01 May 2015

On Enemies Within – Rhian E. Jones on memories and myths of the Miners’ Strike

Author | Rhian E Jones

This piece was originally posted on Rhian E. Jones’ excellent blog, Velvet Coalmine. Reposted here, with thanks.

“We’re secure in the knowledge that we already lost a long time ago.”

– Richey James, 1992

I knew the death of Margaret Thatcher wasn’t likely to usher in a Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the Eighties, but it’s been good to see the thirtieth anniversary of the Miners’ Strike pass this year and last with due commemoration, and with little attempt to present what happened as a good thing.*

A few months ago I went to a screening of Still The Enemy Within.** This documentary does a fine job of detailing the strike’s background and bringing the experience of the strike to life. Generally I avoid (resist?) revisiting the strike in quite such unflinching detail, because – and apologies if this sounds hyperbolic; it isn’t – I find doing so almost debilitating, as though nothing else matters outside of emphasising how permanently shattering its results have been for a huge part of this country. The depth of feeling can be such that you want to back away from the edge. At this stage, at this distance, all one can do is bear witness.

(Every time I try to write about the Miners’ Strike and its aftermath, the exercise turns out to be merely a scraping at the surface, an unsuccessful attempt to uncover the heart of the matter. It’s a gradual stripping away of layers, on my part, of bravado and defensiveness and fatalism. This post won’t be definitive either. I want to do the thing justice, to give it adequate weight, and I know I can’t, so this will have to do. For the purposes of this piece, in any case, the strike is less of a conclusion and more of a jumping-off point.)

In its uncompromising commitment to telling a bleak and unrelenting story, Still The Enemy Within is a necessary supplement to something like Pride. The strike deserves to be remembered in the latter’s upbeat and uplifting terms of solidarity, sure, but equally what deserves remembering is that there were no happy endings, nothing of what we learned in the Nineties to call emotional closure. (Hoho, the only things that got closure in the Nineties were more of the pits.) There are wider questions here about what counts as history, and whether history must be necessarily cool-headed and objective, not relieved by colour or comedy or complicated by messy, judgement-clouding emotion. But the tangle of story and history surrounding the strike suggests that the event and what it stood for are not “just” history yet. Like Hillsborough in 1989, Brixton in 1985, Toxteth in 1981, the Miners’ Strike is a flashpoint that unforgivingly illuminates its era. That Eighties hot war of government against people still hasn’t cooled.

20150428_103944

You may imagine how exceptionally bored I was as a post-industrial Nineties teenager. (I mean, I couldn’t even join a brass band.) Growing up, before I ever knew I wanted to be a historian, I wanted to understand history – both its grand outlines and its bathetic, personal confines in which I knew my community to be stuck. How did we get here, and why? Growing up I felt stymied and stifled by history, and had the consequent compulsion to dig beneath the surface for the story. What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow, out of this stony rubbish?

Growing up, I was always conscious of how heavily the past weighed on the present. There was no reason, apart from coal, for my part of the country to exist, or certainly for it to be populated. The history of mining towns in my part of the country, as in others, has been a history of striving to create community, culture, entertainment, knowledge, leisure and dignity in the face of tedious and often dangerous and degrading toil. But without the coal, the community had no purpose and no point. And nothing really replaced it after the Eighties – despite “regeneration”, despite the Objective One funding poured upon us like curiously insubstantial manna. This, plus the aftermath of industrial trauma: the spread of petty crime, addiction, depression, despair, broken marriages, lost hope. Coming of age in the Nineties, in a place that no longer fully functioned – or which functioned but to no apparent end – felt like being born into a peculiar variant of original sin. Somehow, within government and media, this state of affairs was held to be our own fault, too: something we’d brought upon ourselves by having the temerity to unionise, to organise and aspire, by wanting better for the collective and not just the individual. By doing so, we had apparently provoked this cataclysmic response from above, as though by our subversive hubris in desiring higher wages, job security, and state provision, we had angered the nervous gods of monetarism and markets.

What was brought down on us in 1984 – the lightning smiting of industrial Britain – has been passed on in oral history, enshrined in memory, family and community. But it was officially, ‘respectably’ documented and analysed too. In 1994 I read Seumas Milne’s account of the state’s covert war against the miners, published at the tail-end of the Conservatives’ second great round of pit closures. There had been no resumption of civil war in response to that second offensive, however vindictive it felt. In 1992 there had been a rapidly mobilised protest march in the pouring rain which looked in retrospect, despite its mass and militancy, like a funeral procession before the corpse was cold. By 1994 a book like Milne’s could come across like an implausible, conspiracist pulp thriller, if you didn’t care to examine the history behind the story.

