Friday, 6 March 2009

Miners Strike 25 years on - I was there

During the miners' strike I was quarrying Magnesian Limestone in south Yorkshire, not a million miles from Doncaster with its NCB offices at the hub of the Yorkshire coal seams being worked some 3,000 feet under the rock we were quarrying. We'd stay up during the week and drive back to Suffolk on Friday evening down the A1.

It wasn't civil war, as some commentators are selectively remembering, but it was the most painful schism amongst the English people I've ever known, and afforded a glimpse of the true horror that widespread civil disorder would bring. For any idiots that imagine that riots and public unrest are somehow either positive or desirable, I'd urge you to think again.

I remember the police roadblocks on the A1, and the time we realised too late that we'd left our hard hats and boots in sight in the car; we were flagged into the 'arrest lane', ordered out and half a dozen burly coppers itching for a fight penned us tightly against their van. Only our utter passivity, our insistence that we were quarrymen, not secondary pickets and, I imagine, my southern public school accent saved us from a savage beating.

I remember being ashamed of having money in my pocket in the small mining village near our hole, and saying so to the tired woman in the village shop, and her great kindness and repeated assurance that it wasn't our fault; I saw the carrier bags, each with a sliced loaf, a tub of budget marg and a couple of tins of beans, being handed out to a small group of women and children, and my heart almost broke at their Yorkshire pride being so humbled.

I remember the rats, the shameless profiteers, men who came into the mining areas with wads of notes to buy the miners' cars at a third of their market value because those men couldn't even afford half a tank of petrol to drive their cars elsewhere to sell. I hope there's a special Hell reserved for them where they choke eternally on wads of grubby notes.

And when I bump into someone who lived through those times in south Yorkshire and a look of cold venom comes into their eyes and they wish Mrs Thatcher the most painful of deaths I don't argue; the pain and humiliation is so deeply seated in their souls that any rational justification of Conservative policy is pointless. I am instead filled with a great sadness that the schism should have been so deep and so long lasting.

There's a film on my eyes as I write. My great sorrow is for the ease with which human dignity was abandoned; the dignity of many police officers who behaved badly, the dignity of a proud people whose natural tenacity that has served this nation so well in the past just caused the prolongation of a struggle that couldn't be won, and the abandoned dignity of those with no first hand experience of the strike so easy to condemn with trite platitudes and shallow care.

And once I almost abandoned my own dignity. Sitting in a London pub when a few Socialist Worker type students entered rattling their buckets officiously and soliciting donations for the Kent miners, a tsunami of anger flooded me. Anger at their soft pale academic flesh that had never known a day's work, anger at their patent enjoyment of the conflict and schism, anger at their false care and pious self-righteousness, and it was only a heavyweight chum grabbing my collar and hauling me to the floor that stopped me laying into them with fists and feet.

Twenty-five years and I still wish to God the entire thing had never happened.


Budgie said...

You seem to entirely forget, as many including the BBC, do, that this was first and foremost a political strike.

The Soviet Union in all its glory was alive and fomenting trouble in the West. Scargill and co took their politics from Marxism, Trotskyism and all the other 'isms' of socialist revolutionaries. Ludicrous though it now sounds the editor of 'The Miner' ran off to East Germany as a political refugee!

It may be that the miners, or at least some of them, were lions, but they were led by Marxist donkeys. Socialist revolutionaries plan civil mayhem in order to take over governments - that's how they work. It was no different in the UK. It was in effect a low key civil war for the political heart of the country.

You say you wish the entire thing had never happened? It was necessary and I am immensely glad that the socialists lost.

Anonymous said...

Well pretty much what Budgie said.

Yes it was awful - I was there too, the A1 roundabouts all reduced to one lane, the coal lorries thundering up the A77 to Ravenscraig with iron cages fixed around the cabs because they knew they'd be attacked at some point.

But to wish it never happened? I wish it had never HAD TO happen, but it did. You might as well wish any unpleasant situation had never happened. So how would you have dealt with the situation?

