The Gala returns

The Durham Miner's Gala returned in July for the first time since the pandemic. Gerry Hart reflects on the Gala's history and enduring significance

August 1, 2022 · 4 min read
Photo by Gerry Hart

After two long, miserable years, the Durham Miners’ Gala returned earlier this month. Themed around key workers and attended by thousands of people, the event included fiery speeches from Sharon Graham and Mick Lynch and a pointed absence of any senior Labour MPs (not that I think they would’ve been particularly welcome).

The Gala’s return after such a long time got me thinking about its meaning. In the strictest sense, the Gala is an open air gathering of the UK’s trade union movement as it has been since it was first held in 1871. For me as a Darlington native, the Gala represents one of the few sources of unambiguous, uncomplicated regional pride I can relish.

As the event has continued into the 21st century, however, some have questioned whether it still holds relevance to the current political climate and should adapt accordingly. One particularly stupid example of this came shortly after the 2019 general election. Following the election of Tory MPs in several former Labour strongholds in County Durham like Bishop Auckland and Sedgefield, several right-wing politicians and talking heads, including former head of the Scottish Tories Ruth Davidson, tried to argue that these MPs should be invited to appear at the next Gala, much to the chagrin of its actual organisers.

Thankfully the ensuing pandemic smothered this nascent culture war in its infancy, but I find it revealing nonetheless. In their minds, the majority of its parliamentary seats being held by Tories meant County Durham had roundly rejected the ardent socialism that had defined the Gala since its inception. What’s more, the idea of Tory MPs being invited casts the Gala as nothing more than tradition. The mines are closed and the unions broken by Thatcher. Why let the faded banners and militant speeches get in the way of a good day out?

This logic of course doesn’t represent a desire to reconcile County Durham’s history with its new political reality so much as to make the former subservient to the latter and divest it of its political power. As the author of the brilliant ‘New Model Island’ Alex Niven said on Twitter: ‘THE MINERS’ GALA IS THE LARGEST OPEN-AIR SOCIALIST GATHERING IN EUROPE NOT A LIVE ACTION VERSION OF BEAMISH (an open air museum meant to represent a County Durham mining town in the early 20th century) YOU UTTER PLUMS DO SOME BASIC RESEARCH (YOU’VE PROBABLY NEVER EVEN BEEN TO BEAMISH EITHER)’.

I think existing on the left in the 21st century is oftentimes a fairly lonely experience, especially if you’re my age or younger (i.e. desperately clinging onto your 20s by your fingernails) where one is accustomed to defeat, and where the bulk of the interactions one has with like minded comrades is over alienating and exploitative platforms like Twitter. This is why the Durham Miners’ Gala still matters just as much as it did when it began in the 1870s. It represents a city and a region in tune with history, not static and frozen in time like Beamish but something that is alive and extending beyond itself. And for those of us that feel unmoored in the purgatory of capitalist realism, events like the Miner’s Gala reminds us that we are not alone, and that we are the inheritors of a proud and radical legacy that no ‘red wall’ Tory can ever take away from us.

 


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