1984 repeats in 2018 - The Snow In The Summer or So-So

5 July 2018
Scargill, Thatcher, May, and Europe

Before we begin, let's set expectations. This post discusses the 1984-5 miner's strike, and tries to place events in their historical context. If you want a post of vitriol directed at Margaret Thatcher, you're in the wrong place. If you want a post of vitriol at Arthur Scargill, you're also in the wrong place. We're giving credit and blame where we see fit.

The question was asked,

I lived through it but wasn't really aware of politics at the time, but... How does May's stubbornness and seemingly blinkered approach compare to Thatcher's drive against the unions and miners in the 80s? Are the situations comparable?

The short answer: the government approaches are not really comparable. Thatcher was bringing in a policy that commanded broad support, that made economic sense, and made an effort to ameliorate the impact. May has deliberately chosen her policy, has never made a compelling argument to prefer it to the alternatives, and she appears to have no care for popular opinion.

Old King Coal

And now some detail. As early as 1970, there was a general feeling amongst money-counters that coal-mining was unprofitable. The easy coal had been scavenged in the 18th and 19th centuries, and what was left was difficult and expensive to mine. The revenue gained from coal was less than the cost of production.

Keynesian economists said, "Ah, but we can consider this to be a subsidy to support communities with no other means of employment." These economists spoke truth, the medium-term cost of unemployment would be greater than the medium-term loss from the pits. Broadly, Keynesian economists held government from 1945 until 1979. They didn't do much to prepare the pit communities for the inevitable change.

Monetarist economists said, "Bollocks to that. All that matters is the short-term profit and loss account." These economists also spoke truth, unprofitable enterprises were disobeying the market's signals, and the money could be better spent elsewhere. Mrs. Thatcher used this Monetarist analysis.

Oil became expensive in 1973, making alternative fuels like coal more attractive. It was a short-lived respite; North Sea oil came on tap in the early 1980s, and crowded out coal from the market. By 1984, coal pits lost £1.2m every day, and the government banned commercial imports of coal.

Even in 1979, there was a broad consensus that Something Had To Be Done. The economy was stagnant, inflation was soaring, and - under Monetarist economic analysis - government spending needed to be cut. This would reduce inflation, and allow employment to rise. The Monetarists' theoretical figleaf was the Phillips curve, which suggested inflation and unemployment rose together; the ideal point was a Non-Accelerating Inflation Rate of Unemployment.

(Most economists have since discarded the Phillips curve, at least as a long-term policy tool, because it does not accurately predict behaviour. This evidence was not available at the time.)

Part of the Union

For the Conservatives, much of the problem was seen as over-mighty trade unions. They offended Conservatives on four philosophical grounds:

All of these perceived offences were tackled by laws passed in Thatcher's early years. Closed shops were brought to an end, and made more difficult to recreate by selling state industries to the private sector. Sympathy strikes were outlawed. Political funds had to be approved by members as a whole, and individuals could opt out of the Labour party levy. After the NUM began its action, ballots for strikes became mandatory.

It's worth noting that Mrs. Thatcher never wanted to abolish trade unions; they are an essential safety valve to help tackle abusive employers. Rather, the aim was to clip the unions' wings, to make sure power remained in people elected by all of society, not a self-perpetuating cabal of unaccountable union officials.

And it's worth remembering that the changes hadn't become a settled part of the social contract. Labour was committed to reversing most of the laws, and Scargill could envision an end to the rest. He could also envision a return to Keynesian economics, propping up failing industries (such as his) while alternative employment was developed. The union saw its role as protecting its industry, which meant keeping all pits open as long as possible. A mantra in summer 1984 was "no man has the right to put his brother out of a job".

The 1982-5 coal dispute

We're going to look at a longer period than the formal strike. Nigel Lawson was appointed energy secretary in 1981, a post he'd hold until appointed finance minister in 1983. Amongst other work, Lawson built up great stockpiles of coal; this also helped to reduce supply and drive up the price of domestic coal.

"One Nation" Conservatism still had a place in cabinet, with people like Jim Prior and Michael Heseltine insisting that there were training schemes, and hustling to fund support for struggling communities. That included some state aid - as we've seen, in 1982 and 1983 the government rigged the coal market to raise the price of domestic coal.

On the union side, the TUC, representing trade unions, had sulked in a corner and refused to engage after some legislation about trade unions in 1981. (In partial defence, they would have been talking to Norman Tebbit.) The NUM, the miners' trade union, had three ballots for national action over pay claim; each time, the miners decided not to strike.