Mrs. Thatcher did what had to be done - nobody made those people go on strike, we are not talking about a famine or an earthquake or some such act of "God". We are talking about a rational considered decision made by the NUM leaders, to try and bring down - or at least emasculate - an elected government. I say again, how would you have responded? Edward Heath II perhaps? And then where would we have been?

coneyisland said...

Raedwald - we agree on most things and in fact we agree on quite a few things in this excellent piece of writing. It is a shame in its truest sense that this political war divided the nation and communities as never before or since. It is an eternal shame that she never understood, or wanted to understand the meaning of "community". However, there is a positive. I remember as a child the cold British winters - predictable in almost every respect - when the weather turned cold, the miners would hold the country to ransom by going on strike. Just one segment of the British workforce could bring our industries to a grinding halt and our homes without heat, light and cooking facilities. The 60's and 70's - those were the dark ages. Power-cuts, 3 day weeks, television broadcasts and street lighting switched off at 21:00 hours, the elderly freezing to death in their homes, children having to wear their coats in class, rubbish piling up in streets, mass unemployment etc etc etc. I supported Thatchers stance for these reasons - and I still do. I'm sorry for the pain it caused, but I do not ever want to see those days again - EVER!

Guthrum said...

I was living in Northampton at the time, I would not give anything to the Labour Party activists shaking their tins because it was a political strike badly planned and executed, and the miners were dumb enough to play Scargill's little game.

The Nottinghamshire miners did not trust Scargill as a Union Leader who had his members interests at heart and split off from the NUM.

Some miners from Yorshire did come collecting in the Town centre, they looked exhausted. I gave one of them fifty quid, I had just come from a meeting, and the guy looked open mouthed and said but you are a yuppie ! (A term I hated then and now), I said spend it on your kids, you know you are going to lose this one don't you- He said he did, but he had to give the money to the strike fund or he would get into trouble.

Another sad case of Lions led by obstinate donkeys.

Anonymous said...

The Miners' Strike is a strange one. Like Raedwald, I am sorry that so many ordinary people had their lives ruined; like Budgie, I am heartily glad that the right side won and that the spectre of Marxism was banished.

Nowadays, one's attitude to the strike has become a political shibboleth. The suffering and defiance of the miners has become a mere mechanism by which one can express membership of the leftist chattering classes. People who, in the most literal sense possible, have never set eyes upon a lump of coal can, from the comfort of their Notting Hill apartment, rain hatred down up The Evil Tories(c) while sipping a nice Chardonnay.

Growing up in the early 1980s, some of my earliest memories of the television news consist union jefes and their comrades in The Party all with impenetrable accents and all deriding the anti-manufacturing policies of the Thatcher government. It's funny, when you think about it, that with The Party in government for nearly twelve years and with plenty of 1980s-era windbags holding high office (and yes, I *am* looking at Broon) they never bothered to put their money where their Marxist mouths are and re-open the pits.

Mac the Knife said...

There's truth and merit both in the original post, and in the comments.

The sad truth is that no one emerged with any credit from the whole sorry, bitter mess.

The moral of the story, if there is one, is that when 'isms' collide, the ordinary people are invariably made meat in the sandwich.

ad said...

I remember the rats, the shameless profiteers, men who came into the mining areas with wads of notes to buy the miners' cars at a third of their market value because those men couldn't even afford half a tank of petrol to drive their cars elsewhere to sell. I hope there's a special Hell reserved for them where they choke eternally on wads of grubby notes.

You should have prayed there were more. It would have driven the prices up.

But who will enter a business that is rewarded with hatred?

Sackerson said...

The BBC yesterday reported as news that the Miners' Strike marked the beginning of the end of the mining industry, but that ignores the long decline before:

It was also utter folly and hubris for Scargill to decide to take on a Government as a political tussle, instead of arguing the strategic importance of retaining our own coal mines. The unprofitable ones should have been kept in good order ready to continue working when energy costs or international political crisis made them worth working again. We'll live to regret that insanity.

But then, we've had so many deeply damaging, utterly wrong-headed economic decisions over the decades, by both parties.

