The neoliberal backdrop to the miners’ strike

Lord John Hendy KC explains how the events of ’84-5 were an ideological assault unleashed on the working class in revenge for gains of the ’70s

Commentary icon8 Mar 2024|Comment

Lord John Hendy KC

Chair of the Institute of Employment Rights

The miners’ strike of 1984-5 really began in 1947 when Friedrich von Hayek, Milton Friedman and others developed a quasi-philosophical theory to justify the unbridled capitalism of the 19th century. It became known as neoliberalism.

Ironically, 1947 was the year the British coalmines were nationalised, part of the “post-war consensus.” Neoliberalism rejected every aspect of it — from nationalisation to the welfare state and, in particular, the dominant economic theory which underpinned the consensus and mitigated the harshest aspects of capitalism, Keynesianism.

Neoliberalism has many features but of most relevance here is the proposition that trade unions are tolerable — except to the extent that, through collective bargaining, they distort the so-called “labour market.” The price of labour should instead be left to the freedom of individuals to compete against each other to work for the lowest wage each is prepared to accept to sustain life.

Over the decades, neoliberal doctrine became extraordinarily influential among the right. It was put into effect by Augusto Pinochet in Chile after the CIA-assisted coup in 1973. Margaret Thatcher, elected prime minister in 1979, adopted its creed (as did Ronald Reagan the year after).

The 1970s are highly significant. The ’70s were the most equal British decade ever in terms of wealth and income. The share of national income taken by the top 0.1 per cent of the population has never been lower than in 1978. The share of GDP going to wages rather than profits was never greater than in 1976.

Neoliberalism provided an intellectual justification to reverse all that.

Policies were adopted to transfer much heavy industry and manufacturing (and some services) to cheap-labour economies; public services were privatised and parts of public and private undertakings were outsourced; deregulation became the order of the day.

Such policies also ended or undermined collective agreements and the “distortion of the labour market.” The government abandoned the promotion of collective bargaining (policy since 1896). It encouraged derecognition and relished the “monstering” of trade unions and trade unionists by the right-wing press.

A significant rise in unemployment was engineered to drive the price of labour down. Increasingly harsh conditions for social security were imposed. Thatcher asserted “there is no such thing as society” to counter working-class solidarity and broke up communities by the sale of council housing and the removal of rent controls.

A plan was in development to emasculate trade unionism, disempower workers and increase managerial prerogative. Partly this was to be done by new anti-union legislation, partly in another way.

There had been a failed dress-rehearsal of the legislative route in 1971 with the Industrial Relations Act — beaten by working-class power, the shop stewards’ movement, uncowed union leaders and the freeing of the Pentonville dockers in 1972 (under threat of a general strike).

The government wanted revenge, in particular for the success of the miners’ strike earlier that year. The wrongful prosecution and conviction of the Shrewsbury pickets later in 1972 (finally vindicated in 2021) illustrates their attitude. They became even more incensed about the miners’ strike of 1974, on which Ted Heath staked and lost the general election.

Part of the strategy was to emasculate trade unions by legislation; this time slice by slice thus avoiding the showdown that followed the 1971 Act.

The other strategy was to break a major union in an engineered major set-piece strike. This was set out in a Confidential Annex to the Ridley Report on privatisation of June 1977. It considered several unions the government might take on but “the most likely area is coal.”

It proposed that coal should be stockpiled and imported through non-union ports; hauliers should recruit non-union lorry drivers; power stations should be adapted for burning oil and coal; strikers’ benefits should be cut; and a large, mobile squad of police should be equipped.

In November 1977 the “Stepping Stones” report outlined the propaganda war to be fought against unions. In February 1981, the government announced plans to close 23 pits across the country but was withdrawn in the face of a threatened national strike. The government was not ready. The Colliery Review Procedure (agreed with the NUM) led to closures on a case by case and the loss of 41,000 jobs between March 1981 and March 1984.

However, such an orderly rundown was not going to achieve the planned confrontation. So, the Ridley plan was put into effect. In 1983 Ian McGregor was appointed as chair of the National Coal Board (NCB) from British Steel where he had overseen the loss of 100,000 jobs. Coal stocks were built up, though the NUM instituted an overtime ban in November 1983.

The government chose the date, and on March 5 1984, the NCB announced that five pits would be subject to “accelerated closure” in just five weeks. Miners at the affected pits walked out. To ensure a wider strike, on March 6, the NCB announced that the Colliery Review Procedure was obsolete, and that 20 collieries would close, with a loss of 20,000 jobs.

NUM president Arthur Scargill claimed that the government intended to close more than 70 pits. The government denied the claim and MacGregor wrote to every NUM member claiming Scargill was deceiving them and there were no plans to close any more pits than had already been announced. Cabinet papers released in 2014 showed that MacGregor’s plan was, in fact, to close 75 pits.

This was not the only dirty trick. An agent had been infiltrated into the NUM office, the phones of officials and lawyers were tapped; a fish restaurant used by NEC members was bugged. It was alleged that Scargill had stolen a huge sum donated by the Soviet miners’ union. It took years to disprove this outrageous smear.

A tactic devised by MacGregor and Nigel Lawson, Chancellor of the Exchequer was described in his memoir: “We would try to stimulate [legal] actions which would cost Scargill so much money that it would reduce his ability to finance flying pickets … and … progressively tie the union up in knots.”

In the multitude of legal actions which followed, I (and a superb legal team) had the honour to represent the NUM and Area unions. There is no doubt that the litigation was an inconvenience for the unions, especially when the funds of the NUM and several Area unions were sequestrated and put into receivership. But it did not end or weaken the strike.

Nonetheless, the strike was ultimately defeated and the consequences have been disastrous both for the mining communities and for the British working class. After the strike, Thatcher was able to continue the neoliberal agenda, including passing anti-union legislation to reduce union power.

In consequence, today less than 25 per cent of workers have their terms and conditions set by negotiations between unions and employers (one of the lowest levels in Europe). But in the 1970s over 80 per cent of UK workers were covered by a collective agreement. That drop is the reason that real wages have not risen since 2007 and that half the UK workforce now earn less than £27,588 pa (and one quarter earn less than £16,068). More people are on benefits in work than those on benefits out of work. Some 14.4 million of our citizens live in poverty and 3.8 million in destitution. No wonder the rate of growth last year was 0.1 per cent — a figure, which has since become negative.

Such is the triumph of neoliberalism.

This article was first published in the Morning Star. We thank them for their kind permission to republish it here.

Lord John Hendy KC

Lord Hendy KC is Chair of the Institute of Employment Rights. He is a barrister specialising in industrial relations law, based in Old Square Chambers, London. He is President of the International Centre for Trade Union Rights (ICTUR) and a Vice President of the Campaign for Trade Union Freedom.