Robert Gildea, University of Oxford
In our Meet the Book Author Series, the Journal of Law and Society and the Centre of Law and Society provide first-hand accounts from authors who have recently contributed notable socio-legal books to their respective fields. In this post, we hear from Robert Gildea, whose new book Backbone of the Nation. Mining Communities and the Great Strike of 1984-85 was published in August 2023 with Yale University Press.
Backbone of the Nation is about the year-long resistance in 1984-5 of the British coalfields to the Conservative government’s plan to close eighty-six pits and lay off a third of the workforce of 200,000 miners. The plan was both economic and political, to destroy the National Union of Mineworkers that had brought down the Heath government in 1974, making the way for attacks on other trade unions and a move towards a neoliberal economy. According to the strategy of divide and rule used in the empire, closures would be especially savage in Scotland, South Yorkshire and South Wales, but more profitable and less militant Nottinghamshire would be spared. Striking miners were thus pitted against non-striking miners, protected by the police which was centralised and equipped to inflict defeat on the miners. The miners, unwaged for a whole year, fought back, provided for by support groups set up in the mining communities to raise money for daily soup kitchens and weekly food parcels. Miners’ wives came into their own, organising food provision, marching at rallies, speaking at public meetings to raise funds. Connections were made with other trade unions and councils in the UK and on the Continent, as well as with the gay and lesbian community that was also victimised by the Conservative government. The police occupied mining villages to force a return to work. After a year the miners were defeated, the pits closed and former mining areas were left to unemployment, poverty, ill-health and drug problems.
The study is written as history but it has an underlying political purpose. The idea for it came to me on 8 April 2013, the day Mrs Thatcher died. Everyone on the radio was singing her praises as the politician who launched a modern free and capitalist society, even the politicians who had stabbed her in the back. The only criticisms of her rule came from miners. At the time I was writing a history of the French Resistance to German occupation and the collaborationist Vichy regime and I wondered whether British resistance to an offensive by a reactionary state might look like the Miners’ Strike. Then came the 2016 EU referendum and the collapse of the Red Wall in 2019. Many of the abandoned mining areas, formerly Labour strongholds, voted for Brexit and even for the Conservatives. How could it be that such a change had taken place?
I began my career as an archival historian but over the last twenty-five years I have made more and more use of oral history. Some interviews with miners and their wives had been recorded shortly after the strike, such as those by Hywel Francis in the South Wales Miners’ Library, but these were very patchy and did not have the advantage of hindsight. The bedrock of this book is the life-history interview, each about two hours long, undertaken with 148 former miners, miner’s wives and children, a number of activists from outside the mining industry and two American women miners who came over to support the strike. This enabled me to explore the ‘before, during and after’ of the strike. I made contact with intermediaries such as Hywel Francis, who had been chair of a support group in the Neath, Dulais and Swansea Valleys and introduced me to the network of those who had been active in the strike. In other areas, such as South Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire, those networks no longer existed and made contact with potential interviewees far more difficult. Trust had to be built on both sides in order to record these interviews, and I hope I repaid it by writing their story in their voices. As miner’s wife and former Welsh MP Siân James kindly said of my work, ‘We entrusted him with our memories and he has, in return, told our story with dignity and a historian’s eye.’ That means more to me than any review.