And this myopic fascination with Margaret Thatcher! It was only a year or two ago that I learned that Bleasdale's "Boys from the Blackstuff" wasn't at all about Thatcher and the recession of the early 80s, but was written in the disastrous last years of the Callaghan government. Why doesn't the BBC give us a proper historical perspective, instead of sentiment and myth?

Raedwald said...

Thanks for your collective perception and restraint in the comments; even I knew at the time that Thatcher's reforms were necessary. The contrast at the time between our working practices in the (private) quarries and those in the (national) mines were like chalk and Sturgeon's roe. And the answer to the question 'Who rules Britain?' could never have been The Miners.

No, it's not the reforms I regret. It's the pain it all caused.

Anonymous said...

Wonderfull piece of writing Raedwald, bought tears to my eyes. I Was a shop steward in an engineering company at the time and fought hard to get other unions to support the miners, although now I know I fought with my heart instead of my head. Everyones got their own oppinions of those days and I make it a policy of mine not to argue about it. Thank you for the best write up I`ve read for years. And no I`ve never forgiven the police and never will.

it's either banned or compulsory said...

I went to see Billy Elliot The Musical last year, since it was a matinee most of the audience were Tory looking pensioners done up in their Sunday Best.
How they cheered any scene showing the plucky miners being heroes but I have little doubt whose side they were on at the time.
Great piece of writing Raedwald.

To give the BBC its due, it ran a moving interview with a former North Derbyshire miner who was on strike for 6 months before crossing the line, his father did not speak to him again until he was on his deathbed.

Savonarola said...

A most touching post which tells the human story of the consequences of a political vendetta waged by Scargill against the elected Govt of this country.

Scargill's wretched role has withered over time and I am surprised that those who suffered and suffer still have not in any great number seen this man for what he was and is. A person who used the good miners as a phalanx to overturn the Govt. Their blood wasted for a cause that was based on a base motivation.

Scargill will pop on one day to do evening talks no doubt. Much like the smiling assasin(failed) the mendacious and corrupt Benn A.

Sabretache said...

Exactly the right tone. It was and remains a tragedy with a civil war type legacy that its 'beneficiaries' (if that's the right word, appear totally blind too.

Those, like Matthew Parris whom I otherwise almost always find myself in agreement with has travelled the opposite road to me. At the time I cheered for Maggie. Now? Well lets just say that I count many ex-miners among my friends (from the world of hunting would you believe) and can clearly see its tragic and ruinous effects on otherwise cohesive, big-hearted communities. He on the other hand, whilst a Conservative MP, sided with the miners but now can see that it "was all necessary."

25 years of relative prosperity whilst living the assumptions underpinning our present economic system that was being 'fought for' say it WAS necessary. But in light of developments, and the dawning realisation that the system itself rests the absurdity of perpetual exponential growth in a finite planet, my guess is that the next 25 years will demonstrate quite clearly that the miners strike was the inevitable result of a cruel, absurd and unsustainable system.

With politicians apparently determined to repair the unrepairable I fear we are likely to see more and probably worse civil unrest in the not to distant future and again come to rely on those big friendly policemen, all tooled up with riot gear, tear gas, guns and all the tools of our shiny new Security Surveillance State.

I sincerely hope I am wrong

Anonymous said...

Ah but this time they will be beating the shit out of the so called middle classes who will find out the hard way what it feels like to try and defend your livelyhood against the government bully boys. Just hope I can feel some compassion for them but I don`t think its likely

Alfred the Ordinary said...

For those who didn't live through this time, this post and the comments make essential reading.

Lesson? We forget events like this, the three day week, IMF intervention etc; at our peril.

Rush-is-Right said...

Raedwald, you are forgetting that the miners voted in droves for Scargill when he stood for the Miners Union presidency.

We, from the outside could see exactly what was going to happen. And so could the union members.

So to be honest with you it's hard to find any sympathy for them. They reaped what they sowed. There is no law that can prevent people from suffering the consequences of their own stupidity.

And I guess that applies to the British people too, who elected Blair/Brown three times.

Tuscan Tony said...

A very thought-provoking piece; thanks.