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Look back in anger

In the introductory chapter to Shafted: The Media, the Miners' Strike and the Aftermath, Granville Williams revisits the way the media covered the strike

March 19, 2009
12 min read

The Czech writer Milan Kundera suggests we are ‘separated from the past (even from the past only a few seconds ago) by two forces that instantly go to work and cooperate: the force of forgetting (which erases) and the force of memory (which transforms) …’

A traveller returning to the Dearne Valley in South Yorkshire after a quarter of a century would not recognise it. The forces of erasure have been rampant. The only reminders of the string of pits that once sustained employment for 60,000-70,000 miners and a distinctive way of life in mining towns and villages scattered across the Dearne Valley, such as Brampton, Denaby, Grimethorpe, Wath and Wombwell, are their names on some of the roundabouts on the new road, the Dearne Valley Parkway, which now crosses the terrain where they once were. The Alamo, the miners’ own name for their picketing redoubt, stood at Cortonwood Colliery throughout the 1984-85 strike. Now a supermarket stands in its place.

It was the bombshell announcement on 1 March 1984 by the National Coal Board (NCB) area director, George Hayes, to close the pit on 6 April 1984 which triggered the epic industrial struggle. Eighty miners from the closed Elsecar colliery had recently moved to Cortonwood, where an investment of over £1 million pounds had recently been made, on the understanding that the pit had five years’ life in it still.

The photographer Andy Boag is firmly on the side of the force of memory in his inspired project to locate the sites of the closed pits in Yorkshire and to seek out men who worked in them to have their photos taken. He explains:

‘The Conservative government was so keen to eradicate any physical traces of the collieries on the landscape that very little remains (if anything) of the old workings on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the miners’ strike. In another twenty five years there will be less still.

I visited the sites of collieries in Yorkshire that closed in the five-year period following the strike to photograph and interview a miner who worked at each of them. Each location photograph was taken where the shafts were sunk, the site of the original pit yard. It is not so much about the strike itself, more the physical and social legacy of a once-massive industry all but wiped out in a decade.

Two significant things that struck me during the course of the project were firstly how little physical remains of the collieries still existed – in some cases nothing at all. Sometimes it would be impossible to pin point the colliery landmarks even in the company of someone who had worked there for 35 years. Secondly, whilst some sites had been redeveloped as business parks, many were just razed to the ground with little attempt to provide alternative employment opportunities for the local community.’

The same impulse to document and remind people of the scale and impact of mining motivates Rachel Poole, the daughter of a former miner at Bentley Colliery, Doncaster, in her ‘Pin the Pits’ campaign, which wants Ordnance Survey maps to carry a half-pit wheel symbol to designate former pits in regenerated mining areas like the Dearne Valley.

In 1947 when the 958 largest pits were taken into public ownership, coal was the primary source for 90 per cent of the UK’s energy and over 700,000 men worked in the industry. The growing use of oil over the next two decades led to a steady contraction in the number of pits and many displaced miners, mainly from Scotland and the north-east, relocated to the rich central coalfields of Yorkshire, Nottingham and the Midlands as pits closed in their areas. At the start of the miners’ strike in 1984 170 collieries remained employing 196,000 miners.

The forces unleashed during the bitterly contested year-long strike have been summarised by former Scottish miner, Joe Owens, reflecting on the calendar year of the strike and the title of George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984:

‘In Tory Britain in 1984, the experience of the miners’ strike provided a contemporary glimpse of the immense power and potential brutality of the existing state machine when it swung into service on behalf of power.

The union was infiltrated and attempts made to destabilise it financially and organisationally. The apparat of the judiciary and the legislature assiduously pursued every legal avenue, however obscure, to break the union. Basic civil rights of assembly, freedom of movement and freedom from arbitrary arrest were curtailed, even suspended. The right to work, seemingly inapplicable in the argument against pit closures and redundancies, was upheld with all the rigour and vigour of the law, if it meant another man through the picket line.

