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An Industrial Correspondent Reflects

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the miners’ strike. Veteran industrial correspondent Alan Jones reflects on his experience reporting on the frontline and the legacy of that seismic dispute today.

(Photo by Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Knowingly or otherwise, all workers who strike in Britain today — including the hundreds of thousands of nurses, teachers, doctors, civil servants, train drivers, and others who have taken industrial action in the past twenty months to defend their livelihoods — are following in the giant footsteps of the miners, who fought arguably the most important industrial conflict in modern British history.

March of this year marked the fortieth anniversary of that momentous struggle by the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) to halt a swathe of pit closures they feared would decimate communities in coalfields across the country. I was a young reporter during the year-long strike, and because of my roots in North East Wales, where unions were well represented in industries such as steel, I was heavily involved in covering the dispute and its many twists and turns. I can barely remember some of the dozens of stories I write every day, but I can still recall many of the events of four decades ago.

Some of those events were terrifying. Others were bizarre. One of the latter was the episode in which Ian MacGregor, the Conservative-appointed head of the National Coal Board (NCB), placed a plastic bag over his face to avoid being photographed ahead of supposedly secret talks with the NUM midway through the strike.

MacGregor had been asked by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to become chairman of the NCB at the age of 70, after overseeing the loss of tens of thousands of jobs in British Steel in a drive to improve efficiency. On 6 March 1984, he told unions of plans to cut four million tons of coal production, with the closure of twenty pits and the loss of 20,000 jobs. Six days later, the strike, and the vitriol, began.

I spent many hours standing outside the NCB’s offices in Central London, hoping to ask McGregor a few questions or nab a sit-down interview. I was never successful.  We all knew what a powerful public speaker and media performer NUM leader Arthur Scargill was, but MacGregor struggled to give decent interviews to radio, TV, or newspaper reporters, like me, who were all keen to find out from the American why so many pits had to close.

That day, six months after the strike started, I was reduced to watching on TV as MacGregor turned up at a hotel near Edinburgh to attend talks about which both sides wanted to keep quiet. The plan had leaked, and a few journalists gathered on the driveway outside. As MacGregor’s Jaguar drew up, he picked up a green plastic bag from the passenger seat and stepped out, placing the bag in front of his face before walking silently into the hotel.

In trying to deny photographers a picture of his face, MacGregor gave them a far more memorable image and boosted the striking mineworkers’ morale. The story was funny, which placed it in stark contrast to the violent clashes between police and pickets that were more often splashed across newspaper front pages and shown on TV news bulletins.

I must have become a familiar figure to some miners as I moved from South Wales to Nottinghamshire, the West Midlands, Kent, and Yorkshire, reporting on the increasing anger of pickets who faced huge numbers of officers, often on horseback. Still, even with that anger rising, no one was prepared for what happened on 18 June 1984 near a coking plant at Orgreave, near Rotherham.

I arrived by car that morning with a colleague. We found what we thought was a safe parking place about a mile away from the coking plant, and sat back to enjoy a flask of tea. I’d previously been to the site to report on peaceful picketing, but something changed dramatically on that day — not least the police tactics, which campaigners believe were ordered by the Conservative government. Ten hours later, we sat totally exhausted in the same car — moved several times during the mayhem — not quite believing the violence we had witnessed.

I didn’t attempt to write anything in a notebook that day. Experience had taught me that miners weren’t particularly keen to talk to reporters, which was hardly surprising given the anti-union stance of much of the media. But my blur of memories — the police on horseback wielding truncheons, the fighting, the shouting, the injuries — has been clarified during the recent Channel 4 TV series on the strike, which broadcast previously unseen footage from the miners’ side of the clashes, and in doing so has renewed calls for a public inquiry into the events of that day.

The Battle of Orgreave, and the strike surrounding it, took place in the heyday of industrial correspondents. It was our job to keep in regular contact with union leaders, at least giving their side of the story in the many disputes of the late 1970s and early 1980s. But that didn’t stop many national newspapers turning against the miners in general, and Scargill in particular, which explains why he’s barely spoken to a journalist since. Just as with MacGregor, I tried, and failed, to interview the NUM president before or after meetings of the union’s executive or with the Coal Board. Scargill, at least, regularly spoke at rallies and protests — and didn’t hide behind a plastic bag.

The recent wave of strikes over pay and conditions has sparked memories of that period — decent men and women taking industrial action, and facing attacks from a Conservative government and sections of the media. I feel proud and privileged to have spent so much time with miners during their epic dispute then, and equally so now trying to explain why so many workers are striking today. In many ways, the recent picket lines outside hospitals, schools, train stations, jobcentres, and elsewhere are drastically different from the ones mounted by miners in the mid-1980s. The solidarity, anger, and demands for justice, however, are just the same.