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  • Writer's pictureChristopher Wheeler

Causes and Consequences of the 1984-85 Miners Strikes

The Conservative party of Margaret Thatcher came to power in May 1979, but with a relatively small majority of 28 MPs (Election History). Despite not being an overwhelming electoral victory, the incoming government promised radical action to reverse Britain’s economic decline during the 1970s. The manifesto on which the party fought the election outlined the Conservative’s planned policies and was designed ‘to exploit the public's anti-union mood’ (Evans, 16). This was a product of the Winter of Discontent in 1978/79, which saw widespread strike action by workers and played a pivotal role in the fall of the Callaghan government. Thatcher’s main goals were to reduce inflation that reached 18% in 1980 and create a more competitive economy. To be successful she needed to challenge the principles that formed the framework of ‘what had come to be known by the mid-1970s as the post-war consensus’ (Green, 216). This would include addressing Britain’s legacy industrial base and reducing the conflict between government and the trade unions that had persisted throughout the 1970s. The challenge of implementing these two policies came together in brutal fashion in 1984 when the Conservative’s ambition to rationalise the coal mining industry came up against the more militant elements of the National Union of Miners (NUM). This resulted in a strike that lasted for a year. To determine the causes of this dispute it is necessary to consider the broad economic policies of Thatcher’s government, the employment legislation it had enacted by 1984, the competitive position of the coal mining industry and the NUM’s role in the dispute. Assessing the consequences of the strike requires an understanding of its direct impact on the coal mining industry, the NUM and the trade union movement, as well as considering its indirect impact and the momentum that Thatcher’s apparent victory gave to her government’s ‘policy of economic and social transformation’ (Lee, 227).

In seeking to revive the economy, the incoming government planned to eliminate the subsidies and regional support, a feature of Labour administrations since 1945. It also wanted to reverse Labour’s nationalisation policy. Alongside these changes, Thatcher’s administration was planning to create a more competitive service orientated economy. This would involve addressing the drag on economic performance of unprofitable and uncompetitive legacy industries, such as coal mining, steel production, engineering and shipbuilding. It was also determined improve the performance of government owned businesses to facilitate their privatisation. To achieve both goals it would be necessary to reform industrial relations. Some politicians also believed that labour reform would also play a role in reducing inflation, which had been fuelled by the elevated wage demands made by the unions during the 1970s. To win public support for these changes, Thatcher mirrored the strategy of one of her predecessors, Harold Macmillan, speaking in simple terms and warning the population that unless major changes were made to the economy, ‘our greatness as a nation will soon be a footnote in the history books’ (Lee, 229).

As Britain continued to slide into recession in 1979, Thatcher’s government made it very clear it intended to break with Keynesian theory and was determined ‘to maintain strict monetarist policy to bring down inflation’ (Gamble, 107). Despite introducing an array of fiscal measures inflation remained stubbornly high. Furthermore, the need to reshape the economy was bought into sharp relief by the impact of reducing financial support for Britain’s traditional industrial base. The challenges this posed were exacerbated by a decline in its international competitiveness as sterling strengthened, a product of the government’s monetarist policies. The outcome was that during the first two years of the Thatcher administration, the output of manufacturing concerns declined at a faster rate than the broader economy, falling ‘nearly15% and taking manufacturing output back to that of the late 60s’ (Egerton, 453). The consequence of this trend was a sharp upturn in unemployment, which rose to over three million in early 1982 and ‘did not fall below that level until July 1987’ (Gamble, 126). While a serious concern for government, this high level of unemployment provided a favourable backdrop to reforming industrial relations. The Conservatives were able to take advantage of growing fears of unemployment, which saw workers place a higher value on their jobs. This reduced the likelihood of effective union opposition to the introduction of new labour relations laws. Consequently, two employment acts were introduced in 1980 and 1982, which placed restrictions on certain trade union activities, ‘banned secondary picketing, limited the closed shop and imposed penalties for unofficial strikes’ (Lee, 235). Armed with a much-enlarged majority of 144 (Election History) in 1983, the Conservative government was able to take an even firmer line, which was reflected in the Trade Union Act 1984. The central pillar of this legislation was the requirement to hold a secret ballot before any strike action was initiated. These measures did not sit well with union leadership and set the stage for the dispute with the miners.

By 1984 the coal mining industry was in decline. According to data gathered by Wrigley, workers involved in coal mining had fallen from 800,000 in 1948 to just 300,000 by 1974 (Wrigley, 280). More importantly, the role of coal in power generation was shrinking. Between 1979/80 and 1982/83 ‘the consumption of coal by power stations fell from 89.1 to 80.8 million tonnes’ (Wrigley, 288). Domestic usage was also sliding and fell 25% during the same period. The Conservative government had considered cutting subsidies to the coal mining industry in 1981 but stepped back from confronting the miners. However, in 1983 it appointed a new head of the National Coal Board, Ian MacGregor, who had experience restructuring British Steel and had inherited plans to rationalise the coal mining industry to bring production into line with demand.