For the police and their highly-trained, well-equipped and sophisticated riot squads, breaking the union had a more prosaic quality. The image of the thin blue line was replaced with that of the beefy paramilitary with the thick black truncheon and riot shield. Illusions of the police as just another emergency service were literally beaten out of miners and their families in scenes of quite sickening brutality.’

The Justice for Mineworkers campaign points out, ‘During the strike 20,000 people were injured or hospitalised (including NUM President Arthur Scargill). 200 served time in prison or custody. Two miners, David Jones and Joe Green, were killed on picket lines, three died digging for coal during the winter and 966 were sacked.’

Another account of the strike, GB84 by David Peace, a ‘fiction based on fact’, also captures the ways in which the sacrifices and solidarity of the striking miners were undermined by government, police and media. It is a savage, unrelenting portrayal of the militarisation of the police, the surveillance and wire-tapping of NUM activists, and the stresses and strains on the miners and their families as they grappled with financial hardship. Disused airfields are reopened as police barracks, mining villages ringed with police, roadblocks established restricting civilian movement, and Yorkshire mining areas seen as occupied territory in a state of siege.

But the strike also unleashed other positive, creative forces of socialist and trade union solidarity, nationally and internationally, in support of the miners and, most strikingly, the emergence of Women Against Pit Closures. And twenty-five years on we can see ever more clearly what was distinctive about the miners’ struggle at the time. Geoffrey Goodman, then the industrial editor of The Mirror, pointed out the dispute was ‘unique in terms of conventional industrial conflict. It was not about the pay packet; it was not about working conditions, hours of work, or even in the normal sense, a traditional conflict with management … the future of work was at the core of it. To remove a pit from a mining community is to snap the lifeline to a job’.

From the end of the strike up to 1990 the number of pits was cut back to 73 with production concentrated in the most productive. The final blow was the calculated political decision by the Conservative government to privatise the electricity supply industry. The then Energy Secretary, Cecil Parkinson, explained in his memoirs the strategy was simple: break the monopoly of coal and energy and privatise them to destroy the economic and political power of the National Union of Mineworkers. v

The power industry was privatised in 1990 and on 13 October 1992 Michael Heseltine announced his pit closure programme. But in stark contrast to 1984-85 the Conservative government plans unleashed a wave of popular protest. The women against pit closures played an important role with pit camps at Markham Main and Grimethorpe, and at the front door of Heseltine’s DTI offices in London. Newspapers which were relentlessly hostile during the year-long strike now supported the miners and 200,000 people joined a TUC march in protest. But the closures went ahead, followed by the rapid privatisation of the rest of the mines in 1994. The Conservative strategy created a rigged market through the ‘dash for gas’, the import of heavily subsidised coal and the use of nuclear power, and the result was further closures. By early 2008 the deep-mined UK coal industry in the nations and regions had shrunk to six pits with the closure of Tower Colliery in January. UK Coal run Kellingley in West Yorkshire, Thoresby and Welbeck in Nottinghamshire, and Daw Mill near Coventry; Hargreaves own Maltby Colliery in South Yorkshire; and Powerfuel Hatfield Colliery near Doncaster in South Yorkshire. In total fewer than 4000 miners work in these remaining pits.

Twenty-five years after the epic struggle of 1984-85 and the subsequent pit closure programme of 1992-93, the pain and anger in mining communities at the devastation and suffering inflicted remains acute. Films like Brassed Off (1996) and Billy Elliot (2000) vividly conveyed the hardship, disruption and demoralisation in coal field communities following the politically driven closures. In Brassed Off, set in the film in Grimley but based on the real village of Grimethorpe, the brass band leader Danny, played by Peter Postlethwaite, struggles to sustain the band’s morale against the backcloth of threatened pit closure. As the coal mine itself is finally closed, the band reaches the final at the Royal Albert Hall in London, but after winning the competition Danny refuses to accept the trophy stating that it’s only human beings that matter and not music or the trophy. The ‘government has systematically destroyed an entire industry. Our industry. And not just our industry – our communities, our homes, our lives. All in the name of “progress”. And for a few lousy bob’. Once the pit went Grimethorpe saw its population fall by more than a fifth to less than 4,000 in the next 11 years, ill-health rise to twice the national average, house prices drop to 80 per cent below, and a sharp increase in vandalism, drug-taking and crime. Only now is the village beginning slowly to revive as part of the regeneration efforts across the Dearne Valley.

