The collapse of the British miners' strike, after nearly a year of extraordinary turbulence, is the kind of event that permanently marks a country's political life. It was unquestionably better for Britain -- very much better -- that the strike failed.
For one thing, the leadership had commenced the strike by overriding the union's own rules and refusing to hold a strike vote. It relied on very rough picketing, rock-throwing and threats to try to enforce the decision of the most militant on the doubters. It didn't work. The implications would have been ominous if it had worked. But that's why the union was never able to hold the allegiance of its full membership and why it got only the most tepid support from other unions.
This strike was not only an attempt to bring down Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her Conservative government. It was a counterattack against her faith in economic rationalization and against her determined drive to accelerate British economic growth. The union's overriding purpose was to perpetuate the present jobs in the mines, including those mines producing unneeded coal at huge losses to their owner, the government. The union said that it intended to secure those jobs not only for the men now holding them, but for generations of miners to come. You are entitled to ask whether it represented enlightened social policy to continue sending 16-year-old boys underground to spend their working lives in the harsh and dangerous world of a miner, producing coal that can't compete with other countries'.
The union, under its Marxist leaders, was insisting on tradition and the observance of past usage regardless of cost. It was the Conservative government, in contrast, that kept pressing for radical reform in the name of efficiency.
The end of this strike is the most important of the victories that Mrs. Thatcher has won for her economic program, but there have been others. Unfortunately, she has less to show for them than she had hoped. The long decline in manufacturing continues; the number of manufacturing jobs is now nearly one- fourth lower than when the Conservatives came to office six years ago. Unemployment is nearly 14 percent. That's what makes it so difficult to move labor out of overmanned, money-losing industries like coal -- there's not much demand elsewhere. Britain's economy is currently expanding but, as usual, less rapidly than all the economies of the other major countries of Western Europe. The miners' strike itself is part of the explanation of the disappointing performance of the past year. With her campaign to cut down the subsidies to the uncompetitive producers, Mrs. Thatcher is on the right track. The puzzling thing is that so far her achievements have had little visible effect.