It is an argument widely held by political historians that James Callaghan and his Labour government’s decision to freeze pay in order to control inflation during the 1970s strikes led to the election victory of Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative Party in 1979. Callaghan’s inability to control the trade union disputes during the “Winter of Discontent” of 1978-9 is thought to have pushed voters into demanding change. In those months, while the workers laid down their tools, the temperatures plummeted to the lowest levels in two decades, and blizzards all but buried the picket lines in deep snow.
Upon returning from a summit in the Caribbean, Callaghan found his country in crisis, with striking lorry drivers halting petrol supplies, iced over roads grinding the transport networks to a halt, and the army on stand-by, waiting for an official state of emergency to be declared. Defying expectations, Callaghan announced that these events did not equal, as some had accused to “mounting chaos.” His unwillingness to acknowledge the situation led to The Sun running a front page the next day with a picture of the Prime Minister giving his speech, and the words “Crisis, what Crisis?” In the accompanying editorial, editor Larry Lamb borrowed the opening lines of Shakespeare’s “Richard III” to describe the times as the “Winter of Discontent.”
As is often the way with the works of Shakespeare, while the opening line became infamous, what follows it is generally ignored. In fact, the opening couplet reads: “Now is the Winter of our discontent/Made glorious by this sun of York.” The line is, believe it or not, a pun. Speaking about the accession to the throne by his brother Edward, the son of the Duke of York, Richard is playing on the idea of the “blazing sun” which became Edward’s emblem, and his being the “son of York.”
Tenuous local link firmly established, what happened in York and the surrounding region after the 1978-9 Winter of Discontent? Was it made glorious by the Thatcherite sun, or did the chill of industrial action and civil unrest last longer even than the last stubborn piles of slush…?
Predictably, things did not get much better throughout Yorkshire, with the mass closing of mines causing strikes, dissidence, poverty and violence across the area. Thatcher’s appointment of Ian MacGregor as head of the National Coal Board in 1983 first put the fear of widespread unemployment into the minds of the Yorkshire people. He was an obvious choice for the Conservative government, having previously been head of the British Steel Corporation, where he transformed Britain’s steel manufacturing capability into one of the largest in Europe, at the cost of halving the industry’s workforce over two years. His reputation for ruthless change put fear into the agitated miners, erupting in mass civil unrest which would last throughout the following year.
On 6 March 1984, it was officially announced by the National Coal Board that previous agreements had become obsolete, that all uneconomic mines would now be closed, and tens of thousands of jobs would be lost. For industrial regions like Yorkshire, the announcement meant the disappearance of the primary source of employment. While the miners prepared for long-term strikes which they hoped would bring the country to its knees and force the government into action, like their 1970s counterparts, Thatcher and her government were safe in the knowledge that they had stockpiled coal, converted power stations to burn petroleum and recruited road hauliers to replace any striking railway workers.
Both sides consumed with gritty determination, the year of striking began in earnest. In the Yorkshire coal field, action began on 7th March, when miners at the Manvers Colliery in the Dearne Valley walked out, with their colleagues at the Cortonwood Colliery near Ossett quickly following suit. In these early stages, the strike was most widely observed in the collieries of Yorkshire, closely followed by Scotland, the North-East and Kent. And data recorded for the 19th November 1984 shows that Yorkshire continued as a solidarity stronghold throughout the year, with 97.3% of its 56,000-strong workforce on strike, second only to South Wales, where 99.6% of miners joined the picket.
Yorkshire was not immune when, later in the year, the strikes turned violent. On 18th June violence erupted at the Orgreave Coking Plant near Rotherham, when around 5,000 mounted policemen charged a similar number of miners with truncheons drawn, inflicting serious injuries. The incident came to be known as ‘The Battle of Orgreave’, and after an investigation in 1991, the South Yorkshire police were forced to pay out £425,000 in compensation to 39 miners who were arrested at the incident. Six picketers died during the strikes, including Joe Green, a Yorkshire miner, who was hit by a truck while picketing at Ferrybridge power station. His death was thought to have been orchestrated by police at the scene, and supporters continue to believe the true cause of his death has not yet been revealed. The National Union of Miners names its memorial lectures after Green and a fellow fatality, David Jones, who was hit by a flying brick during confrontation between picketers and the police.
The violence caused a great deal of negative press for the movement, with even left-wing publications like the Guardian and The Daily Mirror coming to criticise the strikes. Additionally, it was becoming clear by this time that the strikes would not, as the miners had hoped, bring the country’s infrastructure to its knees. Unlike the 1970s strikes which had led blackouts and the three-day working week, this time around the electricity companies were able to maintain normal supplies throughout the year, rendering much of the strikers’ efforts frustratingly futile. This impotence to force the government’s hand, coupled with the growing anti-strike movement and turning of the press contributed to the eventual ceasing of the strike in 1985.
But before then, Thatcher made visits around the country to reassure ordinary citizens that her country and government remained strong in the face of the miners’ resistance. Records of a visit she made to York on 26th September 1984 illuminate the way the Prime Minister interacted with the residents of our city.
Her first stop, explains a reporter as transcribed by the Yorkshire TV Archive, was the National Railway Museum, where she “raised a few eyebrows” due to her famously not being “noted as an enthusiastic rail traveller.” Next, Thatcher met with police officers who had spent the day policing picket lines in Selby where, the day before, striking miners had occupied the shaft tower for several hours, and more than 40 had been arrested. A write-up of the visit published in The Times the following day tells how she told the officers that she was “extremely grateful for what you gave done and so, I think, are the overwhelming majority of the British public.”
Last on the agenda was a press conference outside the York Minster, where the Prime Minister, “determined and forceful” according to The Times, addressed the crowd that had turned out to hear her speak. While the newspaper reports that there were no more than a dozen demonstrators among the several hundred-strong crowd, and that their chants of support to the miners were “easily drowned by applause and cheers,” the Yorkshire TV Archive transcript tells a different story. Their reporter claims that the visit required “strict security” and that there had intentionally been “little pre-arranged publicity in order to “avoid possible demonstrations by striking miners.”
When a journalist from ITN asked the Prime Minister whether the time had come for compromise to put an end to the strikes, the same transcript records her reply: “Uneconomic pits will have to close,” she explained, “and, if you’re interested in the future, you will do as we are doing. Just think, if this argument ad been used with old uneconomic factories, uneconomic farms, uneconomic machinery… We should be a museum society, and you wouldn’t have a fraction of the standard of living you’ve got now.” She went on to declare that the miners were making a “totally unreasonable claim” and that, therefore, there would be no compromise. Unlike The Times’ account, the transcript records “shouting and jeering” from the audience at Thatcher’s words.
Whatever the true reaction of the crowd outside York Minster that day, the ending remains the same. The strikes formally ceased on 3rd March 1985, almost exactly a year after they had begun. Many workers had already returned to work of their own accord by this time, although government ministers later admitted that the published figured of returners were inflated to damage the strikers’ morale. To preserve what was left of their organisation, the NUM officially voted, by a sliver of a margin, to return to work without the new agreement they had sought.
The Yorkshire coal field votes supported the ballot’s result. It was agreed that the extreme poverty being suffered throughout the region after a year without wages had become, finally, impossible to bear. On the first day that the ceased strikers officially returned to work, at mines across Yorkshire, the wives of workers stood at the gates to hand out carnations to the miners as they entered – the symbol of the hero.
Margaret Thatcher at the Wistow colliery in North Yorkshire in 1980. Photograph: PA