Twenty years ago this month, the heroic twelve-month long struggle of the British miners to defend their jobs and their communities came to an end. This was the most important battle fought by the British working class since the Second World War. The whole period is rich in lessons for a new generation which has been starved of the truth. It was never enough for the ruling class to defeat the miners’ struggle, they insist furthermore on trampling on its memory, lest it serve as an inspiration for a new generation.
The first casualty of war is always the truth, and the Miners’ Strike was a war, a class war, with the workers on one side and on the other everything the ruling class could muster: the courts, police, and not least the lies and distortions of the media, exemplified by the distilled poison and venom poured into the outrageous Channel Four documentary broadcast last January to mark the twentieth anniversary of the outbreak of the strike which began in March 1984
That tawdry rubbish was meant as a warning to a new generation of workers: the miners lost and so will you if you try to fight, you will be beaten – in both senses of the word.
The ruling class is preparing through its media, just as surely as it is through new legislation designed to further curtail workers’ rights, for new battles. We must prepare too.
In the titanic struggles of the working class to come in Britain, a thorough study and understanding of past struggles is of decisive importance. Alongside the general strike of 1926 today’s new generation must also study the great miners’ strike of 1984-85.
To commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the end of the strike we were presented with a far superior television programme. The BBC drama Faith broadcast on Monday February 28 was like a breath of fresh air, an antidote to that earlier filth masquerading as an ‘impartial documentary’.
For the first time in the national media the role of the state – its specially created national police force, its media, its secret services, and all the weapons employed by the ruling class to fight the miners – was vividly exposed. As Engels explained, in the last analysis the state can be reduced to armed bodies of men in defence of private property. However, it rarely is reduced to just that, particularly here in apparently sleepy Britain. Between 1984 and 1985 the masks of Democracy and Legality, behind which the ruling class usually hides, were stripped away, revealing the true, ugly face of the state apparatus, and its role in preserving the capitalist system.
At the same time the filmmakers tell their story not with the left-wing bias now being claimed (without any sense of irony) by the Tories and their mouthpiece the Daily Mail, but with sympathy for the miners and an equal measure of antipathy for the brutal treatment they endured.
In the telling of history there is no such thing as the spurious objectivity the Mail and co. so hypocritically demand. There are indeed two sides to the history of this struggle, theirs and ours; the lies and fictions we had to endure during the struggle and for all the years since, and the truth which we rarely see a glimpse of, making its appearance in this programme all the more important.
Thatcher infamously denounced the miners as ‘the enemy within’, horned devils fighting to overthrow the system. This is the image which has persisted in the mainstream media ever since. All miners were dangerous reds under the bed. What we find in Faith is the reality of ordinary working people and their families desperately struggling to defend their livelihoods and their communities. Through their experience of the lies of the press, the cruel activities of the police and the courts, many began to draw profound political conclusions. As Marx long ago explained conditions determine consciousness. The film’s central character, Michele, is a living example of that process of politicisation through experience.
For the miners this was a struggle to defend jobs and communities. For the ruling class, however, this was about a lot more than pit closures. It was about their right to hire and fire, their right to close, sack, drive down wages and conditions without the troublesome interference of the trade unions. Back in 1984 Britain had 170 collieries in production employing over 170,000 miners. Today there are just 9 working collieries employing about 3,000 miners and even those pits and jobs are constantly under threat. The coal industry like so much of British manufacturing has been decimated. In the case of coal however, this was more than just the short sightedness of the British capitalists chasing a quick profit through privatisation and speculation. The attack on the miners was political as well as economic. When Thatcher’s Tory Party came to office in 1979 they were still smarting from their humiliation at the hands of the miners’ strikes of 1972 and 1974, which brought down Ted Heath’s government. Although revenge coloured many aspects of the dispute it was not the fundamental cause of this orchestrated attack on the miners and their communities. For the ruling class confronting and defeating the miners – seen as the vanguard of militant trade unionism – was the vital prerequisite for an all out assault on the working class as a whole. Reforms aimed at placating the working class could no longer be afforded. There was no longer any room for consensus. The response of the ruling class to the decline of British capital was to attempt to restore profitability at the expense of the working class, just as they had done in 1926.
