"Strike: When Britain Went to War"

On Saturday 24 January, Channel Four broadcast a documentary about the miners' strike. This channel is supposed to be the embodiment of serious TV journalism. But anyone who tuned in looking for an objective account of the strike was doomed to be disappointed. This was positively the worst example of gutter journalism one could hope to experience. The purpose of this documentary was not to clarify what happened but to blacken the memory of the striking miners and mislead the present generation by a combination of lies, falsifications and trivialisation.

The reasons for this are quite clear. It is never enough for the ruling class to defeat the working class. It is necessary to obliterate the very memory of the historical struggles of the workers, to insult their memory, to spit on their achievements, and to brainwash the new generations in the servile idea that "struggle does not pay". This is no accident. After a long period of quiet, things are beginning to stir on the industrial front in Britain. The establishment is trying to prevent the spread of militancy and is using the anniversary of the miners' strike to achieve this end. The content of the programme seems to be the past, but it is really concerned with the present and the future.

The miners' strike was an epic year long struggle that transformed the lives and psychology of thousands of working class people. But in the whole programme one would look in vain for a true representation of the astonishing heroism of the miners and their families. Only the role of the miners' wives was hinted at, and then only in a very partial and niggardly fashion.

This was indeed a war - a war between the classes that polarised the whole of British society. In this war, contrary to the one-sided and false presentation of Channel Four, all the aggression came from the government. The miners were not the aggressors but the victims. Their "crime" - for which they can never be forgiven by the ruling class and its hired prostitutes in the media - was that they dared to fight back, and they nearly won.

A serious documentary is supposed to give equal weight to the views of both sides of the argument. This was indeed the promise made in the publicity that announced the programme. The blurb stated: "This extraordinary, feature-length documentary uses extensive archive footage and the recollections of an eclectic mix of key players from both camps." Yet in the space of two (interminable) hours, the few miners who were graciously permitted to put in a token appearance were mainly restricted to anecdotal trivia, relating to their experiences with (guess who?) the students and the middle class. This was a self-evident ploy to disguise the overwhelming and blatant bias of the programme as a whole. No doubt these miners gave a far fuller picture of what the strike was really about, but the producers preferred to edit this out to fit in to their own agenda. Indeed, at no time did the makers of the programme make any attempt to explain the real reasons behind the strike. The voice of the miners, their families and communities, was almost completely silenced.

From the word go the commentary was heavily loaded against the miners, the working class and the trade union movement in general. The opening gambit already prepared us for what was in store:

"This is the story of the moment that an old Britain died and a new one was born," we were duly informed. "In the 1980s, Britain stood on the brink of massive change. The Thatcher revolution was well and truly underway and the era of the 'yuppy' was arriving."


And indeed this was a programme of the yuppies, by the yuppies, and 100 percent for the yuppies.

Those of us who can remember the period in question rubbed our eyes in astonished disbelief as the sleek, self-satisfied TV presenters went on to describe these years as follows:

"It was a vibrant, fluid, controversial time of change." That much cannot be denied. It was very much a change for the worse as far as the great majority of the British people were concerned: a period of massive unemployment, the closure of mines and factories, and the slashing of social spending on health, housing and education. In a word, the period when a formerly relatively civilised country turned into a free market shambles, when a small minority made fortunes from speculation while British manufacturing industry was decimated by the so-called Thatcher revolution, of which the makers of this programme are so proud.

In March 1984, the government announced plans to close 20 coal mines, with the loss of 20,000 jobs. In response, the NUM led the workers out on strike. In other words, the strike was a defensive action to protect jobs and mining communities, and not at all a conspiracy by the NUM leaders to carry out a socialist revolution in Britain. This point was made only once in the programme (after all, even a Channel Four documentary must bear some slight resemblance to the facts), but then promptly forgotten. For the remainder of the programme, the whole emphasis was placed on the "theory" of the Red conspiracy and the evil machinations of Arthur Scargill.

