It was more than three decades ago, but sometimes just feels like yesterday. The miners’ strike was the biggest thing in the lives of a generation of workers and their families, and the biggest thing in my long years as a journalist. It was a burden and an honour to those who fought it, and those of us who wrote it can never forget it.
It only takes a new book like The Enemy Within, a novel by a someone who was a young mining engineer at the time, to bring it all back. This was also the title of Seumas Milne’s ground-breaking project of investigative journalism, and now borrowed yet again from Margaret Thatcher’s description of the National Union of Mineworkers for a literary endeavour best described as autobiographical faction.
Robert MacNeil Wilson (pictured) was a 24 year old under-manager at fictional Whitacre Heath colliery in Warwickshire at the start of the strike. He is Jim Greaves, the hero of the novel: loyal to his men and his pit, torn at times between the two, but invariably on the right side. His personal story is the narrative thread of an intimate portrait of a mining community under siege, from the police, the media, the law and social pressure for a return to work.
It is a tale told with brutal honesty by a man of some sensitivity who lived through it. I recognise immediately the humour, the despair, the resilience of the strikers and their wives. Some of the characters are drawn with complete integrity: the colliery deputies, the managers, the face workers, even the winding engineman who gets a chapter all to himself. Not that that says very much, in a book of 532 pages, that reaches into bedroom as well as the Miners’ Welfare.
Some others are not so well drawn. Shuey McFadden, the scheming communist upstart from the Kent coalfield who conspires to take over the NUM Lodge, is a two-dimensional nasty. Based on true life he may be, he is less convincing on the page. And at times saintly Jim himself is scarcely credible as the big-hearted boss who buys beer for the strikers and tips them a load of illict coal. That said, I have yet to read a more honest and persuasive account of life during the strike.
Wilson doesn’t shrink from the politics of this great event, but he is on less sure ground here. Paul Wood, a young striker who does the full year (his father is a scab), articulates the rationale of the dispute in a long outburst to his wife when the men go back. But the author’s own voice is more Daily Mail than Morning Star. Thatcher’s “enemy within” barb “struck a chord for Jim and many in the country who believed that the militant minority had been a major cause of Britain’s slump to ruination in the 1970s.” There’s much more in this vein.
And if you go in for faction, it’s best to get the facts right. The NUM National Executive did not vote 98-91 for an orderly return to work on 5 March 1985. Having only 27 members, it could hardly have done so. It was a national delegate conference that took the decision. Nor did the Monopolies and Mergers Commission draw up the infamous “hit list” of closure-threatened pits in late 1983. Scargill himself did so, in my presence, based on Coal Board monthly financial returns.
I can’t argue with the highly technical first third of the book, replete with descriptions of panzers, doscos and dinters. But having been down probably a dozen deep mines, I know he’s utterly at home in-bye and on the tail-gate. The language, coarse and vital, is genuine. The final, near-disaster of an inrush of water, adds drama to the story.
What’s left of what’s left? The country’s last deep mine, Kellingley in Yorkshire, closed nearly two years ago. The NUM continues to exist, working for ex-miners and on issues like the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign. Former union officials still work locally on health and pension matters, and simply keeping some of the old community together. The brass bands have suffered, and the sporting activities paid for by the colliers’ weekly pennies.
The pit villages are a shadow of their former selves, with pubs shut and working men’s clubs facing hard times. Thatcher’s rout is virtually complete, but it is also the principal reason why a statue of her cannot be raised in Parliament Square. As a symbol of hatred and division she has no equal in modern times. If you wonder why, or weren’t there at the time, read this book and you will know.
The Enemy Within by Robert MacNeil Wilson is published by Matador (£8.99).