Forty years ago, the year-long miners' strike began on 6 March 1984, ending on 3 March 1985. By far, it was the biggest battle between the state and unions since the 1926 General Strike.

It pitted Margaret Thatcher and her Tory government against one of the strongest and most militant unions, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), led by Arthur Scargill. Just as the NUM’s future was at stake, so too was hers and that of the Tories.

The strike was one that the government had well prepared for in their desire to not only shut hundreds of so-called ‘uneconomic’ pits as part of creating a smaller state and ending nationalised industries. They also wanted to destroy the NUM as a union and the economy’s reliance upon coal as an energy source, which was the basis of the NUM’s prowess.

Coal was stockpiled, imports increased and leading ‘new right' Tory, Nicholas Ridley, devised a plan to take on and defeat the strongest unions one at a time in a divide and rule strategy.

The Herald: Margaret ThatcherMargaret Thatcher (Image: free)

The Tories were still smarting from their defeat at the hands of the NUM in the two national strikes in the early 1970s which led to Conservative PM, Ted Heath, calling a general election in 1974, dubbed ‘Who Governs Britain?’ The answer was not the Tories as Labour won.

For the NUM, the strike was about defending jobs, collieries and communities as well as a society based upon need and not profit. If successful, the strike would likely have meant the toppling of Thatcher and the Tories. Scargill relished this opportunity to engage in the strike as part of an ongoing class war.

The long-term impact of the 1984-1985 strike sent shockwaves throughout Britain, and we are still experiencing the aftershocks.

In the most fundamental way, it confirmed and deepened the existing 'new realist' accommodation of Labour, under Neil Kinnock, to what we now call neo-liberalism, the notion that ‘the market knows best’. This ended up with Blairism and New Labour.

Thatcher’s political domination, resurrected by her surprise victory in the 1983 general election due to the jingoism whipped up by the Falklands war, was reinforced by the crushing defeat of the miners.

Labour as a party failed to support the miners in any meaningful way. Indeed, Kinnock took a so-called neutral, non-partisan position, condemning the picket line violence whatever its source.

The aftermath was several-fold. One was the feeling that if the miners could not win, how could anyone else hope to? So, the number of strikes fell away significantly thereafter. This strengthened the move to the right in Labour under Kinnock so that it came to be believed that the only way to defeat Thatcher was at the ballot box and by being moderate. Another was the devastation wreaked upon mining communities. Deindustrialisation not only meant unemployment but soaring problems of wasted lives and drug addiction.

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In Scotland, the ramifications of the miners’ strike were more far-reaching because of the existence of the ‘national question’. Those areas most materially affected by the defeat of the miners’ strike were Ayrshire, Clackmannanshire, Fife, the Lothians and Stirlingshire. But politically, the ramifications were wider for the Central Belt and the cities where most live.

So, it is from this point that we can identify the development of the contemporary Scottish National Party (SNP) as a political vehicle that was able to displace Labour as the focus of electoral loyalty of many workers. This stage in the SNP’s development was far more important than any under left-wing SNP leader, William Wolfe, in the 1970s.

The SNP did so by deploying the language of social democracy even though it seldom practiced social democracy, whether because it was not in office or was acting somewhat opportunistically. Social democracy is quintessentially defined as the intervention of the state in the processes of the market to ameliorate its outcomes.

It was the likes of leading left-wing figures, Jim Sillars and Alex Salmond, rather than then SNP party leader, Gordon Wilson, who tapped into this seam of discontent with Labour. They rekindled the notion of the ‘Scottish resistance’ against the Tories from their days in the left-wing ’79 Group. Merging the rhetoric of social democracy with Scottish nationalism, they argued the SNP was the best equipped to defend Scotland.

The election of 50 Scottish Labour MPs in 1987, an increase of nine from 1983, allowed the SNP to brand them the ‘Feeble Fifty’ when the continued Thatcherite onslaught was not repelled in Scotland. It was said of them: ‘Never was so little achieved by so many in defence of so few’.

Firebrand Sillars capitalised on this by winning a stunning victory over Labour in the 1988 Govan by-election with a 33% swing. This was a more important breakthrough than those of Winnie Ewing and Margo MacDonald in earlier SNP by-election victories in 1967 and 1973.

The Herald: Jim Sillars triumphs in GovanJim Sillars triumphs in Govan (Image: free)

The reason was that it marked a clear move away from political opponents being able to label the SNP as ‘Tartan Tories’, concerning with the interests of the farming and fishing communities in the north-east of Scotland. This was because the leading SNP lights were taking up the mantle of ‘radical Scotland’, precisely at a time when Labour was increasingly found to be wanting. The arrival of the hated poll tax in 1989 merely solidified these trajectories.

In the run up to its introduction, Scottish Labour’s timidity, under Donald Dewar, in opposing the poll tax was signalled by its belief that it could not choose which laws to obey and which to break for all laws had to be obeyed until they could be repealed. This was manna from heaven for the SNP and its ability to present itself as the left-wing alternative to Scottish Labour.

Though it took many years for the SNP to turn this trajectory into the electoral domination that it achieved from 2007 onwards, in all this time the SNP has openly claimed itself as ‘centre left and social democratic’.

An extended period in office and the removal of Sturgeon’s Stalinesque grip is finally now providing the opportunity to see that there is something of the ‘emperor’s new clothes’ to this claim. The characterisation of ‘neo-liberalism with a heart’ is much closer to the mark.

Professor Gregor Gall is a research associate at the University of Glasgow and author of Mick Lynch: The making of a working-class hero, Manchester University Press, 2024).