Director Daniel Draper documents the beginnings of British socialism as we know it through the Durham Miners’ Gala.
In an era when Donald Trump announces policy by Twitter and Boris Johnson refuses to attend television interviews, we can forget that politics not that long ago was something that happened live, in large-scale public events that engaged the people as an active citizenry, rather than a passive audience.
Nobody embodied this kind of politics better than the miners. Mining represented not only a job but a whole community, celebrated in songs, paintings, demonstrations and get-togethers that placed the workers of the world as inheritors of a future progressive utopia. This documentary takes place in 2018, the 135th year of the biggest annual celebration of them all, the Durham Miners’ Gala or “big meeting”, a festival not just for miners but for socialists and trade unionists internationally.
Although mythology around the northern working class rarely acknowledges it, the miners took part in the liberation movements that shaped our modern consciousness. Their all-out strike in 1984-85 also warned of a Tory future of low-wage, precarious work, where each are unprotected to the cruelties of the market. This warning seems far-sighted, given the problems of our current society. The banners displayed at the Gala proclaim a history of class struggle, with messages of peace and love, equality and brotherhood. The miners were never just concerned with their own issues, but gave active solidarity to 19th-century movements for Hungarian and Italian freedom and to Irish and Anti-Apartheid movements in the 20th. Hopeful US Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders sends a message of support to the 2018 Gala, which was dedicated to the leader of the Kurdish Workers’ Party Abdullah Öcalan, imprisoned by Turkey.
The Gala was founded by the Durham Miners’ Association, a group of liberal Methodists, at a time when socialist ideas were starting to offer the industrial working classes a vision of a society of equality and justice in contrast to the rapaciousness of Victorian capitalism. This industrial capitalism was built on the energy provided by coal, making the miners at the time “probably the most powerful workers in the world,” as one participant puts it.
The documentary intersperses comments from participants at the 2018 event with reflections on its history. It gives voice to the many women involved, marking the inclusivity of an event that is also open to new movements – one of the feminist groups mentions the arrival of the transgender women’s group. A female trombonist from Humboldt County, California, has brought her ‘Trump Not Welcome’ banner. Some of the inclusivity turns to incongruity: an artist discusses a painting depicting a white dove in flight, symbolising acceptance of the end of the industry. This discussion then cuts to the Gala brass band playing the closing notes of a free arrangement of Donna Summer’s ‘Hot Stuff’.
This heady mixture is part of the Gala’s nature. Mining culture replaced an older tradition of folk festivity with that of the industrial labourer, found in brass bands, craft, political opposition and revelry. As a break from the regimentation of industrial life, the Gala centres on a march through the city, combining political demands with a carnival celebration of working class culture. While it celebrates the nobility of labour, many of the participants display mixed feelings about the dirty, hard work of mining. The celebration produces strong emotions, and the documentary shows us public joy, the melancholy of the brass band, the solidarity of togetherness and the hope for a better future – all part of the literally moving aspect of the crowd of people on the march.
In the middle decades of the 20th century, when the British trade union movement was at its height, the Gala hosted international ambassadors and future prime ministers. Many attendees speak of Jeremy Corbyn as a return to those years. The mood of festivity means that the interviewees only briefly consider what such politics might mean when the power of the trade unions has been greatly reduced, and the mining industry eradicated. While for previous Labour leaders, attendance at the Gala was a key manoeuvre in the achievement of political power, attendance for Corbynism is a symbol of principled attachment to a cause which to many may seem lost.
The mood is thus celebratory but inevitably nostalgic. The focus is on keeping a tradition alive – on “doing the same thing that they were doing for a hundred years or more” as one participant puts it – but this is also an elegy for a socialist future that never came. During the 1984-85 strike that ended up breaking the miners’ union, miners were referred to as “dinosaurs” from Britain’s past. Yet as the documentary shows, this strike saw lesbian and gay men welcomed into mining communities (a story notably recounted by the film Pride, 2014) and women at the forefront of support groups.
In celebrating a struggle that spans epochs and crosses the globe, this documentary plays its part in keeping a common cause alive.
THE BIG MEETING will be released in UK cinemas from 6 September 2019 (dir. Daniel Draper)
Photo Credit: The Big Meeting / Shut Out The Light
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