I have never put a word in print about this, always feeling others had more important things to say. But after 25 years I am going to be brave and share recollections of my life in an ordinary working class family during the year long strike. Working class people should write their own history, otherwise we are written out of it, or our views and experiences are minimised and altered. My ancestors were involved in mining in Midlothian for generations. I would love to know about their experiences in the 1926 General Strike, but there is no record, so that is why I am writing this. You only need to read the media accounts and editorials commemorating the 84-85 strike over the last few days to see examples of powerful people telling us we were misguided and the destruction of our way of life was in our own best interests.
When the strike started in March 1984 I was 15, at that awkward stage between childhood and adulthood, too old to think adults would take care of everything and we would all live happily ever after, but too immature to stand shoulder to shoulder and play a full part in the struggle.
Strikes were nothing new to us, as my relatives and ancestors have been miners as far back as you care to look. In 1984 most of my male relatives worked at Monktonhall Colliery in Midlothian – a pit with a reputation for militancy. In the 1974 strike, we had the three day week, power cuts and candles in the dark. I vividly remember during the 1974 strike, when my wee brother and I were still tiny. We were scared of the dark in a power cut and my mum reassured us, saying that this was good darkness, not darkness to be afraid of. She told us our dad and all the other miners had put out all the lights in the country to teach the rich people a lesson, that all the wealth in the country was created by ordinary working people, so the rich had to share it with us.
More recently, the strike at Monktonhall Colliery in 1983 and the events leading up to it were fresh in my mind. My dad was one of the face-workers who was sent a threatening letter about allegedly “restricting his efforts” on the L43 section of the pit. My dad believed this letter was delivered to our house by recorded delivery mail while he was at work as a deliberate attempt to intimidate miners’ families. There was clear provocation from the colliery manager William Kennedy, who did not follow agreed guidelines in his handling of the situation. He escalated the situation until miners were locked out of the pit for attending a union meeting and the rest of the Monktonhall miners went out on strike in solidarity, with some of them coming back up the pit to join the locked out miners. This was part of the general poisoning of relations between the NCB and the workforce that was being actively pursued by Scottish manager Albert Wheeler throughout Scotland. Ian MacGregor, Thatcher’s Scots-American hatchet-man added fuel to the poisoned industrial relations by comparing the Monktonhall miners unfavourably to those at Bilston Glen, despite the fact that Monktonhall had higher productivity per worker and was a much wetter more adverse environment to work in. The strike at Monktonhall lasted for seven weeks and ended in November. My family were just getting over the economic cost of that and of Christmas and now here was another strike.
I was very anxious about my parents because I knew they were very hard up already after the Monktonhall strike. I also knew that this was the big one. My parents didn’t burden us with their day to day worries about paying the bills, but my dad had made us all aware of the Ridley Plan (http://tinyurl.com/dyotdz), a document the Tories had produced which was about destroying the power of unionised workers. I had also heard a lot of talk at home and in the community about the confrontational tactics of the NCB management in Scotland, led by the hated Bert Wheeler. Also, the appointment of Ian MacGregor to the NCB chairmanship after he had decimated the steel industry was a clear signal from Thatcher that our time for being stomped underfoot was at hand.
When the strike started my Mum and Dad had a bit of an argument. He was angry that the strike was happening now, coming out of the winter and going into the summer, when the ruling class had years to prepare with stockpiles of coal and all their hatchet men in place. He felt that the timing of the strike had been chosen by the Tories. He had often said that in the dispute in 1981, although the Tories caved in, the miners should have stayed on an indefinite political strike to drive the Tories from office. He viewed this as democratic, because the Tory retreat was tactical and not genuinely conciliatory. He thought the Tories just weren’t ready to fight, so the miners should have taken the fight to them at that time. However, since the strike was happening now (1984), he was prepared to go along with it, despite his view that it was totally the wrong time for a strike tactically and his fear that the strike would fail.
My mum argued that the strike was just to protect the jobs of English miners, now that Cortonwood, a modern pit in Yorkshire was under threat. She pointed out the loss of Scottish and Welsh pits and asked where the powerful Yorkshire miners were when those jobs were under threat. She also thought that not having a strike ballot was a huge tactical error which the Tories and the media would use to beat the miners with. Dad disagreed with her, saying that Yorkshire had a good record for solidarity. His view was that this strike was a broadening out of the conflict that had engulfed Scotland’s mines, because MacGregor was now using the same tactics in England that Wheeler had utilised in Scotland, deliberately provoking the workers and causing trouble. He said that there had been loads of ballots and democratic decisions supporting the principle of strike action in defence of jobs and it wasn’t up to the Tories or the media to decide when another ballot should be held. He said that in Scotland at least, there had repeatedly been a mandate for strike action in defence of any jobs under threat, so anyone who was swayed by the media, the NCB or the Tories regarding the need for a ballot was just an eejit.
