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Film Review: Still The Enemy Within

The UK National Union of Mineworkers’ (NUM) strike of 1984-85 was an industrial action that could have changed the movement of history. Victory meant not only an opportunity to secure the production of coal and the staying of pit closures, but a fundamental threat to the success of Margaret Thatcher’s economic reforms. Failure, as we have seen in the last decades, empowered a “sorcerer no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.”[1] The neoliberal revolution was more than a reorganizing of economic institutions, it was an expression of class power whose implications have run deep into the fabric of social relations. Still the Enemy Within, Owen Gower’s first feature film as director, sets the stage for the miners to tell their own story. Weaving the personal accounts of the miners, their families, friends, and allies, with rich footage from the historical archive, Gower lays out a compelling testament to the power of solidarity, reminding us how much was lost.

The film’s title is drawn from Thatcher’s own characterization of the striking miners. While the enemy without is dangerous – speaking of Argentina’s military dictator Leopoldo Galtieri – one must always be vigilant against the enemy within: enemies of democracy.[2] To ensure the miners the ability to speak for themselves without intimidation or censorship, Gower’s production company, Bad Bonobo Films[3], crowdfunded the production. Their www.sponsume.com[4] account generated an impressive £36,790 from private donors and trade union support. According to their online treatment, “the story of the Miners’ Strike is [often] told simply as the story of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher vs Miners’ leader Arthur Scargill. Here we’ll meet the real leaders on the ground who spent every day for a year, fighting not just for their jobs but for the soul of the country.”[5]

Still the Enemy Within opens with a discussion on the symbolic importance of the mining industry. Especially after the Industrial Revolution, Britain’s thirst for coal was unquenchable. Coming from a mining family in Nottinghamshire, Dr. Lisa McKenzie, a Fellow in Sociology at the London School of Economics, grew up during the struggle. I spoke with her at length about her experiences during the strike.

Mining towns and mining communities were stable. We fought hard for wages and benefits. There was a period of history when women, children, whole families would work down there. I have photos of women, who were naked and pregnant, being used in the small spaces to pull the trolleys of coal, like    animals.It was a long fight, wages and conditions were terrible and mining accidents were common. One of the most dangerous jobs in the world: roofs would fall in, accidents, and deaths. That’s how we got a strong trade union. Because it was so dangerous and awful, we had a closed shop, you couldn’t go down the mine unless you were a National Union of Mineworkers member. And because of the closed shop, wages and conditions improved.

Modern mining, due to the victories of trade unions and strong communities, became the backbone upon which working class neighborhoods could grow.

There was a real stability to the neighborhoods. We were the “learning to labor” people. We were educated to work in manufacturing, work down in the mines. You’ve got problems, of course, but wages were quiet good. A man could go to work and earn enough money to keep a family. There was lots of housing, the National Coal Board owned a lot of housing, which the miners lived in. Pit houses they were called. Lots of welfare as well, working man’s clubs. So connected to the pit you had a whole community. You’d have darts teams, bowlers, football teams, different pits would play each other, cricket teams.

Thatcher’s Conservative government readied themselves for a full fledged war against organized labor, choosing as their target the strongest union in the country. The three years that preceded the strike saw unprecedented levels of coal production, which ensured a surplus of the commodity for what was to come. When pit closures were announced by Ian MacGregor, the controversial appointee to head the National Coal Board, miners began walking off the job. The closures would amount to the shutting of twenty pits short-term and seventy in the future, and the destruction of communities across England, Scotland, and Wales who depended on mining as their main economic activity. While the film is brilliant in its use of suspense, especially in the tense buildup to industrial action, the real magic shines through in documenting the germination of structures of solidarity which the miners used to continue their strike for nearly twelve months.

Mining communities buckled down for the long haul, setting up soup kitchens and local collectives to service the needs of the strikers and their families. Lisa spent months of her childhood working in one of these soup kitchens.

To start, no one thought the miners would be out as long as they were. It began with general support from the trade unions; the Postal Workers were brilliant. As the struggle went on, the support became much more serious. People’s savings started to run out. People didn’t have coal to put on their fire. People didn’t have warm clothes when winter came. We went out [on strike] in March, and by July, August, September, that’s when mining families were in trouble. And that’s really when we started to get a lot of outside support, because people realized we had nothing. Strike pay was £11 a week. The wonderful Thatcher government changed the law so that striking miners’ children couldn’t be eligible for free school meals. We had nothing. Initially what we did was set up soup kitchens, and I worked in one of these. The men would come in usually for breakfast after they’d go picketing in the morning. Then we’d have women and kids come in for the afternoon and they’d have lunch there. And then we’d usually close it up about 4 or 5 o’clock, and make some sandwiches for people to take home.

