It’s been a bit of an enigmatic week for our society and for British politics. To say its been a week of monumental emotions in socialism is also probably a bit of an understatement.
On Tuesday we saw the passing of Bob Crow, “loved by union members but hated by commuters” (Telegraph Obituary). Wednesday followed with the 30th Anniversary of the UK Miners Strike and now at the end of that same week, Tony Benn has filled his last pipe, switched off his dictaphone and shuffled off to meet his maker (BBC News).
As a rule, the most effective trade unionists have to die before the mainstream media and politicians will say anything decent about them. That’s certainly what has happened to the rail and seafarers’ leader Bob Crow…(Seumas Milne)
The events of the week were probably what prompted the Telegraph blog about the sad death of British Socialism. In the article its author, Dr Tim Stanley an American political historian, highlighted some of the important social and political issues raised by news this week.
Socialism died this week, not once but twice. First with the passing of Bob Crow, the working-class union man. Second, with the passing of Tony Benn, the aristocratic firebrand. And how beautiful their dreams were…(Tim Stanley)
The week might have seen the last few nails being driven into the coffin of socialism but for me and in a way, it is also the anniversary of the death of what we once knew as community policing. I’m not referring to the almost constant renaming of local police ‘teams’ over recent years, I’m referring to the concept of the police forming part of the community – the ‘Peelian Principles’ of ethical policing and policing by consent – Policing By The People For The People.
Tim could be right? Perhaps it is unlikely that UK socialism will ever see the likes of Crow or Benn again? However, with no intended disrespect to either the deceased or their grieving families, I would also pose the questions; would this really be such a loss to British politics? Aren’t the majority of those in politics today, irrespective of political colour as bad/good as each other?
The views of both Crow, an old-school trade unionist and Benn, the iconic politician of our time, were often radical and stirred emotions in many. There was however a much-admired passion for the unstinting personal devotion to a ’cause’ displayed by both and Tony Benn in particular. But even Benn’s views came across as a little too extreme sometimes however; you always knew he was only spouting what he actually believed in. The one thing that you could never accuse Tony Benn of was, changing his stance merely to satisfy public opinion, unlike many of today’s ‘new breed’ politicians. He had to be admired for that if nothing else.
Anthony Neil Wedgwood Benn: A boyish enthusiast recognisable by his pipe, tape recorder and outsized mug of tea, he aroused greater emotions than any contemporary bar Enoch Powell and Margaret Thatcher…(The Telegraph)
The events of this week have also had a paradoxical impact on my personal thoughts, my ideas about what my own life has/has not achieved (so far) and the state of politics and society within our nation. Having been a police officer for thirty years, one who was heavily involved in the policing of the 1984-5 Miners Strike, as well as having been a passionate ‘union’ representative with the Police Federation, perhaps my life has been something of an enigma?
I’m neither a conservative nor a socialist and I’ll certainly never be a bloody liberal. I’ve always found political extremes somewhat abhorrent and misguided, especially when they gain the power to govern. Maybe that’s why I’ve always tended to favour the current form of coalition type government? But even that ‘middle-ground’ type of approach to politics appears to be shafting our society now.
The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings. The inherent virtue of Socialism is the equal sharing of miseries…(Winston Churchill)
It seems to me that, maintaining a position at the top of political leadership tends to breed self-interest and self-importance, and that’s irrespective of political colour. It causes the loss of personal conviction in many people, an erosion of the beliefs once held, prior to reaching the top of their aspirational tree. Much appears to be the same in business but I’ll stick with the political theme here.
I can sometimes agree with left of centre activists who seek to fell the blue tree of conservatism. The so-called “politics of the rich” hasn’t been immune from self-serving greed but surprisingly, neither has socialism. The same activists who preach equality and social values soon take advantage, given opportunity. Many of those who reach the top of the big red tree, suddenly become ever more advantaged than the ‘equals’ their supposedly working for. The three major political parties and most trade unions have all suffered from similar traits, in many of their leaders over many years. Perhaps Churchill was right?
Socialism is a philosophy of failure, the creed of ignorance, and the gospel of envy, its inherent virtue is the equal sharing of misery…(Winston Churchill)
Bob Crow in recent years, like Arthur Scargill in the past, have both helped to define the industrial and socialist turmoil which has dominated the UK. To many Scargill was a social hero but, to probably just as many, he was also an insidious, mischievous and self-serving individual.
Thankfully he’s now almost a recluse however; the string of legal disputes, mostly of a financial nature, between Scargill and the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) still rumble on (see here). Perhaps this tends to evidence many of the latter opinions about him and his type? That question brings me nicely to my observations and comments about the other related and important element of this weeks news.
