Coal Culture Wars: (Mis)understanding The Durham Miners’ Gala

This year’s Durham Miners’ Gala became a lightning rod for public debates over broader questions of class and industrial identity, reinforcing coal’s new role as a cultural and political signifier in the age of Corbyn, Trump and Brexit. Coalfield historian Ewan Gibbs traces the evolution of coal’s cultural politics through decades of Miners’ Galas, exploring how their media representation and political significance has always been as contested and complex as the industry itself.

Seven years after the National Union of Mineworkers returned to work in March 1985, defeated after a year on strike, Britain was gripped by an unlikely outpouring of political feeling. During the last great campaign against pit closures in 1992, the public overwhelmingly sympathised with workers resisting mass redundancy. The NUM’s divisive President, Arthur Scargill, was even ranked alongside Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy in a poll of great leaders.[1] But this was more sentiment than solidarity. Striking miners treated by Margaret Thatcher as ‘the enemy within’ became elegised as icons of the nation’s fading industrial power, an image catering to conservative as well as resistant narratives of change.

During 1984-5, as Diarmaid Kelliher and Dave Featherstone have documented, miners were supported not only because their supporters saw their cause as just, but because they were viewed as a credible force in battle with Thatcher’s government. By 1992 that was no longer the case. A spate of closures followed the bitter defeat of 1984-5, and divisions grew within the NUM, which now competed with a rival union formed by Nottinghamshire miners who had opposed the strike. Miners were worthy of pity, but mostly seen as sad and unthreatening remnants of the past.

Their image as history’s victims gathered pace over the 1990s. Films such as Brasssed Off portrayed the pain associated with pit closures and the wrenching of purpose and self-worth from coalfield communities. Towards the end of the decade, Billy Elliot celebrated the son of a striking miner in his escape from manual drudgery, whilst depicting the industrial dispute with obvious empathy. Although they are sentimentally invested in the lives and losses of mining communities, these films leave little doubt as to the historical inevitability of deindustrialization. Their popular appeal lay in reconciling the established political fact that ‘there is no alternative’ with the widespread sense that miners had been mistreated.

The Durham Miners’ Gala has proven an enduring alternative to these depictions, presenting the face of a living, breathing and growing political force, accessing industrial history as a source of power rather than easy sentiment. Founded in 1871, the annual Gala was maintained by the Durham Miners’ Association as a celebration of workplace and community solidarity after the last of the area’s pits closed during the 1990s. As one of Britain’s oldest and best-attended annual events it is a major cultural signifier, heavily invested with regional, occupation and class identities.

It is ironic that Durham this year became the focal point of hyperbolic and ignorant commentary insisting on its nature as a Communist gathering for middle-class voyeurs. Historically, as Beynon et al have shown, the rally was directed by an NUM Area whose leaders tended to be right-wing or ‘moderate’. Labour Party leaders of all stripes have been a regular fixture at the Gala. Clement Attlee and Harold Wilson were pictured on the balcony of the County Hotel. Ed Miliband restored the tradition by addressing the rally in 2011. In the past, differences in political leadership meant that radical or dissident voices were more likely to be heard in Scotland or Wales than Durham. It was on the ‘Celtic fringe’ that Communist and left-wing Labour-aligned figures most consistently predominated in the miners’ union leadership outside the smaller Kent coalfield. During 1969, delegates from the Vietnamese Federation of Trade Unions addressed the Scottish Miners’ Gala. Whilst American troops were battling their comrades, the NUM’s Scottish President, Mick McGahey, welcomed ‘Jock and Tam fray Vietnam’ to Holyrood Park in Edinburgh.[2] In 1988, the Gala was themed around the struggle against Apartheid and was addressed by an ANC speaker.

Closer to home, the NUM Scottish Area gave platforms to CND representatives and trade union leaders out of favour with the Labour Party. John Prescott spoke at the Scottish Gala after he led the National Union of Seamen into conflict with Harold Wilson’s government during the mid-1960s. The long process of deindustrialization – which was a persistent factor in the British coalfields from the late 1950s – changed union politics in Durham. The North East of England underwent a marked reduction in colliery employment and those jobs that remained were concentrated in large coastal collieries which tended to produce more militant union activists. Coal closures didn’t begin in the 1980s and their long experience are central to understanding post-1945 British politics.

Durham has mutated not just into an essentially ‘post-industrial’ gathering, but in effect as a national amalgamation of what were previously regional events. Whilst following many of its traditions, and retaining its large local attendance, the crowd is supported by sympathisers from across the UK. Despite that, the Gala was largely ignored in British political commentary until recently. The 2015 Labour election altered this considerably. Suddenly anyone who was anyone in the Labour Party wanted to be seen at Durham, especially the leadership candidates. In a sense the Gala’s traditional function as a labour movement gathering of the movement’s right and centre as much as its left was temporarily restored. Since Corbyn’s election and subsequent re-election in 2016, the Gala has welcomed him each year as Labour leader, but the Gala is not a ‘Corbyn rally’. Most of its attendees are drawn from the local area and many attended long before 2015.

Under Corbyn, there is perhaps though a reawakening of the old coalfield and metropolitan links that Kelliher and Featherstone have uncovered. In 2014 there were already signs of activists’ re-politicising mining history in the commemorations which marked the thirtieth anniversary of the miners’ strike. These were galvanised by the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign for an inquiry into the police operation at the South Yorkshire coke depot on 18 June 1984. When, through the attendance of the current Labour leader, the Gala is attached to a socialist political project this further alters its projections. The righting of historical wrongs is not curtailed to redressing past events, but to the pursuit of justice through the reordering of the economy and society.

If the Gala represents a fusion, the territorial politics of Brexit are defined by drastic opposition between parts of the UK. Drawing on their iconic salience from the 1980s and 1990s, former coal miners are among the most sought after ‘everyman’ spokespeople on Brexit when reporters use Barnsley, Swansea or Sunderland as backdrops to detail regional divisions. Kent’s former coalfield is contrastingly rarely mentioned in media narratives linking coal, Northernness and pro-Brexit sentiment. Little is made of the fact that the Lothians, Fife, Lanarkshire and Ayrshire all voted Remain, demonstrating the politically and culturally varied impact of deindustrialization. The authenticity granted by industrial workplace experience – even when transmitted across generations – as well as nostalgia for departed national industries, are central to narratives about unwelcome change and disruption.

This has brought coal in the British political imagination closer to the American pattern, where it is an essentially cultural battleground. Trump’s commitment to digging more coal has little purchase on economic reality given the shrunken state of the American sector, but it has become an important signifier of retrenched ‘traditional’ masculinity, rejection of climate science, and support for favoured regional and racial identities.

The re-emergence of coal heritage as a rallying point on both the political left and right has displaced the easy sorrow of the early 1990s. Miners are no longer objects of pity to the winners of the new liberalised market order. Instead, gatherings to celebrate their living history are burdened with culture-wars suspicion: from one direction, of the reactionary chauvinism of a discarded ‘white working class’, and from another, the cultic worship of a traitorous radical leader (whose supporters are today’s ‘enemy within’). The ease with which the Durham Miners’ Gala can be presented as a mere Corbyn rally rather than a complex and deeply-embedded tradition speaks volumes about power, class and region in modern Britain.

[1] Seumas Milne, The Enemy Within: The Secret War Against the Miners third edition (London: Vereso, 2004) pp.26-29.

[2] The Scottish Gala is immortalised in Jackie Kay’s poem written in tribute to McGahey, ‘Last Room in Operations’ (2014).

Photo by John Nisbet (Creative Commons)

Ewan Gibbs lectures in Sociology and Social Policy at the University of the West of Scotland. His research centres on the Scottish experience of deindustrialisation, focusing on the political impact of changing labour markets and memories of employment and industrial and community protest.  Ewan completed a PhD studying deindustrialisation in the Lanarkshire coalfield during 2016. He has since published on memorialising industrial work and how a moral economy of industrial employment shaped colliery closures.

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