Veterans of the Thatcher-era miners' strikes still display "pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will"by / October 6, 2014 / Leave a comment
Still the Enemy Within, Owen Gower’s documentary about the miners’ strike of 1984-5, begins and ends with the camera lingering on a wind blown patch of scrubland in South Yorkshire where the winding gear of Frickley Colliery once stood. In the film’s opening sequence, we see one of the men who worked underground at Frickley, which closed in 1993, remembering what the work was like. “It was brutally industrial in every single respect,” he says. The film closes on the same spot, with the same man, who insists he isn’t “romantic” about the dirty, dangerous work he used to do, but says he still “feels the loss” of the old place.
Gower’s film is a symphony of loss and defeat. As the splendidly and improbably named Norman Strike, a former Durham miner, says baldly at one point: ” We got beat.” (The toll on Strike was particularly severe. By the time the last striking miners went back to work on 3rd March 1985, his marriage had collapsed and he had left the home he shared with his wife and children.)
Using a combination of testimony, news footage and still photography, Still the Enemy Within (the title refers to Margaret Thatcher’s notorious description of the National Union of Mineworkers) derives much of its considerable power from Gower’s refusal to propound a single, simplified account of the historic defeat of the NUM, the vanguard of the trade union movement at a time when, as one ex-miner puts it, “unions meant something in Britain.”
For Norman Strike, the reasons for the miners’ defeat are clear: the union’s rank and file were betrayed—by their own leadership and by the wider labour movement, which failed to mobilise in their support. Some of the other ex-miners we hear from, however, are less ready to take refuge in the comforting myth of betrayal by an insufficiently radical leadership, a supine TUC and an actively treacherous Labour Party. One recalls how the miners were unwitting accomplices in the plan hatched by the Thatcher government to stockpile huge quantities of coal before provoking a confrontation with Arthur Scargill and the NUM. “The saying ‘Digging us own graves’ were never so apt—that’s exactly what we were doing.”
One of the most moving things about Gower’s film is seeing former miners recall how they struggled to reconcile the knowledge of likely defeat—knowledge which seems to have dawned quite early in some of them, once it became clear that the government was mobilising all the coercive powers at its disposal—with the tug and pull of solidarity, and sometimes the sheer exhilaration of “having a pop at the state.”
Men like the Scot Jim Tierney, the Yorkshireman Joe Henry and the Welshman Ron Stoate embody the combination of “pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will” that the great Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci recommended all socialists should adopt. In many of the men whose voices we hear in this film, that optimism is still, miraculously, intact. Surveying the abandoned site at Frickley, one of them says: “Who knows? Come back in a hundred years and it might be different. The future is still up for grabs.”