This kind of optimistic belief is what lay behind the industrial, political and social carnage of 1984.
I had seen out the 1970’s and was to look back on that time in later years amazed by the enduring aura of naivety. The nation was unemployed, sniggering at bigotry, racism, sexism and the antics of the unions that screeched ‘everybody out’ at every minor infraction of a long list of worker’s rights designed to strangle industry into submission. The trade union movement had come about as a result of an honest desire to create better working conditions, ‘to get an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work’, but by the 1970’s they had become all powerful, imposing a closed shop policy on Industry with one eye trained on Whitehall and the Labour movement.
The largest and most powerful union was the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM).
In 1972 the NUM demanded a 43% pay raise for its members. The resulting strike action brought the country to its knees and eventually, after further pay demands and a further strike in 1974, was instrumental in the downfall of the Conservative government under Ted Heath. For a time miners were amongst the highest paid in the working class.
This is pretty much as it was when I became Nottinghamshire miner’s wife. Mining was seen as a secure, well paid job for life, protected by a union that had the power to shake the economy into submission and bring down a government. Ironically, under Ted Heath the UK had become part of the EEC and my first mortgage in 1979 was heavily subsided by the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC). Life in the industry was relatively good and when the men weren’t working, we were down the Miners Welfare heckling the ‘turn’ (the aspiring artists who toured the pubs and clubs, some of whom went on to become TV stars. A lot of them didn’t; we were a very tough audience and viewed it as a kind of sport. When an artist floundered under the pressure and was reduced to pleading angrily, ‘I’d like to see you come up here and do this,’ we knew we had won and cheered as the compere guided them off stage before the heckling got out of hand)
By the early 1980’s there were rumblings of discontent, more pay disputes, threatened closures and threatened strikes. The Conservatives had returned to power under Margaret Thatcher and appointed Ian McGregor as chairman of British Coal. He was a Scotsman who had spent time America and turned round the unprofitable British Leyland and British Steel through a harsh programme of plant closures and redundancies. After the 1974 strike the Labour government, the Coal Board and NUM had used rising oil prices as a vehicle to promote investment in the coal industry in their ‘Plan For Coal’. Millions had been invested to open new seams and support the plan for increased production, including £20 million to re- developing Silverdale Colliery near Newcastle-under-Lyme in Staffordshire in 1976. A string of new coal fired power stations were built along the River Trent from Staffordshire to Nottinghamshire to guarantee future demand.
The new Conservative government however saw things differently. Despite a ‘Joint Understanding’ the Coal Board had failed to reduce coal prices to the Energy Industry to compete with the EEC and the leaked 1978 Ridley Report had made it abundantly clear that Margaret Thatcher had no plans to go the way of Ted Heath. In March 1984, the 1974 ‘Plan For Coal’ was cited as being ‘obsolete’.
I distrusted trade unions, politicians even less and had absolutely no faith in the British Press. No one ever wants to be out of work, but I had reasons of my own to believe that the Coal Industry could not survive as it was and as much as I was a great believer in Heritage, you could not fight change.
Nottinghamshire has lots of Heritage, much of it worth fighting for. Along with the odd Tudor mansion built on the back of an industry very much in its infancy, 18th century Industrialists built their grand houses in the rolling countryside. The county is littered with them, the vast majority bought up by the National Coal Board and left to rot, but that’s a story for another day.
Unlike the Industrial cities, that became melting pots of disparate culture, the many mining communities retained village mentality. Clustered around the pithead, their thinking became cloistered and protective and Heritage was a highly personal thing. Mining communities could be only five miles apart, but to step from one to other could be like crossing the English, Welsh border. The occupants of one mining community were very likely to view the other with some suspicion, but still recognise the similarities of their heritage with agrudging sense of the greater community. In my corner of Nottinghamshire you were very aware of which community you came from. If further evidence is needed, I have to cite the difficulties the NUM had trying to bond a regional dispute into a national stand.