Twenty years ago, the pit at Easington Colliery, County Durham, closed, and on Wednesday former miners will hold a commemoration party to mark the anniversary.
The pit brass band will play. Nothing exceptional in that – until one looks at the calendar. The party – set, say organisers, weeks ago – falls on the day of Baroness Thatcher's funeral in St Paul's Cathedral in London. If any group of people hated "Maggie" – as she was commonly known in the industrial north – it was, of course, the pitmen, who loathe her yet for defeat in the miners' strike, the closure of their mines and the destruction of their jobs.
There was never a hope that the party might be postponed: the coincidence of the anniversary in the north-east and the funeral in the capital was far too tempting to resist. The pit closure commemoration will thus also become a "celebration" of the death of a woman whom – distasteful though it may seem to millions of Britons – many in the coalfields have wished dead.
As the band plays, folk singers sing, beer flows and the hog is roasted at the working men's club, pint mugs will be raised not just to the past miners' comradeship in a pit that stretched eight miles out under the North Sea, but also to the departure of a woman as hated today as she was when in her pomp and power. Grass may cover the spoil tips, and the sea may no longer be stained by the black filth of coal, but – in the hearts of many who live in Easington Colliery – the grief caused by Thatcher's policies remains vivid.
John Cummings, an ex-pitman and the local MP for 23 years until he retired in 2010, said: "The wounds never closed; the scars are very deep. It has been clear for years that her death would prove highly controversial in coal-mining districts. Thatcher was calculating and focused. She knew precisely what she was after, and she did it with the bluntness of an axe and the finesse of a scalpel."
In the past few days, others in areas where heavy industry once thrived have expressed similar views. In death, as in life, Thatcher – the Prime Minister who arrived quoting St Francis of Assisi ("Where there is discord, may we bring harmony…") – still sets Briton against Briton.
The dissent from the national grief which will be on display in London is not just found in mining areas. A quarter of a century ago, writing a book about Britain, I encountered antagonism almost everywhere beyond the Trent. A middle-aged Scouser told me he would like to kill her. He didn't mean it literally, but he articulated the hatred that gripped (and still grips) the once industrial north.
The anger was always focused in the former pit villages. Dave Douglass, who will be at Wednesday's party – his fourth "celebration" since Thatcher's death – said: "Her intention was to break the National Union of Mineworkers. The union wasn't an abstract organisation: it was us. To confront the NUM, therefore, meant fighting flesh-and-blood men, women and children. There were no innocent victims as far as she was concerned." He told of police during the strike waving expensive toys in the faces of miners' children, taunting them with the presents their parents could not afford. This, rather than the present hostility to Thatcher mood in mining communities, he said, was the true politics of hate.
Brought up under the benign post-war consensus – until Thatcher's arrival, the nation had mostly clung to the idea that we were all in it together – returning from four years abroad in the 1980s, I found this shocking.
Fifteen years earlier I had lived in south Yorkshire among tolerant, hard-working communities, at peace, more or less, with all governments. Aspirations were not high, but men worked hard and productively, hewing coal and making steel. They asked little more than to be allowed to get on with it.
And then came Mrs T. I asked Alan Cummings, lodge secretary of the Easington Colliery NUM when I first visited in 1986 and now president of the Durham Miners' Association, why, among all the Tory prime ministers of recent years, Maggie Thatcher attracted such venom. More pits actually closed on John Major's watch, but when he dies in the fullness of time, I suspect there will be scarcely a ripple in the former mining communities. "She was singular; her voice was strident; she controlled the Cabinet. The strike was about communities. Look at the devastation that has been left here."
Douglass was more forthright. I had always presumed that the Thatcher style offended miners and their families. What was carefully calculated to please Daily Mail readers struck the inhabitants of the back-to-backs of the industrial north as provocative. Thatcher's ways were not their ways. Like almost everyone I spoke to, Douglass mentioned her elocution lessons – "the way she spoke".
It was part of a package many felt was calculated to set her apart from many she led. "It was all the things she aspired to, that she thought were really ladylike and necessary to be an important person – from the fluttering of the eyelids through the hairstyle to the classical upper class Tory lady dress."
This style judgment was coupled with a rejection of Thatcher's claim to humble origins. To them she – the daughter of a mayor, grammar school governor and shop owner, and destined for Oxford University from the age of 10 – was as much a toff as if she had been an earl's daughter. Sending her son to Harrow and conferring a hereditary title on her husband Denis informed miners, steel workers and ship builders, that, as far as they were concerned, she was upper class. Alan Cummings said with near admiration: "Maggie certainly looked after her class all down the line."
While acknowledging that many will brand the Wednesday Easington party as "unseemly", he played down the significance of the Thatcher death celebration, and certainly did not want any disruption at Thatcher's funeral: "God forbid: that would be totally objectionable." The occasion at the working men's club will, he suggested, be "just the lads getting round, having a pint of beer, and cracking on about what they did at the pit". He expected 200 people, but I suspect – now that the eyes of the nation are on the event – that many more will come.
Among those present – firmly outside the door: locals don't like journalists – will be reporters from the mid-market tabloids, on the hunt for anything that can be portrayed as an insult to "Britain's greatest peacetime prime minister", as Thatcher is now commonly dubbed by supporters. The scribblers' role in this somewhat artificial drama will be to convey to Middle England readers the ex-miners' undying hate of Thatcher. The colliery band will play the Judy Garland song, "Ding Dong! the Witch is Dead", which, as the Thatcher funeral nears, is hurtling up the charts. Some graphic accounts can be expected.
Will Thatcher's departure – however divisive the next few days prove – finally end the rift in society between communities like Easington Colliery and Middle England? In some respects life in pit villages is getting better: millions have been spent in on regeneration, and the villages are far better cared for than they were in 1986, but something has died – evidenced by the lack of basic amenities most Britons take for granted. Easington Colliery no longer has either a bank or a post office. Pit villages only existed because they sat on coal. Remove the pit, and you remove the heart of the community. While the miners who fought hand-to-hand with police during the strike are still alive, the hatred will surely endure.
Two Thatcher phrases that pepper conversations in mining areas - "the enemy within" (used by Thatcher about the NUM leadership in the same breath as she condemned the Argentinian junta as "the enemy without"), and "there is no such thing as society" – illuminate the gulf between her and communities, which, like infantry regiments, stand or fall the one beside the other. There will be no peace between Thatcher's shade and those who keep alive the bitter memory of such pronouncements.
"Thatcher 'saved' Britain?" scoffed one ex-miner. "From what, for what? For the bankers; or for the people of the Tyne and the Wear?" Such people claim that the present and austerity are firmly rooted in the Thatcher legacy. In historical terms Thatcher's premiership is not so long ago. Many ex-miners believe they have the right to link today's woes to yesterday's memories – and, if they so wish, to demonstrate their views.
Robert Chesshyre is the author of 'When the Iron Lady Ruled Britain' (Alma Books, £16.99: eBook £4.27)Reuse content