As a teenager I became preoccupied with finding and reading all possible material – books, newspapers, conference speeches, biographies, cartoons, Spitting Image sketches – produced about the Miners’ Strike. The books pictured above are a few of the several shelves’ worth I amassed – second-hand volumes of first-hand reportage, biography, reflection, investigative journalism, and not excluding Tory triumphalism – in an attempt to understand what had happened, how, and why. (I didn’t want simply to ask those who had lived through it a decade ago for more than they’d already chosen to let me know. It didn’t feel exactly taboo, but, in that manner of children who want to avoid upsetting their parents, I didn’t care to bring it up. The post-traumatic quality of the strike’s aftermath was obvious even to a self-absorbed adolescent. I avoided the subject out of courtesy, out of the desire to let old wounds continue to – not heal, of course, but, ah, scab over. How can you talk to people who, quite understandably, Didn’t Want To Talk About It? The strike was buried close to the surface and best not exhumed.)

Well-meaning liberal retrospectives – which Pride decisively, if narrowly, avoids being – can fetishise and exoticise when they lionise. Some stories tend to treat the Eighties as unique – the decade’s divisive brutality as something sealed off from these softer days and never to be repeated – rather than as part of a conflict both longstanding and ongoing. Nonetheless, there was something qualitatively different about the story of 1984-5. Mining communities in Britain had long been considered ‘a breed apart’, with all the ambiguity that signifies. Through strikes – the weaponised withdrawal of labour – British miners made an enemy of countless British statesmen. Churchill, sending troops into the Rhondda in 1910, wanted its people on their knees and starving; Heath in 1974 challenged the country to decide who was running it. Mining communities held an iconic position in the myth and reality of British labour, and Thatcher was nothing if not an iconoclast. For all the history of violent confrontation between state and organised workers, this time was different. Men interviewed for Still The Enemy Within on their experience of the strike still seem shell-shocked when they recall their disbelief, recall not knowing what had hit them.

And yet to talk about the strike as conspiracy, as plot, frequently gets you accused of outdated class warriorship and victim complex, of the politics of envy, bitterness and paranoia, of living in the past. (To which I say: guilty as charged. It’s hardly an irrational response.) What’s been good about most thirty-years-on retrospectives on the strike is the relief, when reading, that it wasn’t just you, that this stuff has been and is being documented, argued, quantified, recorded. You aren’t simply railing into the wind. First off, a confrontation of this kind was a foregone conclusion, planned at least as far back as 1977. The involvement on the government’s side of increasingly swivel-eyed anticommunist agitators suggests that the strike was invested with symbolic and strategic significance stretching far beyond the British coalfield. Yet at the time events were marked by mealy-mouthed denial and obfuscation. With few exceptions, the national media throughout 1984 cheer-led with wholesale misinformation and with a state-sanctioned demonization of the British working class.

The extent of mendacity involved in media coverage of the strike was matched by the strike’s equally remarkable policing. In June 1984, a mass picket of the Orgreave coking plant saw, for the first time in Britain, the deployment of police units carrying not the normal full-length shield used to guard against missiles, but short shields that could be used aggressively in conjunction with batons, and which were used in police assaults of individuals after charges of the crowd by mounted police. These tactics, developed for use in riots by colonial police forces in Hong Kong, were still in evidence in policing of the Poll Tax Riots at the decade’s end. Press coverage of clashes between pickets and police was of course almost uniformly hostile to the former – which you’d expect from something like the Sun. But the BBC, no less, when reporting the pitched battle at Orgreave, ran reversed footage which transposed the sequence of events, making police charges appear a defensive response to provocation by stone-throwing pickets rather than an act of aggression. Only in 1991 was an apology issued for this, with the BBC claiming that its footage had been ‘inadvertently reversed’.

On the ground, meanwhile, mining communities resembled disputed territory under foreign occupation. 1984 was a year of government-sanctioned violence by police against a large section of the mainland populace. The use of truncheons, riot gear, police horses and dogs against strikers became commonplace. Travel restrictions were placed on roads, phone lines were tapped, homes raided and residents intimidated and assaulted. And still the strike’s high stakes were denied and its details obscured – even now, these stories are received with some surprise. (And I mean, what can you really say about something so out-there as the Sun’s attempted ‘Mine Fuhrer’ front page, or families being made dependent on soup-kitchens and food parcels, or the BBC running news footage in reverse? I understand it sounds more like some kind of old-wives’ tale or populist propaganda. But history it is.)

