Class war and damned lies
Janice Sutherland, 'Strike: when Britain
went to war', Channel 4, Saturday January 24
Throughout the strike the media, as we called them, were branded the enemy. A TV camera often produced as much rage as a scab or a police riot shield. Camera crews were frequently attacked.
The bosses press, Thatchers bum boys. Our writers penned songs slagging them off (not least the veteran communist, Ewan McColl), and we sang in celebration of the smooth-faced pundits on the box. They had earned it all right - most of them anyway: the daily press was a sickly diet of lies and misinformation. TV news channels not only set an anti-strike, anti-union agenda; they engaged in an outright propaganda war against us. Facts were not allowed to interfere, as the terrorist boot boys unleashed by Arthur Scargill went on the rampage. We fumed in living rooms, bars and welfare halls - crowds of families huddled together to catch the progress of the strike jeered and booed TV screens all over Britain, impotent to get our side on the screens.
That was the truth, near as damn it, about the news coverage on press and TV. It was not, however, the truth as far as TV documentaries were concerned. All of them that spent more than five minutes looking at the strike - its cause, the respective arguments - came out for the miners and their families. It was clear that a quick soundbite or barking headline could get away with gross distortion, but a researched and serious attempt to examine the facts always came out on our side. Channel 4 in those days, at least so far as documentary was concerned, was the miners champion.
With that in mind, we all expected both last weeks documentaries to be more or less sympathetic to the miners. We imagined this to be the case, not least since the last 20 years of media studies up and down the country have ruthlessly exposed the bare-faced bias and lies of 1984, and no one would ever imagine anyone with a brain cell to share would wish to repeat it all again, not while we were watching this time. Want to bet?
Channel 4s programme Strike: when Britain went to war is probably the worse documentary ever made. If The Sun did a documentary this is what it would look like. What we had was just a collection of every myth and falsehood ever put out against the miners, rounded up and repackaged as fact. None of these myths were ever challenged, no fact ever tested, no stone disturbed, never mind unturned, in the search for truth. This was TV slander at its News of the World gutter press worst.
The scene is a happy hamlet called London in 1984, like a pantomime set before the baddy appears. Jolly folk are colourfully dressed, and listening to modern rock bands. Clean-cut kids, unconcerned with politics or other dark things, are enjoying the freedom Margaret Thatcher has given them. They are buying expensive clothes, they are earning wads of money, they are free. Britain was a new society, a society of change, a bright, designer-led, everything with a label, very successful place. Then off-stage something from the 1930s is stirring, the scene almost literally changes to black and white and these annoying working class folk, all muck and complaint, force themselves into the otherwise idyllic world.
The myths, grasping and old, are then let loose. Unions are holding the country to ransom - nay, the Sun editor tells us, unions were running the country; at the same time the country was sick of unions - Thatcher had been elected to sort them out. Contrast: the new, shiny, money-earning, house-buying yuppie Britain; then shots to the valleys, the slag heaps, the raggy-arsed miners kids, the north and a dictatorial Scargill - a Marxist revolutionary, commanding his obedient troops into battle, responding just because he had said so: Fifty-six thousand Yorkshire miners were called out on strike.
Of course facts do not come into any of this. It is just a tale: nobody is asked to comment on the assumptions, no striker is asked if any of the assertions match their reality. Scargill, we are told, invented flying pickets! My old union delegate, Tom Mullanny, once said: Well, I dont know if Arthur is as old as me, but I remember the flying pickets coming to Hatfield in 1919 - they came in a steam bus and they run over Bells dog. Flying pickets are as old as unions and probably older. Scargill closed down the Saltley coke works, which will be news to the thousands of striking Birmingham engineers and foundry workers who downed tools and marched to block the scab fuel depot, along with thousands of miners from all over Britain, not least south Wales and Kent, who knew nowt about Arthur Scargill.
The old, old story: this was Arthur Scargills strike. He arranged it, led it, called people out, presumably kept them out through terror, and three months into the strike still had the miners eating out of his hand. Offensive, and obscene lies, which rob 140,000 miners of their place in this history. Our history!
