GB84 – a powerful tribute to the miners' strike
Review by Phil Sharpe
David Peace was a Yorkshire lad of 17 doing his 'A' levels when Britain entered into the fiercest class struggle of recent times – the miners' strike of 1984-85. "Living in Wakefield, it was assumed that you would support the strike, but I didn't realise the enormity of the events unfolding," Peace recalls. Since that time he has become an accomplished crime writer. His 'Northern noir' Red Riding quartet about the Yorkshire Ripper, delves into a secret world of crime and horror set in the 1970s and early 1980s. He was named as one of Granta's Best of Young British Novelists 2003.
The author now lives in Tokyo and he reconstructed the events of 20 years ago from a host of archive materials, including Lobster magazine. In the course of delving into the secret strategies of the state he discovered that the techniques used by MI5 against the NUM were honed in Ireland against the Republican movement and that the NUM leadership was not aware of the lengths to which the government would go. He says 95% of GB84 is true.
With his latest book he sought to make amends for his lack of understanding "and not doing more" – as a youth. He presents an "occult history of that strike – of that country at that time, the places and the people. No romanticism. No nostalgia. No revisionism. No apologies. It is Great Britain, 1984". He has unlimited respect for the heroism of the miners who sacrificed an average £9,000 a head for the collective good of their community.
GB84 is an important and gripping novel which depicts in graphic terms the organised repression by the Tory government, MI5, Special Branch and police of the miners. The strike is vividly placed in its political context when the "President" (obviously Arthur Scargill) comments that:
"Every working man and woman in this country will have to rise as one to defeat this government. This Union will be in the vanguard of that battle, as it has been in every struggle, as it has been in every victory."
The novel elaborates in brilliant fictional detail why the strike has more than sectional interest and is central to the whole balance of forces between the working class and the ruling class. The significance of the miners' struggle for the whole working class is shown in negative terms by the resolute energy applied by the state to smashing the strike. Peace conveys this vividly, taking the reader through diverse, obscure and often cryptic plots which reveal the sleazy and corrupt character of the state personnel.
What comes out is how the hopes of the President of the National Union of Mineworkers are continually undermined by the opportunism of the TUC and the difficulties involved in obtaining solidarity action, especially the very strategically important steel union leaders. In perceptive and subtle terms, the author outlines how the optimistic hopes of victory upheld by the President are transformed into sad illusions and delusions because of the machinations of the state and the treachery of the TUC and the various union leaders.
But the most brilliant part of the book are the diary pages with their accounts of the lives and thoughts of two miners, Peter and Martin. Peter is a union activist and is always committed to the aims of the strike. At the beginning, Martin is almost indifferent about the strike, but he is radicalised by his experiences on the picket line. However, the strike intensifies his personal problems and they lead to his own individual crisis and dramatic decline from an affluent life style to a situation of extreme poverty and day-to-day survival. The description of his disappointment at the outcome of the strike later in the story is heart-rending and moving.
The character of Stephen Sweet is a vivid image of the role of a Mr Fix-It who acts on behalf of the government to undermine the strike. He becomes a central organiser of the return to work by scab miners and other actions designed to weaken the militancy of the NUM. Sweet's severe dressing-down of a particular assistant chief constable for being soft on the miners' pickets is a brilliant description of the determination of the Tory government to destroy the NUM through the utilisation of the most ruthless methods.
Initially the President is presented as a virtual Superman who anticipates important problems such as state infiltration and urgent need to maintain secrecy about the location of mass picketing. Gradually this image crumbles as the President's vision and guile are undermined by the actions of the state and the spineless role of the trade union bureaucracy. Ultimately the President is shown as an individual who is powerless to lead a struggle to defeat the state, the Labour Party and trade union bureaucracy because the militancy of the miners on its own are unable to defeat this reactionary united front. However, the outcome of the strike is not portrayed as inevitable. The image of Sweet suffering a virtual nervous breakdown around the time of a miners' special delegate conference is a key metaphor of the political doubts within the state apparatus about defeating the miners.
Martin's stream of consciousness shows the strains and tensions of the strike and how the pickets are affected by personal problems, stress and depression. These pressures can lead to dilemmas for the strikers and conflicting loyalties:
"Daren't tell I'm going back on tour – Arthur's Army. Break her heart again – But when I am here, I wish I was there. When I'm there, I wish I was back here."
Yet despite his predicament, the sheer momentum and power of the strike movement fosters Martin's momentary hope that the strike can work miracles and that its spontaneous enthusiasm will somehow be transformed into the realisation of socialism: "We can cross frontiers we have never dreamed of. We can not only stop pit closures – we can have Socialism." This dream is perpetuated by left reformists like Benn and Skinner.
