A new movie about the miners’ strike ignores the fact that it left Britain with nothing to feel good about
A scene in Pride sent me back 30 years. A gay activist, Mark Ashton (played with intense conviction by Ben Schnetzer), decides to set up “Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners” from a Bloomsbury bookshop. “Who hates the miners?” he asks. “Thatcher, the police and the tabloid press — does that sound familiar?”
Hardly anyone supports him. A working-class gay from Durham wonders if those would be the same miners who beat him up every day for being queer. Ashton goes on to the streets, nevertheless, and shakes a bucket for donations. Passers-by insult him. He does not answer back in kind but shouts “Merry Christmas.”
I stood collecting on the streets for the miners in the winter of 1984, not on the streets of Bloomsbury but of Altrincham, which as one of the most conservative towns in the north of England, was not, on reflection, the best venue for a fraternal whip-round. To be fair, most shoppers politely ignored me or gave despairing looks. But a few turned nasty. When they did, I shouted, “And a Merry Christmas to you too.” I was not trying to convince them that business would run riot in Britain if the miners lost, but to remind them that men who had kept the country going through two world wars were being beaten by the police and starved back to work, to suggest that a touch of common humanity was in order.
From the start, Pride felt true. Indeed much of it is true. Mark Ashton was a young Communist (the film does not mention this) who died horribly young from Aids. He organised gay groups to support striking miners in Wales, and so overcame their prejudices that the 1985 gay pride march in London saw an extraordinary sight: miners and their families from South Wales leading the demonstration. I should say before criticising the film that the ensemble acting is superb, and the attempts to deal with repression and homophobia wittily and subtly handled. I do not want to put you off seeing a film which had me wiping away the tears (although I accept that fact alone may put you off.)
Still, its moral uplift, its comfy, cheering wallowing in solidarity illustrates the contradictions of the wave of industrial nostalgia in British cinema. Pride follows Brassed Off, Billy Elliot and Made In Dagenham. They are the Ealing comedies of our day, wistful love letters to a Britain that has gone — and perhaps never was. Producers have turned them into musicals, that most feelgood of art forms. Doubtless Pride will receive the same treatment, and we will see choruses of colliers in West End theatres.
Everyone involved tries to forget that the miners’ strike left contemporaries with nothing to feel good about. You get little sense from Pride that the conflict was the closest mainland Britain has come to civil war in a century. Miners filed 551 complaints against the police, 257 alleging assault. As for the police, miners and their supporters injured 1,392 officers — 85 seriously. The Wales Pride presents is a place so big-hearted it can overcome its homophobia after a couple of dances in the miners’ social. In reality a taxi driver taking a strike-breaking miner to work was killed by a concrete block dropped from a bridge.
Conservatives will notice that nowhere does Pride mention that the avowed aim of Arthur Scargill was to bring down the elected government. But it is the Left of the time who ought to feel most short-changed. The miners’ strike was as much a civil war on the Left as a war between Left and Right. I find it amazing that no filmmaker has looked at Scargill, whose life screams out for attention. He behaved as if he were a modern Christ, a man without sin. A.J. Cook, the great leader of the miners during the 1926 general strike, said as he accepted defeat, “It is not cowardice to face the facts of a situation and say that a leader who leads men blindly is not only a traitor to himself and his conscience but he is betraying the men he is leading.”
Scargill never believed that. He split his union by calling a strike without a ballot. He hated the leaders of the Labour party and the trade union movement far more than he hated Thatcher. He privately encouraged them to seek a face-saving way out, then publicly denounced them as traitors. By the end, half the miners had returned to work, and his supporters were half-starved, beaten and at the mercy of vengeful employers. All Scargill won was a large home loan from international supporters. The joke at the time was that “Arthur began the strike with a big union and a small house, and ended it with a small union and a big house.” More telling is an account given by John Monks, who went on to lead the TUC. He saw Scargill just after the union had called off the strike. Monks looked at Scargill, and wondered if he felt any remorse for the hundreds of thousands he had led to defeat.
“How are you feeling, Arthur?” he asked.
Scargill gave one of the most terrifyingly revealing answers in British labour history. “I feel pure,” he replied. Just so. He had the purity of the far-left fanatic who would destroy everything rather than concede on anything. I wish that just one filmmaker had the bravery to tell the truth about him.
My instincts when I stood on the streets of Altrincham 30 years ago weren’t all wrong. The defeat of the miners led to the creation of a Britain where every time you go to work you leave a democracy and enter a dictatorship. Unions barely exist in the private sector now, and the current government is trying to cut back on the next best thing by curtailing workers’ rights to sue abusive employers for unfair dismissal. I understand cinema’s nostalgia for a lost age of working-class strength but am suspicious of its evasions, and of its motives for that matter. Let me explain it like this. Imagine that trade union power was built in Britain again. Do you think that the cinema industry, which treats its young and low-paid employees like serfs, would make celebratory films about it? I suspect producers would find the reality far less comfortable than the fantasy.To put it another way, we will know that workers’ rights are on the march again when pit-closing show-stoppers leave the West End.