A lot of the time I experienced mounting anxiety and panic. I feared for my family who had all just come through the recent Monktonhall strike and who had been miners all their lives. I feared for the fate of my community which was built for the sole purpose of housing the workforce of Monktonhall and Bilston Glen. Although I intended to go to college, I feared for my school classmates who were depending on jobs in mining. At a time of three million unemployed, I had seen a tiny amount of glue-sniffing and heroin addiction amongst the most troubled inhabitants of the community and I feared that without the mines, this would be the future. So some of the time I retreated into residual childishness, or engaged myself in youth culture and my social life, to blot out my fears for the adult world. My beliefs were a mix of politics and childish notions - I believed that since the days of Marx and Engels humans were on a trajectory towards humanitarian socialism, that the working class were striving for a better world and slowly we were getting there and nothing could really stop us – that the Tories were just a temporary blip. I believed the miners would win this dispute because I was still young enough to have fairy tale notions in my head - that good always triumphs over evil in the end.
As the strike progressed I got bamboozled by the media reports about the lack of a ballot, or about the NUM acting illegally and being sequestered. I could see that most of the broadcast media at least were biased, but I found it difficult to read between the lines and work out what was really going on.
I am sure that other kids felt just as troubled, so it bothered me that in school classes we were barely allowed to discuss the strike. It was like the elephant in the room. Most teachers ignored it completely and just got on with our lessons. Some of the active trade unionist teachers allowed us to discuss it a little, although they probably had to be mindful of accusations that they were indoctrinating us. Personally I viewed the lack of opportunities to discuss the strike as a kind of indoctrination. If middle class communities were under anything like the same sort of organised onslaught I am sure we would have been hearing about it in our lessons. A handful of the worst of the teachers did discuss it, but just to impose their views on us, that they were superior, could always beat us in an argument, that we had better stick in at school now as our fathers were discovering there was no such thing as a job for life and rightly so, that the Tories were engaged in a just battle to re-assert elective democracy over trade union bullying.
The adults in my family tried not to burden us with their troubles. They only told us funny stories about what happened on picket lines. One relative said that in the beginning he was keen to picket and was up the front pushing and shoving against the scab buses and lorries and the police. But as the strike progressed he grew less keen and tried to stay at the back, because the police had lifted him up and threw him out of the picket line on three occasions, and each time they had ripped his trousers, so he was now on his last pair. He also spoke of a man who had lost several odd shoes on the picket line, so he now had no shoes to wear.
They told us comforting stories about the police. One day my dad was sent to picket at the nuclear power station at Torness. It was a scorching hot day and the miners had not been well organised, not knowing in advance where they were going. They ended up being at Torness all day without a bite to eat or a sip of water. The police on the other hand had brought their own packed lunches and had also been provided with a packed lunch, so they shared their food and drink with the pickets.
One of my uncles was a policeman who used to be a miner and he donated most of his wages to help his relatives who were on strike. Sometimes he looked ashen and I think he suffered a lot from internal conflict during the strike, but at least he still had a well paid job at the end of it.
One time Dad was so angry and so late getting home he told us the truth about an incident. Many busloads of pickets on their way to picket the Ravenscraig Steel Works were stopped by the police using the new Tory anti union laws and ordered to turn back. Negotiations failed, so the miners got out of the buses and sat on the M8 totally blocking the motorway for hours. The police were very angry and forced them back onto the buses. Dad said the police split him up from his comrades and put him on the wrong bus to Fife on purpose, knowing he had no way of getting back to the Lothians as he had no money. He said when he complained it was made clear to him he was being sent to Fife as punishment for blocking the motorway and if he had anything else to say he could discuss it with a police truncheon and lose his job for assaulting a police officer. He also said the bus driver was threatened by the police. Dad had to hitch-hike back from Fife, so he got home in the evening absolutely furious, having had no food all day, after leaving to go picketing in the early hours.
They didn’t tell us about their fears regarding victimised miners, who were singled out by the police and arrested and then summarily dismissed from their jobs. They couldn’t hide it though. We saw it in the papers, particularly when Davey Hamilton the Monktonhall NUM delegate was arrested and imprisoned at the crunch point of the strike.
One time when my parents couldn’t hide the serious nature of the conflict from us, was Orgreave. I was a few months older and past my childish denial stage and I have rarely in my life felt such rage. The site of mounted police charging down fleeing miners was sickening and the rustling of tenners like football casuals was vile. I was so angry I decided to do something about it. I was a prissy little pain in the arse I have to admit, but I decided to organise buses of school children to go to Orgreave. My cunning plan was that the miners were to put us, in our school uniforms in the front lines, so that when mounted police mowed us down people would get the true measure of them.
