March 2014

Ian Whyles: “You don't cross pickets lines. End of”

It is 30 years next week since Arthur Scargill called Britain's miners out on one of the longest and most violent strikes in British history. It is almost as long since Stephen Whyles was denounced as a 'scab' by his father for crossing the picket lines and cast from the family home.

In the subsequent three decades Whyles has never returned. He has met his parents just three times – at a family wedding, a christening and a funeral – but they hardly spoke. “Had I murdered somebody and gone to prison for 30 years, or if I'd been a paedophile or mass rapist, I would expect my father to disown me, but not for choosing to go back to work,” said Whyles, 51, who now works as a health and safety manager in Margaret Thatcher's home town of Grantham. “I can't get my head around that.”

Their feud is just one manifestation of the bitterness that still pervades the north Derbyshire mining village of Whitwell where the Whyles family lived and mined for at least four generations.

The colliery was closed a year after the strike ended, and all that remains is a lunar landscape of barren slag heaps, an expanse of concrete and rubble, a rusting railway line and a couple of dilapidated sheds with 'Pigs Fuck Off' daubed in red paint on a wall. There has been no regeneration here.

But the emotional scars of Scargill's epic trial of strength with Thatcher's government have certainly not vanished. Many of the older strikers never worked again. They still remember exactly who the “scabs” were, and have ensured their children know who they are. They still spurn those who “betrayed” the cause and their class by returning to work. They will not acknowledge them in the street, or talk to them in the Co-op, or drink with them in the Jack Ups social club on Butt Hill. For them the strike is still current affairs, not history.

“Like Churchill said – there's an iron curtain,” declared John Hadland, 71, a burly former miner who stayed out till the bitter end of a 12-month dispute that took Britain closer to civil war than at any time in 400 years. “It will be a long, long time before it's forgotten.

“I am bitter about it. The scabs betrayed us,” said John Turner, a third-generation miner whose living room is decorated with plates commemorating “The Great Miners' Strike” and statuettes emblazoned “Joined in Struggle”. Turner has even taught his grandson who the “scabs” were. “If they break a strike they will never be forgotten,” he vowed.

Arguments still rage over the wisdom of the strike, with the loyalists maintaining that Scargill was right all along when he claimed the government had a secret list of more than 70 pits it wanted to close. Whyles insists that “if you want to protect the industry the last thing you do is walk away from it for 12 months. The way to keep the pits open is with a pick and shovel, not a (Communist) hammer and sickle.”

The two sides agree only that the government's ultimate victory over what Thatcher termed “mob rule” was a watershed for Britain. It all but destroyed the National Union of Mineworkers, the country's proudest union which had brought down Edward Heath's government a decade earlier. It undermined the entire trade union movement, which has never fully recovered. It marked the end of Britain's post-war flirtation with socialism, and the start of a new era of Thatcherite entrepreneurialism and free marketry that even Tony Blair's Labour government subsequently embraced.

As for the coal industry which once powered Britain's industrial revolution, the outcome was even worse than Scargill predicted. When Thatcher took power in 1979 Britain had 170 underground mines that produced 130 million tonnes of coal year and employed roughly 200,000 miners. By 2012 a mere handful of mines produced 15 million tonnes and employed less than 6,000 miners. Britain now imports 45 million tonnes of cheap foreign coal.

Whyles was 22 when the strike began, and had been working with his father, Ian, at the Whitwell colliery for three years. He was engaged. He was buying a house. He was appalled at the prospect of industrial action, especially as Scargill had refused to call a national ballot. He remembers his shift being asked for a show of hands, which showed strong opposition to industrial action, but says union officials told him: “We've voted to strike. That's all you need to know.”

