Evaluate the changing portrayal of the 1984-5 miners strike in popular culture.

My research project created for HI175: Making History, in the academic year 2016/17, at the University of Warwick.

Abstract

This project explores the portrayal of the 1984-5 miners strike in popular culture. Through the use of visual images, it aims to measure the extent to which Thatcherism ideologically transformed the way we think about social identities and society in Britain. The project first highlights how the strike represented the last surge of working class consciousness and thus should be understood as a struggle to protect not only industrial Britain but a culture of solidarity and collectivism it generated. Therefore, each portrayal of the dispute reflects not only the economic but also the cultural impact of the strike’s failure; that being the demise of class identity and politics, giving way to a more individual world. Moreover, the 3 primary sources used within this project are important agents of history, through which an insight into society's views on the dispute can be traced. Therefore, the sources are in chronological order to illuminate a progression in the extent to which Thatcherism and identity politics resulted in a paradigm shift on class identity in Britain. The first source highlights how a particular view of the strike was constructed as part of Thatcherism’s war on a culture of class identity. Thus, the two following sources should be understood as the successful products of this cultural project in the fact that they represent the demise of the strike, and what it symbolised, to be inherently constructive for society. Consequently, the primary sources within this projects are used in two different ways; not only does each source act as a representation of the past in tracing the decline of collective identity with the strike's failure, but they equally act as sources of the filmmaker’s or artist's view on such demise, which by extension, represents the views of a society on the miners strike as whole. Therefore, this project highlights the magnitude of the cultural phenomenon that is Thatcherism, and how its legacy still continues to have salience. 

Introduction

Recently, Andrew Thorpe in his History of the British Labour Party, described the 1984-5 miners strike as a “catastrophe.” [1] This was in light of the fact that the strike's defeat by Margaret Thatcher’s government led to the mass closure of pits and the decline of industrial Britain and influential trade unions. Thus, the strike and its failure has been understood as a symbol of “the great moving right show”; the rise of Thatcherism and its attack on traditional left wing movements and Labour.[2] However, this evaluation will explore how the miner’s strike represents something more profound than just an indication of changing political and economic circumstances. Instead, it symbolises the beginning of a cultural transformation that Britain underwent in the 1980s. The end result of this phenomenon was not only to change the face of the British working class but to also change the way we perceive and represent class and identity. This is not only in academic writing but also in popular culture, which I view to be an important medium through which a general opinion is best articulated. Therefore, in order to measure the extent to which Thatcherism and its brand of individualism transformed the way that we think about social identities in Britain, I will evaluate the changing portrayal of the miners strike in 3 forms of popular culture, namely the visual media. The past 30 years have seen an increased focus on "the representation of history and our thought about it in visual images and filmic discourse", termed historiophoty. [3]  In light of this, which will be discussed further in the critical reflection, I propose that the use of film in this evaluation qualifies as a primary source of how each filmmaker or artist perceived the world around them and thus, by extension, giving us an insight into the view of a whole society. [4]

 

[1] Andrew Thorpe, A History of the British Labour Party, (London 2015) pp. 225

[2] Stuart Hall, “The Great Moving Right Show”, Marxism Today, (January, 1979)

[3] Hayden White, “Historiography and Historiophoty”, The American Historical Review, Vol. 93 (December 1988), pp. 1193

[4] Warren I. Susman, “Film and History: Artifact and Experience”, Film and History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies, Vol. 15, (May 1985) pp. 29

"Tell you what Maggie- let's call it a draw"

 

 Head on platter.jpg

 