The only "explanation" for the strike was that it was the work of an evil genius - the NUM leader Arthur Scargill. Here a scientific analysis of history is replaced by the conspiracy theory that is the essential characteristic of the police mentality. Scargill was portrayed as a Marxist determined to overthrow the state. The thousands of miners who followed him in this sinister enterprise were therefore - it was strongly implied - so many ignorant sheep.

According to this "analysis", Scargill deliberately engineered the strike for political purposes. Throughout the programme he, and the other NUM leaders, were subjected to a torrent of abuse, lies and venomous slander. Yet at no time was the object of this slander given the chance of defending himself.

We are by no means uncritical of the tactics pursued by Arthur Scargill in this strike. Undoubtedly, certain errors were made, which had a negative effect on the outcome. In particular, the refusal to hold a national ballot was a serious blunder. If the NUM had held a ballot and campaigned for a strike, they would have got an overwhelming endorsement. It is highly unlikely that areas that voted against strike action would have broken the strike, as happened in Nottingham. The split in the miners' ranks undermined the strike from the beginning and was its Achilles' heel.

But the tactical mistakes made by the NUM leadership do not alter the fact that the strike itself was a hundred percent justified. The Tories merely used the split in the NUM for their own cynical purposes. They had no interest in the Nottingham miners, any more than any other section of the miners. The programme presents the Nottingham miners as the victims, but in fact, if anyone was duped and cynically used, it was them.

The miners' strike was not an aggressive act by the NUM, nor was it part of any plot to overthrow capitalism, as the documentary repeatedly implies. As a matter of fact, if the makers of the documentary had paid the slightest attention to the facts, they would know that the miners' strike was deliberately provoked by Thatcher. It was a naked act of class aggression, deliberately worked out by the Tories with the cold cruelty that has always characterised the British ruling class.

There was more than one reason for this offensive by the ruling class. In part, it was an act of revenge on the part of the ruling class for the defeat inflicted on the Tory government of Edward Heath by the miners. Having defeated Argentina in the Falklands war, Thatcher now turned her attention to what she saw as "the enemy within". In order to crush the trade unions it was first necessary to crush the strongest and most militant section of the Labour Movement, the miners.

From another point of view, the conflict between the miners and the government reflected the objective crisis of British capitalism, which suffered from a long-term decline. In the past Britain was the workshop of the world. Its industries ruled supreme in the markets of the world. No more! Over the past 20 years, British manufacturing industry has been largely destroyed. It has been reduced to the status of a parasitic rentier economy, based on services, banking, tourism and speculation. The basis of this transformation was laid under Thatcher.

This parasitism was elevated to the status of a semi-mystical creed in the Thatcher years. The wholesale slaughter of Britain's industrial base is presented as something highly desirable and progressive. In reality, in the long run it spells only disaster, decline and decay. Those ignorant and narrow-minded elements who praise Thatcher for her work in destroying Britain (Tony Blair figures prominently in the ranks of her admirers) present this counter-revolution as a "revolution". They worship Thatcher because they have been allowed to enrich themselves - partly through that looting of the state that is known as privatisation. They dance merrily round the wreckage of Britain's former might with the same zeal with which the emperor Nero fiddled as Rome burned.

Naturally, these "yuppies" (who, as we all know represent the "real" Britain, as opposed to people who work for a living) were lavishly over-represented in this documentary. It was supposed to be about miners, but instead was all about the gold diggers of the City of London. We were treated to the profound political philosophy of the likes of (Tory) Mathew Parris and the (Tory) former editor of the Sun and the (Tory) ex-Minister Peter Walker, one after the other, as they queued up to pour their buckets of slop over the defeated miners.

Then, to balance things up, we were given the opinions of the former Labour leader (Yesterday's Man) Neil Kinnock, who, for the few people who remember him, always gave a first-rate imitation of a Tory. Scraping the barrel, the makers of the programme, who found no time to interview Arthur Scargill, found plenty of time to allow this pathetic has-been to indulge in his favourite pastime of sticking the knife into the back of the working class. He appeared no fewer than three times, dripping bile and spite, to attack Scargill and the strikers.