This was never solely an economic question, however. Billions of pounds were squandered over a period of decades on nuclear power and on oil demonstrating the anxiety felt by the ruling class at the dependence of the British economy on coal, and the power this concentrated in the hands of militant miners.
The Tories had been preparing for this fight since the mid 1970s. Having avoided a false start from a weaker position in 1981, by 1984 they felt ready and began closing pits on so-called ‘economic’ grounds. The National Union of Mineworkers warned that it was the Coal Board and the Tory government’s intention to wreck the industry and destroy thousands of jobs. ‘No, no,’ Thatcher and the Coal Board promised, there were no such plans. Here the long litany of lies that characterised the bosses’ propaganda throughout the strike, and ever since, began. The NUM’s website quotes an extract from a letter sent to miners and their families in 1984, 14 weeks into the strike, by the then Thatcherite Chairman of the National Coal Board, Ian McGreggor. ”This is a strike which should never have happened. It is based on very serious misrepresentation and distortion of the facts at great financial cost. Miners have supported the strike for 14 weeks because your leaders have told you this. That the Coal Board is out to butcher the coal industry. That we plan to do away with 70,000 jobs. That we plan to close down around 86 pits. Leaving only 100 working collieries. If these things were true I would not blame miners for getting angry or for being deeply worried. But these things are absolutely untrue. I state that categorically and solemnly. You have been deliberately misled.”
Indeed, in one sense he was telling the truth. They did not destroy 70,000 jobs but far more. Striking miners received letters like this regularly. Nevertheless this combination of threats to their jobs and pensions on the one hand, and bribes and inducements to return to work on the other, failed to break the resolve, the militancy and the solidarity of the miners which permeates every scene of the film Faith.
This was a powerful drama which cannot have failed to stir the emotions not only of those who remember the events of 1984-5 – not least those who participated in that immense struggle – but also a new generation who until now will have seen nothing but distortions and falsehoods about this most important period in the history of the struggle of the British working class.
The strike was a more prominent feature here than in the film Billy Elliot, with which this film shared a certain feel, perhaps partly due to the fact that they feature the same actor in a leading role as well as a setting. In Faith the strike was not merely background but dominated the drama from beginning to emotionally charged end.
In dramatic terms all the characters were thoughtfully drawn, and it is the miners and their families, particularly the newly politicised Michele – the film’s central character – with whom the viewer can identify and sympathise. Michele is married to Gary, a striker, whose frustrations at the turmoil created in his life by his experiences of such a long struggle are realistically portrayed. Towards the end, before his death, he explains to his wife that he doesn’t feel the same way as she does about the strike. She has become deeply involved and is drawing political conclusions. He on the other hand is on strike because of loyalty, out of Faith, giving meaning to the film’s title.
Michele is drawn into activity through the local support group, and begins to address public meetings and rallies. Her sister, Linda, is married to a local policeman, Paul, who for many years has been Gary’s best friend. However, as the strike progresses, and Paul begins to relish his role as the liaison with the Metropolitan police brought in to fight the miners on the picket lines, Paul’s relationships with both his wife and his best friend begin to break down. Gary and Linda have an affair which further sours relations between the two men, resulting finally in a fight on a picket line towards the end of the strike which leads to Gary’s tragic death.
Whilst the miners and their families are wholly likeable characters, the police officers fighting them on the picket lines, waving their overtime money in the miners’ faces, sending in snatch squads to pick off individual strikers, particularly the Met officers – who advise their local liaison to remove his numbers from his lapels, so ‘no-one can tell tales’ – are wholly unlikeable. Yet the film does not resort to caricature even in the case of the villain of the piece, the slimy MI5 spy, who we are first introduced to as a ‘Labour Party activist who works in social services.’ We will return to him in a moment.
Thus not only do we get a glimpse of the truth about important events throughout the course of the strike, we get a sympathetic hearing for the miners cause, with heroes and villains on opposite sides of the barricades, and, for once, the heroes are on the miners’ side.
Remarkably, the battle of Orgreave is told from the miners’ side for the first time on prime time television. The Tories may well prattle on about there being two sides to the story, but – in relation to Orgreave especially – their side, the side reported by the BBC at the time, was pure fiction.
