Jul 08 2017

DURHAM MINERS’ GALA – BIG MEETING GETS BIGGER

The 133rd Durham Miners’ Gala on Saturday 8th July will see some 150,000 march through the ancient city. Dave Douglass, ex-miner and author of Stardust and Coaldust autobiographical trilogy looks at its  history and the ongoing significance.

 

BIG MEETING GETS BIGGER

 

 

A day of looking back and looking forward

Crowds are now back to the size they were in the immediate post-war years following nationalisation, when they celebrated the defeat of the hated private coal-owners. This mother of all miners’ galas, featuring both picnics and demonstrations, was the labour movement’s most prestigious public platform. The miners formed the bedrock among the proletarian, trade union and socialist ranks; they made up an army of labour that was strategically placed in terms of their bargaining power and influence – the politics of coal dictated much of politics per se. The position of the miners in the class war sent waves across the broad labour movement.

To appear on the platform of the Durham Miners’ Gala, or Big Meeting, was often to announce a forthcoming leadership challenge within the Labour Party or within the NUM or other union. It often signified a challenge to current policy or direction; it tested attitudes, prepared for forthcoming militant action (or its opposite). These crowds, these unions in general and this union in particular were for a century or more the presidium of the labour movement’s soul.

In the tradition of the Chartists, miners held mass rallies on moors and fenlands – often they would march from the various lodges all day to reach the Big Meeting, to express their outrage at the impositions and injustices of the coal-owners and to announce their united resistance. With the Durham and Northumberland miners’ associations firmly established and here to stay, the first actual Durham Miners’ Gala in 1871 preceded the foundation of the Miners Federation of Great Britain (1889). Previous attempts to build miners’ unions over the preceding two centuries had been ruthlessly suppressed through violence, lock-out and starvation. There were over a million coal-miners immediately preceding World War I, when the world’s biggest ever single-industry strike was launched. The Durham miners made up no less than 200,000 of them – they were often highly political and militant class warriors, for whom the union was the soul of their communities.

The gala has always picked its guest speakers through the democratic vote of the lodges. Irish republican speakers were popular guests in the early years, reflecting the influence of the Irish in the northern mines, as well as a deep political sympathy and sense of solidarity. Its star-studded platforms have featured everyone from Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin to, among rather more recent popular and regular speakers, Arthur Scargill, Tony Benn and Dennis Skinner. But the gala is no platform for back-slapping, mutual appreciation: vexed speeches and tub-thumping, fierce arguments have been no stranger to this platform. In 1914 Jim Larkin of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union denounced the leaders of the Durham Miners Association and urged the miners to turn them out. Members of the Communist Party wearing Red Army uniforms had blocked the stairway to the platform to men too ‘moderate’ in their view.

Debate has often been fractious, such as when a left leadership emerged and challenged the old-guard constitutionalists, or when moderate Labour leaders attempted to sell us restraint and collaboration – as with James Callaghan’s social ‘con trick’, a policy which saddled us with the ‘incentive scheme’ that helped cripple united action in the miners’ Great Strike of 1984-85. Sometimes it was foreign policy, as when George Brown was heavily heckled over ‘the special relationship’ with the US of Harold Wilson’s government during the Vietnam war. Turning fiercely on a young miner in the crowd with a cloth cap and shoulder-length hair, Brown suggested: “If you’d have your hair cut, young man, we might be prepared to listen to you.” The crowd of tens of thousands looked round at the lad, who silently and without further comment removed his cap to show a completely bald head, rendering Brown speechless among howls of laughter.

After Neil Kinnock’s shameful fence-sitting and ballot-mongering during the 1984-85 strike, he was nonetheless booked to speak in 1989 – the bands marched straight by instead of playing the customary piece in the leader’s honour. Worse, when he took the platform, the entire crowd of men, women and children – thousands upon thousands of them – simply turned and walked away, leaving a near empty field, and a deeply embarrassed Kinnock. It was years and years before another Labour leader dared to accept an invite. I was with Davie Hopper, the Durham NUM general secretary who sadly died a week after last year’s gala, when a message was received saying Ed Miliband would be prepared to speak at the gala in 2013 – but not if Bob Crow was on the same platform. The air was blue – Dave made it crystal-clear that it is the Durham NUM who decide who speaks on our platform, not the Parliamentary Labour Party. In case you were wondering, it was Bob who spoke.

