Tuesday, 10 March 2009

British Industrial Civil War

Twenty five years ago the British started a civil war.

During that time, if you drove a van and had a number of people in it and approached the Dartford Tunnel travelling north, the police were likely to stop you and tell you to go the other way. If you didn't, you were carted off, if you went another way, they arrested you later.

The police had no solid powers to do this, but they did. In villages in Yorkshire, the police came from out of the area, and galloped horses into men, and cracked open skulls, and broke arms, and ran snatch squads through mining villages. They were not only enforcing the law, but bearing down on people who were fighting for their livelihoods.

These people lived out of soup kitchens and the women formed a new collective conscience. The police also had attacked women and children.

The police also waved ten pound notes at the miners on strike, as they became richer and richer through overtime pay. They were out of town and location on continuous pay and expenses. The kind of collective conscience of the police that has had to be deconstructed over the last few decades, that relating to racism and sexism and towards serving the community in its diversity, was then allowed to let rip as the police worked with an ethos of their lads together. Thus riot shields were battered to generate fear, truncheons were freely used, miners were trapped down alleyways and given beatings. When the police finally went back south, the local police lost all consent on which they had depended for their ordinary jobs. The damage is still evident.

The miners, meanwhile, were led by an inflexible idiot, whose only strategy was to charge into the State which, with the police, the courts and built up coal stocks, had more resources than the miners. Having not had a ballot, having not met with the police in the early days about picketing, having nothing but seeking victories along the way, the miners' strike lost the moral authority it needed against an authoritarian government that was determined not to go the way of Edward Heath before. Thus many Nottinghamshire miners kept working, with a separate Union formed; and the pit deputies never went on strike (they would have closed the lot). Neil Kinnock, the Labour leader, was exposed as indecisive, who lurked in a kind of shadowy background while Thatcher stomped her feet. It was his duty to have stomped on Scargill early and force a better strategy of negotiations and, if a strike came, to give it at least moral authority. He should have tackled Scargill in the public arena and behind the scenes like he later tackled the Militant Tendency, but he was feeble, and thus he had nothing significant to contribute.

The then Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins, gave his pastoral support to the miners and their communities, seeing in them a different set of values from that fronted by the elderly American gentleman behind which was Thatcher's next enemy within. Of course many Anglicans at the time were obsessed about whether he believed in a bodily resurrection or not or a supposed virgin giving birth to a baby.

When the miners marched back to work in defeat, the government took its revenge. It closed down the coal industry more rapidly and more deeply than the warnings even of Arthur Scargill. It wasn't too long before the final Tory victory cry went up - the privatisation of coal. The strike's end started the road to a post-industrial Britain, and the first financial came along as a big bang to a kind of consumerist service economy. The mess we've ended up in now started then, added to by Gordon Brown building up the City of London even further to pay tax returns on an economy otherwise living in fantasy land. He even taxed pension funds, and they never recovered, because the paying into them was never so secure in the real economy.

And now we face a rapidly coming energy crisis, when we have centuries of usable coal under the ground, with flooded pit workings and collapses making the job of opening them up hugely expensive. The pit villages as were now have industrial parks of light industry sheds, or retail units, all doing nothing much in particular, with a huge benefits system keeping people in houses and living from day to day, and local schools teaching often indisciplined children with few prospects other than to move away - and to what then?

Also there are still pubs for strikers only, and strike breakers go elsewhere. They still pass each other by, if they haven't moved on, even when doing some packaging jobs or serving in a shop, or women working because the men don't.

Somehow, with this economic crisis, the energy crisis fast looming, the Miners' Strike of twenty five years ago and its consequences of it being a British Industrial Civil War are coming home to roost.

1 comment:

Andrew said...

My first trip across the pond to visit family in London and Liverpool was at the height of the miners' strike in the summer of 1984. I recall television reports of how the miners enjoyed "luxury holidays" at Soviet vacation camps courtesy of the USSR (the miners were in the pockets of Communists of course). Mrs. Thatcher (Milk Snatcher) was jubilant; dementia starts early in life. Thanks for the memories.