Ghost Dancers: The miners last generation

Extracts from the third and final volume of David John Douglass’s autobiographical trilogy Stardust and Coaldust.

Beginning with the poor childhood upbringing of Geordies Wa Mental, to the sixties and seventies revolutionary overload of The Wheel’s Still in Spin up to Ghost Dancers the three volume autobiography by David Douglass covers all the important social and political changes of the past 50 years from a defiantly working class perspective.

But it is perhaps the 1984 miners strike, and his pivotal role in that struggle, that stands out as a testament to his political beliefs and life-long commitment to the mining communities and union that he fought so hard to preserve.

Anne Scargill, ex-wife of NUM leader Arthur paid no greater tribute when she said “Ghost Dancers is the most accurate presentation of the 1984/5 strike and the decade of struggle which followed it, I have ever read or heard.”

From Ghost Dancers:

On flying pickets
As our pickets sweep into the neighbouring coalfields, serious fighting erupts at Ollerton and Thoresby. At Ollerton, the pickets had arrived quietly the night before in dribs and drabs, hid their cars and slept in the woods. Only a skeleton force of cops was in place as the pickets emerged from the woods and threw back the day shift…A legal injunction was served against the Yorkshire area preventing us picketing (except at each respective pit). We ignored it…. Doncaster was producing the highest number and quality of pickets, up for anything and brave to a fault. It was clear to me we were up against the concerted effort of the national police operation, directed through the state’s special forces and with more than a hint of military involvement. We were in a situation where we were fighting a better equipped and normally more numerous enemy. So, of course, we used classic guerrilla tactics: secrecy, hit and run, mass pickets switching from one site to another one county to another, or spreading out to hit all the pits of one region, then regrouping to take all the pickets to one target.

On the Women’s support groups
On 12 may in Barnsley, 10,000 women, miners wives, daughters, granddaughters, sisters and mothers rallied in an unprecedented demonstration of solidarity and support. ‘Wor Maureen’ was speaking for Hatfield Main Women’s Support Group at the mass women’s rally, now quite unfazed by masses upon masses of people. One of the principal speakers, Maureen made the most important speech of her life, and one which captured exactly the views of those women who had taken the lead from the bottom up to first of all create this body, and then fight to give it political and social dimensions far beyond those who had first tried to suppress it, and then ultimately  tried to control it. She spoke from this platform straight into the ranks of our wild and unruly pickets who hadn’t yet thought through what sort of commitment they owed in return to the women…

Having demonstrated  that the women would come into this struggle on their own terms, she spoke to the women directly, who hung on her every word. “What we are doing as women in this 1984, maybe 1985, miners’ strike is making history. We are setting a pattern for the future, for the involvement of women in political struggle, which will show what a formidable force we can be. Without our organised support this strike can’t win; but we also want the active support of the whole trade union and labour movement, and all of us can work to win this support… None of us here will be daunted by hardship, no matter what difficulties we face, for certain we will win”

This was part of the struggle within the struggle, to fight for a better understanding of the cause of women’s liberation; and to improve the consciousness of the miners and see other people’s struggles as related.

On not having a national ballot
One thing that has dumbfounded most of the subsequent writers and contemporary observers of this great movement is the actual structure of the miners’ union. Without an understanding of this, it’s hard for anyone to gauge how things happened. The NUM is not as its title suggests a ‘national union’ in the ordinary meaning of the phrase… It was a federation of separate areas and constituent bodies, each self-governing and individually registered as independent unions in their own right…

Our plan was to achieve a de facto national strike of area strikes. This had not been planned as such; it was simply the way the struggle evolved. Some on the NEC  thought the rolling strike would be an initial phase to be endorsed by national individual ballot later as the strike gained momentum. However, when branches were polled at mass pithead meetings, as to approval for such a ballot or not, the overwhelming majority of branches, and through them areas, voted to reject such a national ballot as unnecessary…

From the beginning, defying the strike or it making it a point of principle – ‘no ballot no strike’ – was always an excuse for cowardice. The issue and the fact of the strike was far more important than how it was achieved… One historic fact, which must be made clear, is that the NEC and the National leadership under the chairmanship of Arthur Scargill made no recommendation to reject a national ballot… when put to the vote, it achieves 69 in favour and 54 against. The decision NOT to have a national ballot carried. It is carried by an exhausting debate and exploration of opinions by all areas, all constituent parts and all branches. It is a democratic decision.