The likelihood of a dispute was increased by the fact that Arthur Scargill had been elected President of the NUM in 1982. Scargill was a militant who had played a key role in organising the successful miners’ strikes in 1972 and 1974. However, these strikes had occurred against the background of the oil price shock and at a time when coal was still a crucial component of the power industry. The situation in 1984 was very different and in addition, the membership of the NUM was not united. Miners in areas such as Nottingham, Leicestershire and South Derbyshire were working richer seams that were not in danger of closure and did not favour industrial action. In addition, older miners were attracted to the generous redundancy terms being offered. Therefore, ‘Scargill failed three times between 1982 and 1984 to secure sufficient support from the membership of the NUM for a national strike’ (Wrigley, 286). Scargill saw strike action as the only means of pushing back on threatened pit shutdowns and saw it as a concrete way of challenging the new labour relations laws. However, he did not fully recognise the weaker position that the NUM was in compared to the early 1970s. The catalyst for the strike was the closure of the Cortonwood pit in South Yorkshire in March 1984. Scargill claimed this was in breach of closure procedures that had been agreed. He used this as the primary reason for calling a strike that spread quickly, mainly in coalfields that were in danger of closure. Importantly, a national ballot was not held by the NUM, almost certainly because there would not have been a majority in favour of strike action. As a result, and in line with the recent industrial relations legislation, the strike was declared illegal. The often-violent confrontation between the striking miners and the police lasted a year and ended with no settlement. While it could be argued the government had not directly provoked the strike, Lee believes it was ‘a fight which the government relished’ (Lee, 233) as it illustrated the government’s resolve and tested the new employment laws. It was also a conflict that the government was prepared for, having stockpiled coal and maintained transport links to move stocks of coal to power stations.

The consequences of the strike were wide-ranging. The rationalisation of the coal mining industry gathered pace with only limited opposition. This was partly due to the reduced influence of the NUM after the strike. The finances of the union had been substantially diminished by the cost of the dispute, placing an obstacle in the way of future confrontations. The union also experienced an acrimonious split, with miners based in the Midlands forming the breakaway Union of Democratic Miners. This opened the way for a marked reduction in coal production and by 2005 Britain had only ‘eight major deep mines in production’ (Wrigley, 289). The strike also raised questions about trade union membership, which was already under pressure from the restructuring of Britain’s traditional industrial base. Membership had peaked at 13.2 million in 1979 but had fallen to 7.9 million by the time New Labour came to power in 1997 (Trade Union Statistics). This had a knock-on effect on Labour party membership. The two organisations retained close links, but the party’s leaders were considered weak in the 1980s and its parliamentary leadership was unsympathetic to the miners’ strike, which was not popular with many of its supporters. The outcome was that Labour party membership, which had stood at 700,000 during the 1970s, fell to 261,000 by 1992. It was also evident that the TUC, which had played such a dominant role in politics in the 1960s and 1970s, was ‘frozen out of participation in central government decision making’ (Gamble, 126). The resolve the government had shown in opposing the miners, together with industrial relations framework that had been put in place, also provided a platform to face down both the print and teachers’ unions in drawn out disputes between 1986-87.

The defeat of the miners also had an indirect impact on one of the other flagship Conservative policies, privatisation. The government had demonstrated that ‘nothing was to be allowed to stand in the way of restructuring industries to make them profitable and internationally competitive’ (Gamble, 125). The reduced influence of the trade unions provided valuable assistance in improving the efficiency and profitability of government owned businesses that were slated for privatisation. By 1987, inflation was below 4% and the British economy was growing faster than its European peers. Privatisation proceeds provided an additional fillip to the government’s finances and image during a period that is seen as the high-water mark of the Thatcher era. While the privatisation process had started in the first half of the 1980s, it accelerated after the miners’ strike, examples being ‘British Gas (1986), British Airways (1987) and British Steel (1988)’ (Lee, 235). These share sales also supported the Thatcher government’s goal of creating not just a home owning democracy, but also a share owning democracy. While employment legislation had reduced the government’s exposure to industrial action the privatisation programme also ‘deflected strike action from the government to private employers’ (Lee, 233).

The miners’ strike of 1984-85 was a seminal moment in the Thatcher era. It was an important step in what economist Joseph Schumpeter called ‘creative destruction’, the process whereby it is necessary to destroy one economic structure from within, to facilitate the introduction of a new one. Thatcher was determined to modernise the economy and reverse the post-war politics that Corelli Barnett described as seeking to ‘create a New Jerusalem rather than a thrusting industrial nation’ (Egerton, 451). This political dogma allied to the new industrial relations legislation, the fall in demand for coal and the intransient attitude of the NUM, were the main causes of the strike. The dispute had enormous implications for the coal mining industry, the trade union movement and the Labour party. It also provided a launch pad for the most successful period of Thatcher’s time in office. However, it also proved to be a very divisive event that revealed the unsympathetic nature of Thatcher’s Conservative government and played a major role in creating distinctly polarised views on the legacies of her period in office.


Edgerton, David, The Rise and Fall of the British Nation: A Twentieth-century History (London: Allen Lane, 2018)

‘Election History and Commentary’ https://www.electoral (13 June 2017)

Evans, Eric, Thatcher and Thatcherism (London: Routledge, 2008)

Gamble, Andrew, The Free Economy and the Strong State: The Politics of Thatcherism (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1994)

Green, E, H, H, Ideologies of Conservatism: Conservative Political Ideas in the Twentieth Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002)

Lee, Stephen, Aspects of British Political History 1914-1995 (London: Routledge, 1996)

Morgan, Kenneth, Twentieth-century Britain: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000)

‘Trade Union Statistics 2018’ (30 May 2019)

Wrigley, Chris, ‘Trade Unions: Rise and decline’, in Francesca Carnevali and Julie-Marie Strange (eds), 20th Century Britain: Economic, Cultural and Social Change (Harlow: Pearson Longman, 2007), pp. 279-292

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