'Iron Lady's' death brings joy for miners she defeated
Mention the death of Margaret Thatcher in one of the “working men’s clubs” frequented by former coal miners in northern England, and you will be met with roars of approval.
It has been 28 years since her Conservative government crushed the miners’ year-long strike, ending one of the most bitter industrial battles in British history.
But in the South Yorkshire village of Armthorpe and others like it, the anger remains as visceral as ever.
“Good riddance!” shouted one former miner from a corner of Armthorpe’s dingy club, where men with weathered faces and tattooed fingers sat nursing pints on Tuesday.
On a table, the face of Britain’s first and only female prime minister beamed out from the front page of a discarded newspaper, a day after she died at age 87.
“We’ll use that for toilet paper,” another drinker said to gales of laughter.
The 1984-85 strike by tens of thousands of miners was one of the defining events of Thatcher’s time in power.
Its violence horrified the public as militant strikers clashed with riot police, sometimes in “battles” with thousands on each side.
The dispute pitted the Iron Lady – who wanted to close dozens of loss-making coal pits -- against one of her greatest foes, the miners’ firebrand leader Arthur Scargill.
And it bitterly divided the miners themselves as thousands in some areas opted to stay at work.
Several people were killed, including a taxi driver murdered in Wales for taking a non-striking miner to a coal pit.
The strikers, famously described by Thatcher as “the enemy within”, suffered desperate hardship during a year without work.
Ultimately, their gamble failed. Thatcher’s government had built up huge supplies of coal and was able to starve them out.
The walkout ended on March 3, 1985, almost exactly a year after it started. Some returned to the coal pits in tears.
Thatcher wrote in her memoirs that the strikers “wanted to defy the law of the land in order to defy the laws of economics. They failed.”
It was a stunning defeat for Scargill’s once-formidable National Union of Mineworkers, leading to the virtual end of deep coal mining in Britain as dozens of pits were gradually shut down.
In 1984 Britain had around 170 working coal mines employing nearly 200,000 workers. Today there are just a handful of mines, employing some 2,000 people.
Armthorpe was among the victims, losing its 76-year-old Markham Main Colliery in 1996. A housing estate was built on the site.
Today, one of the few visible reminders of the village’s mining history is a huge wheel from the pit that stands as a memorial along the main road.
Its former employees remember 1985 with grim faces. Riot police, at one point, formed a ring around the village and clashes followed.
“Thatcher destroyed this place,” said 63-year-old George Fletcher, a former pit supervisor, as he sat with mates at the Armthorpe Social Club opposite the memorial.
“My dad was a miner, his dad was a miner,” he said.
“But Margaret Thatcher didn’t like the working man. She worked for London. And she made a lot of people’s lives hell.”
Behind him, a younger man took a front-page photograph of Thatcher and screwed it up with clenched fists.
The miners express pride at how their close-knit community struggled together through the strike, often pooling food and other resources in an effort that seemed antithetical to Thatcher’s individualistic vision of Britain.
The village baker, they recall with deep gratitude, went bankrupt providing food for the strikers on credit.
But today there’s a depressed air about the place, with many former miners complaining that they and their children have difficulty finding work after the demise of the place that provided generations with employment.
“Young ‘uns here, they’ve nowt [nothing] to do,” said George Kennedy, 55, who worked at the pit for two decades before he was laid off with breathing problems.
Geoff Smith, a trustee of Armthorpe’s Working Men’s Club, said Thatcher’s triumph and the shutdown of the mining industry had “decimated” his village, and many others like it.
“You’ve got to blame her for everything that’s gone wrong here – drug problems, fighting,” he said.
He expects the miners to arrange a party at the club to coincide with Thatcher’s funeral next Wednesday.
“If they do, I’ll drink with them,” he said.
“And if she’s going to cremated,” he added with a cackle, “I’m sorry to say it – but if there’s no coal to do it with, it’s her fault!”