Red Action

The British left and the end of the miners strike: A guide to online sources

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On 5 March, 1985, the miners’ strike against the Thatcher government came to an end when the National Union of Mineworkers called off the strike. A decisive moment in the history of the British labour movement and in the history of Margaret Thatcher’s Prime Ministership, it wasn’t so clear-cut for the British left at the time. This post is a collection of the various reactions by sections of the British left to the end of the miners’ strike that can be found online. I am trying to finish up a few other things at the moment, but I compiled this to hopefully turn into an article in the (hopefully) near future.

In April 1985, the Communist Party’s Marxism Today featured a roundtable dedicated to assessing the strike, featuring several members of the NUM in different capacities. One of the most interesting things about this roundtable is the debate over whether the end of the strike could be labelled a ‘defeat’. The journal also ran two pieces on the future of the NUM by Hywel Francis in April and August 1985 (with the April piece being much more positive than the August piece). In a piece in the journal in May 1985, Jimmy Airlie wrote:

It will be the height of folly and do the movement and the miners in particular a disservice if the Left failed to that the miners have suffered a major defeat. The strike ended not with a negotiated settlement, but under the compulsion of an accelerating drift back to work…

In the March issue of Socialist Worker Review, the SWP’s Tony Cliff compared the defeat with the end of the 1926 strike and again, much of the blame for the end of the strike was laid at the feet of the TUC. In the same issue, the SWP warned against the retreat into ‘Labourism’ by Militant and the ‘abandonment’ of class politics by the Eurocommunists and argued that only a revolutionary party, like the SWP, could offer a way forward. The SWP’s theoretical journal, International Socialism published a lengthy piece by Alex Callinicos and Mike Simons on the strike which essentially argued this at great length, stating in their conclusion:

The ultimate reason why the miners lost was because capital had a determined, ruthless, highly class-conscious leadership while the working class did not. Fortunately the working class lost only a battle in 1985. But to win the war will require a different sort of leadership, one which builds on every workers’ struggle in order to launch eventually an assault on the citadel of capitalist power in the state machine.

A revolutionary party was seen as necessary for providing the labour movement with strong leadership and a commitment to revolutionary socialism.

The journal edited by John Saville and Ralph Miliband, Socialist Register, featured two pieces on the end of the strike. One by Richard Hyman and one by John Saville, with Saville looking at the strike as the end result of the Conservatives’ long-held plan for tackling the unions developed from the mid-1970s.

Copies of The Militant have not been digitised yet (as well as their journal Militant International Review), but here is Peter Taaffe’s account of the strike, taken from his book on the history of Militant, written in the early 1990s.

Apart from these larger left-wing groups, many of the smaller groups had their own interpretation of the end of the strike. The Spartacist League, in its paper the Workers’ Hammer, declared, ‘The strike has been defeated, but the NUM had been broken”. Red Action portrayed the end of the miners’ strike as a symbol of the Thatcher’s pursuit of privatisation and the strike’s end gave Thatcher the ‘authority’ to take on any industry that the Tories wanted,

And here is a view of the strike from the Communist Party of Australia’s Australian Left Review.

This is only a small sample of the available literature. If anyone can point me to more online stuff (or even interested in collaborating on writing something on this – hint hint), please let me know.

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Red Action – Left Wing Political Pariah: Excerpt from ‘Against the Grain’ book

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This is just a quick post to let people know that the text of Mark Hayes’ chapter for our book Against the Grain: The British Far Left from 1956 has been posted on Red Action’s website. Hayes’ chapter is titled ‘Red Action – Left Wing Political Pariah: Some Observations Regarding Ideological Apostasy and the Discourse of Proletarian Resistance’ and adds to the growing literature about Red Action and Anti-Fascist Action. As RA/AFA had strong links to Irish Republicanism, there is also a discussion of the group and Hayes’ chapter on the Cedar Lounge Revolution blog here.

If you’re looking for something to spend your Christmas dosh on, you can pick up the book (with a slight discount) here.

Thatcher, the Brighton bombing and the British left

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Like July 1981, October 1984 was a crisis point for Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government. The miners’ strike was now six months in and Thatcher faced possible strike action by the pit deputies’ union, Nacods, which would have increased the severity of the strike. If Nacods had initiated strike action, many believe that Thatcher would not have been able to endure the effect that it would have on the British economy. In July 1984, Thatcher had addressed a private meeting of the 1922 Committee, a pressure group within the Conservative Party, and has referred to the miners as the ‘enemy within’. From papers released by the Margaret Thatcher Foundation this month, we now know that she was going to return to this theme at the Conservatives’ 1984 Party Conference, to be held in Brighton.

