In March this year, 35 years to the month since the end of the miners' strike, environmentalists were caught dressing up as miners. Their media stunt was intended to protest against a proposed expansion to the Bradley coal mine in County Durham. Martin Raine, a real miner working at the site, was quoted saying: ‘It is our jobs at stake here and instead of allowing us a voice the BBC showed fake miners with fake cardboard helmets and interviewed a student bussed in by Extinction Rebellion who got the basic facts wrong.’
Miners (and former miners) are no more likely to join eco-protests against mining jobs than Thatcherites are to sign up to Extinction Rebellion. Then again, according to Boris Johnson’s latest comments, Margret Thatcher was an early incarnation of Greta Thunberg with a handbag. In an interview, Johnson thanked Thatcher for closing 'so many coal mines’, paving the way for the ‘smooth’ transition his government are planning away from fossil fuels. No doubt the police at Orgreave were really showing their care for the planet as they horse-charged and truncheoned miners.
Johnson’s misfired quip has led to something of a backlash. Led by Starmer and Sturgeon, politicians, activists and pundits are queuing up to demand an apology. It was a crass and tone-deaf remark — I was furious and agreed with Coffee House regular Patrick O’Flynn that Johnson was ‘taking the piss out of communities that were torn apart’. Johnson laughed and told reporters ‘I thought that would get you going’. It is a telling Westminster bubble moment that Johnson’s desire to have a dig at green-leaning journalists by associating their eco obsessions with their hated bete noir in Thatcher mattered more to him than pointing out the disregard for the devastation of red wall communities. His careless contempt for the lives of working-class people is all too obvious in this throwaway comment.
However, that dull, ubiquitous demand that the Prime Minister should say sorry for ‘offensive’ comments misses the point on many levels. Although Johnson is leading the green charge, all the major parties are jockeying to prove their net-zero credentials — demanding the eradication of the coal-mining industry in the UK and internationally is par for the course. Lest we forget, Labour recently opposed a new coal mine in Cumbria for environmental reasons (to hell with local jobs).
Today’s announcement of even higher energy bills is a small taste of what is to come. Logically we should have the cheapest energy in Europe, as we have £60 billion in gas reserves, but there’s a cross-party consensus on banning extraction. The consequences mean bans on gas boilers, mandated expensive heat pumps; a general attack on driving and a decarbonised cars that will cost drivers billions. Eye-watering amounts of public money (the OBR’s estimated cost of £1.4 trillion is said to be significantly short) are pledged on what will effectively reign in all the necessary ingredients for economic growth and levelling up. If you want an example of modern-day, top-down policies that will decimate living standards and industrial growth, never mind Thatcher, look no further than the carbon-reducing obsessions of almost all of today’s political elite.
While I don’t want Johnson to make a bad faith, grovelling mea culpa (in an era of U-turns, he may have done this by the time you’re reading this), perhaps we should demand he be sent on a history course instead. The real outrage of his comment was to ape the modern fashion for presentism and historical illiteracy — so narcissistically trapped in the now that he, like many of the ‘woke’ set he likes to lampoon, can only project backwards. His idiotic comments rewrite the miners’ strike from the point of view of current preoccupations and prejudices.
The closure of the mining industry was not an early heroic Tory strike against climate change, and striking miners enduring a year of hardships did not do so for the love of extracting fossil fuel. Understanding the past is important in order to make sense of the present. Whatever side you were on (I was firmly with the miners’), we must recognise that the strike was a battle for power in British society — a political struggle between the state and the organised working class. It was long, bitter and divided not only mining communities but the country at large. And its outcome — the sad defeat of the working class as a collective force — was a defining event that did much to shape British politics as we know it today.
The Thatcher government aimed to break the power of the traditional labour movement by defeating the strongest of the trade unions. To do so, it deployed every arm of the state against the striking miners. Welfare payments were cut to effectively starve strikers back to work. Paramilitary police occupied mining communities, arresting 10,000 miners, fighting pitched battles and blocking motorways. What started as a 100,000 workers striking for jobs became a broader struggle as the labour movement realised there was far more at stake than the right to work down the pits.
It should also be remembered as an event in which working-class people refused to be defined by government demonisation. They may have lost, but miners proved they were not ‘the enemy within’, as Thatcherites attempted to label them. They may have lost their jobs and were impoverished and abandoned, but they fought to defend themselves and their political interests. They retained the dignity of not being a walkover for the powers that be. As this government should know, when a remainer establishment tried to smear Brexit voters and walkover their votes, they too fought back — and won by using a Boris-led Conservative party as a vehicle to ensure their wishes were not overturned. Those votes are on loan. Spitting in their faces with puerile in-jokes makes that loan even more shaky.
The MP Steve Baker recently warned that without a full and frank explanation of the costs and changes brought on by net-zero policies, ‘there will be a terrible revolt’. With the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow in November and little public consent for policies related to it, perhaps Johnson has done us a favour by reminding us of the miners’ strike — for those who want to know what a full-scale revolt looks like. Picket line duty, anyone?