Miners’ Strikes

Announcing the chapter list for ‘Waiting for the Revolution: The British Far Left from 1956’

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Image source: Getty Images

Now that we have entered the copy-editing phase, Matthew Worley and I are happy to announce the chapter list for our forthcoming volume with Manchester University Press, Waiting for the Revolution: The British Far Left from 1956. It is the second volume that Matt and I have co-edited for MUP (the first being Against the Grain) and we are very excited to showcase new scholarship by a range of established and upcoming scholars (including a number of activist-scholars). Like the previous volume, we have tried to cover a wide variety of different groups and movements and hope that these chapters inspire further research into the British (and international) far left. So here is chapter list:

Introduction: The continuing importance of the history of the British far left – Evan Smith and Matthew Worley

1          Revolutionary vanguard or agent provocateur: students and the far left on English university campuses, c. 1970–90 – Jodi Burkett

2          Not that serious? The investigation and trial of the Angry Brigade, 1967–72 – J. D. Taylor

3          Protest and survive: the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the Labour Party and civil defence in the 1980s – Jacquelyn Arnold

4          Anti-apartheid solidarity in the perspectives and practices of the British far left in the 1970s and ’80s – Gavin Brown

5          ‘The Merits of Brother Worth’: the International Socialists and life in a Coventry car factory, 1968–75 – Jack Saunders

6          Making miners militant? The Communist Party of Great Britain in the National Union of Mineworkers, 1956–85 – Sheryl Bernadette Buckley

7          Networks of solidarity: the London left and the 1984–85 miners’ strike – Diarmaid Kelliher

8          ‘You have to start where you’re at’: politics and reputation in 1980s Sheffield – Daisy Payling

9          Origins of the present crisis? The emergence of ‘left-wing’ Scottish nationalism,      1956–79 – Rory Scothorne and Ewan Gibbs

10        A miner cause? The persistence of left nationalism in postwar Wales – Daryl Leeworthy

11        The British radical left and Northern Ireland during ‘the Troubles’ – Daniel Finn

12        The point is to change it: a short account of the Revolutionary Communist Party – Michael Fitzpatrick

13        The Militant Tendency and entrism in the Labour Party – Christopher Massey

14        Understanding the formation of the Communist Party of Britain – Lawrence Parker

We hope that the volume will be available by the end of the year, or in early 2018. Further details will be on this blog as they come to us.

For those attending the Modern British Studies conference at the University of Birmingham in July, Matt and several of the contributing authors will be speaking about the collection. More details to follow soon.


Orgreave is not merely history, but an important historical incident that needs to be fully investigated


To Guardian journalist Simon Jenkins, just over thirty years ago is too far into the past for an inquiry into the events at Orgreave in June 1984, when the police reacted violently to striking workers in South Yorkshire and led to the arrest of 95 miners, as well as a number of people injured. Jenkins argues that “we know” what happened at Orgreave on that day, and that it should be left in the past – even though no one in a position of authority has been held accountable for excessive force used by the police against the striking miners. Anyway ‘[t]here were no deaths at Orgreave’, he says, so an inquiry, like those held into Bloody Sunday or Hillsborough, is unnecessary. But this assumes that the only reason to have an inquiry into police actions is when there is a death involved – isn’t the likelihood of excessive force being used by the police en masse enough of an issue to warrant further investigation?

Jenkins is right in that government inquiries often don’t led to any significant reform or ‘lessons learned’. Even the stand out inquiries of Lord Scarman into the Brixton Riots of 1981 and the 1999 Macpherson Inquiry into the Investigation into the Death of Stephen Lawrence have been criticised for their limited impact upon the policing of ethnic minority communities in the UK (especially in the wake of the 2011 riots). But most inquiries held are short term affairs, announced by the government of the day to placate public opinion and often to appear to be ‘doing something’. A swathe of criminological and public policy scholarship has proposed that public inquiries are foremost exercises in the management of public opinion, rather than missions to find the ‘truth’ behind an incident or to determine accountability. Between the Scarman Inquiry into the Events at Red Lion Square in 1974 and the Macpherson Inquiry in 1998-99, there have been numerous inquiries into the actions of the police (and other government agencies) that have resulted in disorder, injuries and even death. Besides the Scarman Report in 1981 and the Macpherson Report almost 20 years later, most inquiries have left little mark on police practice. There are a number of incidents involving the death of people involved in interactions with the police, such as that of Blair Peach in 1979 and Ian Tomlinson in 2009, where there has been a coronial inquest, but no wider inquiry, even though people have demanded it.


But an inquiry into Orgreave is likely to be much more far-reaching than those held immediately after the fact, similar to the Saville Inquiry into Bloody Sunday or the Hillsborough Independent Panel. These inquiries were held after the initial inquiries, the Widgery Report into Bloody Sunday in 1972 and Taylor Report into Hillsborough in 1989-90, were seen to be deficient by subsequent governments. Both of these inquiries were held over years, rather than weeks or months, and had legislation specifically introduced to open many documents that had previously been classified. In the end, these inquiries identified those who should be (or should have been) held accountable for these tragic events and delivered some form of justice to the relatives of the victims. Jenkins suggests that these were merely costly exercises in legal navel-gazing and that the cost of both inquiries could have been better spent on been given to the relatives of the victims and/or to their communities. However what had driven those pushing for the events at both Bloody Sunday and Hillsborough to be re-examined was not compensation, but for those responsible to identified and where possible, held accountable in some way.