When I first suggested this, my parents laughed at me. Which made me so angry that I was even more of a prissy pain in the arse! I argued that schoolchildren could retaliate against police brutality, as we had no jobs to lose and laying into us would just make the police look even worse. When my parents realised I was serious they went nuts and barred me from using the house phone after they caught me trying to book buses. So I tried at school instead, but I didn’t get many kids agreeing to go. I ran out of money to use the school pay-phone to book buses and I couldn’t raise a deposit to pay for even one bus. All the buses in Scotland and Northern England were already all booked up indefinitely for pickets, scabs and polis. Eventually some bus company guy told me there was a law against taking a booking from anyone under 18. I have never found out if he was bullshitting me, but I gave up. Obviously there is a lesson there. Firstly, I should have ignored responsible adults like parents and teachers and joined the Young Socialists. Secondly, if you want to take action on something call a meeting and get a bit of consensus and assistance, instead of trying to save the world on your own.
The strike had a huge effect on school children. One afternoon there was a strike of pupils at my school. I wasn’t actually on strike - I was just talking to the kids who were going on strike and trying to get signatures for a petition about lack of access to school toilets. Some of the kids were going on strike to support the miners and some were going on strike to support a few of our teachers who were on strike. Others were going on strike to protest against the teachers going on strike and a handful were striking against the miners. Some were striking about the lack of access to toilets. Because of the confusion I wasn’t going on strike, but one of the Tory teachers who hated me decided I was and I got suspended from school as a result.
Mostly I enjoyed the summer holidays. I was growing up, had a summer job, was trying to contribute to the family costs. I found the tanned, sun-bathing young miners very sexy but I was too young for them to be interested in me and too shy to actually talk to them.
There was a bit of trouble at a private open-cast mine near where I lived. Some Durham miners were picketing the private open-cast mine and the police viewed it as illegal picketing, so there were some violent fights on the picket line. The police had chased the pickets and split them up and the ones they caught got beat up.
No-one could forget the scorching heat of that summer. The one summer in my life I prayed for cold weather to help the strike, was the warmest summer ever.
One scorching day my friend and I were sunbathing at the front of my house chatting about boys. A police car dropped two policemen off then sped up the farm road towards the open-cast mine. The two polis who were dropped off were standing at the edge of the field with binoculars. Obviously we knew it was something to do with the open-cast mine. My friend and I knew it was wrong but our heads were still full of girlish notions, so we noticed that they looked like the two motorcycle cops in “Chips” and we spent the hours discreetly ogling them.
My mum came out to keep an eye on them and us and it presented us with a bit of an ethical dilemma. They were there for hours and we had drunk lots of lemon barley and water, so we were aware they must be really thirsty. We spent a long time discussing it, whether we should demonstrate that socialism was a superior ideology to Thatcherism by giving them water, or whether that would be a betrayal of our men, who might prefer it if we left the cops weak and thirsty. Eventually when we had headaches from sitting in the sun despite being well hydrated, all three of us decided the right thing to do was to offer them water, to make it clear that mining communities were not the savages we were being portrayed as on telly, but not to engage in any treacherous chit-chat.
So my friend and I took them water, with my Mum in the garden watching us like a hawk. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t dreamily impressed by the handsome young cops who now had their jackets off and their sleeves rolled up. They were polite, thanked us for the water although they refused it. One of them had an English accent, so might not have been from the local force. Turns out they had little hip flasks. I got the impression they were scared we might have peed or put salt in the water, which we hadn’t. That was the tactics of police involved in interrogations in Northern Ireland, not socialists who believe in a better world.
As we turned to go they tried to engage us in conversation, asking if our families were on strike to which they got a one word answer, “yes”. Then they asked us where the miners in our families were picketing this week. We didn’t give a direct answer, I just said: “The same sort of places as you, but not the private open-cast if you are looking for names.” They asked us if there were any routes through the woods or the fields to the private pit that the pickets might use (Obviously there were and we knew them!) I was furious at that so I told them straight that we weren’t there to betray the miners, just to do the honourable thing which was to not let any human being suffer sunstroke and since they didn’t want the water we had nothing else to say. As we were leaving they continued to ask about routes to the pit so I said “Up the farm road, the way the car that dropped you off went but you obviously already know that”. They said we must know other routes but we ignored them and walked away. That kind of sums up policing in the strike. They never missed an opportunity to alienate the working class.
I told my dad later because I felt guilty about maybe betraying the miners, but he said we did the right thing, that the day socialists deprive other human beings of water is the day socialism is no better than capitalism. He did say to watch them though, that when they were bussed in from other places they had no respect for our communities.
Over the next couple of weeks the confrontation at the private pit got uglier, so some of the Durham miners had built up a supply of bricks and boulders in the back square at my house. It was a trap and the next time the police laid into them they lured the police to the back square and pelted them and obviously some windows and property got damaged. This led to the police tramping through some of the houses looking for miners. It happened at about 6.30am, so some of our neighbours who were not from mining families were angry. They described the Durham miners as thugs and said they could throw bricks where they lived, but shouldn’t be doing it where we lived. I disagreed. The Durham miners were in a battle to protect the rights and jobs of all working people and the police were allowing themselves to be used by the Tories, so they had it coming.
My dad was actually really angry with the Durham miners though. He was away picketing elsewhere when the ambush incident happened. He said that he would never have ambushed the police at the bit where the Durham miners’ wives and bairns lived and risked the police getting heavy handed with the families or the families getting caught in the crossfire. I disagreed with him and told him I’d rather be hit with a miner’s brick or a polis truncheon than Thatcher’s policies.
