The Miners’ Strike was a major class defeat, but as the essays in Justice Denied show, it is also a beacon for the collective values that persist, argues Sofie Mason
Justice Denied: Friends, Foes and the Miners’ Strike, eds David Allsop, Carol Stephenson and David Wray (Merlin Press 2017), xii, 200pp.
In one of the final chapters of this excellent compilation of essays, written from an eye witness standpoint by those who were personally and directly involved in the years of the strike, John Stirling states that the struggle to preserve ‘a single mining community is embedded in a global struggle against a capital, whether individual or financial, that has little interest in those it employs or the increasingly depleted world in which they work’ (p.178).
Looking back at such an iconic strike with this kind of global perspective could not be more timely today as we wade through the mire of fake news, toxic narratives, fractured identity politics and fear-fuelled populism. Of course, we can see the consequences all around us of Thatcher’s and subsequent governments’ concerted efforts to eradicate any opposition to unfettered global capitalism, but this is a powerful reminder of what the miners’ strike achieved, of what class is and what collective values endure that still hold the key to an alternative.
The account starts with the detail of different experiences of what the strike meant and how it brought out things in people that were unknown, even to themselves. Ian Lavery, for example, writes:
‘When I embarked on the strike I was politically naïve, but by its end I was hardened and knew this attack on hardworking communities had been a political, not an industrial, issue … Despite the fact that the last deep mine in the UK closed in December 2015, the UK still produces up to 30% of its electricity from coal imported from abroad while rich seams still extend below our feet … (it was) nothing less than wanton industrial vandalism’ (pp.19-20).
Sian James describes how women found their voice and became speakers touring the country raising support, how she went on to do a degree at Swansea University and became MP for Swansea East and how: “Our actions in the strike … helped achieve full equality for gay men and women in the UK’ (p.42). Peter Smith describes picketing Orgreave: ‘It was probably the best year of my life and, looking back over the thirty years since the strike, I would not change a thing’ (p.63). Others, children at the time, remember the Christmas that was such a time of shortage and yet also such a joyous coming together in solidarity: ‘Normally at Christmas there was always a settee overflowing with presents for me … I got a cheap watch and a coat that my Auntie had made, but I did not care because I was just having so much fun’ (p.66).
The book moves on to remind us of the controversies at the time: was it a Tory conspiracy or a cock up? Was the NCB announcement on 1st March 1984 to close down Cortonwood colliery in South Yorkshire based on crossed wires, given government ministers’ previous attempts to avoid a public war? Once it started, it was undoubtedly a political showdown for both sides, but did the absence of a ballot weaken the legitimacy of the dispute in the eyes of the public and would calling it have made any difference? How much was Scargill in charge of the direction of the strike and how much were the miners themselves who did not want branch-level decisions overridden, giving miners who weren’t likely to lose jobs the right to vote down miners who were? What was the history that may have made what happened in Nottinghamshire inevitable? What really happened at Orgreave? How important was the role of the media, the police and the courts: could they just as well have been state-controlled?
The only role that is not scrutinised is that played by the Labour Party at the time and that absence of scrutiny must have been deliberate on the part of the editors and should have been explained. However, with the hindsight of over thirty years, this intelligent and detailed study of the strike sheds a clear light on how we got to where we are today. It illuminates how much was done then and continues to be done now to demean and demonise the working class, the poor, the low waged, the unemployed and the disabled in order to legitimise cuts to benefits, the privatisation of housing, education, transport and health. The contrast shows how weakened the unions have become with dropping membership and reduced resources, resulting in attempts to adapt by becoming service-providers themselves, thereby distancing themselves from their class roots.
It is also an important reminder of how much the courts and the media actively colluded in demonising the ‘enemy within’, while Thatcher bought off rail workers, dockers and pit deputies to ensure the miners were isolated. Eventually, much was revealed, thanks to a police training video taken on the day, of police lies and police brutality at the Battle of Orgreave, followed by the miscarriages of justice revealed in the late 80s and 90s, in the cases of the Guildford Four, the Maguire Seven, the Birmingham Six, the ongoing Stephen Lawrence murder case, the Hillsborough and Orgreave court settlements and even the death of Ian Tomlinson in 2009. One writer argues that the enduring legacy of the miners’ strike may well have been to compel the police morally to adopt a more democratic and permissive approach in their handling of industrial and political dissent, but we know that even recent history remains damning.
What runs through all the reports, however, is an understanding of how such a spectacular class defeat could have turned into such a beacon of hope. Justice Denied does as much as the film Pride in reminding us of humanity at its very best: of miners who put the collective good over personal gain; who continued on strike in Nottingham despite hideous opposition; who continued to strike throughout even though they could have taken a generous redundancy payment; who decided to risk everything for the benefit of others, to protect their communities and to protect jobs for future generations. The real legacy of this historic dispute is the values that it came to represent and how little Thatcher actually succeeded in overturning them.
Thatcher went full throttle:
‘to eradicate not just effective opposition to free-market economics, but the root cause of it – identity based on class … Her ultimate aim was to shift the collective consciousness of these people from “workers” to “entrepreneurs” and “individuals” in order to prepare an ideological and political climate sympathetic to unfettered global capitalism … As free-market economics rests on the belief that the economy is best served if individuals act in their own economic best interest, this shift to individualistic and competitive thinking was vital … Defeating the miners, it was hoped, would help undermine the very idea of the power of the British working class and of class itself” (pp.3-7).
This was meant to usher in greater freedom and prosperity for young people, unshackled from the tyranny of collectivism and nationalisation.
And how’s that working out for young people today then? Student debt, low wages, unaffordable housing, precarious employment, vanishing pensions, a sharpening divide between rich and poor and the lowest level of social mobility in the developed world?
The market clearly doesn’t work, but it may well seem that we are losing class as a defining category. It may well be that identity is now more defined by race or gender or products consumed; it may well be that the move away from mining and manufacturing and towards services and finance capital is irreversible; it may well be that, like the decimated miners’ communities, we are all gradually losing the focal points of actual shops, pubs, youth centres and the high street, and falling into increased ‘emotional degeneration’. All this can be considered, but so should be the renewed high levels of public approval for the re-nationalisation of key industries and the renewed desire to provide for the common good through collective effort.
You only need to look at the disputes of the last few years, the junior doctors’ strikes over hours and pay, or the young workers giving their all to their campaigns for the Real Living Wage in the ICA, The Serpentine, the Picturehouse and Curzon cinemas as well as The Rio Dalston. All of those involved understand the collective good, they engage with their communities and they see beyond individual consumers to shared values and collective interests expressed in acts of selfless solidarity. The spirit of the miners lives on, as demonstrated in the final chapter of the book, celebrating The Durham Miners’ Gala as ‘a highly visible celebration of a commitment to collectivism’ (p.191).