Radio Ballads: The Miner’s Strike

by Harry on March 4, 2010

And today (still today as I write in the Midwest; I realize it is over in the UK) is the 25th anniversary of the end of the Miner’s Strike. The Radio Ballad is quite moving (although, no doubt, designed to provoke cries of BBC bias). Chris marked the 20th anniversary of it’s start here.

A week or so before the end there was a large demonstration in London.

I don’t know what other people were thinking, but it had long seemed to me that the strike was un-winnable, not only because winter was moderate, but also because even if the government caved it seemed to me they could just come back a year or two later. Still, I spent inordinate amounts of time collecting money etc, and went on the march. Somewhere around Whitehall a group of police officers surrounded a group of marchers and (seemingly without provocation) started attacking people in a fairly systematic way. I’d not seen such a large group of people being violent close up before, and was more fascinated than frightened. I saw a little lad (10?) being kicked in the stomach, and almost fly backwards – immediately afterward a copper of my height but 3 stone heavier smashed into me, knocking me to the ground, and then started kicking as hard as he could. The kicking didn’t last long (a few years later I learned that the LAPD make the Met seem like amateurs — one of my students saw my inadvertant appearance in Bread and Roses the other day, and said I hadn’t changed a bit, but she was just being nice). He dragged me into a van, which contained 6 other marchers, and the same number of coppers. Once in the van the coppers picked on one smaller man in his 30s to kick (in my subsequent experience LAPD were brutal but only up to the point of putting us in the van, after which they ignored us). The coppers each needed a witness for their arrest, so despite not having seen one another doing the arresting they started sharing out the witnesses, and assigning crimes to the arrestees (mine was throwing a bottle full of liquid with a rag in the top). In Bow Street we were processed — I witnessed no beatings in the Bow Street, but all of us were taunted and threatened, and the one woman was felt up by several of the coppers; two of them intimated they would rape her in the cell. It was not a pleasant experience, but it wasn’t until midnight or so that I started to get genuinely nervous that something bad would happen (it didn’t).

My finals were coming up in June, and one female friend of mine commented chirpily (and without irony) that if I went to prison I’d be able to study without distraction, and would enjoy that. But once the strike was over there was no need to prosecute with alacrity, and my trail was not until June. I was found guilty by a stipendiary magistrate, despite the fact that the two coppers directly contradicted one another about the course of events, and fined only 50 quid despite the fact that I was supposed to have thrown a liquid filled bottle with a rag in the top (maybe Mark Sainsbury’s character witnessing describing the way that I met the Queen Mother helped to lower the fine (described somewhere here)).

Thousands had similar experiences. One friend (a trades unionist in Doncaster) told me it was wasted on me, because I already knew the things that the experience taught. But that wasn’t really true. The experience made vivid lessons that had previously been hearsay. I also learned, what I had not expected, that I had complete (perhaps unwarranted) confidence that my social position would protect me from serious harm (once the physical risk was past). And a few days after the trial a copper turned up at my house. He was investigating my dad’s complaint about the arrest. (My politically right-wing housemate was furious because, unlike me, he actually was a criminal, and was concerned that his stash of illegal drugs would be noticed). I liked the investigating copper, who clearly believed every word I told him, but, reasonably enough, pointed out that pursuing a complaint further would consume my immense amounts of time and energy, and would almost certainly result in nothing.

After he left, it occurred to me that assigning good-natured cops who believe the truth about their colleagues, but care about the wellbeing of the complainants, to this sort of investigative role was quite a smart move.



NomadUK 03.04.10 at 12:28 pm

Ah, the Filth. And they’re still at it.


kid bitzer 03.04.10 at 12:35 pm

“After he left, it occurred to me…”

this persistent obtusity suggests that the beatings had not really sunk in. perhaps you needed a few more rounds of kicking to overcome your continuing inclination to give the police the benefit of the doubt?


Harry 03.04.10 at 12:51 pm

That’s what I was suggesting.


kid bitzer 03.04.10 at 2:52 pm

ah. well then chalk it up to my own obtusity. apparently i don’t recognize a punchline unless it beats me about the head and shoulders.