Dad did try to get us active with the Women Against Pit Closures, but it was awkward for us. My parents were divorced so my Mum didn’t feel she had the right to throw herself into all the women defending their men stuff, despite her entire family then and historically being engaged in mining. I was at an awkward age, not still a child, not quite an adult, just felt young and silly and like I had nothing to contribute whenever I went to the miners club. It did feel like a male environment and I wasn’t very comfortable there. At 15 it was wonderful ogling sun-bathing striking miners from a distance, but I blushed and got a bit tongue-tied if I actually had to talk to one I wasn’t related to.
The women in my family were never able to sing “Stand by Your Man” with a straight face, and devised our own spoof version that did not let men, not even heroic working class ones, escape responsibility for their part in the subjugation of women.
One time Arthur Scargill came to Dalkeith to speak. I went to the park, but I did not really hear him because I was chatting up boys. From what others told me, he gave a great speech.
Mick McGahey came to Dalkeith a few times and it lifted my Dad’s spirits when he met him.
When Thatcher described us as the “enemy within” I just stared at the telly in horror. There you had it straight from the vicious bastard’s mouth - Unadulterated class warfare and an admission that we were in fact the enemy and she is not even pretending to serve the interests of our class.
It wasn’t just me growing up, but also the duration and the bitterness of the conflict. After the summer things became a lot less fun.
The dispute over safety cover was tense. Media reports were clearly biased and I had great difficulty getting any adult to explain it to me as they did not want to “indoctrinate” me. I could tell the adults in my family were very frustrated about it though. Eventually the NACODS leadership reached an agreement with the NCB to provide safety cover. This was the height of naivety on their part.
I wondered if the Brighton Bomb would lead the Tories to develop any empathy for ordinary people in difficult situations, but they emerged from the rubble with their intense hatred of the militant working class still intact.
There was an NUM treat for the kids, a trip to the circus. I was at that awkward in-between age, and I didn’t really want to go. I would rather have been hanging out on street corners talking to boys, but I pretended I did want to go, for my Dad’s sake. As it happened he had got the wrong day, so we waited for the circus bus in vain. I was actually relieved but my poor dad really beat himself up about it. He was getting really low in mood by that stage and took his mistake as evidence that he was a useless dad who not only couldn’t provide for his kids, but couldn’t even access charity for them.
The support we received was great as far as it went, but most of it was too passive. The railwaymen and the seamen had the right idea, with regard to supportive strikes and blacking the transportation of coal. The TUC really let us down and Neil Kinnock’s role was despicable. It was unfair to expect one section of the working class to do all of the hard fighting against the Tories. It was also tactically stupid, letting them pick off one industry at a time.
Midlothian Council did some good stuff, giving us youngsters free access to leisure facilities and providing us with clothing vouchers. My family were in an awkward position because my parents were divorced. My mum was a student teacher and as well as supporting us, she used the benefits she received to support my dad and other single miners in our family who were not entitled to anything and were basically being starved back to work. But the whole time she was being harassed by the DSS who thought she was claiming benefits and taking money from my dad.
One day she took my brother and I to get winter coats and shoes with vouchers she got from the council. But the shop were at it. They decided that the vouchers could only be used to buy stuff that they couldn’t sell, so we were shown horrible unfashionable stuff. My brother and I decided just to choose anything, for Mum’s sake, even though we would rather wear old worn clothes we liked than new unattractive stuff. But my mum didn’t want us made fun of at school, so she tried to negotiate with the woman in the shop. She offered to pay extra in cash, if the woman would let my brother and I have one fashionable thing each. The shopkeeper was so horrible to my mum, really humiliating her about being a scrounger who was teaching her children to be scroungers and she was lucky to be getting anything at all and our dad should just get back to work and vote if he didn’t like the government. She said it was cash for the good stuff, only the sale stuff for the vouchers and we were lucky to be getting anything.
I said fine, I don’t want anything and walked out of the shop. My mum and brother got stuff for him while I waited outside thinking of all the things I would like to say to the bitch of a shopkeeper, which of course I couldn’t because at 15 if you dare to say what you think you are not a class-fighter you are just cheeky. My mum came out and pleaded with me to pick a coat and shoes. I could see how strained and upset she was, so I did, for her sake, and even pretended I liked them.
Once the vouchers had been handed over the woman needled my mum again, saying she hoped that scroungers like her were happy to be getting things for nothing while decent hard-working people like herself had to work for everything they got. I laid into her, a real political diatribe about how she was a working class Tory, a traitor, too stupid and petty-minded to understand that the miners were fighting for everyone’s jobs and trade union rights and unless people like her got behind them the Tories would win and we would all be up shit creek. She got really red-faced but was unable to mount a response to me. I continued that she wasn’t shit on the shoes of my mum [ who was begging me, “please hen, just leave it, it’s not worth it, I don’t want you getting involved in all this, let’s just go.”] But I continued and told the woman that the sad irony was that when her back was to the wall, as it surely would be because the ruling class Tories had no real love for stupid little working class Tories like her, that people like my mum and dad would be fighting for her rights. The poor woman looked shocked and didn’t say a word and eventually my mum dragged me out of the shop.
