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Political Scandal and Indifference

police at orgreaveLet’s look at what you would’ve won. No more privatisations. No market fundamentalism. An extension of trade union rights. A thriving mining industry using the most advanced technology in the world. A joined up approach to finance and industry. A strong labour movement. Communities proud of their history. All under three successive Labour governments, dating from 1987 to 2001. It was a time that saw the 1945 settlement strengthened and deepened. Social democracy renewed was the common sense of the age, so much so that they wrote it into the European Union’s constitution. Britain, by no means a perfect society, was nevertheless more at peace, more at ease. It had earned itself a respite from ugly industrial strife and the attempts to dismantle British industry by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives.

There is no doubt about it. Not only was the Miners’ Strike of 1984-5 the seminal moment of the post-war period, it was also the pivot on which Britain’s subsequent history hinged. The miners knew it. Those sections of the labour movement who rendered their unfailing support knew it. And the millions of ordinary working folk from all walks of life who attended a picket, went on a march, gave generously to hardship funds and donated food outside of supermarkets realised it as well. And so did Thatcher’s government.

The cabinet papers released this week under the 30-year rule was like having all your suppositions confirmed. So, Thatcher lied about her intentions after all. The government wanted to shut 75 pits with the loss of 64,000 jobs. Not the 20 they publicly stated. Chief Constables were “encouraged” by Thatcher to police the strike “robustly” at a time she was pretending the police merely kept the piece on the pickets. And for what the government termed an industrial dispute to which it was not party, why then was Thatcher fretting about coal stockpiles and mooted the possibility of calling in the army? Former miners and their supporters will get some grim satisfaction that now Official Britain’s record of the strike is the same as their own. Well, not quite. The influence of the secret state, which was painstakingly investigated by Seamus Milne is yet to be officially acknowledged.

With our suspicions confirmed, there is something I find disturbing about the revelations. You might have noticed it with Edward Snowden’s unmasking of the National Security Agency’s Prism project too. Neither have really struck a chord with people at large. In both cases, the UK and US governments have got caught lying about state activity. The first to pursue class war against working people’s livelihoods, communities and culture. The second to forestall any democratic upwellings from below, while using terrorism and Islamist extremism as its meat shield. In both cases the liberty and freedoms they officially hold dear are so much mouldy old rope. Yet really, who cares? A few grizzled trade unionists, Tory-haters and lefties for the former. Graun readers and the liberal Anglo-American commentariat for the latter. Well, it was a bit of a diplomatic headache for Obama’s fluffy-phrased, drone-wielding administration. Unfortunately, to all intents and purposes they were bubble issues.

Why should this be the case? I can imagine frustrated folk asking why people don’t “wake up”, even when the facts are slapped across their TV screens. There are two reasons. The first is the question of social distance. For instance, I care about the miners’ strike because of my politics. My actual experience of it was as a little kid hearing about it on the news andgetting mentions on Spitting Image. But for most people around my age, it’s history and one that doesn’t matter. The legacy of the strike does echo down the decades, but it’s intangible and abstract. Its defeat enabled capital to run riot and make our lives more insecure, but thinking about it this way is entirely rarefied. Most people are concerned with getting on, earning a crust and raising a family. If modern history doesn’t matter, what the NSA is doing harvesting immense numbers of phone calls and web visits matters much less. Sure, it’s wrong but hey ho, what can you do? Better just give a fatalistic shrug and get on getting on.

The second is the progressive diminution of civil society. Mainstream politics appears a million times removed from everyday concerns. It doesn’t talk normal language and is overly concerned with dull, complex matters only strange people care about. And as for so-called unconventional politics, marching and protesting never solved anything. Iraq, anyone? The lack of civic education in school, the absence of trade unions from too many workplaces, the consumerist flattering of the individual when it comes to shop but utter disempowerment of people when set against the steep gradient of social change, and not least the cultural dominant of irreverence/cynicism means the ideal type much political philosophy rests is out of kilter with the real shape of things.

