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Failing the Miners Again

Channel 5's new documentary about the 1984 Miners' Strike paints Thatcher as a hero and covers up her government's real intentions – it is just the latest establishment attack on the miners who fought back.

On Monday, Channel 5 aired a documentary that blew the lid on a secret buried for almost four decades.

Admittedly, with a hugely sympathetic narration which depicted Margaret Thatcher as a heroine and Arthur Scargill as a bumbling idiot, you had to look very hard to find it. But the truth is that the British people have been repeatedly lied to.

I have told my story many times before. In 1984 I was an apprentice miner. Despite the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) arranging that we should be able to continue work, I joined my father and brothers on the picket line.

We stuck it out for the entire dispute – not because we wanted to spend a year without pay, not because we owed allegiance to Arthur Scargill, but because war had been declared on us, our community, and our way of life by the Prime Minister of Great Britain.

For its failings and factual errors, the documentary gets one thing absolutely correct: that Margaret Thatcher meticulously planned the dispute and micromanaged the state’s mobilisation against the NUM and the coalfield communities in order to destroy opposition to her disastrous agenda of liberalising the economy.

It charts her vindictive quest for revenge on communities on whose backs Britain was built for bringing down the government of Ted Heath, her predecessor, and her use of the police, press, state, and judiciary as political tools against ordinary men and women fighting for a future for their communities.

It depicts the strike as pivotal to her tenure as Prime Minister – and pivotal it was. For a century, the miners had been at the forefront of improvements to working-class life in the UK. Without the decimation of the industry, it would have been impossible to press ahead with her reforms which sought to undo the post-war consensus that had prevailed for 40 years.

For more than three decades, it was claimed that Margaret Thatcher was simply a bystander in a dispute between the National Coal Board (NCB) and the NUM. Arthur Scargill’s claim that a secret closure list of more than 70 collieries was also vehemently denied, the government countering that only 20 economically unsustainable pits were at risk. But in 2014, cabinet papers pertaining to the strike were released which categorically proved both government assertions to be incorrect. The documentary fails to mention these facts at all.

It also fails to make any mention of the role Sir Ian Kinloch MacGregor played in the dispute. Handpicked by the government to gut the workforce of British Steel and move the industry into private hands, he was then moved to the NCB with a similar role in mind. Arthur Scargill correctly branded MacGregor as ‘the American butcher of British industry’. Where 170 collieries were working in 1984, only 15 remained by 1994. In 2015, there were none.

While presented in a celebratory manner in the documentary, civil liberties were dramatically curtailed across the coalfield. In the end, 11,291 people were arrested, with 8,392 being charged with breach of the peace or obstructing the highway. The NUM estimates that at least six in ten of those arrested were on bogus grounds. Men were told to accept lesser charges to avoid jail and were then forced off the picket lines. Many of these people who had never before been in trouble are still haunted by criminal records.

The documentary’s portrayal of Arthur Scargill as stumbling from one mistake to another is particularly galling. Scargill, in my view, is the most principled trade union leader in modern British history. Despite facing a militarised police force, a government intent on starving miners and their families, a hostile and incendiary press, and a judiciary in the pocket of the government, Arthur Scargill led hundreds of thousands of miners on strike for a full year. In the end his resourcefulness and cunning were defeated, but only by the full force of the British state being pitted against us.

It was equally as galling to see the triumphalist contributions of Neil Kinnock on the programme with no reflection of his own failings as Labour leader during the strike. Sadly, the solidarity expressed by Labour councils and the trade union movement to mining communities did not extend to the Labour Party leadership. We can only imagine what the outcome of the strike might have been had it done so. But to see him add weight to the premise—that this was a battle between two individuals, rather than the government being hell bent on destroying mining communities—is shameful.

The documentary goes to prove that history is written by those with the power. Having denied her active role in the strike for three decades, those closest to Thatcher now celebrate her use of state machinery to destroy ordinary people. Our communities still bear the direct scars from the Conservative government’s industrial vandalism, and the entire country has been shaped by the outcome of that dispute.

Perhaps the new attempt to paint Thatcher’s role in the strike as a heroic one is fuelled by the current state of British politics. We’ve entered a period where the truth no longer matters, and the taboo of a Prime Minister lying at the despatch box has well and truly been broken. We should not forget that Boris Johnson is on record as having joined the Conservative Party in support of Thatcher’s treatment of mining communities during the dispute.

As Britain drifts ever nearer to authoritarianism under an emboldened right-wing Conservative Party, we should never forget what the Thatcher government did to our communities and to Britain. Their agenda, unimpeded by a hollowed-out trade union movement, has fuelled rampant inequality in a country where both billionaires and poverty are on the increase.

But we should also remember the miners’ role at the vanguard of working-class politics. We can never return to coal, but the spirit of solidarity that built our communities and public institutions, and was prepared to fight for them, is something that should be the basis of our movement as we face the future.

The working class of our country has never been the ‘enemy within’ – they are the backbone of our nation. Some would do well to remember that.