This is the purpose of a proposed inquiry into the events at Orgreave on 18 June 1984. Opposite to Jenkins’ argument, we don’t know the full story of what happened on that day. We have footage, we have witness testimony and the paperwork of those who were dragged through the courts, but we don’t have the police side of the story (or at least the full story). Despite thirty years since the event passing, no documents relating to Orgreave have been made open by the National Archives at Kew and the police have refused several previous FOI requests. Like the documents examined by the Hillsborough Independent Panel, all police and government papers relating to the events at Orgreave should be released to an inquiry and at the completion of said inquiry, these documents (with the necessary redactions) should be digitised and made available for public viewing.

Jenkins says there should be a statute of limitations on inquiries into the past, writing ‘History is for historians’. He seems to be proposing that there is a clear line between contemporary politics and ‘the past’, but it is not so clear-cut. Thirty years ago is not that long ago and there are still people who were involved in police actions on that day in 1984 who could be held accountable in some manner. There are still people affected the actions of the police who are looking for some kind of ‘justice’ and official acknowledgment of what occurred, particularly how much was planned and how far the authorities went in the aftermath to absolve themselves of any blame.

Jenkins equates a possible inquiry with Tony Blair’s apologies for the slave trade and the Irish Famine, but this is false. The ‘Battle of Orgreave’ happened within the lifetimes for many of us, not 150-200 years ago. Orgreave is not merely history, but an important historical incident that needs to be fully investigated. Let’s hope that enough pressure is put upon Amber Rudd (or her successor) to reverse the decision for an inquiry not to be held.


Photos by John Sturrock, originally from Socialist Worker.


New article published in TCBH on CPGB and gay rights

This is just a quick post to let everyone know that Daryl Leeworthy and I have just had an article published in Twentieth Century British History journal on the Communist Party of Great Britain and gay rights. The title of the article is ‘Before Pride: The Struggle for the Recognition of Gay Rights in the British Communist Movement, 1973-85′ and is available here.

Here’s the abstract:

This article examines the role of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) and its youth wing, the Young Communist League (YCL), in the advancement of gay rights in the 1970s and 1980s. Although the CPGB was the first major organization of the British labour movement—and the British left—to advance a policy of gay rights, its participation in the gay liberation movement has tended to be neglected by scholars. In contrast to the general perception of the CPGB in the last decade (or so) of its existence as a party of declining influence and cohesion, easily ignored by the mainstream of the labour movement, we argue that the embrace of gay rights provided communists with a means of pushing for a diversification of labour politics. This coalesced in the mid-1980s with the co-founding of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) by the communist activist Mark Ashton. With the recent scholarly and public interest in the LGSM and its impact upon the Labour Party’s attitude to gay rights, this article aims to reveal that the ‘pre-history’ of the group is firmly rooted in the CPGB/YCL and the Eurocommunist section of the British communist movement.

If people cannot access the article, let me know and I can send a pdf.

The British left and the end of the miners strike: A guide to online sources

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On 5 March, 1985, the miners’ strike against the Thatcher government came to an end when the National Union of Mineworkers called off the strike. A decisive moment in the history of the British labour movement and in the history of Margaret Thatcher’s Prime Ministership, it wasn’t so clear-cut for the British left at the time. This post is a collection of the various reactions by sections of the British left to the end of the miners’ strike that can be found online. I am trying to finish up a few other things at the moment, but I compiled this to hopefully turn into an article in the (hopefully) near future.

In April 1985, the Communist Party’s Marxism Today featured a roundtable dedicated to assessing the strike, featuring several members of the NUM in different capacities. One of the most interesting things about this roundtable is the debate over whether the end of the strike could be labelled a ‘defeat’. The journal also ran two pieces on the future of the NUM by Hywel Francis in April and August 1985 (with the April piece being much more positive than the August piece). In a piece in the journal in May 1985, Jimmy Airlie wrote:

It will be the height of folly and do the movement and the miners in particular a disservice if the Left failed to that the miners have suffered a major defeat. The strike ended not with a negotiated settlement, but under the compulsion of an accelerating drift back to work…

In the March issue of Socialist Worker Review, the SWP’s Tony Cliff compared the defeat with the end of the 1926 strike and again, much of the blame for the end of the strike was laid at the feet of the TUC. In the same issue, the SWP warned against the retreat into ‘Labourism’ by Militant and the ‘abandonment’ of class politics by the Eurocommunists and argued that only a revolutionary party, like the SWP, could offer a way forward. The SWP’s theoretical journal, International Socialism published a lengthy piece by Alex Callinicos and Mike Simons on the strike which essentially argued this at great length, stating in their conclusion:

The ultimate reason why the miners lost was because capital had a determined, ruthless, highly class-conscious leadership while the working class did not. Fortunately the working class lost only a battle in 1985. But to win the war will require a different sort of leadership, one which builds on every workers’ struggle in order to launch eventually an assault on the citadel of capitalist power in the state machine.

A revolutionary party was seen as necessary for providing the labour movement with strong leadership and a commitment to revolutionary socialism.

The journal edited by John Saville and Ralph Miliband, Socialist Register, featured two pieces on the end of the strike. One by Richard Hyman and one by John Saville, with Saville looking at the strike as the end result of the Conservatives’ long-held plan for tackling the unions developed from the mid-1970s.

Copies of The Militant have not been digitised yet (as well as their journal Militant International Review), but here is Peter Taaffe’s account of the strike, taken from his book on the history of Militant, written in the early 1990s.

