Bob Young remembers exactly where he was when the Miners’ Strike started: six and a half miles underground with Arthur Scargill.
Scargill had been on a visit to Bob’s pit, Comrie Colliery in Scotland. When they came above ground, they heard that Yorkshire’s Cortonwood miners had just walked out.
‘That was the day the strike started. We thought it might go on for a few weeks. We never thought it’d go on for 52. It was a horrible year,’ says Bob.
This week marks the 37th anniversary of the 1984-5 Miners’ Strike, one of the most bitter industrial disputes in UK history. The strike was a last, desperate attempt to thwart Thatcher’s pit closure programme. For Bob and 165,000 miners like him, it was a year marked by poverty and hardship – but they were sustained throughout by a tidal wave of support, both at home and abroad.
‘People say the closures were inevitable, but they weren’t,’ says Nicky Wilson, who was working at Cardowan Colliery near Glasgow when the strike began. ‘I still believe in what the strike was about, and I would do it again. We weren’t only fighting for wages and conditions, we were fighting for the very existence of our jobs, our industry, and our communities. That’s why it lasted so long.’
Dignity in Work
Nicky isn’t overstating the importance of the struggle: the miners’ defeat on 3 March 1985 catalysed wholesale colliery closures across the UK. By 1991, nearly 160,000 jobs had been lost from coal mining; by 1994, only 15 pits out of 174 remained. Other industries like steel, mechanics, and electricals had depended on the pits for work, and they too haemorrhaged jobs.
Money soon began to run dry. Pubs, clubs, and shops closed. Miners had once funded community centres, brass bands, football teams, and family trips with weekly subs from their wages; that all stopped.
‘Those times were a bit desperate. I know that sounds strong, but that was the way that it was. It was really depressing,’ remembers Bob. ‘The knock-on effect for communities was very, very difficult. And I mean very difficult.
‘There’d been so much friendship and camaraderie. I really missed that. I still miss it today. When I bump into guys in the road I used to work with, it brings a smile to my face.’
New work, meanwhile, was difficult to come by. Many mining areas were geographically isolated with poor public transport, which meant that some people found themselves unable to earn a wage for the first time in their lives.
But new work also meant a cultural shift. ‘Mining is different to any other work you can do,’ says Graham Thomas, who worked as an electrician at Tower Colliery in South Wales until 1992. ‘If you’ve never worked underground, it’s hard to explain. It’s in your blood forever.
‘Mining was hard, dangerous, and bad for your health. But it gave you self-respect. People like me, with a trade, found it easier to get new work, but some of the older ones never worked again. There were people working underground who couldn’t work anywhere else. They were only good on a shovel, but they earned good money for it. It gave people dignity.’
I come from the same town as Graham—Merthyr Tydfil—and 30 years on from the closures the deprivation they led to has become entrenched. The British coalfields are home to a combined population of 5.5 million across Wales, Scotland, and England. According to the Indices of Deprivation, 43 percent of them fall into the bottom 30 percent of Britain.
Recent research from Sheffield Hallam University shows that Covid-19 has killed more people proportionately in coalfield areas than anywhere else in the UK – so if we needed more evidence that economic inequality is deadly, it’s in these towns. And serious efforts to revive coalfield communities are not forthcoming, despite political talk about ‘levelling up’.
Nicky is Vice Chair of the Coalfields Regeneration Trust (CRT) and has been a trustee since it formed 20 years ago. ‘Every coal mine will eventually close because it’ll run out of coal or because of safety,’ he says. ‘That was never opposed. But in Germany, they planned how it would be done for five years.’
Germany closed their last black coal mine in late 2018 – but the government put re-retraining, job creation, and local economies at the centre of the closure plans. ‘Here, communities have just been left,’ Nicky adds. ‘“Your pit is shut and that’s it. Get on with your life.” I’ve seen the demise of proud communities, and it makes me angry.’
Bob, also a trustee of CRT, is concerned about the loss of training opportunities. ‘In our pit, we took on 16 apprentices every three months. That was 60 or 70 a year – and that was just one pit. And there’s now a huge shortage of tradespeople in our country.’
Bob also notes that the government is more than prepared to invest large sums of taxpayer cash in projects it deems worthwhile: HS2, for example, could cost more than £100 billion by the time it’s finished. ‘With that amount of money, imagine everything you could build in the Leeds, Nottinghams, and Derbies of this world,’ he says.
Sadly, public perceptions of working-class communities are not kind, and since the referendum, particularly, the ‘left behind’ have become everyone’s favourite Brexit bogeymen. People in working-class towns are deemed lazy, regressive, and even undeserving of votes.
Nicky riles against the work-shy myth. ‘People just don’t understand the problems. I hate this term ‘spongers’, and the criticism of people on unemployment benefit. The jobs just aren’t there. The jobs have disappeared, and there’s been no alternative. It’s not people’s fault.’
In an average mining town, there are just 50 available jobs per 100 working-age residents. In London, there are 83.
‘The circumstances have taken away people’s right to employment,’ says Nicky. ‘They’ve caused poverty, deprivation, drug-taking, and law-breaking. That’s what’s changed. Not the actual people themselves.’
Bob recalls recruiting for 12 jobs when he was Chair of the Mossmoran gas plant in Fife. The team received 7,000 applications. ‘What were the chances of you getting a job there? The applications were coming in from everywhere.’
And the dearth of opportunities takes a natural toll. The lack of material money and goods is one thing; the consequent mental stress is another. People lose hope and purpose when they can’t plan ahead. It’s perhaps not surprising that the North East and Yorkshire—both ex-mining areas—have some of the UK’s highest rates of male suicide.
As a local councillor in Dunfermline, Bob used to go into schools to talk to young people. He says that he was often met by a sea of defeated 16-year-olds, already accepting that they would never work. ‘Young people are accepting this situation as the norm. That bothers me. This shouldn’t be the norm. This is a situation that we need to get out of – instead people are saying that there’s no jobs and there’s nothing we can do.’
Despite that, Bob, Nicky, and Graham have hope for the future, and believe their communities can flourish again. The need for meaningful jobs, pride, and enough money to live will take political will and long-term investment – but you can’t put a price on dignity.