The present miners' strike compels an appalled fascination of a kind quite different from that exercised by other industrial disputes. It grips like a thriller. It is partly the question - identified by E.M. Forster as a simple but fundamental aspect of the novel - of what happens next. Will other unions be drawn in? Will we be into power cuts by Christmas? What will Mrs Thatcher do then? It is partly - to take another of Forster's categories - the actors: the interplay of the cheeky chappie from Yorkshire and the lumbering pensioner from Florida. But there are other ingredients not normally present in industrial disputes. There is the daily violence - brought into every home by television - on the picket-lines, where hordes of tough young miners and uniformed policemen sway and grapple in physical combat like Medieval armies. There is the uneasiness about the accountability of the Police. There are the guerrilla raids at night, presumably by striking miners, which leave a trail of damage and destruction. There are the dignity and guts of isolated working miners, and the cowardice of those who telephone their homes to threaten their children. There is the tragic irony that under their feet, as they stand in picket-lines or sit unwillingly at home, the livelihood of many miners is gradually disappearing, as inexorable geological forces, no longer kept at bay by human skill and ingenuity, buckle roadways, crush machinery, obliterate coalfaces and flood whole pits. There is the sombre feeling that in the mining communities a very British characteristic, a comradeship and sense of humour in the face of adversity, a willingness to suffer hardship and deprivation in a good cause, is being exploited and squandered for obscure and questionable ends. And underneath it all, there is something else: dim memories of 1926; the feeling that in Britain perhaps there was never a peace treaty in the class war, just a truce; that the country, split more than ever into two nations by the recession, is evolving in ways that nobody can predict; the first tremors of an earthquake that might merely dislodge a few tiles from the roof - but could also shake the present painstakingly constructed British political edifice to pieces.
LRB 6 September 1984 | PDF Download