Gower does a marvelous job in demonstrating the wide tapestry of society who participated in supporting the miners. Feminist, LGBT, and Black Power organizations all had a hand in gathering money and supplies. However, sympathetic Brits were not the only source of funds for the miners. As the strike entered winter,

 …we used to get big shipments coming in from Poland, Russia, Ukraine. We used to get these really odd jars, I have no idea what was in them, we used to make stews out of them. Could you imagine, we were miners that had never tried this, most of us had never really left our county. We used to get sugar from Cuba, clothes from the continent, I remember having a really nice jumper from some Polish family. Bits of money from all over the country, £10 or £20 a month from Camden community centre, Penguin books, Fire brigades, people having a whip round for us. 160,000 people out on the picket without work and without pay, a government against them cutting benefit, and common people inside and outside the UK      rose up and sent letters of support, especially American and Canadian miners. French and Dutch socialists took our kids on holiday. You’d get activists all over the country and the world who would adopt or twin with us, and look after us. They did that for the year. The support was unwavering.

While relishing the support, government attacks increased and tensions ran high. Archival footage from incidents such as the Battle of Orgreave illustrates a continuing tactic of neoliberal politics: militarization and police brutality. 5,000 miners met with 5,000 police in an event that left approximately 50 miners injured and 100 arrested. The language of terrorism that was employed by Thatcher serves as an erie foreshadowing to the types of rhetoric the world would come to hear from figures such as former President George W. Bush and former Prime Minister Tony Blair.

In my town, we had 5 pits, so there was a lot of us, a lot of miners. Straight away, within a day, we had 4,000 Metropolitan Police in our town. This is a mining town, probably, 25,000 people living there. The vans just kept coming with hundreds of police in them. It was incredible really, vans used to line up along the walkways to the pit entrances. They were all from London.

As is the case with reality outside of the Hollywood spectacle, endings are not always happy. Strategic loses, increasing government brutality, a failure by the Trade Union Council to fully back the strike, and conditions akin to starvation slowly broke down the miners’ morale. The defeat of the strike can be felt in working class communities across Britain to this day.

Looking onwards from today, we’re still in a mess. When we went back to work, to be honest no one wanted to go back, there was no appetite. We were crushed communities, they’d done us. We weren’t going back as a group, we went back as individuals. It’s interesting because when I go back to mining communities, and we sing songs about victory and whatever, but if I’m being really honest, we did not win. The consequences of that has been a change in how working class people have seen themselves ever since. We were proud people. We were miners, we kept the lights on! We’d already got rid of one Tory government, during a strike in the 1970s. We looked after each other. And then afterwards, that was stripped from us. And it wasn’t just when the mines closed, it was the rhetoric behind what it was to be working class. It was no longer about being in a community or being in a family or being proud of who   you were, it became something to be ashamed of. We were old-fashioned people, we weren’t moving on with neo-liberalism. As a young person I really felt that.

The film teaches a lesson that has been almost forgotten since times when mass industrial action was common. Strikes and pickets have a way of breaking the chain of monotony that strangles everyday life and workplace routine. Within these pockets of time, consciousness raising and solidarity building are common. Individuals and groups who have neither a way nor a purpose to communicate with each other do. Gower demonstrates this most clearly when interviewing a member of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, who claimed to have finally found a sense of acceptance when he was welcomed into a workingman’s club filled with striking miners and their families in north Wales. After all, his family was also miner’s blood.

Still the Enemy Within is not only a compelling account of social struggle, and the methods the miners employed to carry on, but it also serves as an inspiration towards another way of thinking about and conceiving politics. Individualistic and divisive methods of combating power, while popular today in the contemporary rise of identity politics, deny a much wider history of solidarity. Still the Enemy Within is that special history’s keeper.

 

Notes

[1]   Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. Manifesto of the Communist Party,. New York: International Press, 1948. Print.

[2]   http://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/105563

[3]   http://www.bad-bonobo.com/

[4]   http://www.sponsume.com/project/still-enemy-within

[5]   ibid

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