Last night I watched “The Miner’s Strike” on the telly. This morning I read a heartfelt and well-reasoned blog post on the subject, and felt compelled to add my tuppence-worth.
I was 13 at the time and the program simply reminded me of my perspective at the time. Born and bred in Wakefield, we too were pretty close to the reality of it, as were my wife’s family who all came from Grimethorpe.
Last night’s program astonished me in that the word ‘coal’ was hardly mentioned. It underlined the fact that the miner’s strike had very little to do with coal, even though it did start off as being ostensibly about the mining industry. It was a class-war, started by a power-crazed, dogmatic autocrat. And in the other corner was Margaret Thatcher.
Against the backdrop of a coal-industry that was oversupplying coal at loss-making prices after decades of massive public investment where clearly ‘something had to be done’ were two individuals who callously used their power to send good people into an appalling and distructive situation. I simply cannot understand how Arthur Scargill has escaped largely blame-free whilst the popular view is to rail against the police and just about everyone else. He started a strike without any vote and refused to consider anything short of total government and NCB capitulation.
The police did as they were told because that it was police forces always do. Individuals behaved very badly, as individuals do when forced to take sides. The pickets also did as they were told (or conditioned to do by years of “working class hero” culture) – they were equally manipulated by the NUM leadership who denied them a vote and rapidly became an embarrassment even to the Labour party they were affiliated with.
Orgreave was a dark day. It is widely portrayed as some kind of trade-union ‘Bloody Sunday’ and the misreporting of the events (for example the BBC showing events in the wrong order) certainly doesn’t help matters. There seems little doubt that the police initiated the violence, whether to protect themselves, property and the innocence or for some malevolent higher reason. However, that ignores the fact that somewhere in the order of six thousand pickets (including Scargill himself, complete with loud hailer) mobbed a relatively small place in Sheffield with the intention of forcibly preventing people exercising their freedom to simply go to work. 6000 people is not a picket line. It is an organised riot, and the police had to respond with similar numbers.
In the end, all parties lost. The miners lost their entire industry, partly because of the wider economic situation, partly because they got into a fight with the party that had seen their previous Prime Minister toppled by the NUM and partly because they refused to accept that change had to come.
The people, particularly in the coalfield areas of Yorkshire, South Wales and the North East, saw their society torn apart. Families went hungry and the ordinary “working class” people were divided and degraded. The UK in general squandered the opportunity to properly use a vast resource of energy, driven by a short-term economic view and lack of any real foresight.
Have we learnt any lessons? I don’t think so. Our current Labour government has misused the police and armed forces with a flair that would have taken Thatcher’s breath away. Angry protesters still flood the streets and have pitched battles with the police and achieve virtually nothing. Innocent people still die, whether they are walking home from work through London (see Saturday’s Guardian) or driving a taxi to a colliery. Young servicemen are still dying in numbers because of the political positioning, arrogance and fear of democracy of our government. Trade unions are still stacked full of people with political aspirations and an inability to see any bigger picture than ‘workers against management’.
But the most revealing part of the entire documentary last night was right at the end. The documentary had to wrap up with a quick 2 minute summary of what had happened post-strike and post-mining to the main subjects. Unsurprisingly, those pickets, who were fighting tooth and nail to “save their industry” because there was simply no other option have actually gone on to have happy, productive and fulfilling lives without the coal industry. Relaxed and smiling they told us how they had formed new careers and new skills. Things had turned out so well that they could look back on 1984/5 and say “wouldn’t have missed it for the world”.
That’s perhaps a lesson that large industries, governments and the trade unions could all learn. Change will come and fighting it is usually futile. If change is embraced and communities, businesses and governments work together then it can end well without all the pain, suffering and injustice of 1984.