It was a very tense journey home on the bus, because I thought my mum was angry with me and for her own part, she was fighting back tears. Later that night she talked to me and told me she wasn’t angry with me, she just wanted to protect me from all this and that it was adults’ business. I said I was nearly an adult and was frustrated that I wasn’t being allowed to play a part. I said I wanted her to stop worrying about me not having stuff because I was happy to make do. I said I wanted her to start accepting some money from my part-time job. She compromised and let me pay for my own toiletries and clothes (as well as my usual stuff like school discos, haircuts etc.) With regard to the vouchers-bought shoes and coat, I wore them a few times for Mum’s sake, then I tried to wear them as little as possible. This was not because they were unfashionable, but a prissy, pain in the arse political statement from me, that I could do without, for my class. I actually wore a pair of cheap little plastic kitten-heel stiletto shoes that were held together with sellotape for most of the winter. 10/10 on the pain in the arse scale for me!
Some of my friends were from wealthier families and they had a lot of money for clothes and their social lives. They would get embarrassed if they inadvertently suggested something I couldn’t afford. But it didn’t bother me. I took a perverse pleasure in my poverty because I thought accepting it without putting pressure on my parents to get me stuff was the main contribution I could make to the struggle.
The NUM gave the miners food parcels and vouchers if they went on picket duty. The local butcher was really supportive and always gave us a bit extra and gave us the best of stuff.
We also got food parcels from Ukrainian mining families which were organised and distributed by Women Against Pit Closures. This was fantastic for our learning. It was the first time I tried black rye bread, or pickled gherkins and I can confidently proclaim that Communist raspberry jam is the best jam in the world!
The Women Against Pit Closures negotiated Christmas shopping for us which was an amazing feat, though again, British Home Stores had their best stuff off limits, so we had to use our vouchers for some old Summer stock.
It certainly brought home to me that charity is a very poor second to victorious class struggle, although I am obviously grateful to the people who donated money and goods for us.
Over the course of the strike everything of any value in our house began to disappear. All of my mum’s jewellery went. Anything hired, like the telly went. One of my school friends loaned me her portable TV, which was really kind of her, because having a telly in your bedroom was the equivalent of having an ipod, for my generation.
One night the TV licence man came to the door because obviously we didn’t have a licence. I answered and he asked if we had a telly. I was too prissy to tell lies, so I just told him my dad was on strike. He said he was going to walk round the square and come back, but he wouldn’t be looking in our cupboards. I went in and told my mum, who wanted to just own up and take the rap. I ignored her and put my friend’s portable telly in the hall cupboard. The TV licence man came back and he came into the living room and said “right, there’s no telly in this house. Obviously you know if you ever get a telly you have to buy a licence.” He also said he wasn’t trying to embarrass us by giving us money, but maybe we could do him a favour and put some money in the miners’ strike fund for him and he gave us 20 quid. It did go into the strike fund.
The house was really cold over the winter. Things also seemed to deteriorate really quickly, so we ended up with wallpaper hanging off walls and no lino or carpets in some rooms, including my bedroom. Our calor gas heater broke, so we only had a little paraffin stove, which got moved from room to room. Relatives lent us dimplex heaters but we could not afford to use them. The little paraffin heater did not let out much heat. We all had blisters on the palms of our hands from putting them too close to the little paraffin heater. There was often ice on the insides of the windows.
One day my mum had a massive heart attack that wiped out her left ventricle and made her a cardiac cripple. She was a diabetic, so she was at high risk of heart disease. She had pains in her arm over the winter. She used to sit with hot water bottles on her left arm, trying to ease the pain. But the GP just told her she was a neurotic divorcee, too young to have anything wrong with her heart (despite strong family history.) I always thought that the cold had something to do with my mum’s heart attack. The house was so cold when we came in from school that I often suspected she had not had the paraffin heater on all day, until we came home but she denied it. I cried for two days as an adult and as a nurse, when I discovered that it is not so much hypothermia, but more so heart disease that kills poor Scottish people in the winter. This is because in the cold the blood flow gets sluggish and the platelets get more sticky and prone to clotting causing heart attacks and strokes. My mum only lived a few years after the strike, but her health was ruined after that massive heart attack. So the vindictive, vengeful Tories and a middle-class arsehole GP basically killed my mum.
My dad wasn’t the same after mum’s heart attack. The fight was out of him. He started gathering and chopping firewood for pensioners instead of picketing, to get his food parcel.
He worried a lot about how we were being deprived, but for me, the worse things got the more my poverty became a badge of honour, as bearing it with courage was the one contribution I could make to the struggle. I had become really rebellious at school, started drinking, tried smoking. I had stand up fights with some of the teachers and one of them told me I was a communist, like that was a really bad thing, because I believed it was wrong to sell off council houses.
