How city dug deep to support miners' fight

The Oxford Times: Working inside a coal mine Working inside a coal mine

DESPITE the fact that Oxford has no mines, the city was one of the biggest supporters of the miners during the 364 days they were striking.

Thousands of miners in Wales, Yorkshire, Scotland and Kent went on strike after the Government announced 20 pits out of 131 would close with the loss of 20,000 jobs.

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said the mines needed to be closed because they were inefficient and losing the country money.

There were 131 mines producing 105m tons of coal each year, less than half than 30 years before when there were 850 mines producing 225m tons annually.

The Monopolies and Mergers Commission found that 75 percent of British pits were losing money and the industry was losing £1.2m a day.

President of the NUM Arthur Scargill said that the Government needed to invest in the pits despite the losses. In 1983 he said: “The policies of this Government are clear, to destroy the coal industry and the NUM.”

The Government stockpiled coal and most energy suppliers had switched to gas to generate electricity, meaning mass power cuts were avoided.

The Oxford Times:

  • Miners from South Wales picket Didcot Power station in 1984 during the strike

The Oxford Miners Support Group was quickly set up and led by the Oxford and District Trade Union Council (TUC).

Many South Wales workers had already moved to Oxford in the 1930s for work at the Pressed Steel factory.

The TUC worked with the National Union of Miners (NUM) delegation from Maerdy in South Wales, home to the last pit in the Rhondda valley.

The support group organised collections of food and money, as well as arranging talks and delivering about 25,000 leaflets across the county to garner political support. Oxford raised more money for the mining communities than any area outside of London, £111,000, including donations from 92 trade union organisations, 45 Labour Party organisations and 29 colleges.

A Miners Support Group was even established in Bonn, Oxford’s twin city in Germany.

The Oxford Times:

  • Welsh miner Ken Parcel in June 1984 with a lamp that was hung in Oxford’s public information centre to raise awareness

Remembering his support for the strike, Labour MP for Oxford East Andrew Smith, then a member of Oxford City Council, said: “Our house in Blackbird Leys was one of the collection points, and I well remember the tins and packets of food and other essentials stacked up high in our hallway.

“The solidarity of the Maerdy miners, and the loyal support so many Oxford people gave them, contrasted with the bitter conflict on some of the picket lines.”

The strike ended in 1985 when NUM voted 98 to 91 to return amid concerns that miners were living in poverty. By 1995 the coal industry had been privatised.

Mr Smith – an MP since 1987 – said: “The Maerdy miners were solid to the end.

“When the strike ended many in Oxford shared their sadness.”

But Sir Tony Baldry, Conservative MP for Banbury since 1983, said: “Miners had wanted to paralyse the nation’s power supplies and the Government, quite rightly, weren’t going to allow that to happen It’s important to remember that people tend to say that Margaret Thatcher closed all of the mines, but the largest number of pits were closed under Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson.

“People locally wanted the lights to stay on and the rule of law to prevail. The fact that the Conservative Government won the next general election showed they had the broad public support on this issue.”

Bill King was the NUM secretary for Merthyr Vale Lodge, a miners’ group based at Oxford’s Ruskin College, which has a long tradition of providing education to adults who went on to work in left-wing politics.

During that time there were five mass pickets of Didcot Power Station because it was using coal.

Mr King said: “The links forged between us will never be broken. It was a year of terrific struggle against the judiciary. We shall forever be thankful for the assistance given us by the rank and file.”

The Oxford-based Independent Working Class Association are planning a trip to former mining pits in South Wales later this year.

For more information, visit iwca-athletics.org

‘POLITICAL EDUCATION OF A LIFETIME’

BILL MacKeith was the TUC’s secretary during the strike, and helped set up the Oxford Miners Support Group.

Now a retired book editor, he said: “The support group met every week throughout the strike, with over 100 people at some points.”

The Oxford Times:

  • Bill MacKeith

Mr MacKeith, 68, of Jericho, said: “I remember one day the police arrested all the collectors on Cowley Road even though we had permits. I had to go and collect them from the station. We were using old Salvation Army tins that had been given to us, and the police decided to arrest them on suspicion of receiving stolen goods.”

“It was electrifying to see people galvanised into action because it was a completely just cause. It was the political education of a lifetime in those few months.”

'IT WAS AN ATTACK ON WORKING PEOPLE'

AGED 25, Andy Gibbons worked for the TUC during the strike.

He said: “The organised working class saw it as an attack on all working people.

“All working class people suffered the same attacks and we’re still living through the consequences of those attacks now.”

The Oxford Times:

  • Andy Gibbons

The Headington resident said: “We were active trade unionists and we saw the NUM as the strongest part of the trade union movement.

“It helped clarify my thoughts having worked with those people. It was like an awakening.”

The 54-year-old said: “We couldn’t see how bad it was going to be, but I hope we slowed things down a bit.”

'MINERS FIGHTING ON ALL OUR BEHALVES'

AS a filmmaker the strikes are still an inspiration for Anne-Marie Sweeney whose new film Going Through the Change looks at the Women Against Pit Closures groups.

Mrs Sweeney, from Headingon,  said: “It seemed to be a greatly important dispute, not just for their jobs but for their communities.

“The NUM delegates would stay in Oxford for five days during the week and over the year there must have been about 40 people who stayed in my house.

“It was quite a powerful time, there was a lot at stake for all of us. If the miners’ strike had won the political climate would have changed drastically and a whole lot of things might not have happened.

“It was very much a fight on all our behalves.”

She said: “It had a huge impact, especially on the university. It was a real radicalisation.

“In 1985 more than 1,000 dons voted and refused to give Maggie Thatcher an honorary degree. They say she never forgave Oxford for that.”

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Comments (1)

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5:56am Tue 24 Jun 14

Lord Palmerstone says...

"Mr Smith – an MP since 1987 – said: “The Maerdy miners were solid to the end"
A little more consistent than they were in WW2 when, till Stalin's ally turned on him it was "Maerdy miners don't fight capitalist war". Thereafter "Support patriotic war"
Of course after Des Dutfield had painstakingly persuaded S Wales NUM to the necessary working practices for Margam. Scargill and Co torpedoed him. The strike was only ever about the machismo of A Scargill and the members were the poor bloody infantry.
"Mr Smith – an MP since 1987 – said: “The Maerdy miners were solid to the end" A little more consistent than they were in WW2 when, till Stalin's ally turned on him it was "Maerdy miners don't fight capitalist war". Thereafter "Support patriotic war" Of course after Des Dutfield had painstakingly persuaded S Wales NUM to the necessary working practices for Margam. Scargill and Co torpedoed him. The strike was only ever about the machismo of A Scargill and the members were the poor bloody infantry. Lord Palmerstone
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