Do you remember 1984-85? Digging deep for the miners. Frankie Goes to Hollywood at number one. Everton win the league championship. And a medium-sized T-shirt was ample big enough. For those whose principles have endured the test of time it all seems just like yesterday, and Tony Blair only a bad dream.
The strike ended up as a defeat: there is no point avoiding that awkward and painful fact. But that doesn’t mean it hardly matters, then or now. This was twelve months of communities effectively under police siege: across Yorkshire, Derbyshire, North Nottingham, Kent, the North-East of England, South Wales, Scotland and elsewhere. Miners’ support groups twinning metropolitan Britain with coalfield towns and villages. Convoys of trucks full of seasonal hampers to brighten up Christmas for miners families’ who had already endured ten months on strike. Women against Pit Closures projecting a powerful message of solidarity on and beyond the strike picket lines. Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners connecting social movements and identity politics to a common cause. Bands and stand-up comedy mobilised to put on benefit after benefit to raise not only much needed funds but the case for the miners too. Keep on keeping on kept on for twelve magnificent months.
Prolonged and courageous. British politics hadn’t seen anything quite like it for a generation or more, and in terms of industrial action nothing like it since. In the late 1970s, the historian Eric Hobsbawm had provocatively proclaimed ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted’. The decade after the miners strike, we were to discover not only had it been halted, but that history had turned decisively rightwards too. Ten years after the start of the strike, Tony Blair was elected Labour leader and we saw the symbolic, yet politically significant, dumping of Labour’s Clause IV commitment to common ownership. As we would soon learn, things could only get bitter.
Of course, thirty years on, simply celebrating the cause of going down fighting, however gloriously, isn’t enough. The left doesn’t have much of a future, or appeal, as an historical re-enactment society. But a blank refusal to connect with the past doesn’t do the new any favours. Orgreave 18.06.1984, as it is beginning to be revealed, was policed by junior and senior officers who five years later would be involved in another cover-up of their foul and illegal actions, HIllsborough. The Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign is a vital part of the recovery of history to reveal the rotten state we’re now in.
New Labour was founded on the claim to be all things modern. Bright and shiny vs. dull and boring. But the vibrancy of the solidarity that the miners inspired nails the lie that the left is incapable of modernisation. The point should always be that New Labour represented just one particular model of being modern – and a conservative modernity. The activist culture of the miners strike represented at least in embryonic form a different version of change, a radical modernity. Broad, imaginative and dynamic while being unashamedly militant. A cause defined by but never restricted within class politics. The demoralisation of eventual defeat in ‘85, allied with the variety of factors that contributed to the defeat, meant the alternative version of what it means to be a modern left never became fully formed. Instead for too many new Labour became ‘the only game in town’ and the rest is our unfortunate history.
History took us from late 1970s Rock against Racism to mid 1980s digging deep for the miners – via a mass movement against both Cruise missiles and nuclear Trident. The past sometimes seems almost another country. There’s been hope since then, most notably in the 2001-2003 peak activity of Stop the War, and the huge 750,000 strong March 2011 TUC march against the cuts. Other movements – demos around Gaza after Operation Cast Lead 2008-2009, the 2010 Student actions against tuition fees, Occupy – have been more momentary and relatively narrow in their special appeal. Feminism has retained perhaps the most impressive capacity to reinvent itself and re-connect to a new generation. But the impact this will have on a broader political terrain that remains male-dominated remains uncertain.
And the miners? It is unlikely, though not impossible, we will see here a strike of the scale and duration 1984-85 from any section of an increasingly un-unionised workforce. But that simply means the terrain of establishment against opposition has changed, something to which in marking the 30th anniversary we should all pay careful attention. The Enemy Within? For some of us, guilty as charged and ever-present.
Philosophy Football’s Enemy Within T-shirt is available here. We recommend Seumas Milne’s book The Enemy Within : The Secret War Against The Miners, available here. Tickets for 18.06.2014 London Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign Benefit from here. And follow the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign on Twitter: @orgreavejustice