Still marching proud

Dave Douglass reviews: David Temple 'The Big Meeting: a history of the Durham Miners' Gala' TUPS books, 2011, pp243,

James Connolly said that the cause of labour was the cause of Ireland, and the cause of Ireland was the cause of labour.

To a great extent this is also true of the politics of coal, and the position of the Durham miners within that. In times past coal, and by extension the miners and their union, was poised over the jugular of the empire and the expanding capitalist ‘workshop of the world’. What miners thought and did mattered and the Durham coalfield was the epicentre of that whole strategic ensemble. Since 1871 and the first Durham Miners’ Gala, through to the days when a quarter of a million miners and their families marched to claim wa reets, through to last July’s 100,000-plus gathering, the ‘Big Meeting’ has always been, and remains, one of Europe’s largest labour movement events. Other mining areas, of course, had galas, demonstrations, picnics or eisteddfods, but none ever compared in size or importance with Durham. It was in Durham where union and labour leaders aspired to appear - for many it was a step towards high office.

Dave Temple’s book is much, much more than the story of the Big Meeting - though a comprehensive history of the event 141 years down the line had been long overdue. Dave uses the gala, the composition of the platform, the content of the speeches, the temperament of the crowd, to examine the working class movement as a whole. This is history the way we learned it - as kids, as political teenagers - from the knee, via the preceding generations and via the banners and their illustrations. Capturing moments from the past, the banners portray yesterday’s leaders, yesterday’s struggles, each decade and each generation adding a little more to the ongoing story: lockouts, strikes, reform, revolution. Illustrations of our work, from picks, ponies and thin seams, to massive tunnelling machines and coal cutters.

This history, like my own, I suppose, rambles, but where? Through branches and tributaries of the main path, into fascinating asides. The rank-and-file miner, the man at the pithead, not simply the leader in the suite. The bloke and his wife in the field rather than just those standing on the platform. The militant movement of miners’ wives organising a county-wide boycott of butchers who put up their prices, and attacking those who defy the common cause. Explosions, disasters, pit work and crack.

The first Big Meetings predated independent working class political representation, and it was radical liberalism that often dominated the platforms. But developing from and alongside that trend were the physical-force wing of northern Chartism, standing for revolution, for passionate internationalism; and the exponents of Irish home rule, a united Poland, Garibaldi’s red shirt campaign … they too joined the voices of moderate Methodism and industrial coexistence. The first galas saw tens of thousands making their way to Durham, many marching 15 miles each way, others hiring fleets of special trains. These were real meetings, with real resolutions and speeches, and votes for and against. The crowds were so great, two platforms were organised simultaneously.

The great desire of the 1870s was that the vindictive and rapacious coal owners would go and the mines would belong to the miners directly. At first Durham miners started to deposit large sums of money with the aim of buying the pits, and running them as cooperatives. Forty years earlier, at the dawn of the union, miners had talked of seizing the collieries and running them themselves.

By 1947, however, we had entered a ‘new era’, with nationalisation of the industry, a leftwing, reforming government and an end to all that had been pre-war. The CPGB spectacularly misjudged the mood of the post-war population and despite a massive growth in membership to 50,000 on the back of the popularity of the Soviet Union’s contribution to defeating fascism, called for a national government under the leadership of Churchill! The masses swept him from No10, voting for Clement Attlee and ‘socialism’ - though it was clear something far more radical had been in the wings.

The book’s chronology of speakers, each selected by ballot of the lodges, is a revelation. Charles Bradlaugh, who spoke on 11 occasions in the 1870s and 80s, was the most popular speaker of the period and darling of the gala crowds, A militant republican, atheist, champion of women’s rights and an independent Ireland, he was a Liberal who passionately campaigned for land reform, and against all imperialist adventures. The far-left, radical and revolutionary wing of the Liberals easily outflanked subsequent moderate leaders of the yet-to-be-formed Labour Party. Together with Annie Besant, his comrade on the National Reformer, Bradlaugh was convicted of publishing material likely to deprave and corrupt in the shape of Charles Knowlton’s work on birth control. Annie was a darling of the gala, despite imploring the miners to reject ruinous strikes and seek arbitration. She was the first woman invited to speak in 1884.

Joseph Cowen advocated working class power, trade unionism, education, cooperation, internationalism - and the bomb and the gun. Prince Peter Kropotkin, Europe’s most famous anarchist, was “probably the most remarkable man to speak” at the Durham Miners’ Gala (in 1882). We could list name after name of Chartists and radicals (and Dave does, of course), and few platforms were without Irish home-rulers.

In 1906 the Labour Representation Committee became the Labour Party proper, and Liberals were ousted from the platform. Keir Hardie has been the patron saint of the gala and miners’ banners nationwide ever since. But those elected to speak included syndicalists and communists. The invitation of communist MP Shapurji Saklatvala in 1928 reflected the great growth in membership and influence of the CPGB following the General Strike, which saw Saklatvala jailed for two months for making a speech in support of striking miners. According to the author, “When Communist Party members marched in uniform formation onto the racecourse in 1928, it marked the end of the united front tactic.” Now the Labour Party was the enemy. When Peter Lee, Labour MP and much loved moderate, attempted to mount the steps of the platform, he found his path barred by uniformed CPGB members.

