Margaret Thatcher, the Miners’ Strike, and the Triumph of Middle Class Leftism (2015), by Sean Gabb
Margaret Thatcher, the Miners’ Strike,
and the Triumph of Middle Class Leftism
20th April 2015
A few days ago, I put the following post on my Facebook account;
It’s about thirty years since the end of the Miners’ Strike – the final humbling of our working classes. Thinking back, I am filled with hatred for Margaret Thatcher, and despise myself for having believed in her.
I appeared to be siding with the workers in a loss-making nationalised industry against the woman who is generally credited with saving the country from socialism. My posting led to an often sharp discussion, in which, among others, these points were made against me:
1. That Arthur Scargill was a Marxist who had to be stopped;
2. That the mining communities I was lamenting were drenched in socialism and were kept alive by taxpayer subsidies to which they had no right;
3. That the trade unions in general were a menace that had to be stopped.
I replied to these points on the discussion thread. But I have been asked to put my defence into a more connected form. Here it is:
1. Arthur Scargill, Marxist
Accepted. He was a Marxist and a pro-Soviet Marxist. His ideal Britain was another East Germany, but with warm beer. He regarded the National Union of Mineworkers as a personal army that he could use to lead a national strike that would bring down the Government. He was also a fool. He called his strike without any formal consultation of his members, and made sure it began in the spring, when demand for coal was falling and would remain low for the next eight months. He then fought the strike with a combination of inflammatory rhetoric and violent picketing.
This being said, the Thatcher Government pushed him into calling the strike when he did, and had been secretly building up large stocks of coal so it could ride out the strike without fear of the power cuts and disorder that had brought down the Heath Government in 1974. Its strategy was not so much to end the strike as to smash the strikers. It succeeded. Once the strike had collapsed, it set about closing down much of the coalmining industry, and was able to complete its remodelling of all the trade unions with minimal resistance.
I deplore both the end of coalmining and the attack on the unions, but will give my reasons in a moment. What I will now observe is that the Government beat Mr Scargill by destroying the members of his union. It waited and watched as the miners lost everything they had and then, one by one, crept back to work as atomised individuals. Also, it won the strike in part by turning the police into an arm of the state. They were given the right to stop British citizens from moving freely about their own country. They were also given a blank cheque for whatever authoritarian laws took their fancy. I am inclined to believe that the big gun control law of 1988 was pushed through largely because the police disliked the thought of an armed population, and that this was part of their reward for doing over the miners.
2. Illegitimate Subsidies and Socialist Culture
Accepted again. With the move to oil and gas and some nuclear power, and fears of smoke pollution, coal was no longer so important to the country by the 1980s as it had been in the 1940s. Also, many pits were uneconomic or becoming so. A rational policy would have been selective closure of pits and investment in modern extraction technologies for the others. The coal miners and their union bitterly resisted every closure, and they held up the introduction of any technology that would have increased productivity but caused job losses or changes to existing work practices. From about 1960, the National Coal Board was only kept solvent by annual subsidy. These were compelled transfers of money from those who had to find willing buyers for their labour to those who did not.
Yet the National Coal Board, by then renamed British Coal, made a loss of £485 million in the year before Mr Scargill called his strike. This was covered by the British State. If we add to this the indirect subsidy from the electricity boards, which were forced to buy British coal at inflated prices, the total subsidy for 1983-84 was £727 million. Let us assume what is unlikely, that prices have trebled in the past thirty years, that would be a subsidy in modern terms of £2 billion.
A lot of money, no doubt – and money, I repeat, extracted from the taxpayers. On the other hand, the direct cost to the British State of winning the strike was £7 billion. Also, we need to consider the cost, after the strike, of redundancy payments to the unemployed miners, and the cost of welfare payments that kept most of them alive until they retired or died, plus the cost of the state “investment” into the mining areas once the mines were gone. I am not sure the strike led to any net reduction of cost.