David Douglass, for years an activist in the Yorkshire NUM and branch secretary at Hatfield Colliery in Stainforth near Doncaster, captures the devastating impact on Barnsley, where in the 1960s within a fifteen-mile radius of the town centre seventy pits operated, but by 1994 none survived:

‘The shock of that transformation, and the manner by which it was imposed, still resonates through those communities. It is as if a great machine suddenly fell silent. In the pubs and clubs the old lads will still tell the tale and draw on their immense reserves of humour and wit. On the weekend streets the young’uns will still strut their stuff, but something at the heart has died. There is a collective bereavement here which is still raw. Grown men, who have faced great hardship with courage, can now be moved to tears while reflecting on the last two decades and its impact on them, their families, and their communities. There were more than just job losses.’

Speaking to former miners about the strike it is extraordinary how, after twenty-five years, anger and bitterness well up about the Tory government, the bully-boy tactics of the riot police, and the bias in the media. The wound is still raw and pressing. The strength of outrage against the actions taken by Thatcher’s government during the strike, and the axe subsequently wielded by John Major’s government, is also still palpable across all sections of society.

On July 13 2008 the Mail on Sunday carried a report that Margaret Thatcher would be given the rare honour of a state funeral. The proposal triggered widespread, bitterly hostile reactions from people who had suffered at the sharp end of Thatcher’s policies. The following evening Eddie Mair on BBC’s PM radio news invited listeners to give their views on the topic. Up to July 20 PM received 156 responses. Eleven of these made general comments, the same number were removed for breaking the BBC’s house rules, four supported the idea and the rest were hostile, often savagely so. John Kiddey’s comment was typical: ‘Her legacy could not be more divisive; she destroyed whole communities – mining, ship-building, iron and steel, creating the selfish loadsamoney society of the eighties and, thence, the amoral society we have today.’ Weaved into the listeners’ comments was her role in the 1984-85 miners’ strike which ‘laid waste the mining communities’ and left them ‘destitute’. Another suggested: ‘A great idea to take her to the land of King Arthur, Barnsley and lay her to rest deep inside the mines she managed to destroy!’ Dave Brown’s cartoon in The Independent with six miners as the pall bearers carrying Mrs T wrapped in a union jack to a refuse lorry, with a tearful Gordon Brown as the funeral director walking behind, captured this pervasive mood exactly. The press reports about the state funeral also inspired the play Maggie’s End by Ed Waugh and Trevor Wood which premiered at the Gala theatre in Durham in October 2008, with sponsorship from the NUM North East area, RMT, UNITE and the GMB, and will move to London in April 2009 to mark the 25th anniversary of the strike.

In autumn 2008 the lax regulation and financial excesses of banks led to a government bail-out with billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money. A letter by Chris Waller in The Observer (5 October 2008) highlighted the bitter disparity between the treatment meted out to the miners, compared with the extravagant state support for the bankers:

‘I recall no weeping and gnashing of teeth in the City when the coal mining industry was devastated by the ill-considered application of a flawed economic ideology.

The consequence of that arrogant idiocy now leaves us dependent for the major part of this country’s energy supplies on sources over which we have no control.’

We need to remember what the real economic and social costs of the destruction of the coal industry have been. Dave Feickert, national research officer for the NUM from 1983-93, put the costs at between £28.5 -£33 billion, and believes ‘the horrendous damage to mining communities will take at least two generations to heal, notwithstanding the work of the Coalfields Regeneration Trusts and the Coalfield Communities Campaign. Never’, he writes, ‘has there been such a wilful destruction of so many individual communities, of such a vast amount of productive public capital, or of a nation’s strategic energy resource.’

Yes, we should look back in anger, and hold fast to the force of memory.SHAFTED: The Media, the Miners’ Strike and the Aftermath, edited by Granville Williams

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