In his groundbreaking new history, Robert Gildea interviews the miners and their families who fought to defend themselves against Thatcher’s goverment. Exploring mining communities from South Wales to the Midlands, Yorkshire, County Durham, and Fife, Gildea shows how the miners and their families organized to protect themselves, and how a network of activists mobilized to support them.
In this blogpost, part of the 50 Years in 50 Books series for our 50th Anniversary, Robert Gildea shares how he collaborated with miners and their families to record their oral histories and tell their stories in his book Backbone of the Nation.
Article by Robert Gildea
The Miners’ strike of 1984-5 was the last great stand of the organised industrial working class in Great Britain. Miners, the ‘backbone of the nation’ who had sustained Britain’s coal-based economy since the Industrial Revolution, found themselves fighting for their jobs and communities against a programme of pit closures brought in by the Thatcher government as much for political as for economic reasons.
Backbone of the Nation demonstrates the huge resilience of the miners, their families and mining communities during the year-long strike; during which they received no wages and paltry benefits only for their children. The miners sent flying pickets to persuade the minority of non-striking miners, mainly in Nottinghamshire, to come out on strike. Working miners were protected by police who did not hesitate to arrest pickets. Brought before the courts and convicted, they were often then sacked by the National Coal Board. After the violent defeat of the mass picket at Orgreave coking works near Rotherham on 18 June 1984 the government stepped up the offensive. Police occupied mining villages in order to intimidate families and force a return to work.
But mining communities did not surrender. They set up support groups which raised funds nationally and internationally in order to provide daily soup kitchens and weekly food parcels for mining families. Supplies and solidarity came from left-wing activists, Inner London teachers, Fleet Street printers, white collar unions, and gay activists. The book tells the true story of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) as dramatised in the 2014 film Pride. Miners’ wives came into their own, growing in confidence, organising, speaking at public meetings, joining picket lines when their men were arrested. Always matriarchs, they now developed a working-class feminism.
After the defeat of the strike in 1985 pits closed rapidly. Some former miners were backlisted for their activism, many remained unemployed, most were reduced to lower-skilled, more casual jobs in factories or services as globalisation brought in privatisation, outsourcing and ended the recognition of trade unions. Sons who would naturally have followed their fathers down the mine, struggled to find work. Former mining communities were hollowed out. Shops, schools and recreation facilities closed. Poverty, ill-health and drug use all increased.
Having assumed a narrative of decline and devastation, however, I found many instances of reinvention and redemption. Some former miners and especially miners’ wives, who had left school at fifteen, went back to college and trained for careers such as social workers and probation officers or found work in children’s homes and care homes. While the government abandoned former mining areas to devastation, those who had fought the strike and lost dedicated themselves to the repair of their communities. They launched projects to protect the mining heritage and educate younger generations about their mining past. Some of their children qualified as teachers, nurses and GPs in order to give back to their communities as well. Both parents and children became involved in local fundraising and some were elected as local councillors and even MPs to protect and advance their struggling communities. They fought political battles, launching the Orgreave Truth and Justice campaign in 2012 and obtaining a pardon for sacked and criminalised miners in Scotland in 2022.
The idea for this book came to me quite suddenly on 8 April 2013, the day Margaret Thatcher died. Listening to the radio, I was struck by the fact that an overwhelming majority of politicians, even Conservatives who had unseated her in 1990, sang her praises as a giant second only to Churchill. The only dissident voices were those of the miners. They had not forgiven her for destroying their jobs and communities. At the time I was writing a book about the French Resistance and began to wonder what British resistance might look like. It occurred to me that I might find parallels in the Miners’ Strike forty years later that mobilised men, women and children from South Wales to Central Scotland in defence of their way of life. As I wrote, however, I became increasingly aware of the links between the abandonment of former mining communities, the Brexit vote and the collapse of the Red Wall in 2019.
