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29 January 2024

The human failings of the miners’ strike

Tom Barrow’s film, which marks 40 years since the strike, is as richly mournful as a good funeral – until he starts chasing conspiracies.

By Rachel Cooke

I can’t quite imagine the impact Channel 4’s new series about the miners’ strike might have on those who don’t remember the year-long dispute in 1983-84. Personally, I wouldn’t blame the young and the foolish for thinking they could do without all this sentimentality and rage, the bad jeans and the even worse cars. But for those of us who were around then – 2024 is the 40th anniversary of the strike – watching these films is as richly mournful an experience as attending a good funeral. Oh yes, I’m interested in the politics. Which of today’s fissures began as hairline cracks back then? However, I also grew up in Sheffield, where the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) had its headquarters and our teachers all pinned “coal not dole” badges on their regulation donkey jackets.

For me, simple wistfulness plays its part here: people, places, accents. You can almost smell the Brut and the old Spice. In his late sixties, Brian Hegarty, a Derbyshire miner who appears on screen early on, still looks and sounds so much like the boys I went to school with. Once I’d seen him, neat as a pin in the tie on which his wife had insisted, there was really nothing to be done but to inhale the entire series over the course of a single afternoon.

Directed by Tom Barrow, Miners’ Strike 1984: the Battle for Britain is in three parts. The first tells the story of Shirebrook, a Derbyshire village torn in two when some of the men at its pit elected to continue working (the county’s miners voted against the strike with a majority of 16, a decision quickly overturned by the NUM). The second focuses on Orgreave, the South Yorkshire coking plant where, on 18 June, police and pickets had one of the bloodiest confrontations in British industrial history (the police were later found both to have used excessive violence, and to have committed perjury when giving evidence against 95 miners charged with riot and violent disorder). Finally, there’s the third film, about Nottinghamshire, where miners voted three to one against the strike. In spite of the pleas of the county’s NUM leaders to its national president Arthur Scargill, 5,000 flying pickets soon arrived in the hope of preventing anyone from working. Scargill’s refusal to call them off would have catastrophic results both for the strike and for his union.

Each film combines old footage with powerful new interviews, the latter conducted at formica tables in low-ceilinged miners’ clubs and on velour sofas in neat northern houses. Barrow follows the example of James Bluemel (Once Upon a Time in Iraq) by including clips of the moments both before and after filming, when the men are either trying to settle, or brimful of relief that the encounter is over: a trope that’s beginning to seem a little worn by now. But there’s something unusual here, too, or so it’ll seem to some. Not for these ex-miners the emotional incontinence of the 21st century. There’s no way any of them is about to cry for the camera.

The viewer registers their post-traumatic stress disorder not via the clichés of therapy-speak, but by the recollection of dark moods (“I was nasty ‘bout everything”), an urgent need to be elsewhere (“I went to me mam’s caravan at Skegness”). Every word is hard-won, soft-heartedness reserved – though of this, I’m suspicious – only for the long-closed pits: “It were like a mother”; “It were wonderful”; “I’d go back tonight if I could.” To be a miner was to belong to a faith or a tribe, and beware impostors. “He weren’t a miner,” one man says of his strike-breaking neighbour, a statement made in the face not only of the other man’s job, which did indeed involve him cutting coal, but of the taunts his wife and terrified children had to endure on the walk to school (“scab, scab, scab”).

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At first, the films are determinedly even-handed. Both sides have their say, though King Arthur, alas, does not appear (like Kate Moss, he knows better than to submit to interviews). They capture the merciless politics of the time, whether Scargillite or Thatcherite, and all of their concomitant sadness and brutality; the NUM leader and the prime minister, who refused to intervene when the National Coal Board announced it planned to close 20 pits, were weirdly similar, in want of both humour and compassion, and this trickled down to their disciples. 

Certain details stick in the mind: the ice cream van that unwittingly ended up at the Battle of Orgreave; the crash helmet worn by the driver of a bus that brought working miners past the picket lines; the duffle coat in which one miner’s wife cocooned herself when she went to London for a demonstration. The feeling is of a patchwork quilt, oral and visual history patiently stitched together in a manner that allows the tracing of complex patterns. 

But then Barrow gets carried away. He wants something more: a conspiracy or a sinister plot, and this leads him, in the last film, to David Hart, a wealthy, “self-promoting” and “exotic” adviser to Margaret Thatcher who moved behind the scenes to break the strike. We’re shown strange reconstructions, in which a shadowy, moustachioed figure is seen brooding in a country mansion: material that seems a bit dubious to me. Hart certainly moved against the miners, raising money from John Paul Getty and others to aid the “dissidents”, who went on to challenge the legality of the strike in the High Court, which then sequestered the NUM’s assets. But it’s strange that he should get more critical attention here than either Scargill or the union’s chief executive, Roger Windsor, who notoriously met with – yes – Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi. 

For me, this undercuts the rare achievement of the first two films, which deal so delicately and fair-mindedly with failings that are human as well as political. Hart was a libertarian and anti-communist of frantic commitment, but he didn’t betray the miners as some of their leaders did, and his activities were surely nothing compared to those rumoured of MI5 and its agents, who go unmentioned here.

Miners’ Strike 1984: the Battle for Britain 
Channel 4

[See also: “Masters of the Air” fails the Greatest Generation]

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This article appears in the 31 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Rotten State

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