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Artillery Row

The poverty of miners’ strike nostalgia

We should not romanticise a futile and sometimes thuggish struggle

As we all know, totalitarian dictatorships like to rewrite the past, adjusting the record so that it aligns with the ideological demands of the moment. It is possible to catch them in the act, as when old photographs survive from which colleagues of Stalin were later erased following their execution. The process is often referred to as putting something inconvenient down “the memory hole”, a phrase derived from George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith is employed by the Ministry of Truth on this task, in a clear reference to Stalinist practices.

We have been treated to a delightful example of the art by the BBC, in an item on the Radio 4 Today programme on 4 March to mark the 40th anniversary of the start of the miners’ strike. That strike began, of course, in 1984, just at the point when the media had stopped running articles discussing how accurate Orwell’s predictions for the year had been.

Nick Robinson opened the piece by claiming that the strike is now often remembered as “the heroism of working-class men fighting for their livelihoods against the alleged indifference or downright hostility of one woman, Margaret Thatcher … aided by the heavy-handed, it’s claimed, if not brutal, policing at the time”.

At the time, I seem to remember large mobs of angry men using threats of violence to intimidate other men into not working, in the hope that this would cripple the country and bring down the recently elected government, getting into fights with the police whilst doing so. When Trump’s supporters tried this for one day in 2021, respectable commentators of the sort that get invited onto Today described it as sedition, and a national disgrace for the USA. Yet Robinson’s introduction assumed his audience held warm, sentimental feelings about 1980s blokes in the UK acting that way for a whole year.

Someone as controversial as Margaret Thatcher will inevitably provoke contrasting reactions, even after forty years. You would have thought the case for the defence might be at least worth a mention.

The guests invited to reminisce were Lord Kinnock, who was leader of the Labour Party during the strike, and Andrew Marr, who was parliamentary correspondent of The Scotsman, but subsequently made a TV series which covered it. They largely agreed with each other that the strike had led to Bad Consequences, and that Margaret Thatcher had deliberately caused it, seeking revenge for the miners’ contribution to the fall of the Heath Government.

Their only real disagreement was that Marr accepted that some recent films had presented a romanticised picture of events (i.e. distorted the facts) for an audience trapped in unheroic times. He meant that we do not elect politicians like Margaret Thatcher anymore, but of course could not say anything so positive. In contrast, Kinnock indignantly denied that the strike had been sentimentalised, whilst being happy to describe its participants as enduring near-Dickensian squalor.

Nostalgia buffs will have enjoyed this burst of vintage Kinnock, never settling for one word when three subordinate clauses could be uttered. He was forthright in condemning Arthur Scargill’s leadership of the strike — rather more so than he was in 1984. But he did not distance himself from the strike itself, only the tactics pursued.  The failure to hold a pre-strike ballot was a propaganda victory for Thatcher. The decision to strike in the spring, when demand for coal at power stations would be lowest, weakened the economic impact. Kinnock seems to have thought it unsporting that the Government had contingency plans for dealing with a national coal strike, stockpiling supplies in advance.

Nobody on the programme appeared to have any intrinsic objection to a small section of workers holding the nation to ransom by threatening to cut off its electricity generation. Or any recognition that Scargill refused to hold a ballot because he would have lost it, and that this made the strike illegal. Doubtless it was shortage of time that prevented any mention that Thatcher won the 1983 Election with a large majority on a manifesto that pledged to return the coal industry to economic viability (i.e. to close uneconomic pits) and that Scargill’s response to that victory was to pledge to bring down Thatcher through “extra-parliamentary action”.

Above all, although both guests conceded that Margaret Thatcher had been the first senior British politician to accept that Global Warming was happening, neither would admit that, in an age of Net Zero, we would have had to close the coal mines anyway.

This prodded Kinnock into an egregious re-writing of history. Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia, never with Eurasia. Of course, the pits would have been closed eventually:

Coal is an extractive industry. Everybody who’s ever worked in the industry knows that the day would come when, because of danger, or because of the realities of economics, er, pits would go out of production. Everybody knew that.

But the strike actually began because Scargill refused to cooperate with the National Coal Board’s desire to close 20 loss-making pits, i.e. “the realities of economics”. He demanded, more or less, that his members be guaranteed their jobs for life, i.e. unrealistic economics, not a managed winding-down.

Emboldened, Kinnock went on to claim that the miners’ purpose had been to “defend communities”, and implied that if a generous programme of grants for handling each closure had been available, there might never have been a strike. However, he said, there had been “no programme for training, retraining, fresh investment, regional allocations”, leading to the “dereliction” of many communities — but not all — when their pit closed.

That is simply untrue. Since 1985, Governments of all colours have deployed a plethora of schemes aimed at the former mining communities. You might argue that the amounts involved have been too meagre. More usefully, you might ask whether such programmes have achieved any good, if Kinnock can allege that some communities remain derelict to this day. But you cannot claim that no action was taken at all.

Do not ask awkward questions about the electricity price we pay today

For his part, Marr confined himself to the view that the strike marked the commencement of the de-industrialisation of Britain. We can debate the causes and extent of this trend, and when it commenced, but Marr is surely wrong. If anything, the closure of uneconomic coal mines, and not using them to generate over-priced electricity, was prompted by a desire to maintain Britain’s competitiveness and hence the viability of its industries. Do not ask awkward questions about the electricity price we pay today. The chocolate ration has always been increasing.

We can see here a new photograph being compiled in the bowels of the Ministry of Truth. Rather than challenging his guests’ memories, Robinson settled for waspish teasing. In doing so, he made one unforgivable slip with this question to Marr:

Back when you were Political Editor, Andy, and indeed when I was, there was a sort of secret test in the Labour Party.  You were seen as a Blairite, as a progressive, as a moderate if you like, I mean all contentious words of course, if you were privately willing to admit that Thatcher got more right than wrong in the miners’ strike.

Good God, we cannot have members of the Inner Party expressing such thoughtcrime in front of the proles. They might stop loving Big Brother. Knowing that Goldstein can only be evil, both Kinnock and Marr ignored Robinson’s remark and pretended it never happened.

You will be relieved to learn that class solidarity was nonetheless upheld. In the course of the nine-minute segment, Robinson managed to deliver two plugs for Marr’s book.

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