I remember the awful day that striking miners dropped concrete from a bridge onto a taxi carrying a scab. The taxi driver died. My dad was grief-stricken. He said they were stupid bastards and they had lost the strike for everyone, that everyone’s sacrifices and best efforts were worthless now, as we would all be portrayed as anti-democratic thugs. I reminded him of Davy Jones and a young miner who died after being run over by a scab lorry at the start of the strike.
There were a few children’s Christmas parties which I didn’t want to go to, because I would honestly rather have been in the park with a crowd of teenagers drinking cheap QC sherry and smoking. But Dad really wanted me to go because he didn’t want me to miss out, so I went. It was mostly OK. Although it was mainly younger kids, some of my friends were usually there. The most difficult one was organised by students at the Art School in Edinburgh. It was all teeny little kids and I felt so sorry for my dad because his mistake in taking me there was glaringly obvious and I could see he was crest-fallen. But I just threw myself into the role of being party helper, making sure all the little kids were having a great time playing games and opening their presents.
A couple of the female students took me away in private and they gave me a gift, which I was absolutely not expecting. It was a beautiful make-up set, something I could only dream of and it looked expensive. I knew for a fact that they didn’t buy it for me, that it was a hard-saved-for special gift for a cherished sister or something like that, so I tried to refuse, but they insisted that I took it. And wherever those students are today, I could never thank them enough for their sensitivity because I was so obviously delighted with it that it actually cheered my dad up too. That’s socialism in action. Every time right wing big-mouths pontificate about how we are all basically just in this life for ourselves and appealing to our selfish drives is the best way to proceed, I think of all the kind or brave things that people have done, which prove that people are capable of being so much more than just greedy selfish bastards. Oh, my Dad also bought me a double vodka and coke, so that party worked out quite well!
Sometimes when adults were drinking I got to hear more about what went on in the struggle, about pickets being badly beaten or victimised and losing their jobs, or about how some courageous men improvised and made road blocks to stop or delay picket buses, by chopping down lamp-posts. I also heard some horror stories about the families of scabs being victimised when the men were at work, with stones being thrown to smash their windows. My parents were horrified by this and I agree with them. There’s not much point in fighting oppression with oppression. I have no direct experience of this, but Davey Hamilton the Monktonhall delegate’s wife, Jean was subjected to dreadful treatment when her husband was jailed. She received threatening and predatory phone calls.
There was one Bilston Glen miner in our street who scabbed for most of the strike. I used to watch him leaving for his work thinking what a stupid traitor he was. I was well warned by my parents that I had better never dare say a word to him, far less his kids, as dealing with scabs was strictly adult business.
I never did say anything to him or his kids, but I did stop spending any time with them, not out of badness, just I didn’t want to have to talk to their dad and the strike was obviously a massive barrier to communication. How do you engage in chit chat while steering clear of absolutely anything to do with my dad being on strike or their dad working? “I like your new shoes – oh, you’ll have them because your dad is a scab.” It was better just not to see them, so the scab really isolated his kids.
He was quite pathetic to behold in later years, always profusely warm, trying to ingratiate himself with me and pass off his early embrace of Thatcherism as him just being a bluff, honest, nice guy who wanted to do the right thing for his family. I don’t hate him but I do think he is pitiful. As it happened the Tories thanked him by shutting his pit just like all the rest. So I avoid him and his family and he has never been on my Christmas card list.
I asked for nothing for Christmas from my parents and the other strikers in our family. Prissy as ever, I told them if they respected me they would abide by my wish. I intended to enjoy Christmas by being proud of my community and my family (and getting drunk and kissing boys). We really were starting to feel the pain, with my mum’s heart attack and the bitter cold and everything in the house and most of our clothes falling apart etc, but we had stood up to those bullying Thatcherite bastards and I was so proud to be with my family that Christmas.
Women Against Pit Closures and the NUM obtained and distributed a turkey and a Christmas food parcel for every single striker's family, which was an amazing feat.
Herringbone full-length coats were the height of fashion and I absolutely coveted one, but I thought I had managed not to reveal it, just looking at them in shops when my mum’s attention was diverted. On Christmas Day my Mum brought a top-of-the-range, exquisite herringbone coat out from behind the couch. It was the nicest one I had ever seen and it was a perfect fit. I was angry with her and dad, but eventually piped down and let them enjoy being parents. I don’t know how they did it. I honestly don’t think they had anything left to sell, or any access to credit by that stage.
