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Miners' Strike and Consensus Politics

Miners' Strike and Consensus Politics

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Published by Ben Ringshall
To What Extent Does the Defeat of the Miners’ Strike 1984 Mark the End of ‘Consensus’ Politics in Britain?

The political significance of the 1984 miners’ strike, which ended in the most noteworthy defeat of the unions since 1926, was that it reflected the abandonment of the post-war political consensus. The involvement of the trade unions in the economic management of the country had been considered vital to the success of other
To What Extent Does the Defeat of the Miners’ Strike 1984 Mark the End of ‘Consensus’ Politics in Britain?

The political significance of the 1984 miners’ strike, which ended in the most noteworthy defeat of the unions since 1926, was that it reflected the abandonment of the post-war political consensus. The involvement of the trade unions in the economic management of the country had been considered vital to the success of other

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Published by: Ben Ringshall on May 26, 2012
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05/31/2012

 
To What Extent Does the Defeat of the Miners’Strike 1984 Mark the End of ‘Consensus’ Politics in Britain?
 The political significance of the 1984 miners’ strike, which ended in the mostnoteworthy defeat of the unions since 1926, was that it reflected the abandonment of the post-war political consensus. The involvement of the trade unions in the economicmanagement of the country had been considered vital to the success of other goalsimplicit in this consensus, such as the commitment to full employment, universalwelfare provision, the NHS and the mixed economy. It will be argued that thesepolicies represent an agreement on the relationship between capital and labour thatwas born out of WWII, reflecting the degree to which the electorate had swung to thecentre-left of party politics; the consensus was therefore based broadly upon thepeople’s desire’s. As will be shown, Thatcher was assured in her dislike of theconsensus and the power that had been allotted to the unions as part and parcel of it.Dismantling the relationship between capital, state and labour that characterised thewelfare-capitalist consensus and replacing it with the neo-liberalist, individualistic,unrestricted capitalism that she desired would involve removing those thatrepresented the consensus at base level, the unions. As the social democraticsettlement was broadly ‘voter-driven’, it will be shown how public opinion on theunions was divided throughout the strike, which contributed to the collapse of theconsensus as a whole. The miners’ strike was therefore not a battle over wages, andwas only loosely connected to the closing of the pits. It was a battle for the collectivistideals that had formed British society post-war. It was a battle for the ideologicalcentre ground of the consensus and one that was ultimately lost by the labourmovement. It is for this reason, that the Miners’ Strike marks the end of the post-warconsensus.Evidently, there are those that deny the existence of a consensus in post-warBritish politics. Jenkins (1987) argues that there was never a consensus and thatBritain’s economic decline was due to, “sharp and usually ideologically-inspired1
 
changes in direction”
 
caused by alternating Labour and Conservative governmentsafter 1945.
1
Yet these views demonstrate a common misunderstanding of the conceptin its political sense. The use of the term ‘consensus’ to describe British politics since1945 does not imply that disagreement between the leading political players did notoccur but rather that their disagreement was contained. It is also true that some levelof consensus has always existed in British politics with regard to the legitimacy of thestate and its constitutional apparatus; an adversarial system could not exist unless a“fair measure of common ground is maintained
” 
between the leading contenders forpower.
2
Politicians will of course disagree on many issues, creating an outwardappearance of conflict, but there would be no progress if after every election thevictor reversed all of the previous administration’s legislation. Some level of cross-party consensus on the direction of the state
must 
exist for Parliament to maintain itsauthority and for legislation to have a lasting effect. Kavanagh and Morris (1989)suggest that it is more appropriate to think of this consensus as, “a set of parameterswhich bounded the set of policy options regarded by senior politicians and civilservants as administratively practicable, economically affordable and politicallyacceptable.
” 
3
 
It is therefore critical to this argument to establish how theseparameters were defined.
 
When we consider that parties do, “compete for votes by placing themselves on a[sic] optimal place on the ideological spectrum,”
4
the logical conclusion is that theboundaries of what is
 politically acceptable
are broadly defined by the electorate. Thisallows both parties to adhere to differing overarching beliefs and express differencesin policy detail due to their interpretation of what the post-war settlement amountedto.
5
The Second World War created circumstances in which there was a definite shiftto the left of the political spectrum. Public opinion on the role of government changedand it became both acceptable and desirable for the state to take an active role in the
1
Jenkins, P (1987)
Mrs. Thatcher’s Revolution: the Ending of the Socialist Era,
London: Cape, p.3
2
Dutton, D. (1991)
British Politics Since 1945: The Rise and Fall of Consensus,
Oxford: Basil Blackwell,p.6
3
Kavanagh, D. and Morris, P. (1989)
Consensus Politics: From Attlee to Major,
Oxford: Blackwell, p13
4
Ware, A. (1996)
Politcal Parties and Party Systems,
Oxford; Oxford University Press, 1996, p48
5
Fraser, D. “The Post-War Consensus: A Debate Not Long Enough” in
Parliamentary Affairs,
Vol 53,2000 , p354
2
 
social and economic management of the country.
6
The war was fought as a ‘People’sWar’ and thus it became a prerogative of the coalition government as early as 1941to expand the economy and use the state’s powers to ensure that there was noreturn to the social injustices of the 1920s and 30s.
7
The fact that the CabinetCommittee on Reconstruction, who considered a number of blueprints including
TheBeveridge Report 1942,
reached a broad agreement on social security, education,greater state intervention and Keynesian budgeting techniques,
8
demonstrates thatthe welfare state and full employment were popular issues.Furthermore, the necessitous involvement of the trade unions in the domestic wareffort secured them a stake in society that they had never previously and it was thepresence of union leaders like Bevin “which ensured that this new role should faroutlast the ending of the war.”
9
 
 The unions were determined to continue to have “adecisive share in the actual control of the economic life of the nation
 
andcontinued to enjoy unprecedented representation on a number of governmentcommittees after the war.
This is not surprising as the unions were traditionallyclosely linked with the Labour Party but the fact that political and administrative elitesfrom both parties accepted the desirability of working with, rather than against, thetrade union leadership is resounding evidence of a consensus. As Attlee said of hisfirst term, “the verdict of the electors had…been sufficiently decisive to prevent theOpposition from indulging in obstruction.
’ 
The public had accepted the socialdemocratic conventions that materialized from the War and this would continuebeyond Labour’s return to the Opposition benches. Between them, they had laid thefoundations for “the economic and political settlement between capital and labour forthe next two decades.”
It is this definition of consensus that is most appealing tothis argument, as it was the relationship between capital and labour that would
6
Addison, P. (1975)
The Road to 1945: British Politics and the Second World War,
London; Cape,p16
7
Addison, P. (1975)
The Road to 1945: British Politics and the Second World War,
London; Cape, p118
8
Kavanagh, D. and Morris, P. (1989)
Consensus Politics: From Attlee to Major,
Oxford: Blackwell, p16
9
Dutton, D. (1991)
British Politics Since 1945: The Rise and Fall of Consensus,
Oxford: Basil Blackwell,p13
10
Barnes, D. & Reid, E. (1980)
Governments and the Trade Unions,
London; Heinemann, p12
11
Allen, V. (1960)
Trade Unions and Government,
London; Longman, p34
12
Attlee, C. (1954)
 As it Happened,
London, Heinemann, p165
13
Jessop, B. “The Transformation of the State in Post War Britain”, in R. Scase (ed.)
The State inWestern Europe
, New York; St. Martin’s Press, 1980, p.28
3

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