Express & Star

Cheers turn to jeers as miners return to work

On March 3, 1985, three days short of a year after the dispute began, Arthur Scargill appeared before the nation's media.

Striking miners go back to work at Littleton Colliery in 1985

Dressed in a black tie, the Che Guevara of the coal industry looked tired and weary as he read out a pre-prepared statement:

"In the tightest possible vote, very, very few votes between it, conference has decided that the National Union of Mineworkers shall organise a return to work on Tuesday."

He said the dispute would continue, and in particular demanded the reinstatement of all miners who had been sacked during the strike. But this half-hearted show of defiance did little to disguise what was plain for all to see: he had been roundly defeated in his battle with the Government, and now looked a broken man.

Scargill was initially greeted with cheers as he emerged from the TUC headquarters in London, but the mood swiftly changed when he told miners the strike was over. He was booed and jeered, with many of his members shouting that they would not go back to work. But Scargill still had plenty of supporters around the country. One group of loyalists reacted to the news by singing to the hymn tune Cwm Rhondda: "Arthur Scargill, Arthur Scargill, we'll support you evermore".

The conference had actually voted 98-91 to end the strike, so perhaps not quite the wafer-thin margin that Scargill would have had people believe. The miners from South Wales, who were facing great hardship, called for a return to work, while the most militant members, from Kent wanted to continue. The Kent branch of the NUM, which had seen many of its members sacked, refused to recognise the end of the strike. Scargill led a 'loyalty parade' accompanied by a Scots piper as he marched with his comrades back to work at Barrow colliery near Barnsley, but was greeted by a delegation of pickets from Kent. He refused to cross the picket line, and turned around.

For Alan Pearson, now chairman of Cannock Chase Council, it was a sad day, having remained on strike for the duration. But at least he was not confronted by a picket line from Kent – instead, he was given a round of applause from his workmates.

Scargill was given life presidency of the NUM in a controversial ballot, but his authority was greatly curtailed in the aftermath of the dispute. In 1985, the Nottinghamshire branch of the union broke away to form the Union of Democratic Mineworkers, and advised the Thatcher government on how to reduce the NUM's influence. Scargill called for another strike in 1986, but was ignored.

The Government passed the Trade Union Act 1984, which required all unions to hold secret ballots before calling strikes, meaning that such action would never again be able to take place without a vote.

So where did it go wrong for Scargill, whose fiery oratory at Saltley Gate had turned him into one of the most influential figures in the country?

Scargill blamed a lack of solidarity in the union movement. After announcing the return to work, he said: "One of the reasons is that the trade union movement of Britain with a few notable exceptions has left this union isolated." This was probably at Bill Sirs, leader of the Iron and Steel Trades Council, for his perceived lack of support at Orgreave. But it might also be said that Scargill's cool relationship with Len Murray and the TUC had not helped in this respect, either.

"Another reason is that we face not an employer but a government aided and abetted by the judiciary, the police and you people in the media and at the end of this time our people are suffering tremendous hardship."

Labour leader Neil Kinnock said the lack of a national ballot made it impossible for many to support the action. Scargill's tactic of using flying pickets to enforce the strike in regions which had voted to continue working gave the impression of one man forcing his agenda on others.

But the Battle of Orgreave would prove a turning point in the dispute: Scargill had staked everything on this being a re-run of Saltley Gate, but Margaret Thatcher had heeded the lessons of that humiliation, and made meticulous preparations to ensure it would never happen again.

There is also a line of thought that Orgreave was a 'set up', a Trojan horse to lure Scargill into a battle he couldn't possibly win.

Scargill's biographer, the Labour-supporting journalist Paul Routledge, said that the coal board's director of indusrtial relations, Kevin Hunt, had asked Scargill in advance for permission to allow more coke out of Orgreave. This convinced Scargill that Orgreave was an important strategic site, causing him to divert his pickets away from the working mines of Nottinghamshire.

David Hart, a right-leaning political activist who advised Ian MacGregor at the National Coal Board, confirmed this theory.

"The coke was of no interest whatsoever," he said in a 1993 interview. "We didn't need it. It was a battleground of our choosing on grounds of our choosing. The fact is that it was a set-up and it worked brilliantly."

MacGregor himself, in his autobiography, wrote: "It became a cause célèbre for Scargill, a fight he had to win. We were quite encouraged that he thought it so important and did everything we could to help him continue to think so, but the truth was that it hardly mattered a jot to us – beyond the fact that it kept him out of Nottingham."

Scargill says the reverse is true, and that the NUM would have won the dispute had effort been focused on the site at an earlier stage.

"If you read the autobiography of Margaret Thatcher, she's obsessed with two things: the battle for Saltley Gate and Arthur Scargill," he says.

"She never wanted to have to face a situation like Saltley Gate.

"In 1984-85 we could have achieved exactly the same had we concentrated from day one on Orgreave, because they only had three weeks' supply and we could have stopped it.

"But unfortunately not all the movement's leaders saw it the same way. We would have won, no doubt about that."

Trevor Matthews, assistant manager of Littleton Colliery in Cannock at the time of the dispute, found himself operating the winding wheel during the dispute. He says he faced little hostility from striking miners, as most knew that his work was essential to keep the mine operating safely. He remembers Scargill as a brilliantly persuasive orator, but one who needed to be stopped to prevent the country from descending into anarchy.

"At the time, the management had a man who had infiltrated the union, and saw Scargill speak at a meeting. He said that by the end of it he was almost rooting for him, he had people mesmerised."

The pit closure programme continued unabated. Littleton colliery, the last deep mine in Staffordshire, closed in 1993. The UK's last three deep pits, Thoresby, Kellingley and Hatfield, closed in 2015, although Boris Johnson's government caused controversy in 2020 by granting a licence for Woodhouse Colliery in Cumbria – the first new deep pit since 1986.

Scargill went on to form the Socialist Labour Party, and was guest speaker at a meeting of striking hospital workers in Dudley in 2001. He railed against an £80 million shake-up of hospital services in the borough, and accused Tony Blair's Labour government of trying to privatise the NHS.

In 2010, he held a rally at the Light House cinema in Wolverhampton, where he claimed he was followed by the security services everywhere he went, and had experienced six attempts on his life. He called for an end to capitalism, and a return to coal-mining.

Now 86, he rarely gives interviews, but he still occasionally turns out to attend picket lines.