Philip 03.04.10 at 6:33 pm

Harry, where did this happen? My Dad was a policeman in Durham, but was convalescing from non-strike injury during most of the strike. Most of the worst violence seems to be laid at the Met’s door, but I’ve sometimes felt that this was a way to take the blame off local forces. Also is there any actual evidence that the Army was used against the miners? It’s a common accusation and I’ve never seen a conclusive argument either way, though my Dad is confident that they weren’t used but the Met Officers behaved like paramilitary which led to belief that soldiers were disguised as policemen.


Harry 03.05.10 at 1:11 am

This was in London. The miners I knew well were in Yorkshire. They all believed (with good reason) that the Met were much worse than their locals. The belief that the army was involved, which I am sure is false, was always supported by reference to the height of police officers used — some coppers, they said, were too short to be coppers.

I’ll tell you other Met stories another time.


Ciarán 03.05.10 at 9:15 am

I know the Met enjoy nothing more than bludgeoning a few rowdy heads, be they anarchist or Countryside Alliance, but would I be right in thinking that the anti-miners strike crackdown was more vicious than most?

If so, why was this the case do you think? I don’t understand whether they were supporting Thatcher, had been convinced that the strike was Soviet subversion or some such, didn’t much like Northerners / the working classes or what. Maybe I’m just being naive and they’re like this all the time.


alex 03.05.10 at 9:54 am

The miners’ strike was in some ways the culmination of at least 15 years of poisonous social hatreds, in which rhetorics of ‘wrecking’ and implications of subversion and treachery were ever-present. Indisputably the Met, spurred on by apocalyptic press and political language, acted like bastards. Indisputably, also, many on the miners’ side, whether out of desperation or less admirable motives, were determined to use violence – that was the very nature of mass picketing as practised then. Since there was absolutely no prospect of them ‘winning’ [and both the government and a substantial chunk of public opinion would probably rather have seen troops open fire on them than face the prospect of a triumphant King Arthur], the best one can really say about the whole tragic affair is that it’s just lucky it didn’t turn out worse.


Frances 03.05.10 at 1:54 pm

I had forgotton just how vitriolic it all got.

The year after the Miners’ Strike ended I went to an Open University summer school on the 19th & 20th century novel and was told that the previous year during the strike the seminar on Germinal had attracked maximum numbers that would fit into the venue and became so heated that it ended in a punch up!


alex 03.05.10 at 2:17 pm

Well, at least nobody got their knackers ripped off…


ejh 03.06.10 at 9:37 am

Somewhere around Whitehall a group of police officers surrounded a group of marchers and (seemingly without provocation) started attacking people in a fairly systematic way.

I remember that very, very well. I had just reached Trafalgar Square when it happened and although I’d had the whole year of the strike to get used to it (May 1984, in Mansfield, remains the only time I’ve ever been struck by a policeman) it still had an enormous effect. You’re looking downwards, from Trafalgar Square, at Whitehall, with the Houses of Parliament behind, and seeing, with that backdrop, the police just charging and charging into the crowd was as indelible an image as I’ve ever experienced.

I remembered it, years later, when reading William Morris, specifically his chapter “How The Change Came”, though in that instance the fighting takes place in Trafalgar Square itself. Oddly, and perhaps embarassingly, the literary thought I remember having at that moment was of the final battle in Lord of the Rings, with the rider that this time the eagles weren’t coming. I really don’t know why, I wasn’t particularly a Frodo fan. Maybe it was because it just seemed so apocalyptic.

Which it was, because of course we all knew the jig was up by then, making the police violence even more pointless than it is normally. To be honest, I’ve never really understood why they do it, given that it just makes enemies and doesn’t seem to intimidate many people from coming back. I suppose they might do it because the media will almost always report it as if they were the victims rather than the perpetrators, but that’s a little too unlikely. Perhaps they just do it because they want to, and they can.


ejh 03.06.10 at 9:41 am

violence –that was the very nature of mass picketing as practised then

By the way, this isn’t true. The idea was to form such a barrier of people that nobody would be able to pass. It was undoubtedly intimidatory in some ways, and violence did of course happen, but it was not the intention to use violence.


Alison P 03.06.10 at 12:57 pm

I was on the edge of this event, because I had just met an old friend by chance and we decided to call it a day and go and have a coffee. The police sealed off the street we were in (I think it was Whitehall Place – can’t remember) and compressing the crowd there very tightly, then drove big white vans into the trapped mass of people. These were mostly families and stragglers. I saw parents passing their children overhead and lowering them over the iron fences at the front of the government buildings – there’s a small area between the walls and the iron, and the van couldn’t drive there. Everyone else was dangerously crushed. People could easily have been killed.