Apart from these larger left-wing groups, many of the smaller groups had their own interpretation of the end of the strike. The Spartacist League, in its paper the Workers’ Hammer, declared, ‘The strike has been defeated, but the NUM had been broken”. Red Action portrayed the end of the miners’ strike as a symbol of the Thatcher’s pursuit of privatisation and the strike’s end gave Thatcher the ‘authority’ to take on any industry that the Tories wanted,

And here is a view of the strike from the Communist Party of Australia’s Australian Left Review.

This is only a small sample of the available literature. If anyone can point me to more online stuff (or even interested in collaborating on writing something on this – hint hint), please let me know.

Thatcher, the Brighton bombing and the British left


Like July 1981, October 1984 was a crisis point for Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government. The miners’ strike was now six months in and Thatcher faced possible strike action by the pit deputies’ union, Nacods, which would have increased the severity of the strike. If Nacods had initiated strike action, many believe that Thatcher would not have been able to endure the effect that it would have on the British economy. In July 1984, Thatcher had addressed a private meeting of the 1922 Committee, a pressure group within the Conservative Party, and has referred to the miners as the ‘enemy within’. From papers released by the Margaret Thatcher Foundation this month, we now know that she was going to return to this theme at the Conservatives’ 1984 Party Conference, to be held in Brighton.

However the Brighton Conference became known for a different set of events. On the morning of October 12, 1984, a bomb planted by the Provisional IRA exploded in the hotel hosting the conference. Five people, including one MP, were killed and another 31 were injured. It was revealed this week that Thatcher ripped up her original ‘enemy within’ speech and gave a defiant speech to those who remained at the conference.

In the week of the bombing, the Tories lead over Labour was 2 per cent, according to The Guardian/ICM polls, but this rose to 9 per cent the following month. The Tories experienced a fillip in the polls until February 1985 when they returned to a 2 per cent lead. But resentment towards Thatcher was still high and many were unsympathetic about the near miss.

Cabinet's response to the bombing

Cabinet’s response to the bombing: CAB 128/79/10, National Archives, p. 1.

I wondered how the British far left responded to the bombing in the midst of one of the most important strikes in contemporary British history. Thanks to the staff at the Working Class Movement Library in Salford, I was able to get copies of the Morning Star and Socialist Worker from the days following the bombing.

As a way of bit of background information, the Communist Party of Great Britain, to which the Morning Star was still nominally attached at this stage, was opposed to the bombing campaign of the Provisional IRA. At the Party’s 1981 Congress, a resolution on Ireland stated:

Congress unreservedly condemns the military campaign of the Provisional IRA in Britain and Ireland. The result is not just continual violence taking the lives of hundreds more people, Irish and British, but also a deepening political polarisation within the working class in Northern Ireland…

The SWP, on the other hand, supported the Provisional IRA in their struggle against British ‘imperialism’, but did not necessarily condone their bombing campaign. A 1980 pamphlet (scanned by the Irish Left Archive) stated:

As socialists we give full support to all those who fight oppression and for the right of self-determination, whereever in the world they may be. This applies equally to the Provisionals, who are fighting a war against the oppression of a minority in Britain’s oldest colony. But this does not mean that we necessarily support the politics of the Provisionals, nor we consider them socialists, nor that we support all the tactics they use.

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The Morning Star covered the story on the front page of the newspaper the day after the bombing, complemented by a statement by the paper’s staff under the headline, ‘No to Terrorism’. The statement began with the sentence:

The Provisional IRA bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton was a piece of reckless adventurism which should be condemned without reservation.

The statement continued with the proposal that a ‘democratic solution’ to the problems in Northern Ireland (and in Britain) would ‘need not terrorism, but mass extra-parliamentary activity combined with the struggle inside parliament.’ It followed with:

Terrorism divides the working people and makes it more difficult to establish the unity between the working people of Britain and Ireland which is needed to solve problem in Northern Ireland.

It opens the door of more and more authoritarian measures which are then applied to the left as a whole.

The statement condemned the failure of the British labour movement to effectively mobilise around the issue of Northern Ireland and concluded with this passage:

The failure to grasp this problem, and mobilise the mass movement needed, leaves the vacuum which is then filled by desperate acts of terrorism.

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The Socialist Worker in the week following the bombing (20 Oct) did not put the bombing on the front page, instead focusing on the breakdown of ACAS proceedings between the NUM and the government. Coverage of the bombing was relegated to page 2. The paper featured two articles detailing the violence of the British Army and the RUC in Northern Ireland, explaining why the Provisional IRA enjoyed popular support. And like the Morning Star, the paper carried a statement from the SWP on the bombing under the headline ‘No Way to Win’. This statement acknowledged that many socialists would not have been upset if the bombing had inflicted more casualties amongst the Conservatives, but still condemned the bombing as the incorrect way to defeat Thatcher and to remove the British from Northern Ireland. The paper said:

We think the IRA made a mistake in planting the bomb last week, because such methods are not going to inflict a real defeat on the Tories…

In fact, the result would have been very different. The establishment would have found another set of Tory politicians to represent them, and these would have used the confusion caused by the bombing to push through repressive measures aimed at anyone sympathising with the cause of Irish freedom…

Indeed it would have made it easier for the system to continue in both Britain and Ireland. In Britain it would provide a wonderful excuse for the Tories to increase their repressive powers. In Ireland, it would have encouraged the illusion that a few courageous people with guns and bombs can act as a substitute for the struggles of the mass of the people.