The MAC cartoon entitled "Head on a Platter" was published in the right-wing newspaper The Daily Mail a day after the strike officially ended. The artist Stanley McMurty, who still draws for the paper, has recently been accused of expressing racist and sexist tendencies through his cartoons, highlighting how this representation is likely to encapsulate an unsympathetic view of the strike.[1] Indeed, the cartoon shows that it is Arthur Scargill, the leader of the National Union of Miners, with his head on a platter. Margaret Thatcher is standing over him with her hands on her hips, evoking a likeness of a mother disciplining her petulant child. This represents the dominance of Thatcher’s government in forcing the strikers back to work compared to the relative weakness of Scargill and the NUM. Moreover, Scargill’s speech at the bottom of the cartoon “tell you what Maggie- let’s call it draw” highlights how even when he has been mortally wounded, with his head literally severed from his body, Scargill’s fanatic character would not admit defeat. This reflects how in reality the strike was plagued with divisions and conflict. The NUM executive under Scargill did not hold a strike ballot, resulting in some miners, like in Nottinghamshire, refusing to come out. [2] David Howell argues that this “fragmentation of the union accorded with Thatcherite ambitions” which, although I would argue against viewing the failure of the strike to follow a pre-conceived government agenda, this does shed further light on the source in highlighting how it was very much within Thatcher's and the right-wing media's interests to emphasise the fanatic character of the strike’s leaders.[3] This demonstrates how the source aims to construct a specific narrative of the strike; it projects an image of a movement plagued with extremists and radicals that were a danger to society, as encapsulated with Thatcher’s own description of the miners strike to be “the enemy within.”[4] However, why were Thatcher’s government and the right wing press so intent on constructing such a narrative? According to Jon Lawrence and Florence Sutcliffe- Braithwaite, since 1975, Thatcher had embarked on a political and cultural project to eradicate class politics from public discourse.[5] Indeed, a stark difference can be identified in the political rhetoric of the 1970s and the 1980s. For example, in the Conservative party's election broadcast in 1984, there was no evidence of old class stereotypes, suggesting that Britain and it's political discourses had come a long way from a time when politician Micheal Meacher looked forward to a "coming class struggle", and that Thatcherism had “wielded the power of office to weaken the bastions of class discourse.”[6] Thus this further sheds light on the purpose of the source; not only does it comment on the catastrophe of Scargill and the strike but also should be understood as a key component of Thatcherism's cultural campaign to decontaminate society of the discourses of collectivism, solidarity and class struggle, which the strike and the trade union movement represented. Therefore, the failure of the strike and its subsequent representations in popular culture reflect not only it's economic and cultural impact but also further facilitate a paradigm shift on social identities in Britain. 

 

[1] Patrick Butler, “Daily Mail apologies over ‘racist’ cartoon”, The Guardian, 23rd August 2001, https://www.theguardian.com/media/2001/aug/23/dailymail.nhsstaff, (Accessed: 9/5/17)

[2] Andrew Thorpe, A History of the British Labour Party, (London 2015) pp. 225

[3] Daniel Howell, “Defiant Dominoes: working miners and the 1984-5 miners strike” in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, (Cambridge, 2012) pp. 150

[4] Iconic, "Margaret Thatcher Speaks About the Miners Strike on its 285th Day", Online Video Clip, YouTube, YouTube, 8th November 2010,  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uhsl0QHSDWE (Accessed: 9/5/17)

[5] Jon Lawrence and Florence Sutcliffe- Braithwaite, “Margaret Thatcher and the Decline of Class Politics”, in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, (Cambridge, 2012) pp.138

[6] Jon Lawrence and Florence Sutcliffe- Braithwaite, “Margaret Thatcher and the Decline of Class Politics”, in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, (Cambridge, 2012) pp. 140

 

 

 

The Comic Strip Presents....The Strike

Details

"The film is set in the 80s but it feels more like the 30s."

“The Comic Strip Presents... The Strike” was aired in January 1988 and is a satirical depiction of a Hollywood film company arriving in an obscure Welsh mining village to make a movie about the dispute. What is significant about the clip is the juxtaposition between the Hollywood producers and their surroundings. They are dressed in colourful clothes and drive flashy cars, thus symbolising the rise of the financial sector and consumer culture in post-industrial Britain. This completely contrasts with the mining village which is dreary and desolate, symbolising the demise of British industry. Despite the fact that the strike only ended less than 3 years previous, the clip really presents the view that mining, and indeed industrial Britain was a relic of the past.[1] This is encapsulated by the producer when he says “the film is set in the 80s but it feels more like the 30s.” Indeed, this reflects the economic reality in Britain. By the end of the 1980s, Thatcher had privatised most industry such as British Gas and National Power, resulting in high unemployment. [2] According to Mike Raco, privatization and de-industrialisation changed the relationship between the state and the citizen; no longer was it the case that the state supported the citizen such as providing jobs or social housing.[3] This left the citizen dependent on the will of private operators, therefore transforming the nature of democratic governance in Britain from a culture of community to a more individualistic social environment. Thus Britain’s changing economic landscape transcended into culture, changing the nature of and the outlook on the relationship between the state and the citizen. This cultural transformation is reflected in the underlying metaphors of the clip. It depicts how Hollywood producers are commercialising the strike thus transforming it into a piece of entertainment which to them seems its only real value. This illuminates how the source acts as a representation of history by highlighting how mining and the experience of collectivity and class solidarity it generated is viewed to be a thing of the past, and even unimportant, replaced by a more superficial and individualistic culture, as symbolised by the film company taking over the mining village. Moreover, although the clip does satirise the affected producers, it equally satirises the mining community and its culture of solidarity, as demonstrated by the depiction of the writer, an ex-miner, as a blithering idiot. This reflects how Thatcherism's attempt to eradicate class discourse was successful in enforcing this ideological transformation on Britain, as even the alternative writers of the “The Comic Strip….” have portrayed the strike, industrial Britain, and a culture of class identity as a relic of the past and importantly should stay in the past. [4]