This indifference, for want of a better phrase, appears as a conspiracy of intertwined social trends. Because that is exactly what it is. Yet it is nothing new. I’m out of the habit of positively invoking Lenin these days, but he knew a thing or two about the process of changing people’s ideas and getting them to act politically. Disempowerment and therefore indifference are a consequence of the aforementioned social distance. But when politics directly impinges on everyday life, there you have the recipe for politicisation. In Lenin’s day it was a miserable war, worsening poverty and long-standing land grievances that condensed a revolutionary head of steam. In our own, it is the depressing recrudescence of sexism that is galvanising a new wave of feminism; and the crushing, spiteful stupidity of the Work Capability Assessment driving a new round of disability rights radicalism. It’s the old nostrum of social being conditioning consciousness, and using opportunities and resources to hand to contest the received configuration of power relations.

As such, the Miners’ and Snowden revelations were doomed to land on stony ground. It always comes down to conjunctures, to contradictions and forces knotting together. The critical mass was absent, the belief in change nowhere. It is frustrating, but nothing can be nothing forever. Movements of recent years, the locking out of hundreds of thousands of young people from a decent future, and the new threads of solidarity social media is weaving through society’s fabric unseen contain the potentials for new struggles, new civic mindedness, and new successes. And just perhaps what is met with indifference today is cause for furious action tomorrow. It might even be worth a gamble.

This article first appeared at A Very Public Sociologist

13 Comments

  1. eric clyne says:

    The unthinking, uncaring, uninterested public was not an issue when Labour could count on their unthinking, habitual, customary votes.

    But now, as habits and customs have changed, this always-existing phenomenon is an urgent sociological concern.

  2. John Reid says:

    Eric,yes there were people who vote labour no matter what in the 80’s myself included, but it wasn’t enough to winthough

  3. David Pavett says:

    It’s striking that we are still arguing about loyalty to the miner’s in the strike of 84/85.

    The “revelations” of the recent papers can hardly have come as a surprise to anyone who followed the strike or read different views about it afterwards. Seamus Milne’s book does not, in my view evaluate the events in a balanced way.

    I collected for the miners for the first 6 months until it was clear to me that the leadership of the strike was so bad that the miner’s were being led to a defeat that would weaken the whole TU movement. I thought that at the time and got no thanks for saying it. I was even shouted down or threatened at meetings when I said what I thought.

    Scargill demanded unconditional loyalty from the rest of the unions. He didn’t get it and he had no right to expect it. Of he recent “revelations” was one which is indicative of that whole intimidating atmosphere. At a meeting with the Coal Board Scargill responded to successive presentations with “No comment”. When another member of the NUM delegation said he would like to ask a question Scargill told him “Shut up. We agreed before the meeting that I would be the only one to speak”.

    It is time to stop talking about the miner’s strike only as an example of heroism and of conflict with Thatcher (it was both those things) but also as an exercise in appalling bad leadership.

    1. eric clyne says:

      Well said.

  4. James Martin says:

    Utter nonsense then David, and even worse now. The fact is that the weakness of the NUM came not from the ‘power’ of Scargill but of his weakness due to the structure of the union that saw districts have more autonomy and power than in any other union I have ever known. The strike was led (or not) by the regions and not the central leadership. Just read David Bell’s moving ‘Dirty Thirty’ book about the abuse and intimidation faced by striking Notts miners at the hands of the local NUM leadership (they were without any apparent irony regularly called scabs by their non-striking colleagues) to see this.

    No, this was a state sponsored war on the movement, and anyone with sense could see that at the time let alone now. There were only two sides David, and if you weren’t on the side of the striking miners for as long as it took then shame on you.

  5. David Pavett says:

    Your view is that I spoke “utter nonsense” then and “even worse” now. Worse than utter nonsense? That sounds evil. You also exclude me from “anyone with sense” and finally you wish “shame” on me.

    After all that flim-flam it is hard to imagine an intelligent discussion ensuing and I wonder if you were actually seeking one.