Hillsborough happened, what – four years later?


Harry 03.06.10 at 3:00 pm

That’s right — Whitehall Place, that’s what was on my arrest slip.

My feeling was that this was their last chance to really put the boot in. The Met was pretty corrupt at the time, and these people had a taste for violence, and knew as well as we did that they had license to do pretty much whatever they wanted (short of killing), and that when the strike ended both opportunities and license would be withdrawn. But Alison is right that people could easily have been killed — that was clear from the situation, but was not the intention of the police.
Weird that a number of us were all in one place.

ejh is also right about the picketing. I was only at a couple of pickets that turned violent: in both cases (and the demo we’ve discussed) the police were the instigators — ie, they wanted it, and they made the first violent move. At the pickets I saw there was a small amount of fighting back — at this demo I saw none at all. I imagine that there’s some sensible academic account somewhere of what went on.

A final comment — quite a large number of police officers committed seriously violent criminal acts during the strike, and many more committed perjury during trials (my arresting officer and his ‘witness’ simply lied through their teeth, telling completely inconsistent stories, both of them false: I presumed that the fine was so low partly because it was obvious to the stipendiary magistrate that I was not guilty; the same happened in the two other trials I watched, participating in one of them as a witness). Presumably most are now retired, but it always bothered me that these people would never be called to account.


alex 03.06.10 at 3:48 pm

Unless you are going to follow the logic of ‘non-violence’ absolutely strictly – i.e. lay down, do nothing, sing hymns as you’re carted off – then mass picketing is a violent confrontation waiting to happen. Both sides are ready to use force, the question of who strikes first is irrelevant. What the police did in these instances is reprehensible, if and only if one forgets that atmosphere of embittered confrontation to which I referred above. In that context, it is merely comprehensible.


Harry 03.06.10 at 4:38 pm

Well, the violence I witnessed was unprovoked, vicious, and out of all proportion to the subsequent resistance (small, or non-existent) it met. Of course, there were other cases. The fact that local forces appear to have acted quite differently from imported Met officers is interesting, though.

The idea that representatives of the state are doing nothing reprehensible when they deliberately attack a peaceful demonstration, putting lives in jeopardy, and then arrest and perjure themselves to convict hundreds of innocent people (as in the case I describe) seems quirky, and a little bit too bleeding heart-ish, to me. But then it would, wouldn’t it.


kid bitzer 03.06.10 at 4:39 pm

“Both sides are ready to use force, the question of who strikes first is irrelevant.”



guthrie 03.06.10 at 4:59 pm

We have eyewitness accounts of violence by the police with the media looking on and not recording any of it.

I also know an ex-marine officer who was on leave when he thought he’d pop along to see what was going on with the strike near where he lived in Yorkshire. He got a bit close to the picket line and policemen and a policeman approached him to shoo him away. When he showed him his warrant card the copper said “Oh, your guys are over there.”
Puzzled by his he said something non-committal and was directed towards a safe area behind the police lines, where it turned out there were a load of marines who were on leave and being paid to dress up as policemen and at the very least support the riot police if not beat up anyone they were directed to.

Now I know of no legal way of doing this. Either you call out the army in a specific fashion and have them on site with their proper chain of command, or you subvert the rule of law and dress them up as policemen which is as far as I know technically illegal, theres a law about impersonating a policeman.
Anyone not understand why Thatcher is so hated? (Although I don’t know if she personally knew of this policy)

Harry #6 – I know I’m a random person on the internet, but if you are genuinely interested, I can provide contact info.


guthrie 03.06.10 at 5:04 pm

And this sort of thing causes friction between me and my dad, who after 30 years in the police, and despite years of saying that the Met are corrupt and viscious, still takes their side when they beat up protestors who may or may not have deserved it. Now there are some people out there who need regular beatings (or the intervention of a phsychologist and social workers who know what they are doing) in order to demosntrate that they are not in fact in charge, but too many police have this terrible habit of picking on anyone and then lying about it afterwards.


Myles SG 03.07.10 at 11:29 pm

I think the whole thing is rather tragic, yet possesses almost an heroic quality, because it was all so hopeless. The country simply had no room for militant unions anymore, at that point in time in 1984. It was simply gone. The entire middle class had turned against the trades-union movement. It was a strange sort of last stand.

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