Pageant

But the gala is more than just a political meeting. It is a pageant of our collective history – the banners and their themes record the struggles since the 1700s; key players now long since gone, key turning points of history; and our progress. Each decade a new pattern was woven into its collective tapestry, scenes from 1984-85 now join 1832, 1926 and all stops in between. As miners’ children we learned our class history – it was often said that as a pit-village child you didn’t get stories of ‘Goldilocks and the three bears’, but rather ‘Churchill and the general strike’.

It is a case of great and great-great grandparents, generation on generation. I was carried to Durham on my Da’s shoulders, as he had been on his. But now the link is broken – no more sons and grandsons follow their forebears down the pit or add their own pages to the miners’ history. The last Durham coal mine closed in 1993 following the defeat of our last stand against John Major’s and Michael Heseltine’s ‘final solution to the problem of the miners’. They quickly demolished headgear, colliery buildings, pit heads and heaps, and tried to wipe us from memory, tried to make us become simply part of some amorphous, undifferentiated ‘new service’ workforce, tried to destroy who we were.

Many thought the gala would die, for what was its purpose now? But the Durham miners and the Durham villages refused to go away, refused to abandon their class and tradition. Banner groups were formed, the bands played on: the mission of the gala – the cause of labour and the unions – remained. Under the leadership of the two Davies (Guy and Hopper) the gala has gone from strength to strength. Inspired by its dogged determination, I christened the last book of my Stardust and Coaldust trilogy Ghost dancers. The ghost dancers made up the revivalist, political-spiritual resistance of native Americans, who believed that, if they dressed in their traditional manner, held onto their own values and principles and kept on dancing and beating their drums, the white man would lose his power, the buffalo would return to the prairie, and they would be able to claim back their culture and land.

Ten years after the closure of the last Durham mine, 55,000 pit folk and their friends followed their bands and banners through the thronged street of Durham. The big drum was still bashed, the martial music rang out and miners like guardsmen proudly carried their banners high in the wind. I thought ‘ghost dancers’ – as long we keep parading, keep bashing those drums, stick to our values and culture, the pits will reopen, the Tories will be no more and Arthur Scargill will walk on water again. Well, perhaps not quite, but the case for deep-mined coal and the need to revive our industry and reclaim our union from the bureaucracy and the museum is as strong as ever. Somewhere on Jeremy Corbyn’s long ‘to do’ list, we are hoping, is resurrection of the industry. No, not a million miners again – we’re not stupid – but at the moment 40 million tonnes of heavily subsidised coal is imported for British manufacture and power, when we could mine it here. Coal power is still the cheapest form of energy generation and with carbon capture it need not cost the earth.

But the gala is much more than that. It is also a place for the young ’uns for wild gaanin’s on – ever since the days of the straw boater and blazer (yes, they did) and miners’ girls dancing the Charleston in their flapper dresses and beads to the strains of the band. And from the days when the local press called it the Teddy Boys’ Picnic and when there were mini-‘Woodstocks’ on the river banks and in the woods, this has always been a place where you could strut your stuff and find interesting partners. For the kids, it is a day of funfairs, of numerous stalls, ice cream, burger and chips, and candy floss, of bingo prizes and of boating on the river. It is a day of drinking and bravery – diving into the river from the bridges with your shirt off. Once it was also a day of inter-village fights – thankfully now just a memory. But it is still a day of dancing through the streets – at the end of the day the bands play on and the crowds link arms and dance back through Durham’s streets, while folk musicians recall our musical and lyrical legacy in pubs.

This year the banners will be draped in respect of Davie Hopper and Davie Guy – two men who held this union and this event together and ensured the Durham Miners Association is still a vibrant and vital part of the labour and trade union movement. My latest book (soon to be reviewed in this paper, Red banner, green rosette) is dedicated to them and also Dennis Murphy, the late leader of the Northumbrian Miners. They were men who led this ancient and once mighty coalfield in the greatest and most bitter battle of its existence. They ensured that this coalfield and this union would expire with all the courage and dignity our history would expect. If it had slunk off behind armoured buses, put itself at the disposal of Margaret Thatcher and collapsed into a forgotten corner of history, we would all have died of shame. With the help of those blokes we never lost that dignity – or class courage – to the last man standing. This will be plainly evident on those Durham streets.

I hope to see you in the field or along the route, or in the evenings in the bar – all in a county where we chew the cud, down some beer and raise the roof in song.

 

This article was first posted at:- http://weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1162/big-meeting-gets-bigger/

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also see:-

DAVID HOPPER AND THE DURHAM MINERS GALA

 

JAMES CONNOLLY, THE 1916 EASTER RISING AND THE DURHAM MINERS ASSOCIATION

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For other articles by Dave Douglass see:-

David Douglass reviews – Adrian Kerr, ‘Free Derry: protest and resistance’.

