Getting Angry about Class

Still the enemy within posterA great new film is out in the UK just in time for the thirtieth anniversary of the 1984-1985 miners’ strike. The dispute was incredibly divisive three decades ago and continues to be so. When Margret Thatcher died last year, no group celebrated harder than the former mining communities that were devastated in the wake of the strike and the mass closure of the then publicly owned industry. The right wing press and members of the political elite expressed disgust and outrage at the joy with which her demise was greeted. They seemed to believe that the naked class hatred shown to the miners, their families, and communities in the 1980s should now be all forgotten. Well, they weren’t forgotten, and if anything the anger felt in the former coalfields burns just as brightly by those who remember it. Independent filmmaker Owen Gower has said that one of his motivations in making Still the Enemy Within was to show a younger generation why Thatcher was so hated and why the dispute still matters. The title of the film is a reference to Thatcher’s branding of the miners as the ‘enemy within.’

Still the Enemy Within charts the year long dispute over plans to close many economically viable pits, a strategy deliberately designed to provoke the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) into going on strike. It has long been known that this dispute was deliberately engineered by the Thatcher government to break the strongest element of the working class and trade union movement in the UK. The Conservatives had nursed a deep seated grudge against the miners for their contribution to the downfall of Edward Heath’s Conservative Government in 1974. The strike lasted for a day or so shy of a full year, a year that witnessed unprecedented working-class solidarity across the country but failed to realize greater industrial and labor party support. The miners were effectively starved into submission by a combination of poverty, hunger, police brutality, and a wider range of state power – both legal and illegal. UK government papers released recently under the 30 Year Rule revealed the extent of illegal action deployed at the time.

Much of what the film shows was not new to me. I cut my political and trade union teeth as a young railway worker in London during the strike. I remember the ever present miners collecting donations with their buckets and bright yellow ‘Coal Not Dole’ sticker badges. Ironically, Thatcher’s power in the 1980s and the level of anti-union macho management that was unleashed in the wake of the miners’ defeat persuaded me to give up my job and go to college. I met miners who like me were on a pre-university access course in Oxford alongside other workers being pushed out of their industries at the time. I went to Durham University, at the centre of what had been a huge coalfield, and there I met a former Durham miner – let’s call him Pete – whose life had been turned upside-down by the strike. Still in debt in 1990 five years after the strike had ended, Pete was one of a wave on miners who left the industry and went into higher education. One evening after several beers, Pete recounted some of the events of that year and in particular instances of police brutality meted out on, or more usually off, the picket line. Once, he was arrested and placed in cuffs with his hands over the front seat of a police van. Pete thought this strange, he told me, but then he realized what was to happen as a police officer hit him repeatedly in the face with his truncheon. Pete was a very funny man with a wry sense of humor. Through half closed eyes he looked at the officer and said “I bet you really enjoyed that, why don’t you have another go”. He did. Pete, laughing while he spoke, said it was the most stupid thing he had ever said or done as he showed me the photographs taken of him by his lawyer at the police station after he was charged.

This combination of dark humor, bitterness and anger is well represented in Still the Enemy Within. Indeed, I felt a mixture of real anger and sadness throughout the showing. In the Q and A session with the director after the screening, most of the audience also reported feeling angry. The film mixes archive film and still photography with more recently recorded interviews with former miners and their families. The most poignant scenes are of a former miner walking around a landscaped abandoned pithead reflecting on both that period of possibility three decades ago and the current policy of austerity and cuts. The film’s greatest strength is that it is narrated by people from mining communities, who lived through the strike. It seems increasingly rare to hear working-class voices, dialects, and accents in British media. Their bitterness and anger was clear, but so was their humanity and the kind of humor that Pete had.

When I looked around at the audience, I noticed that it was mainly, but by no means exclusively, made up of an older generation. To have an adult memory of the strike, you have to be in your late forties, and most were older. There was an interesting debate in the Q and A about intergenerational solidarity and how important it was for a younger generation to learn lessons from the miner’s strike, in particular about class. Though the film is rated for viewers 15 or older, I had thought long and hard about whether or not to take my ten year old son to see the film with me. I decided against it, and I now regret that I didn’t, because Still the Enemy Within tells a story about class we all need to remember — or learn for the first time.

Tim Strangleman

This entry was posted in Class and the Media, Contributors, Issues, Tim Strangleman, Working-Class Politics and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Getting Angry about Class

  1. The Working Class Christian says:

    The culture of the Working class has taken a beating from many quarters: the establishment, the ‘liberal’ middle classes, the political establishment who largely have abandoned the working class and lumped us all together as chavs, benefit scroungers, EDL and UKIP supporters, unreconstructed racists and …. take yer pick!!!

    What is ironic about much of this animosity is that a lot of it seems to come from the so called liberal Middle classes, the ones who proclaim their belief in equality, their antipathy towards racism, sexism, homophobia etc, and yet without any irony or self examination, be equally as bigoted and small minded against the white working class in exactly the same way as racists, homophobes and sexists! I guess this is an open secret amongst those who are honest, but among the PC Middle class, it is a blind spot that gets more ridiculous by the day. And of course their hatred of the Working class is based on the ‘fact’ that all Working class people are prejudiced against everyone else. No sense of irony amongst the PC liberal Middle class I guess. Or perhaps there is a perniciousness to them? I suspect the former, the latter and sometimes both.

    The deeper issue here is that the Middle class, some of them not all, are now siding with the wealthy and powerful to systematically alienate the white working class and blame them for all the ills of modern society, and so shift their prejudices onto them. ‘I may not be perfect’ decry the liberal Middle classes ‘but I am not like those horrible white trash over there!’ It’s an old old story. Any Middle class person reading this should accept that if they engage in bashing the working class, for any reason, they are NO DIFFERENT from the virulent racists they so angrily decry. If any of them were honest they would challenge all prejudices. The fact they don’t, and use the anti racist platform to promote and excuse their own prejudices, equally small minded, proves that few of them are genuine. Their real agenda is to create divisions between the poor whites and the poor ethnic minorities at the bottom end of the economy, just like America. Keep the poor at each other’s throats and get the best jobs for yourselves, whilst using equal rights issues as a smokescreen.

    http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/commentators/tim-lott-white-working-class-ndash-and-threatened-with-extinction-793367.html

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  2. Roy Wilson says:

    Tim,

    You say: “I had thought long and hard about whether or not to take my ten year old son to see the film with me. I decided against it, and I now regret that I didn’t, because Still the Enemy Within tells a story about class we all need to remember — or learn for the first time.” What would it mean if you decided now. after writing “Getting Angry About Class, to take (or not take) him to see it?

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  3. peacenick11 says:

    Thanks so much for this powerful personal review, Tim. Being from the north of England but living in the States, it was wrenching to watch the struggle from a distance. And it was mainly through cultural media like Billy Bragg’s songs and, later, films like Brassed Off and Billy Elliot (and now Pride, which I have yet to see) that I got a visceral sense of what it was like to live through. I hope we’ll get to see Still the Enemy over here soon. — Nick C

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