The SWP stated that they would not condemn the IRA in the manner of the right-wing press, but also understood that the IRA ‘cannot win by bombing campaigns’. The SWP concluded:

The only thing which can shift an employing class is the mass activity and resistance of those its exploits. No amount of individual heroics or clever military stunts can substitute for that.

I wasn’t able to find copies of Militant or Newsline from this period, but due to the wonders of the internet, I thought it would be interesting to also look at how Red Action, a small splinter group from the SWP dedicated to militant anti-fascism, reacted to the bombing, as all copies of Red Action are now online. The attitude of Red Action towards the bombing is significant because Red Action was probably the most pro-Republican leftist group in Britain at the time. As Mark Hayes has written on his chapter on Red Action in our forthcoming volume on the British far left:

Red Action supported local Irish activities and sustained practical political contact with Republican paramilitary organisations. Red Action believed that genuine revolutionary socialist groups should place Irish national liberation high on their agenda.64 According to Red Action the liberal left in Britain had, in effect, abandoned the issue of ‘Northern Ireland’ when the struggle for civil liberties was transformed into an armed insurrection. Even the Trotskyist left, which had the habit of offering ‘conditional support’ for Republicanism, was decidedly equivocal when it came to the use of armalites and semtex… Red Action, on the other hand, resolved to offer unwavering support.

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Issue 15 of Red Action from November 1984 contrasted the IRA bombing with the sinking of the Belgrano by the British (under Thatcher’s orders) during the Falklands War and argued that violence was given a moral worth depending on who perpetrated it. The paper noted that the reaction from the working class towards the bombing was quite muted and that this had changed from the anti-Irish sentiment that was prevalent during the 1970s. It was argued that this latest bombing incident was different because it ‘attacked an obvious and clearly political target’ and because the government ‘had done no favours to the British working class since it had been in office’.

Using the example of the 1981 riots, Red Action stated that the paramilitary policing tactics employed in Northern Ireland were now being used on the British mainland. The group thought that this might create a greater understanding in Britain of the Republican cause. The article finished with this:

Perhaps some of the working class are now beginning to realise that the IRA/INLA are not looney crazed terrorists – just people who realised that the only way that their voice would be heard was by their taking direct physical action against the state.

It cannot be said that the news of the Brighton bomb brought cheers of ‘up the provos’ [sic] but there were plenty of people who thought that it would hsve been better if it had been more successful.

The Brighton bomb gave Thatcher a brief respite from the pressure of the miners strike and public opinion swung behind her momentarily for the first time really ‘since the Falklands War. But many of those who were involved in the strike did not sympathise with Thatcher in the wake of the bombing, although most were critical of the strategies used by the Provisional IRA. The bombing also solidified in her mind that the ‘enemy within’ was a clear and present threat, even though if she wasn’t willing to say it on October 13, 1984 – Irish Republicans, trade unionists, communists, etc, were to be handled with the necessary toughness that the situation required. This line of thinking informed the political and criminal justice outlook of the Thatcher government until its end in November 1990.

Stuart Hall, Marxism Today and the ruptures in Thatcherism’s early years

Like many in academia and on the left, I have been saddened by the death of Stuart Hall, one of the pioneers of what we now know as ‘cultural studies’. A good summary of the obituaries can be found here. I am still grappling with the beast which is known as the ARC grant application, but thought I’d post this section of an unpublished paper on how Stuart Hall and Marxism Today tried to understand, as well as challenge, Thatcherism in the period before 1982-83. I have posted another section of the past same unpublished paper (on the 1981 riots) beforehand here. It might leap around a bit, but hopefully it reads ok…


While the term ‘Thatcherism’ has become part of the language describing late British history, the original analysis from which the term emerged has been largely refuted. Stuart Hall and Martin Jacques first viewed ‘Thatcherism’ as a defining change in conservatism in the late 1970s before the Conservatives were elected in May 1979. Hall and Jacques, writing in the Communist Party of Great Britain’s theoretical journal Marxism Today, saw that the agenda put forward by Margaret Thatcher was the representation of a shift to the right that had been gathering momentum since the upturn in industrial militancy and cultural radicalism in the late 1960s. This shift to the right was as much an ideological shift as it was a response to the economic crisis conditions of the mid-to-late 1970s. While Hall’s work with the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies has been celebrated as an important contribution to the field of cultural studies, his work with Jacques for Marxism Today on Thatcherism is dismissed by many as reformism and a refutation of class politics or an outdated Marxist approach to a fundamental shift from post-war Keynesianism. However I would argue that, in practical terms, Hall and Jacques’ notion of an ideological alternative to Thatcherism, which had been developed on Marxism Today since 1979, was an important step for the left in Britain in the period between May 1979 and March 1982 (before the outbreak of the Falklands War), when the fixity of Margaret Thatcher’s rule was not assured as it was throughout the rest of the decade. The work of Hall and Jacques was maligned by many, on both the left and the right, but their analysis of Thatcherism was very insightful into the Conservatives were changing the political landscape, but had not yet reached their hegemonic height, which characterises the 1983 to 1987 period.