The events which took place at the Orgreave coking plant near Rotherham between the end of May and the middle of June 1984 led to the most violent confrontations witnessed by the British labour movement since the First World War.
NUM pickets assembled on one side of the plant while the police gathered in their thousands at the front, with mounted brigades lined up in a neighbouring field. Police with dogs, on horseback, and thousands more in riot gear surrounded the pickets. As soon as the lorries had entered the plant, the riot police launched their offensive. The mounted divisions rode into the surrounded miners, followed by truncheon wielding foot police. This was a military operation. For all the beatings and arrests, the miners were bloodied but unbowed.
Then, on June 18, 5000 strikers turned up to be met this time by an even greater number of police and an unprecedented orgy of violence. The forces of ‘law and order’ ran riot that day, beating and bludgeoning the miners. From their experiences on the picket lines, many ordinary miners who before the strike had respect for the law and the police who upheld it, learned a bitter lesson from the end of a truncheon, that the law, the courts and the police are arms of the state for the defence of private property, that is, for the defence of the capitalist system.
The capitalist media portrayed Orgreave as the height of picket line violence... by the miners! It was at this moment that Thatcher infamously denounced the strikers as “the enemy within”. In the Falklands she said they had fought the enemy without, and now they would fight the miners, this in other words was to be their ‘industrial Falklands.'
Labour leader (now Lord) Kinnock was joined by Willis, the TUC leader – both desperate to prove their respectability – in condemning both sides ‘even-handedly’, reserving most of their venom for the pickets. Doctored film footage was shown on the BBC – which years later conceded that a ‘mistake’ had been made – demonstrating that the miners attacked first.
In Faith’s version of events pickets returning by bus bloodied and torn are asked in the local club why they attacked the police since they would obviously retaliate. The miners are dumbfounded. That is not what happened. The mounted police waded in to the miners wielding their truncheons, and only then did the miners fight back to defend themselves. On the BBC news the footage had been shown ‘in the wrong order’. One of the wives in the club comments, “Moira Stuart does not lie” (referring to the presenter of the BBC news programme). How much more persuasive is a lie when the teller can usually be expected to tell the truth. The serious press report the truth nine times out of ten to be all the more readily believed the tenth and crucial time. This lie would be used throughout the strike as evidence of miners’ picket line violence. Here, in this film, for the first time, a glimpse of the true picture has been given.
Of course this does not make up for the lies and distortions that the BBC broadcast during the strike and ever since. We do not expect the BBC, nor the media in general, to support the struggles of the working class. Nor do we make any pointless appeals to ‘objectivity’. The media is owned by the capitalists and serves their interests. It is self-evident that the BBC is a central part of the establishment, in this sense the media is also a part of the state apparatus. At the same time, however, there are many independent minded film makers and journalists who attempt to expose the truth. Occasionally they manage to reach a wide audience with their ideas. Usually such an avenue is blocked to them.
The Tories’ claim that this film was broadcast in support of the Labour Party as a general election draws near holds no water. In the first place it will not be that welcome to Blair and co. who have repeatedly praised the hated figure of Thatcher, and are certainly not advocates of militant trade unionism.
It is interesting, however, that such a film should be broadcast at a time when there is much discussion about the independence of the media and the reorganisation of the BBC by the Blair government. We have no illusions in the independence of the media in general nor the BBC in particular. However, what little freedom of movement they have enjoyed is now being further curtailed by a government intent on establishing central control. This is not a whim of Blair and co, it is a process which has been developing for years and must be seen alongside the strengthening of the powers of the state, the centralisation of control away from parliament, and even the cabinet, to Number Ten. Nor are such changes confined to Britain. A similar process can be seen in the US and Europe. This represents preparations by the ruling class, refining the apparatus through which they rule, in readiness for the crises and events to come.
As well as raising many of the central issues of the strike, Faith also portrayed its human side. The international solidarity expressed in the food parcels and toys sent to miners’ children from workers around the world – images of which were movingly accompanied by Band Aid’s Feed the World – demonstrated the level of international support that the miners enjoyed.
