Sunday 10 August 2014

We Must Look Back With Anger

My home village was built on coal. All the local mines had shut before 1984 and open casting was the name of the game. Up until I left home you could see great mountains of slag and earth crouching on the horizon, the engines and buzzers of diggers echoing across the landscape early every morning. There were plenty of current and ex-miners living locally and yet my memory of the time during the Miners' Strike draws a blank. As I was seven at the time, there was only the dimmest of dim awarenesses that something called 'a strike' was happening with the miners. I can remember it as background noise in the nightly news, and getting an occasional mention on Spitting Image (when my parents let me watch it - because I thought the puppets were funny). But of the strike in the village, I don't recall a thing. I can't remember any collections. There were no coal not dole badges. None of my school mates appeared to be affected. This titanic struggle passed my childhood by. Some feat considering we lived a stone's throw from south Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire: the crucible of the strike.

It is difficult to overstate the impact the Miners' Strike has had on British political and social history. Everything about politics you know now has been heavily conditioned by the outcome of that battle. Had the strike turned out differently, had the Tory plan to close the pits been seen off there would have been no neoliberalism, no New Labour, no mass privatisations, no unbalanced economy, no race to the bottom. And no more Thatcher. The death of the so-called iron lady would have invited comparisons with Ted Heath, the Tory PM humbled by the miners. You might have had the likes of John Redwood and Norman Tebbit fondly recalling their days in the Downing Street bunker, and of them pouring over table-sized mock ups of how a free market Britain might look, an awful vision strangled at birth by the mass pickets of the miners.

In his excellent book, Look Back In Anger, my friend Harry Paterson calls the Miners' Strike an "industrial Stalingrad" because of the ferocity of the fight, the resources it sucked in, and the history-defining stakes it raised. There is no more apt an analogy.

Harry's book concentrates on telling the story of the strike in Nottinghamshire where, throughout the year-long struggle, the majority of colliers crossed picket lines and carried on working. This takes in a brief overview of miners' organisations upto the eve of the strike. Interestingly, what was to happen later had local precedence. 'Spencerism', so-named after the Broxtowe Labour MP George Alfred Spencer conspired to and successfully led a Notts breakaway from the Miners' Federation during the 1926 General Strike. In short, the Area had previous. Yet that does not explain why thousands of miners carried on working while their comrades nearly everywhere else were solid in heeding the strike call.

Harry's account of the unfolding battle in Nottinghamshire is socialist history writing at its best. The violence meted out by the police, the frame ups, intimidation, the home invasions of striking miners, Harry is as sparing of the police as they were of miners and their supporters 30 years ago. The press and politicians at the time praised the courage of working miners on the Notts coalfield. It's very easy to be brave when you have the full might of the government at your back. Quite another to stand up to that. Harry captures the solidarity and empowerment of the workers who took this on. Quite rightly the essential work of Women Against Pit Closures is afforded its central place. And the realisation of doom creeps in as the strike wears on into the winter, with opportunities for negotiated settlements and solidarity action disappearing. The final nail was the settling of a parallel dispute between the pit deputies' union NACODS and the Coal Board (the presence of a deputy in the pit was a legal requirement for a mine to continue operating).

As the book works through the strike, the breakaway of the Notts-based Union of Democratic Mineworkers, the subsequent collapse of the industry, and the disgusting decision of Labour awarding the UDM a monopoly on handling compensation claims arising from Vibration White Finger, Harry takes the scalpel to a few myths. First, 'there should have been a national ballot'. The book explains the NUM was not a unitary organisation but a federation in which each of its Areas had a large degree of autonomy. Each of the Areas came out after South Yorkshire according to local ballots that were fully constitutional. The dispute was latter ratified as national by a special delegates conference of the NUM's areas, and the motion for a national ballot was voted down. Not that a ballot ratifying strike action would have made a difference to the Nottinghamshire majority anyway. Nevertheless, what this clearly shows - and Harry is able to document throughout - is how a ballot was not in the gift of Arthur Scargill to grant. The 30 years of calumny shovelled his way is exactly that. While, of course, the leadership handled negotiations, the strike was very much run, driven and led by the rank-and-file. To make it a matter of NUM leadership, as Tories and Trots in their own way did at the time and have continued to do so since betrays a basic ignorance of the struggle.

The miners could have won the strike had the TUC delivered secondary action promised, had NACODS rejected a deal, had - perhaps - the leadership produced a slightly different negotiating strategy. But it was the Nottinghamshire majority, the scabs, Margaret's men, the blacklegs who could not see beyond the end of their nose that killed the strike. Notts area contained the most productive and modern of Britain's pits. They saved the government's bacon. Without Thatcher's fifth column breaking the miners and with it, Britain's labour movement, the government's task would have been far harder, if not impossible. That is where responsibility for the failure of the Miners' Strike, the smashing of an industry, the destruction of hundreds of communities, lies. These people are responsible for the dog-eat-dog society we have now. Not with NUM. And certainly not Scargill. They betrayed all our futures.

For a relatively short volume, Harry has produced the definitive overview. In his hands, the period, the class struggle comes alive. If you're in the labour movement, new to politics, new to socialism, Look Back In Anger is indispensable.

1 comment:

Robert said...

I think the point we need to make is that we are trying to defuse a bomb. If you make a mistake it will blow up in your face. But if you go into denial and ignore the problem it will blow up in everybody's face. Cleaning up the City is vital to national security. Treating workers and the unemployed decently is vital for the economy. If too much of the national wealth is concentrated at the top the !% spend it on assets thereby blowing bubbles. The working middle class and the poor spend it back into the economy. If the spending power of the poor and working class falls the economy suffers from lack of demand and people are driven into unsustainable debt.