Miners close book on chapter of industrial history: Stephen Ward charts the demise of the most important day in the Labour calendar

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The Independent Online
EVERY JULY for a century, the balcony of the Royal County Hotel in Durham was a backdrop for the union banners, brass bands and songs of the miners' gala - a symbol of industrial and political virility. The diary of any Labour leader would arrive with the Durham miners' gala inked in for attendance.

But now, in a sign of the decline of an industry, the organisers cannot even afford the cost of staging this year's event.

Yesterday, the executive committee of Durham area National Union of Mineworkers decided not to spend pounds 20,000 on the gala, and an event which has been central to Labour history for 109 years will disappear from the calendar unless funding is found from elsewhere in the Labour movement.

During its heyday, so many attended the event that it took five hours for the gala parade to pass by. In 1925, as tensions rose with the approach of the 1926 General Strike - called to prevent mine- owners cutting pay - villagers from Chopwell, who were already out on strike, threw the dean of Durham cathedral into the river Wear thinking he was the bishop who had upset them by saying they did not deserve a pay rise.

The recent rapid demise of the industry is largely economic - the last deep pit in the North-east, Ellington in Northumberland, which was losing pounds 1m a month, will shut on Friday - but the decline from the centre of the Labour movement has been a result too of a cultural shift in the parliamentary party and the politics of the miners' union.

In the early 1960s, there was no tension between the Durham NUM and the public school-educated Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell. The Durham miners were on the moderate wing of the union movement - anti-Communist and in favour of nuclear weapons. As late as the two 1974 general elections, won by Labour under Harold Wilson, an association with the unions in general and the miners in particular was an electoral asset.

By the 1980s, however, Arthur Scargill, with his extreme left- wing political agenda, had become miners' president and the Durham miners, with their industry under threat, had become less moderate.

In retrospect, July 1985, by which time the year-long miners' strike had ended in ignominious defeat, was a watershed.

Mr Kinnock, who had been famously lukewarm in his support for Mr Scargill's leadership, criticised Mr Scargill and Tony Benn, prompting a group of hecklers to interrupt proceedings with shouts of 'Get off, Kinnock, scab, scab, scab . . .'

Mr Scargill told the gala: 'We have gone down in world history . . . changed the face of British politics . . . Our struggle is not over yet. We're only halfway between Dunkirk and D-Day.'

Mr Kinnock saw it differently: 'I don't want glorious historic defeats. There have been too many of those.'

But Labour lost the 1987 election, and although Mr Kinnock addressed the Scottish miners shortly afterwards, he broke with the tradition of Labour leaders from Ramsay MacDonald, to Michael Foot by declining to attend in 1988.

At the 1993 gala - which may turn out to have been the last - the new Labour leader John Smith also sent his apologies. Fewer than 10,000 people turned up, less than a tenth of the number who attended in its heyday when it was the British Labour movement's largest rally.

(Photograph omitted)