You’ve all heard the cliche. You may have started out as a young socialist, but the older you get the more conservative you become. This is the smug claim of people who never had a sense of reality. It’s always worth asking if such smug claims stand up to scrutiny.
One defiant example is Dennis Skinner. If you haven’t heard of Skinner, he’s the MP for Bolsover and one of the few left-wing politicians who has been sitting in parliament for the best part of 50 years. The name of a new documentary bears Skinner’s nickname: the Beast of Bolsover.
I went to see Nature of the Beast at the Soho Curzon last week. As someone with family in the town of Bolsover, it was quite something to see shots of the town in the film and even see Skinner drive down familiar country lanes. I was also quite pleased to hear that the North Derbyshire accent almost consistently throughout the film.
North Derbyshire is just below South Yorkshire, one of the parts of the East Midlands where people have more in common economically and culturally with the North East. This was reflected in the 1984 Miners’ Strike. The pit towns in places like Bolsover had a huge amount of support for the strike. Out of 10,500 miners in North Derbyshire over 66% went on strike in 1984 and when the struggle was brought to an end in 1985 the figure stood at 40%. This was not the case in Nottinghamshire, which became a hive for scabs.
The overall tone of the documentary itself was a nostalgic and sentimental. Not just about its subject, but about the working class and its life in the pit towns of the Midlands and the North. It features several montages of silver photographs, conveying the gritty and mucky solidarity of working down the pit. All to a backdrop of folk music.
Later, we get a montage of the Miners’ Strike and the Battle of Orgreave with Billy Bragg’s Which Side Are You On? playing in the background. The montage comes to a climax with Skinner defending the struggle in Parliament more than thirty years later:
We fought as well as we could, but we were battling against not only the police. All the higher echelons of state were raised against us. It’s never happened before, except in the 1926 strike. That was an honourable year!
Men at sixty, who were prepared to salvage the roof over their own head for a 16 year-old lad at a coalfield that they didn’t even know existed. That was honour! And I’m proud to have fought every single day, I’d love to do it again!
This was emotional viewing. Watching the film I realised Skinner represents a thread tying the present day struggles to the pit towns and the Labour government of 1945. He appeared on stage after it finished to answer a few questions before the next parliamentary vote. He talked up the solidarity of miners, between English lads and displaced peoples from Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.
“We all had the same money and we were all in the NUM,” Skinner told the audience. “That’s the difference to today, when you have zero-hours contracts.” He was meant to be answering a question about how to organise from below to keep the Labour Party on the left. Skinner may not have answered the question, but there are lessons to be learned from his political record.
The film took us from the Clay Cross Council and its revolt against the Heath administration and the Tory plans to raise rents across the country by £1 a week. Together the Skinners brothers helped wage a campaign for local democracy against the Conservative government until they were eventually defeated. Yet they had the support of the people living in Clay Cross.
The Skinner brothers were instrumental in what became the Clay Cross rent rebellion. Dennis had just joined the House of Commons as an MP. He had been a miner for twenty-odd years, as well as a trade union rep and a councillor for many years. His brothers were still on the council. The campaign was defeated in the end, however, it was Ted Heath who would be thrown out by the ballot box.
Much like Theresa May, Heath called a snap election to strengthen his hand only to find he was not as well liked in the country as he was by the elite. He famously asked the public: “Who runs the country? Me or the miners?” He got the answer he deserved.
The fact that the 1974 Miners’ Strike contributed to the downfall of the Heath government may have had something to do with why Thatcher launched an assault on the pit towns a decade later. The National Union of Miners was once a highly conservative trade union, but it changed course as the second half of the twentieth century unfolded. The leadership of Arthur Scargill was vital in this shift.
When it came to the struggle to fight for the mines and against the Thatcher government, Dennis Skinner and his allies were there and they were ready to stand up for the working class. It may have been a losing struggle, it may have been doomed from the start. We now know that the government had spent a year or more storing up coal reserves to prepare for a long dirty fight. Even still, it was the right cause.
Many of these communities were destroyed by the process of pit closures. The Thatcher government liked to claim it was just doing what was necessary and that there was no alternative. The destruction was real and there was no attempt to mitigate the impact of the closures. In 2009, Thatcher’s right-fist Norman Tebbit admitted as much:
Those mining communities had good working class values and a sense of family values. The men did real men’s heavy work going down the pit. There were also some very close-knit communities which were able to deal with the few troublesome kids. If they had any problems they would take the kid round the back and give them a good clip round the ear and that would be the end of that.
Many of these communities were completely devastated, with people out of work turning to drugs and no real man’s work because all the jobs had gone. There is no doubt that this led to a breakdown in these communities with families breaking up and youths going out of control. The scale of the closures went too far. The damage done to those communities was enormous as a result of the strike.
Of course, it was a deliberate policy undertaken by the right. The de-industrialisation of Britain was a part of offshoring production and opening up the economy to international capital and liberalising the financial system. This created the conditions for a powerless workforce. The structures of the working class were demolished and debt was used to make up the losses in real wage terms.
There are those people who believe that the right side is always the winning side. These are the same people who warn you about rocking the boat and challenging authority. Skinner is right to say he would fight it again, even though it was a historic defeat. We shouldn’t give into pessimism and capitulate. Optimism is a radical force even in the face of defeat.
Skinner displayed this panache at the Labour conference this year. He is known for his attacks on the Tories and right-wing journalists, yet the tone he struck was one of optimism: we can end austerity, restore free education, abolish zero-hours contracts and renationalise the post office. This is the real driving force of left-wing politics.
Photograph courtesy of Chris FPage. Published under a Creative Commons license.
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