The programme is top-heavy with Tory and establishment figures - bitterly anti-union, anti-working class and pro-free market. Sun editor Kelvin Mackenzie: Funnily enough, I didnt get on with the printers. Actually his comments reveal that he quite literally hated them. Richard Ellis, Sun infiltrator and informer on miners picket lines; Neil Greatrex, leading scab and founder of the Union of Democratic Miners (who interestingly tells us his dad was a life-long union miner and went to his grave never speaking to his son, even refusing to look at him again, for crossing picket lines). The cops talking of their alienation from the working class north, but how much money they raked in: The Conservative government had looked after us for four years and now it was pay-back time. Boris Johnston, Oxford graduate, upper class twit and Tory; Tim Bell, the National Coal Boards chief admin officer; Bernard Ingham, Peter Walker, Neil Kinnock.
In the middle or on their side - hard to say - Brenda Dean. Predictably she is the sensible lass, the get what you can and come out smiling negotiator, never mind what your members think. Barbara Bloomfield, another Oxford grad who once helped edit an oral history collection on the strike, but said nothing of that on screen. Instead she gives us the memoirs of her Oxford days and her bit of rough stuff from the pit, ignorant and drunk clumping to her dorm for a quick shag and a cup of tea. John OFarrell, a student from Exeter during the strike, who gives us another impression of what the miners were in middle class eyes - all Boys Own heroes and arent they strong? - and how unfair the cops were. Phil Woolass (who?), president of the National Union of Student in 1984, who tells us how he supported the miners, but was young and didnt know what he was doing, as if he was six at the time, not 26 - just as well because we never noticed him anyway. He goes on to tell us, as the strike collapsed: I felt foolish and used. Well, on behalf of the miners and our families who spent 12 bitter months on strike, let me apologise for giving you such a gruelling time.
Midge Ure of Ultra Vox: all it was about was working class men beating up other working class men ... ugh. Then, shock of all shocks, Alexei Sayle - why did I think he ever understood what the class war was about? - tells us a tale: we booed Wham off stage, who were trying to support us in a charity concert because they had bonny hair with highlights and wore shorts. Never heard of that one. Did anybody ever ask anybody about any of this? Not in this film or anywhere else, as far as Ive seen.
On our side Ann Scargill and Betty Cook; Carol Jackson, Notts strikers wife; Ron Henson, rank and file printer; Tony Benn, obviously his political overview cut out; Glyndwr Roberts, Arthur Jackson, Russell Broomhead and Kevin Williams, the only four miners in the whole programme who must have spoken volumes but were left with bit lines; and Daljh Singh Shergill from the Birmingham sikh temple.
It must be said of those folk I have described as being in the middle, we do not know what else they said, what was not used in the programme. It is clear this producer had a goal he was driving towards and doubtless if anyone said too much to distract from or distort the image he was trying to present they would be severely cut. It is possible several of the folk in the middle were spitting the blood of fury when they got to see the finished product.
The programme makes assertions - no evidence, no details: just states them as fact without challenge. They were Scargills pickets. How? How were they organised, how funded, what were the picket structures? Who cares - we just make it up as we go along and repeat what the press said in 84.
Scargill held the strike without a ballot. How was that possible? The strike was called in Yorkshire: Scargill was not there. When after consultation at mass pithead meetings the national conference was convened to discuss whether to call a national ballot, Arthur did not express a view. He was in the chair and in those days respected its objectivity. He did not have a vote and did not speak. Did anyone even ask anyone about this central allegation? Did they hell.
Scargill walked away from the negotiations and a deal in September 84. What was the deal? What was the stumbling block? What was the unions view? They do not even ask, let along answer. Arthur tells it differently (though not on this programme, since he was not asked). A deal was in view - we virtually had the whole shooting match - but NCB chair Ian MacGregor went off and phoned Thatcher and when he came back everything agreed hitherto had been taken back.
Peter Walker: There was never a chance of the lights going out. In fact power cuts had taken place - January 16 1985, Barnet, five and a half hours; Holborn, two hours. January 20, Welwyn Garden, two hours. January 22, Hackney, four hours - the sixth in four weeks. On January 18 the Central Electricity Generating Board boasted it had met a demand of 42,000mw. The truth was that 42,800mw were available with all sources going full blast to meet demand, including the final back-up system of emergency jet engines secured to the floor. So when OFarrell makes fun of the anarchists who told him to join the turn something on at 6pm campaign, it was not stupid at all: the whole thing was actually on the thinnest of knifes edges. Walker is just lying now as he did then.
