Opening The Archives On The Miners’ Strike

Women’s support groups demonstrate outside the NUM executive meeting in Sheffield on April 12
Women’s support groups demonstrate outside the NUM executive meeting in Sheffield on April 12

Part of the British Film Institute season:

‘On the Face of It:

A Century of

Coalmining on Screen’

(Also plays this month

at the Showroom

in Sheffield)

‘OPENING the Archives on the Miners’ Strike’, shown at BFI Southbank (the National Film Theatre) on Wednesday, is a valuable addition to the historic record of the great 1984-85 miners’ strike for jobs that shook Britain a quarter of a century ago.

The effects are still being felt.

There was still ‘tension’ between former miners and their protagonists from the police – who arrested many thousands of miners in the strike – when asked to recount the strike for this film.

In fact, producer Simon Popple revealed in a question and answer session after the new film was shown that no ex-Met police from the London area, who were sent to the coalfields in 1984-85, nor scabs who broke the strike, could be found to take part in the documentary.

Using archive material, the film’s producers spent three months putting together the documentary, which is divided into two parts.

The first part is BBC news footage from key moments during the strike:

• the start of the strike in Yorkshire, following an 18-week overtime ban.

• the massive lobby by striking miners of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) headquarters in Sheffield, against the attempts by the Thatcher government to force them into a secret ballot.

• (The miners insisted that no miner had the right to vote another miner out of a job).

• The battle between the striking miners and the riot police, who besieged mining villages during the strike.

• The view of a local ‘community policeman’ working in Featherstone.

• Christmas in Goldthorpe mining village.

• The interview with NUM leader Arthur Scargill on the miners’ return to work.

It should be said that the BBC, and the rest of the capitalist media, played a key role in the miners’ strike in spreading anti-strike propaganda, as the Thatcher government and the state waged a civil war against mining communities in an effort to smash the NUM.

But even their best efforts could not cover over the real reasons for the strike, to defend jobs for future generations, and the anger of miners and their families at police violence against their communities.

This also comes out in the second part of the film, Strike Stories, where the producers asked participants in the strike and former police to make their own short films, discussing their memories of the struggle.

These films are titled:

• What Did You Do in the Strike, Daddy? (An interview with a former NUM branch official by his daughter, who was just two years old in the strike)

• The Year We Saw The Light

• If You Didn’t Know You Wouldn’t Know

• Rubble

• Sheffield: Forgotten Buildings

• We Are Women, We Are Strong, and

• Maggie’s Boot Boys

Some of the films are punctuated by colour and black and white photographs from the strike, which capture the drama of the struggle when blown up to cinema screen size, including ten provided by the News Line, from our ‘Miners’ Strike in Pictures’ book.

The News Line photographs captured key points in the struggle, from the mass lobby of the NUM headquarters against a ballot, the mass rally by Women Against Pit Closures, and police in action at the height of the strike.

We Are Women, We Are Strong interviewed photographer, Lesley Boulton.

She was famously caught on camera by another photographer, trying to protect herself as a mounted policeman swings his baton at her.

What comes out is the revolutionary determination amongst the ranks of the miners and Women Against Pit Closures not to accept the destruction of their industry and give way to the Thatcher government and the state.

In fact, as the accompanying programme notes say, the 1984-85 strike ‘threatened to bring down Margaret Thatcher’s conservative government’.

The only reason the Tories weren’t brought down is because the TUC leaders kept the rest of the trade union movement at work.

In fact, some union leaders actively helped the government’s efforts by giving union cards to drivers carrying scab coal through picket lines.

Thatcher revealed in her memoirs: ‘David Basnett, General Secretary of the GMWU, and Ray Buckton, General Secretary of ASLEF . . . revealed their desire for the TUC to play a role . . . Peter Walker and Tom King had a lengthy meeting with seven of the main union leaders on the evening of Wednesday 5 December. . .

‘I discussed how to deal with the TUC initiative with Peter Walker and officials on the morning of Thursday 13 December at Downing Street. . .

‘I agreed that Peter should meet the TUC on Friday morning to tell them that the Government would go along with their efforts to bring the strike to an end.’ (‘The Downing Street Years’, pages 372-3)

This was an all-out class war which almost led to a revolution.

Miners who took part in the documentary say that everything their union and its president Arthur Scargill had warned about in 1984-85 has come true today.

The plan of the government was to try and smash the NUM in order to bring in vast pit closures.

The documentary shows that whole villages have been reduced to rubble by government-backed regeneration schemes which have flattened the council homes of miners, after their pits were closed in the late 1980s and 1990s.

In some places, there is no trace at all of the pits on which those villages and towns were built.

Not even so much as a plaque stands on many buildings that played a key role in the strike or were the sites of former pits.

Not even a single pit wheel is in sight, which really angers many of the former miners interviewed.

The police interviewed are not the ones who were drafted in from the Metropolitan Police, and were known as ‘Maggies Boot Boys’.

They seemed to regard the role of the police simply as enforcing ‘the law’ and stopping a ‘breach of the peace’.

However, one also says that if the strike had got ‘out of control’, then the military would have been brought in.

Archive news footage shows miners and their wives outraged at the conduct of the police, telling reporters that they have had police calling them ‘scum’ and that their husbands have been savagely beaten.

In fact, as the documentary brings out, Thatcher’s infamous remark about the ‘enemy within’ gave the state the license it wanted to attack the NUM.

But the miners were not cowed. Far from it.

In fact, many of those, and their wives, who were asked to take part in the film say the strike gave them a new lease of life and a feeling of freedom they had never experienced in their lives, neither before nor since.

The film’s producers say: ‘The social and political consequences of this dispute have resonated for the past quarter of a century and it is still a controversial and divisive event.’

With just three months to put the film together, it was made to ensure that the Great Miners Strike of 1984-1985 was not forgotten. It brings the vitality of the strike to the screen and should be seen by all trade unionists and the generations of young people who will have heard of the strike but not know about it.

This film is just the start of putting the archive material together and we look forward to seeing the future footage that is promised.