 

DAVE DOUGLASS REVIEWS GREGOR GALL’S ‘TOMMY SHERIDAN, FROM HERO TO ZERO?’

 

The debate continues: The Jacobites strike back

 

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Nov 08 2016

REPORT OF THE LEFT UNITY PARTY CONFERENCE IN LIVERPOOL ON 29.10.16

Steve Freeman of the Left Unity Party and RISE goes a report of the LUP Conference held in Liverpool on 29th October.

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ANTI-UNIONISM

The Tories, UKIP, the Democratic Unionists, the Liberal Democrats, and the Labour Party are all British Unionist parties. Last weekend Left Unity (LU) conference took a significant step forward. It became an Anti-Unionist party and thus drew a sharp distinction with Corbyn’s Labour Party. LU took the first steps to realigning the party with the democratic movement in Scotland, not least in demanding the abolition of the 1707 Act of Union.
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Apr 07 2016

THE CENTENARY OF THE IRISH REBELLION OF 1916

As part of our celebration the 1916 Easter Rising, we are posting two new articles.  The first is by Allan Armstrong (RCN), and addresses Lenin’s response to in his Irish Rebellion of 1916 (which is also posted). The second comes from the latest issue of Socialist Democracy (Ireland) and looks at the situation in Ireland today, 100 years after the Rising.

 

1. LENIN AND THE IRISH REBELLION OF 1916

The Dublin GPO during the 1916 Rising, painted by Robert Ballagh

 

In the midst of the First World War, following the Dublin 1916 Easter Rising, Lenin returned to the issue of national self-determination. He had already addressed this at the beginning of the year in The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination. Immediately before the Rising, he had also gone on to write The Discussion on Self-Determination Summed Up.
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Sep 01 2015

JEREMY CORBYN AND THE RE-EMERGENCE OF SOCIAL DEMOCRACY

Steve Freeman of the Republican Socialist Alliance, who stood as a socialist republican and anti-Unionist candidate in Bermondsey in the General Election, makes his political assessment of the Corbyn campaign for the leadership of the Labour Party.

 

JEREMY CORBYN AND THE RE-EMERGENCE OF SOCIAL DEMOCRACY

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The fall and rise of Social Democracy and the re-division of the left

The incredible and unbelievable arrival of the movement to elect Jeremy Corbyn MP to be leader of the Labour Party has taken all the left by surprise. It is a happy shock and one to welcome. Its impact is yet to become clear but no doubt it will have a significant impact on socialist movement. The Corbyn movement should not be seen as an isolated event but as part of a chain of events which reflect the course of the class struggle.
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Aug 20 2015

THE SECRET OF ITS WEAKNESS: RACISM AND THE WORKING CLASS MOVEMENT IN BRITAIN

We are posting this  review by Colin Barker (RS21) of Satnam Virdee‘s book Racism, Class and the Racialized Outsider. This book is an important contribution to the debates around race and class. It was first published in the Spring 2015 issue of rs21 magazine. It can also be seen at:– http://rs21.org.uk/2015/03/21/the-secret-of-its-weakness-racism-and-the-working-class-movement-in-britain/

 

THE SECRET OF ITS WEAKNESS:

RACISM AND THE WORKING CLASS MOVEMENT IN BRITAIN

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Satnam Virdee has written an important book. It is a history of working-class struggles to win economic and social gains, and to gain access to democracy in Britain, viewed through the prism of ‘race’.

From the start, English and then British capitalism was founded on imperial expansion, drawing under its control large parts of the world, and ‘importing’ into its territory large numbers of people from the lands it conquered, colonised and robbed. Yet many accounts of British working class development are silent on the presence and the impact of migrants, their sufferings and resistance, and the vital ‘racial politics’ that shaped both the major waves of popular resistance and the troughs between them.
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Aug 05 2015

WHAT THE FUK? – Fascist UK, Britannia and the Far Right

Gavin Bowd’s book Fascist Scotland, Caledonia and the Far Right has given succour to unionist opponents of Scottish self-determination. Allan Armstrong (RCN) provides a republican and international socialist critique.

WHAT THE FUK?

Fascist UK, Britannia and the Far Right

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1) What is a fascist organisation?