One of the most significant points that Hall and Jacques made concerning the Conservatives’ emphasis upon ‘law and order’ and the need for a strong state was that Thatcherism was unlike previous Conservative Governments and it required a different approach than, in the most recent case, the tactics that the left had utilised against Edward Heath’s 1970-74 Government.  This phenomenon of ‘Thatcherism’ was developed by Hall and Jacques in the pages of Marxism Today during the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s. Although Hall was not a CPGB member, but a close supporter, he became one of the most influential thinkers for the Communist Party, with significant impact on the Party’s approach to ‘race’ and cultural politics, eventually becoming a member of the journal’s editorial board. In January 1979, Marxism Today published Hall’s ‘The Great Moving Right Show’, which analysed the politics of Thatcherism, describing it as more than simply ‘the corresponding political bedfellow of a period of capitalist recession’,[1] but the result of a longer ideological shift away from the parameters of the post-war social democratic consensus. Thatcherism encompassed many themes of the right – ‘law and order, the need for social discipline and authority in the face of a conspiracy by the enemies of the state, the onset of social anarchy, the “enemy within”, the dilution of British stock by alien black elements’[2] – but found a greater reception for the repressive measures needed to deal with these concerns in the economic crisis of the late 1970s. This is what Jacques described as ‘the underlying crisis of hegemony’, in which Thatcher asserted a ‘popular and authoritarian rightism’ as the solution to ‘a more divided and polarised society’.[3] Written in the months following Thatcher’s electoral victory, Jacques outlined two main themes within Thatcherite ideology. The first was an emphasis on traditional laissez-faire economics – ‘the virtues of the market, competition, elitism, individual initiative, the iniquities of state intervention and bureaucracy’.[4] The other was using the right’s traditional theme of ‘law and order’ – ‘reacting against trade union militancy, national aspirations, permissiveness [and] women’s liberation’, replacing it with ‘an essentially regressive and conservative solution embracing such themes as authority, law and order, patriotism, national unity, the family and individual freedom’.[5]

Thatcherism was significantly different from previous Conservative Governments, seeing the issue of ‘law and order’ as central to revitalising the British nation, which involved the state confronting supposedly ‘subversive’ elements in British society. This emphasis upon the politics of confrontation, although usually portrayed by historians of Thatcher as a showdown between the ‘victorious’ government and the trade unions, can be seen in Thatcher’s first term, with the first major confrontation between the state and these so-called ‘subversive’ elements being the inner-city riots of 1981. As Trevor Carter, a member of the Communist Party’s National Race Relations Committee and ‘closely aligned’ to the reforming politics of Hall and Jacques,[6] wrote, Thatcher’s victory only compounded the upsurge in racism that had already begun in the mid-1970s, and a result, ‘the black community had a head-start of three years over the rest of the left in the battle against Thatcherism’.[7] Carter wrote in 1986, ‘it took Thatcher’s defeat of Labour to drive the left into its first serious examination of the identity and whereabouts of the working class and to accept that it was not only white and male’.[8] Hall and Jacques’ analysis of Thatcherism in Marxism Today was significant at this juncture, as a major contribution to the left’s self-examination, as well as an important understanding of how Thatcherism evolved into its popular incarnation in the mid-1980s.

The politics of confrontation that resulted in the 1981 riots and other watershed moments for the Conservatives, such as the breaking up of the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike, did actually not begin with Margaret Thatcher’s attainment of leadership of the Conservative Party. As Paul Gilroy and Joe Sim, formerly students of Hall at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, noted in a 1985 article (published in the aftermath of the Miners’ Strike), there had been a view on the left of Thatcherism that ‘dates the arrival of authoritarianism and its new right forces in the Spring of 1979’.[9] While Thatcher was explicit in her ‘law and order’ agenda and her willingness to enter into confrontations with dissenters, as seen in her anti-union stance, the basis for this shift to the right that was attributed to Thatcherism had actually existed since the late 1960s and Thatcher could not have implemented any actions without sharing a considerable amount of consensus with the British population. The view that Britain was on the verge of collapse had existed since the industrial militancy and cultural radicalism of the late 1960s and had been exacerbated by the economic crisis of the mid-1970s. Thatcherism was a response to this anxiety about the collapse of British society and was now openly willing to challenge the elements that were seen as ‘threats’ to Britain’s economic recovery and the ‘British way of life’.

As Stuart Hall explained in an interview with the Merseyside socialist publication Big Flame, the issues of ‘law and order’ had been monopolised by the right and the left had to ‘grasp the importance of what they once dismissed as non-political issues’.[10] Hall and others, in the seminal 1978 work Policing the Crisis,[11] had demonstrated how the issues of crime and policing were utilised by the Government (and its opponents on the right) to present the appearance of practical measures being taken to combat the crises of the 1970s. As the economic crisis continued, the police were increasingly used to deal with ‘subversive’ elements of British society, dissatisfied with Labour’s ineffective policies. The perceived lack of initiative of the Labour Government on the economic crisis and the issues of law and order allowed the Conservatives to sway traditional Labour voters with the populist notions of a strong state to deal with the trade unions, crime, illegal immigrants and other ‘subversive’ elements. The appeal of Thatcherite populism was part of the reason why around a third of trade unionists voted for the Conservatives in the May 1979 General Election.[12] But these populist notions and the result of a more restrictive police presence were not merely creations of Thatcher herself. Gilroy and Sim acknowledged this, stating, ‘as far as law and order, policing and criminal justice matters are concerned, the Thatcher governments do not represent a decisive break with patterns in preceding years’.[13] The elements for a centralised and militarised police force had been present in the ‘fudged social democracy of the Wilson, Heath and Callaghan years’,[14] but under Thatcher, the repressive institutions of the state were different, as they were explicitly used against certain demonised parts of society and there was consent for this use amongst large sections of the British public.

