Thursday, March 20, 2014

From Bob's archive: The Miners' Strike at 30

I've been too busy for blogging lately, so here's something to fill the space. I wrote it almost exactly five years ago, at the quarter century of the Miners' Strike, whose 30th anniversary it now is. 

Yesterday was Budget Day, and our Tory government gave us a penny of a pint of beer and reduced tax on Bingo, claiming this was "to help hardworking people [note how "hardworking" has become a single word under the Tories, their austerity policy even extending to dashes and spaces] do more of the things they enjoy", the keyword being "they". Meanwhile, in London, Mayor Boris Johnson approved the use of watercannon against disorder in the capital, presumably for when us hardworkingpeople are no longer sufficiently distracted by beer and bingo. 

In the morning of budget day, BBC Radio 4 were in Easington, County Durham, talking to ex-miners in a place where there have been three decades of job losses, a place where people are not feeling the economic"recovery" the government has promised us. It was heart-breaking listening. My comrade Harry Barnes has written about Easington colliery; his father moved there in 1912 and when he died there 84 years later when the pit had been three years closed. Here's an extract from Harry's post:
Although Easington went through some tough pioneering years, by the time the 1931 economic depression broke and my father was 22 the population (of Easington Colliery and adjoining Easington Village combined) had reached 12,000. This meant that even with relative impoverishment it established a range of shops, cinemas, clubs, pubs, churches, chapels, schools and Miners' Welfare facilities. The Miners' Federation was committed to building Aged Miners' Homes and providing medical facilities, whilst the Labour Council embarked upon Council House building. It meant that although my father did not have an easy life, he had a full life. These fulfilments need to be appreciated if we are to put the harsh aspects of his life in perspective.
Note: the songs at the start and end of this post are by Ed Pickford, from County Durham, who turned seventy last year. 

***



It’s Monday night, and I’ve been watching BBC4’s documentary on the Miners’ Strike, which started a quarter century ago. The documentary, focusing on a small group of Hatfield strikers, is a well made piece, and a powerful experience. Most affecting are the men, the strikers – Dave DouglassDave Nixon, Harry Harle, Tony Clegg, Mick Mulligan: incredibly articulate, intelligent, reflective. They relate the stories with a vividness as if they are talking about yesterday, but you do not have the sense that these are stories they have told again and again. And they have an extraordinary nobility about them. It is palpable the extent to which the experience transformed them completely, how the hatred tempered them, how much courage it took to get through it, particularly as the strike came to an end and defeat became inevitable, a shameful, humiliating defeat.

Also clear is the level of solidarity and community that was present in the pit villages before the strike, and which also strengthened by the strike. As two of the men suggest, Thatcher’s victory over the miners was partly a victory for individualism over community. Thatcher’s successors like to point to our working class communities and the social fragmentation there – “Broken Britain”; but what broke these places? Thatcher’s war on the unions, with the confrontation with the miners as the central theatre of battle, broke the institutions of self-help and mutual aid, destroyed the culture of solidarity that bound such villages, devastated a working class moral economy which sustained these communities. 

The fact that this was a war is also brought home by the film. I don’t think that people younger than me can really appreciate how clearly the lines were drawn, how divided Britain was. The picket lines were incredibly violent, with most of the violence coming from the police, especially the Metropolitan police, who acted as an occupying military force in communities like Hatfield.

And this violence was linked to the way the police protected the fascist National Front in confrontations like Lewisham ’77; it was connected to the troubles in Northern Ireland, to the uprisings in many of Britain’s inner cities, to the violence on other picketlines (most notably at Wapping), to the clampdown of the travelling and festival cultures (most importantly at the Battle of the Beanfield).Britain was essentially in a state of civil war.

Although I am at the younger end of the Miners’ Strike generation, it was that moment which shaped me politically, which therefore made me who I am today. This is brought home to me by the visceral way, a quarter century on, that I find myself responding to this documentary. It strikes me now that – with the signal exception of the part we played in defeating the poll tax and getting Thatcher deposed at the end of the decade – all of the battles I’ve been heavily involved in have been defeated: the campaigns against the next round of pit closures in 1992, against student loans, against successive immigration and asylum bills, against the Criminal Justice Act, and so on. About five years ago, before I started blogging, I was a fan of the now defunct blog Socialism in an Age of Waiting. The title [taken from Victor Serge] captured my imagination. Thatcher's revolution was almost total. The working class movement that fought so hard in 1984 barely staggers on. What does radical politics mean in such a time?

1 comment:

Fladamia Janavitch said...

Its so unfair how the miners strike affected so many people and their lives and put so many people out of work!