January was hellish. My Mum had a lot of chest pain and we were all worried sick about her and tried to be good, but at the same time we were all sparking off each other. There were some days we couldn’t even put the little paraffin heater on as we couldn’t afford any paraffin. We were sick of cheap food, which mum interpreted as criticism of her cooking. We were fed up with the constant cold. Men were drifting back to work. Davey Hamilton was in jail. The media were really laying into Scargill. And god did they like to rub it in about the mountains of coal! (That has never made any sense to me. If they had so much why were they sneaking Polish coal in through every little remote port and inlet?) There were manipulative, twisted full-page adverts in all the media, even the local paper, promising miners the earth if they went back to work. I HATED school. I was sick to death of hearing about the UDM. I didn’t want to see another Yuill and Dodds lorry or Parks of Hamilton bus. The NCB were up to their old tricks. They sent my Dad letters offering him great options if he went back to work. They also sent him recorded delivery letters threatening that the pit had deteriorated so much that bits of it were flooded and it would be lost if men didn't go back to work. There was a stand-off about safety cover in the pits which I was at my wits end trying to follow because the media were biased, but adults in my community wouldn’t explain it to me. There was a strong feeling though, that the NCB were deliberately flooding pits. (Frances Colliery had already been lost earlier due to flooding which many believe was a deliberate act of sabotage by management.) Then my mum went into hospital again, with another heart attack. I was sick of sellotaping my shoes and having constantly wet feet and some of the teachers looking at me like I was feral.
I am ashamed to say it, but a couple of times I had fleeting thoughts about wishing my dad would go back to work. It was just a residual childish desire for adults to make the world all right again and it didn’t last. I recognised this January depression was just part of the struggle. It is at this point that struggles are won or lost. As men drifted back I got angry with Scargill. I started to think he was making scabs of good men by prolonging things.
My mum got out of hospital but she looked hellish and really wasn’t herself. I was so worried about her. We got sent to stay with posh distant relatives for a few days. I was really angry at being banished from my place in the struggle, looking out for my mum. But at the same time it was so soothing to be made a fuss of and spoiled by polite rich people and to feel it was OK to be young and carefree.
When we went home it was weird. My big brother had left home. My wee brother threw himself into having fun with his friends. My mum was silent, vacant, just going through the motions. She had been told her heart condition was so serious that she could drop dead at any moment. My dad looked haunted. We had lost the ability to communicate with each other, with no-one wanting to say what they were really thinking. I was full of anger. My hatred of school was pathological. I really wanted to batter some of my teachers – the Tory ones.
Then my mum was back in hospital again. One morning getting up for school I just had a bad feeling, I knew something wasn’t right. Dad phoned and asked to speak to me. I wondered what he wanted to talk to me at that time for. He told me he was going back to work that day, on the back shift. He said he didn’t know what I would think of that, he didn’t think I would be very pleased, but he was treating me like an adult by telling me before I left for school.
He said Scargill was a maniac with no compassion for the suffering of miners’ families after screwing up tactics on the best time for a strike. He said he had been a trade unionist and a socialist all his life but he wasn’t going to be a dutiful little donkey for Scargill. He said if it was democratic for the men to walk out, it was democratic for the men to walk back. He said he wanted his redundancy, he didn’t care what happened to the pit and as far as he was concerned he hoped no more generations would have to spend beautiful sunny days down pits.
I was so upset. I felt like I had been winded. I couldn’t speak for ages. He kept asking me what I had to say. Eventually I tried to talk him out of it, not very eloquently. Just stuff like “please don’t, we don’t need you to go back, we’ll get by. Earlier this century babies in Midlothian starved to death during a strike. This isn’t real hardship. We can hack it for a little bit longer, Dad”….But he told me the conversation was over, it was his decision and he was going back to his work, not because the Tories were right, but because we were beat and Scargill and his donkeys had better accept it.
I was in floods of tears, angry, upset, flailing around looking for something to hit. I was as vicious as I could be. I said “You’re selling your job. It’s not just yours to sell.”
He said he knew I wouldn’t take it well, that he would talk to me after his shift if I still had anything to say to him.
Our relationship was never the same again. I tried to accept it, even defended him publicly. But my feelings towards him were too confused for me to ever have an honest conversation with him again. I loved him. I recognised his courage as a trade unionist over the years. I recognised the difficult, dangerous job he did as a face-worker and he had the scars to show for it. I understood how guilty he felt for the adversity we faced. But I still don’t think he should have done it - that is the bottom line. Often I would act out my anger about the scabbing by picking fights with him over silly little things. He didn’t live long after the pits were shut.
Anyway, I went to school that day in a terrible state. I couldn’t be bothered with anyone and I wasn’t interested in being there. I wanted my mum, although she was so ill that it wouldn’t be fair to burden her with how I was feeling.
At about 11.30am we got sent home from school because the school was too cold, so it was illegal for us to be there. I was freezing and my feet were wet but I was well used to it. I hurried home alone, not wanting to talk to anyone. What do you say exactly? “Oh hi, my mum’s in hospital again and my dad’s a scab now.”
I got home and rattled around, unsure of what to do. Too early to go to the hospital and visit mum. I couldn’t think straight. I kept thinking of him going back, wondering if I could do anything to stop him, but it was too late, he would be on the pit bus. I was trying to work out the rights and wrongs of it all. It was bitterly cold and there was no paraffin for the heater. I put the kettle on, but it did not boil. I tried the lights and the cooker but they weren’t working either. Nothing was working. I collapsed in a sobbing ball. We finally have a fucking power cut on the day my dad scabs! I sobbed my heart out for hours, cuddling a cushion for comfort. Maybe if the power cut had been the day before he wouldn’t have gone back. Maybe they were lying about the coal mountains.