In 1932, despite depression, 70,000 unemployed miners and many more on short time, 200,000 marched and danced at Durham. The Durham Advertiser reported: “The procession through the streets of bands and banners, followed by the continual stream of humanity, of men carrying their children upon their shoulders and young men and maidens dancing gaily to the music en route, formed a spectacular that it is not soon possible to forget. All cares and worries were thrown to the wind for this one day.”

There was one big change that year: the proudly displayed portraits of Ramsay MacDonald were removed from all the banners, following the formation in 1931 of the national government headed by the Labour traitor: “Some had been painted over with the portrait of a different leader, others displayed just a blank space, while on one a white sheet had been neatly sewn to obliterate his image.”

In 1947, with some former miners’ leaders now in the offices of the National Coal Board, Hugh Dalton, chancellor in the most reforming Labour administration before or since, addressed a crowd of 250,000. If this was to be the dawn of a brave new world, it was met by a strange reception. Dave notes that the reporter from the Durham Advertiser was “perplexed” by the crowd’s reaction:

“It is true the Durham miners were meeting on a day a new era is dawning, but they did not demonstrate [it]; there was no fanatical cheering when the subject was referred to. The chancellor must still be wondering why there was almost complete silence when he proclaimed slowly and deliberately, ‘Today the coal mines belong to you and I’. He waited a moment or two, but there was no vocal response from the crowd, not any sound of hand clapping. This epoch-making declaration was received in stony silence.”

Dave comments correctly that this was not the ‘workers control’ or miners’ ownership we had fought for. Besides which, the self-same gaffers sat behind the self-same desks. In the words of one National Union of Mineworkers lodge in South Shields, “It is just a different play with the same old actors.” Nonetheless, Aneurin Bevan spoke for many when he declared we had seen the back of the hated coal owners: “This gala marks the end of a black era and the beginning of a brighter one. Young miners need never fear unemployment again or suffer victimisation at the hands of vicious colliery owners.” Just two decades later unemployment was stalking the coalfields and mines were going down like nine pins. Four decades down the line and the vicious ‘black list’ was back. A short time later, so were the coal owners.

Despite our cynicism at the time and now the benefit of hindsight, by the 1950s the industry had changed. Wages, conditions and especially safety were improving. Decent pithead baths and canteens, union rights and educational facilities went hand in hand with new council estates, better schools and the belief that the balance of class justice would never tip back to the dark days of the 19th century, or even the 20s and 30s. The galas reflected that optimism, and the belief that this was just the start of unending improvement, reform and redistribution.

By the end of the 50s, ‘youth culture’ had emerged as a distinct phenomenon and young miners embraced the rock era with a passion. The gala was described as a “teddy boys’ picnic” by the local media bemoaning drunkenness and violence. As the 60s wore on, the new outrage was sex: couples in their hundreds were in the woods and on the river banks like some brass band version of Woodstock. But, if truth be known, the gala had always been a place to ‘strut your stuff’ - photos from the 20s and 30s show ‘flappers’ and the Charleston and young men in their straw boaters and Oxford bags.

We are taken via the Big Meeting through the period when the miners storm back centre-stage in the 70s, smashing wage restraints, bringing down a government and retaking the title they were given in the 1920s as the “storm troops of the TUC”. By the Great Strike of 84-85 and the final encounters at the beginning of the 1990s, the Durham miners and the Labour leadership had parted company. Neil Kinnock was the last Labour leader to address the gala in 1989 - to a crowd that simply melted away as he spoke, the contempt was so palpable. Despite the assurances of both Miliband boys that if elected leader they would be on the platform, bringing Labour back to the masses, last year Ed refused to appear unless Bob Crow was ‘uninvited’. With tremendous principle the Durham miners’ leaders told Ed that they did not pick the people who spoke on this platform: the miners did that and they had picked Bob.

The last pit in Durham closed in 1994 - the shafts of the giant coalfield, which still holds stocks of rich coal seams to last half a millennium were sealed and that ought to have been the end of the story. But mining is not just a job; it is not just work at the pit - mining and the miners’ union is woven into the DNA of Northumbria. While old traditions, cultures, values and inspirations are swept away, hard-nosed Thatcherism is embraced by New Labour, traditional industry dies the death, union strength fades and there is no new clarity of vision for socialism, this tradition refused to die. In fact something strange started to happen. The crowds started to return, bands were revived, and banners were reconstructed, resurrected from history by new generations. The trade union movement now marches at the side of the miners - though it did not do so when we needed them most, during the decade of strikes and resistance.

Last July 100,000 people turned out at Durham, for the 144th year of the Big Meeting, ancient old banners with timeless messages were to be seen alongside union giant inflatables and modern images and flags. The big fair ground which left the scene for some years is now back, and big and scary as ever. The chip stalls still fry all day, the drink and songs and dancing are still there, and that platform is still engulfed. The crowd is still attentive, though not always quiet (it never has been), and the speakers are still looked to for inspiration and vision. Dave has done us a great service with this book, and this review could only ever touch on the depth and colour of its story.

As well as the fully comprehensive list of speakers from its inception, The Big Meeting also contains samples of many of their speeches. If I had one criticism. It would be the annoying lack of footnotes and individual references; only generic general source titles are offered.

This year’s Big Meeting is in Durham city on July 14. The first bands will start coming in at 8.30am, so get there early!