Miners' Pardon: 'I knew I had done nothing wrong'
“It’s not compensation,” Alex Bennett says, “It’s what we’re due.”
If he’d been given redundancy when he was sacked by the coal board in 1984 he’d have been eligible for around £27,000, around £1,000 for every year of service. But because he was let go after being arrested for breach of the peace, he got nothing.
Now, 40 years later, that conviction is set to be disregarded and Bennett and the hundreds of others in Scotland convicted during the bitter year-long industrial action will finally have their names cleared.
The Miners’ Strike (Pardons) (Scotland) Bill is currently making its way through the parliament, with justice secretary Keith Brown saying he hopes the new legislation, once passed, will “restore dignity to those convicted, provide comfort to their families and, I hope, will bring closure to the sense of injustice members of mining communities may feel”.
However, for Bennett, that’s simply not enough. It wasn’t a “sense of injustice” he suffered, but an actual injustice.
When the strike broke out in 1984, he was the chairman of the NUM at Monktonhall pit near Musselburgh. That made him a problem in the eyes of the police.
At first, there was no trouble. The local cops policing the pickets lived in the mining communities and drank in the Miners’ Welfare clubs. There was half-hearted pushing, shoving and good-natured banter.
But those local bobbies were replaced with officers brought in from outside, and – although this has never been verified, the men who were there are sure – included members of the armed forces.
In June 1984, Bennett travelled to Bilston Glen colliery to bolster the picket line after reports that the coal board was offering huge sums to strike-breakers. He was arrested at 5.30am by what he’s described as a “snatch squad”.
He was flung into a police van with 12 colleagues and driven to Dalkeith police station where they were fingerprinted and photographed. Police threatened to charge him with inciting a riot, but they couldn’t make the charge stick, and reduced it to a breach of the peace.
He says he’d never seen the two police officers who gave evidence against him. “I knew I had done nothing wrong,” he says. “The sheriff believed them anyway.”
Even forty-whatever years later, we still know who the scabs are.
The case was called in December, he was found guilty, and in January he got his P45.
Despite winning an employment tribunal that should have seen him reinstated, he was blacklisted by the National Coal Board and unemployed for three years, repeatedly turned down for jobs he was more than qualified for.
It’s the toll it took on his family that sticks with him, his daughter unable to go on a school trip with all her pals because the family had no income.
In 2018 then justice secretary Michael Matheson commissioned human rights lawyer John Scott QC to carry out a review on behalf of the government, the aim being to investigate what actually happened during the strike and whether or not people had been wrongly prosecuted.
The final report was unequivocal, making one single recommendation, that, subject to suitable criteria, “the Scottish Government should introduce legislation to pardon men convicted for matters related to the strike”.
Over the course of months, Scott and his panel heard from miners, police and politicians. One of the most startling confessions came during a meeting with retired officers from the former Strathclyde, Fife, Central and Lothian and Borders forces: “All of the officers said that there were men they would not have arrested if they had known then what the consequences would have been for them,” the report states.
Police officers left Scott and his colleagues with the distinct impression that in a high number of cases “whether a miner was arrested, was, in reality, a matter of chance”.
In Scotland, there were roughly 14,000 strikers, and by the mid-1980s approximately 1,400 had been arrested, with over 500 convicted. In England and Wales, between 13 March 1984 and 5 March 1985, the number of striking miners was approximately 187,000; of these, the number of miners arrested was 8,788. That’s approximately 10 per cent of striking miners in Scotland, compared to 5 per cent in England and Wales.
In Scotland, approximately 206, or 1.5 per cent of the total number of striking miners, were dismissed. In England and Wales the figures were 0.61 per cent.
With fewer than 10 per cent of British miners, and around 10 per cent of convictions for offences related to the strike across the UK, Scotland has had more than 30 per cent of the dismissals.
It’s not clear why proportionately more of those on strike in Scotland suffered arrest and dismissal than elsewhere. Scott’s report called it an “unanswered question”.
The miners’ strike was a long time ago, so long ago that by Holyrood’s reckoning 19 of the parliament’s 129 MSPs weren’t even born, while another 24 would have been under the age of 10.
But for the men gathered in the Danderhall Miners club on a wet Sunday afternoon in February, the unfairness of the arrests is still keenly felt. They’re here for an update on the pardons from Bennett, Labour MSP Sarah Boyack and Nicky Wilson from the NUM.
Local councillor Margot Russell is there too. She tells Holyrood about her late husband, a union rep, who was arrested during the strike. Though ultimately not convicted. She thinks police at the time were just trying to lift as many people as they could, and her husband was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
She remembers the community pulling together at the time.
“At the Strike Centre we had the kitchen on the go, we had a good team of women that were involved in organising. The men did the breakfasts. And we did the dinners. There was a real coming together.”
