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Justice for Scottish Miners

Hundreds of Scottish miners were wrongly convicted during the 1984-5 strike, and their lives and livelihoods destroyed as a result. Scotland now has a chance to right that wrong with both pardons and compensation – and must take it.

I hadn’t met Jim Tierney for nearly forty years. Back in the days of the ’84/85 strike, he had been the union organiser in charge of the picket bus at Fishcross Miners Welfare. A rank-and-file activist and gifted orator, he was a voice of young miners and of radical dissent. We got him invited to address the National Union of Students Conference at the Blackpool Winter Gardens at the height of the strike, where he got a standing ovation.

He also got sacked by the National Coal Board after being arrested and convicted of a crime he did not commit. Like so many other striking miners, he was sacked, blacklisted, and forced out of the coal industry. It was an injustice served and a future denied.

Jim, who had time on his side, went to college and then university, trained to be a teacher, and became a very popular and successful one at that. But when we spoke in the cold rain back at Fishcross two days before Christmas last year, he recalled that of the five men arrested and convicted alongside him at 5.30 in the morning of the 26 November 1984, ‘three of the families were never the same again’.

He did not need to dwell on it or spell it out. Even forty years on, the emotion rises. It is why we cannot forget, and why there needs to be a pardon for all those miners convicted of petty and trumped-up charges in the strike—and why there must also be compensation for them and their families, too.

A few weeks after I saw Jim, I met Cathy and John Mitchell for the first time. John, for years the NUM delegate at the Frances Colliery in Fife, was also arrested and then convicted for a minor offence of breach of the peace in 1984. Two days later, he was also summarily dismissed. Unable to find work, the family faced hardship: wages were lost, pension contributions foregone, and in the end, redundancy payments—in John’s case, worth £27,000—also denied.

These stories—of rights lost, futures changed forever, families unable to recover, communities decimated then and still struggling now, and a whole way of life wiped out—tell us so much more about what happened that year than dry statistics in reports or the words of official history, and more too than loud speeches made from platforms. This is the record of our history from those who lived through it.

In the weeks to come, the Scottish Parliament will consider the Miners Strike Pardons Bill. Its arrival is an achievement after years of pressure outside Parliament by the NUM and mining families and communities, and from inside Parliament by former Scottish Labour MSP Neil Findlay.

Make no mistake, there is a distinctive Scottish dimension to what happened in the strike. If you were a striking miner in Scotland, you were twice as likely to be arrested and three times as likely to be sacked as those in any other area or coalfield. Thirty percent of all NCB dismissals arising from the strike were in Scotland.

This bill is born out of an inquiry led by John Scott QC into the policing of the dispute in Scotland, which concluded that there was ‘an element of arbitrary application of the criminal law by police, prosecutors and sheriffs.’ That’s what led directly to the victimisation of Jim Tierney, those arrested with him, and families like the Mitchells.

The bill has been described by the Cabinet Secretary for Justice Keith Brown—Jim Tierney’s own local MSP—as ‘symbolic’. But that is not sufficient. The job of Parliament now is to seize this opportunity to convert a symbolic bill into a meaningful act, which means providing for a compensation scheme and extending the scope of the pardon to cover not just those lifted on picket lines for minor offences, typically breach of the peace, but those arrested in the community, too, for all non-violent offences associated with the strike. After all, the strike didn’t just take place at the colliery gate—it took place in mining towns and villages across the country.

So far, the SNP/Green government is holding out against a compensation scheme on the basis that the miners and their families must look to Boris Johnson and Priti Patel to provide it, the implication being that the Scottish Parliament lacks the power to do so. But if the Scottish Parliament is able to legislate for a pardon for the miners, it follows that it is also able to see that the miners pardoned are compensated, too.

Some SNP MSPs claim that even were it possible, such a provision would delay the implementation of the scheme. But if the last two years has taught us anything it’s that with political will, legislation and compensation can be introduced without delay. Back in 1984 and ’85, the full force of the state was brought to bear against the miners; thirty-eight years on, it’s right that the full force of the state is brought to bear to deliver justice and compensate them.

We cannot turn back the clock. All those lives destroyed because of the brutality of the dispute cannot be restored. The psychological scarring cannot be undone. The families ripped apart cannot be put back together. Those years lost cannot be re-found. The Scottish Parliament cannot re-write history—but it can right historical wrongs.

The truth is that this is the last chance for many of those miners and their families. So the question for Members of the Scottish Parliament is this: if, not now, when? If not us, who?

This is a test of democracy and of parliamentary power as an instrument of change. As Aneurin Bevan, himself blacklisted by the Tredegar Iron and Coal Company, put it: ‘Boldness in words must be matched by boldness in deeds or the result will be universal malaise.’ For the Scottish Parliament, now is the time, now is the hour.