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Working class heroes

David Douglass reviews David Bell's The dirty thirty: heroes of the miners' strike Five Leaves Publications, 2009, pp108, £7.99

This is a timely little book, appearing as it does during the 25th anniversary of that momentous struggle. The anniversary prompted a rush of newspaper features and a number of TV documentaries (some of them repeats from the 20th anniversary), as well as numerous labour movement rallies and conferences.

This book is one of several published to coincide with the anniversary. While some have attempted new and revealing facts on the strike, and disclosed secret state documents, others have simply regurgitated the government's and kept media's formulations of the time.

The dirty thirty attempts no grand analysis or earth-shattering revelations. It is the simple story of 30 brave men and their wives and families who stood out, alone and isolated, in an area with a devastating attack of ‘leprosy'. Thirty men who struck out of an area workforce of 2,500 who scabbed in Leicestershire. (Actually there were 31 who stuck it out to the end, but the other 30 did not discover this till the last day of the strike, as the other striker had not involved himself in any of the strike organisation but stayed the course for 12 months nonetheless.) The best the area ever saw at any one time was 40 strikers.

While those of us in the solid striking areas revelled in the mass militancy and made the few lone scabs social outcasts, in Leicester (and Notts) the situation was entirely reversed. The strikers were treated as scabs and were threatened, attacked, their wives and children intimidated, given the icy shoulder of hostility in the communities they were striving to support and defend.

Shunned by area NUM leaders, they received nothing in terms of aid or support from the union they were struggling so hard to protect. The reverse in fact, as the formal NUM leadership in the area condemned them out of hand and sought ways to exclude them from the union. The strikers had in the teeth of isolation to build everything themselves. Pickets, support networks, food distribution and kitchens. In fact, they became so skilled at the latter, their aid far exceeded their needs and they were able to redirect financial and material support to other areas that were more hard-pressed.This book tells the blow-by-blow story of each of the men, and how they came to make their stand, and eventually link up into a small, but vibrant campaign.

Leicester was without exception the worst scab area in Britain, making Nottingham look like a hotbed of militancy by comparison. But it is not that we remember about Leicester: it is these men and their families who former miners the length and breadth of Britain think of when that year is recalled. Now when they enter Durham during the annual miners' gala with their homemade banner, they are met with acclaim everywhere.

When the strike ended, they marched back with no brass band and no cheering supporters, but still with their heads held high, only to be met by waves of victimisation from the union officialdom and the bulk of their erstwhile workmates. At some pits, the whole shift chanted, ‘Scabs, scabs, scabs' at them , as they rode the shafts to go to work. Among others, however, was a grudging respect.

It is illustrative that at the end of the strike, when the Union of Democratic Mineworkers - the Notts-based breakaway from the NUM - and its agents were trying to draw South Derbyshire and Leicester into their scab yellow dog ‘union', these same men mounted platforms, and spoke from the floor in the thick of mass meetings and argued for miners to stay in the NUM. A battle they succeeded in winning, as Leicester overwhelmingly rejected the moves to affiliate to the UDM - their workmates clearly thinking doing the right thing on this occasion is somewhat easier than going on strike for 12 months.

This is a splendid, moving little book and a fitting tribute to the Leicester strikers and their families - doubtless their kids and their kids' kids will treasure it for the rest of their lives. Their dads and mams were working class heroes indeed. The book is well illustrated and remarkably was produced with help from the Arts Council of England.