On political groups
When I came to start up the Beecham’s Miners Support Group, with financial sponsorship from Class War, and militant anarchist and gays and lesbians group Wolverine down in London, Spot and the lads were all too glad to meet visiting delegations and accept donations. Most of it went on beer rather than food, but that was their choice… As the strike continued and picketing became more vexed, Class War and the London Anarchists also dropped us special orders as we requested them, a consignment of Black Widow catapults and boxes of steel ball bearings. A prize group of volunteers in a flying hit squad made full use of these…

On the battle of Orgreave
Arthur [Scargill] called a secret planning meeting up in the national executive office. I was one of the esteemed conspirators, along with.. representatives from all the striking coalfields clustered around the table on which sat a big and actual plan of the Orgreave coking plant. The plan for 18 June involved mobilising all the pickets nationwide, and as many workers as we could muster on the same day, at the same time, with the ‘Close the Gates’ determination which shut Saltley and battened down the loose corners of the 1972 strike. We would split into three forces. Arthur would lead group one at the top gate, the rest of the country, north Yorkshire and Barnsley would attack the bottom gate, while I would lead Doncaster and south Yorkshire from two assembly points into the rear of the plant and take the loading bays…

Just as we approached the back of the plant, the great throng of South Yorkshire men appeared over the old pit tip and charged down to meet us… There was no time for ripostes, the back doors were open and in we charged, trashing trains and loosing the bottoms out of waiting trucks of coal and coke. Suddenly a thin line of short-shield cops, their long batons over their heads, marched in a single line abreast towards us. Barry Miller, the diehard Goldthorpe secretary, ran to a pile of abandoned fence posts and picked one up and shouted “C’mon lads – we can play this game”, and a number of us picked up lumps of wood and stakes and advanced towards the cops. Two  or three of the police dogs were now bounding about and barking and falling over themselves and clearly scared shitless at the angry herd of men  marching towards them, chanting “Oot! Oot! Oot! Oot!” like a tribal blood bond.

On the miners themselves
there are 150,000 individual stories of the strike. That year, how it impacted on individual families in all of its tragic, proud, gut-wrenching, comic, exhilarating, fearful, desperate, heroic and indescribable emotional variants is another story. That story, told well and in necessary detail, would fill volumes and every page would resist the gross stereotyping of the strikers which the media, sympathetic as well as hostile, have made out for us since the strike has ended. Very few strikers or their families ever went near a picket line. For those that did, few pickets were ever violent, and most were humdrum and boring, at least until the government decided to open up a second front by seeking to put a scab into every pit. Then an occupation army arrived and all the paraphernalia of flying pickets and confrontation landed on the doorstep every day. Then the ordinary men and women and their kids in the coalfield experienced something they never thought they would in their lives: an alien armed force on their streets, patrolling their towns and villages, threatening, arrogant, often insulting and provocative.

The strike was marked by quiet stoicism and a determination not to buckle, not to let the side down, reflected in the resolve of hundreds of thousands of individuals, standing together firstly as families, and without great back-slapping and public displays, as conscious members of a living community in continuity with mining union tradition.

On the cost of the miners’ strike
9,808 arrested, 10,372 charges, including 3 killings, 4 criminal damage with intent to endanger life, 3 explosive charges, 5 threats to kill. 200 given prison sentences. 882 sacked for ‘violence and sabotage’, 967 for striking. 20,000 miners hospitalised. 2 killed on the picket line. 1 scab driver killed. 1 killed by a scab years later. 3 died digging for waste coal. 3 suicides rather than break the strike.

David Douglass is a long-standing and well-known  member of the National Union of Mineworkers in the Durham and Doncaster coalfields. He was a coalminer for 40-plus years and a branch official of the Union for 25 years, as well as a member of its Yorkshire Executive during its most testing and dynamic period. He remains a full member of the NUM and is still active in the internal affairs of the Union, as well as being one of its more public and well-known representatives and a published author and historian of the coal communities.

The three volumes of his autobiography under the title Stardust and Coaldust:

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One comment

  1. Thanks for the review, just one correction it was Beethams miners support group. Beethams was a heavy metal bikers pub in Doncaster market, and a suprising number of young miners from across Doncasters 12 mines were in the Beethams bikers ‘gang’. They tended to be single and lived in flats in town, either in groups or with their girlfriends, they were not the steriotypical pitman with a whippet and cloth cap who lived in villages. The support group we set up for them (incidently it was MY pub too) was composed of the most likewise unconventional folk, from Class War, Wolverine, and london punk scene.

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