For many historians nowadays, the relationship between Stuart Hall and the Communist Party of Great Britain may seem peculiar and it may seem odd why a left wing journal that averaged circulation numbers of between only 2,500 and 4,000 before the late 1970s[15] became the forum for some of the most significant writing on Thatcherism in the early years of her Prime Ministership. This analysis of Thatcherism and the emphasis upon ideology was part of a larger dynamic shift on the left that encompassed the Communist Party, of whom Jacques was an Executive Committee member and editor of Marxism Today. Jacques was a leading reformer within the CPGB, who was pushing that the Communist Party should have incorporated a wider political approach than focusing on industrial militancy and traditional class based politics. The push to reform the Party’s political strategy was encompassed in the redrafting of the CPGB programme, The British Road to Socialism, in 1977. The work by Hall and Jacques on ideology and the alternative approaches for a wider leftist movement were the basis of their analysis of Thatcherism, which led to a major ideological rethink for the left in the 1980s. The collapse of the CPGB, under the apparent ‘revisionist’ leadership, in 1991 has often been attributed to the reformism and defeatism of Jacques and other reformers in the Party, primarily through their writings in Marxism Today and New Times, and linked by several authors to the centralism of New Labour. The shifts in analysis by Hall and Jacques occurred in the 1980s as Thatcherism seemed pervasive meant that the original analysis in the late 1970s has been disregarded by many on both the right and the left.

By the late 1970s, the CPGB was in a severely weakened position. Despite having considerable influence in the trade union movement at the executive level during the previous decade of heightened industrial militancy, this had failed to produce any real political gains or stem its dramatically decreasing membership numbers. This decline in membership was exacerbated by the schisms that had formed within the Party after the introduction of the Social Contract between the Labour Government and the Trades Union Congress (TUC). This schism was defined between the reformers, influenced by Gramscism and Eurocommunism, who believed that the Party’s limited industrial approach had alienated potential allies within the new social movements and on the other side, the traditional industrial militants, who viewed the centrality of class politics and the emphasis upon Labour-Communist unity in the trade unions as essential to the creation of a socialist Britain. The 1977 edition of The British Road to Socialism promoted the strategy of the broad democratic alliance, which signified the official, yet highly disputed, idea that the struggle for socialism needed ‘not only… to be an association of class forces,… but of other important forces in society which emerge out of areas of oppression not always directly connected with the relations of production’.[16] The CPGB, ‘as the organised Marxist political party’, imbued itself as a vital organisation in mediating between the traditional labour movement and the other social forces to establish this alliance.[17]

The CPGB was plagued by internal divisions and declining membership during the late 1970s and early 1980s, but there were some within the Party that recognised the shift to the right that Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative leadership represented. The analysis of this by Stuart Hall and Martin Jacques in Marxism Today had a massive impact on the how the liberal-left viewed Thatcher as the Conservative Prime Minister, coining the phrase ‘Thatcherism’ in early 1979. While their analysis of the political changes under Thatcherism provided the left with an important theoretical framework, the political abilities of the CPGB in the early 1980s to counter the Thatcherite Government and its emphasis upon strong ‘law and order’ was almost non-existent.

Many others on the left, such as Bob Jessop, Kevin Bonnett, Simon Bromley and Tom Ling, Alex Callinicos and Peter Kennedy, have proposed that Hall and Jacques emphasis on the ideological hegemony of Thatcherism had promoted a notion of paralysis within the traditional left.[18] Critics on the left have traditionally taken issue with how ‘hegemonic’ Thatcherism actually was and more importantly, what actions could the left take to practically counter the Thatcherite Government.[19] In the mid-1980s, Jessop et al argued in New Left Review that while Thatcherism was ‘dominant politically and ideologically’, it had ‘not won the battle for hegemony’.[20] This was an important point for leftist critics as it allowed room for manoeuvre on the left to find an effective course of action as support for the traditional institutions of the labour movement declined. For Hall (and other reformers in Marxism Today) to suggest that the left needed to undergo serious re-evaluation of its strategies in the face of the decline of militant labourism, the critics saw the emphasis by Hall and Jacques on the ideological domination by Thatcherism ‘inhibit[ed] constructive strategic thinking’.[21] This emphasis upon the ideology of Thatcherism, rather than the class-based contradictions of the Conservative Government, was seen by many on the left as the failure of Hall’s (and Marxism Today’s) analysis, viewed by critics as part of the wider ‘revisionism’ undertaken by the Eurocommunists in the CPGB. In his critique of Hall, Brendan Evans has claimed that Hall’s attempts to ‘reconcile the social authoritarian and economic liberal strands in Thatcherism’, his analysis had ‘neglect[ed] the changing emphases of Thatcher’s policies at different stages’ of her Prime Ministership and ‘over-homogenises Thatcherism’.[22]  Evans’ critique of Hall and could well be applied to many leftist critics of Hall and Jacques (and the politics of Marxism Today). By viewing Marxism Today as the revisionist vehicle for the ideological development of New Labour and responsible only the ‘hokum of New Times’,[23] the innovative original analysis of Thatcherism is depicted only as the beginning of the rejection of class-based politics within the Communist Party. Alongside Eric Hobsbawm’s 1978 article ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted?’,[24] Hall’s ‘The Great Moving Right Show’ is dismissed as the conception point of New Labour and the obsession with the ‘modernisation’ of the left, although as Andrew Gamble has noted, Hall ‘delivered a passionate denunciation of New Labour…, refusing to recognise it as in any sense a legitimate exponent of the new politics which he had advocated in the 1980s’.[25]