Six months into the strike public interest had switched away from the miners because of the birth of prince Harry. Then it was starvation in Africa, and how badly off were the miners by comparison? A new politics was developing - celebrity-based, not class-based; not old-fashioned workers and strikes, but international, third world and environmental concerns, focused on stars.
Death and one-eyed sadness. The taxi driver taking a solitary scab to work in south Wales, (not working miners, as stated in the programme, but one bloke) is a big centre of attention. Our two comrades killed on picket lines do not even get mentioned, never mind talked about or reflected on.
Figures. The programme starts by telling us there were 180,000 miners in Britain at the start of the strike. At the end of the programme they tell us by February 1985 - ie, six weeks before the end of the strike - 80,000 miners were at work. Half the miners. This of course is the same hype and misuse of figures used right through the strike. Twenty thousand miners never went on strike in the first place. That means 160,000 miners did. If we deduct the 20,000 who never struck from the 80,000 at work six weeks from the end, it means 60,000 had gone back, but 100,000 must still have been out after 10 and a half months of bitter strike. This is not the collapse the programme talks of. Neither is it most or even half the men going back. The core of the strike held solid to the end.
Mardy was the only place where they marched back together - the strength of the working class was broken everywhere except there. Hmm. Mardy was closed and the miners dispersed. Incidentally 100,000 miners plus were still in the industry supplying 89% of all fuel power to power stations by 1986 when the miners balloted by a two third majority to go on strike again. So had the miners been so completely defeated? Why bring in enquiry and research at this stage? Why introduce facts at the end of the programme when they have not interested you all through it?
Did the programme explore the miners tactics? Did it seek to find out if the strike had ever come close to victory, and if so how and when? Did it ask how we were defeated tactically? Nope, a long, long documentary about the miners strike and it does not even raise the question of how we could have won, or if we had come close to it. Not bothered. It ended with an assertion which drove the programme from its start: Old, unprofitable industry like coal had no place in Thatchers Britain. had this conclusion been reached after testing whether Britains coal industry was old in the sense of out of date, or was it modern? Was it unprofitable or was it the most efficient coal mining industry in the world? Well, that issue may well have been at the centre of this dispute, but it did not get any footage on this programme. It was reminiscent of the newspapers at the time that insisted on telling their readers the strikers were trying to keep open pits that were worked out: in other words had no coal in them. More than one paper on more than one occasion said that. The footnote on this 2004 presentation echoed the same lie.
To call this programme a documentary would be a travesty of the English language. It is, however, a fairly good representation of the kind of lies, half-truths and bias we got for 12 months by the bulk of the press and TV news channels. Future researchers looking to understand the miners strike of 84-85 will turn up this on tape and use it to produce whatever is the future equivalent of Star trek. It will be useless in terms of facts, evidence or historical record - other than recording how bad sections of the media were in both 1984 and 2004.
Searching for facts I tried all last year to get a TV sponsor to allow me to make the 20th anniversary strike film. I wanted to revisit the strike and test the legends. Was there a plan to decimate the coal industry? Or was it a plan to decimate instead the NUM and gut the trade union movement? Had Thatcher set out her stall and prepared a battle plan to take us on? To what extent at the end of the strike had it succeeded? To what extent was the character of Arthur Scargill influential in there being a strike, or would it have happened anyway with or without him? What about the ballot issue - how much was it an excuse for gutless scabs and anti-strike tabloids and to what extent a tactical error? Whose error was it? Would it have made any difference in material terms to the two sides? How political was the strike from our end? Was there a plan to overthrow the Thatcher government and impel a revolutionary workers movement forward? How close did the strike come to victory, and how near was Thatcher to collapse? Was there a key failing in our strategy and the response of our fellow workers? Might we have won? What was the post-strike situation and how was that played out? Could the miners have counterattacked in 1986? Answering those questions would have paid a real tribute to 1984-85, as well as being a useful political and socio-historic exercise.
