The strike that still divides

A stand-off between miners and police. Picture: John Sturrock
A stand-off between miners and police. Picture: John Sturrock
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A new documentary gives voice to the miners 30 years after they fought the government and lost. Tony Earnshaw reports on Still the Enemy Within.

A RADICAL socialist and a right wing Tory leader. Blue-collar workers versus white-collar Establishment. A country at war with itself.

Thirty years after it split the nation with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher describing the UK’s mineworkers as “the enemy within”, the miners’ strike continues to divide opinion. It was a vicious peacetime conflict between two intractable foes from opposing ends of the political spectrum. Each embraced a dogmatic approach and would not budge. But at the end of 12 months of strike action it was still a close-run thing.

History tells us that the miners lost. The physical destruction that followed as pits were closed and quickly demolished, communities became ghost towns and the once mighty National Union of Mineworkers was crushed, was long-lasting. But whether they were truly defeated is another matter entirely. Some who struggled through the industrial action of 1984/85 view it as the high point of their lives. Others emerged stronger, empowered, wiser and, perhaps inevitably, sadder.

Despite the emergence of a plethora of books in the aftermath of the strike the effects and legacy of the year-long dispute have never been adequately caught on film. Now a new documentary reopens a festering wound to reveal the rawness still felt by so many.

The key figures of Margaret Thatcher and Arthur Scargill do not feature among the interviewees in Still the Enemy Within. Instead it is miners, their womenfolk and NUM officials who combine to relate the tale. And, make no mistake, this is entirely their story told from their front line perspective.

Producer Sinead Kirwan was born in 1985. Fellow producer Mark Lacey and director Owen Gower were born a year or so earlier. Theirs was a shared journey to discover the complexities behind the simplistic half-truth – that it was Scargill versus Thatcher – accepted by so many people. “Margaret Thatcher represented a whole class of people and a whole ideology. But it really wasn’t about that. It was about ordinary people standing up for what they believed in and fighting for their community,” she says.

Kirwan and her team initially embarked on an archive project spurred on by the 30-year anniversary. Their plan was to conduct simple interviews with miners, historians, experts and NUM officials. They were surprised at the emotions that emerged – and the humour. “The emotion was a surprise and the humour was a massive surprise: how much fun it is to be on strike. One miner said, ‘I got a really good feeling from having a bash at the state.’ During the period that they were on strike people were in control of their own lives. They were taking action. Everyone wants to have control. It’s funny that they talk about individual destiny when actually you feel most control when you’re working together.”

Still the Enemy Within asks its audience to consider what Britain might have looked like had the miners won. “What is it that Margaret Thatcher was really going after?” says Kirwan. “There are two very clear elements that run through the film: division versus solidarity, individualism versus community. Once again people are looking more at those ideas. They are going back and thinking maybe we didn’t get it right.

“A massive problem now is the enormous cost of energy because there was no plan. It was, ‘We’ll get rid of coal, privatise energy, everything will sort itself out’ and it’s my generation that’s now living with the fact of ‘heat or eat’. That’s a big crisis. When people look at the film and what happened during the strike it makes a new generation angry.”

The enormity of the strike and the challenges of representing it on film were not lost on Kirwan and her team. In capturing an authentic flavour of those heady days they tapped into a community of eloquent and politicised people for whom the strike has never been adequately depicted. They were already deep into their research when Cabinet papers were released revealing that the government was indeed planning to shut far more pits than had been revealed – not 20 but 75. In that respect Scargill’s warning of the wholesale destruction of the mining industry has a prescient ring to it.

A strike had been avoided in 1981, which gave the government time to stockpile supplies of coal and prepare for the prospect of major industrial action on a war footing as outlined in Nicholas Ridley’s 1978 report.

Joyce Sheppard was one of the women who joined the men on the picket lines. The product of a staunch Labour background, she saw her husband quit his job in a steelworks to go and work in a pit. In retrospect it was a disastrous move. “I watched Thatcher very closely,” says Sheppard, from Doncaster. “I knew as soon as she got in that she was someone to be feared. You forget just how terrified people were of unemployment. People lived in fear of them being the next to fall. So I knew we would be on strike – that it was just a matter of time. I knew it would be crucial and I knew that things were going to be terrible if we didn’t win.”

What began as a wildcat strike in response to plans to close Cortonwood Colliery in Rotherham rapidly escalated into much larger industrial action. And therein lies the nub of the problem for so many: Scargill never balloted his members to make the strike official. It was an illegal walk-out orchestrated by a power-mad militant.

Not so, says Sheppard, who claims it was “just an excuse” to allow the Tories, the media and the Labour opposition to link up in an unspoken covert alliance. “That’s not what the Yorkshire miners, the Scottish miners and the Welsh miners would do. They’d already gone out. They weren’t going to go back,” she says. “The ballot was used by Neil Kinnock in a political way to make sure that the Labour Party didn’t do anything to really help the miners.

“I’ve always had a theory that they left it to Thatcher to get rid of the NUM because the budding New Labour wouldn’t want to deal with this trade union leader, would they? It was an embarrassment. It was uncomfortable for the Labour Party, definitely.”

Sheppard can pinpoint the moment when her world came crashing down. It was the decision by the National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirers (NACODS) not to strike. “My heart just dropped to my shoes. We had been up and down emotionally and this was going to be it: the deputies were going to come out. Then they didn’t. I knew from that moment, we’d had it.”

Three decades on, is she proud of what she did in the strike? “I don’t know whether proud is the right word. I’m just glad that I did it. There is no win or lose in this. The people that were doing it to us lost as well because they made this country a worse place to live in. The country that they left behind could have been much better, much happier and much wealthier. It was worth everything.”