Then we need to look at how the modern British State spends our money. I believe the annual cost of dealing with fraudulent claims about global warming is more than £18 billion. I have no idea what the private finance initiative scam has so far cost the taxpayers. The figure may be in the region of £100 billion. The last time I looked, our net contribution to the European Union budget was £11 billion a year. The cost of the wars we have been continually fighting since the end of the last century has not been trifling. £2 billion to keep the coal mines going does not seem, in retrospect, a horrifying extravagance.
The difference is that the coal subsidy went mostly to working class miners in a sector of some actual and great potential strategic importance. I am not a protectionist, but £2 billion strikes me as money well-spent on the admittedly dubious assumption that it was the lowest cost of keeping us self-sufficient in coal. The much bigger sums I have mentioned go to the rich and well-connected and to various clients of the corporatist police state that Mrs Thatcher and her successors created.
I turn to the nature of the coalmining communities. I think there were over 150,000 British coalminers at the beginning of 1984. Adding to these wives and children and the retired, this makes a coalmining interest of more than half a million people. These lived in a great federation of close and morally self-sufficient communities. They had a culture that went back in many cases to the eighteenth century. They were the nearest thing we had to a landed peasantry.
I will not romanticise their culture. Coalmining is a disgusting occupation. I would not like to dig coal. I had two friends at university who had been miners. They were not going back after graduation. One of my grandfathers was a miner in Kent for a few years in the 1930s. I am told he was very glad to get out and join the Merchant Navy. I regret the settled belief of the miners in their right to pick our pockets to keep their communities alive. But they were an imperium in imperio. Authoritarian states are instinctively scared of social structures outside their control. What they want, in the words of Auberon Waugh, is the power to press one button and watch everyone jump at the same time. In a free country, there is no single imperium. Certainly, a free country needs some commonality of blood or language or religion or historical experience. Anything less is a recipe for inter-communal unrest that needs an authoritarian state to keep the peace. Beyond that, however, it is a federation of more or less impermeable communities. If at all, such a country must be ruled by discussion and consent.
The virtue of the mining communities was not that they were filled with good people, but that they were filled with people who wanted to live according to their own ways, and who had sufficient trust in each other to tell intruders into their lives to go to hell.
By the end of the miners’ strike, these communities lay in ruin. Even before the jobs went, the moral bonds had been severed. The result was not a burst of individual enterprise, but a void into which the new class of middle class leftists could advance without check. Would those old mining communities have tolerated a smoking ban in their pubs? Would they have let their institutions be co-opted into celebrating unlimited mass-immigration by unskilled competitors in the labour market? Had she been a miner’s wife, could Emma west have been held without trial for eighteen months, until she broke down and confessed to various “hate crimes” that did not exist when she was born? It is more than partly because there is no autonomous working class movement that this country has moved so quickly and without opposition into soft totalitarianism.
3. The Trade Union Menace
What I have said about the coalminers applies to the working class as a whole. Regardless of whether we had, or could have had, a comparative advantage in steelmaking or shipbuilding or whatever, the general cost of subsidising the other nationalised industries was not, by comparison with how the British State nowadays spends our money, extravagant. But these industries, and British industry as a whole, gave meaningful work and lives to millions of our people. Once the industries were allowed to fail, the traditional working class was destroyed. It was replaced by what can only be called the lower classes. Some of these people have non-jobs in the public sector. Many more live on various forms of welfare. Others scrape a living on the financial edge – part-time casual work, zero-hour contracts, security guarding, van driving, a bit of welfare fraud, a bit of petty crime. These people have not yet started pulling their forelocks when their betters walk by. But they know their place in the new order of things. They know when to keep their mouths shut and how to look the other way if the social workers roll up to take the children away from their neighbours.
The old trade unions were a nuisance. I am old enough to remember the strikes and the working to rule and the resistance to innovation. But I used to discuss all this with Chris Tame when he was alive. His first real taste of libertarian activism came in the late 1970s, when he helped break the Grunwick strike. He hated the unions. More than that, though, he despised the useless management of British industry that had allowed the unions to become the nuisance they were.
