Story built on lies
David Douglass reviews 'Thatcher vs the miners: the battle for Britain', produced by Harry Bell and Brendan Hughes and broadcast on Channel 5
And the Oscar for the very worst TV ‘documentary’ made on the miners’ strike goes to ... Tern TV for Thatcher vs the miners
At first glance we asked, ‘Why now?’ in relation to the production of this programme.
There was no particular event or anniversary to mark, but we reasoned the makers of the ‘documentary’ obviously felt this issue monumental at the time, with ongoing impacts for the here and now, while at the same time the story behind the conflict and the facts at issue were worth re-exploring. Bear in mind that - fresh though it is in the minds of those who were there - it is now 37 years since the miners’ Great Strike; a whole new generation has arrived who are largely ignorant of what happened and why it is important.
The coal ‘communities’ - wearied by years of lies and social repression - looked at this forthcoming programme with widespread cynicism: ‘It’ll be the same as the rest - propaganda, lies and misinformation.’ I admit I took a deep breath before agreeing to take part in the programme, because I have been had before: cooperating by looking at facts, figures and insights into the events, only to end up with a programme which almost totally ignored what I had said - or else cut it out entirely.
The programme makers boast that this was to be “the untold story” of the strike. I was assured our side of it was to be fully presented and I had free rein to explode the hoary old press myths which still prevail. But I should have listened to my community. This is a brash and vulgar regurgitation of Marching to the fault line by Francis Beckett and David Hencke - an infamous collection of myths and misinformation, which itself is a compilation of the media’s year-long misrepresentation of the struggle. Far from “the untold story”, Thatcher vs the miners was the same old story, with the makers of the film rejecting any idea of running a truthful challenge to the enduring myths.
You would think I should have known better, but the producer sounded like a working class Belfast lad and, when he persuaded me to take part, he assured me that I would be allowed to set the record straight and explode the myths one by one.
Instead we have the tired old story: a confident Thatcher spoiling for a fight; a class-war-mad Arthur Scargill with political ulterior motives just moving the miners and our families around the board like chess pieces, while we brainless automatons just did what we were told - except, of course, for the brave scabs who defied the bully boys and heroically went to work.
I had talked to the makers of the film at length about the overtime ban and the impact it was having on coal stocks to the point where the Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB) had warned prime minister Margaret Thatcher that if it stayed in place until August of 1984 a short strike would put the power off nationwide. I explained we planned the strike to begin around September or October 84, when there would be no stocks left. CEGB chair Lord Marshall had assured Thatcher that we would win in weeks, given that scenario. It was they who picked the start date for the strike. National Coal Board chair Ian McGregor actually told Thatcher the date on which it would start, but by that time we had only the choice of ‘fight or die’ anyway. Nothing of this was in the programme despite them having been told about it in great detail.
I explained how the strike started, how it was up and running, with 80% of coalminers out on strike, before the National Union of Mineworkers leadership met to endorse the action, but Scargill still gets credited with having “called the strike” and “called out the miners”. I explained in great detail the question of the ballot and why it was contentious; about the role of the incentive scheme and Labour’s ‘bear trap’ to disarm us. I explained that on the back of a previous ‘hot’ strike, a strike, which had already closed all but three mines nationally, we planned for a ballot. All the forecasts were that we would win it hands down. The wording on the ballot paper had been agreed, the publicity and campaign for a ‘yes’ vote was already on the press. But the members in mass meetings at pitheads, at area offices and the national delegate conference voted not to have a ballot, because we were already on strike and that would send the wrong message to waverers (although this was not the view of Arthur, myself or the leadership in general). Did they put that in? Not a word: Scargill had stopped us having a national ballot, the programme claimed.
I had emphasised that if they put one thing in the film it should be that Scargill did not stop the national ballot, that he did not make any recommendation on that issue, that he did not speak at the national conference about it (being in the chair, he did not even have a vote). They deliberately chose not to include the truth of this or, in other words, they chose to lie. I repeat - this was no mistake or oversight: it was an outright lie.
Incidentally in the programme’s brief coverage of the struggles in the 1970s viewers are given the clear impression that we did not ballot then either - another lie. Also that coal cutting machines were operated from the surface by people in an office! Hysterical.
The story of the creation of a de facto National Police Force - when the Association of Chief Police Officers withdrew its control from regional police committees in a minor, but serious, political coup - is presented as something authorised by parliament. It never was, although it was in response to Thatcher insisting that she wanted to see “effective, rigorous policing” and she, of course, heartily approved of the change. This was a totally unconstitutional action taken by the police - aimed at direct political intervention into what was a trade dispute and acting in (unofficial) support of the government and the NCB. The seismic change in the role of the police is worthy of far more comment than what we got.
Likewise the use of law on social security against the miners’ wives and children and mining pensioners is a horrifying story of cruel deprivation and heartless impunity, which saw families having to crowd-fund to bury their dead. This is one of the most dramatic features of the strike, and it went all but unsaid in the programme.
Thatcher vs the miners gives us the impression that Thatcher herself was riding it all like a surfer surfs a wave, that she was controlling it, that there was never any chance of a victory for the miners. Sheer lies. I had explained to them the three occasions we were within a gnat’s bollock of winning. In April she had conceded everything bar one word - all reserves of coal which could be beneficially developed would be mined. Arthur overplayed our hand when he insisted on removing the word “beneficially”, whereas I would have signed the agreement and ran giggling to the door. The national dock strike twice brought about railworkers’ and seafarers’ solidarity boycotts - a de facto generalised strike - and both of them had her on the ropes and all but ready to concede the whole match. And, of course, the strike vote by the Nacods union of colliery junior managers brought us to the closest and final moment when we had victory in our grasp.
Amazingly the programme mentioned none of the above. How can you claim to be presenting the history of the miners’ strike - “the inside story” - and not mention these crucial developments, which had Thatcher calling cabinet meetings to warn ministers the game might be up?
Bizarrely they conclude the programme by saying the strike was forced to end when “the TUC” withdrew its support! They also allege “only one thousand” miners remain in Britain, which is news to the NUM: I wish they would tell us where they are!
The whole sickly spectacle takes us back to our initial question: why now? Are the miners and our history starting to pose a threat to them again? Is Thatcher’s image in need of a chorus call? I confess to not knowing the answers or the motive for making this programme.
In summary, it was hugely disappointing - a story built on lies and, for people like myself, deceit, which I take as a personal sleight. I now feel used and abused - these people have sold their souls and operate without a shred of integrity or responsibility by not at least having a stab at presenting the facts. Please write in and submit your complaints to Tern TV and Channel 5, if for no other reason than to vent your spleen.
Those readers who want the actual inside story of the miners’ Great Strike and the decade of struggles which followed ought to read my book Ghost dancers, which can be picked up on eBay these days for a couple of quid (or else ordered brand new from me for £10 post paid).
By the way, if people are curious as to why I have not responded on Facebook to this farce, I did - but now I am banned!