Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Solidarity with the Miners

I thought I'd post this as a reflection on what happened the last time we had a Tory government determined to attack working people:

In 1984 I was a student at Essex University. When the Miner's Strike started in March 1984 I was in my second year. Essex University in those days was ‘Red Essex’. In my first year the Communists dominated the students union. By the second year the ‘Broad Left’ had taken over. From what I can remember now this was an unholy alliance of the Communists, Labour and Liberals. Naturally I was a part of the left opposition to this ruling clique. We consisted of non-aligned socialists, leftie Labourites, Troops Out, the SWP, and anarchists.

Thatcher’s government pulled out all the stops to beat the miners and the police were drafted in from all over the country to the front line, which was south Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. Along with the cohorts of police - reputedly on £500 a week - in 1984! – came the army, who posed as policemen in unmarked uniforms, as well as special branch and all manner of spooks determined to break the strike (read GB84 by David Peace). It was a bloody battle, as close as we have come to civil war since the General Strike in the 1920s. Whole parts of the north Midlands and South Yorkshire were a ‘no go zone’ controlled by the police. Towns and mining villages were occupied. The police set up illegal roadblocks to try and stop the miner’s flying pickets.

So what has Essex University to do with this? Well as the strike wore on the government pulled all the stops to try and break it. Essex University is a campus university outside Colchester and near to the Essex port of Wivenhoe. The government started to ship coal in through Wivenhoe and soon after flying pickets arrived at the university. There were about 300 in all. From as far afield as Yorkshire, Durham, Kent and South Wales. This was their first time at university and didn’t they, and we, enjoy it.

Essex University had two bars at the time. The University Bar, which was where the Tories went, and the Union bar, which is where the rest, that is most of us, went. The Union Bar was a great cavern of a place with subsidised (decent) beer at about 60 pence per pint. It was always heaving at night and you had to queue to get served. When the miners came the place exploded. And wasn’t it just wonderful? The singing - “ Here we go, here we go, here we go, here we go, here we go, here we go-o, here we go, here we go, here we go, here we go, here we go!” - the carousing, the craic – as it is know in Ireland - was fantastic!

I spent many nights in that bar drinking with miners and they were some of the best nights of my life. Yes we were separated by class – but so what? We all wanted the same thing – to beat Thatcher and bring down the Tory government. Nobody had any illusions about that. As a socialist it was nirvana. I felt privileged to be taking part in a struggle, however small a part that was, alongside the vanguard of the working class. And the miners enjoyed it too, for sure they had all left problems at home, but at Essex they were welcomed with open arms, with beer, fags, wacky baccy, and young women of a socialist persuasion who wanted to shag a miner. And those women were real feminists – not the effete lot you get these days. So, all in all, it was an education for them and for us. But we got on like a house on fire. Even the Tories treated the miners with respect. They had very little choice.

All these goings on didn’t impress the University - but those were different times. The student union was strong. We had won on a number of issues whilst I had been there. They took us seriously. And that was the best of the students’ union – we had our internal battles but they always backed their members – even the lefties like us - like a proper union should. It was very difficult, if not impossible, for the University to pick out and victimise a student there. So, although the university wanted to get rid of the miners – they couldn’t. The miners were there for the duration, and once they arrived it wasn’t long before things began to hot up.

My best friend, and socialist activist, S, had deserted me and gone off to university in the USA. He went with a mutual friend, A, and they got into a number of political scrapes over there, including getting arrested and being chased by gun-toting security guards. S and I had been involved in a number of escapades at Essex including an exam boycott - where we had to jump out of a first floor window to avoid getting caught out. When he returned in the third year we immediately got hold of a couple of buckets, plastered ourselves in Coal not Dole stickers, and got down to Colchester town centre every Saturday collecting money for the miners. Colchester is a Tory, and army garrison town so we got a fair amount of stick as you can imagine. But we didn’t give a fuck. The best of it was we collected a fair amount of dosh. Little old ladies and gentlemen, and ‘housewives’ gave us money. I would guess that on most Saturdays we collected between 30 and 50 quid. Not bad money for those times.

There were a number of mass pickets of Wivenhoe and it’s a testament to the times how organised the enemy were. At the ‘big picket’, which I remember clearly, there must have been about 1000 police officers and 1000 pickets. The picket consisted of miners, students and local ne’er do wells (local people who supported the cause). The night before the picket I went out with my mate N - who was a committed socialist and really great bloke. Despite getting completely leathered we were up at five am to get to the picket.

As the whole thing got off the ground N and I were at the centre of the picket near the gate. I remember quite clearly a wagon coming in – regardless of the pickets - someone could easily have got killed. It was slowed by the crush of bodies at the gate and Nigel jumped up and managed to stick his head through the driver’s window giving him a load of abuse. He was grabbed and carted off by several police officers. There was lots of pushing and shoving as the police tried to keep us away from the gates. The pickets linked arms and the melee swayed backwards and forwards. I lead a charmed life that day. At one stage the police lifted the guys on either side of me but I survived. I guess that is because they were burly miners and I was a weedy student. The police grabbed a friend who was already on bail for an 'offence' committed during the strike and a frantic tug of war over him ensued. We knew he couldn’t be nicked again. With a gargantuan effort we wrested him from the police and he was passed backwards along the ground through the legs of the pickets to safety.