On Wednesday night I watched – The Miners Strike And Me – a poignant documentary marking the 30th anniversary of the 1984 miners strike. A year of political, industrial and violent turmoil, often described as “one of the bitterest industrial disputes in British history.”
I was there. I spent weeks away from home “Earning Thatcher’s Blood Money” heavily involved in the policing of this dispute. Firstly responding in support of other forces in counties further south, then latterly at the Selby coalfield complex, most of which is now sadly closed.
I was deployed for many hours at each of the mines in the area including; Wistow Mine, Stillingfleet Mine, Riccall Mine, Whitemoor Mine and Gascoigne Wood Mine, the scene of several clashes between pickets and police during the strike. And at the mighty Kellingley Colliery (The Big K), now one of the last few remaining deep coal mines in the UK. In a way I felt proud, helping prevent pickets from intimidating so-called ‘Strike Breakers’ – ordinary people who simply wanted to go to work and provide for their families. Why should anyone have the right to tell them they couldn’t work?
But many people then (and sadly still now), particularly the more militant amongst the miners (and their wives), along with many others within the Trade Union movement, looked upon the dispute as a ‘war’ between the people and the government. It might have been but it also descended into a ‘battle’ of extremes, one that subsequently proved to be futile.
Many of those involved in ‘fighting’ the establishment couldn’t agree at the time, or even afterwards; the strike was seen by many as wrong. The government of the day said it was ‘illegal’ and without a democratic mandate. I can remember talking to many miners at the time, who also (secretly) felt they had been forced into strike action, several admitted to the fact they hadn’t actually voted in favour of the strike.
So many of the union members involved, NUM, NACODS and subsequently the UDM, established in December 1984 by miners who continued working during the strike, couldn’t actually agree on the rights or wrongs of their own dispute. The synthetic vision of workers’ solidarity, one artificially created by union leaders, and Arthur Scargill in particular, it was simply another politically motivated utopian ideal. One designed to demonstrate the power of the people, a power that throughout history, has rarely been achieved.
Margaret Thatcher Made Me A Socialist – Billy Bragg
Back in 1984 I suppose I didn’t really think too much about the background to the strike, or indeed the politics involved. My views were simplistic, I was doing my job, upholding the laws of the land. Many of the activists within socialism then said things like “every man has the right to work and support his family” and “Thatcher is taking that right away from us.” In a way the NUM were doing the very same thing.
Then, like now, a great proportion of the dispute was actually about the aspirational desires and political ideals of the few. The raison d’être of the union ‘elite’ which was directing and driving the actions of the majority. Irrespective of all the negative impacts upon the basic needs and thoughts of the many.
Miners were sold down the river: Good people, honest hardworking trade unionists were taken out on strike in the month of March 1984. Tactically, it was a terrible blunder…(thenorthernecho.co.uk)
During the strike I was reminded of one of my first job interviews after leaving school. I had applied to work for British Rail, I passed the selection process but was subsequently excluded from taking the job – I had refused to join the union. Many unions and employers back then operated under so-called ‘closed shop’ agreements. If you didn’t join the union, you couldn’t have the job.
Despite the fact I have never been happy with the dictorial attitude of many unions and their leadership, I did however understand much of the emotion and anger involved in this particular dispute, despite it all subsequently being futile and mostly pointless.
When you take the controversial Battle Of Orgreave, occurring roughly mid-way through the strike, as just one element of that dispute, you can partly understand some of those angry and passionate views. I was there, I saw the arrest of Arthur Scargill. I didn’t witness any of the gratuitous violence, on both sides of the line, but I’m sad to say I saw it later on TV.
It was reported that there were 93 arrests that futile day, 51 picketers and 72 policemen injured and all for what?
The mines still eventually closed; well over 150 working deep mines in the UK have now been reduced to just three. Many families are still broken thirty years later (see here), despite the efforts of the union members and their wives who were saying at the time, “Thatcher pays police to starve our kids” but did she? It’s so sad that many families and communities are still broken, with fathers hating sons however; the poverty created in those families was just as much the responsibility of Scargill as it was Thatcher.
Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings…(Nelson Mandela)
I have little interest in the origins of the dispute or even, who or what was behind the politics that were responsible for all the pain it caused to so many, financial and physical. I’m also not interested in the theories suggesting elements of the dispute were engineered or politically motivated. What was done is done, it’s time to move on!
All the rights and wrongs aside, the human element of this industrial and social conflict which was evident was what really mattered to me, and still does. It was therefore refreshing to see that the documentary managed to provide a fairly balanced and sensitive overview of the dispute, with many of the sad stories from both sides.