This was not going to be a ‘top down’ story involving politicians and the press but a ‘bottom up’ story of ordinary miners, their comrades, families and communities. Over the methodology of oral history, which I had practised for twenty five years, I did not hesitate. Between 2019 and 2021 – interrupted twice by Covid lockdowns – I undertook 122 interviews with 148 people in former mining communities of the South Wales Valleys, South Yorkshire, County Durham and Fife. I did interviews in Nottinghamshire, where the strike was highly divisive, with both striking and strike-breaking miners, and in Leicestershire, where only a ‘Dirty Thirty’ went on strike. I also interviewed former activist supporters in London, Manchester and Durham and two American women miners from the Appalachians who had come over to support the strikers. In each case the life history interview explored the family of origin, childhood, schooling and ambitions the interviewees, their early work life and own family, their role in the strike and their employment, family life and politics after the strike. The purpose was to tell the story of the strike from their own viewpoint and in their own voices, citing them extensively in language that is evocative, rich and often emotional.
The book is a historical endeavour but also a political project. For history-writing is a battlefield, which decides who gets to tell their story and which story comes out on top as the dominant narrative. History is generally written by the victors, from the official archives, by their own historians. In Britain, the establishment history has been called ‘our island story’, which presents the continuous growth of British freedom and power from the Anglo-Saxons to the present. To the critical eye it is exceptionalist, patriotic, even nationalistic, often colonialist and imperialist. Against this has been written the history of workers, women, the LGBTQ+ community, indigenous, colonised and migrant communities, which often struggle to find their own record, voice and historians. E.P. Thompson, publishing The Making of the English Working Class in 1963, denounced ‘the enormous condescension of posterity’ towards working people, which he was seeking to redress.
This book, in a sense, is a study of the unmaking of the same working class. Its loss of industrial work, of trade union organisation, of close-knit communities, of a belief in itself. Their voices tell of difficulty, struggle, suffering, a sense of betrayal, anger and sadness. But they also express pride, generosity, solidarity, a sense of social justice, humour, spirit and resilience, a refusal to be beaten. Interviews often generated a huge amount of emotion, not only in the person interviewed, but also in me.
The study is based on a trust that was formed with the former miners and their families. I am very grateful to the intermediaries who helped me make contact with those who might agree to an interview. Not everyone said yes. One striking Nottinghamshire miner refused to speak to me when he discovered that I was also interviewing a miner he called a ‘super-scab’.
The result is the fruit of a very precious collaboration and for me the greatest compliment has come from former miners and their families who find their own stories and voices in the book. Siân James, a miner’s wife from the Swansea Valley and later MP for Swansea East, wrote: ‘We entrusted him with our memories and he has, in return, told our story with dignity and a historians eye.’ Dave Douglass, a miner from Hatfield near Doncaster, wrote in The Weekly Worker (13 July 2023), ‘This book represents the triumph of evidence – for the first time an oral history delivered straight from the mouths and memories of those who fought their corner so bravely […] the story of the miners’ history, communities and perceptions – our ethnicity – which is almost as told from the inside out.’ Meanwhile Betty Cook, a miner’s wife from Barnsley, said that ‘the women’s part is just like we told it, as if we had written it and in our own way’.
Finally there is the image of Ronnie Campbell, nicknamed ‘Red Ronnie’ and ‘Ronnie Scargill’, chair of the Lochore strike committee in Fife, arrested on a picket line at Bilston Glen, fined, sacked and blacklisted, without work for ten years after the strike. His daughter sent me a photo of him suffering from lung disease contracted in the pits but brandishing a copy of the book which tells his story, looking at the viewer with a fierce pride.
About the Author:
Robert Gildea is professor emeritus of modern history at the University of Oxford. He is the author of Fighters in the Shadows, Empires of the Mind, and the Wolfson Prize–winning Marianne in Chains.
About the book:
Backbone of the Nation
A powerful new history of the Great Strike in the miners’ own voices, based on more than 140 interviews with former miners and their families. Exploring mining communities from South Wales to the Midlands, Yorkshire, County Durham, and Fife, Gildea shows how the miners and their families organized to protect themselves , and how a network of activists mobilized to support them. Amid the recent wave of industrial action in the United Kingdom, Backbone of the Nation highlights anew the importance of labor organization—and intimately records the triumphs, losses, and resilience of these mining communities.
Yale University Press is celebrating 50 years of publishing in London. To celebrate, we have selected 50 important Yale London books from our past, present and future to tell the story of our publishing through a series of articles and extracts.