John Osmond takes a look at a new book examining the 1984-05 Miners Strike a quarter of a century ago that, he says, illuminates the struggles of contemporary Wales.
Most who lived through the 1984-5 strike will recall feeling how even at the time it felt like a momentous event. With hindsight it can be seen as the hinge of a pivotal decade in Welsh history that opened the door between the 1979 and 1997 devolution referendums. This is certainly the view of Hywel Francis whose important new book, History on our Side: Wales and the 1984-5 Miners’ Strike, marks the event’s 25th anniversary. The book not only chronicles what was for him an intensely personal struggle, but also casts his historian’s eye over its centrality in any understanding of contemporary Welsh politics and society.
For in those hot summer months of 1984 and through the cold, grim winter that followed can be seen the stirrings of Wales as a political nation. Following the divisions of the 1960s and 1970s that culminated in the referendum defeat of 1979, many had concluded that this was a lost cause. However, 1984-5 brought a different kind of defeat, one which persuaded many Welsh people that ultimately they could only rely on their own resources and those of their communities. This was a hard lesson, dearly paid for, but it opened the way to the making of a different kind of Wales whose shape is being forged now, in the early decades of the 21st Century.
Hywel Francis, MP for Aberavon, is well placed to make this judgement. He was the first of five generations on both sides of his family not ‘to go underground’, as he puts it. His father, Dai Francis was the general secretary of the South Wales Area of the NUM in the 1970s and first chair of the Wales TUC. Along with Dai Smith in 1980 he produced the seminal account of the miner’s union, The Fed: A History of the South Wales Miners in the 20th Century. And in March 1984, on the cusp of the strike, he launched Miners Against Fascism: Wales and the Spanish Civil War. But more important than all of these qualifications from the point of view of the story told here, Hywel, along with his wife Mair, was centrally involved in the 1984-05 strike. They led local support groups in Crynant and Onllwyn which with others across the coalfield and, eventually, the whole of Wales and beyond, combined in the course of the struggle to create the Wales Congress in Support of Miners’ Communities which Hywel Francis chaired. As he says, “The Congress was born out of a realisation by large sections of the Welsh people that miners were struggling for the future of Wales”, captured at the time by the slogan ‘The NUM fights for Wales’.
But that notion only emerged about halfway through the strike. To begin with, in a supreme, breathtaking effort of persuasion by picketing, the south Wales miners became the spearhead of a British NUM lance to ensure solidarity with the strike across the English coalfields. An estimated four to five thousand south Wales miners (about 25 per cent of the workforce) were permanently mobilised throughout the coalfields of Lancashire, Nottingham, South Derby, Leicester, Stafford and north Wales. They were also picketing 26 nuclear, coal and oil power stations and manning six regional centres in England. Commanded like a military operation from the NUM’s Area Headquarters in Pontypridd, the insurgency cost more than £1 million in the first six weeks alone.
The effort was doomed. Because of Arthur Scargill’s failure to allow a ballot the miners were split and on the backfoot from a moral point of view from the start, and, of course, Mrs Thatcher’s government was well prepared. But the important question for the future was how the south Wales miners responded when it became clear that they could not rely on the richer coalfields of the English Midlands and Yorkshire where many miners continued to work under the banner of a breakaway union. They looked inwards and set about ensuring, as far as they could, the survival of their families and communities and ultimately the NUM itself.
In the process they created an extraordinary network of support groups and forged, as Hywel Frances recounts, a new style of politics. This was one essentially led by women who were at the heart of the support groups that sprung up in every village and town in the south, and eventually across the whole of Wales. This became, for a time, a powerful national movement, involving Labour and Plaid Cymru, the churches, the Wales TUC, Cymdeithas yr Iaith, peace, women’s support, lesbian and gay groups and others. Even Neil Kinnock, agonising as Labour leader over his inability to support the strike because of the absence of a ballot, became a supporter of the Wales Congress.
Hywel Francis tells the story of the various phases of the shrike well, but he is at his most interesting when he deals with the aftermath and the impact of defeat. The title of his book comes from the words of a miner at Tower colliery in June 1984 who said to him, “Surely we can’t lose, history is on our side.” Normally, history is on the side of the victor. But in this case something extraordinary happened. Despite the rapid closure of what remained of the south Wales coalfield in the wake of the strike, defeat was turned into a kind of victory. This was symbolised by Tower colliery resisting the coal privatisation of the 1990s and surviving as the last deep mine in Wales as a result of a worker’s buy-out.
More fundamentally, however, for many Welsh people the experience of living through the strike demonstrated the possibilities and life-enhancing qualities of community solidarity, of connecting class with nation, and of forging a new kind of nation in the process. For himself Hywel Francis describes it as “a personal and political watershed”. And so it proved for the Wales as a whole. As Dafydd Elis-Thomas, Presiding Officer in the National Assembly put it, speaking at an ‘Evolution of Devolution’ conference organised by the Bevan Foundation in November 2008, “That was when it all began.”