The election of Margaret Thatcher as Conservative Prime Minister in May 1979 is a watershed moment in modern British history, but it must be acknowledged that the conditions for her electoral victory had existed long before 1979, as Thatcher capitalised on rightist ideas that had been expressed in various circles throughout the 1970s – by the Government, the right of the Conservative Party, other right-wing groupings and the mainstream media, especially the tabloids. What Thatcher did was to make the issue of ‘law and order’ to deal with alleged ‘subversives’ an explicit and central part of her political platform. However in the historiography of Thatcher’s time as Prime Minister, the analysis of ‘Thatcherism’ by Hall and Jacques is viewed through the lens of the decline of traditional labourism, which is considered redundant to many historians of Thatcher and derided by critics on the left for its contribution to the pessimism of modern socialist thought in Britain and the rise of New Labour. Any historical examination of the early Thatcher period needs to fully take into account the disillusionment of wide sectors of the British working class with the official labour movement institutions, which Hall and Jacques attempted to redress with their emphasis upon the ideological shift to the right that Margaret Thatcher represented.

[1] Stuart Hall, ‘The Great Moving Right Show’, Marxism Today (January 1979) 14

[2] S. Hall, ‘The Great Moving Right Show’, 16

[3] Martin Jacques, ‘Thatcherism – The Impasse Broken?’, Marxism Today (October 1979) 10; Italics are in the original text

[4] M. Jacques, ‘Thatcherism’, 10

[5] M. Jacques, ‘Thatcherism’, 10

[6] Geoff Andrews, Endgames and New Times: The Final Years of British Communism 1964-1991 (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 2004) 159

[7] Trevor Carter, Shattering Illusions: West Indians in British Politics (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1986) 115

[8] T. Carter, Shattering Illusions, 115

[9] Paul Gilroy & Joe Sim, ‘Law, Order and the State of the Left’, Capital & Class, 25 (Spring 1985) 16

[10] Interview with Stuart Hall, Big Flame (February 1979)

[11] See: S. Hall, et al., Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State and Law and Order (Houndmills: Macmillan, 1978)

[12] Eric Hobsbawm, ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted? – A Response’, Marxism Today (September 1979) 265

[13] P. Gilroy & J. Sim, ‘Law, Order and the State of the Left’, 18

[14] P. Gilroy & J. Sim, ‘Law, Order and the State of the Left’, 18

[15] Herbert Pimlott, ‘Write Out of the Margins: Accessibility, Editorship and House Style in Marxism Today, 1957-91’, Journalism Studies, 7/5 (2006) 785

[16] CPGB, The British Road to Socialism (London, 1977) 29

[17] CPGB, The British Road to Socialism, 34

[18] See: Bob Jessop, et al., ‘Thatcherism and the Politics of Hegemony: A Reply to Stuart Hall’, New Left Review, 153 (September/October 1985); Bob Jessop, et al., ‘Authoritarian Populism, Two Nations, and Thatcherism’, New Left Review, 147 (September/October 1984); Alex Callinicos, ‘The Politics of Marxism Today’, International Socialism, 2/29 (Summer 1985) 128-168; Peter Kennedy, ‘A Critique of Existing Theories of Thatcherism and a Contribution to a Marxist Theory of Capitalist Decay’, Critique, 26/1 (1998) 95-133

[19] More centrist-conservative historians have not distinguished between Hall’s analysis and others on the Marxist left. Anthony Seldon and  Daniel Collings have written that the left had difficulty in defining Thatcherism and to ‘Marxists’, including Hall, Thatcherism was simply, ‘the most nakedly pro-capitalist Conservative government since the war, deliberately emasculating organised labour and hounding the far left… resulting in a widening gap between rich and poor,… and the haves and the have-nots’. Seldon and Collings also mention a differing Labour left critique, by Kenneth Morgan and Andrew Gamble, but do not elaborate on their reductionist definition of the Marxist position. Eric J. Evans dismisses any Marxist critique as they ‘rarely think other than ideologically anyway’, who Evans has described as being ‘bamboozled’ and ‘antagonized’ by Thatcher, because she was ‘far more effective than the intellectual left at getting her message across’. A. Seldon & D. Collings, Britain Under Thatcher, 88-89; Eric J. Evans, Thatcher and Thatcherism (London: Routledge, 1997) 2; 120

[20] B. Jessop, et al., ‘Thatcherism and the Politics of Hegemony’, 97

[21] B. Jessop, et al., ‘Authoritarian Populism, Two Nations, and Thatcherism’, 60

[22] B. Evans, Thatcherism and British Politics 1975-1999, 216-217

[23] A. Sivanandan, ‘All that Melts Into Air is Solid: The Hokum of New Times’, Race & Class, 31/3, (1989) 1

[24] Eric Hobsbawm, ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted?’, Marxism Today (September 1978)

[25] Andrew Gamble, ‘New Labour and Old Debates’, in Gerry Hassan (ed), After Blair: Politics After the New Labour Decade (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 2007) 31

40 years since the beginning of the ‘three day week’

sold out

This week marks the 40th anniversary of the beginning of the ‘three day week’, which lasted from 1 January to 6 March 1974. The ‘three day week’ was an initiative by the Heath Government to avoid the stand-still of Britain’s industry in response to the Oil Crisis of late 1973 and the threat of a strike by the National Union of Mineworkers (who were on a ‘work to rule’ basis at the time). It involved cutting electricity supplies to three consecutive days per week to conserve coal stocks, which was threatened by a strike by mineworkers.

