I cried the night Thatcher was elected for the first time.
Just typing those words now summons up a strange feeling, I wouldn’t quite say a Proustian rush, but most definitely a sense of a time and a place that doesn’t really exist anymore. Childhood is at best of times a weird thing to revisit mentally – shit, some of us never leave – but that world of the late 70s and early 80s seems infinitely brighter in my memory than what followed.
I was forced today, by a Seamus Milne article in the Guardian which linked Bob Crow to 1984, to revisit what had come before. I guess all who could call themselves “veterans” of the strike have those moments. Last year, when Margaret finally went to her Non-conformist reward, I wrote a blog post about the strike, but I suppose something was lacking from it, because I find myself, again, probing the wound, like a tooth that has lost its filling, dipping your tongue in to feel the nerve, still sensitive…no longer red raw and bleeding, but still tender.
What bothered me most about the Milne article was something intangible at first. The more I thought of it, the more I realised how slightly dishonest he was being, how partial, and on some levels, the narrative of “communities forced to defend their way of life, led by a prescient general slandered by the press” bugged me.
So,anyway, I cried the night she was elected. Childhood had been, up to that point, if not idyllic – there were boys bigger than me, there were fights and there was bullying, there were intimations of mortality and there was growing awareness of the unfairness of the world – in many senses a sunlit uplands. We all have that nostalgia, I guess, but I’ve always been one for living in the now, or thinking of something to come. I’m not a dweller on the past. So I’ve not quite got the hang of it like a lot of people. But yes, I remember summer holidays in a caravan in the Gower Peninsula, I remember my urchin-like street gang – “The Bomber Jackets”, you’ll never guess why we had that name. I remember evenings sat in the front room of the family home, working my way through my father’s scratched 45s, “After the Goldrush” by Prelude, “Black Night” by Deep Purple (on purple vinyl, pop-pickers), “Seasons in the Sun” by Terry Jacks, something by the Sex Pistols, something by Fox, eclectic in his tastes, was my dad.
Then life turns darker. That bullying feels much more vicious. The sun of the late 70s melts into a monochrome early 80s. Light felt like it was being leached out of the world. We had an enemy.
She backed down from us in 81, but we knew the conflict was coming. Thinking on it, she hung over those years. An ever present. When 83 came, I think this was around the time we got a dog and cat. The dog was named Mick, in honour of Mick McGahey, the old communist deputy leader of the miners. The cat was called Mog, initially in a mocking reference to Thatcher, Moggie Thatcher. Later, my sister, whose cat it was, would claim it was named after the Mogwai from Gremlins, but I really think that’s retrospective shading. My mother – I believe – named them both thus in the hope that Mick (she was a dog person, my mother, still is) would scare the shit out of Mog. The opposite was closer to the truth. Mick, the runt of the litter, lived in fear of the vicious bugger.
So 82 and 83 came along, and the Falklands War broke out , and we, like Seamus, like Arthur, like good lefties across the land, on some level hoped for the victory of a Fascist dictatorship over the forces of a democracy defending its citizens. Of course we did. The whole enterprise, viewed through the lens of a working class childhood, seemed impossibly Ruritanian. Preposterous, pompous, who wanted these god-forsaken lumps of rock? Penguins and sheep, that’s all the place was good for. But, of course, she saw off the enemy without.
And then comes the defining moment of the creation of my worldview. Us against the state.
I said in my former post, and Milne makes the point in his article, that it was about workers defending their livelihood. And it was, of course. But also, and what Milne doesn’t face up to, but I think we should – I think we should fucking own, thank you very much, let alone face up to – is the fact, which is indisputable:
We were trying to overthrow the elected government of the UK.
We were. Oh, come on, let us not hide behind things now. Let’s be honest now. Yes, it was about defending livelihoods, communities, all that jazz. Granted. But we wanted her gone. We wanted her toast. We wanted her history, baby. We were going to bring her down.
I’m not saying that, by the way, with any sense of shame. I look back at my attitude towards the Falklands War and I do, now, think how wrong I was. How the sense of being – already, the sense of being – harried by the state, in their crosshairs, a target, had permeated our thinking so much that we didn’t grasp, there, what was right and what was wrong. Seamus, by the way, still hasn’t grasped this. Only last year, he condemned the referendum held in the Falklands and dismissed the inhabitants as living in a Rhodesia of the South Atlantic (Seriously? How does that compute? Do you get the penguins to do all your work and call you Bwana? Is that what happens?). This’ll be the Seamus who will – I predict – urge us to accept the results of the Crimean referendum carried out under armed guard with only the option to say “yes” to Russia, by the way. Uh huh. And I feel that my attitude was stupid and naive and ignoring greater evils abroad – the poor bloody Mothers of the Disappeared – because of the evil we were fighting at home.
