Monday, 27 January 2020

Book Review - 60 Years of Struggle

A world we have lost?
Written By: Keith Flett
Date: April 2008
Published In LSHG Newsletter Issue 31: Summer 2008 

60 Years of Struggle: History of Betteshanger Colliery By Di Parkin Pub: Betteshanger Social Welfare Scheme 2007 166 pp Paperback ISBN: 978-0955755002

Someone who was 16 in 1985 at the end of the last great British miners strike is now approaching 30, and in the intervening period most of the British mining industry has disappeared. There are only a few thousand miners left in Britain.

So mining and miners, a hugely significant part of Britain’s industrial past, are now moving from the current into history.

Di Parkin has produced a history of Betteshanger pit in the Kent Coalfield which closed in 1989.

The book is produced as a memoir for the many ex-miners and ex-miners’ union activists who are still around and will find a ready readership there. It provides some quite detailed labour-process and industrial history of the Kent mines and of union struggles based on this that will be hugely interesting to those who were involved. Dave Harker’s new book on the Shrewsbury pickets [to be reviewed next issue] is in a similar vein.

But the test for both books is whether they reach beyond their core readership and engage with younger generations who have little memory of mining or miners.

Here Parkin’s book raises wider issues that should ensure that.

The Kent Coalfield was the last major UK one to open in the 1920s with Betteshanger operational from 1928 and was significant because it was the only source of coal south of the Thames — potentially vital for the London market. It attracted to it miners from all over the UK who had been victimised during the General Strike. It started with a tradition of political militancy and that’s how it continued and ended up as well.

It also seems to have attracted, on Parkin’s account, a breed of exceptionally hard nosed pit managers as well so class struggle was guaranteed virtually from day one.

The militant reputation of Betteshanger is explained by Parkin in two phrases ‘sod it’ and ‘rag up’. When miners had had enough of a dictatorial pit manager they simply walked off the job.
Parkin hints that while these walk outs were usually sanctioned by the union the real power was amongst rank and file miners rather than the union machine.

Hence Betteshanger was a rich source of new industrial tactics. There were two stay down strikes in its history when miners refused to leave the mine and the pit also lays claim to being one of those that launched the flying pickets during the 1972 miners strike when miners successfully picketed power stations and oil refineries.

Most startlingly for the modern reader many of these strikes actually won.

Perhaps the most famous strike of the lot was the one in 1942 again over bullying pit managers. As this was war-time the strike was actually illegal and the strikers were taken to Court, fined, and in the case of the NUM officials at Betteshanger, jailed.

It did not work. The miners did not return to work and in due course the Government had to intervene, cancel all the fines and release the jailed officials. The bullying pit managers were stood down.

It was a magnificent episode in British labour history but it also raised a significant question. The NUM branch at Betteshanger was run by the Communist Party, or at least by those who had CP politics. A little more on who these men were and what their background was in the book would have been useful in terms of their relationship to the CP.

Even so of course, the CP in 1942 was backing the war and increased production. Yet it did not condemn the Betteshanger strike. Parkin suggests that the CP in order to be elected as NUM officials could not afford to oppose the action of miners whatever the CP line was.

However there was a tension between the industrial and political lines of the CP that might have been explored a little further.

Parkin’s book is a compelling read — I finished it on a single train journey — and one that deserves a wide audience, both old and young.

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