Ian Clayton’s column - What price coal?

MINERS STRIKE May 31st 1984 'Police and pickets at Orgreave. Pic: Dennis Lound.
MINERS STRIKE May 31st 1984 'Police and pickets at Orgreave. Pic: Dennis Lound.

I’ve always been a fan of the BBC’s Question Time but just lately I’ve not bothered so much with it. Heather says it’s because it’s past my bedtime these days.

In some respects she’s right because I do tend to turn in earlier than I used to, but mainly I think it’s because nobody ever changes their mind.

You get four or five people with polarised opinions and they just cling for dear life to a script they seem to have going round on repeat.

On Saturday last I was asked by a theatre company to chair a Question Time-style debate on the aftermath of the miners’ strike called What Price Coal?

For the past few weeks the London based Touring Consortium Theatre Company has been taking its production of Brassed Off to various theatres in the north. I saw it at York and found it moving and thought-provoking. On Saturday it was at the Theatre Royal in Nottingham and in between the matinee and the evening show I chaired the debate on stage there.

The panel was made up of five people who had things to say about the legacy of the strike. There was Jean Miller from Barnsley Women Against Pit Closures, whose two sons had worked at the pit. Andy Birchill, a former Lancashire miner who retrained after redundancy as a university lecturer in humanities, Keith Stanley, a former vice-president of the NUM and a proud striking Notts miner who stuck to his guns for the whole year of the strike, Richard Mallender, a Green Party spokesman and a former Tory MP during the strike called Martin Maurice Brandon-Bravo who is on record as saying the Nottinghamshire miners who broke the strike were not scabs but ‘democratic men of principle.’

When I prepared for the debate I was thinking about what each panellist might say.

I researched a bit about the protagonists. I knew nothing about the former Tory MP. I found out he was interested in rowing, that he had once been a cox and was married to a lady whose dad had been a scrum half at Warrington.

I read some of his comments that are recorded in Hansard. In February 1985, at the height of the strike, he said: “The right to work is just a principle, it is not an argument for a particular job in a particular place for a miner and his children, regardless of whether the community wants or needs the product of that labour.” He also said: “This is a political showdown, between evil men who lead working people and parliamentary democracy.”

As I travelled to Nottingham I wondered whether Martin Brandon-Bravo might have changed his mind about anything in the 30 years since the miners’ strike.

The first question was: “Was the decision to close the pits an economical or political one?” I put this to Keith Stanley. He said: “There is no doubt in my mind that the strike was caused by Tories.” Andy joined in and said: “The Tories were still smarting from the collapse of their government after the strikes in the 70s and were out for revenge.” Martin Brandon-Bravo said: “The realities are that more pits were closed under Labour and you cannot keep any industry going if it is uneconomical.”

The audience clapped and cheered when the miners on the panel stuck up for workers’ rights, they responded with silence when the Tory tried to blame it all on Arthur Scargill. Right in the middle of it all I sensed Martin was taking a different tack.

He suggested that mining was an unpleasant job and nobody should be wishing the pits were still open for their sons to work in such conditions. I asked him: “Do you, as a representative of the Conservative party, feel any guilt for putting 200,000 men out of work in such a way? He didn’t hesitate with his answer. He just said no.

I wanted to ask about all the men who were wrongfully arrested during that strike, about the truth concerning the number of pits that were on the hit list (we now know it was 75, not the 20 the government admitted to at the time) and about the many social problems that have blighted former mining communities, but nobody in power seems to want to take responsibility for that.

So I went across the road for a pint and then had an early night.