Still Shafted

Two new books on the Miners’ Strike reveal the solidarities that existed across the divides of today’s ‘culture war’ – and the ongoing effects of the defeat on the communities at the heart of it.

Credit: B. Gomer / Daily Express / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

The Miners’ Strike of 1984–5 was fundamental to the transformation of late twentieth-century Britain—the undermining of trade unionism, the erosion of class politics, the economic shift from industrial to finance capital—and its effects are ongoing. It can be unsettling in some ways to read historical analyses of an era which is still so vivid in living personal, community, and folk memory. It can be equally jarring, however, to remember that the strike was a time when both miners and metropolitans were regarded by the country’s Conservative ascendancy as the same enemy within.

Diarmaid Kelliher’s Making Cultures of Solidarity opens on a miners’ support meeting at Islington Town Hall. Then as now, London was frequently seen as the coalfields’ opposite, despite its own pockets of poverty, unemployment, and anti-state militancy. But miners’ support groups sprang up in almost every borough of the city, drawing not only from well-meaning liberals but from Fleet Street printworkers, hospital cleaners, black youth from Tottenham’s Broadwater Farm Estate, LGBT activists, and working-class polytechnic students. A central driving force behind this support was the sense of common struggles, whether experience of police violence, wage cuts, or resistance to Thatcherism’s broader social and economic programme. As Kelliher documents, the story of support for the strike illustrates a left politics that was instinctively intersectional because so were the lives and identities of its practitioners.

Crucially, this solidarity was not limited to passive expressions of sympathy. It offered practical support aimed at spreading and shoring up the strike effort, from speaking tours by striking miners to street collections and benefit gigs. Historically, such solidarity had been a two-way process: in South Wales alone, miners volunteered to fight in the Spanish Civil War, lent support to US activists from Paul Robeson to Angela Davis, and played a central part in Britain’s anti-apartheid movement. Kelliher notes that the NUM’s support for South Asian women workers in the 1976 Grunwick strike led directly to the reciprocal support they received from London’s Desi community in 1984–5. Contemporary analyses that posit industrial working-class values as inherently opposed to internationalism or ‘identity politics’ ignore this history, which makes clear the common ground on which struggles for liberation take place.

But all the action and support recorded in Making Cultures of Solidarity could not withstand the British state’s still-astounding mobilisation against the miners, which deployed a hostile media, brutal policing, and even MI5. The impact of the strike’s defeat suffuses The Shadow of the Mine, Huw Beynon and Ray Hudson’s elegiac overview of the communities of the Welsh and Durham coalfields over the past 150 years. In some ways a useful companion piece to The Fed, Hywel Francis and Dai Smith’s magisterial look at twentieth-century mining and militancy in South Wales, this book takes us up to the ex-coalfields’ present and provides essential economic and social context for both the Leave vote in 2016 and the consequent collapse of the so-called ‘Red Wall’.

As the authors note, mining communities—already marginalised as ‘a breed apart’ throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—were more or less erased from political consciousness and economic consideration in post-industrial Britain. Following Brexit, their ‘rediscovery’—and their current political nature—became a matter of feverishly competing top-down narratives. This book does well to centre the voices of people in the former coalfield rather than ventriloquising them, letting them directly depict the social and psychological effects of the erosion of historical class identities and its impact on day-to-day life, from gender politics to generational differences. They voice anger not only with the destruction wrought by previous Tory governments, but with the indifference and ineptitude of local authorities since that point, Labour included.

Kelliher stresses that much of the solidarity constructed during the Miners’ Strike was institutional, with networking enabled through trade unions and left groups. Local infrastructure in both London and the coalfield provided physical space—from miners’ halls and community centres to pubs, cafés, and individuals’ homes—where the mingling of ostensibly opposed demographics could generate discussion and the discovery of common ground. Beynon and Hudson demonstrate how the loss of these civic and community spaces has been a major factor in the current inability to foster the same level of solidarity or political consciousness in response to neoliberalism’s onslaught.

In The Shadow of the Mine, the present’s grimness means that the industrial past is framed by many as a golden age – not the xenophobic and patriarchal one pushed by right-wing narratives, but one of collectivism, stability, and purposeful work. Those looking for solutions to ‘winning back the heartlands’ might consider starting here.

Diarmaid Kelliher’s Making Cultures of Solidarity: London and the 1984–5 Miners’ Strike is published by Routledge.

Huw Beynon and Ray Hudson’s The Shadow of the Mine: Coal and the End of Industrial Britain is published by Verso.

About the Author

Rhian E. Jones grew up in South Wales and is now based in London, where she writes on history, politics, popular culture, and the places where they intersect.