‘Coal not Dole’: Mansfield in the Miners Strike

Written by Bradley Bosson.

With the passing of Margaret Thatcher still in the mindset of many I thought I’d return to something which had a major impact on how she was perceived and something which has changed a large part of Britain dramatically. The 1984-5 Miners Strike was one which represented a deep, underlying opposition and hatred for everything that Margaret Thatcher stood for, with South Yorkshire and South Wales in particular being hotbeds for socialist and communist politics. In my locale however, things were a lot different.

The 1984-5 Miners Strike occurred due to a planned programme of privatisation which was headed by the neo-liberal Thatcher premiership. Coal mining in the UK had been nationalised in 1947 and was managed by the National Coal Board (NCB). As a nationalised industry, coal mining was heavily subsidised and a lot of mines were losing money. In addition to this, it was believed that large mechanisation was required to make the coal mines profitable which would have led to job cuts; inevitably this was resisted by the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). The Thatcher government looking to reduce public expenditure decided that they needed to be closed down and sold off. In addition to being an economic problem, for a lot of Conservatives in government, the conflict with the miners unions took on a symbolic importance after the miners’ strike in 1974 brought down the government of Ted Heath. Previous conflicts during the Thatcher premiership had been averted, due to the belief that the government was not ready to take on the miners and any strike would have dire consequences. On the 6th March 1984, the NCB announced the closure of twenty mines, with the loss of twenty-thousand jobs. After this announcement, workers walked out in various parts of Yorkshire, Kent, Durham and Scotland. The president of the NUM, Arthur Scargill, announced a national strike in 1984 without a national ballot, which is where one of the major issues of contention comes into the story.

Mansfield, which sits in north Nottinghamshire, was an area that was not under threat to the extent that other areas were. The majority of the Nottinghamshire mines were much newer and had modern equipment, in addition to there being much larger reserves of coal than other mines. When the NUM called for a strike it was assumed that every coal region would operate in line with the union; this did not happen. The Nottinghamshire miners cherished principles of democracy and also wanted the strike to be lawful. A national ballot was required for this happen, a ballot which was never carried out by the NUM. After this conflict, a large branch of the Nottinghamshire arm of the NUM broke away and decided to form the Union of Democratic Mineworkers (UDM). This perceived betrayal by miners in other areas is one that still resonates now, with Nottingham Forest and Mansfield Town fans being bombarded by ‘scab’ chants as well as the more serious problems of family dispute and even a murder in 2004 in Annesley (a village in Nottinghamshire) over crossing the picket lines during the strike. Mansfield and north Nottinghamshire was often considered as the main battleground, with the NUM often transporting strikers from other areas to bolster the picket lines outside of Mansfield’s mines. Nottinghamshire also borders South Yorkshire, where around 97 percent of the total miners workforce were on strike, inevitably leading to tensions and conflict. Despite a large majority of the workforce in Nottinghamshire not going observing the strike, there was still a strong core of NUM supporters and striking miners; organising rallies and protests in solidarity with the other striking miners.

Nationally, the miner’s strike was a long and drawn out affair with strong emotions emanating from both sides. It is claimed that Thatcher saw the conflict as symbolic and after seeing the NUM bring down the Ted Heath government, she wanted to destroy the NUM as retribution. On the other side, Arthur Scargill was often criticised for using the concept of class conflict and workers rights to bring down the government for his own gain. Thatcher and the government were much better prepared for this industrial action than that of Heath in 1974. Coal reserves had been built up over a period of time, many of Britain’s power plants had been converted into burning oil as well as coal and the NCB had managed to recruit road haulers to transport coal, if the railwaymen went on strike as a sympathetic gesture towards the miners. Depending on how you look at it, the government also crucially had the non-striking miners on their side, commonly portrayed as heroes in the daily tabloids and a demonstration of the ‘good’ side to those who were undecided whether to support the strike or not. It is also alleged that the non-striking miners and their leaders had informed the government on how best to bring down the strike. What was clear however, is that when the strike formally ended on the 3rd March 1985, the inability of the NUM to call on all of its potential manpower was one of the major reasons for the failure of the strike.

With regards to Mansfield, the majority of the mines remained open as promised by the government. However, around ten years later, there was a second wave of pit closures with many of the mines which had been assured of their future closed. Overall, there was a feeling of betrayal and that the Notts miners had been used to divide the strike and ensure its failure. As previously mentioned, Mansfield and Nottinghamshire in general still gets a lot of criticism for this episode in its history and whilst areas such as Yorkshire and South Wales are still devastated and recovering from the pit closures, Mansfield’s miners will continue to be known as the ‘scab miners’.