Events at Saltley Gate trace their roots back to the miners’ strike which began on 9th January 1972, the first national strike in nearly half a century. Miners’ wages had fallen significantly behind other industries because of high levels of inflation. In response the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) demanded a 43% pay rise, yet Edward Heath’s conservative government was determined to keep pay rises between 7% and 8%. Initially a victory by the miners’ was considered impossible.
The Battle of Saltley Gate was to provide a turning point in the miners’ strike. On 4th February 1972, led by Arthur Scargill, the strikers embarked upon the mass picketing of the last accessible coke storage depot in Birmingham, in an attempt to enhance their bargaining position. Initially, their efforts bore little fruit and the depot was kept open.
However, by 10th February several thousand miners from South Yorkshire and South Wales, along with the unionised workers from other Birmingham industries, had joined in, providing the necessary reinforcements to prompt the government into action. In response, to the crowd of over 15,000 picketers, Sir Derrick Capper, the Chief constable of Birmingham City Police, ordered the depot to close its gates ‘in the interest of public safety’.
Nine days after the depot had closed, with the country now under a state of emergency and restricted to a 3-day working week, Heath agreed to meet the union’s demands. The victory was seen as a triumph of the working class over the government, and has been named after a great British victory in the Hundred Years War: ’the miners’ Agincourt’.
The triumph at Saltley Gate proved the effectiveness of solidarity strikes and restored the miners’ confidence. Moreover, it severely damaged the morale of the Conservative government, who would be ousted in 1974, partly as a result of the strike. It has remained a key moment in British working class history, as evidenced by the miners’ strike of 1984-5 in which events at the Battle of Orgreave threatened a repeat of 1972.
Yet was this a long term victory for socialists and trade unionists? Arguably not, since within eighteen months the miners were on strike again. Moreover, their actions created a hostile relationship between trade unions and both Tory and Labour governments. Added to this was the detrimental effect of the subsequent 3-day working week on the British publics’ perception of trade unions in general, an impression that is still struggling to be demolished today.