But with 1984-85, I don’t feel that shame. We tried to bring her down. That, to us, was as much of a goal as protecting our communities. In fact, the two bled into each other. To protect our communities, she had to be brought down. That’s how we saw it then, and, to be perfectly frank with you guys and gals, we’ve not really been proved wrong, have we?
If you believe democracy is only the act of putting a cross on a piece of paper every five years, then you’ll probably be shocked by that. Or find it offensive. Whatever. But it isn’t, is it? Democracy is government by the demos, the people. If enough of the people can show that they don’t like what’s going down, if they can – essentially – make themselves ungovernable, then governments should fall, and be replaced. Pace Ukraine, pace possibly Maduro in Venezuela.
But in saying that, I have to come to another conclusion. Which flies in the face of my attitude to Thatcher then, and now. Government has a right to defend itself against insurrection. There, I’ve said it. We were insurrectionaries, and they had the right to defend the status quo against us.
Now, I’m not arguing in the slightest that Thatcher’s actions were defensible. This was a grubby war. I’m sure – quite sure – you can find examples of grubby behaviour on our side. More so, I would contend, on the side of the government, and they are, really, meant to be cleaner…Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion and all that. But they did have the right to try and stop us. By fair means. But – of course – they did use both fair means and foul. And that is where my bitterness comes from, that, and – more pertinently – the fact we lost, and we’ve had to live in the landscape of that loss ever since.
And that, really, is at the heart of what offends me about the Milne piece (well, that and his whitewashing of Arthur’s incompetence – Prescient about what was coming, he may have been, a tactical genius, he was not. In the demonology in my head, he sits on a second rung, just below Thatcher, McGregor, the bastard Kinnock Labour Party and the ruthlessly self-interested Eric Hammond of the Electricians Union, who, like Bob Crow, “fought for his members interests” – think of that when you next praise a leader with those weasel words, by the way. Think how easily that can be turned into meaning something not quite as laudable as what Crow achieved for his members) – what offends me is we were actors, attempting overthrow, and he’s painting us as victims, poor mouthing us as just good, honest, deferential types who only wanted to keep our communities. Fuck no, we were in a death bout, and we knew it. We wanted to bring it down.
Things got colder after the strike. Greyer still, in my memory. We were carrying our bitterness with us, and we weren’t going to let it go (and we had the right not to) – I remember, one demo, they all blended into one in my memory, (and it’s possible I wasn’t even at this one, it’s possible I didn’t attend many and I’ve eaten up these stories from my father and mother and woven them into a shining tapestry of truthiness), but for some reason my memory melds together two stories, one of the miners walking past some private school – my memory wants to assign Eton, but what would we have been doing marching through there? – and the schoolboys waving five pound notes at us from the upper windows. In my mind, this is conflated with my mother and I (or possibly even just my mother) sitting on a park bench, taking a breather, when a white haired, sweet looking old lady comes and sits and joins us. We get to talking and she says to my mother:
“You know what, love. This bitch is going to outlive me. But when she dies, I want you to go piss on her grave for me”
Asking my mother – my delicate, beautiful, caring mother – to piss on the grave of our elected Prime Minister.
My mother said yes, instantly.
A hundred incidents like that, big and small, humiliations and taunting, solidarity and support from the strangest places.
But it got greyer after the strike. It’s only now, thinking back, that I realise that my parents must have been struggling financially in the aftermath. By the time it was over, I was just glad to get out of the ritual humiliation of the free school meal queue, and I was probably more concerned with hair sprouting in unusual places and Michelle Waters not fancying me. I didn’t twig how much of a struggle the aftermath must have been for them.
Years later, I was in the SWP. I was in the SWP far too late to have anything but shame about it. There’s an old saying, “Not to be a socialist at twenty is proof of want of heart; to be one at thirty is proof of want of head.”, which Georges Clemenceau came out with and while I – red at 42 – don’t share that thought, I must admit, I am ashamed that I wasn’t a member of the SWP in my salad years. I was on to steak, red meat, at the very least.
One memory sticks in my brain. I attended one of the Marxism conferences, god knows which, my brain says late 90s, my hope is earlier. The opening night ended with a rally addressed by the ageing guru of the party, Tony Cliff, and as he came on stage, the entire audience chanted, for five full minutes, the phrase “the workers, united, will never be defeated”. Deafening, this phrase echoed around the auditorium, as all the sons and daughters of the upper middle class, the social workers and academics in their corduroy, lay claim to their cause being well, the unstoppable march of history.
The late 90s. Dear god. Tony Blair, the grinning jackanapes, was most definitely ensconced in Number 10. The state was retreating as an economic actor, and had been for near 20 years, and the workers?
The workers had been broken. Their shock troops had been sent into battle in 1984, and had lost.
But we fought, dear god Seamus, we fought, and I’m not going to have you portray us as victims, thank you very much. We are veterans. Grant us at least that dignity, because we’ve fuck all else left from those days.