Which side are you on?

Submitted by AWL on 1 April, 2014 - 2:06

Look Back in Anger by Harry Paterson is published by Five Leaves, Nottingham. It describes the events of the 1984-5 miners' strike in Nottinghamshire, one of the areas where many, though not all, miners scabbed.

The overtime ban that was going from November 1983 was strong in Notts and the coal stocks were nowhere near as high as the Tories had hoped for. When the first closures of a handful of pits were announced, thousands of Yorkshire miners were already on strike and insisted on solidarity. MacGregor had already met with Thatcher six months before the strike to discuss kickstarting the strike and drawing the NUM into battle. With the overtime ban biting he announced accelerated closures and 20000 jobs would be passively given up with Scargill insisting that 70,000 were really planned. No one guessed this would turn out to be an underestimation!
The NUM didn't blunder by calling the strike. It was the miners themselves that insisted on it and insisted that there be no national ballot -- that one set of miners shouldn't sell out the minority facing job loss. Some may say with hindsight that with 61% showing in favour of a strike in opinion polls it was a mistake not to call a ballot but the flying pickets and appeals to solidarity had worked before and the miners showed in Special Delegate conference that they did not want a ballot at that time. The Yorkshire miners (the biggest area) were to the left of their leaders!

It wasn't just the Notts scabs that should shoulder the blame but leaders of unions and parties that failed to lead and encourage the millions of members to solidarity that could have won the strike i.e. solidarity strike action.

The early chapters take us through the history of Notts and the Miners. Back crucially to the 1926 General Strike. Then, Notts miners faced as bad poverty as anywhere and struck for months before being starved back to work, but a Labour MP, Spencer, led an eventual breakaway company union which many see as the precursor of the breakaway UDM led by people like Lynk.

He focuses rightly on the fact (now proven by papers released under the 30 year rule) that Thatcher and the Tories planned revenge on the NUM for their defeat in 1974 and as early as 1978 it was well known that the Ridley Plan (to use bribes to other key workers, anti-union laws, the media, a highly mobile militarised police force and a scab workforce and transport) would be used.

The collusion with right wing businessman, Tories , police and even secret services by right-wing leaders in the area is brought out in detail as are the historical reasons (higher wages, the fact that many Notts miners had moved from other areas after their pits had closed and constant reassurances that their pits were safe). One criticism would be there is little discussion of the rank and file NUM miners group led by its secretary Paul Whetton which was crucial to the resolve of the deservedly praised Notts strikers.

However, there is mention of some of the finest examples of solidarity action, like the railworkers who defied the anti-union laws and refused to move coal, or the miners' support groups including the black communities, LGBT communities and others all over the UK and beyond.

There is also a little bit of nostalgic yearning for the old Stalinist states which does not sit easily with Scargill's realisation that maybe he had more in common with repressed unions than with the "Communist" governments like Poland who sent coal to the Tories to break the strike whilst offering lip service support.

The Tory press regaled the bravery of scabs and the violence of pickets – what the miners needed was unequivical support from trade union leaders and particularly Neil Kinnock. Kinnock claimed he was behind the NUM but regularly said he condemned their violence. The one death that was hysterically seized upon was of a taxi driver ferrying a lone scab into a solidly striking South wales pit. Yet little attention was drawn to the thousands of families terrorised in their own villages, thousands of pickets arrested on trumped up charges, hundreds injured and jailed and the two pickets killed or 3 children killed scavenging for coal as the striking miners were left with little food, heating or faced loss of savings or houses.

It was striking Notts miners collecting in the centre of Nottingham that told me the food and demos and money in tins were welcome but not enough, that I should throw myself into the battle being waged in the Labour Party to get the leadership to back the miners, that led to me coming across Socialist Organiser (forerunner of Solidarity and Workers' Liberty) reading Whettons Weekly in its paper and going to political discussions in Miners Welfares and selling the hugely popular "Magnificent Miners Pamphlet that politicised me.

I saw Billy Bragg on his first appearance on Top of the Pops singing "Between the Wars" just after the end of the strike. I bought loads of copies to give to friends and relatives just for the B side "Which side are you on" summing up that in such a battle as the miners' strike you have to take sides. The striking miners of Notts (and Leics., Derbys., and other scabbing areas) chose the right side.

"Those that cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" reads a quote at the beginning of the book. It is our job to learn from the past and this book is an important tool in that remembering.

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