The People’s Flag is Palest Pink

The People’s Flag is Palest Pink

From Still the Enemy Within, about miners’ strikes in 1984-85. Courtesy of John Sturrock.

Margaret Thatcher died of a stroke on April 8, 2013, at the age of eighty-seven. Her enemies, from the Irish republicans who blew up her hotel bathroom to the rock stars who sang about “Margaret on the Guillotine” and “The Day That Thatcher Dies,” could celebrate at last. But the legacy of her eleven years in power—measured in inequality, decaying trade unions and public institutions, and the Labour Party’s ceaseless retreat from its socialist origins—is as strong as ever.

Today not even the National Health Service, famously unscathed by Thatcher, is safe from privatization. Scotland’s recent near-secession was, at least in part, a desperate attempt to wrench its modest welfare state away from English austerity. Perhaps because we still live in the world Thatcher made, even her death has not completely extinguished the impulse to imagine Thatcher dying. Hilary Mantel’s latest collection is charmingly called The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, and the counterfactual title story imagines a sniper landing a shot to the Iron Lady’s “glittering helmet of hair.”

It’s now three decades since Thatcher’s protracted but ultimately successful conflict with one of the country’s largest unions, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), which ended in March 1985. In an American context, the miners’ defeat is almost always explained as the trans-Atlantic counterpart of the 1981 PATCO strike, Ronald Reagan’s opening shot in the battle against the countervailing power of organized labor. But in its scope, the British experience far exceeded the American. The longest strike in the nation’s history, the miners’ strike lasted just shy of a year and led to over 10,000 arrests. Through months of bitter material deprivation, the number of workers participating never fell below 100,000. The political edge was also sharper. PATCO had endorsed Reagan in 1980, but the NUM boasted a militant rank-and-file and strident left-wing leadership. In 1974, the union brought down Edward Heath’s Conservative government by going out on strike and forcing new elections. And while PATCO had struck over wages and conditions, the miners fought for the preservation of a nationalized industry and the very existence of their pits, dozens of which Thatcher had proposed to shut down.

Given these existential stakes, the miners’ defeat appeared not just episodic but world-historical, the confirmation of historian Eric Hobsbawm’s 1978 warning: “the forward march of labour”—which over a century before had inspired Capital and underwritten Britain’s welfarist and largely nationalized economy—“appears to have come to a halt in this country.” If there was any hope for the left, many argued, it was through alliances with the diffuse cultural currents—feminist, anti-racist, environmental—that had emerged since the 1960s.

The popular 2014 film Pride neatly dramatizes this historical crossroads while suggesting that the contrast between labor and the “new social movements” is too neat a division. Pride tells the story of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, an English solidarity group that raised tens of thousands of pounds for hard-hit strikers in the Dulais Valley of South Wales. (Direct fundraising of this sort was crucial since the British government had sequestered the NUM’s assets.) The film focuses on the time the gay activists spend visiting Wales, going beyond financial subsidy to connect personally with the miners. At first the two groups appear to share little but a list of common enemies: “Thatcher, the police, the public, [and] the tabloid press.” But through a mixture of Hollywood bonhomie (an extended dance sequence, numerous pints in the miners’ welfare hall) and brass tacks politics (advice on dealing with police harassment), most characters overcome their initial discomfort to build solidarity that outlives the strike itself. By the end, the Welsh miners take the lead in London’s Pride march to the tune of Billy Bragg’s “There is Power in a Union.”

All this might strike some as a little too neat, as if Pride was a strained attempt to translate Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe’s turgid 1985 brief for inventive coalition politics, into an inspirational movie. But viewers can rest assured that Pride’s nonfiction bonafides are extremely strong. A short contemporary documentary about LGSM, All Out: Dancing in Dulais, provided rich historical source material: the real-life counterparts of onscreen characters, their slogan T-shirts and hair styles, snatches of dialogue, even details like activists singing “Every woman is a lesbian at heart” to the tune of “Solidarity Forever.” Miners’ leader Dai Donovan really did share a bill with synthpop trio Bronski Beat, and address thousands of gay club-goers with words to thrill a screenwriter:

It won’t change overnight, but now 140,000 miners know that there are other causes and other problems. We know about blacks and gays and nuclear disarmament and we will never be the same.

More than good feelings were created, too. When the Labour Party adopted its first gay rights plank in 1985, its narrow margin included the significant block vote of the NUM. Within thirty years, gay marriage was legal in England and Wales.

Pride’s historical fidelity is testament to the filmmakers’ painstaking efforts as well as to the remarkable nature of the reality in question. Still, one element of the film has attracted criticism for inaccuracy. The founders of LGSM were avowed socialists, active members of organizations including the Communist Party and the Trotskyist Militant tendency. The lack of attention to this detail led the left-wing British paper Morning Star to complain “one important closet door remains firmly nailed shut.”

The politics are not completely hidden in the film: when activist Mark Ashton tells a crowd at a gay club that some of them may know who he is already, a heckler yells “commie!” The van that carries the LGSM back and forth from Wales displays a placard bearing a red star and the word OCTOBER. But these are admittedly subtle signals, like the stray reference to American Trotskyist leader Max Shachtman that hinted at the left-wing character of the folk revival in the 2013 period film Inside Llewyn Davis. I would have been interested to see how the sold-out crowd at my cinema would have reacted to more direct cues, given the strength of American anticommunism even within our trade union tradition. Even more interesting might have been the political discussions that could have been portrayed onscreen. LGSM veteran Ray Goodspeed recently recalled how Trotskyists like him and Communists in LGSM disagreed about the relationship between socialism and gay identity:

The CP approach was to talk about two communities, both under attack from the government. Gay people and miners are both attacked by the police. Good solidarity. For us on the Trot side, we talked much more about class—gays and miners were working class; if the miners lose, all working-class people will suffer. Most of us were trade union activists, so we were part of the labour movement in any case.