From the perspective of a present day that calls itself post-ideological (when what’s meant is post-socialist), the strike was notable for being an example of ideology-driven politics. All the pleas at the time that ‘the pits were the people’, that their closure would have an almost unimaginably devastating impact, were often presented with heartbreaking earnestness – as though, if only the right people could be made to hear this case, to see it from this sympathetic and rational and empirical angle, then reason and compassion would prevail. But this was too generous an approach. It wasn’t like Thatcher or her ministers or her corporate cheerleaders didn’t know the likely impact of pursuing this course. It was a conscious sacrifice, like rising unemployment, considered a price worth paying. It’s hardly ever stressed that, for Thatcherites, ‘conservative’ was mostly a misnomer; there was very little they cared about conserving. British organised labour, and the people who composed it, were to be taken on, eradicated, ploughed up and the earth salted, with dogmatic and ruthless revolutionary zeal. (And despite all this, however Pyrrhic a victory it may be, we have survived, and are still standing.) In the end, Thatcher simply made a better extremist than Scargill did.

In the years since the strike – and particularly post-Savile – an awful lot of allegations that had previously swirled on the further shores of the internet have turned out to be grounded in fact. But still we seem to have a mental block on seeing the Miners’ Strike as one in which a government deliberately deployed the police, the secret state and the press against a singled-out section of this country. It feels like there’s something not quite cricket about anyone who’d sanction such a thing, even though we know such strategies and tactics have historically been sanctioned by ruling elites across the world, and are still. But if we do acknowledge these things, then what kind of country, and what kind of world, do we acknowledge this one is? How do we reconcile ourselves to it?

Thirty years on, I don’t know what course my life might have taken, what I might have become, without the strike’s disruption of the usual way of things, without its destruction of what I was born into, without its closing off of certain paths. My life has taken the course it has – bitterness, resentment and resolve, the escape route of higher education and economic migration – for lack of other options. This doesn’t change the fact that many equally deserving individuals right now, from where I’m from, don’t even have the options I had. Sometimes I think, perversely, ludicrously, that the strike is something I should be grateful for.

What did the miners’ strike do for me? As has been usefully reinforced in recent retrospectives, the strike involved the empowering of women, the assertion of solidarity across lines of gender, race and sexuality. This meant that solidarity – or, to give it its modern gloss, ‘intersectionality’ – was something I had ingrained as common sense while I was growing up, not something later externally imposed by rote or quota. In addition, it made me aware of how fundamental class is to how one experiences and understands the world around them. The kind of class warfare the strike exemplified was experienced collectively, communally, not as some kind of personal slight. The strike and its aftermath isn’t my story – it’s the story of everyone who knows what I’m talking about. The strike’s impact on me was its impact on others: I grew up as part of a class who had come to expect the worst, who had very few political illusions, and on all of whom something destructive and debilitating was enacted. The Miners’ Strike left me with no faith in the police, no trust in the media, and no illusions about the nature of class relations. Turns out these are all useful transferable life skills.

Growing up, it baffled me that anyone could see the British police as a benevolent force. Visions of unfamiliar men in uniform ranged at the end of the high street or stalking with ill-intentioned confidence through back-gardens at the behest of an unassailable higher authority provide something of a formative experience. Just like, growing up knowing about the press’s muddied reporting, it baffled me that anyone could assume that mainstream media in Britain is or was truthful, accurate and unbiased. When you’re designated an enemy within, you become sceptical that anything – law, authority, justice – works the way you’re told it does. It baffled me, after the Eighties, how anyone could be in any doubt that class war is a reality and always, always fought effectively from the top.