An inordinate amount of time was given over to the leader of the strikebreaking so-called Union of Democratic Mineworkers, Neil Greatrex, to voice his opinions. Channel Four presented this individual as an honest miner only relating his own experience.

His explanation of his own role as a strikebreaker was given a personal, supposedly 'principled' gloss. Yet there was no mention of the now infamous Roy Link, or the other founders of the UDM, their secret meetings with top Tory and big business backers. The attempt to split the National Union of Mineworkers and the creation of the UDM was part and parcel of the Tories' strategy from the outset.

No thanks to Channel Four we know a little more about Greatrex than we would learn from his own account. Last year he received a pay package worth £151,536 according to a recent report in The Western Mail newspaper. Yet only £11,856 came from the small UDM's own national account. The rest came from a quite astonishing source. Miners all over Britain will be sickened to discover that "hundreds of ex-miners in Wales may have had their compensation claims processed by a company called Vendside, without realising it is owned by the UDM. Vendside has received millions of pounds in fees from the Department of Trade and Industry." (The Western Mail 12/01/04) It would seem that it was not just the Met police officers whose bank balances profitted from fighting against the striking miners.

Yes, Britain was at war at that time - and the makers of the programme made no secret of which side they were on in that war. They found time to interview all manner of middle class nonentities, former students, who (surprise, surprise) in their comfortable old age, have suddenly discovered the joys of the free market economy and can permit themselves the luxury of spitting on their own radical past. This was perhaps the most nauseating aspect of a generally nauseating programme.

The glittering prize of the free market - so runs the legend - was nearly obliterated by the "dinosaurs" of the NUM and their middle class student allies, pitted against the forces of progress, in the form of the Thatcher government. These scriptwriters really deserve an Oscar for inventiveness. Their ability to tell blatant lies without even blinking is truly admirable! The fact is that the miners had the support of the overwhelming majority of the British people, and in particular the working class and the Labour Movement. The success or failure of the strike depended on the latter. The role of the students was very welcome but quite peripheral at the time. Therefore, the opinions of a few aging ex-students 20 years later is of no interest to anyone, except other aging ex-students who produce bad documentaries for Channel Four.

Apostacy is never a particularly endearing phenomenon. But the spectacle of these middle class "lovies" sneering at the miners and their student allies was stomach-churning stuff. Personally speaking, I never had much time for student radicals when I was at university, recognising it to be so much petty bourgeois froth. The French have a phrase for this: "jusqu'a 30 ans, revolutionaire - depuis canaille!" (Up to 30, a revolutionary - after that, a swine). And what a parade of swine was shown to us last Saturday night!

Twenty years later, they all agree wholeheartedly that the miners' strike was a waste of time. That is the common view of former "left" students, as well as former (and current) Tory ones. As at the close of George Orwell's Animal farm, one could not distinguish the humans from the pigs. "Oh yes, we are all pigs now! And very contented ones, too."

Particularly disgusting was the (mercifully brief) appearance of that clapped-out "comedian" Alexei Sayle, now sunk in a well-deserved oblivion, but who previously gave himself airs as a "left" (complete with Liverpool accent). Now he informs us that, at the time of the miners' strike, "people were fed up with workers going on strike". Having inserted their snouts firmly in the pig-sty, all these creatures are fighting to defend their vested interests, their grubstake, their meal ticket. If that means trampling underfoot the ideas and principles of a misspent youth, then so be it!

You see, the "Thatcher revolution" was all going splendidly: out of date factories were being closed, wasteful social spending on unnecessary items like schools, hospitals and unemployment benefit was being trimmed back, and a climate was being created in which the enterprise culture could flourish, so that the new class of yuppies could spread their wings like beautiful butterflies. And then, to spoil it all "in the midst of it all came the miners' strike".

