Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Miners’ Strike Remembered (2014)

From the March 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard

One socialist recalls what made him class conscious
The 1984-85 Miners' Strike was a pivotal moment in my political education, a formative event in the development of my socialist class consciousness. After the death of Thatcher in April 2013 I was at a celebratory gathering in Trafalgar Square which was also attended by a few Geordie Miners who carried their North East Area NUM banner. In the old mining village of Goldthorpe in South Yorkshire an effigy of Thatcher was publicly burned. Seumas Milne wrote in The Enemy Within that 'films such as Billy Elliot and Brassed Off rammed home the devastation of the mining communities wrought by the politically driven closures.' Recently there have been released cabinet papers that reveal the Tory government had a secret plan to close 75 pits at the cost of 65,000 jobs, and that the government used police tactics to escalate the dispute. The IPCC is currently undertaking a preliminary assessment to decide whether it should launch a full inquiry into the 'Battle of Orgreave.'
On two occasions having my birthday in February meant the candles on my birthday cake were the only light in our house. In February 1972 a miners' strike led to power cuts, and the defeat for the Tory governmentpay policy. Again in February 1974 a miners' strike caused power cuts but this time Heath called a snap election asking 'who governs? The Tories or the Miners?' The British electorate told Heath it was not him.
On 18 March 1979 an explosion at the Golborne Colliery near Wigan in the St Helens coalfield killed 10 miners with one survivor, a 20-year old apprentice electrician called Brian Rawsthorne. Following the explosion Golborne was visited by the Labour government Secretary of State for Energy Tony Benn who said: 'It is the most terrible tragedy. I have come to express sympathy with the families. The human cost of coal is still a very high cost and we must never take it for granted.' On Boxing Day that year in Garswood, near Ashton-in-Makerfield my family were visiting my uncle who was a mining surveyor for the National Coal Board. The young Brian Rawsthorne was also a guest that day. As recent as September 2011, a miner was killed at the Kellingley colliery in North Yorkshire, and 4 miners were killed at Gleison colliery in South Wales.
Workshop of the world
In the nineteenth century Britain's industrial position as the 'workshop of the world' (Disraeli 1838) – reflected in the bourgeois triumph of the Great Exhibition of 1851 –was based on coal. In 1865 in The Coal Question the leading economist of the day, William Stanley Jevons wrote 'Coal in truth stands not beside but entirely above all other commodities. It is the material energy of the country, the universal aid, the factor in everything we do, a material of such myriad qualities, of such miraculous powers.' Britain had huge coalfields in South Wales, Lancashire, South Yorkshire, the North East and Scotland, employment in coal mining hit a peak of 1.3 million workers in 1920 with a production peak of 287 million tons in 1913. In 1983 production was still over 100 million tons and close to 200,000 miners still worked in the industry.
In 1956 in Coal is our Life, Dennis et al wrote 'The prestige of the miner in the working class is higher than it has ever been' but in some quarters there was a growing realisation of the 'state capitalist' nature of the nationalised coal industry. VL Allen in The Militancy of British Miners (1981) wrote that 'there existed a group of politically articulate miners who argued for the emancipation of their fellow miners from the conditions which made them compliant, vulnerable and dispensable wage labour.' Milne observed a 'visceral capitalist class fear of miners emerging from the bowels of the earth to demand their rights which touched a raw nerve'.
On 2 March 1984 the Miners' Strike began at the Cortonwood Colliery near Wath-upon-Dearne in South Yorkshire. On 6 March the government scrapped the 1974 NCB Plan for Coal and announced a closure plan. On 12 March the strike went national with 196,000 miners on strike. Chas Critcher in Working Class Culture (1979) wrote 'The miner may not think of wage labour or class consciousness as abstract categories, but he knows who pays his wages and what they get out of it, and hence sees that they are not on his side.'
At the end of March 1984 I heard the Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock speak about the Miners' Strike at Preston Polytechnic. Within days I had joined the Labour Party Young Socialists, was reading the Militant newspaper and essentially I had joined the Militant Tendency, a Trotskyist organisation. There followed public meetings on the Miners' Strike at the Preston Trade Union Centre, a Militant Rally in Blackburn, attending branch meetings, and selling Militant in Preston town centre. I read the Manifesto of the Communist Party by Marx and Engels but the most important book to my then comrades in Militant was Lenin's What is to be Done? which describes a disciplined, centralised 'vanguard' party of dedicated revolutionaries (i.e. Militant) bringing socialist consciousness to the working class. I was always hearing the word 'cadre' and was told the situation in Liverpool where Militant controlled the City Council was akin to 'Petrograd in 1917.' I also helped out in the Labour Party rooms at the May local elections.
In June I knocked on doors in Preston collecting food for striking miners' families in the Lancashire coalfields. There were 6,500 Lancashire miners at 20 collieries in the Manchester coalfield, 26 collieries in Wigan, 22 in St Helens and 18 in Burnley. The working class are capable of organising their own affairs in common and this was clearly demonstrated by the mining communities pooling their energies and resources and taking what they needed from a common store. As Engels wrote 'the humanity of the workers is constantly manifesting itself pleasantly. They have experienced hard times themselves, and can therefore feel for those in trouble, whence they are more approachable, friendlier, and less greedy for money, though they need it far more than the property-holding class.'
