It is 25 years on since the Miners strike began and there has been both newspaper discussion and a few television programmes. Much the best of the latter was a documentary very simply entitled ‘The Miners Strike’. In fact this documentary was made and first shown in 2004 for the 20th Anniversary, but I would have no objection to it being shown annually. It was a history of the strike at the South Yorkshire pit, Hatfield Main, and was structured around the stories of five Hatfield Main strikers, inter-cut with interviews with scabs, policemen, striker’s wives. What the documentary brought home with great power was…
- the role of the Police as part of the Armed Wing of the State. Anyone who really has illusions about their role being to do with Justice, Morality or any of the other mythical obfuscations sometimes trotted out only needs to view this documentary. What was particularly good about this documentary was that it showed many of the policemen involved and interviewed recognised all this quite clearly. The levels of brutality and repression were quite extraordinary and were shown in both footage from the strike and some impressionistic ‘reconstructions’. Both miners and police interviewed referred to the fact that they recognised they were in a war.
- the transformational power of striking. All five miners, in very different ways, talked about how the strike had transformed their lives. They all went on in completely different directions after the strike but none of them regretted their roles.
Having said this (and I re-iterate that this was a truly powerful documentary – next to the extraordinary and brilliant film Faith, which also demonstrated the points made above albeit in dramatic mode, the best thing I have seen on the strike) there were a couple of weaknesses. In a way these fell outside the purview of the programme. There was little, if any, recognition of the solidarity movement; too much attention was given to the – tiny number – of scabs (one in particular was given inordinate airtime), but most crucially there was little analysis of why the strike was lost and how it could have been won (although some indications were given in the self-justifying whinings of Kinnock which were occasionally shown).
Oddly enough it was in another documentary – a rather silly one – that the issue of why the strike was lost arose. This documentary was entitled My Strike and consisted of a series of individuals about their roles in various strikes ; the individuals included (a loathsome line-up) Norman Tebbit, Eddie Shah (from the Today dispute, Kelvin MacKenzie (Wapping) and Greg Dyke. Tebbit’s role was to recount his role as a striker in the BALPA (airline pilots) disputes as both striker and scab. Shah and MacKenzie’s role to glorify in their parts defeat of the strikers. In amongst this nonsense (although I suppose it could be argued it did demonstrate just how repellant bosses are) there were contributions from a Northumberland miner (wearing a t-shirt with the great slogan ’20 Years on I’d still rather be a picket than a scab’) and most tellingly Ann Scargill who told of her politicisation by the strike and the events of her arrest (which revealed to her the nature of the police). But it was in a small clip where she said that the reason that the strike was lost because of the failure of the Trade Union leadership to back the Miners (exactly as was the case in 1926 as yet another documentary about the history of the mining industy reminded us) that the truth was told.
The great lie and myth about the miner’s strike, which nearly all the commentary buys into because it is the ‘accepted’ (Establishment, hegemonic) version is that defeat was inevitable, part of some historical trend (bitter irony that this reactionary commentary should in its way have Marxist undertones). This, of course, was not at all the case. There was absolutely enormous support for the miners. What was needed was strong and decisive support from the Labour and Trade Union leaderships, a willingness to take on and confront the massive state apparatus which Thatcher and her underlings mobilised. What was needed at Orgreave and other decisive events was hundreds of thousands of pickets with the Labour and Trade Union leaders on the front line. Of course it can be argued that this was never going to happen given the reformist nature of those movements. But this does not make the facts any less true, or the depth of the betrayal any less.
Lee Hall (the creator of Billy Elliott) had an interesting piece in The Times (28th February) ( http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/guest_contributors/article5814594.ece ) in which he wrote …
>>While all this was going on the TUC and the Labour Party squirmed around, terrified to be tarred with a radical brush.<<
Staying with that issue of The Times Matthew Parris ( http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/matthew_parris/article5818287.ece) argued that the Miners Strike was an essential and inevitable conflict…
>>Two decades after leaving the Tory trenches I’ve come finally to believe that those surprising bedfellows, Karl Marx and Mrs Thatcher, were right: to an important degree, politics is always and necessarily about the clash of interests. The boss can’t be on everyone’s side. As Lenin put it: “Who whom?” Who gains and at whose expense? Somebody’s got to win.<<
Parris, a conservative, naturally rejoices in the fact that the bosses and Tories won; it was a triumph for capitalism paving the way for the developments of the next 25 years (which hardly look quite so miraculous now as capitalism undergoes a massive crisis dragging millions into economic misery).
It is on issues like the Miners Strike, decisive class confrontations, that everyone’s politics are finally revealed. Parris so often insightful, humane, tolerant reveals himself as just as much a class warrior as any other Tory. In the last analysis the question always is ‘which side are you on?’ and at these decisive moments there is no middle ground, to pretend otherwise is to lie.
A last word goes to one of the Hatfield Main strikers who told a great story about how on the morning after the Brighton bombing the familiar ‘Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, Out, Out, Out’ chant was replaced by ‘Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, Burn, Burn, Burn’. As revelatory of the transformational power of the strike, the depth of feelings it provoked and the fact that it was a, very real, class war there could hardly be a more telling illustration.
2 thoughts on “25 Years On”
Just to say I’ve been reading a great book on anti-Thatcherite movies: _Fires were Started_. I recommend it if you can find it or get it out of a library. One of the essays talks about the documentary realistic tradition of British cinema stemming from WW2 (Jennings is the admired man), and I wonder how this movie relates to these.
Many thanks for this suggestion Ellen – this book looks quite fascinating. As a documentary the programme I am discussing here is absolutely straightforward (apart from a few impressionistic reconstructions) – I could not say that it had anything to recommend it from an artistic, cinematic or televisual viewpoint; it was the subject matter and content which were of importance.
Humphrey Jennings on the other hand was a cinematic artist through and through and in his war movies you have that extraordinary and freakishly lucky combination of great talent and great events coming together. I am a bit surprised he is placed in any ‘realist’ tradition however, as his documentaries are highly imaginative, even fantastical, at times.