The author shows that the state was well prepared for the mass picketing of Orgreave. It became a disastrous "chronicle of a death foretold" – a futile gesture that did not advance the progress of the strike but instead only disorientated and discouraged the strikers. Through Martin's voice, the author provides a good description of the one-sidedness of Orgreave. The ruthless efficiency of the police contrasts with the brave but spontaneous chaos of the pickets. Martin ironically comments that:
"Come to Junction 28 and it's like police Transit Van of year contest. Very helpful, they are – Try Junction 31, lads, they tell us. That's where action is. Orgreave – They'll let you go to Orgreave. No problem. They'll even give you directions."
Orgreave is portrayed as one of the first major errors of judgement by the NUM leadership. The novel hints that history cannot be repeated, and that replying on past victories is not enough. The mythology of the past can become a terrible burden in the present and the ideological and political expression of a leadership that has become increasingly directionless because of an increasingly unfavourable balance of class forces. The President is portrayed increasingly as an ideological victim of his own prestige and militant reputation:
"Everything was Orgreave now. Everything had to be done to close Orgreave. It would be the Saltley Gate of this dispute. The turning point. It was a matter of pride. Three miles from the Union headquarters. On their own doorstep. Matter of history. The Orgreave coke supplied Anchor. Anchor. The steel complex at Scunthorpe which had been the scene of the Little Saltley of 1974. The President reminded everyone it was his success here in 1974 that had brought down Heath and the Tories. It was a matter of destiny – ".
The tragic point is that the political confidence created by a sense of destiny is not enough if the balance of power is increasingly against the possibility of victory for the strikers. Instead the sense of destiny, based upon an exaggerated view of the past and making myths out of history, began to indicate a serious lack of leadership and perspective. The result is a subjectivism that puts an emphasis on the role of the individual leader and tries to gloss over the problem of the seeming lack of solidarity action in the present, which compares badly with the idealised victories of the past. This means that the role of the President becomes more erratic and inconsistent. So, on the one hand the President is shown to be intransigent in the negotiations with the National Coal Board, but his overall political judgement is shown to be increasingly fallible and possibly questionable.
The author tries to resolve these contradictions in his narrative by having Peter articulate the view that the very heroism of the strike and the brave resistance to state repression will create the necessary logic and momentum for victory:
"In our communities and in our villages, we have seen a level of police harassment and intimidation which organised British trade unionists have never before experienced; the prevention of people to move freely from one part of the country, or even county, to another; the calculated attacks upon striking miners in streets of their villages; the oppressive conditions of bail under which it is hoped to silence, discourage and defeat us – all these tactics constitute outright violation of people's basic rights. So to working miners, I say this: Search your conscience – Ours is a supremely noble aim: To defend pits, jobs, communities and the right to work, and we are now entering a crucial phase in our battle. The pendulum is swinging in favour of NUM. Sacrifices and hardships have forged a unique commitment among our members. They will ensure that the NUM wins this most crucial battle in the history of our industry. Comrades, I salute you for your magnificent achievement and for your support – Together, we cannot fail! We will not fail!"
After the President makes it clear that he is ready to defy the anti-trade union laws to the point of being prepared for prison, the novel comments:
"The President bowed his head. The President raised his fist – He was the Resurrection and the Light."
But the apparent cynicism is then moderated by showing the tragic and isolated context of the NUM which creates the basis for the illusions of the President. He is caught on the momentum of his own oratory still believing in the possibility of victory despite the increasing lack of support from the leaders of the labour movement:
"The President had been electric. The President had brought the whole house down. He had stood alone on the platform. No trade union support. No Labour Party support. Just the President. But everyone who heard him had been convinced by him. Everyone would leave Sheffield City Hall more determined than ever."
This perceptive comment shows that the personal situation of the President is more one of individual tragedy rather than megalomania because of the isolation of the strike. Consequently, the President has to utilise his own inner psychological resources in order to convince himself and the NUM and its supporters that the strike would win despite increasingly unfavourable conditions.
Martin muses perceptively about the radicalising effect of the police occupation of pit communities:
"Total and relentless provocation and aggression against – Every pit. Every village. Every day. Every hour – Kellingley... Yorkshire Main. Woolley. Brodsworth. Denby Grange. Rossington – But it works against them. Works in our favour – Folk can see them for what they are now. Folk can see through media lies – Smile – Makes many folk support us now. Older blokes. Pensioners – Lot of them that hadn't had a good word to say about King Arthur and Red Guard two weeks back. They've all changed their bloody minds sharp enough now – Now they've seen what police and government are like with their own eyes. Now it's in front of their faces. Here on their own bloody doorstep – People want to picket now."