I did not get to make that programme. Instead BBC2 approached me to cooperate in the making of a miners strike film. Perhaps I would get the chance to do a political overview, and explore some of those key questions through this medium? Despite miles of film footage, hours and days of exploring some of the questions on film, in the end it did not appear. Maybe it was never intended to appear. TV producers, even progressive ones, are not democrats. We are not consulted on how the film is made and what will be in it, let alone allowed to see it and amend it before it goes out.
The producer, a Glasgow lad, must have been mighty impressed with Train spotters, since he nicks their opening shots and has the feet and legs of miners running desperately, pursued by cops instead of addicts. He was keen, for some reason, on reconstructions, which have their place if done well. Sadly these were not, by and large, done well and come over as cheap and tacky. Why use off-the-peg actors, in a distant, unrelated place, when the real characters were actually available to play their own parts in the real locations?
Sadly, despite all the evidence presented to them, the makers of The miners strike still repeated the classic mistakes. On the ballot the union leaders said no. I had explained to this team how the question of whether to have a ballot or not was put to mass pithead meetings all over the coalfield. Men in their thousands voted on whether or not we should have a ballot. When I put the question to 1,200 men at Hatfield they nearly hung me off the welfare roof. They thought we were trying to sell them out.
The film shows thousands upon thousands of swaying miners in the throng greeting the result of the conference not to hold a ballot. This was the democracy we were used to. A mass assembly of their brothers, face to face. Stand on your hind legs, have your say, then vote, where everyone can see you. Then stick by the decision, whichever way it goes. Not whispering behind your hand, voting in private and stabbing your marra in the back. Thats the way the men saw it. They told the union leaders no ballot, not the other way round. The programme makers had full knowledge of this fact, so why not use it? Is the ballot question so deeply ingrained in the folk myth of TV producers that they are incapable of hearing an alternative view on the subject? It would seem so.
Other key strategic issues are touched on, but not pursued. The overwhelming vote of Nacods, the supervisors union, to join the strike. Two votes, both of which returned two-thirds majority votes in favour. The Nacods action would shut every pit in Britain. It would end the scabbing, end the excuse to burn scab fuel - there would have been no new scab fuel, no scab trucks hauling it, no Notts scabs to distract us. It would have released at least 15,000 of our pickets, freed them from risk of injury and arrest and added perhaps another 5,000 Nacods members into the picket ranks. It would have silenced the propaganda of the press and TV. So the decision not to carry out the strike vote was crucial. Taken by whom? For what reason? At what cost?
Another example. Neil Kinnock tells us that he and Stan Orme came up with a plan which would have saved the bulk of the British coal industry and allowed development of all beneficial reserves. The NCB accepted the plan. Scargill, we are told, turned it down flat. Untrue. Day by day we watched the negotiations until disagreement centred on a single word, beneficial, and how to resolve conflict over its meaning. It was MacGregor who walked away when Arthur swears everything was all but signed and sealed. The programme chooses not to chase this crucial period for hard facts, despite its central importance in answering the question, how close did we come to winning that strike?
It is clear the producer had decided from the outset that this would be a descriptive film, not an analytical one. It would present through the eyes of five pickets what happened, rather than explore why and what if.
That said, this film is of an altogether different quality than Channel 4s effort. It seeks not to thinly cover the whole canvas of events, but to make a tight focus on the lives and aspirations of five of the Hatfield miners. It follows the events of the strike through their eyes . Contemporary film brings home the intensity of the conflict - the body-and-soul commitment of ordinary folk to a just cause. It is intensely moving. That there are other stories not told by this film is obvious. The womens support groups, the womens flying pickets, the platform speakers, the fundraisers - their stories are not here. The fight for politics - against sexism, against sexist slogans - those discussions and joint learning by a large section of the class are not here. Indeed we could fill this review with the real politics - racial questions, internationalism, class-consciousness, etc - which infused villages such as Hatfield but are not here. A new sense of class being built upon an already highly politicised workforce with a long history of left politics - we see none of that.
