The miners’ strike of 1984 is embedded in the British psyche as a watershed in class politics and the ultimate exposure of the “one nation” term as utter humbug. Alan Buckley has the story
There’s nothing romantic about coalmining. To get to the coal face at Kellingley colliery in North Yorkshire involved a 2,000-foot descent by lift, a five-mile journey by train, then a further two miles lying prone on a conveyor belt, before starting work in 30°C heat and 90 per cent humidity.
And when it comes to climate change, coal is not part of the solution though we’ll continue to burn millions of tons of imported coal in our power stations for at least a decade.
But all the same, when Kellingley — Britain’s last deep coalmine, known locally as The Big K — closed a week before Christmas Day I still felt a profound sense of sadness.
Some of this, I know, is a kind of associative nostalgia. I grew up in Birkenhead on the Wirral peninsula in the 1970s. Going to visit my nan in Oldham involved a journey through a landscape shaped by the collieries that burrowed beneath it — Bold, Parkside, Bickershaw. Astley Green. Agecroft.
Of course, the 1970s also meant the oil crisis, widespread industrial action, power cuts, the three-day week that precipitated the collapse of the Edward Heath government and the “Winter of Discontent” in 1978-9 that preceded James Callaghan’s defeat and the beginning of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership.
A friend recently called the period leading up to the 1984-85 miners’ strike “the angry decade,” but although it certainly felt like that as the ’70s drew to a close, with punk and new wave on the radio and race riots on the streets, if anyone had told me that in five years’ time I would see the police effectively being used by the government as a militia to fight British workers, I wouldn’t have believed them.
In 1984 I was 18 and getting ready to leave home and study English at Oxford, where I would pay no tuition fees and would receive a maintenance grant to cover my living expenses — my parents were certainly not poor, but neither were they well-off.
Our back garden was part play area and part allotment. Our holidays were spent in a Bedford Commer motor caravan. I had no real political understanding, though seeing plays by local writers Alan Bleasdale and Willy Russell had started to shape my social conscience.
What truly politicised me was the miners’ strike with its repeated images of lines of miners versus lines of police.
Back then, remember, most police officers wore the kind of uniform that Jack Warner in Dixon of Dock Green wore (a series that ran for over two decades, only ending in 1976).
Despite the grittier Z Cars and The Sweeney, the ideal of the British police officer as a trusted servant of the community persisted in many quarters — though perhaps only if your skin was white. But the way the police were used in the miners’ strike destroyed that fantasy forever.
What was also destroyed for me was the belief that the state would, ultimately, feel some duty of care towards all of its citizens. Although I didn’t learn the term “one nation conservatism” until much later, I had carried some belief that the Tories, however much they looked out for the wealthy and the privileged, would always feel a need to take everyone along with them.
But there was nothing “one nation” about Thatcher’s calculated attack on the NUM, her revenge on those workers who had effectively toppled her predecessor. They were “the enemy within,” who she saw — along with hard-left councils and the IRA — as threatening to subvert the democratic process and the rule of law.
They were other. They were less than. And there was nothing “one nation” about the shift in economic policy that — as Larry Elliott recently wrote in the Guardian — had as its main goal control of inflation, not full employment; that involved finance supplanting manufacturing as Britain’s key industry; saw the unions stripped of their power; and the centre of gravity in Britain move from north to south.
The miners’ strike was not a simple conflict and both sides engaged in violence and polarised thinking. And the actions of Arthur Scargill and the leadership of the NUM were in many ways highly problematic. But the miners’ strike still taught me a great deal about how governments work and what the words political ideology really mean.
It also taught me what it meant to feel angry on behalf of people I would never meet and who lived very different lives to my own.
And the fact remains that strong unionisation meant that for many years miners were among the best paid manual workers in the country.
There’s a bitter irony in the fact that the site of Shirebrook colliery is occupied by a distribution centre for Sports Direct, currently being named and shamed for its appalling labour practices.
I ended the poem Deep (written for the New Boots and Pantisocracies blog project earlier in the year) by saying that no-one now has to dig deep any more — at least, not in this country. Somewhere in the world today men are digging out the coal that still helps to keep our lights burning and the chances are that their pay and pensions are far less generous than those of the now redundant miners at Kellingley.
We should all feel saddened, and perhaps also a little ashamed at that.
Alan also wrote the poem Deep, published alongside this piece in the Morning Star, about his thoughts on the closing of Kellingley.
Alan Buckley’s second poetry pamphlet ‘The Long Haul’ is forthcoming from HappenStance. He works in Oxford as a psychotherapist, and as a school writer-in-residence for the charity First Story.