Jon Griffin marks next month’s 40th anniversary of a Birmingham industrial dispute which signalled the beginning of the end for Prime Minister Ted Heath.
It was a day that changed the course of UK history – and ultimately brought down the Government.
February 10, 1972, saw 30,000 Birmingham engineers walk out in support of the nationwide strike by the miners, the coal industry’s first national action since the General Strike of 1926.
The Battle of Saltley Gate in Birmingham proved the key turning point in the 1972 miners’ strike, the catalyst for an eventual 21 per cent pay award which smashed the Government’s pay restraint policy.
Up to 15,000 engineers downed tools and marched to back 2,000 miners who were picketing Saltley, the last remaining open fuel depot.
The blockade forced police, who had battled for days to keep the depot open, to surrender and close the gates.
The embattled Prime Minister of the day, Edward Heath, eventually declared a state of emergency when Midland car delivery workers came out in sympathy.
The strike had followed a two-month overtime ban and was backed by the 280,000-strong National Union of Mineworkers.
The dispute ran throughout January and February 1972, with vital coal supplies to power stations disrupted by secondary pickets, now illegal.
The miners’ walkout followed a 47 per cent pay claim by the NUM against a background of rocketing inflation and unprecedented union power, with central heating still a luxury and few smokeless zones.
Eye-witness accounts of Saltley Gate tell their own dramatic story, even 40 years later.
Bob KcKee, of the Militant political movement, said at the time: “At first there were only ten of us, then 20, 50, 500 and finally 10,000.
“Men from Dunlop, British Leyland, Rover, Drop Forge, GEC... Birmingham industry was at a standstill and 10,000 people flooded the square outside the depot. The police closed the gates – victory was ours.”
NUM official Arthur Scargill, the firebrand who was to later take on and lose to Margaret Thatcher in the 1984-85 miners’ strike, said: “As far as the eye could see it was a mass of people marching towards Saltley.”
The Birmingham Evening Mail’s front page on February 10, 1972, told how a “sea of faces stretched as far as the eye could see” as the Saltley depot was closed.
The report continued: “There was a great roar as the gates shut for the first time since picketing began last week.
“Police lines were relaxed as columns of workers from all parts of the city marched ten deep on Saltley.
“An hour after the huge crowds had massed outside the depot the gates were closed and locked by Gas Board security men.
“Tumultuous cheering broke out as Mr Scargill climbed on to the roof of a nearby building and told the crowd through a loudhailer: ‘If working people are united they can achieve anything’.”
The closure of the gates at Saltley proved the crucial turning point for both the miners and Heath.
Fuel supplies were so low the nation was put on a three-day week, and the miners eventually won a 21 per cent rise, a resounding defeat for the Government’s pay policy.
It was to prove the beginning of the end for Heath, who was out of power within two years after a second miners’ strike in early 1974 saw him lose office to a minority Labour Government under Harold Wilson.
* A new publication – Close The Gates – The 1972 Miners’ Strike, Saltley Gate and the Defeat of the Tories – written by Birmingham-based activist Pete Jackson recalls the dramatic events of 1972.
Jackson, now 46, said: “The police at Saltley were completely outnumbered and were unable to do anything.
“It was part of the process of a turning tide against the Government of the day. The fact the unions won broke the pay restraint policy and began a series of events which led to the second strike in 1974 and brought the Government down.
“There was an incredible level of shopfloor militancy in engineering in Birmingham at the time.
“Arthur Scargill was not a national figure at the time – he represented the miners in Barnsley – but he connected greatly with that militancy. There was a great solidarity with the miners – I grew up thinking flying pickets were normal.
"They shut down the Saltley depot. If the miners had lost their dispute in 1972, there would not have been a dispute in 1974. British history would have taken a different course.”
Jackson, a member of Unite union who works in education, said the Battle of Saltley Gate could provide lessons for 2012.
“These things are lessons for future struggles,” he said. “We are in difficult times – not many people think the Government is playing fair. Saltley Gate and flying pickets were new developments at the time but we can learn today that unions can beat a Government.”
“The next round of history is still to be made. People are saying ‘can the workers win? We can.”
* Close the Gates is published and distributed by Bookmarks. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or telephone 020 7637 1848.