Millionaire saves working-class festival from history books: Durham miners' gala faced oblivion as pits were closed. Barrie Clement reports on the saviour behind today's march

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The Independent Online
TODAY the virtues and values of 'the working class' will be celebrated at the Durham miners' gala - although most members of social groups C and D these days may be blissfully unaware of its existence.

The annual festival of proletarian fraternity will take place this year in an atmosphere of some irony. First, there are no longer any deep mines in Durham - let alone the north-east of England - and second, the occasion has been rescued from penniless oblivion by a self-made multi-millionaire.

The benefactor is Michael Watt, a New Zealander who lives in Ireland and who runs CSI, a company selling television rights on behalf of sporting organisations. He was apparently hoping to remain anonymous , but his cover has been blown.

The gala - pronounced galer and not garler - has considerably more historical significance than might be gleaned from the seemingly parochial nature of the event. In the 1950s, it was the largest regular demonstration by the labour movement outside the Communist Bloc - attracting crowds of 200,000 who often waited five hours for the parade to pass. There were then more than 100 mines in Durham employing more than 100,000 colliers.

Then the industrial working-class male was seen as the voter that politicians needed to court and for prime ministers of the 'people's party' and union 'barons' the occasion was a must.

At today's more modest demonstration, marching bands, majorettes and union delegations are present by courtesy of pounds 20,000 donated by Mr Watt. The tycoon has pledged a further pounds 40,000 to secure the gala's immediate future.

Dave Hopper, of the National Union of Mineworkers, had been convinced that Durham city had seen its last gala with the closure of the last British Coal colliery in the area.

Mr Hopper initially expressed scepticism about Mr Watt's seriousness. 'I thought he was a crank, but once we spoke I realised I was wrong.'

After coming to Britain from New Zealand, Mr Watt once slept rough for six weeks and worked as a road-builder alongside former Geordie pitmen.

Mr Hopper said: 'Even though he is now extremely rich he still thinks of us. He knows what it's like to struggle.' The union has promised it will not take the extra pounds 40,000 if today's event is a 'damp squib'.

John Prescott, a Labour leadership candidate, will speak at the gala and the benign millionaire was also hoping to be present. However, his office said the glare of publicity had deterred him and he would probably stay away.

(Photographs omitted)