A search of the digitised Cabinet Papers available through the National Archives show how the Heath Government approached the looming threat of a strike by the NUM and the energy crisis faced by Britain in 1973-74. One Cabinet meeting from 20 December, 1973 outlined the problem facing the Heath Government and the basis for the implementation of the ‘three day week’:

Government must not appear to be working for a major confrontation with the unions on the issue of the Stage 3 Pay Code. It was possible that the Executive of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) wanted such a confrontation or that their actions would produce it. [The Secretary for State for Employment] believed that it was important for the Government to do all that they could to avoid a confrontation. They must be seen to be at once firm and reasonable…

Meanwhile the Government must go ahead with the arrangements to introduce the three-day working week. On this the trades union leaders and the Labour Party had moved closer together, Mr Jack Jones being the link, and were representing that the resulting hardships were wholly the fault of the Government. The Government must make it clear that the measures were wholly the result of the industrial action by the NUM and ASLEF, and that if that action were brought to an end the oil shortage would persist but the three-day working week would no longer be necessary. It was important that Ministers should co-ordinate their actions and their speeches closely in handling the current crisis, and he hoped that his colleagues would comment freely on the strategy that he had proposed…

In discussion it was argued that the Government should not appear to use the three-day week as a threat to the unions. The facts must be presented in a low key emphasising the overriding need to meet the fuel shortage. It might help to encourage public participation if more facts and figures could be made available. It would be unwise to disclose the amounts of fuel stocks or the current estimates of the period of possible endurance but the public might be encouraged to learn of the savings achieved by power economies, though the figures so far (which increased from 5 per cent on 14 December to 12 per cent on 18 December) were not taken from a typical period. It was also suggested that it could be helpful to involve the voluntary organisations.

heath 2

After nearly four weeks of the strike (and two weeks before Heath announced a snap general election), the Government considered relaxing some of the restrictions, but did not want to look like they were relenting to the pressures of the NUM. In a Cabinet meeting on 24 January, 1974, the following debate was had:

[D]uring the past week, coal stocks at power stations had fallen by only 100, 000 tons. Stocks stood at 13.6 million tons at power stations, and 1.8 million tons elsewhere, and if circumstances remained unchanged could be expected to increase slightly over the next two weeks. Against this background some relaxation of the existing electricity restrictions could be allowed. The most effective pattern would be to let productive industry work a five-day week, restricting electricity consumption to 80 per cent of normal…

However, the likelihood that the Executive of the NUM would decide to hold a ballot of their members on the issue of strike action was a factor which could have a major influence on the nature and timing of the relaxations. The choice lay between going ahead with the planned relaxation but making it clear that a strike would lead to even more severe restrictions being imposed, or making minor changes to the incidence of the present restrictions to conserve fuel stocks in the face of the strike threat. It was estimated that, if a total strike occurred, the continuance of the present restrictions would enable stocks to last six to seven weeks. The relaxations would reduce endurance by three or four days if a strike occurred within the next three weeks. Endurance might be prolonged slightly by increasing the use of oil at power stations, or increasing the import of coal, but even the most stringent restrictions could not prevent the breakdown of electricity supplies within seven to eight weeks of the onset of a total strike.

In discussion, it was argued that any relaxation which led to increased electricity consumption would represent a major change of policy. Hitherto the aim had been to restrict consumption to prolong endurance. The miners had always sought to deplete stocks by action short of a strike, and then impose a total strike when the economy was least able to resist it. Relaxation now, would be seen as a sign of weakness on the part of the Government: the miners would be encouraged in their resolve, since a relaxation would be taken as firm evidence that the economy could not stand a three-day week and that the Government, rather than impose even harsher measures, would quickly settle with them. Public opinion would almost certainly see relaxation in face of the risk of a strike as an act of great imprudence.

On the other hand, it was strongly argued that the restriction of the working week to three days could not be endured much longer. There were signs that many companies, large and small, would soon be in difficulties, and this could have wide repercussions throughout the economy. The trade figures would inevitably get worse if short-time work continued. The ability of the economy to withstand restrictions was a much more critical factor for the endurance of the country than were the fuel stocks. Moreover to maintain the present restrictions would be seen as a tacit admission that the Government expected the majority of miners to vote for a strike. Such a policy would be interpreted as an intensified form of Government confrontation with the unions and it would provide a continuing excuse for the TUC to maintain their protests.

No decision was made by the Cabinet at that meeting and on 7 February, Heath called an election for 28 February. On 10 February, the NUM went on strike and the ‘three day week’ continued. Labour’s minority government victory brought an end to the strike and the ‘three day week’ in early March 1974.

The ‘three day week’ cast a long shadow over Britain during the 1970s and 1980s. After the collapse of the Labour’s ‘Social Contract’ with the Trades Union Congress in the mid-1970s, the outbreak of industrial action led many to fear a return to the ‘three day week’. Margaret Thatcher, who was part of the Heath Government that lost in the 1974 election, learnt from the ‘three day week’ and the NUM strike, making sure that coal supplies were plentiful in 1984 before confronting the NUM again. This 12 week period in early 1974 has become one of the symbols of Britain’s crisis during the 1970s and has been used as a shorthand for the economic troubles of the post-war welfare state.


Last week, a scholar in The Independent argued that 1973 was one of the most significant year in British history, but it might be argued that 1974, with the ‘three day week’, the NUM strike and the dual electoral victories of Labour, might pip its predecessor as being more significant.