Apologies if this plaint appears to boil down to: I Was Antagonistic Towards The British State Before It Was Cool. It’s merely personal background, brought up to explain why I sometimes get impatient with the excitable commentary of those who took until university or later to realise that the police could be an oppressive and not a protective force. It’s not that such commentary is unwelcome or unhelpful, it’s just galling to be told what one already knows and then expected to applaud the revelation. (You know, like Polly Toynbee discovering that low-paid work and poverty is pretty shit. Yeah, I was shocked, I tell you.) Does it matter, that disparity of experience? Well, only in so far as current media and politics are shaped increasingly by a common class experience – public school, Oxbridge, internship – while the perspectives of others, and the experiences that shaped them, rarely get a look in as direct articulation, only as mediated through a framework of sensationalism or stereotype. (Not that the post-Eighties middle classes can help their sheltered upbringing, of course. We can’t all be given such a vivid crash course in this kind of thing. Maybe I should check my post-industrial privilege, eh. Sorry, there’s that bitterness and resentment again.)

I’ll précis my upbringing under Thatcher, Major, Blair and Brown: I, like others like me, was encouraged to aspire by my family, my teachers and my peers, but that only produced a sense of frustration when looking at the world beyond. From the Nineties onwards our communities had no visibility, no political validity, and we were static, stuck, abandoned, left to rot. I grew up with the attitude that I was never going to get anywhere. What did curiosity or drive matter when they were so solidly outweighed by class, when the world in which you were told you could succeed was so obviously unsentimental, unlikely to lend breathing-room to anyone of your class, and already the triumphalist stamping-ground of those who had already made an enemy of you? The neoliberal dogma-dream of individual aspiration was there throughout the Nineties, presented as something that you were a failure if you didn’t buy into and succeed at, but the socio-economic chasm between where I stood and what it offered seemed unbridgeable, and made it all a harder sell and less of an illusion. That particular sense of fatalism, of militant pessimism, is hard to convey if you didn’t grow up with it. Particularly if you grew up entitled and comfortable and innocently shocked by how harsh the world could be, if you remain surprised by the idea of a government making its governed into enemies within.

Stories, of course, are usually wrapped up and not left messily, unsatisfactorily open-ended. That’s partly why the story of the Miners’ Strike is hard to tell as fiction – although it has been tried, necessarily long after the fact. That’s partly why the festivities that greeted Thatcher’s death two years ago were not so much celebration as catharsis: it felt as though some dust could finally settle. Pride, unavoidably, side-steps the inevitable unhappy ending in favour of its larger narrative. Still The Enemy Within, to its credit, lets the narrative bleed into the present, showing its results in the triumph of monetarism, privatisation, defanged unions and the Blairite hollowing-out of the Labour Party. It’s too easy, these days, to fence the Eighties off as a barely-real time of cartoonish heroes and villains, when so much of the present crisis has its roots in battles won or lost in that decade. In just the past few years there’s been an avalanche of uncovered media, police and political corruption, as though no one even feels the need to hide their contempt for those below them. But then why should they, when the Eighties showed them they could get away with anything they wanted?

Ultimately, despite the history, it turns out the miners weren’t all that special. As the Eighties battlefield continued to take shape, it turns out we in 1984 were just our enemy’s most immediate – and most powerful – obstacle. To a mind informed by that enmity, by that fight and its aftermath, it seemed obvious that if the government, police and press could lie about us for a full-on year and afterwards, with so little compunction, and occasionally with such unfettered glee – then they could lie about anyone and anything. And, of course, they do. It’s not as if the intertwining of police corruption and brutality and media misinformation against ‘enemies within’ has improved in the past thirty years. In the run-up to this country’s next dispiriting, disempowered casting of votes, whole sections of society are still demonised, not least those accused of bringing poverty on themselves through ‘low aspiration’, ‘idleness’, ‘fecklessness’ in areas that never recovered from the Eighties. But also, with the uppity and insurgent working class no longer the most convenient scapegoat, we’re seeing a dehumanising focus on other sectors of society – on immigrants, on the unemployed, on claimants of disability benefit. (And let’s not forget the overlap these groups have with veterans of 1984.) When seeking where responsibility for the country’s misfortune might lie, we are, as ever, encouraged to look anywhere but upwards. The battle may be over but the war is still on.

* (I say ‘no attempt’, admittedly I haven’t checked for any such tediously contrarian contortions at, say, the Daily Telegraph or Spiked Online or similar.)

** For upcoming screenings of Still The Enemy Within, click here.

Rhian E. Jones blogs at Velvet Coalmine, and writes on pop culture and politics for various outlets. She is the author of Clampdown: Pop-Cultural Wars on Class + Gender (Zer0, 2013) and is currently working on a book about the Manic Street Preachers with Daniel Lukes and Larissa Wodtke (Repeater, forthcoming).