How Scottish miners won justice while English miners are ignored

Devolution afforded Scottish miners the opportunity to have their cases heard and their stories acted upon.

Commentary icon18 Nov 2020|Comment

Jim Phillips

Professor of Economic & Social History, The University of Glasgow

The Scottish government agreed in principle on 28 October 2020 to a collective and posthumous pardon for 500-plus miners who were convicted in Scotland for Breach of the Peace or Breach of Bail during the 1984-85 strike. Humza Yousaf, the Cabinet Secretary for Justice, announced the decision in the Scottish Parliament following the publication of the Final Report of the Independent Review of Policing in Scotland during the strike, chaired by John Scott QC.

There was a grand scheme of macro-injustice perpetrated by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government against miners, their families and communities.

Wronged by employers; wronged by the State; wronged by the police

Miners in Scotland and other coalfield areas in Britain experienced serious injustice in two ways in 1984-85. First, there was a grand scheme of macro-injustice perpetrated by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government against miners, their families and communities. The fundamentals of workplace democracy and economic security were attacked as the government neutralised trade-union voice and imposed market imperatives in energy provision. The miners’ moral economy, emphasising union involvement in decisions by the National Coal Board (NCB) about pit closures, was forcibly suppressed. The Prime Minister covertly destabilised ‘peace talks’ between the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the NCB during the strike, determined to secure her government’s core objective: enforcing ‘management’s right to manage’ by removing union veto of closures on economic grounds where there were no employment alternatives for redundant miners.

Second, there were many micro-injustices committed against the miners. These were imposed in Scotland by law-enforcers bent on enabling the government’s will. The NUM reckoned that over 500 men were convicted for relatively trivial public-order offences in Scotland. Andrew “Watty” Watson, now a train driver and ASLEF member, was 19 in 1984 and probably the youngest miner victimised in Scotland during the strike. Seen by police officers giving two fingers to a strike-breaking miner on Lochore High Street in Fife, he was taken into custody. Senior police officers told Watson that if he insisted on his innocence, he would spend three months on remand in Saughton Prison in Edinburgh. Under very heavy pressure, he pleaded guilty to Breach of the Peace and was fined £150. This was a draconian penalty, when a typical fine for Breach of the Peace in 1984 was £20. It was followed, just two working days later, by the further punishment of dismissal, suggesting unusually close contact between the Sheriff Court in Fife and the NCB.

Watson was re-employed by the NCB after the strike, but an unknown number of other men sacked in 1984-85, perhaps as many as 150, were not. These included union delegates and activists who were arrested for alleged offences but not actually convicted. Many of these strikers were further victimised as they struggled to find alternative employment. The covert activities of the Consulting Association, now well-documented by the Institute of Employment Rights and others, included compilation of a blacklist of named individuals. This was made available to private-sector employers who rejected job applications from ex-miners because of their union activism.

These injustices have been ignored outside coal communities and the trade-union movement for 35 years. The UK government still shuns the miners.

The long road to justice

These injustices have been ignored outside coal communities and the trade-union movement for 35 years. The UK government still shuns the miners. In October 2016 the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, refused an inquiry into the strike and its policing, frustrating hopes nurtured especially by the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign, which is still pressing for action in this area. The different situation in Scotland, with the government recognising the injustices and committing itself to restorative action, can be explained by three related factors.

First, there is a courageous, intelligent and determined campaign for justice in the Scottish coalfields. This has involved former union officials, delegates and activists, and Labour MPs and MSPs, most notably Neil Findlay. It has also included powerful community mobilisation, directed by mining women and family members, which leans heavily on the tradition of greater gender equality in the Scottish coalfields. It will be remembered that the NUM Scottish Area’s demand for union membership for coalfield women in 1985 was resisted by the union in other parts of the British coalfields.

Second, this campaign utilised the opportunities of devolution, lobbying the Scottish Parliament and government. Historical tradition is important here too. The NUM Scottish Area, led by Michael McGahey and Lawrence Daly, was an early advocate of a devolved Scottish Parliament from the 1960s onwards, seeing its possibilities as an agent of enhanced working-class security through targeted public policy. Alex Salmond’s SNP administration was unreceptive in the spring of 2014 to demands for an inquiry into the strike or review of the miners’ case for justice, but the government was reconstituted after the independence referendum later that year. Nicola Sturgeon, the new First Minister, and Michael Matheson, the new Cabinet Secretary of Justice, listened to these campaigners, and engaged with evidence presented to their officials of past injustice. The Independent Review of the impact of policing in 1984-85 was appointed in June 2018.

Third, John Scott conducted this investigation in an open and engaged manner. This drew in the participation of former miners, chiefly through public events held in welfare clubs in mining communities. Scott heard Watty Watson’s story and dozens of other testimonies of injustice at first hand. These personal details peppered the contents of Scott’s Final Report, and unmistakably influenced the recommendation of collective pardon.

The fight ahead

The financial losses incurred by those sacked and blacklisted in 1984-85 cannot easily be accounted or compensated for. But collective pardon for those convicted can be achieved and will restore the honour and dignity of many of those who were victimised. Scott’s Final Report set out the criteria on which pardon could be granted: to those with no convictions prior to the strike or after it; and where these convictions were for Breach of Peace or Breach of Bail, and discharged by fines, without custodial sentence. Humza Yousaf indicated in Parliament on 28 October that pressure of business would defer enactment of this pardon until after the 2021 election. Findlay pressed Yousaf to bring this forward. Pardon based on Scott’s ‘good standing’ profile can surely be agreed without further substantial delay. The urgency of such a shortened timescale in our current state of public health emergency cannot be overstated.

Originally published in the Morning Star

Jim Phillips

Professor Jim Phillips is author of Collieries, Communities and the Miners’ Strike in Scotland (Manchester University Press, 2012) and Scottish... Read more »