That was my experience of the strike.
After the strike MacGregor was ruthless, saying: “People are now discovering the price of insubordination and insurrection. And boy, are we going to make it stick.” Neil Kinnock helped him along, with his shameful treatment of the victimised miners.
Scargill’s warnings about the decimation and destruction of the coal industry, and the attacks on the jobs and trade union rights of other workers all came to pass. And even now, 15% of the energy used in the UK still comes from coal, half of it imported (http://archive.wn.com/2009/02/24/1400/ukenergy_old1/). 73% of our energy consumption was from other fossil fuels, in 2002.
I heard that William Kennedy, the manager at Monktonhall really humiliated the scabs after the strike, saying things like “Come on my wee scabbies” when he was putting them in the cage. And obviously relations in the pit were tense between strikers and scabs. I heard that men who went back after Christmas were not regarded as in the same league as the early scabs, but I don’t know if that was said partly to spare my feelings because of my dad. Anyway, it wasn’t long before the threatening recorded delivery letters started again and the pit was moth-balled. Most of Scotland’s coal industry was gone by 1989, including pits with a lot of people who scabbed for the right to work, like at Bilston Glen.
Anyone who harbours residual delusions about the inevitability and necessity of a ruling class, because of their superior qualities and abilities should read Ian MacGregor’s biography, with its sensitive title, “The Enemy Within”. I was disappointed to discover that our hated adversary was such a boorish buffoon. From his “boys own” adventure tales of strike-breaking by operating a crane on the Clyde during the 1926 General Strike, to profiteering as a wealthy industrialist during the Second World War after he emigrated to the USA, he comes across as a not particularly bright guy who just coupled monstrous arrogance, vanity and vicious, petty, nastiness with a tendency to do dirty things and step on others in his rise to the top. In one sentence he nonchalantly consigns jobs, lives and communities to the dustbin, with the mantra that free market economics is all that matters. In another he invites us to weep valleys of tears for an upper class wife, because the poor thing was frightened half to death when the lights on her Jaguar failed. He invites us to feel anger and horror at the shoddy efforts of the workforce who built such a car. It was his perspective, his arrogance and his sense of entitlement that led him to do what he did, not any superior intelligence or abilities.
I hear Albert Wheeler got moved down South. Probably just as well, for his own safety.
My community was ravaged with unemployment, hopelessness and drugs. Eventually people who weren’t utterly destroyed found work in the finance sector. And that takes us to today.
These rich buffoons told us we didn’t need to produce anything real - that services in general, including financial services and massive personal debt was a sound basis to build the economy on. Now we have been led up the garden path by these buffoons, to the point where the world economy is utterly destroyed and the world environment is swiftly following.
As we “nationalise” the banks we should beware of the 20th century model of nationalisation. We are already heading in that direction, paying bankers billions for their worthless assets. This is what happened when pits were purchased from colliery owners last century. They were paid fortunes for under-invested, worthless holes in the ground. Then they were employed as the managerial class, to rule over “our” coal industry. Let’s stop giving all our money to bankers and let’s nationalise their assets for what they are worth, which is virtually nothing. Then let’s have genuine democratic people’s control, with ordinary people and trade unions having the majority of voices in decision making on the banks.
Like most people who were involved in the year long Miners’ Strike, when I am asked how I feel about it now, I say I wouldn’t have missed it. It kept me grounded and stopped me from choosing to rise above my class, which is what a lot of teachers and some relatives intended for me. But when I say I wouldn’t have missed that struggle, there are tears in my eyes thinking of all the working class people who have died because of vicious, free-market dogma.
A lot of people have talked about partying when Thatcher dies and I am all for that. But I also think that at the exact same time as her funeral, we should have a public remembrance service for all the people who have died because of Thatcherite and Friedmanite ideology.
And my greatest hope is that some time soon we bury their cruel, failed, disastrous ideology.
Seumas Milne: The Enemy Within. (This is the best thing I have ever read about the strike.)
Arthur Scargill on the Strike: http://tinyurl.com/dyotdz
Evidence of the behaviour of the Scottish management of the NCB: http://tinyurl.com/cevob6
On biased media coverage: http://www.workersliberty.org/node/2366
A fictional account of the role of David Hart, the shady, anti-democratic, ultra-right millionaire who managed the positive media portrayal of the scabs who were then discarded: GB 84, by David Peace.
On opportunistic cynicism almost beyond belief. This will be from the wing of the Labour Party that refused to back the miners, abandoned the victimised miners and told us we could not break the law and had to pay our poll tax: http://tinyurl.com/cyysz6
On policing, if anyone thinks a dispute today would be handled differently by the police, think again: http://tinyurl.com/coenoy