The film doesn’t get much into these debates, though it implicitly sides with the additive approach of Communists like Ashton (whose avowal in Dancing in Dulais that “it’s important that if you’re defending communities, you’re defending all communities” is reproduced almost exactly in Pride). But the film doesn’t shy away from showing internal divisions, giving a sense of the intensity and endemic difficulties of left-wing activism even without naming sects. And the film’s emphasis on fundamental agreement about the strike over comradely disagreement is itself true to the LGSM’s ethos, at least as Goodspeed remembers it: “we could have these discussions, but it all came down to: ‘that was very interesting but let’s get back to raising money.’”

One prominent left-wing critique of identity politics, laid out most polemically by literary theorist Walter Benn Michaels, posits a secret alliance between the logic of capitalism and racial and sexual diversity, since the latter does nothing to directly threaten the bottom line. The same point is sometimes intimated approvingly from the right, as when one gay Tory financier eulogized Thatcher as “a poster girl for gay rights.” Pride’s postcard from the recent past is a reminder that the architects of neoliberalism built their counterrevolution on what Thatcher called “the values of family life.” James Anderton, a Thatcher-allied police chief, compared “mass picketing” to “acts of terrorism” and described unions as an “industrial mafia.” But he was more famous for saying that AIDS patients were “swirling in a cesspit of their own making.”

The relationship between these views was not incidental. Thatcher is famous for the blunt declaration, “There is no such thing as society.” But less well-known is the positive statement that went along with it: “There are individual men and women and there are families.” Authority in the family, she would state explicitly, was the micro-foundation for the authority of the state and the boss. And not just any sort of family, as she made clear with Section 28, a notorious law forbidding state-funded schools from teaching “the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.” The solidarity-building in Pride was an effort to push back against both parts of Thatcher’s moral philosophy. In defending close-knit mining communities, state ownership, and working-class self-organization, it articulated a thicker conception of society than her market nihilism. But by refusing to accept the restrictive Tory vision of family values as self-evident, LGSM complemented this communitarianism by insisting on the human freedom to reshape the forms of social collectivity.

Against the deeply affecting film, some plain facts remain. The strike was broken and the coal pits closed, leaving the institutions of the working class destroyed along with thousands of individual lives. This devastation is conveyed in another anniversary film, Owen Gower’s documentary Still the Enemy Within. Consisting of interviews with a small group of evidently left-wing miners, the documentary does not explore beyond the strike’s basic chronology and the testimony of the men who walked out. It presents this lived experience economically and with great force, focused intently on faces and voices of men and women as they channel a wide range of decades-old emotions. They exalt in their erstwhile power, reveal sharp personal disappointment at the absence of support from other unions or the Labour Party, and cry as they recall defeat. Particularly memorable is the unanimous conviction that the strike really had stakes and really could have been won.

The fate of the miners might suggest a bitter lesson. Gay advocates joined the miners, and the cunning of history churned out civil unions without labor unions. Tellingly, Labour leader Ed Miliband has even proposed to do away with block voting, which the NUM used to help push a gay rights plank in. Perhaps, as one philosopher has written, the “democratization of personal life” is just “a burdening of private existence with ideals that have lost their public meaning.” But though Pride obviously draws some of its exuberance from the last few decades of gay progress, its uplift stops well short of complacency. One highly effective formal technique used to achieve this is the film’s treatment of HIV. The virus hangs around the edges of the film: in idle talk, hostile public service announcements, and in an angry challenge to LGSM’s choice of priority. Though never assuming center stage, the virus eventually implicates the lead characters, dispelling any sense of triumphalism from the celebratory conclusion. Though they are never conflated, the devastation of the health crisis rhymes enough with the miners’ defeat to suggest that both halves of the “unlikely alliance” remain far from victory, on screen and off.

For American audiences, the coal strike of 1984–85 might seem remote, almost as unfamiliar as the buried history of LGSM. In his book The Enemy Within, journalist Seumas Milne details the unsavory lengths that the British establishment—not just Thatcher’s Tories but the Labour Party, the press, and MI5—engaged in to contain the strike’s legacy in Britain as well. But in a new preface to the book’s recent reissue, Milne argues that the memory of the strike has continued to evolve in light of subsequent events and disclosure of new information, including the government’s use of spies high within the NUM and its readiness to call in the army and declare a state of emergency. A second round of pit closures in 1990 helped convince many that the union had been right about the extremity of Thatcher’s plans for the industry. Even the police officer who arrested NUM head Arthur Scargill in 1984 later conceded that “Arthur was right.”

Milne points to a string of popular movies with sympathetic portrayals of mining communities, including Billy Elliott and Brassed Off, as evidence of these changing attitudes. Perhaps Pride’s warm reception on both sides of the Atlantic offers another illustration. But the persistence of Reagan and Thatcher’s politics even after the worst of the last recession makes it harder to share Milne’s optimism that “the neoliberal spell ha[s] been broken.” For now, at least, the proof that different struggles are intimately related is a negative one: defeat for the labor movement is a loss we all share.


Tim Barker is a Dissent editor at large.

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