Monday, 27 January 2020

The Great Strike Twenty Years On (2004)

The Great Strike Twenty Years On
Written By: Keith Flett
Date: January 2004
Published In LSHG Newsletter Issue 20: Lent 2004  

On Saturday November 1st [2004] I, along with David Renton, Andrew Burgin, John Geoffrey Walker and Inga Bystram, organised an historical conference, sponsored by the London Socialist Historians Group, to mark the twentieth anniversary of the 1984-5 British miners strike.

Of course we knew that the anniversary itself is not until March 2004. However, we wanted to have a serious historical conference, before the cheering and booing starts next year.

Ironically it took place in the middle of the most militant piece of strike action since that time, the unofficial and illegal post workers action to defend their union and conditions of work. We collected over £100 for those workers, who unlike the miners, won.

The conference itself was well attended, with an excellent series of papers and a high quality of debate. It is hoped to publish the proceedings next year.

And yet, as the lead organiser, it was what we didn’t manage to pull off that struck me most. Many interesting things were said about the 1984-5 miners strike, and about miners struggles in general, not least by Vic Allen, the secretary of the left-wing Miners Forum which organised much militant action in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. But it was what was missing that suggested that there are real gaps in our history.

One senior labour historian who I discussed the conference with suggested that 20 years might be too soon to examine the history of the 1984-5 strike. The quality of the papers and the attendance at the conference suggests that this was not quite right. Yet, they may still have had a point.

At one level it is obvious that many of those who were in some way involved with the 1984-5 strike have gone on to other things. Some may have retired from active industrial and political engagement. Others may well still be engaged, perhaps as Labour Councillors or MPs. Either way, it is less than likely that they particularly want to remember their role in the strike- although they may well have some things to say about it- which, no doubt, we will hear at some stage in 2004.

It was specific areas of the strike that provoked the most yawning gaps. The original appeal for papers provided a wide-ranging response. Yet of this response, only one person asked (rather than offered a paper on) what we knew about ‘lesbians and gays support for the miners’ and no one at all volunteered a paper on women’s activity during the strike or the role of Women Against Pit Closures. It became clear at the conference that there is at least one current research project which is trying to look at this history, through contacting past activists. However that in itself underlines the point. There are not people out there ready to tell the story at the moment. When we got no responses we contacted a number of socialist-feminist activists who were known to have been involved with the strike. Interest was expressed, but no paper was forthcoming. We even went as far as commissioning a paper or two. They fell through.

A preliminary conclusion is that the move away from an association with socialist and working-class politics that has characterised some, although not all, recent women’s history has succeeded in making women’s involvement in the great strike something that is freshly hidden from history. Let’s hope that this is rectified in the months to come.

The second area where we struggled was that of memorabilia of the strike. Given the huge amount of leaflets, papers, posters, badges, records and much else associated with the strike we thought it would be useful to have a small exhibition at the end to show some of this. In the end thanks to the efforts of Andrew Burgin and Roni Margulies, we did succeed in doing this. At the same time it became clear that many of those who were known to have a considerable archive of memorabilia were rather reluctant to remember it.

The third area where we excited much less interest than expected was in the role of the State during the strike. Some films - such as Billy Elliot, shot in the Durham coalfield - have shown this. It was a huge concern at the time, and we received precisely no offers of papers about it twenty years on. Again, perhaps the memory remains too painful.

So the Conference was well worth doing and looks set to provoke further research and discussion. Yet, as Education Minister Charles Clarke told a seminar of the LSHG two days after the conference, the decline in interest in labour history is a major problem. Not least because labour history is such a large part of our recent history, despite what post-modernists and New Labourists may tell us. And if, as an industrial commentary in the current issue of Socialist Review suggests, twenty years on the 1984-5 miners strike still casts something of a shadow over the industrial landscape, then we do, urgently, need to come to terms with some preliminary conclusions about its history.

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