18 June was a decisive day during the strike when 10,000 miners picketing at Orgreave coking plant in South Yorkshire were confronted by about 8,500 police from ten counties. The NUM planned to repeat the success of the picket at Saltley Coke Depot, Birmingham in 1972. At Orgreave coal was turned into coke for use in steel production and British Steel plants had been receiving 'dispensations': picket-permitted movements of coal to prevent damage to their furnaces. However it was discovered that British Steel was moving far more coal than the dispensations agreed. In the ensuing 'Battle of Orgreave' 93 miners were arrested, and 51 miners injured by the police. The BBC edited footage to alter the time-line of events to show police defending themselves from miners attacks when it was miners defending themselves against police attacks. Later 95 miners were charged with riot and unlawful assembly. In 1991 South Yorkshire police paid £425,000 to settle civil actions brought by 39 miners for what happened at and after Orgreave including for assault, wrongful arrest and malicious prosecution, but no police officer was ever disciplined for any misconduct.
In The Enemy Within Seamus Milne details the Tory government, police, MI5 and Special Branch tactics in the class war against the miners; tapping phones, checking bank deposits, forging documents, using agents provocateurs, providing disinformation to the media, surveillance of miners and the NUM, the DHSS withholding benefits to striking families, restrictive bail conditions and courts sequestering NUM funds. There was the creation of what ostensibly was a national police force, the police used as a paramilitary force, the police using road-block strategy stopping cars and buses and turning them back hundreds of miles from their destinations, and arresting miners if they strayed outside their home county. The criminal law was used against the miners even though picketing including secondary picketing was not an offence in criminal law.  
The Left
A few days after Orgreave I was in Leyland for a miners rally where I heard speeches by Dennis Skinner, ex-miner and Labour MP for Bolsover in the Derbyshire coalfield, and Peter Heathfield, NUM General Secretary. A 'Second Front' of strikes in the face of Tory anti-trade union legislation on secondary picketing was opened up in July with a 2 weeks national dock strike prompted by the use of contractors to unload iron ore at Immingham Docks. There were also prolonged 'wildcat' strikes at power stations in the Aire, Calder, Wharfe, and Ouse valleys in Yorkshire. Railway workers did not move coal trucks, and the railway workers at Shirebrook marshalling yards in Nottinghamshire right in the heart of scab country refused to move one ounce of coal throughout the year-long strike.
In September I came to London to read politics and philosophy at Thames Polytechnic in Woolwich, South East London. Leftwing politics were popular at the Poly; the SWP, the Labour Club which comprised the LPYS, i.e. Militant Tendency, the Socialist Labour Group, and the IMG. My first gig at the Poly in the Student Union Cellar Bar was a Miners' Benefit with The Three Johns and Hagar the Womb, a feminist anarcho-punk band. The Miners' Support Group was linked to the Kent NUM and the 3,000 miners at Betteshanger, Snowdown, and Tilmanstone collieries. In Plumstead I knocked on doors collecting food for striking miners families in the Kent coalfield.
NACODS, the Pit Deputies and safety officials union, wanted the NCB to withdraw the pit closure plan and a ballot on strike action was 82 percent in favour. Strike action was called off when the NCB and Government promised a modified colliery review procedure which was reneged on. If NACODS had gone on strike could the miners have won the strike?
In November I travelled on a hired bus with the Miners' Support Group and Labour Club to the NUM picket line at West Thurrock Power Station in Essex. Near to Christmas young miners from the Betteshanger Colliery in the Kent coalfield visited the Polytechnic and we spent hours drinking with them in the student union bars and later smoking hashish at our house in Charlton.
During the strike state capitalist Poland exported cheap, non-unionised coal to Britain demonstrating that the defeat of the Polish miners in their earlier efforts to form an independent trade union (Solidarnosc) contributed to the defeat of the British miners. The class war is not local but international and the interests of workers in one part of the world are the common interest of all workers. There were no power cuts in Britain in the winter of 1984-85. Later it was revealed that a $1 million donation by Soviet miners never reached Britain through the influence of Thatcher over Gorbachev when he visited Britain in December 1984.
Like many others in the world of art of performance, the 'alternative music scene' I followed was behind the Miners' Strike. Test Department, from New Cross in South East London collaborated with the South Wales Striking Miners Choir on the album Shoulder to Shoulder. The Redskins sang Keep on Keepin' On! about the Miners' Strike, and proceeds from Billy Bragg's Which Side are You On? and Paul Weller and the Council Collective's Soul Deep were donated to the striking miners fund.
Eventually, the Miners' Strike ended in defeat on 3 March 1985. Two miners had been killed during the strike, and three teenagers died picking coal from colliery waste heaps. During the strike police arrested 11,312 miners in England, Scotland and Wales. In December 2011 only 3,000 miners were left at 9 pits.
At the end of the strike I left 'leftist' politics and began over 25 years of counter-culturalism, beatnik-hipsterism, and armchair-anarchism. Then I discovered Marx's Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, the Socialist Party of Great Britain and realised the miners needed to go beyond fighting over wages and conditions in the industrial struggle and instead 'ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword, abolition of the wages system.'
Steve Clayton