 

 

[1] Aditya Sarkar, “Lecture on the Film ‘Still the Enemy Within’, HI175: Making History, (University of Warwick University, 2016) 

[2] Matthew Hilton, Consumerism in Twentieth Century Britain: The Search for a Historical Movement, (Cambridge, 2003) pp. 12

[4] Mike Raco, State-led privatisation and the demise of the democratic state: welfare reform and localism in an era of regulatory capitalism, (Farnham, 2013) pp. 3

[5] William Cook, The Comedy Store, (London 2001) pp. 12

Billy Elliot

Details

"Billy Dances"

The film Billy Elliot was released in 2000, 15 years after the strike and set in the north-east during the dispute. The clip documents the moment when Billy’s ballet teacher confronts his father and brother and tells them that Billy has been taking ballet lessons, to which the two men ban Billy from dancing again. What is significant about the clip is the juxtaposition between Billy, who represents individuality in his desire to express himself through dance, and the pit village, representing the world of collective class identity and solidarity. Billy is constantly moving; either dancing, kicking or running, whilst his surroundings remain still, characterised by the rows of endless terraced houses, the looming chimneys and the iron barrier that stops Billy from running any further, evoking a sense of uniformity and oppressiveness. This symbolises how Billy is a moving force in a static world, suggesting that a culture of working class identity and consciousness is stuck in the past, suppressing Billy’s individual identity which is the future. This is reflected in the lyrics of the background song; “a ghost of a steam train/ echoes down my track”, highlighting how industrial Britain with it's working class identity was now a “ghost” of what it was. This highlights how the clip overall portrays the strike to be a conflict between individual and collective identity; reflecting how in reality, this form of collectivism was crumbling away, like Billy’s surroundings. Indeed, in the early 1970s, Carol Hanisch and other feminists formulated the idea of “the personal is political” and pioneered in the 1980s a shift to “identity politics.”[1] This was a response to the fact that there was an increasing demarcation of the working class, with the rise of women and immigrants entering the labour force who felt marginalised by the old style class politics of the Left.[2] As Lynne Segal argues, it was during this time that identity politics, the idea that in order to achieve liberation you had to organise around your personal identity rather than your class, became popular. [3] This coincided with the rise of Thatcherism, that also advocated individualism in order to undermine the language of class identity.[4] Therefore the source, by depicting class identity to be literally crumbling away, highlights this paradigm shift in ideological outlook of Britain that had begun in the 1970s by understanding the strike as the final struggle to protect working class consciousness and identity that was deteriorating in the face of both Thatcherism and identity politics. Moreover, this sheds light on the clip as it can be interpreted as the very product of this ideological transformation by representing the strike in this way. The source not only depicts the strike and its failure to represent the demise of collective identity and the rise of individual identity but importantly the way it presents this to be an inherently constructive thing for society says a lot about the combined power of Thatcherism and identity politics. The clip represents collective, working class identity to be oppressive, a relic of the past and unimportant, which is indicative of how culturally and ideologically phenomenal Thatcherism was in changing the way we think about class and social identities in Britain. This overshadows the fact that privatisation and de-industrialisation destroyed communities and that the strike was equally about fighting state oppression. As Diarmaid Kelliher asserts, little attention has been paid to the alliance between a group of LGBT activists and mining communities in Wales, who were united in a shared experience of oppression of their communities by Thatcher’s government. [5] This highlights the extent to which Thatcherism’s narrative of the strike, as exemplified by the three sources in totality, has been so heavily ingrained in popular opinion, reflecting the underlying salience of this ideology of individualism in the new millennia.  

