Ken Capstick writes: In 1984 Britain had 186 working coalmines and approximately 170,000 coalminers. Today we have four coalmines and around 2,000 miners. They lived in close-knit communities built around and based on employment at the local colliery. Miners were a hardy race of people who faced constant danger in the cause of mining coal but underneath that they were caring, sensitive individuals with a commitment to the communities in which they lived. They looked after their old and young as well as those who were ill or infirm.
They built and provided their own welfare facilities and, well before today’s welfare state was built, miners created their own welfare systems to alleviate hardship. They rallied around each other when times were hard. They recognised the need for cohesion when at any time disaster could strike a family unit or indeed a whole community. The latest pit to close, Maltby in Yorkshire, still has a death and general purpose fund to help fellow miners and their families in times of hardship. In short, miners believed in society.
These values were the exact opposite of those Margaret Thatcher espoused. For miners, greed was a destructive force, not a force for good. From the valleys of Wales to the far reaches of Scotland, miners were, by and large, socialists by nature but this was tempered by strong Christian beliefs. Thatcher’s threat to butcher the mining industry, destroy the fabric of mining communities and in particular the trade union to which miners had a bond of loyalty, was met with the fiercest resistance any government has met in peacetime.
It might just be a scene in a film, but Pete Postlethwaite’s speech at the end of Brassed Off perfectly captures the spirit of the miners and the grievous suffering that Thatcher inflicted on industrial workers across Britain.
The Guardian reports: “I’ll tell you what really annoyed us miners,” said Pete Mansell, sipping a pint of John Smith’s on Monday. “She said we were the enemy within. We weren’t. We were just looking after our lives, our families, our kids and our properties, everything that we ever had. We were fighting for that big style.”
Along with most of the other men drinking in the Black Bull pub in Aughton, Rotherham, the 55-year-old former pit worker had borne witness to the fiercest confrontation in the miners strike at the nearby Orgreave coking plant on 18 June 1984.
Almost 30 years have gone by since Margaret Thatcher characterised those who took part in the “battle of Orgreave” as thugs. But in a village that one drinker said had been “decimated by Thatcher”, the words still cut deep. It is perhaps no surprise that those gathered in the pub were having what they described as a party after hearing about her death.
“I’m not a hypocrite,” said Mansell, who is from the nearby pit village of Swallownest and worked underground for 22 years. “I spoke ill of her when she was alive and I’ll speak ill of her now she’s dead. She doesn’t mean two iotas to me.”