Instead of the usual portrayal of striking miners as red devils, here we see a picture of comradeship. In one of the most emotional scenes in the film, an older miner is made to return to work by local union officials, to prevent him losing his pension entitlement. Pickets turn their backs at the man’s request, so that they do not witness his shame. He enters the deserted colliery with tears rolling down his cheeks, shared no doubt by many watching at home.
Similarly a man returning to work as a scab – because his wife is seriously ill – on an empty coach, surrounded by a massed police guard, is peacefully convinced to stay out. He leaves the coach and rejoins his comrades greeted by cheers and the promise of the local union official to look after him and his wife.
The Tories take great exception to the truth being revealed about events at Orgreave. They are foaming at the mouth too at the unsympathetic portrayal of Thatcher. Yet this is mild compared to the real feelings of miners and their families towards the Iron Lady. She is reviled and occupies a place next to her own hero Winston Churchill in the gallery of enemies of the working class. The praise heaped on her by Blair and co is a dreadful insult to the miners, their families and all the rest who suffered at the hands of her government.
The Tories are angry about all these things, but what will worry the ruling class more is the portrayal of the police and the security services, especially the thugs with no numbers. Here the film pulls no punches. There is no attempt to engender sympathy with the police, no spurious impartiality.
The creation of a national police force to take on the miners, to prevent them fraternising with the local police is clearly exposed. Paul, the local policeman who grows to relish his role as liaison with ‘the outsiders’ (the Metropolitan Police, or special forces, soldiers in police uniform etc), is virtually ostracised by his own sergeant in the local pub as a ‘scab’. He is warned ‘we have to police this area when these people have gone home’.
The use of surveillance cameras in a nearby house to spy on Michele, in dramatic terms, serves to expose the affair between Gary, the young miner at the heart of the film, and his wife’s sister. At the same time these scenes demonstrate graphically the extent to which the state spied on miners and their families, raiding houses, tapping phones, etc. After all, this is not even a union leader being spied upon – bad enough in a so-called democracy, but hardly a surprise to anyone – this is a young woman involved in the marvellous work of the support groups like thousands of others around the country.
Yet this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to spying, which brings us back to the MI5 spy, the local ‘activist who works in social services’. This character makes a point of establishing a close relationship with Michele, even promoting her to speak in meetings, ostensibly because he is attracted to her, although she rebuffs his advances. Whilst believably played the ‘activist who works for the security services’ is, from the outset, a rather suspicious character. When Michele confides in him that she is hiding £5000 of the union’s funds (which could not be deposited in a bank because following the sequestration of the union the money would be seized by the state), his claim to have been asked to do the same thing by the union rings hollow. His role in spying on Michele, and turning over the union money that she was hiding to the authorities, leads to a confrontation between the two, in which the cynical bile he pours forth – “I used to be where you are now. I used to sell the papers and go on the demos... it’s no use... I ‘d rather be with the people who have power” – contrasts sharply with the honesty, integrity and character of a young woman politicised by her involvement in the struggle. Here too we have an explanation of the film’s title. The spy was a turncoat, a renegade, but Michele kept her faith, just as Gary (and thousands of others) had done. This indomitable spirit is what frightens the ruling class. It should, in the end it will defeat them.
The film ends with Gary’s return to the picket line. He has been agonising over what to do next. He feels frustrated and wants things to go back to normal. Just days before the strike ends, after a heart to heart discussion with his wife, his return to the picket line ends tragically. He is killed beneath the wheels of the scab bus.
Following a scene at the graveside of this fictional character, the names of those real people who died during the strike appear on the screen; followed by the fact that the Nottinghamshire police years later were forced to pay compensation to some 39 of those falsely arrested at Orgreave; and the admission by Dame Stella Rimington (the former head of MI5), that surveillance, phone tapping and agent provocateurs were used by the secret services against the miners and their struggle.
The ruling class threw everything they had into this fight. After enduring this for an entire year, at the start of 1985 there was a drift back to work. The miners and their families had fought valiantly for 12 whole months against everything the state could throw at them. Their solidarity and sacrifice remains an inspiration to this day. They could have done no more.