Imagine. It is 1975, and you are running a small engineering firm in Birmingham. One day, a new shop steward covered in badges comes to you with some farrago of nonsense about tea breaks. When you fail to give him exactly what he wants, he calls a sudden strike. What do you do? You can go whining to the newspapers about how hard done by you are, and give money to the Conservatives, who promise to sort things out if they win the next election. You then wait to go bankrupt. Or you can set private detectives on the Trotskyite pig who is wrecking your firm. He must have one embarrassing weakness. Everyone has a weakness. Or you can bribe him with cash or sex, and photograph his acceptance. Whatever the case, you get the dirt on him and make it clear that, unless he leaves you alone, you will make him sorry he was born.
Of course, this is not the end of the matter. You also treat your workers like human beings, and pour investment into new products that will give you a full order book as far ahead as anyone can see. You also spend a lot of time on the shop floor, listening to your workers and explaining your own vision for the common future.
There may have been such companies. But I worked for a few weeks in 1979 in a small manufacturing company in South London. The senior managers came by once or twice, never speaking to us, and visibly scared of getting grease on their fine suits. They were hated and distrusted to a man. The older workers kept production going by ignoring what they were told and following their own sense. I am surprised the company made it to 1979. It was gone by 1981.
I grant, the unions were in need of sorting out. But this was mostly a question of better management in both state and private companies. I do not recall that Japanese or American companies in this country were held to ransom by the unions, and they operated in the same legal environment as everyone else. Other than that, the Government needed to take away the privilege given in 1906, and make trade unions vicariously liable for the torts of their officers. Instead, the Thatcher Government came close to nationalising the unions with wholesale intervention in their internal affairs – an intervention that made it necessary for the unions to replace working class officials with middle class cultural leftists. It also failed to cut public spending, and financed its deficits with an interest rate policy that messed up the exchange rate and made it impossible for many small companies to borrow.
If I knew less about them – had I seen less of them in action during the 1980s – I would accuse the people who advised the Thatcher Government of being less interested in ending trade union militancy than in using it as an excuse to destroy the British working class. But they were not that bright. All they did was to clear the way for the real villains to step forward.
When I was young, I used to go to Adam Smith Institute events, and listen to the silly chatter of the young men who surrounded Madsen Pirie. You will not believe the rubbish I stood through, a glass in my hand. Internal markets for the National Health Service – that is, more, and indeed unlimited, management jobs for cultural leftists. Contracting out of public services – that is, unlimited corruption opportunities for councillors and local government officers, and, of course, more management jobs for cultural leftists. Pulling up the railway lines and replacing them with toll motorways – a fine use for strips of land barely twenty feet wide. Privatised prisons – how to blur the distinction between state power and private enterprise, and how to raise an interest group in favour of laws to imprison healthy and literate slave workers. A poll tax – good for keeping tabs on who lived where. The private finance initiative – oh! I soon stopped trying to argue with these people. I went instead to their gatherings for much the same reason as people of quality once paid to watch the lunatics howl and caper about in Bedlam. It was 1989 before I began putting my objections to the Thatcher Project in writing. My only regret is that I waited so long, and that I was so mild for so long after in my criticisms.
But I return to the coal miners. What should have been done? My answer is that, instead of being sent off to murder Hilda Murrell, the security services should have been set on the union leaders. As said, everyone has a secret. The mines should then have been handed over, with a tapering subsidy, as worker co-operatives. Better macro-economic policies would have helped. But, rather than shut everything down that was not worth selling for cash, the Government should have turned the nationalised industries over to those who worked in them. Some of the co-operatives would have failed. Some would have demutualised and become normal joint stock companies. Others might have flourished. We would not have had to sit for a whole year through the spectacle of a government at war with a significant group of its own people.
I and millions of people like me voted Conservative in 1979 in good faith. We believed that we were electing a government that would set us free. The state sector would be reformed and reduced. Enterprise would be liberated, the currency stabilised. We would reach the end of a troubled century with our ancient freedoms not merely restored but significantly enhanced. Well, give or take a few electoral wobbles along the way, there has been a continuum of government policy from 1979 to the present day. The evidence is in, and the Thatcher Revolution stands revealed as a ghastly wrong turn.
I feel sorry for the miners, and I feel sorry for all of us.
NB – The Libertarian Alliance takes no view of the current general election. The above essay does not constitute advice to vote for or against any political party.