Sting in the tail: Tory caring (1994)

The Sting in the Tail column from the June 1994 issue of the Socialist Standard

Tory caring

Sir Louis Blom-Cooper and Professor Elaine Murphy have been sacked.

They used to work for the government-funded Mental Health Act Commission. This is a body set up to protect the rights of patients compulsorily detained in hospital under the Mental Health Act.

Louis and Elaine were experts in the field of Mental Health. They were chairman and vice-chairman of the committee. They worked their socks off in their endeavours to protect the mentally disabled.

They were sacked because they warned the government that inner-city mental services were "in crisis". They claimed that seriously disturbed patients were being discharged too early to make way for even more disturbed people. They said:
"Psychiatric wards were so overcrowded that patients had to share beds and sleep in corridors." (Observer, 24 April)
In order to protect the "care in the community" policy of the Tory market-mad ministers they had to be given their cards. They will be replaced by someone more amenable to market forces. 'Nuff said.

Having a good war

This was Lord Marshall, chairman of the Central Electricity Generating Board during the miners' strike of 1984-5, reflecting on the strike in The Men Who Kept The Lights On (BBC2, 23 April):
"It was absolutely thrilling. A wonderful, wonderful year. I mean it's like being in a war. Wa, of course, is bad because people get killed, but if you're in a just war, a proper war, I mean war in inverted commas, it was just very, very exciting. Much more exciting than normal, everyday life, and after it was over there was a terrible sense of loss because there was nothing exciting for us to talk about any more." 
What a pity that the miners and their families couldn't have borne their hardships for just a while longer and so delayed this noble Lord's "terrible sense of loss"?

A horror story

Ever since the end of World War Two there has been a stream of "Now it can be told" stories. They always deal with episodes from that conflict which had hitherto been suppressed.

Another such story surfaced in an American TV programme about the Holocaust and was reported in the Jewish Chronicle on 15 April:
"Countless thousands of Jews died in the Holocaust because of a conspiracy between the US State Department and the British government not to rescue them . . . "
The US and British governments sabotaged a plan whereby American Jews would "put up the funds necessary to 'buy' 70,000 Romanian Jews" because both feared that the Germans mights actually agree to it! A British Foreign Office document complained about "the difficulties of disposing of any considerable number of Jews should they be rescued from enemy-occupied territory".

So the Jews were left to their fate. Were all those politicians and officials inhuman monsters? The thing to remember here is that anyone who is involved in the administration of capitalism's affairs may find themselves having to make such gruesome decisions "in the national interest". 

Labour and the CIA

The notion that international capitalism fears a Labour government in Britain has always been one of the favourite illusions of what is called the Left.

Under the "freedom of information" legislation in the United States documents have been released that show how silly that idea is:
"Ironically, a CIA report sent to President Truman in February 1950, headed The British General Election and US Security, concluded that 'US interests might be slightly better served by the return of Labour.'"
The CIA observed that advantages of a Labour victory included "greater domestic stability in Britain, especially of the standard of living falls", and "greater loyalty of British workers to the policies of the British government." (Guardian, 11 April).

Far from fearing a Labour government, certain sections of the capitalist class welcome it.

Tony Benn – Rebel's End (2014)

From the April 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard

By now we are accustomed, if nauseated, each time a self-promoting rebel – in sport, entertainment, politics – warns us of the end of their need to be disruptive by transforming themselves into something called A National Treasure. This was how it was with Tony Benn who died last month. Among the outpourings of blather there was Ed Miliband: 'iconic figure of our age, a great parliamentarian and a conviction politician'. Then David Cameron: 'a magnificent writer, speaker, diarist and campaigner with a strong record of public and political service'. And Benn himself, shortly before he died: 'the nation's political grandfather'. Even Denis Healey, Benn's bitterest enemy when they were fighting each other over the Labour leadership (Benn was an 'unprincipled careerist') persuaded himself to comment moderately, suitable to his great age.