The bad news for N was that when they got him back to the station they searched him and found some speed in his jean’s back pocket so he got busted. He’d forgotten to take it out the night before. As for the students that got arrested they were piled in police vans, driven about thirty miles into the middle of nowhere and left to walk home. Suffice to say a lot more happened, including the infamous disciplinary committee that I was elected to serve on. Not to mention real picketing after being smuggled into south Derbyshire in the middle of the night. But the miners stayed at Essex University until the end of the strike and one or two of them were still on campus about six months after it ended.

The end of the strike was traumatic for all of us. The miners and their wives, and families were heroes. They were a million miles away from the smug bankers and Capitalists who have been riding on our backs ever since. We had invested a lot of time, energy and passion in the strike. We didn’t have as much to lose as they did. The unemployment, repossessions, marital break up, crime, and shattered communities. But we cared. I hope they look back on that time of solidarity with as much fondness as I do.

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!


Anonymous said...

The people who lived in Wivenhoe never forgot the disruption that the striking miners and their supporters, whether students from the university's campus or hooligans from elsewhere, brought to this small town. We had rights too - for example, to walk down the High Street, over the railway bridge and down Station Road, to use West Street and East Street - without being intimidated by people who were pursuing a predominantly political grievance rather than any dispute in the mining industry. What you and your allies on the streets were trying to do was to use force to overthrow the democratically elected Government of Britain. Most people in Wivenhoe and elsewhere in the country understood this well enough. That is why the miners and their supporters lost. Thank goodness they and you did.

Howard Thorp said...

I don't usually publish anonymous comments but I've made an exception here.

I guess the miner's strike is ancient history now but something similar may happen in the next few years.

You have a very limited and blinkered view of democracy. Who caused the disruption in Wivenhoe? The pickets or the government?

The closure of the pits made no economic sense - it was a calculated act of revenge, an attack on working people and their communities - some of which have never fully recovered.

The miner's showed great courage in defending their communities - something which seems to be missing these days - or is it? We shall see.

Do you support the current devastation the ConDem government is causing? - for which it has no mandate?

Protest can change things - that is part and parcel of the democratic process. It was the government that broke the law in 1984/5 not the miners.

Howard Thorp said...

I see you have sent a further comment. I quite happy to debate and publish comments that are not anonymous so if you want to get it published please identify yourself.

William Morris Leek Labour Church said...

The main event during the Strike was the meeting that for one November night in 84 made Stoke the focus of the national media was the shared platform between Scargill and Neil Kinnock, which was held in Kingshall. It was an emotional event as earlier in the day- 30th November 1984- a working miner had been killed when a concrete block had been dropped on a taxi in South Wales. The first few minutes of Kinnock’s speech was inaudible with cries of “traitor” “scab” and “Judas” and several members of the audience tried to rush the platform. Part of the platform was evacuated as a bomb threat was made against Kinnock. The Labour Leader denounced the death in Merthyr as well as the picket line violence. “ You shame us all,” he said of the people who had perpetrated the killing. Scargill himself denounced all violence “away from the picket lines”, dissociating himself from what had happened. It was certainly the most rowdy political meeting I had ever attended. Scargill himself was a regular visit to the area. I seemed to recall a march that ended in Hanley Park on a summer’s day with Scargill addressing the crowd.

Howard Thorp said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Howard Thorp said...

I remember that incident. It was wrong, a tragedy which set back the cause of the strike.

Violence is not the answer. It can never be justified except as self defence.

Though Kinnock was right - so were the audience - he was a Judas. It would make a significant difference if a Labour leader was ever willing to condem the violence perpetrated by the authorities against working people. That is one of the historic failings of the Labour Party.

In a democracy we are supposed to have policing by consent - not a police force which is simply a tool of the state and can break heads, and the law with impunity.

Anonymous said...

I like the way you have decided that you were 'separated by class' from the miners.
I am working class, and I went to university in the 1980s, and this wasn't anything that meant I wasn't still (and still am!) working class.....
Think this post has spoken volumes.

I remain a committed socialist and I am an active trade unionist, in the place I work. I help members out on matters of welfare, grievance, disciplinary, redundancy....none of which was learnt at university but make a bloody big difference to members. And I remain committed to the fight against tuition fees!!


Howard Thorp said...

Jim, I am also a committed socialist and I am an active trade unionist, and in the place I work I also help members out on matters of welfare, grievance, disciplinary, redundancy....none of which was learnt at university but make a bloody big difference to members - just like you.

My mother was working class and my father was lower middle class. I had one granny who lived in a council house and another who lived in her own home. I mixed with working class and middle class kids when I was growing up in a northern working class town. I went to grammar school and university where I met upper middle class kids for the first time in my life.

Does this make me working class or middle class? I think I'm a bit of both but I didn't come from the same background as the miners. In the struggle that was the miner's strike what mattered most was solidarity.

Anonymous said...

Something strikes me here (no pun intended!) - you regurgitate my words back to me. I'm dealing with a lot of people currently who are all talk (and online too)and no action.
Have actions been replaced by the keyboard?
Something not ringing so true in what you write, for me. I dearly wish it was true...


Howard Thorp said...

Jim, were you at the Coalition of Resistance Conference? Were you on the miner's picket lines? I was. Did you stand as a parliamentary candidate in the last election? I did. I can't do everything but I do put my money where my mouth is - as others I know can testify.