On March 3, 1985 delegates at a special conference voted by 98 – 91 to return to work. On March 5, the day the strike ended, there were still 27,000 miners out. All over the country miners returned to work, their families alongside them, behind colliery bands and banners, heads held high, proud of their tremendous struggle.
The strike had cost the ruling class over £5 billion. This fact alone tells us how important this battle was for capitalism. From their point of view this was money well spent. New anti-union legislation was pushed through. The counter-revolution on the shop-floor to drive down workers’ wages and conditions across industry accelerated full speed ahead.
The miners had struggled against a constant barrage of propaganda, the siege of their communities and violent confrontations on the picket lines. Yet, ultimately, it was not any of these measures, nor even their sum total, which defeated the struggle, but the betrayal of the leaders of the Labour and trade union movement.
There will be many more struggles in the years ahead, some even more decisive than this, yet the miners’ strike of 1984-85 will never be forgotten, nor should it be. In the end, the real value of a strike lies in the lessons the workers draw from it. The miners were defeated, but those who participated in this colossal school of the class struggle, have its lessons forever stamped on their consciousness.
The ruling class may desperately try to prevent these lessons from reaching a new generation, but they will have as little success as old King Canute when he tried to prevent the tide from coming in. As time goes on, memories fade and lessons are forgotten. It is therefore all the more necessary to remind ourselves 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 great heroism. They lost, but that was not their fault. In the crucial moment they were abandoned by the leaders of the TUC and Labour Party. The whole working class paid a heavy price for that betrayal. The role of leadership and the vital importance of building both a leadership and a programme worthy of the courage shown by the struggles of the working class – this is the fundamental lesson to be drawn from the experience of the 1984-85 strike.
The consequences of the miners’ defeat for the working class as a whole were profound. As the bosses launched attack after attack, the mood of workers became “if the miners can’t win no-one can.”
In the two decades since, we have endured Tory governments, privatisation, anti-union laws, and Labour governments who have aped their Tory predecessors. The triumph of social partnership (class collaboration) at the tops of the unions and Blair at the top of the Labour Party, represented a real low point in the history of the British workers’ movement.
The right wing always rests upon defeat and inactivity. They consolidated their grip on the leadership of the movement for a period as a result of the combined effects of defeat and the boom in the economy. Their triumph, however, was only temporary. Eventually the working class recovers from defeat, and is forced by the conditions imposed upon them by capitalism to return to struggle once more.
Now things are beginning to change again. In time memories fade, but wounds heal too. The pain and demoralisation of defeat is eventually replaced by a new mood and a new generation with no choice but to stand up and fight against the incessant attacks of the capitalist system.
It is our duty to uphold the proud memory and tradition of the miners’ struggle, and to pass it on to the new generation that is now preparing to enter the road of struggle. In this sense this film plays a very positive role.
Twenty years ago Britain was at war (as the policeman Paul explains to his wife), but that war did not end in 1985. The miners’ strike was just one battle in this war. The enemies of the working class may wish to bury the memory of the miners’ strike so that the new generation will not learn anything from it. They will not succeed. We will defend the memory of this epic struggle and pass on its many great lessons to the new generation that is destined to continue the fight to a victorious conclusion. In that victory we have an unshakeable Faith, not of the mystical or religious kind, but one based on the sound science of Marxism.
Marxists must be the memory of the movement. We remember the lessons of the 1926 general strike, and we remember too the lessons of 1984-5. Blair and co. will soon assume their rightful positions in the dustbin of history where they will quickly be forgotten. They will not even merit a footnote whilst the Miners’ Strike will always remain an important chapter in the history of the struggles of the British working class. It will live on, as a defeat yes, but with all its lessons, and as an heroic struggle by men, women and children, whole families and entire communities. This struggle is not a thing of the past; on the contrary it is a foretaste of what is to come. No doubt there will be other defeats too, but not one of them will be wasted if we remember them and learn from them. As the philosopher Spinoza once explained our task is “neither to weep, nor laugh, but to understand.” Faith helps us to do all three. In the end learning from all these struggles will be integral to the final victory of the working class. To the degree that we succeed in marrying the lessons of these struggles with the courage and determination shown by the miners, their families and communities in 1984-85, we can have confidence, we can have faith in the socialist future of mankind.