Saturday 31 October 2020

Nursing a grievance


There is a certain irony in Humza Yousaf planning to collectively pardon Scottish miners who were convicted during the 1984-1985 Miners’ Strike.  The SNP justice secretary has been told by a review that many of these miners would be unlikely to face prosecution today. But so too would they have been unlikely in 1984 to have faced prosecution for saying hateful things in their own homes. Thirty-five years from now will there be another collective pardon for all those Scots unjustly punished by Humza Yousaf’s new hate crime laws?

The Miners’ Strike has faded from memory into myth, but it was one of the most influential events in recent British history. It marks the hinge between post-war British decline and modern Britain. It destroyed Old Labour, the trade unions and set us on the path to the broad consensus in the mid-1990s that Britain would make money through business and the free market.

I just about remember the three-day week in 1974 and power cuts caused by striking miners. I remember trade union leaders walking into Harold Wilson’s Downing Street to tell him what to do.  The average standard of living in Britain in the 1970s was nowhere near what it is today. But the Miners’ Strike changed that.

The miners and their unions wanted to keep pits open even if they were making a loss. Margaret Thatcher realised that there was no way Britain could become a more efficient economy if people were allowed to mine even if they were digging mud. She realised too that trade unions were preventing economic growth and their power had to be curtailed.

She carefully prepared her defences against trade union action. There were stockpiles of coal. When the strike came, she was ready.

The strike was illegal. No national ballot was held. Strikers were legally allowed to picket using persuasion. It was illegal for them to block anyone going to their place of work. It was certainly illegal for them to use violence and intimidation to prevent people who disagreed with the strike from going to work. It was only legal to picket your own place of work, but miners took part in mass secondary picketing. The Miners’ Strike was the most violent industrial dispute in British history. But no one in Scotland was guilty.

There may have been some injustice. The police may at times have overreacted and used excessive force. The severity of the offences that some miners were convicted of may too have been too more than they deserved.  But all of the miners were taking part in an illegal strike and they all were using force and intimidation to prevent other workers doing their jobs. Every miner who was on a secondary picket or a mass picket blocking roads in Scotland was guilty of something. What’s more if people behaved in that way today, they would be convicted even in Scotland.

When was the last time you saw a strike started by a mass show of hands? When was the last time you saw strikers blocking road and being violent towards strike breakers? These things are like something from ancient history, because they simply don’t happen anymore. This was the victory that Margaret Thatcher won. It wasn’t just that she was able to close inefficient pits. It was that she established the principle that Government could not prop up loss making nationalised industry forever. She established the principle that strikers could persuade but could not use violence or intimidation and that they could not picket someone else’s place of work or come out on strike in sympathy. It was this that made Britain prosperous.

Every one of the soon to be pardoned Scottish miners is guilty of something. If their memories are honest, they will know this to be true. They each intimidated, were violent, blocked a road or picketed someone else’s place of work.   If the Miners’ Strike was the most violent in history how can it be that Scottish miners did nothing illegal whatsoever? If Humza Yousaf thinks that it was only the police that were violent why doesn’t he seek to convict them?

But this has nothing to do with truth or justice. This has to do with SNP mythologizing of the 1980s. Those wicked Tories closed down the pits and Ravenscraig. It’s fading from memory so let’s do something to remember it.

It is grotesque to compare striking miners in the 1980s to shell shocked First World War soldiers being shot. A soldier with a Post Traumatic Stress Disorder does not commit any crime in 2020. A striker using intimidation and force to stop someone else going to work does commit an offence in 2020. It is for this reason that few if any do.

I don’t believe that the SNP want to take Scotland back to those times before 1985 when unions ran the country and mass strikes could paralyse the economy. To do so would be to make Scotland even less prepared for independence than it already is. But as always with the SNP this has nothing whatsoever to do with the past or even in righting injustice, it has everything to do with independence.

Just as Humza Yousaf’s Hate crimes bill is about appealing to one constituency so too pardoning Scottish miners has to do with appealing to another and reminding everyone else about the 1980s.

The 1980s destroyed the Conservatives in Scotland and it is difficult for us to move on, because Margaret Thatcher has become a Scottish version of Oliver Cromwell in Ireland, but what this myth doesn’t realise is that what Thatcher did was necessary and was the cause of the prosperity of modern day Scotland.

The pardoning of miners who self-evidently committed crimes during the Miners’ Strike, is cynical and hypocritical. Humza Yousaf would punish someone today who made a joke at home that he found hateful but wants to pardon those who committed crimes that would send them to jail today. This puts him not merely on the wrong side of the free speech argument that France is defending against those who would use violence to destroy it, it also puts him on the wrong side of history. What the miners did was wrong and illegal in 1984. It would be wrong and illegal now. Thank goodness they lost, or we would all still be as poor as we were then.

The failure to recognise this is what keeps Scotland in the past nursing a grievance to keep it warm.