The camera focus is larger than life, but tightly focused at the same time. If this is the lens through which the film will be made, you could not have found five better representatives of the Doncaster miners than these. Hard, down-to-earth common sense; intelligent and articulate. They are the antithesis of the automatons presented in the Channel 4 programme. These are the real lives behind the strike, the fabric of its existence. Listening to these men will perhaps allow this new generation, two decades on, to truly appreciate how the ordinary rank and file striker saw and experienced these monumental events. Feelings, insofar as it is possible to capture them on screen, are vividly projected here. In this sense the programme will remain a classic for years to come.
The question of class violence I thought was well presented and explained, as far as the lads were concerned, in a matter-of-fact manner, without glory or machismo. From the Brighton IRA bomb to the death of the scab-herding taxi driver, this was our side against theirs.
However, one item which went out with the programme cannot go unchallenged. This is the legend deriving from Harry, a former Hatfield branch treasurer, according to which I undertook some sort of pacifist deviation in the form of a mass sit-down at the top of the pit lane. Activists, including Harry, will know well my attitude to physical resistance during the strike, so I need not labour that one (actually the producer chose not to include the most violent parts of our resistance - maybe to protect us from prosecution). Harry, to be right, has always taken the piss out of me and the sit-down tactic, accusing me of peace, man hippyism - although it has usually been tongue in cheek. Unfortunately the way BBC2 shot the resulting police charge and riot, straight after Harrys statement, made it look like I had somehow caused the assault on the miners and their families.
I claim a short, indulgent response here for the reason that certain unscrupulous groups on the left (and one in particular) may already have filed this story for future use against me, when the need comes up for the kind of political slander they often engage in. So, for the record, I never suggested the police would not attack because you were sitting down! I cut my teeth in the Tyneside Committee of 100 and numerous such sit-downs at nuclear bases, and the bumps on my head by the time I was 16 had led me to believe they would hit you with as much glee if you were sitting down as if you were standing up. So I had no illusions on that score and neither had anyone else.
No, what usually happened whenever we went to the pit gates in any numbers was the police would find some excuse to charge us and then a fight would happen while the scabs on the bus quietly slipped out of the gate almost without sight or sound of the pickets and the battles further up the pit lane.
The idea of the sit-down, just as the bus was setting off, was to force it to stop. The cops could not pick you up and carry you while they were gripping riot shields, so it was also planned to force them to lose some of their armour. The idea was to hold the scab bus as long as possible while they got some humpty for a change instead of the cops.
Of course, a combination to two things happened. The riot cops were still tooled up in the wings, and for some pickets bricking the cops was a hard habit to lose. When a few bricks went over, as the cops moved in to shift us, that was the cue for the snatch squads to charge into the crowd, many of whom were still sitting down. So, whatever else happened that day, I had an attack neither of pacifism nor naivety. One would have hoped in an otherwise excellent programme such a strong criticism could have been balanced by an explanation from me as to what the idea was from my point of view. Perhaps they felt it was covered by my own strong comments on the death of the taxi driver a little later.
The contrast between the two films could not be more stark. BBC2 showed the close-up nuts and bolts of the action: the bedrock of the strike, the strikers themselves. Not foot-soldiers mindlessly obeying orders, but intelligent, sensitive members of the working class with a high degree of class consciousness, acting in their class interests. This was their strike - it belonged to them. The film will be a monument to class war and the struggle for a better world. For Channel 4 the old myth - Scargill, the Marxist with his own agenda, gerrymandered a strike, and Thatcher used the opportunity to take him on and smash a crack regiment of the working class. It was all about individuals and manipulation. A programme unworthy of the title documentary, it was instead a collage of Sun headlines and TV news bias.
Ironically todays Hatfield miners watched the BBC2 programme in a London hotel room, the night before their lobby of parliament in support of the adjournment debate calling for Hatfield colliery to be saved. Hatfield is now in administration, and the miners are still fighting for its survival, 20 years and two closures since the Great Strike of 1984-85. Their current journal The Hatfield Collier highlights two issues: one, the struggle to save their pit and the remainder of the industry; and, two, the fight for working class democracy within the union against bureaucracy.
Though now a microcosm of their former strength, the Hatfield miners have lost none of their vision.