His thoughts show the contradictory aspects of state repression, in that the occupation of pit villages was meant to have a demoralising effect upon the communities affected, but the opposite result was also created. The anger caused by these occupations led to a process of radicalisation of the whole villages and intensification of the solidarity of the pit village against the government and state.
The novel recognises and articulates one of the most important turning points of the miners' strike: the need to picket the pits in Yorkshire represented not only a new defensive phase in the strike but marked a bitter transition for the miners. The increasing tendency to return to work leads Martin to say:
"Stabbed us all in back. Broke our fucking hearts – But it's hopeless. Fucking hopeless – This is worse than Orgreave. Like a last final war really has been declared on both sides – No more prisoners. Just us and them – Folk nothing but a number now. Just another bloody body. Fucking cannon fodder. Fight to finish, they keep saying – But there's no finish. Because it just goes on and on and on – Last man standing job. To victor spoils, winner take all – Right across South Yorkshire: Bentley. Dinnington. Dodworth. Frickley. Hickleton. Maltby – Right across whole area."
Martin still shows his defiance and determination to carry on to the bitter end, but he is aware that this mood is increasingly without content because the strike is no longer capable of making any offensive moves. Instead it has been forced onto the defensive by the actions of the government, TUC, and by the mood of resignation within the miners themselves that is leading to a drift back. His defiance is increasingly desperate and desolate and is about loyalty to the NUM. Belief in final victory now seems to be a distant dream.
Martin is articulating that the sense of euphoria in the early months of the strike has given way to a sense of hopelessness and bitter reminiscences of the sacrifices and commitments of the strike:
"Nine bloody months – Nine months of toast for their breakfast. Nine months of soup for their dinner. Nine months of spaghetti for their tea. Nine months of their kids without any new gear. Nine months of their kids on hand-outs and other folk's cast-offs. Nine months of their wives trying to make ends meet. Nine months of their wives trying to hold them together. Nine months of them slowly falling apart."
This comment shows brilliantly the connection between increasing material deprivation and growing psychological stress as families struggle to make ends meet. The image of families falling apart is an expression of the dashing of hopes and the connected bitter understanding that the strike is not able to triumph against the odds. The NUM militants kept up their morale with the hope that the strike could win because of the effects of the winter. To this effect Peter comments:
"It was building. I could feel it – Christmas coming. General Winter on horizon. Power cuts not far behind him. Due a harsh winter and all – One last storm. Then home straight – That's what I told myself."
Peace's commitment to realism and the attempt to describe the thoughts and feelings of the miners means that Peter does articulate aspects and impressions of what is possible in terms of consciousness. Peter is aware from the very development and problems of the strike that solidarity was crucial to the winning of the strike:
"He said, If there are no power cuts, our whole strategy's buggered – Buggered anyway, I said. There's been no support whatsoever. Just talk. Not one single leaflet. Not one fucking march. After all that was said at Congress in September – No brass. No support – Nothing – That's trade union movement for you."
Peter is going beyond the limitations of even the most intransigent sectional trade union militancy. He is recognising that the very significance of the strike, expressing the highest levels of class tension and polarisation, requires the development of generalised class activity in order to be successful.
One of the book's strengths is its sensitive portrayal of the President as he is increasingly isolated by the increasingly adverse development of the strike:
"The President caught between the rocks of the Right and the hard places of the Left. Cornered and trapped, he lived behind locked doors. He spoke in secret and talked on to tape. Taped all transmissions, recorded all reports. Joan cooked his food. Len tested it. The President ate only in small amounts, staggered in stages. He drank only boiled water. The President left the locked doors of his office only for rallies. He travelled only in the Rover. Driven only by Len – ".
The only way to overcome the fears of the President is by the victory of the strike. Instead the President's personal situation continues to worsen because of the increasingly likelihood of defeat. But the ultimate reason for the President's illusions is not a quirk of his character, but the outcome of the TUC's refusal to organise effective solidarity actions. What have become the illusions of the President are shown to be heroic and noble in comparison to the TUC's abject betrayal.
Peace has written a powerful novel about the miners' strike, which demonstrated in a physical and unprecedented way the end of the post-war "consensus" and the nature of the capitalist state. Effectively, it was a struggle for power between those who, then and now, decide the fate of jobs and communities and a working class that only has its labour power to sell. The transformation of these opposites is the unfinished business of the great miners' strike.
29 April 2004
David Peace: GB84: Faber and Faber: London 2004: £12.99