Remembering the miners’ strike

Thirty years ago today I knew I was on the right side of a major clash of world views.

That was little consolation then because I was also aware that my team had lost.

I had spent much of the previous six months collecting food outside supermarkets in Leeds to feed hungry people.

Hungry British people.

The Great British Mining Strike was an ambush.

There are people far better placed than me to chart to calamitous behaviour of the National Union of Mineworkers when, under the leadership of Arthur Scargill, they walked into a pre-prepared trap.

The coal stocks had been built up and everything was in place.

The British Government wanted the miners to go on strike and they got their wish and the Ridley Plan worked perfectly.

What I saw during the strike in the heartland of England was that if push came to shove the British bobby could behave like the RUC in their own country.

In my mid-twenties I had plenty of reasons to detest Thatcher and all her works.

She seemed to spit in the face of the feminist wisdom that a woman in charge would be a natural peacemaker.

In my undergraduate days I had been assured by the sisterhood that a woman in charge would make a difference.

Well the bereaved of the Belgrano might dispute that one.

I know of many families in the Six Counties who would be with the Argentinian mothers on that score.

It was central to the Thatcherite project that the power of organised labour had to be broken and that meant taking on the shock troops of the working class-the miners.

As I write this I am ransacking my memory for images and conversations that I had in those times with families in places like Allerton Bywater and Kiverton Park.

My main function in an ad hoc support group of like minds around Leeds was to drive a venerable transit van held together by rust with food gathered outside of shops.

In the age before food banks the mining communities of Britain experienced Tory induced malnourishment.

When my mother’s family first came to Britain just over a hundred years ago from Ireland the menfolk found a living in the coal mines of Lanarkshire.

I was born in a mining village in the late 1950s. The last ‘pit’ had closed only a few years earlier, but for all of my early childhood Baillieston had the culture and folklore that is synonymous with that extractive industry.

Probably the first hateful word I learned as a wee lad from the mouth of my maternal grandmother was ‘scab’.

I had no idea why she would detest those things on my knees that I was told not to pick, but in time I learned.

Actually she was referring to a man in Baillieston who had broken a strike when she was a young woman.

She had not forgotten.

Her Donegal father had been brought to Scotland as a nipper and, so family legend has it, was down the pit at ten years of age.

He went to his rest eternal unable to read or write. His eldest daughter, Bridget would read the newspapers to him.

He thought this the wonder of the age that his wee girl could read.

This, dear reader, was in the 20th century in the preeminent power on the planet.

The other side of the house was from Carlow and I was reared on tales of my great grandfather going out  armed for the picket line with a pick axe handle and a fireplace poker.

He was a practical man.

His shop steward son  (my grandfather) knew that community solidarity was everything if people were to preserve any degree of dignity or humanity amid the oppressive economic circumstances imposed by the mine owners and their government.

Skipping to school as delighted six year old I had no idea why the very old men that I passed seemed unable to move very quickly.

I now know that they were men in their fifties crippled with coal dust in the lungs.

My wagon builder grandfather considered himself blessed that he got a job out of doors unlike his older brother who was down the pit.

He was very proud of his First Aid skills and took delight in teaching his grandson the word “pneumoconiosis”.

That my Pop knew this word seemed wonderful, but then again when I was six I knew my grandfather knew everything.

He didn’t, but what he did realise was the collateral damage of industrialism was broken bodies and ruined lives.

He was from a family of Irish scrappers and he knew that against the bosses you had to be team handed.

To this day I cannot envisage a scenario where I would cross a picket line in a trade dispute.

As I was writing this the door was knocked and my postie brought me my new Press Card from the NUJ.

The county is covered in deep snow, but it was good to see that he was kitted out in excellent protective clothing for this weather.

His union saw to that and proper order as well.

Trade unions are, for me, a sine qua non of a functioning democracy as is a free press.

Today union membership in Britain is a fraction of what it was 50 years ago.

I cannot conceive of the mind-set that would accept Zero Hour Contracts, but then again I have never been faced with hungry children.

Thirty years ago ,as our chugging Transit Van coughed and spluttered  into beleaguered mining villages in Yorkshire under the gaze of hostile police , I was part of  a community response that was trying to stop miners’ kids have gnawing pain in their gut.

Looking back now I was, in a sense, was taking part in the future.

Although Thatcher is thankfully no more the virus that bears her name is still with the people of these islands.

The insatiable dark star on the Thames that sucks the life out of the rest of the United Kingdom is her monument.

I rather think if those fine communities in Yorkshire had their chance last September to detach themselves from that rapacious entity then they would be happily gone from it.

Discover Phil’s dramatic play Rebellion