 

[1] Trevor Harris and Monia O'Brien Castro, Preserving the sixties: Britain and the 'decade of protest', (Basingstoke, 2014) pp. 7

[2] Eric Hobsbawn,"The Forward March of Labour Halted", Marxism Today (Sept 1978) pp. 282-3

[3] Lynn Segal, " A Local Experience" in Sheila Rowbotham, Lynn Segal and Hilary Wainwright, Beyond the Fragments: Feminism and the Making of Socialism (3rd edition, London, 2013) pp. 279

[4] David Cannadine, Class, (London, 2000) pp. 23

[5] Diarmaid Kelliher, ‘Solidarity and Sexuality: Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners’, History Workshop Journal (April 2014), 77:1, pp. 250

Conclusion

To conclude, the three sources each represent the 1984-5 miners strike as a sociological and cultural turning point. As the MAC cartoon encapsulates, the trade union movement and working class identity were by the end of the dispute considered to be deteriorating and disembodied from the “ordinary” working person.[1] This is further developed with the clips from “The Comic Strip Presents…” and Billy Elliot, that encapsulate how the strike symbolised the final attempt to protect the generation of working class consciousness and identity against the rising forces of individualism and identity politics. Thus, through the lens of popular culture, a paradigm shift in ideology and outlook in Britain can be illuminated; that the failure of the strike marks the point at which class politics and identity demised, becoming a relic of a past industrial world. Moreover, the three sources combined show a progression in the success of Margaret Thatcher’s cultural project to “explode once and for all the socialist model of class” from public discourse.[2] The MAC cartoon lays the groundwork for Thatcherism's cultural project by constructing the strike and what it symbolised to be the "enemy within" society. Thus, "The Comic Strip" and Billy Elliot's representations of the strike should be seen as the product of this. "The Comic Strip" represents class identity and consciousness to not only be a thing of the past but should be relegated to the history books. Billy Elliot goes even further to portray class identity as not only crumbling in the face of Thatcherism and identity politics but to suppress individual identity that was the future; thus it's destruction, symbolised by the failure of the miner's strike, was an inherently good thing for the progression of society. Through these forms of popular culture, we can measure the success of Thatcherism's ultimate legacy in transforming the way we think about social identities today.[3] 

[1] S. Hall and M. Jacques (eds.), The Politics of Thatcherism (London, 1983)

[2] Jon Lawrence and Florence Sutcliffe- Braithwaite, “Margaret Thatcher and the Decline of Class Politics”, in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, (Cambridge, 2012) pp.138

 [3] As exemplified by Owen Jones, Chavs: the demonization of the working class, (London, 2012) 

 

Critical Reflection

In devising what area of study I wanted to focus upon in this evaluation, I initially was very interested in why there was such a difference in the type of society and structure that my parents lived in and the society that I live in today. Having been influenced by the 2014 film Still the Enemy Within, I identified the 1984-5 miners strike and its defeat as marking not only point where Britain structurally transformed from industrial to post-industrial based society but also a point of ideological transformation in the way that we perceive class and social identities. Therefore in order to trace this transformation I decided to use the visual media, namely clips from films or television programmes, as the prism through which to evaluate this paradigm shift. Advised by my seminar tutor to employ a diverse range of sources, I used a cartoon from The Daily Mail newspaper, published a day after the strike ended. I then used this representation of the strike to illuminate how a specific portrayal of the dispute was constructed to project how class identity and politics was a distillation of everything that was destructive where British society was concerned. By conceiving the purpose of the cartoon in this way, I was led to view that the way the dispute is represented in my two further primary sources, both clips from film, were the products of this construction. In this sense, I understood the system of representation the filmmakers used was key to their ideological vision and thus by extension, giving us an insight into the view of a whole culture. [1] However, a problem I encountered with this methodological approach is grappling with the fact that these sources are essentially pieces of entertainment, limiting the extent to which they represent a whole emerging value system as they are simply constructions of the filmmaker. Yet verbal or written discourses are also products of unique systems of socio-cultural, political and economic discourses that are formed at a particular time, thus are constructed. Therefore, in the words of Hayden White, imagistic evidence should be understood as a discourse in its own right.[2] This strengthens the validity of my assumption that the visual media can be used to gauge the belief system of a culture or society. To further develop this evaluation without such space constraints, I would have explored the continued resonance of Thatcher’s cultural project today, in particular with the release of the 2014 film Pride. It documents the solidarity of a group of LGBT activists with the miners, suggesting that perhaps there has been a re-evaluation of the symbolic significance of the strike and that Thatcherism’s cultural legacy has not totally succeeded in ideologically transforming Britain.

