30 years after the longest strike in UK history, a new documentary tells the story of those on the front lines.
A picket at Cortonwood Colliery (Photo by John Sturrock/Reportdigital.co.uk)
This year is the 30th anniversary of the miners' strike - the longest strike in UK history. The strike saw the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) pitted against Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government, which wanted to close pits, destroying thousands of jobs. Over the course of a whole year, miners picketed their work places, held rallies and fought against cops - many of them going without wages. Eventually they conceded defeat, returning to work, marching behind brass bands playing mournful songs.
Supporters of the government saw the miners as the most militant part of a union movement that was holding the country to ransom, striking whenever they felt like it and refusing to let the elected government take decisions. To others, the miners were simply ordinary people refusing to get pushed around by an ideological government bent on destroying the power of the working class. In the end, the miners were left reeling from the backlash of their defeat, which ensured the destruction of their communities as they knew them.
It is easy to look back and see history as something inevitable, and to forget the real people who lived the experiences behind the hard facts. It's for precisely that reason that Owen Gower has directed a new documentary, Still the Enemy Within. His film gives a voice to the people who fought on the front lines and has been showered with praise. I spoke to him about the strikers' first hand experiences, the legacy of the strike and how history is made.
Still the Enemy Within trailer
VICE: You would have just been one year old when the 1984 miners strike was going on. What does it mean to you?
Owen Gower: I was born the year of the miners strike and I actually was on the picket lines, but as a baby. My parents were both teachers but they were huge supporters of the strike; they knew it was a struggle that was going to define society. I grew up in the post strike years and witnessed the after effects - the decimation of industry. I was always aware of it but I came to the idea of the film much later.
The documentary is narrated entirely by the miners. Why did you choose not to bring in an outside voice?
The story has always been painted as Margaret Thatcher versus Arthur Scargill [the leader of the NUM]. The people who were actually involved - the miners and the supporters - were almost airbrushed out of history. Thatcher, the government and the police have had their side of the story told for 30 years and I didn't feel the need to give them another platform. We didn't want to make a polemic or a multifaceted argument. What we wanted was to tell the human story of the people who were on the front line.
I recently read an article by Lisa Jardine where she talks about how historical facts never really give us a real sense of the past because they omit every story's key component - human emotion. Your documentary breathes life into cold historical fact. Is it always necessary to have a combination of fact and feeling to create an accurate account?
First of all I don't believe that a documentary is ever really objective, and actually history is always from different points of view. One miner, Steve, said that the reason he wanted to tell the story is because history is a living thing. All these events are lived by people. They're not just abstract politics. It can be easy to look back and see historical events as things that are inevitable. We wanted to get across that sense of the events as they unfolded; to put the audience in the centre of it all instead of being given a dry historical lesson.
Miners flee from charging police (Photo by John Sturrock/Reportdigital.co.uk)
What were some of those lived experiences that you encountered?
It was a roller coaster for everyone that was involved. One the one hand there was this huge sense of euphoria from the empowering feeling of uniting to fight for a common cause, from the support they received and from the freedom it gave people. Gender roles were completely restructured, as women were out on the picket lines amongst the men, and found themselves being treated as equals.
Yet at the same time they were constantly facing a huge onslaught from everything that was being thrown at them - the media, the police, the increasingly apparent divisions within the unions, and eventually from pure hardship and poverty. It was very paradoxical - for many of them it was the best year of their life, but at the same time there were huge blows to bear.
Many weren't even receiving benefits, and struggling to survive meant there were massive strains on relationships, marriages broke down and families were torn apart. In the documentary you can see the discrepancy in the archive footage between the same miners at the beginning of the strike, fresh faced and full of energy, and then their gaunt and drawn appearances by the end.
Can you tell us about the title Still the Enemy Within?
Margaret Thatcher herself called the miners "the enemy within", and 30 years later they still have that label. The argument that they were not crazy militants raging war on the government has still not been won - it's still the dominant narrative of the strike. The other side of it is that they are still proud to wear that label, and they still believe in fighting for a better world today. It's about saying that the miners strike is not just a piece of history, it's still ongoing.
Miners clash with police at Bliston Glen (Photo by John Sturrock/Reportdigital.co.uk)
Some people would say that in the 1980s we were digging more coal then we were burning.
Funnily enough, part of the government strategy to break the strike was to build up huge coal stocks in advance. One of the miners in the film talks about how "they were digging their own graves" because they knew it was happening.
But ultimately, what the miners wanted was a long term energy strategy, planning over decades. It was also about defending an industry, jobs and communities rather than buying in cheap imports from places like Apartheid South Africa or Poland where people where people were paid very low wages and worked in poor conditions.
Looking at the energy market today I think it's clear that it doesn't make sense. The government were willing to pay whatever price in order to defeat the strongest trade union in the country, and as a result the rest of the unions with them. The fact that 40 percent of UK energy is still generated by coal tells us the battle was never really about coal.
But didn't the government have an obligation to the tax payer not to pay to keep people in jobs in an industry that was making a loss?
There's a very simple answer to that. What happened is that it cost more to lay off every coal miner than it did to keep the industry going. Firstly in unemployment benefits, and then if people aren't earning wages, people aren't paying taxes. It massively weakened the manufacturing base of the country that then has a huge impact on tax-payers themselves. And what we saw as an eventual result was a complete deregulation in finance. It's not a coincidence that the big bang, when they deregulated all the banks - which then sowed the seeds for what became the 2008 crash - that happened in 1986. What they saw as replacing industry was banking and finance. That is not good for any tax payer.
How, in your opinion, are the struggles in the 1980s being echoed in the current political situation today?
Thatcher's project was to roll back everything that came out of the 1945 consensus - public services, nationalised industries and so on. The miners knew that if they lost, it would be more than their communities that would be destroyed. There would be a weakening of unions as well as privatisations across the board, and that is what we're seeing today. They've just sold off Royal Mail, they sold the shares in EuroStar just this week. Wages and pensions are being cut, and the gap between the rich and poor is deepening.
Other times miners have had cause to feel aggrieved: