Still the Enemy Within is a documentary about the miners’ strike of 1984-5. It begins in the middle of nowhere, in a desolate spot empty but for wind-blown weeds. A middle-aged man hoves into view, a former miner who once worked at this place. It’s South Yorkshire and this is where Frickley Colliery once stood, its miners the most militant in Yorkshire – only four out of 2,000 of them broke the great coal strike in 1984-85.
One of those miners was Paul Symonds who, in this opening sequence, recalls what the work was like underground: ‘It was brutally industrial in every single respect.’ The pit closed in 1993, still producing 20,000 tonnes of coal in a good week, about 7,000 tonnes going to Ferrybridge power station nearby.
At the film’s close director Owen Gower returns to the same spot with the same man, who insists he isn’t romantic about the dirty, dangerous work he used to do, but says he still feels the loss of the old place. Symonds realises now that he and his fellow-miners were on a hiding to nothing:
There was only one thing standing in the way of privatisation, market rule and free market capitalism, and that was us. We knew and they knew it, but we were still shocked at how far they were prepared to go.
The same goes for the splendidly-named Norman Strike, a former Durham miner, says near the end of this impassioned film: ‘We got beat. But we were right.’ However, being right didn’t prevent Strike’s life being ripped apart. By the time the last striking miners went back to work on 3 March 1985, he was out of work, his marriage had collapsed and he had left the home he shared with his wife and children.
Still the Enemy Within documents the strike which began more than 31 years ago with a walkout at Cortonwood Colliery in South Yorkshire on 6 March 1984, and ended a year later on 3 March 1985, following a NUM vote to return to work. Owen Gower’s film tells the story of the strike through interviews with former miners and activists from Women Against Pit Closures, and superbly-edited contemporary news footage and still photographs.
One striking aspect of Gower’s interviews is seeing former miners recall how their knowledge of likely defeat dawned quite early, once it became clear that the government was mobilising every repressive power at its disposal. Yet, at the same time, the tug and pull of solidarity in the union and in mining communities urged them to keep faith – almost for the last time in Britain – with working class traditions. In this sense, the miners seemed to embody the combination of ‘pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will’ to which the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci recommended all socialists should adhere.
This government had an idea
And parliament made it law
It seems like it’s illegal
To fight for the union any more
We set out to join the picket line
For together we cannot fail
We got stopped by police at the county line
They said, ‘Go home boys or you’re going to jail.’
– Billy Bragg, ‘Which Side Are You On?’, 1985
‘People will always need coal’ trumpets an NCB recruitment film from the sixties included here: it looks like an army recruiting ad, urging young men to join the industry ‘and get more out of life’, with shooting, skiing, and restaurant meals with wine and a pretty girl presented as enticements.
But by the 1970s, miners’ wages had fallen behind the industrial average, and Gower’s film reminds us that the roots of the 1984-5 strike lay in that troubled decade. Steve Hammill, who was a young underground electrician at the Silverwood colliery near Rotherham in 1984 says: ‘The Tories hated the miners. We humiliated them with two strikes in 1972 and 1974. Prime Minister Edward Heath called a General Election asking, ‘Who runs the country, the government or the miners?’ The answer came back, ‘not you chum’.’
Looking back, miners recall it was common knowledge that the Tories would want revenge, so when it came to strike action in 1984, ‘We were fighting for our jobs and communities; they were fighting to avenge their defeat ten years before and destroy the most powerful union in the land.’
Nor was this just idle talk in pit communities or far-left circles. In May 1978 the Ridley Plan was leaked to the Economist magazine which published details of its recommendations. The plan had been drawn up by right wing Tory MP, Nicholas Ridley, and detailed how a future Conservative government could fight, and defeat, a major strike in a nationalised industry. Among the suggestions were that coal stocks should be built up at power stations; plans should be made to import coal from non-union foreign countries; non-union lorry drivers should be recruited by haulage companies; and social security rules altered to cut off benefits to strikers. Most controversially, Ridley recommended that a large, mobile squad of police should be trained and equipped, ready to employ anti-riot tactics to break picketing.
Then, in 1979, Thatcher came to power. As Transport Minister, Ridley was responsible for overseeing the stockpiling of huge quantities of coal at the pitheads. As one miner remarks in the film: ‘The saying, ‘Digging us own graves’ were never so apt – that’s exactly what we were doing.’
But if the NUM made the mistake of beginning a strike when coal stocks were so high, few could have predicted the vicious nature of the policing of the strike. Joe Henry, a coal face worker at South Elmsall colliery near Doncaster, summed up the feeling in the coalfield after the first few weeks of picketing:
We’d seen the riot police deployed against black communities in the Brixton riots. We’d seen the police and army tactics in Northern Ireland. We didn’t expect to see the same thing on our picket lines and in our villages, but that is what happened. We were attacked by the police when we tried to talk to miners at other pits who weren’t sure of the reasons for the strike. The most scary thing though, was when later on in the strike the police invaded and terrorised our villages.
The film’s title is drawn, of course, from Thatcher’s famous characterization – in a speech to the Tory backbenchers’ 1922 Committee – of the striking miners as ‘the enemy within’. As the film demonstrates, through archive footage and interviews – that was exactly how they were treated by a militarized police force. Former Durham miner Norman Strike describes the battle of Orgreave coking works near Rotherham on 18 June 1984 (overseen by the same South Yorkshire police force whose behaviour five years later would contribute to the deaths of 96 people in the Hillsborough disaster). ‘Orgreave was a trap,’ he says:
The police had spent months stopping us picketing where we wanted, then suddenly we were all allowed to gather at Orgreave. It was soon obvious why. A few thousand lads in T-shirts and pumps were attacked by riot police kitted up with NATO helmets, shields and batons. They set the horses and dogs on us and then the BBC edited the film so it showed the miners attacking the police. In reality it was the other way round. Years after the strike the BBC admitted they’d made a ‘mistake’.
Unlike in the case of Hillsborough, the campaign for a public inquiry into the policing at Orgreave has yet to achieve success. On 12 June, the Independent Police Complaints Commission announced that it would not be conducting a full investigation into the events at Orgreave.
Still the Enemy Within not only views the miners’ strike through the eyes of the miners that were on the picket lines: we also hear from those who played a key role in supporting the strike as the hardship intensified in mining villages. Most importantly, there were the miners’ wives, who set up soup kitchens and local collectives to support the strikers and their families, and soon formed themselves into an organised support network. In the film, Joyce Shepard, in 1984 the wife of a striking miner from Bentley colliery near Doncaster, describes how women changed:
At first it was like hunter gatherer society. The men when out picketing and all the dangerous stuff while the women were supposedly doing what women do best – putting a pinny on and working in the kitchen. But it didn’t stay that way… for good reasons. People broke out of that. Women didn’t want to just be serving up the mince and the bread. This idea blossomed that women could go picketing.
We thought, maybe it would be different women went picketing, maybe the police would not be so violent but as it turns out they were worse. It opened a lot of people’s eyes about what were going on. I certainly changed, there was no going back to how things were before.
Then there were those beyond the mining communities who supported the miners struggle through street collections and donations, and those who saw the miners’ fight as linked to their own struggle – including students, feminist, Lesbian and Gay, and Black Power organisations and those in towns such as Liverpool where left-wing Labour councils were waging a campaign to force the Conservative government to withdraw measures to restrict council spending and taxation powers.
Here Still the Enemy Within overlaps with the recent feature film Pride, with Mike Jackson, who founded Lesbian and Gays Support The Miners, the group at the centre of that film, telling the true story behind the events depicted in Pride.
Empty trucks once filled with coal,
Lined up like men on the dole.
Will they e’er be used again
Or left for scrap just like the men?
There’ll always be a happy hour
For those with money, jobs and power;
They’ll never realise the hurt
They cause to men they treat like dirt.
– ‘Coal Not Dole’, written by Kay Sutcliffe, wife of a miner from Kent
As the film progresses its tone becomes increasingly elegiac, a lament for what was lost in the wake of the miners’ defeat. Owen Gower shows how the British coal industry was subsequently privatised and then decimated – though not because we use less coal. We still burn coal – but most of the coal that fires our power stations and steelworks today is imported from Russia, Columbia and America.
Communities were devastated, but most of all, the sense of solidarity that spurred people to pull together in a common cause was destroyed, perhaps irrevocably. The decimation of British industry destroyed working class communities, while membership of trade unions plummeted as legislation undermined their strength. Gower and his interviewees see these changes as having given birth to a more selfish, consumer-orientated society in which empathy for the vulnerable or disadvantaged is either discouraged or, in the eyes of many, has become an almost alien concept.
Still the Enemy Within – Owen Gower’s first documentary – is a powerful film, engrossing and tightly-edited. I would make two criticisms, though. The use, in certain instances, of dramatic reconstructions of events being described simultaneously on the soundtrack by an interviewee seems pretty pointless. More importantly, Gower allows his film to evade what remains the central, haunting issue of the strike: would things have turned out differently if Arthur Scargill had supported a national ballot as happened in both of the 1970s strikes? It’s a crucial weakness, particularly as Gower’s film makes plain that one of the key problems faced from the start was the decision by miners in certain areas – particularly Nottinghamshire – to continue working.
At the film’s end, surveying the site of the abandoned pit at Frickley where he once worked, Paul Symonds muses: ‘Who knows? Come back in a hundred years and it might be different. The future is still up for grabs.’
This place has changed for good
Your economic theory said it would
It’s hard for us to understand
We can’t give up our jobs the way we should
Our blood has stained the coal
We tunnelled deep inside the nation’s soul
We matter more than pounds and pence
Your economic theory makes no sense.
– ‘We Work The Black Seam’, Sting, 1985
I saw Still the Enemy Within at Liverpool Small Cinema: what might appear to be an unlikely new venture in the age of Netflix, Amazon and MUBI, situated in the old Magistrates’ Court on Victoria Street. I thought it was a local start-up, but I discovered that there are now three Small Cinemas – one in Manchester and another in St Helens – all of them instigated by Sam Meech with support from BFI Film Hub North West Central, and each venue dedicated to bringing specialised and independent British film to their local audiences.
In an article about the Small Cinema start-up in Liverpool, Meech is quoted as explaining how the project’s genesis happened not in Liverpool, but in Berlin:
The starting point was Berlin. Berlin has a lot of small cinema spaces … [it’s] partly to do with how they approach using space, and they have a film infrastructure there… I wondered why we didn’t have that in Liverpool.
The Small Cinema seats just 60 people in comfort with raked cinema seating and excellent digital projection – a world away from the back-breaking sofas in FACT’s Box. It’s probably unfair to make the comparison with FACT which, after all, is part of a commercial national chain, Picturehouse. Small Cinema, on the other hand, apart from its own programme, will offer space for other organisations to screen films as part of their own events.