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When the police terrorised miners

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Issue 1719

Billy Elliot film based on fact

When the police terrorised miners

By Paul Mcgarr

THE EXCELLENT new film Billy Elliot is set against the background of the 1984-5 miners’ strike. The year long strike was one of the greatest ever working class struggles, and a turning point in recent British history. Had the miners won they would have driven Margaret Thatcher and the Tories from office and changed the whole course of the last 15 years. The film gives a glimpse of how, fighting for these high stakes, Thatcher and Britain’s rulers unleashed all the force and brutality at their disposal against the miners.

The scenes in the film in which the police are shown as an invading army occupying the Durham mining village where Billy and his family live are no director’s invention. From the very start of the strike in March 1984 the miners faced the full force of the state, in a way no one had seen in Britain for decades. The Tories announced the closure of Cortonwood colliery in Yorkshire on 1 March.

It signalled a determination to ram through a massive programme of pit closures. Miners had no choice but to fight or see their lives and communities devastated. Within days the vast majority of Britain’s 200,000 miners had walked out. The Tories, the press and Labour Party leaders told miners to get back to work and wait for a ballot.

But the miners understood this was simply aimed at stopping the strike and then undermining support for it. Miners had already voted, by a very big majority, with their feet. There was one key exception, Nottinghamshire, where only a minority had joined the strike.

Miners from elsewhere moved to join picket lines alongside those striking in Nottinghamshire, hoping to win over those still at work. But the police, backed up by a frenzied media campaign, launched a massive operation to stop this.

Police physically attacked pickets who reached Nottinghamshire. They set up roadblocks to prevent miners entering the county. Miners and others were pulled up by police on motorway slip roads miles away from any picket line and told they faced arrest unless they turned back. Over 200 miles away in London police even stopped Kent miners travelling north through the Dartford Tunnel on pain of arrest! In Nottinghamshire mining villages police imposed a curfew and identity checks, and dished out arbitrary beatings.

Even the right wing Chief Constable of Greater Manchester, James Anderton, admitted, “The police have imposed a kind of curfew on the community as a whole, not just on the miners, and also have restricted free movement. These features are things we normally only associate with countries behind the iron curtain. The police are getting the image of a heavy handed mob.”

The miners’ union also faced waves of legal assaults under the Tories’ anti-union laws-which culminated in the courts seizing the union’s entire assets. The miners’ resolve did not break. As the miners fought on, the intensity of the police attacks grew.

In late May and June 1984 police launched one of their most savage operations ever as miners’ pickets tried to shut down the Orgreave coke works near Rotherham. Miners and supporters dressed in T-shirts and trainers faced thousands of riot police with batons, helmets and shields. Mounted police charged repeatedly, swinging their batons wildly, clubbing anyone who came within reach to the ground.

People were savagely battered, including miners’ leader Arthur Scargill who was hospitalised and arrested. From the summer of 1984 to the end of the strike police mounted a huge operation against the mining communities, one aimed at crushing their spirit of resistance.

These are the scenes that feature in Billy Elliot. The film is set in a Durham mining village. Easington is one such village. One account of what happened there at the end of August tells how “riot police marched about the village, shields on their arms and batons drawn. Easington miners claim that up to 3,000 police occupied their village. “[One miner said] ‘They stopped the service buses going in and out of the village and searched people.’ Easington was cut off from the rest of Britain for days while the police occupied it like a conquering army.”

In village after village mining communities were subjected to this for months on end. In Armthorpe in Yorkshire, for example, one account describes how “the police ran riot. They chased pickets down streets, through gardens and into houses. Police came bursting into homes smashing windows, doors and furniture.”

YET, DESPITE all this, for a year miners and their communities stood firm in a magnificent display of working class solidarity and heroism. They put up with hardship and hunger, travelled the length and breadth of the country, and fought like tigers to defend their jobs and communities. The women in the mining communities played a central role. They transformed the strike, and it transformed them.

They organised themselves and picketed and spoke right across Britain. In mining villages they played a key role in the organisation which sustained the fight, helping run the soup kitchens and distribute the food, toys and much else which came as solidarity from other workers. The scale of that solidarity was enormous. The miners’ heroic stand saw hundreds of thousands of people in every corner of Britain join in supporting their fight.

In every town and city in Britain people formed miners support groups. People who had never been to a mining village threw themselves into organising collections and solidarity. The 14 support groups on Merseyside, for example, sent over 1 million to the miners during the strike.

Even in areas sometimes wrongly portrayed as middle class ordinary people rallied to the miners. In Cambridge, for example, the miners support groups sent some 600 a week. The Guardian estimated at the end of the strike that over 60 million had been collected in support of the miners-the real figure was probably much higher. As important as money was the tidal wave of donations of food, clothes, toys for Christmas, and much more that flooded into the mining villages from workers across Britain.

Solidarity took other forms too. Train drivers in many areas bravely refused to move scab coal, despite a lack of firm support from their union leaders. Print workers twice refused to print editions of the Sun because of its disgusting attacks on miners’ leader Arthur Scargill. And twice during the summer of 1984 dockers across Britain struck too.

ALL THIS solidarity could and should have been the basis for a movement which would have beaten the Tories, seen the miners win victory and driven Thatcher from office. That it didn’t happen was no fault of the miners or those who worked to deliver solidarity.

The blame for the defeat of the strike after a year of resistance lies firmly in one place-with the leaders of the trade unions and the Labour Party. They at best mouthed support for the miners while doing little or nothing in reality, and at worst actively opposed attempts to build solidarity. There were several times when the strike could have been won, but the chance was thrown away by the union leaders.

The key turning point came in the autumn of 1984. The TUC had voted to black all coal and oil movement. But the TUC and trade union leaders refused to implement the blacking. Backed up by Labour leader Neil Kinnock, they refused to fight for the blacking and insisted on sticking within the Tory anti-union laws. As the strike finally drew to an end in early 1985 the Coal Board’s industrial relations director, Ned Smith, made a frank admission on live TV-that had the TUC implemented the blacking, the miners would have won. By then, though, it was too late. The strike went down to a tragic and unnecessary defeat.

Today we can be inspired by the spirit of the miners’ fight and the solidarity it tapped. We also need to learn from their defeat the lessons which can ensure that future battles do end in victory.

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