Miners, others who suffered Thatcher’s wrath can’t forgive

by Rodney Jefferson


Bob Young’s strongest memory of Margaret Thatcher’s time in power is the brown envelope he received in March 1985 two days before he was due back at work after the yearlong miners’ strike.

The letter, handed to the Scot’s then-12-year-old daughter, contained his P45, the form a worker gets in Britain when leaving a job or being fired. Young had been chairman of the National Union of Mineworkers at the Comrie colliery in Fife, eastern Scotland, and helped organize the walkout.

“I despised her during the strike and I’ll never forgive her for what she’s done,” said Young, 69, now a local councilor for the Labour Party, the main opposition force in the U.K. Parliament. “I’m not glad someone has died, but she was on one side of the fence and I was on the other.”

As the death of the former prime minister known as the “Iron Lady” sinks in across Britain, there’s still little love lost in the parts of the country at the sharp end of her postindustrial free-market economics. The sale of state assets, closure of mines and factories and a new local tax that triggered street protests cemented the north-south divide.

In Scotland, Thatcher’s Conservative Party, now led by Prime Minister David Cameron, won 22 U.K. parliamentary seats when she came to power in 1979. By the time her party was ousted by Labour in 1997, it had lost all of them. Cameron has one lawmaker representing Scotland in the House of Commons.

“Thatcher was a truly formidable prime minister whose policies defined a political generation,” Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, who leads the semiautonomous government in Edinburgh, said in a statement. “No doubt there will now be a renewed debate about the impact of that legacy.”

The miners’ strike ended 28 years ago and there has been no softening of the anger toward Thatcher, according to John Kane, 75, a miner for 37 years and now a guide at the Scottish Mining Museum, south of Edinburgh. Kane worked as a deputy at a local pit to keep it safe during the strike.

“She wasn’t a friend of Scotland or the miners,” said Kane. “There was a lot of ill feeling between people and it even goes on today in arguments at the miners’ club.”

Thatcher, who led Britain from 1979 to 1990, suffered a stroke and died peacefully Monday. She was 87.

While her detractors point to unemployment hitting 3 million people and the demise of northern towns that had been at the center of the Industrial Revolution, she will be remembered among her admirers as the U.K. leader who helped end the Cold War, stood up to Argentina after it invaded the Falkland Islands and enriched homeowners and stock-market investors.

“When she came to power Britain, was an uncompetitive country with the economy on its back,” said Michael Forsyth, a junior minister under Thatcher who served as Scottish secretary in the government of her successor, John Major. “It took twice as long in terms of man hours to produce a ton of steel as it did in the rest of Europe. She turned that around and gave millions of people access to capital for the first time.”

The start of 1979 was dubbed “the winter of discontent,” with strikes including water and rail workers, truckers and oil tanker drivers, ambulance personnel and grave-diggers, teachers, dock workers and garbage collectors.

By the early 1980s, Thatcher’s war against the unions that she accused of holding the country to ransom had turned to the miners, whose leaders she called “the enemy within” in a speech to party lawmakers.

Young recalls being in Orgreave in South Yorkshire in 1984 when miners and police on horses clashed in one of the bloodiest encounters of the strike.

“I was in the army and I can tell you I was scared,” said Young, a former soldier who had traveled the 430 km south from his home in Dunfermline. “I would have given Usain Bolt a run for his money that day.”

The early 1980s were violent times and in Northern Ireland Thatcher became a hate figure for many in the Catholic community.

In 1981, 10 republican prisoners, led by Bobby Sands, fasted to death in protest over jail conditions. Sinn Fein accused Thatcher of refusing to intervene to end the hunger strike, which ushered in the worst violence in the region since 1969, when Northern Ireland’s three-decade-long conflict began.

The Irish Republican Army, an ally of Sinn Fein that waged an armed campaign to unite Ireland, almost killed Thatcher in 1984 with a no-warning bomb at the hotel she was staying in during her party’s annual conference.

“Today we were unlucky, but remember we only have to be lucky once,” the IRA said in a statement issued after the attack. “You will have to be lucky always.”

Almost 30 years later, the hatred of Thatcher is undimmed in some Irish republican circles.

“Working-class communities were devastated in Britain because of her policies,” Gerry Adams, 64, president of Sinn Fein, said in an emailed statement after her death. “In Ireland, her espousal of old draconian militaristic policies prolonged the war and caused great suffering. Her failed efforts to criminalize the republican struggle and the political prisoners is part of her legacy.”

Back at the homes of former miners, the death of Thatcher was a “great day,” David Hopper, general secretary of the Durham Miners’ Association, told the Press Association news agency. “She destroyed our community, our villages and our people,” he said from northeast England.

Young in Scotland said his family struggled after he was dismissed from the pit following the strike. He was reinstated with 14 months back-pay after winning a tribunal hearing, he said. The reason for the dismissal was that he had been arrested with about 130 other local miners during the strike.

“I was the only one to lose my job,” Young said. “When the strike finished and I was out, I was on my own; it was 100 percent harder than the strike itself.”