By Dr Katy Shaw
This week marks the 30th anniversary of the end of the 1984-5 UK miner’s strike. The strike was the defining industrial conflict of the post-war years in the UK. It began as a dual battle of revenge and replication as both factions, fueled by memories of their 1972/4 struggles, sought to rectify or revive past results. The ascension to power of the Left in the NUM signalled by the election of National Union of Miners (NUM) President Arthur Scargill in 1982 changed the rules of the game on the union side. Their new leader attempted to centralise power, encourage industrial confrontation and teach his members to view the NCB as the agent of a malicious government. The arrival of Ian MacGregor at the National Coal Board (NCB) impacted on the government’s engagement in the dispute, signalling an immediate intention to strengthen the hand of management against the power of the unions. Social and political changes during the 1980s – including high unemployment, anti-trade union legislation, tight Right-wing control of the press, cold war hysteria, the political mobilisation of the police and the Labour party’s drift to the Right – gave the stark warning that economic Thatcherism was here to stay and would not brook resistance.
Significantly, although the actions of the NCB and the government would suggest they were prepared for a sustained conflict, there is no evidence that the 1984-5 strike was ‘fixed.’ This was because the miners presented a challenge to the government that was as much political as economic. Thatcher herself argued that the ‘strike was always about far more than uneconomic pits. It was a political strike.’ The NUM was militant enough, politically aware enough and powerful enough to support its President’s direct rhetoric with direct action. This determination and belief in the right and need to struggle, in both a union leader and the majority of his members, was admirable but nevertheless powerless to prevent the decline of the British coal industry. At the end of the year-long conflict, the core issue – that of the Conservative’s ‘right to manage’ its pits and people in whatever way, and for whatever purpose, they saw fit – had been settled unequivocally in the government’s favour.
Published literature about the 1984-5 UK miners’ strike has been extensive. From historical accounts to works of fiction, sociological studies and political analyses, this literary legacy highlights many tensions between differing accounts of conflict. In The Heart and Soul of It, a record of how the strike affected people from one pit village, the leader of their community support groups writes in the introduction that:
Whilst looking into local history for certain information about the 1926 Miners’ Strike, it became apparent that too little was recorded about the people most affected by the strike (Worsbrough Community Support Group, The Heart and Soul of It, p.2).
Yet writing was a fundamental part of the 1984-5 strike, acknowledged by the strikers as a valuable tool with which to articulate their beliefs and rights. Unlike existing published works on the strike, which are circulated in neat, convenient paper and hardback forms, strikers poetry can be found on scraps of lined paper, on blank fly-leaves torn from novels and school textbooks, in old exercise books, on the backs of cereal packets, on till receipts and scribbled at the edges of pages in instructional booklets. In writing literally on the margins of existing literature, strikers showed immense resourcefulness and purposefulness in producing writings which acted as a powerful form of self-representation and self-definition.
During the strike, the motivation to write came from many diverse sources. A likely factor driving many members of mining communities to put pen to paper was the desire to make their voice heard in a sea of competing discourses; the desire to provide an account of the strike from their own perspective. This motivation seems to be part of a wider recuperative strategy in the face of the erasure of a way of life; an attempt to establish a voice which represented a community and a solidarity of feeling. The strategies of recuperation employed in their writings insist upon the importance of re-positioning the ‘story’ of the strike, highlighting the perspective from within, to locate and promote a different version of reality.
Another significant part of this motivation was the need to author an openly partisan account of the conflict. During a period in which it was impossible not to take sides, strikers’ brutally candid and open style of writing was both refreshing and effective. Indeed, its transparency of opinion can be considered one of its great strengths. Miners and their families were subject to all kinds of pressures and frustrations which remain unrecognised in published writings. Over the course of the strike, literature became an outlet for all the pressures endured by these communities, a voice in a cultural climate which demanded their silence.
Some striking miners highlight the historical significance of the 1984-5 conflict in their writings but many go beyond this, using their literature as a means to communicate their vision of society, and their dreams and ambitions for an industry which must have a future if they and their communities are to survive. Throughout their poems the central image of coal appears again and again as a metaphor for people under pressure, whose compression, like fossils millions of years ago, has the potential to create large-scale energy and change. One poem entitled ‘Striking Back’, suggests that,
Pressed by force
Our energy will ignite the torch
of change. (l.13-16).
The unity of miners constitutes a focal theme throughout this archive. In the face of daunting opposition from the government, miners set about asserting their strength and faith in the protest movement. Their poetry is often instructional and inspirational, demanding action and solidarity. Dominant ideas include the unwavering nature of their strength as working men and their new discipline and determination in the face of a ruthless and organised response from the Thatcher regime. Several poems describe this unity as part of a process of growth and education, enforcing the need to stay committed in the long struggle ahead. One poem asserts that,
As the strike grows longer
Our resolve grows stronger
Maggie thought she’d starve us back
But she couldn’t be wronger
Though we wish we were earning
Arthur’s lads are not for turning
Here’s the lesson we are learning
Unity is might. (l.7-16).
During 1984-5 women also turned to the pen to make their voices heard. Women’s poems provide the reader with a unique and lasting account of the reality experienced by women who participated in this monumental historical struggle. A central concern for many female writers seems to be the desire to make sense of the change in female role brought about by the strike. To illustrate the magnitude of this change, writers often establish oppositions within their poetry between traditional female pastimes and their new post-strike concerns. One poem which typifies the need to understand the impact of this change is ‘Kim’ by
I can’t understand what has happened to Kim
There’s been such a terrible change
When I think of how that girl acted before
I can’t understand such a change
A beautiful hand with the pastry she had
Her sponge cakes were lovely and light
But, now it’s all muesli, and yoghurt, and nuts
While she’s out at meetings each night
We could have gone on, for the rest of our lives
Never knowing, just what she was like
And she’d have been trapped in our image of her
If it hadn’t been for the strike.
Here, home-life and working-class culture are put in direct competition with an active, participatory social life and new ‘trendy’ health foods; a process of transition which the poem seems to suggest was not borne out of, but speeded up by, the strike. This conflict undoubtedly shaped the lives of the women who lived through it. They learnt the capacity for personal growth in a collective movement, and found a place in society as a result of self-discovery and education.
Poetry provided those on strike with the space necessary to articulate their thoughts and feelings, a space which society denied them. As one female striker claimed:
Trying to explain what it was like to people who weren’t active in the strike was very difficult because most of the time I just wasn’t believed. The TV and the press were pouring out endless rubbish, yet apparently they had more credibility than I did (in Scanlon, Surviving The Blues)
As a result of women’s increased role in the events of 1984-5, their writings from this period stand apart, reflecting not only their experiences and opinions but also the growth of female and literary possibility which occurred as a result of the strike.
The debate does not abate. Thirty years on, we continue to live with the many legacies of the strike – from cultures of worklessness and zero hour contracts, to long term health, housing and social issues. The importance of recognising and valuing these perspectives and representations, concepts and understandings of conflict, of illuminating unseen works and projecting unheard voices, is vital this thirtieth anniversary year in 2015.
The fact that it has taken more than three decades for these perspectives to be ‘illuminated,’ analysed and added to the existing body of literature concerning the strike means that several generations have become immersed in a version of history which omits the perspectives of arguably the most important figures – those involved in the conflict. As the strike recedes further into the past, 2015 marks a moment at which to reclaim the of strikers’ writings from “the enormous condescension of posterity” (Thompson 1991: 12), to make the first steps towards writing this history alongside existing accounts and to move strikers’ poems, in the words of the Thurcroft NUM Branch Banner inscription, “From Obscurity To Respect”.