He stayed out during six months of escalating violence between flying pickets and the police, who are still regarded with hostility in Whitwell. He became convinced that Scargill was more interested in toppling the Tory government than the miners' welfare. He had already moved into his fiancee's family home (her father was a Conservative councillor) following arguments with his own father, but went to see him one more time before becoming the 14th of Whitwell's 750 miners to return to work. “You don't cross pickets lines. End of,” his father warned him. “You go back to work and you will never be able to forget it. Once a scab, always a scab...You will never be welcome under this roof.” Whyles stormed out.

At 5.15 one September morning a bus picked him up from his fiancee's home. Its windows were covered in wire mesh. The driver wore a crash helmet. A guard wielded a baseball club. Escorted by two police vans, the bus drove eight strikebreakers to the mine. Whyles was petrified. “All I could see was a sea of pickets on both sides of the road and the noise was horrific. They shouted 'scabs' and 'bastards' and were lunging at the police lines, trying to get to the bus.” As the bus reached the gate Whyles glimpsed his father in the melee.

The next night a brick was thrown through a window of his fiancee's home. Later a typewritten note was pushed through the letter box. “You are a dead man, you scabby bastard,” it read. For weeks he was afraid to leave the house, and his fiancee left her job in a knitwear factory because she was being abused by miners' wives who worked there. The couple were married that November in a church ringed by police, and his parents refused to attend. When he encountered his mother in the Co-op one day and she walked out.

Gradually the miners returned to work, many forced to do so by hunger and poverty. By the time the strike ended in March 1985 fewer than 100 of Whitwell's miners were still out. Whyles saw his father back at the mine, but they scarcely spoke. The following year the pit was closed after nearly a century of production, and Whyles was one of the first to apply for voluntary redundancy. The miners' old comradeship was gone. “It was awful,” he said. “I was always watching my back. There was a lot of vandalism and it was a very tense. Mines can't function without absolute trust because you rely on each other for safety.”

Whyles became a domestic appliance repairman. He says he wrote to his father in 1991, when his marriage was breaking up, but received no reply. He left the village after remarrying in 1994. His parents did not attend that wedding either, nor his third in 2003. They have not seen Whyles's 28-year-old daughter - their grand-daughter - since she was an infant. “It's painful,” says Whyles, who was very close to his father as a boy.

Ian Whyles is now 77. He was already in poor health when the mine closed, and never worked again. He and his wife, Muriel, live in a bungalow in Hodthorpe, a village adjacent to Whitwell where he sits on the parish council.

He appears mild-mannered and genial, but his political views have not mellowed. He belongs to the hard-Left Socialist Party. He denounces the “treacherous actions” of Neil Kinnock, the Labour leader during the strike, and the union leaders who failed to support the NUM. He exudes contempt for Tony Blair and New Labour, saying they are “more Tory than the Tories”. He still defends Scargill, saying he was let down by the rest of the Labour movement but vindicated by the subsequent destruction of Britain's coal industry. As for Thatcher, he says his remaining ambition before he dies is “to go and spit on her grave”.

He is more reticent about Stephen. He says that he was “embarrassed” when his son crossed the picket lines, and that Muriel's reaction was “unprintable”. But he was particularly enraged when he returned to work after the strike and saw Stephen wearing a cap bearing the name of the breakaway Union of Democratic Mineworkers. “Talk about rubbing salt in the wounds!”, he exclaims.

It seems unlikely that father and son will ever be reconciled now. Stephen says he still loves his father, though he considers his conduct “absurd”. His one wish is to meet him before he dies and thrash out their differences, but doubts that will happen because “the Marxist view is you either adopt their point of view or you don't feature at all”. He even doubts that his mother would let him attend his father's funeral.

For his part Ian Whyles told the Daily Mirror in 2004: “Maybe on my death bed I'll speak to (Stephen) again. I'll call him a bloody scab and then I'll die.” He now says that was a joke, but when asked if he would want his son to attend his funeral, he retorted: “I would rather go to his.”

Perhaps that was a joke as well, but it was hard to tell given the depth of bitterness that endures 30 years after the miners' last stand.