picketing operations - those in Yorkshire were decentralised (although coordinated, of course) - with local and regional strike centres. This allowed for flexibility, the rapid movement of pickets and mass guerrilla actions. These sometimes confused the highly regimented and centralised police - despite their counter-measures they were often outflanked.

The book demonstrates how this local and regional control was jealously guarded against all attempts by Arthur and the national office in Sheffield to take control of all decisions, such as targets and coal concessions. But this was eventually reversed and total control over vital areas of strategy were assumed by Arthur - with disastrous consequences, in my view, for key areas of strategy.

One surprising fact was that the men organised the food kitchens themselves and each miner was instructed to work in the kitchen on a rota or he would not be fed. But the women were not invited to help organise and operate these kitchens. Hardly a progressive feature in the circumstances - one presumes that, unlike most other parts of the country, female flying pickets would not have been welcomed in Polmaise.

Another startling fact to come out of the book was that the NUM in Scotland allowed safety men to work when scabs were in the pit! In non-Scottish coalfields safety men were requested from the striking miners to save the fabric of the pit if it started to collapse or flood. The wages paid to those doing safety work went into the strike fund and they were only allowed to keep the equivalent of picket money, plus a little for transport, etc. As soon as any scabs came in, our men came out. Management were told, ‘Scabs or safety workers - you can’t have both.’ Otherwise the men would have rightly assumed they were ‘pissing up our backs’. In the book one of the miners comments, “We should have just walked out.” Um, yes.

Most of the observations recorded in Cowie miners were made during the strike or shortly after its end, so everything is based on events as they were seen at the time. That is particularly relevant when it came to reflections on Orgreave. The police brutality, press bias and subsequent rigged trials are all well known, but more needs to be said. I have made the point many times that for our picketing operation Orgreave was an own goal. The fact we announced in advance that virtually every flying picket from across the country would be in the same field at the same time allowed the state to mobilise every cop it could and set up a staged-managed ambush, into which we marched. That miners did not die as a result was sheer luck - it certainly was not for want of trying by the police.

The book raises the oft repeated theory of the involvement on picket lines of soldiers in police garb - it mentions the photo in The Miner of the army sergeant caught on film driving a police transit. I had followed up all such stories when researching my own book, Ghost dancers, and each one fell short for lack of evidence. In this particular example, the soldier was part of a bomb disposal unit, which regularly used police vehicles so as not to cause panic or attract attention to itself. I chased down a number of such stories and found little by way of real proof - at the end of the day the truth was not so much the military becoming police as the reverse: the militarisation (and overt politicisation) of the police.

At the end of the strike the gross vindictiveness of Scottish management at all levels is made clear. The area director pledged that none of the sacked men would be reinstated, no matter how long their mates stayed out after the formal end of the action. The holiday pay which was already due to the men - and desperately needed following a year without wages - was withheld until the next tax year, more out of spite than for any administrative reason. Worse, the firms which carried miners from distant villages to working collieries, and had refused to cross picket lines for 12 months, had their contracts ended and their drivers sacked - those contracts were taken over by firms which had scabbed. The miners were given a ‘take it or leave it’ ultimatum: ‘Travel with the drivers who crashed through your picket lines every day, carrying their toxic cargo, or stay at home and be sacked yourself.’ The union countered this by hiring its own buses from firms whose drivers had not scabbed.

One vitally important correction to the chronology of events at the end of the book - one which touches on the key strategic failures of Arthur’s leadership referred to earlier - is cited as “April 28: Scargill says there will be no dispensations for steel production.” Actually under the area “dispensations” to keep the steel works, ovens and furnaces intact and warm by providing enough coke to keep them ticking over, no steel was to be produced. The system kept the furnaces intact, thus saving one of our major customers, yet still stopped the supply of steel. In snooker terms ‘that pocket was covered’.

Arthur decided to launch a bureaucratic coup against area and rank-and-file control by claiming there was a need for ‘national consistency’. That allowed him to take responsibility for the agreements with the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation and the steel unions - which he did by tearing them up. This then meant we were playing chicken not with the mines - which universally in April supplied safety men to ‘keep them ticking over’ and periodically allowed some coal to be cut to save the fabric of the coal face - but with the steel industry. It meant we were denying it the same safety provision we had in the mines, and that the strike bit harder on steel than on coal.

The logic behind this strategy was the presumption that either the government would back down or the British steel industry would literally collapse. This itself must have been based on one of two possible rationales: either the steelworkers were expected to continue respecting our picket lines and join the strike with more enthusiasm than many miners, despite their own jobs being the hostage; or they would break the strike and pitch us into war in national showdowns like Orgreave, Ravenscraig and South Wales and open up a major battlefront - which, if we won, would concede us the whole match. I will not debate here the usefulness of this strategy or the motives or wisdom of it, except to say most miners to this day still do not know that Orgreave arose from a decision taken by Arthur unilaterally - or at best with ignorant indulgence by the national executive. I myself was not aware of this until I started doing research for Ghost dancers.

I think the figure of 5,000 pickets at Orgreave, given in Cowie miners, is something of an underestimation: it was probably at least twice that, with an equal number of police. Even 25,000 taking part in that bitter battle on June 18 1984 would not in my view be an overestimation.

There is one further inaccuracy in this book: Yorkshire did not vote to end the strike unconditionally. Along with Scotland, Kent and others, it voted to do so only if there was a total amnesty for our sacked men.

Nevertheless, this is a handy addition to the now voluminous library on the miners’ Great Strike. It is full of interest and, as demonstrated hopefully in this review, full of information about the way the strike in parts of Scotland differed from those over the border. It is also deeply moving in places.