There is no doubt about it. Not only was the Miners' Strike of 1984-5 the seminal moment of the post-war period, it was also the pivot on which Britain's subsequent history hinged. The miners knew it. Those sections of the labour movement who rendered their unfailing support knew it. And the millions of ordinary working folk from all walks of life who attended a picket, went on a march, gave generously to hardship funds and donated food outside of supermarkets realised it as well. And so did Thatcher's government.
The cabinet papers released today under the 30-year rule was like having all your suppositions confirmed. So, Thatcher lied about her intentions after all. The government wanted to shut 75 pits with the loss of 64,000 jobs. Not the 20 they publicly stated. Chief Constables were "encouraged" by Thatcher to police the strike "robustly" at a time she was pretending the police merely kept the piece on the pickets. And for what the government termed an industrial dispute to which it was not party, why then was Thatcher fretting about coal stockpiles and mooted the possibility of calling in the army? Former miners and their supporters will get some grim satisfaction that now Official Britain's record of the strike is the same as their own. Well, not quite. The influence of the secret state, which was painstakingly investigated by Seamus Milne is yet to be officially acknowledged.
With our suspicions confirmed, there is something I find disturbing about the revelations. You might have noticed it with Edward Snowden's unmasking of the National Security Agency's Prism project too. Neither have really struck a chord with people at large. In both cases, the UK and US governments have got caught lying about state activity. The first to pursue class war against working people's livelihoods, communities and culture. The second to forestall any democratic upwellings from below, while using terrorism and Islamist extremism as its meat shield. In both cases the liberty and freedoms they officially hold dear are so much mouldy old rope. Yet really, who cares? A few grizzled trade unionists, Tory-haters and lefties for the former. Graun readers and the liberal Anglo-American commentariat for the latter. Well, it was a bit of a diplomatic headache for Obama's fluffy-phrased, drone-wielding administration. Unfortunately, to all intents and purposes they were bubble issues.
Why should this be the case? I can imagine frustrated folk asking why people don't "wake up", even when the facts are slapped across their TV screens. There are two reasons. The first is the question of social distance. For instance, I care about the miners' strike because of my politics. My actual experience of it was as a little kid hearing about it on the news and getting mentions on Spitting Image. But for most people around my age, it's history and one that doesn't matter. The legacy of the strike does echo down the decades, but it's intangible and abstract. Its defeat enabled capital to run riot and make our lives more insecure, but thinking about it this way is entirely rarefied. Most people are concerned with getting on, earning a crust and raising a family. If modern history doesn't matter, what the NSA is doing harvesting immense numbers of phone calls and web visits matters much less. Sure, it's wrong but hey ho, what can you do? Better just give a fatalistic shrug and get on getting on.
The second is the progressive diminution of civil society. Mainstream politics appears a million times removed from everyday concerns. It doesn't talk normal language and is overly concerned with dull, complex matters only strange people care about. And as for so-called unconventional politics, marching and protesting never solved anything. Iraq, anyone? The lack of civic education in school, the absence of trade unions from too many workplaces, the consumerist flattering of the individual when it comes to shop but utter disempowerment of people when set against the steep gradient of social change, and not least the cultural dominant of irreverence/cynicism means the ideal type much political philosophy rests is out of kilter with the real shape of things.
This indifference, for want of a better phrase, appears as a conspiracy of intertwined social trends. Because that is exactly what it is. Yet it is nothing new. I'm out of the habit of positively invoking Lenin these days, but he knew a thing or two about the process of changing people's ideas and getting them to act politically. Disempowerment and therefore indifference are a consequence of the aforementioned social distance. But when politics directly impinges on everyday life, there you have the recipe for politicisation. In Lenin's day it was a miserable war, worsening poverty and long-standing land grievances that condensed a revolutionary head of steam. In our own, it is the depressing recrudescence of sexism that is galvanising a new wave of feminism; and the crushing, spiteful stupidity of the Work Capability Assessment driving a new round of disability rights radicalism. It's the old nostrum of social being conditioning consciousness, and using opportunities and resources to hand to contest the received configuration of power relations.
As such, the Miners' and Snowden revelations were doomed to land on stony ground. It always comes down to conjunctures, to contradictions and forces knotting together. The critical mass was absent, the belief in change nowhere. It is frustrating, but nothing can be nothing forever. Movements of recent years, the locking out of hundreds of thousands of young people from a decent future, and the new threads of solidarity social media is weaving through society's fabric unseen contain the potentials for new struggles, new civic mindedness, and new successes. And just perhaps what is met with indifference today is cause for furious action tomorrow. It might even be worth a gamble.