Book review: Look back in Anger by Harry Paterson

Book review: Look back in Anger by Harry Paterson

Just over a decade after the end of the end of the miners’ strike of 1984-85, “Don’t Look Back In Anger” became an anthem for the 90s generation. A more apt cultural reference to the John Osborne play that spawned the term “angry young men” is adopted for this book about the “most bitterly-charged industrial dispute in British history”.

Those on the left who lived through the strike will have no doubt about the reasons outlined as to why we should look back in anger:

  • A ruthless class war by Thatcher and the Conservative government aimed at crushing the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and eliminating effective trade unionism.

  • Unleashing of the full force of the state against striking miners, including orchestrated police intimidation and violence.

  • Active involvement of the National Coal Board (NCB), security services and Tory party backers to support the development of a breakaway scab “union” in Nottinghamshire.

  • A “cyclone of vilification, distortion and untruth” from the media.

Whilst none of this was really doubted by any of us actively involved at the time, the now released Cabinet minutes – drawn upon as part of the research for the book – can leave no doubt as to the extent that Thatcher and the ruling class were prepared to go to. Nonetheless, evidence is provided that the strike was close to being won on at least two occasions. What hurts as much as angers is that its defeat, and the subsequent decimation of the mining industry, could have been avoided without the treachery of both the Nottinghamshire working miners and the Trade Union Congress (TUC), Neil Kinnock and the Labour Party leadership.

Speaking at a recent meeting of Nottinghamshire Left Unity, Harry Paterson explained that whilst there are over 200 books about the strike in print, this is the first that places the strike within the context of Nottinghamshire. This is somewhat surprising given that the area is still infamous for being the heartland of the working miners that helped defeat the year long strike action by the majority of the NUM. To this day travelling football fans from Yorkshire still bait supporters of Nottinghamshire football clubs with the taunt of “scabs, scabs, scabs”. By providing a comprehensive overview of the strike year within Nottinghamshire, together with its historical background and aftermath, the book helps to give understanding to events that helped to change the course of trade unionism and politics. Paterson does this in a way that is engaging and easy to read, with cultural references that reflect his background as a music journalist and personal anecdotes of the striking Nottinghamshire minority to whom the book provides a fitting tribute, including his own father-in-law with whose wake the book concludes.

There is much that should be celebrated 30 years on from the heroic struggle of the striking miners, particularly the fact that class consciousness and ideas gained in the experience of this struggle has continued to inspire many people that were involved. We should also pay tribute to the contribution of the Women Against Pit Closures Support Groups which placed women in a leading role in a struggle to save a male dominated industry.

Towards the end of the book, when examining reasons for a shift in the consciousness of Nottinghamshire miners between the strike action of 1974 and a decade later, Paterson quotes the following from Marx “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past”. The lessons from 30 years ago are as relevant today as ever with working class communities under renewed attack from the austerity unleashed by the global economic crisis. This book is therefore essential reading for a left in much need of learning from the experience of struggle rather than the sterility of theoretical debate.

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