    I don’t accept for a moment that either one supported everything the NUM did or one was a class traitor. (although that was shouted at me quite often during the strike).

    If I saw a friend taking an action which he believed to be the right one but which I believed would do him great harm and cause harm to others in the process then I do not think that it would be an act of true friendship not to say what I thought. That was my view then and it is my view now.

    Just read through old copies of The Miner to see the delusional nonsense that came from Scargill – always promising imminent victory and using spurious arguments (e.g. that there was no such thing as economic exhaustion of a mine, only geological exhaustion).

    I repeat that it is my view that discussion of a strike in 1984 should be discussed in calm and analytical terms and not as an exercise in detecting class traitors.

    1. eric clyne says:

      David, you are up against mythology, not history.

  6. swatantra says:

    Eric is right. Popular ballards and folk music have been written about ‘The Strike’; even The Comic Strip did a sketch with Al Pacino playing Scargill. Its now become folklore; perhaps the release of these papers will reveal the real truth and put it all into context. In the end, it all boils down to people being prepared to face up to ‘Change’.

  7. treborc says:

    I think this shows the problem people who stand to be MP’s who are about as working class as Thatcher was, and people who read the sun thinking they know about the miners strike.

  8. David Pavett says:

    @treborc

    Do you not think that history of the PLP shows that having a higher percentage of working class MPs is no magic bullet for getting support for socialist policies?

    I think that it is desirable to have more working class MPs but I don’t think that it would, by itself, change much. Some of the most right-wing Labour MPs have come from working class backgrounds.

    What is needed, in my view, is not to have targets for the number of working class MPs but to have policies and policy processes which are more attractive an more meaningful to working class people.

  9. James Martin says:

    David I was there, I remember, I do not mythologise. At the time when you say you stopped supporting and collecting for the strikers they were literally beginning to be starved back to work. At the same time the women in mining communities had in many areas become organisers of both solidarity and flying pickets to other areas – women’s liberation in action in a way that was breath-taking then, let alone now (a brief echo came with the Women of the Waterfront group during the two-year long Liverpool docks lock-out – I was there too btw). I also remember that as a direct result of the solidarity through-out the strike by gay and lesbian groups that towards the end of the strike miners banners and miners appeared on the London gay pride march because they saw the solidarity for what it was.

    But of course by that time you had turned your back on the miners hadn’t you? When they were starving and their kids going without new clothes and shoes you were pontificating about their supposed mis-leadership.

    I met plenty of your sort during the dispute, and have met plenty since. You wouldn’t know solidarity if it slapped you in the face. And now you worry about intelligent discussion? Personally I couldn’t care less – but then I haven’t anything at all to be ashamed about during my support for the strike in 84/5, unlike yourself.

  10. David Pavett says:

    @James Martin

    You wrote “I met plenty of your sort during the dispute, and have met plenty since. You wouldn’t know solidarity if it slapped you in the face. And now you worry about intelligent discussion? Personally I couldn’t care less – but then I haven’t anything at all to be ashamed about during my support for the strike in 84/5, unlike yourself.”

    In my view it is the persistence and extent of this sort of approach to differences which stands in the way of the development of left-wing thinking, let alone of left-wing political action. There is no discussion to be had and you make quite clear that you don’t want one. Adult politics is simply not possible when there is such a strong desire to anathematize those with whom one has radical disagreement.

    A face-saving compromise was possible six months into the strike. Those who could not contemplate that drove the miners to the humiliation of total defeat. That is nothing to be proud of.

    The strike was badly conceived, incompetently conducted and resulted in handing total victory to the Thatcher government. Those who gave it their whole-hearted and uncritical support should have plenty to reflect on and more than three decades on it should be possible to do that. It is really sad that so many are unable to do so.

    1. eric clyne says:

      Recent reports about Wilson and Callaghan closing many more pits than Thatcher have failed to lead to any decent discussion. The facts are simply ignore so the alleged heroics of the strike can continue to blight left-wing thinking.

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