 

[1] Warren I. Susman, “Film and History: Artifact and Experience”, Film and History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies, Vol. 15, (May 1985) pp. 29

[2] Hayden White, “Historiography and Historiophoty”, The American Historical Review, Vol. 93 (December 1988), pp. 1193

Bibliography

Primary Sources

"Head on a Platter" by Stan McMurtry, 1984. From Hayley Wood, "Margaret Thatcher's Caricatured Career", Mass Humanities, 11th April 2013. http://masshumanities.org/ph_margaret-thatchers-caricatured-career/ (Accessed 4th May 2017) 

 The Comic Strip Presents...The Strike. Dir. Peter Richardson. Channel 4, 1988. Television Programme. 

Billy Elliot. Dir. Stephen Daldry. Universal Pictures and Focus Features, 2000. Film. 

Secondary Sources- Books

David Cannadine, Class, (London, 2000)

 William Cook, The Comedy Store, (London 2001) 

 Jack Dromey & Graham Taylor, Grunwick: the workers’ story, (London, 1978) 


S. Hall and M. Jacques (eds.), The Politics of Thatcherism (London, 1983)

Trevor Harris and Monia O'Brien Castro, Preserving the sixties: Britain and the 'decade of protest', (Basingstoke, 2014)

Matthew Hilton, Consumerism in Twentieth Century Britain: The Search for a Historical Movement, (Cambridge, 2003)

Ben Jackson and Robert Saunders, Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, (Cambridge, 2012) 

Owen Jones, Chavs: The Demonisation of the working class, (London, 2012) 

Mike Raco, State-led privatisation and the demise of the democratic state: welfare reform and localism in an era of regulatory capitalism, (Farnham, 2013)

Robert Rosenstone, History on Film/Film on History, (New York, 2012)

 Sheila Rowbotham, Lynn Segal and Hilary Wainwright, Beyond the Fragments: Feminism and the Making of Socialism (3rd edition, London, 2013)

Joe Rogaly, Grunwick (Harmondsworth, 1977)


Andrew Thorpe, A History of the British Labour Party, (London 2015)

Secondary Sources- Articles in Scholarly Journals 

Linda McDowell, Sundari Anitha, Ruth Pearson, ‘Striking Narratives: class, gender and ethnicity in the ‘Great Grunwick Strike’, London, UK, 1976–1978’, Women's History Review, 23:4 (2014)

Eric Hobsbawn, 'The Forward March of Labour Halted', Marxism Today (Sept 1978) 

Diarmaid Kelliher, ‘Solidarity and Sexuality: Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners’, History Workshop Journal (April 2014), 77:1

Warren I. Susman, “Film and History: Artifact and Experience”, Film and History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies, Vol. 15, (May 1985)

Hayden White, “Historiography and Historiophoty”, The American Historical Review, Vol. 93 (December 1988)

Secondary Sources- Websites

Patrick Butler, “Daily Mail apologies over ‘racist’ cartoon”, The Guardian, 23rd August 2001, https://www.theguardian.com/media/2001/aug/23/dailymail.nhsstaff, (Accessed: 9/5/17)

Iconic, "Margaret Thatcher Speaks About the Miners Strike on its 285th Day", Online Video Clip, YouTube, YouTube, 8th November 2010,  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uhsl0QHSDWE (Accessed: 9/5/17)

 Secondary Sources- Lectures

Aditya Sarkar, “Lecture on the Film ‘Still the Enemy Within’, HI175: Making History, (Warwick University 31/10/16)

Laura Schwartz, “Class”, HI153: Making of the Modern World, (Warwick University, 2017)

Secondary Sources- Images

Image 1: A photograph of a clash between striking miners and police, 1984. From Peter Bradshaw, "Still the Enemy Within Review- a documentary as gripping as a thriller", The Guardian, 2nd October 2014. 

Image 2: A photograph of police flooding the village of Easington Colliery, 1984. From Helen Shaw, "Miner's Strike 1984", ChronicleLive, 10th February 2014, http://www.chroniclelive.co.uk/lifestyle/nostalgia/gallery/miners-strike-1984-6559932, (Accessed: 28/5/17) 

Image 3: A still from the opening credits of "The Comic Strip Presents...The Strike", 1988. From Geriant Thomas, "Banwen Comic Strip presents Strike", Online Video Clip, YouTube, 9th June 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CH36XRaDX-Q, (Accessed: 28/5/17) 

Image 4: A still from Billy Elliot, 2000. From BBC Film, "Billy Elliot", BBC, 6th April 2009, http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcfilms/film/billy_elliot/gallery/#image0, (Accessed 29/5/17) 

Image 5: The cover of Owen Jone's 2011 Chavs, (London 2011) 

Image 6: The front page of the Daily Express, From Macer Mall, "4 Million Scrounging Families in Britain", The Daily Express, 2nd September 2011.