Fifty years ago today, miners across the United Kingdom walked out on strike. This decision sparked the use of flying pickets, country-wide power cuts, and a momentous period of industrial action: it was the first of two strikes that, by the close of 1974, would bring Edward Heath’s Conservative government to its knees.
It was the first ‘official’ strike to take place since 1926. (In 1969, 140 of 307 NCB Collieries had walked out in a dispute over hours and wages for surface workers—also said to be the first action to encourage the use of flying pickets—but this wasn’t deemed an official strike due to lack of activity from the NUM leadership.)
The 1972 walk-out was indicative of the ever-widening wage gulf that had appeared between mining and other forms of heavy industry in the mid-twentieth century. In January 1971, it was reported that the average weekly wage for a man in a full-time manual labour role was £28.11. By comparison, the highest weekly wage available for a miner in November of 1971 was considerably lower, at £23.50.
Jim McDowall, a former Miner and Union Delegate from Rankinstoun in East Ayreshire, was fourteen in 1972. His father, Jimmy McDowall, was himself a Union Delegate and was out for the duration of the 1972 and 1974 strikes.
‘1972 and 1974 were about the wages that were being paid to other people within heavy industry,’ he explains. ‘Miners were seen as unskilled and without a craft. But what you have to understand is that miners were skilled in their mining craft. They knew the geology: they could tell when water was coming, they could tell when there was bad ground or poor roof conditions. The older guys knew this.’
As a fight for fair wages, the strike of 1972 was seen by most as a reasonable course of action. For some of those who experienced the full trio of strikes in 1972, 1974, and 1984-5, the two-month action saw relative co-operation and even pleasantries from the police on the other side of the picket line.
Raymond Lawton, a twenty-year-old miner, was based at Betteshanger Colliery, the largest in Kent. He and others from his pit were sent to London to picket Deptford power station and appeal to the lorry drivers based there. He speaks about receiving a positive reception from officers at the scene.
‘The police arrived and told us we could approach the lorry drivers and put forward our case,’ says Raymond. ‘We had a great response, with thanks to the TUC. The police went away and came back every now and then—I even remember them giving us tea. We were put up by a family in Blackheath, but I was called back a day before my mother passed away.
‘1984 was completely different,’ he continues. ‘We were stopped by the police at the Dartford tunnel and told we would be arrested and the car impounded if we tried to cross.’ Raymond and several of his colleagues would later be sacked from their roles at Betteshanger and blacklisted from the trade altogether.
In other areas, the authorities weren’t so amicable. Jim spoke of some vivid memories he had of his father and his treatment at school as a striking miner’s son.
‘I can remember my dad coming home one day—he rolled up his trousers and his shin bones were all skinned and grazed. As a kid, I was very curious: I asked him what had happened to his legs. He said, “That was a policeman.” Lines of police officers would link arms and walk backwards into the crowds of striking miners, kicking their boots into their shins to prevent any push-back from picketers.
‘It was tough times,’ continues Jim, who in 1972 was one of the few children from his village to attend the prestigious Ayr Academy. ‘My teacher—I don’t know if he was anti-trade union, anti-miner, or just had an opinion that the miners shouldn’t be taking the action they were taking—but for me and the two other boys who were sons of miners, he made us stand at the opposite side of the room to the rest of the class, to claim our vouchers for free school lunches.
‘I went home and told my dad, who came into the school and had a word with the headmaster—that didn’t happen again.’
For those not directly involved, there were two defining features of January—February 1972: power cuts and flying pickets. Lynne Walsh was a thirteen-year-old grammar student at the time of the strike, and recalls the lasting effect it had on her.
‘We wanted to be out with our friends—in the swimming baths, in cafes, in the chip shop, going to the cinema… The power cuts were a huge problem,’ she laughs.
‘I loved the novelty of reporting to school at seven AM—in the dark, at school, for our “homework” for the week. It made me feel that we were part of the struggle… I didn’t know then, but that was setting me up for what was to come. The early belief—that trust—that we would support one another would sustain me. In fact, it’s propelled me into other struggles.’
Others, particularly university students, would play a more direct role in supporting the strike. ‘I was away from home, at college in Enfield,’ explains Jean Spence. ‘My dad was a striking miner at Dawdon pit. We hosted striking miners—flying pickets—from Kent in our student flat, and I had my first experience of picketing at Picketts Lock Power Station. An old trade unionist taught us how to deal respectfully with lorry drivers we were trying to turn away from the power station.’
Above all, this brief strike would provide a valuable glimpse into disputes to come. Jim McDowall, who would later be blacklisted after his work in the 1984-85 strike, concluded by expressing his gratitude to those who had taken part in 1972.
‘The men involved in ’72 and ’74 provided valuable input for us. They taught us how to conduct ourselves, how to go to businesses and seek help during 1984 and ’85. They knew exactly how to rally the community together. To me, they were the salt of the earth.’