It’s a rare occasion that I leave the house other than to go to work, Greggs, or the pub. I went to see a photography exhibition this week.
Entitled No Redemption and showing at Northumbria University, it is a documentary by Keith Pattison of the miners strike in 1984/85. Pattison was commissioned by Sunderland Artists Agency to document the strike as it affected one small community in County Durham; Easington Colliery. He lived among the community and recorded the strike from beginning to end.
Pattison was accepted by the community as they wanted him to show their perspective, and this proximity to the miners and their families helped him create many striking images. He was present on the picket line, in the streets of the town, in the miners welfare and in their homes. The shots taken on the picket line were particularly effective, as he witnessed miners being arrested and police escorting working miners home. Some shots were slightly blurred and out of focus which gave the impression of a photographer hard at work, battling with his camera to capture an expression on a face and the feeling of a moment.The shots showed how life had changed for local people in the village; police guarding street corners as old women shopped and a school girl returning from school with police marching past. This kind of photo puts extraordinary events into the context of the ordinary.
One of the first things that struck me, upon seeing small children innocently caught up in a very adult world, was that I could have been one of those children. I was 4 at the time. It’s strange to think that this was going on as I was growing up, not just in a village down the road but all over Britain.
I find fault with the exhibition at this point, as the images were all in black and white. If the shots were in colour, I think it would have brought the events to life. It was in my lifetime, it was the 80s. Displaying the events in black and white ages them, and perhaps keeps them in the past. At the time a lot of photographers were shooting in colour as part of the “social realism” style of the day. This project would have worked well in colour.
Still, the exhibition got me thinking again about the strike. I was too young at the time to appreciate what was happening but as I’ve taken more interest in society, politics, history, the media, class issues and all that kind of crap, the strike fascinates me.
The strike initially began as a response to Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Government, announcing that many pits across the country had become unprofitable and would be closed. Many communities, especially in North East England, relied almost entirely on the pits. Without the pits there would be mass unemployment. Angry and fearful, many miners in the affected areas went on strike. Supported by their union, the National Union of Mineworkers led by Arthur Scargill, the strike was declared a national strike.
As it progressed the strike became increasingly bitter. Stung by a previous strike which effectively brought down the previous Conservative government, Margaret Thatcher brought down the full weight of the state upon the miners, their union and its representatives. She was determined to bring national industries into a free market and to crush the trade unions that prevented it.
Police were drafted in from around the country to oppress protests and used brutal and violent tactics, resulting in the injury and arrest of thousands of miners. MI5 was used to spy on union officials. The courts were used to freeze the assets of the union. Welfare benefits to strikers families were stopped. The right wing media condemned the strike on a daily basis, often editing events to make the strikers look bad.
Thatcher declared war on the striking miners and the union, calling them “the enemy within”. Scargill declared this to be class warfare, and for many miners struggling to feed their families and heat their homes whilst the middle classes thrived, it was. Millions of pounds of public money was spent on policing the strike – money that could have been spent on supporting the mining industry.
Support for the strike was much stronger in working class areas. Scargill was a hero to many, refusing to back down in the face of severe personal provocation from a government hellbent on destroying working class communities. To the ruling classes, he was a dangerous revolutionary intent on overthrowing their way of life with the intention of housing the Queen in a council house and creating a Marxist superstate.
Of course, there is only so long that a family can do without money, and the miners had to return to work. And of course many mines were closed, many jobs were lost, communities were torn apart and broken and lives ruined. The coal industry was privatised along with many other industries and unions damaged forever. Thatcher got her wish. The government was free to run the country at the expense of the poor for the benefit of the rich.
As in 1984, Britain in 2012 is divided along class lines. The Conservative led coalition government is continuing what Thatcher started, with a constant stream of policies protecting the privileges of their own class whilst simultaneously attacking the vulnerable working classes. The police continue to oppress demonstrations with brutal force and the right wing media continues to demonise those who go on strike to protect their livelihoods and their futures.
So when David Cameron talks about “Broken Britain”, he would do well to remember it was none other than his idol that broke it. But then, that’s exactly what they want, because when Britain breaks, it’s the poor people that suffer. And they ain’t poor.
Pattison’s exhibition is showing until 27th January. Here’s a link to the images if you can’t make it…