Miners Strike 1984-85: UK-wide Inquiry

Part of NDAs: Universities – in Westminster Hall at 4:30 pm on 29th June 2022.

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Photo of Owen Thompson Owen Thompson SNP Chief Whip 4:30 pm, 29th June 2022

Absolutely, and I thank the hon. Member for his intervention. Those events and others like them have shaped the politics of so many and brought many to a more active role in politics, through whatever means, be it the Labour party, the SNP or whatever else. Events such as those bring people forward. The hon. Member mentioned Orgreave. I had a conversation earlier with Chris Peace of the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign. It is certainly worth highlighting that, from their side of things, there are still serious unanswered questions.

The disproportionate response to the strikes did not stop in the courts. It also affected miners’ financial futures. Arrested strikers were sacked and denied redundancy payments and pension rights. Again, Alex Bennett said in evidence to the Holyrood Committee:

“Only later on did we realise that…anybody who had been arrested was not just going to get fined;
they were going to lose their job and lose their redundancy payment. I was an official in the miners union, and we used to sit in when men were getting made redundant. I knew exactly what I would have got if I had been made redundant at that time: I would have qualified for £27,000 in 1985. I never got that, and it is still bitter to this day that I was denied that because of the attitude of the coal board in Scotland.”

He was one of over 100 miners who were blacklisted. It took many of them years to find work. On top of that, a former spy chief, Dame Stella Rimington, revealed that MI5 tapped union leaders’ phones during the strike. That was broadcast by Channel 4’s “Dispatches” as far back as 1994.

Midlothian is today, much as it was in the ’80s, a place where community is king. We only have to look at the community events and gala days held every weekend over the last month, including gala day just this Saturday past at Loanhead, the home of Bilston Glen, where we have the miners memorial. Remembering those who lost their lives in the pits is now an integral part of gala day celebrations; but it is also important that, as part of that, we remember what else happened around the pits.

Within each town and village, people know each other, and folk from all walks of life intermingle. That is exactly what made the strikes such a bitter affair. In Danderhall, the local miners club had a bowling green that the Lothian and Borders police would use for their annual competition. Police and miners would have a good bevvy together afterwards, and chat and chew the fat. After the strike, that connection was severed, which is no small thing for a close-knit community such as Midlothian and many others. But it is worth being clear that this is not just an exercise in digging up the past; it is about recognising that a wrong has been done and that now we have the power to address it.

The Scottish Government rightly recognised the scale of the injustice back in 2018, when they commissioned an independent review, led by John Scott QC, of the impact of policing on communities during the strike. Following testimony from former miners, police officers and mining communities, the review group made one single recommendation: that the Scottish Government should introduce legislation to pardon miners convicted for certain matters related to the strike. The Miners’ Strike (Pardons) (Scotland) Bill was welcomed by the National Union of Mineworkers for removing the stigma of a criminal record. I am delighted to say that that Bill was passed unanimously by the Scottish Parliament in the last couple of weeks.

Some might ask why we need a UK inquiry if the Scottish one was such a success. Aside from the fact that miners and their families across the rest of the UK also deserve justice, it is important to look at what the Scottish inquiry could not do. It could not consider elements of policy reserved to the UK, including the crucial issue of trade union relations, nor could it address the allegations of political interference by the UK Government—an absolutely critical question. Without those missing pieces, ex-miners and their families will never get the full truth. Only a UK-wide inquiry can deliver that.

On top of that, we have to consider the question of compensation—it is only natural. In many cases, a pardon simply will not be enough to undo decades of financial loss suffered by many miners. Unfair dismissal, and the subsequent loss of redundancy payments and pension rights, has a lasting effect and affects many people to this day. Ex-miners and their families deserve a compensation scheme to ensure not only moral justice, but economic justice. As such, the Scottish Government support the idea, but their hands are tied by devolution. Employment and industrial relations are reserved to this place, so it is up to the UK Government to devise such a scheme. A compensation system that is uniform and fair across the UK is something that only a UK-wide inquiry could deliver.

It is crucial that any inquiry should put reconciliation at its heart, just as the Scottish inquiry did. The principles at the heart of the review were put eloquently by Professor Jim Murdoch, who stated:

“As members of the independent review, our task was primarily to listen: to show that those affected by the miners’ strike had a voice more than a third of a century later. At each of the meetings we held, it was clear that the pain felt by former miners and their families was still raw…Our task was to seek to promote a sense of reconciliation”.

The miners strike is a part of our history and continues to shape communities such as Midlothian to this day. My predecessor in this place—the former MP Sir David Hamilton, or Davie, as he is still known in Midlothian—was not only an ex-miner; he was arrested on the Bilston Glen picket line and blacklisted. As I understand it, he was the only miner to face trial by jury and be acquitted. It is hard to overstate the impact of the strike on our politics, even today—as Mike Amesbury said—but mining communities also shape our future. Midlothian’s mines are now abandoned and flooded, but the water in the mines is an energy source that is rich with huge potential. By tapping geothermal energy from the heat in that mine water, we could use that power in the future. I applaud local activists, academics and the Coal Authority for working to make mine-water energy a reality across the country, and it is something that I continue to push for in Midlothian.

Looking to the future, it is never too late to right the wrongs of the past. Sometimes time needs to pass before our society is mature enough to throw its hands up and admit that it did wrong, so it is not unusual to have historical inquiries into events long after the fact. For example, it took 36 years for an inquiry to be launched into the Bloody Sunday shootings, and the final report was published 15 years after that. It should have happened sooner—nobody can deny that—but, likewise, we should have had an inquiry into the miners strike years ago. The best time to plant a tree may have been yesterday, but the second best time is now. It is never too late.

All history is contested, and there are two sides to every story—whether it comes from miners, police, communities or the Government—but a Government prove their maturity by being able to listen to both sides of a story and represent them equally. By weaving the injustices of the miners strike into our national story, we show that our history is for everyone and is truly national. By picking up the Scottish Government’s baton and delivering, the process of healing could start today.