We did not contribute to that tsunami of hypocrisy. We have seen too many of capitalism's political leaders grappling for power by promising to change this social system, out of its essential character, but doing little more than re-arranging some of its more toxic effects while tagging it with another name. Among that parade of frauds and cheats the Labour Party has been most persistent and damaging. And in that party's disreputable history Tony Benn ranks high as a Treasure, a Grandfather... As examples of his 'socialism', during his time as a Minister in the 1960s and 1970s he was involved in many developments such as the creation of the giant motor firm British Leyland which was combined from other similar firms to be in competition with foreign companies such as Volkswagen, Renault, Vauxhall but which floundered. He was enthusiastic about the Concorde airliner, which was sleek and fast but did not fulfil the hopes that it would see off the American Boeing Corporation. Benn's fantasy about that rolled out to be no better than flying for the rich – but carrying unforeseen technical faults which eventually wiped it out.

In 1979 Benn agreed to be interviewed by two members of the Socialist Party on the basis of his recently published book Arguments for Socialism. An edited account of the interview (approved by Benn), was published in the Socialist Standard of January 1980. Benn was first asked for his definition of socialism but then had to be repeatedly encouraged to do just that instead of offering vague, often contradictory, evasions. Our final comment, after outlining socialism as 'a world common-ownership society with free access and voluntary co-operation' was to remind Benn that the logic of his argument led, not to socialism but to different forms of capitalism. We had not expected that he would be in any way diverted by the case for socialism and at the end of his life our comment in the 1970s – that 'capitalism today is as terrible a system to live under as it ever was'  –is as pertinent as ever. Benn's final comment was 'Well anyway I've enjoyed it very much. A stern cross-examination'.

Next month we analyse in more detail Tony Benn’s career and politics.

Editorial: Russia, Ukraine and Crimea (2014)

Editorial from the April 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard

As always at times of international crisis, we are bombarded by strident propaganda from both sides – propaganda that skilfully combines half-truths, distortions and outright lies. In Ukraine and Russia the resulting mix is emotionally potent enough to set working people speaking slightly different languages at one another’s throats.

Each side summons the revered ghosts of World War Two to its ranks. Pro-Ukrainian scribblers present Putin as a new Hitler. Russian propaganda calls the change of regime in Kiev a ‘fascist coup’ and casts Russia as a heroic knight setting out once again to save Europe from fascism.

Although there are some parallels between post-Soviet Russia and Weimar Germany, Putin is hardly an adventurer on the same grand scale as Hitler. He is, rather, taking advantage of disarray inside a neighbouring country to reincorporate marginal territory with strong historical ties to Russia (as he did in Georgia in 2008).

Of course, the breakdown of the previous consensus against the diplomatic recognition of secession has encouraged such border adjustments. If the Western states can help Kosovo secede from Serbia, asks Putin, why should Russia not help Crimea secede from Ukraine?

Russian talk about a ‘fascist coup’ does have some basis in reality. The ‘Maidan’ movement may well have started as a peaceful protest of citizens against the corrupt and oppressive government of President Yanukovych, but it was the violent clashes between police and armed insurgents that finally brought that government down. And it was semi-fascist groups of Ukrainian ultra-nationalists – in particular, the Right Sector led by Dmytro Yarosh – who played the leading role in the insurgency and were rewarded with posts in the new government.

What strains credulity is the claim that Russia’s annexation of Crimea has anything to do with resisting fascism. Even before the annexation local militias were quite effective in keeping Ukrainian ultra-nationalists (and all other ‘Maidanites’) out of the peninsula. If there is a threat of ‘fascism’ in Crimea, it comes from Russian ultra-nationalists – like the men who dress up as Cossacks and whip opponents of the secessionist regime. Such people are also active in the current protests in the cities of Eastern Ukraine against the new ‘Orange’ government. For example, Pavel Gubarev, a leader of the pro-Russian protests in Donetsk, is a former member of the fascist organisation Russian National Unity.

Why then has Putin annexed Crimea? There are strategic and economic interests at stake.

Crimea is crucial to strategic control of the Black Sea. Russia’s Black Sea Fleet is based at Sevastopol and other Crimean ports. Russia leased the bases from Ukraine, but the term of the leasing agreement was to expire in 2017 and the agreement was unlikely to be renewed.

A great deal of Crimean real estate is Russian-owned. In late February Russia’s Ministry of Economic Development called on Russian capitalists to invest $5 billion in infrastructural projects in Crimea (port infrastructure, roads, etc.). Gazprom is interested in rich oil and gas deposits off Crimea’s coast, as are such Western companies as Exxon, Shell and ENI.