The terrific boost that the Battle of Saltley Gate gave to the British Working Class




In the Amazon review of the Alwyn W. Turner book Crisis? What Crisis? Britain in the 1970’s, the precis includes the following:-

The 1970’s. They were the best of times and the worst of times. Wealth inequality was at a record low YET industrial strife was at a record high.

As members of the SLP, we have to ask the logic of using the word ‘Yet’.

To us, it would seem absolutely logical that BECAUSE industrial strife was at a record high under the rotten, corrupt capitalist system, then the working class were able to defend themselves better and so wealth inequality was lower!

One of the major sources of relative working class strength in the 1970’s was to be found

in the National Union of Miners. This union had stood almost alone against the Capitalist Establishment in events surrounding the General Strike of 1926 but had periods of being dominated by the ‘right-wing’. The Yorkshire area of the Union had been dominated by its right- wing until the appearance on the scene of a young ‘left-winger’, by the name of Arthur Scargill. He had swiftly won the backing of his colleagues in the area through political astuteness and adroitness and had introduced the idea of support for fellow workers in struggle by the use of, what were termed, ‘flying pickets’.

It was the use of these flying pickets, along with the concept of working class unity that were to become the decisive factors in the eventual ‘Battle of Saltley Gate’.

The miners felt that their pay was inadequate and called a strike under the national leadership of Joe Gormley. The Tory Government of Edward Heath had been preparing for this action and had been stockpiling large amounts of coal.

If the NUM were to succeed in their demands, it was imperative that coal stocks should be minimal, so that disruption of supplies, as at power stations, should be maximised.

The winter of 1971-72 brought cold weather on cue to help the miners so demand

for coal increased and stocks ran down quickly. One source of heating which

hadn’t been adequately dealt with by the actions of the NUM was the vast

stockpile at Saltley coke plant in Birmingham. Joe Gormley asked that this source

be turned off. It was time for the operation of effective picketing of the depot to

prevent lorries distributing the coke.

Arthur Scargill has recalled ‘We launched from the coalfield here (in Yorkshire)

squads of cars, minibuses and buses, all directed on to predetermined targets,

with five, six hundred miners at a time. Of course, the police were going to come,

but they couldn’t cover forty points at a time, without bringing the British armed

forces in.’

Minor local picketing had been going on at Saltley with a small police presence

but this had been insufficient. The arrival of Arthur Scargill and the Yorkshire

miners galvanised the situation and having already established close ties to

influential Birmingham trade unionists like Frank Watters, an appeal was made for

broader trade union support from the area. Despite huge increases in police

presence outside the depot gates and the more vicious ‘Special Patrol Group’, the

arrival of tens of thousands of Birmingham trade unionists and their allies,

including students and members of the public, presented the police with an

insurmountable problem. Arthur Scargill, meanwhile orchestrated the operation

on behalf of the trade unionists, with megaphone in hand. With the chants of

‘close the gates’, the gates were closed to the lorries under police supervision and

a great working class victory was secured.

The Tory administration was meanwhile reeling under this pressure.

Other industrial action around this time included the dockers dispute and the

jailing of the ‘Pentonville 5’, the building workers dispute resulting in the jailing of

the ‘Shrewsbury 2- Ricky Tomlinson and Des Warren, and the Grunwick dispute

with the emergence of the horrible Rupert Murdoch Group infiltration into

Britain.

With these militant actions, a break was temporarily put on rampant capitalism in

Britain and the Country was soon immersed in the ‘three day week’ and periods

of electricity shortage. Heath tried to bribe the working class with 10 per cent

across the board pay rises and the like but in February 1974 he called a general

election on the question of who runs Britain, the Tory Government or the Trades

Unions? The Tories lost the election and Harold Wilson emerged as a Labour

Prime minister. But it wasn’t the working class that benefitted. The non-stop

attacks upon the working class by Labour and Tory administrations led eventually

to the James Callaghan ‘Winter of discontent’ war with the British working class

and the emergence of even more rampant capitalism under the Thatcher regime.

Tory vengeance over the Heath debacle knew no bounds and eventually, the

whole state apparatus was thrown against the working class bulwark of Arthur

Scargill and the NUM in the 1984-5 Miners Strike. The British working class needs

to rediscover its determined resistance to rampant capitalism as in the above

events of the 1970’s

Rob J. Hawkins, S.W. Region, 14.1.2022


Note. The 50th anniversary of Saltley Gate wil be on 10th February 2022. A number of events are being planned with a meeting on the day to be addressed by Arthur Scargill, Ricky Tomlinson, Mick Lynch, General Secretary RMT, Ian Hodson, President BFAWU and Sharon Graham, General Secretary of UNITE (tbc). This will be at the Priory Rooms, Quaker Meeting House, 40 Bull Street, Birmingham

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