The program briefly covered some of my vivid memories about that time. It also brought home to me one of the enduring legacies of that conflict; the miners’ strike was (probably) a major reasons behind the demise of public trust in our police. As the documentary showed; much of the dispute involved “a bit of pushing and shoving” between pickets and police, a mostly theatrical process. One ‘designed’ and ‘engineered’ to illustrate a political point and importantly, provide more footage for the news.
Once the ‘conflict’ was recorded by the journalists and the filming was ‘in the can’ so to speak, it was back to normality. Standing around the glow of a crackling brazier in the freezing early morning air. One or two cops discussing football, fishing and families etc. over a heart-warming pot of strong Yorkshire tea, with a handful of miners. A convenient break for banter, a friendly refueling process to recharge our batteries. That small collection of cold and weary individuals, united in humanity and divided by political ideals. A welcome break before the union leaders and our senior police commanders (all in effect politically controlled pawns) made us do it all again.
It’s a vision of the reality that was evidenced by news footage during Christmas 1984, a memorable piece which I was actually part of. Miners and police officers happily united together on the picket line, all singing Christmas carols in the cold and falling snow. But even that was (partly) stage-managed. This was the ‘normality’ of the strike, at least until the ‘us and them’ mentality began to prevail, due to the arrival of ‘reinforcements’ from the more urban ‘city’ police forces.
Once vast numbers of cops from the Metropolitan Police and Greater Manchester Police, humorously refered to as ‘Salford Van Hire Constabulary’ by the local cops because of their transport, the rot set in. What had previously been mostly innocuous and good-humoured, suddenly became ever more intense and latterly, also sadly violent. The cops that waved their “Thatcher Blood Money” in the faces of hungry and almost destitute miners, did as much if not more than Thatcher herself, to increase the public/police divide and destroy ‘community policing’ in the UK.
They [cops] caused animosity and anger where little had been evident previously. They actually created a chasm between the public and the forces of law and order, the process of policing by consent that they were sworn to uphold. I have to admit that, up until that point, I had always believed in (and mostly witnessed) the original concepts of UK policing formulated by Robert Peel.
In my opinion the Miners’ Strike was not only responsible for creating the now ever-increasing divide between public and police but also; it sadly opened my eyes to the fact – not all cops worked (work) within the same humility and ethical framework as I did then. The one that most of my colleagues also did then and hopefully most still do now.
It’s kind of ironic when you consider that Sir Robert Peel was as a Conservative. Margaret Thatcher, accused of having “used the police against the public for political aims” (thereby creating divide between police and public), was another Conservative and now, this government (predominantly Conservative), suddenly sees the need to “reconnect the police with the people” (see here).
Any effort to lessen the predominant ‘us and them’ mentality which now prevails in our society has to be commended. Even if the only outcome is to help reduce the angst of our, understandably exuberant but disconnected youth (see below), to help them feel a little more included within our society. Perhaps the politicians are finally getting it, but I sadly doubt it.
This government plans to do what Thatcher couldn’t finish, and destroy what’s left of the public sector. To win we need a united Trade Union movement, with a rank and file network that can co-ordinate to smash the anti-union laws, lead solidarity action, and crucially, act with the Union leaders where possible, but where necessary be absolutely prepared to act without them…(Revolution)
Like Billy Bragg at the time, I was also relatively young and dare I say impresionable. However, unlike Bragg, atcher’s politics didn’t turn me into a socialist, but that’s probably expected. Although my cynical nature also questions if Billy’s interest in the dispute, during the early years of his fledgling musical career then, was wholly about socialism or possibly, nearly as much to do with his own self-promotion. Only he would know the answer to that one?
The most vociferous from either side of our political divide continually espouse their utopian political diatribe; ideas, ideals and dreams about how our society should live and how it should be policed and governed. But that is all most of it is – a collection of ideas and dreams – allowing such extremes to be carried through to their desired conclusion will only serve to create Dystopia!
During my life constant political posturing, along with profoundly self-interested motivation in many political leaders has served to show me one very important thing; very few of them ever have our true interests at heart. It has also served to create a politically apathetic monster – one of ever-increasing proportions!
- The Miners’ Strike and Me: The human price of the miners’ strike (Radio Times)
- The Miners’ Strike and Me, ITV, review (The Telegraph)
- Now we see what was really at stake in the miners’ strike (The Guardian)
- The Great Miners Strike – Lessons for the present (Revolution – Socialist Youth Organisation)
- Lessons from the Miners Strike (Len Tingle – BBC News)
- Obituary: Bob Crow (The Telegraph)
- Obituary: Bob Crow (The Guardian)
- Obituary: Anthony Neil Wedgwood Benn (The Telegraph)
- Obituary: Tony Benn (The Guardian)