The long shadow of the British miners’ strike

April 28, 2015

Paul Dean remembers the struggle he supported 30 years ago--the great British miners' strike of 1984-85, whose story is retold in a new documentary film.

ANYONE WHO has been on a demonstration in Britain and seen the spectacular banners of the miners' unions will have been in awe of them. With their unambiguous message of working-class struggle, they reflect a long history of miners' resistance.

That struggle carried on through the epic miners' strike of 1984-85. March 3 marked the 30th anniversary of the end of that yearlong strike. The 160,000 miners had gone out on strike to stop pit closures and save jobs, but the strike ended in 1985 with a victory for the Conservative Party government.

When you have been to many pickets, demonstrations and meetings, some moments stick out. For me, one of those was being part of a delegation of London Transport bus workers from the Transport and General Workers Union that visited a Yorkshire pit during the 1984-85 miners' strike. We stayed with miners' families in their homes, had breakfast at the union hall, and then headed off to the picket line to witness the provocative abuse that police hurled at the miners.

The banner made by National Union of Mineworkers members at the Selby Coalfield
The banner made by National Union of Mineworkers members at the Selby Coalfield

All these memories were brought back to me with the new documentary film Still the Enemy Within, recalling the miners' strike 30 years after it took place. Veteran miners from the strike, who still have the fire of rebellion and resistance in their eyes, recall the events that led up to the strike, the heroic struggles while they were on the picket line, and the lasting legacy left behind.

The Great Miners' Strike was a major event of union history in Britain. The hated Margaret Thatcher had been Tory prime minister since 1979, and her aim from the very start was to smash the union movement--especially the miners, historically the strongest section of the labor movement, which had brought down a Conservative Party government in 1974.

Thatcher dubbed the miners "the enemy within" and was determined to use all means to defeat them. That meant sparing no expense. The Thatcher government hired a union-busting thug from the U.S. named Ian McGregor to run the National Coal Board, established a militarized police force and imposed erected laws meant to weaken all unions.

The ongoing impact of those laws is why the documentary is called Still the Enemy Within. Directed by Owen Gower, the son of miners' strike supporters, it tells the story of the strike from the point of view of the miners themselves.

During the strike, small pit villages that were used to a couple of local policemen were invaded by hundreds of well-quipped police from all over the country--something that can be seen in the big-budget film Billy Elliot as well.

This invasion is well documented in Still the Enemy Within, with footage of the violence perpetrated by police. One of the best-known battles between miners and police was at Orgreave in South Yorkshire, where miners were charged at by police, leaving many of them injured.

In the film, we hear the gritty facts of the dispute and the challenges that the strike faced. Never-before-seen film footage, photographs and interviews document the extent of the struggle to keep the pits open.

The strike changed many people, not just the miners. But the defeat has likewise left a long and negative mark on the trade union movement.

Socialists say that ideas change in struggle, and this was certainly the case during the miners' strike. Miners' wives were no longer just working in the breakfast kitchens. They toured the country, addressing huge audiences to raise funds and solidarity. And, of course, they stood on the picket lines.

There was tremendous support built by rank-and-file unionists organizing in their workplaces, miners support groups in communities across the country, and lots of other solidarity groups representing students or LGBT people--as portrayed in the film Pride. These groups had devoted activists who collected money and food, as well as toys for kids at Christmas.

Still the Enemy Within is very moving at times, and quite funny at others. It is also instructive--like when it shows how miners got around the roadblocks set up to prevent them from going to other mines to picket--the strategy employed by the government in this "free and democratic country"!

By the end of a year, the miners had been starved back to work. The toll this was dreadful--broken marriages, bankruptcy and even suicide were well known in the pit villages.

This film will leave you angered and sad at this toll--but it will also fill you with the enthusiasm to carry on the fight for a better world. As one miner says at the end of the film, "We may have lost the battle. We've not lost the whole war."

Despite many defeats, the ruling class has not been able to smash the trade union movement in Britain. The battles carry on, and those miners interviewed are part of a working-class movement with the potential to mount a fightback.

When we visited Yorkshire 30 years, our delegation of bus workers was returning to London when we came alongside another bus carrying cops back to London after their stint smashing in miners' heads in the coalfields. We exchanged hand signals that needed no interpretation.

We could see who the enemy was and what we were up against--and as London bus workers with a strong union, we also knew we were on Thatcher's hit list. But we knew the only way that the working class can survive and win is through solidarity.

Yes, indeed, we have not lost the war.

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