In this blog's view, the NUM didn't prepare for the fight ahead. Losing the strike ballots suggested miners weren't as militant as their leader Arthur Scargill. The NUM didn't prepare the ground, it didn't try to win over hearts.

When miners in Nottinghamshire chose not to strike, the NUM couldn't put forward a winning case on why it was more important to strike now than to follow the union's own rules. This led to internal division, a lot of energy spent on keeping the NUM together, and ultimately to "the miners" splitting into two distinct unions. And that led to a distinction between "pro-miner" activists, and "pro-Scargill" ones. Fighting amongst the left wasted a lot of that side's energy.

Miners weren't allowed a vote; the NUM had called its action to "support" miners in Yorkshire, but claimed it was a lot of local action without national direction. Even after the strike began, and a national ballot might have been won, it wasn't held. The NUM had a clear democratic deficit, the Conservatives had a clear mandate for their policies. The press were able to portray the NUM as breaking the laws, because they were.

Personality clash

There was stubbornness on both sides. Scargill saw it as his mission to bring down Conservative rule. Thatcher believed that coal mining was a net drain on society, and needed to be exposed to a free market. We can believe that, had the NUM been led by someone more pragmatic, the industry would have been wound down more gradually, without such damaging conflict, and with a much more helpful settlement. We can believe that, had the Conservatives been led by someone less headstrong, that the miners would have won most of their claim, and kicked the problem down the road for a later government to pick up.

The public was - broadly - in support of the government's position. Sadly, the NCB's polling has remained private, and the public pollsters didn't often ask about whether people preferred the NUM or the NCB. By September 1984, the public preferred the NCB by 46-30, and NCB chairman Ian McGregor had a 38% positive 47% negative rating. (Scargill was 14% positive, 79% negative.)

There's one distinct similarity to the present day: the Labour leader was ineffectual, and did not represent his party. Neil Kinnock was trying to hold together two wings of his party: those who supported Scargill's revolution, and those who accepted the need for change. As a result, Labour flatlined in the polls, and wasn't able to profit from the Conservatives' other errors.

Ultimately, it came down to pragmatism. NUM leader Arthur Scargill refused to countenance progress. He was asked at what level of loss it was acceptable to close a pit, and answered "As far as I can see, the loss is without limits." The rest of society was not prepared to stomach losses without limits, and Mrs. Thatcher was their agent of change.

Compare with today

Two things distinguish Mrs. Thatcher's policies from those of Mrs. May.

First, Mrs. Thatcher prepared the ground. She moved slowly, carefully, at times too cautiously for many of her more vocal supporters. The government didn't move before it was ready, it marshalled its resources, and would accept some tactical losses for strategic gain. Some battles were left unfought, such as selling off the Royal Mail.

By comparison, Mrs. May's motley crew have rushed into their position without any preparation or thought. They have an end point in mind, but have no clue about the strategy, and are bull-headed about tactics. In their panic, they adopt a scorched earth policy, they are quite prepared to ruin the feifdom they claim to run.

The second point of difference: this is a policy entirely of Mrs. May's own volition. The 2016 vote gave a mandate to explore the possibilities of her administration leaving the European Union. But she had to work within two limits: a huge minority disagreed with the policy proposal, and the largest segment of society had been barred from expressing an opinion through age or "nationality".

When put to a further election in 2017, the people denied Mrs. May the majority she sought. By failing to respect the result of the plebiscite, and failing to secure backing for her chosen plan, we must conclude that there is no democratic mandate for Mrs. May's policy.

She does not enjoy the support of the people she purports to represent. Poll after poll after poll shows her position is unpopular, and over 300,000 people march through Westminster to make their point. Mrs. Thatcher had a clear majority of public support, Mrs. May does not.

Is there any comparison between the situations? Well, yes. We have a side riven by internal dissent, where the "leader" spends most of the energy keeping their own group intact. Behind the leader is a small cadre of idealists, whose policy is completely at odds with the real world. Where the policy can't work in the real world, it's the real world at fault, hence "Fuck business" (A B deP Johnson, June 2018). And on the other side of the table, a slightly bemused association who have clearly-defined goals, a common sense of purpose, and will make tactical retreats to secure incremental change.

So, yes, there are comparisons. Arthur Scargill is to 1984 as Theresa May is to 2018.

Comments? | Permanent link