In this conflict, the ruling class mobilised the full force of the state to crush the strike. Rarely in British history has such brutality been used against the Labour Movement. The programme is compelled to show just a small part of the monstrous state terrorism used to defeat the strike, the curtailment of democratic rights that people in Britain used to regard as normal. But the aim of the programme was to minimise and trivialise the state repression. The following comment sums this up:

"Extreme tactics were adopted by each side, and the early confrontations and skirmishes soon began to escalate, culminating in the violent, pitched battles of Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire." (our emphasis)

This is the usual trick of lying hypocrites: to say that violence was used but it was used by both sides. This is cheap sophistry. The forces of the British state are vast. The whole might of this repressive apparatus was mobilized to intimidate, harass and provoke the miners. The latter, as we have said, were engaged in a defensive action to protect the livelihood of their families. In this struggle, all the cards were stacked against them. That there were some elements of violence was inevitable. But that was nothing compared to the vicious, planned and deliberate repression of the state, where whole mining villages were occupied by police drafted in from other areas like a foreign occupation force. The mass arrests, the beatings and the repression of whole communities - none of this is clearly expressed in this programme.

The viciousness of the police - especially the hired thugs of the London Metropolitan Police (the "Met") who were sent north to fight the miners - was expressed by Scargill's former wife, who explains how the miners and their wives were surrounded by the police and pushed into a small circle from which it was impossible to escape. "They were very nasty to us," she recalled, "though we were not nasty to them."

The government could not rely on the local police, who would have been sympathetic to the miners, and so, in effect, set up a kind of British FBI - a national police force, which was illegal. One of the most revealing parts of the programme was when it showed interviews of officers of the Met, who openly displayed their arrogant attitude to the miners and their communities. They spoke with contempt of the North, as if it was a foreign country they had been sent to occupy. The attitude of these latter-day Praetorian guards was instructive. One of them - a sergeant - gloated about the huge amounts of money he earned for this dirty work: he was able to buy a flat, "a better car", and holidays in Spain - and all for cracking a few heads up north - money for old rope!

From a Marxist point of view, the real value of a strike lies in the lessons the workers draw from it. The miners were defeated, but for those who passed through this gigantic school of the class struggler, the lessons will be forever burnt on their consciousness. Those workers will never forget the cold ruthlessness of the ruling class and the Tories. They will regard with disgust the admiration of Thatcher expressed by Tony Blair. They will remember the conduct of the police, the judiciary, the press and the other supposedly "impartial" agents of the capitalist state that stood exposed so glaringly in the light of the struggle.

After 20 years the lessons of the miners strike have still to be fully digested by the British Labour Movement. As time goes on, memories fade and lessons forgotten. It is therefore all the more necessary to remind ourselves - and remind others - of the real lessons of this titanic class battle. In war, and in the class struggle, it is better to fight and be defeated than to slink away from the struggle and surrender ignominiously. The miners fought with the greatest heroism. They lost, but that was not their fault. In the moment of truth they were left in the lurch by the leaders of the TUC and Labour Party. The whole working class paid a heavy price for that betrayal.

Now, 20 years later, the likes of Neil Kinnock crawl out of the woodwork to spread their little bit of poison over the memory of the miners strike and thus cover up their own betrayal. The British working class has no time for people whose only interest in the Labour Movement is as a vehicle of personal advancement and lucrative jobs in Brussels while the entire South Wales coalfield - like the other coalfields of Britain - has been shut down throwing thousands onto the scrapheap. Neil Kinnock ought to hang his head in shame, but we doubt if he even knows the meaning of the word.

For our part, we celebrate the memory of this extraordinary class battle, which is a shining example to the new generation of workers. Yes, Britain was at war, and the war has not ended. The miners' strike was just another battle in this war. There will be other - even more decisive - battles in the future. The enemies of the working class wish to bury the memory of the miners' strike so that the new generation will not learn anything from it. The Marxists - who played an active part in the miners' strike - will not allow this to happen. Against all the lies, distortion and venom, we will defend the memory of this epic struggle and pass on the great lessons to the new generation that is destined to carry on the fight to a victorious conclusion.

January 26, 2004

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