Ours is a laager

For more than a hundred years, the Durham Miners' Gala was a firm fixture in the calendar of the Bri

The New Statesman

22 July 1988

At 9.15, the Shotton Colliery Band, in burgundy and black jackets complete with braid, drew to a halt outside Durham's Royal County Hotel and started to play. First, "Gresford", a mournful hymn to miners killed in the pits. Next, the jaunty "Puppet on a String", and the band was off again with the lodge banner behind, leading the way to the site of the Big Meeting.

Each year, the mining families arrive in the town square by bus from their outlying pit villages. The procession forms up before snaking down from the city square and across the main bridge over the Wear. Banners flying, they leave Durham's citadel. Touchstones of collectivism are emblazoned on the banners. "Organisation is security" from the Durham colliery enginemen, "Knowledge is power" from Dawdon lodge, and "Unity is strength" from Vane Tempest lodge. And more particular inscriptions. "We Remember" from Easington, and "Durham Cathedral" from Tudhoe.

The Durham miners' gala has long been at the heart of the Labour laager. Lately it's become an occasion for the true believers. No compromisers or trimmers welcome. The miners and their leaders return each year to draw upon the well of radicalism which sustains them through the year. But the laager is disintegrating. This, the 104th Durham miners' gala, is also the last to be organised by the Durham area of the National Union of Mineworkers. Durham is merging with Northumberland to form a north east region. A general Labour day for the north east will take its place, but for many it is the end of the Big Meet.

Once the route would have been crammed. Now the crowd spills off the pavement around the hotel, but the procession has no difficulty getting through. Further on, the crowd quickly thins to a few knots of people.

The banners bear witness to miners' past glories and heroes. The strike of 1984-85 has become the Great Strike, and Scargill himself has joined the elect. Monkwearmouth lodge banner shows him with Tommy Hepburn and A J Cook, who led the miners in the 1926 General Strike.

But some of the banners belong to other unions. Then there are banners from pits which are no longer working. Few banners have more than 30 or so marchers. Only six pits now remain in Durham, compared with 126 at nationalisation in 1947. From 110,000 in 1947, there are now only 10,000 miners left.

But the shrinking workforce is not the only reason for the eclipse of the gala. Once, the Big Meeting was a "big day out" for all the family. Now it's just one leisure attraction among many. Those on the balcony were putting on a brave face for the shrunken crowd. Pride of place went to the burly general secretary of the Durham area National Union of Mineworkers. As the procession continued he was joined by other bigwigs, Arthur Scargill, Tony Benn and Dennis Skinner among them. All three took the jovial ragged salute from the march past. Once the Labour leader would have been there too. But not this year. [Neil Kinnock] probably wouldn't have been welcome if he had shown up.

Nostalgia for the Big Meetings of old was everywhere in evidence. "I was going to school when I first came here," said Mrs Jane Smith, before nipping off to play bingo in the funfair with her grown up daughter. She remembers when each banner was led by someone in fancy dress. "The past was fantastic," she said, "there was a lot more miners, you couldn't move."

This year's meeting was "not a quarter of what they used to be," according to one woman with a grubby child dangling from each hand. Another, Mrs Elsie Hay, reckons she has been to 45 galas. She remembers being carried "shoulder high" by her dad. Once the huge green expanse of the university playing fields - known as the racecourse - would have been filled to capacity. "This field used to be choc-a-bloc," said Elsie. Now she can sit with her friend Margaret with no other person within 15 yards in any direction.

They still enjoy the gala. "We couldn't have missed today. If it had been chucking it down we would have come." But it is not a gathering of the clans like it used to be. Elsie's two brothers were miners. They have not come for several years. "The atmosphere's not the same," says Elsie. "Once they wouldn't have missed it." Elsie and Margaret do not think they will come to whatever replaces the gala next year.

The Big Meeting is a more staid affair than it used to be. Brian Smith, a miner from Easington, is in his thirties. "A lot of people come here just for the beer, just for the piss up like," he says. But gone are the days when he first came and men from different collieries used to have gang fights.

Mining is deeply embedded in the history of the north east. The miners' brass bands take it in turns to play at a special miners' service in the cathedral on gala day. Then they march out down the aisle, banners and all. The Northern Echo's editorial summed up most people's feelings when it began: "Who from the North East will not feel a twinge of regret as the history book closes today on the last Durham miners' gala?"

Many outside the north east will feel the same way. Part of Labour's roots are dying here. How will they be replaced?

Selected by Robert Taylor