Solidarity, betrayal and war in one chapter

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The Independent Online
DO YOU know what you think about the miners' strike that dominated national life 10 years ago? Did you raise a glass or shed a tear when Maerdy marched back to work at the crack of dawn, its music ricocheting around the valley? These questions are not concerned with political correctness, but with political anxiety.

When Maerdy, one of the 'little Moscows' of South Wales, returned to work with amazing grace, it was broadcast as if the nation were in mourning. But the moment did not belong to the English. As an Irish organiser put it: 'Maerdy represented a Celtic thing about knowing how to handle defeat. Defeat is one of the things the Welsh, the Scots and the Irish know how to do.'

The Government appeared then as a sly hulk, a brute. Its presence in the strike was always denied, yet always palpable. Its victory over the 'enemy within' could never be a source of pride.

The miners' strike was always more than a strike. It was an emancipating and exhausting episode that exposed the brutalism of British democracy with an unbearable intensity. After the strike, lives changed. Life changed. It was the last time the art of government, the institutions of industrial relations and the culture of trade unions were engaged with each other.

More importantly, it was the last time that the national interest was more engaged by an industrial dispute than a murder, that politics was bigger than parliament. Activism was a drama of self-discovery on both the right and the left.

The miners had a glorious summer. They were men on the move; they met classes, communities and cultures from which they had been estranged. To secure the popular support that sustained them, they met the country they lived in. The first people they met were their own women. It was they who created the alternative welfare state that nurtured the miners for a year.

Valley women who thought they had led such little lives were living on a war footing, organising a thousand food parcels a week at the local lodge. Some ventured into other war zones - Ayrshire miners' wives, for instance, went to Divis flats in West Belfast, where residents in one of the poorest places in Europe went from door to door collecting tins, so that people would not be humiliated by how little they could give. The food collections connected the country to the coal communities.

For miners, Arthur Scargill, their president, was one of the most potent leaders they'd ever had. They may not have endorsed the Libyan fund-raising adventure, but they forgave it. Scargill, after all, articulated their anger and their will.

That was in October 1984 - the only time when the miners seemed to have any chance of an optimistic outcome. Colliery managers were considering unprecedented strike action, a move that would have yielded the unity in the coalfields that the miners themselves had been unable to deliver.

From the start, the NUM's dismissal of a ballot was supported by a significant sector of the left and the labour movement. A ballot, they said, was a betrayal. So beguiled was the broader left by the moral authority of the strike that it offered solidarity but not challenge. Those who dared to do so were accused of treachery.

When the Labour Party leadership criticised the conduct of the strike, it could not handle the complexity of being both for and against the miners, and therefore absented itself from the search for a solution.

The miners' strike was the exemplar of the way that militant men communicated with the world. When men were beaten by mounted police at Orgreave power station and at Ollerton, peace people wondered to themselves why on earth they didn't lie down, like the women did at Greenham Common. But real men didn't lie down. They'd rather die or be defeated. Which they were.

Both sides behaved as if they were in a war - the state and the police often preferred to spy on leaders and build roadblocks against flying pickets than to maintain the decorum of freedom of thought and freedom of movement.

Arthur's absurdity and arrogance became an alibi for the Labour Party's flight from activism and the Conservatives' embracing of authoritarianism. It seemed that miners were making history, particularly between March 1984, when the strike began, and October 1984, when it should have ended. It was, however, an episode so dangerous, so heroic and yet so disappointing that it has made this an anxious anniversary.