Backbone of the Nation: Mining Communities and the Great Strike of 1984–85 by Robert Gildea - review by Richard Vinen

Richard Vinen

Which Side Are You On?

Backbone of the Nation: Mining Communities and the Great Strike of 1984–85


Yale University Press 496pp £25 order from our bookshop

In the autumn of 1984, a friend and I attended a meeting in support of striking miners. It was addressed by Kim Howells, later a Labour MP but then an official of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). As we went in, we were picketed by youthful Conservatives. Is it just in my imagination that a young Andrew Roberts, dressed in green Wellington boots and a Barbour, harangued us through a megaphone? The meeting was marked by an almost religious fervour. We cheered as we were told that the miners could not lose, that men must not be ‘voted out of jobs’ and that the strike would be the first stage in bringing down the Thatcher government. As we walked home, my companion (a person of very left-wing views) mused, ‘I wonder if anyone believed a word of it?’

As it turns out, Howells himself did not believe it. Apparently, he referred to metropolitan left-wingers who wanted the strike to continue to the bitter end as ‘Clapham colliers’. Robert Gildea, by contrast, is a believer. His sympathies lie with the strikers. He begins his book with references to recent industrial actions and finishes with these words: ‘The Miners’ Strike and the voices of the men and women who sustained it for a year can offer guidance and hope.’

Gildea’s methodology is laid out early. He makes use of oral history in order to provide a ‘deeper understanding’ of the miners’ strike from the ‘bottom up’. He has conducted interviews with over a hundred miners from England, Scotland and Wales – he suggests that this is the

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