Gavin Bowd’s book, Fascist Scotland, Caledonia and the Far Right, contains a lot of useful material about far right writings, culture and organisation in Scotland since the 1920s. However, Bowd does not define what he means by fascism, nor distinguish it from other forms of reactionary or right populist politics. These often invoke similar chauvinist, ethnic or racist themes. The purpose behind Bowd’s lack of clarity over the political basis of fascism only emerges gradually.
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Mar 16 2015

THE LEFT IN THE UK, THE 2015 GENERAL ELECTION CAMPAIGN AND THE WIDER IMPACT OF SCOTLAND’S ‘DEMOCRATIC REVOLUTION’

After analysing the role of the constitutional nationalists of the SNP, the liberal and conservative unionists amongst  the Conservatives, Labour and Lib-Dems and the reactionary unionists led by UKIP, and their attempt to roll back Scotland’s ‘Democratic Revolution’ (http://republicancommunist.org/blog/2015/02/24/british-unionists-and-scottish-nationalists-attempt-to-derail-scotlands-democratic-revolution/), Allan Armstrong (RCN) examines the problematic role of the Left in the UK in challenging this.

 

 1. The UK constitutional issue will be central to the General Election campaign

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The continuing political impact of Scotland’s ‘democratic revolution’ [1] can be seen in the run-up to the May Westminster General Election. The Conservative Party has produced a Westminster General Election poster, which highlights the importance they give to the issue of the future of the UK. It conjures up a diabolic alliance between Ed Miliband, Alex Salmond and Gerry Adams (the latter two apparently pulling the strings behind-the-scenes, since Salmond now holds no post within the SNP leadership, and Adams sits in the Irish Dail [2]).

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Jan 21 2015

THE RCN AND THE CAMPAIGN FOR SCOTTISH SELF-DETERMINATION

THE REPUBLICAN COMMUNIST NETWORK, THE RADICAL INDEPENDENCE CAMPAIGN,

AND THE CAMPAIGN FOR SCOTTISH SELF-DETERMINATION

Photo of RCN banner – Patricia Kirk & John Lannigan

Contents

A) The emergence and clash of Left British unionism and Left Scottish nationalism

B) The politics of the Scottish independence referendum campaign

C) How the Left responded to the demand for greater national self-determination in Scotland

D) Carrying over lessons learned from the SSP experience

           i)   the need for political platforms

           ii)  the need for a revolutionary pole of attraction

           iii) the need for political balance sheets to avoid repeating earlier mistakes

E) Promoting socialist republicanism and ‘internationalism from below’

           i) The political legacy of the Republican Socialist Conventions and the Global Commune events

           ii) Debating with other socialists during the Scottish independence referendum campaign

           iii) promoting socialist republicanism and ‘internationalism from below’ in RIC

           iv) the debate over secularism

           v) the debate over Ireland

F) Debates and differences within the RCN

          i) in the lead up and during the referendum campaign

          ii) since the September 18th referendum

          iii) the future for RIC, the all-islands Republican Socialist Alliance and the Scottish Left Project

Appendix

 

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Apr 01 2014

INTERNATIONALISM FROM BELOW IN ACTION AT THE LEFT UNITY CONFERENCE AND THE RADICAL INDEPENDENCE CAMPAIGN NATIONAL FORUM

Steve Freeman of the Republican Socialist Alliance in England writes the following report of the Left Unity Conference held in Manchester on March 29th. This was held on the same day as the National Forum of the Radical Independence Campaign in Perth.

There was a remarkably good showing for the RSA motion, in the face of the combined opposition of the current LUP leadership and an amalgam of the British Left organisations present on the day. The RSA has attracted a lot of new support and it is fairly clear that when it further develops its organisation, the LU’s ‘Neither for/Nor against’ position could be overturned. In the meantime several LU branches are proceeding with organising solidarity events anyhow. 

Meanwhile, the RIC National Forum in Perth unanimously passed its motion in support of an ‘internationalism from below’ approach to the campaign for Scottish independence.

 

Steve Freeman of the Republican Socialist Alliance speaking at Left Unity conference

Steve Freeman of the Republican Socialist Alliance speaking at Left Unity conference

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Jan 17 2014

REPUBLICAN SOCIALISM AND LEFT UNITY

Steve Freeman of the Republican Socialist Alliance in England spoke, along with Bernadette McAliskey and Mary MacGregor (RCN) at the ‘break-up of the UK’ session at the Radical Independence Conference on 23rd November in Glasgow. The following week on November 30th in London Steve spoke at the Left Unity Party founding conference putting the case for a socialist republican strategy which recognised the significance of the forthcoming Scottish independence referendum. In this article Steve analyses the various political forces to be found at this conference.

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