Despite the hard times, she and her husband were married during the strike, in the Dalkeith Miners Hall in September 1984. The local minister did it for free. “It was a difficult time for a lot of people,” she adds.
“Forty years on, even the children still have their stories to tell,” Russell says. “You had the women that were sitting in the house knowing what was happening and worrying obviously.
“The guys had set up emergency funds, so if there an issue, kids needing new shoes and basic things like that, you could put an appeal into the strike committee, and they would vet funds.
“You tried not to leave people out in the cold because then it can fester. And I think that was a lot of why the guys went back early. Too early. There was pressure, there was Christmas, it was just a difficult time for people. They wanted to do the best for the family.”
However, she adds, “Even forty-whatever years later, we still know who the scabs are.”
By the early 1980s, the government of Margaret Thatcher, baulking at the expense of mining coal in the UK, moved towards oil, gas and nuclear power as a means of keeping the lights on.
Higher wages and increased safety meant it became more expensive to produce coal here than it was to import from abroad.
The publicly owned coal board hadn’t made a profit in over 40 years, and as far as the Conservative government was concerned there was little economic sense in needlessly subsidising a loss-making industry.
There was little love, too, between the prime minister and the NUM, which, at the time, was probably the most powerful union in the country. Thatcher was determined to break its power. And she did.
In 1984, Davey Rowe was 23, a youth delegate for the NUM. He was arrested twice, both times, he says, for being pulled over the picket line by the police. Once by the hair. When he was in court he found out he was being charged with assaulting a police officer. He was sacked two weeks later. He was relatively lucky and was unemployed for just six months.
“To get the initial pardon would be good,” he says. “There’s still people now who as soon as you say to them, ‘I’m a miner, I was sacked, and it was deemed as gross industrial misconduct’, as far as they were concerned, you were a thug. I’ve never been involved with the police before or after that.
“The pardon is a great thing for me. It gives everyone a bit of closure.”
For Rowe, like Bennett, it’s the impact his sacking had on his family that really gets to him. He remembers watching his neighbour buying a new car, while he and his wife and young daughter had not a penny in the bank. The pardon, he says, is as much for them as it is for him.
Brown – who took over from Matheson as justice secretary last year – has said that compensation is an issue for Westminster.
Giving evidence to Holyrood’s Equalities Committee, he told MSPs that pardons would not formally quash convictions or give people any further rights or entitlements and said: “I am clear that the bill should not cast any doubt on decisions made by the judiciary at the time or seek to place blame on any individual or group of individuals.”
He added: “The conditions of the pardon recognise miners and police officers found themselves in extremely challenging situations where relationships came under unprecedented strain. Miners who took part in industrial action did so to protect their jobs, their way of life and the communities.
“Police officers were only exercising their duty to uphold the law and in circumstances and on a scale which had never encountered before.
“The pardon will apply both to living people and posthumously, given the passage of time since the strike.”
Compensation, he argued, would require a “much more stringent process” and “runs the risk of the bill moving away from its intended symbolic effect, into the territory of questioning decisions by the judiciary at the time.
“Employment and industrial relations are reserved to the UK, so if the compensation is looking to compensate for loss of earnings, loss of pension, or loss of other rights, then the Scottish Government wasn’t party to this – it wasn’t in existence at the time,” he said.
“The issues that it touches on are unemployment issues, which are for the UK Government to consider.”
Labour is urging the government to reconsider.
“Families have lived with that injustice for decades,” Sarah Boyack tells Holyrood shortly after speaking to the men in Danderhall. “There are lots of things that the Scottish Parliament has addressed that were issues before the parliament was established.”
She raises the issue of the compensation paid to some of the thousands of Scots infected with HIV and hepatitis C through contaminated blood products between the 1970s and 1990s.
Boyack’s hopeful that Brown and the government can be persuaded to think again.
“There are mining communities across the country who now have SNP MSPs as a local member and I hope those local members will stand back and reflect and speak to the former miners in their communities and speak to the Scottish NUM and just think before it’s definitively ruled out,” she says.
“It needs to be considered while the Pardons Bill is with us because what other chances will we have to consider compensation for those mining families?”
The pardon is a great thing for me. It gives everyone a bit of closure.
There’s also concern over the scope of the pardons being offered. Currently, it will provide a pardon only to those convicted of non-violent acts, typically breach of the peace charges while on picket lines, but won’t cover offences in the community. That could mean someone convicted of a minor infringements like sticking up two fingers, or shouting “scab” at strike-breakers, would not be covered.
There’s limited time to get the Pardons Bill, with or without compensation, through parliament. Many of the men are old, and, as you’d expect from people who spent decades working underground in a dangerous industry, many are not in the best of health.
They’re running out of time to get justice.