New documentary on the miners’ strikes tells a story of bravery and community in the face of Thatcher’s reforms
If you wondered what the fuss was about when Margaret Thatcher died last year, or why Conservatives wished her the first state funeral since WWII leader Winston Churchill, this excellent documentary, directed by Owen Gower, will give you some idea.
Weaving together an impressive array of archive material, Still the Enemy Within presents a convincing narrative of how the Conservatives’ showdown with the miners became the central confrontation in their war on trade unionism.
Mining was the backbone of British industry and a rich seam of working class culture. Entire villages existed due to mining, and they had a strong sense of their own power. A previous miners’ strike in 1974 had brought down Edward Heath’s Conservative government, for which the Conservatives were still seeking revenge ten years later. The film includes the colliery bands, political songs, closely-woven banners proclaiming ‘Unity is Strength’, social halls and mutual support networks that were the products of over a century of mining history.
Seeking revenge on this source of defiance to the employers, on 6 March 1984 the National Coal Board (NCB) announced the closure of 20 pits with the loss of 20,000 jobs. Interviewees tell of their initial excitement as mass walkouts spread the breadth of the country. But it soon became apparent that the ordinary rules of engagement would not apply. Chancellor Nigel Lawson compared the confrontation to planning to take on Hitler. Thatcher herself notoriously stated that in the Falklands they had fought the enemy without; now it was time to take on ‘the enemy within.’
Those who say modern Britain has never had a civil war overlook the year-long miners’ strike, and concerted efforts were needed for the government to win it. The police force was militarised and made pit villages zones of occupation. In one set-piece confrontation at Orgreave coke-processing plant, thousands of mounted police charged strikers, injuring many dozens and arresting their leader Arthur Scargill. Regularly beaten, detained and denied freedom of movement, the legal rights of miners were disregarded, and the media maintained no scruple in its offensive against the miners’ cause. Courts seized the union’s funds, but cruellest of all was the strategy to starve the strikers back to work. Interviewees tell how benefits were withdrawn from strikers’ families, and of the consequent divorces and suicides, as well as of children scavenging for sea coal in the harsh winter (several of whom died).
By 3 March 1985, after a national fundraising movement resolving ‘They Shall Not Starve’, the National Union of Miners (NUM) voted to return to work. The NCB proceeded to close all but a handful of the country’s pits. Britain’s ex-mining villages, its trade union movement, but also its industrial pre-eminence, have never recovered.
The documentary’s greatest asset is the excellent interviewees, who remain convinced that, though beaten, they were right. They tell of how their lives transformed as they became protagonists in an event of international significance. Women who began cooking soup in food halls emerged as political leaders. Social attitudes were changed forever, and we hear the founder of Lesbian and Gays Support the Miners give an even more moving account of his time in the pit villages than anything that appears in Pride.
This is a history of those who built the strike. It would have been interesting to hear reflections from those who opposed the miners at the time, and the trade union leaders who stewarded the strike to defeat, but they maintain only a ghostly presence from the archive footage.
Combating the strike totalled £37bn, but the documentary ends considering its incalculable cost to the social fabric. Our current society of zero hours contracts, a deregulated economy in protracted crisis, sullen political disengagement and separation of the lower orders by our Etonian government into ‘shirkers and strivers’, forms the combined legacy of the miners’ defeat. Now 80 per cent of the UK’s coal is imported, while in a final irony, privatisation has seen UK energy return to state ownership – by being bought by French and Chinese state companies.
As a political philosophy, the basic trade union principle to stick up for each other seems a relic from a different age. But the miners’ endurance demonstrates values whose appeal remains undimmed. The interviewees offer hope in a different possible future, not of individualist greed, but one based on community, mutual aid and social solidarity, and the dignity of one’s labour.
Still the Enemy Within is showing in selected cinemas from 3rd October 2014.
Photo Credits: John Sturrock
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