However the Brighton Conference became known for a different set of events. On the morning of October 12, 1984, a bomb planted by the Provisional IRA exploded in the hotel hosting the conference. Five people, including one MP, were killed and another 31 were injured. It was revealed this week that Thatcher ripped up her original ‘enemy within’ speech and gave a defiant speech to those who remained at the conference.

In the week of the bombing, the Tories lead over Labour was 2 per cent, according to The Guardian/ICM polls, but this rose to 9 per cent the following month. The Tories experienced a fillip in the polls until February 1985 when they returned to a 2 per cent lead. But resentment towards Thatcher was still high and many were unsympathetic about the near miss.

Cabinet's response to the bombing

Cabinet’s response to the bombing: CAB 128/79/10, National Archives, p. 1.

I wondered how the British far left responded to the bombing in the midst of one of the most important strikes in contemporary British history. Thanks to the staff at the Working Class Movement Library in Salford, I was able to get copies of the Morning Star and Socialist Worker from the days following the bombing.

As a way of bit of background information, the Communist Party of Great Britain, to which the Morning Star was still nominally attached at this stage, was opposed to the bombing campaign of the Provisional IRA. At the Party’s 1981 Congress, a resolution on Ireland stated:

Congress unreservedly condemns the military campaign of the Provisional IRA in Britain and Ireland. The result is not just continual violence taking the lives of hundreds more people, Irish and British, but also a deepening political polarisation within the working class in Northern Ireland…

The SWP, on the other hand, supported the Provisional IRA in their struggle against British ‘imperialism’, but did not necessarily condone their bombing campaign. A 1980 pamphlet (scanned by the Irish Left Archive) stated:

As socialists we give full support to all those who fight oppression and for the right of self-determination, whereever in the world they may be. This applies equally to the Provisionals, who are fighting a war against the oppression of a minority in Britain’s oldest colony. But this does not mean that we necessarily support the politics of the Provisionals, nor we consider them socialists, nor that we support all the tactics they use.

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The Morning Star covered the story on the front page of the newspaper the day after the bombing, complemented by a statement by the paper’s staff under the headline, ‘No to Terrorism’. The statement began with the sentence:

The Provisional IRA bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton was a piece of reckless adventurism which should be condemned without reservation.

The statement continued with the proposal that a ‘democratic solution’ to the problems in Northern Ireland (and in Britain) would ‘need not terrorism, but mass extra-parliamentary activity combined with the struggle inside parliament.’ It followed with:

Terrorism divides the working people and makes it more difficult to establish the unity between the working people of Britain and Ireland which is needed to solve problem in Northern Ireland.

It opens the door of more and more authoritarian measures which are then applied to the left as a whole.

The statement condemned the failure of the British labour movement to effectively mobilise around the issue of Northern Ireland and concluded with this passage:

The failure to grasp this problem, and mobilise the mass movement needed, leaves the vacuum which is then filled by desperate acts of terrorism.

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The Socialist Worker in the week following the bombing (20 Oct) did not put the bombing on the front page, instead focusing on the breakdown of ACAS proceedings between the NUM and the government. Coverage of the bombing was relegated to page 2. The paper featured two articles detailing the violence of the British Army and the RUC in Northern Ireland, explaining why the Provisional IRA enjoyed popular support. And like the Morning Star, the paper carried a statement from the SWP on the bombing under the headline ‘No Way to Win’. This statement acknowledged that many socialists would not have been upset if the bombing had inflicted more casualties amongst the Conservatives, but still condemned the bombing as the incorrect way to defeat Thatcher and to remove the British from Northern Ireland. The paper said:

We think the IRA made a mistake in planting the bomb last week, because such methods are not going to inflict a real defeat on the Tories…

In fact, the result would have been very different. The establishment would have found another set of Tory politicians to represent them, and these would have used the confusion caused by the bombing to push through repressive measures aimed at anyone sympathising with the cause of Irish freedom…

Indeed it would have made it easier for the system to continue in both Britain and Ireland. In Britain it would provide a wonderful excuse for the Tories to increase their repressive powers. In Ireland, it would have encouraged the illusion that a few courageous people with guns and bombs can act as a substitute for the struggles of the mass of the people.

The SWP stated that they would not condemn the IRA in the manner of the right-wing press, but also understood that the IRA ‘cannot win by bombing campaigns’. The SWP concluded:

The only thing which can shift an employing class is the mass activity and resistance of those its exploits. No amount of individual heroics or clever military stunts can substitute for that.

I wasn’t able to find copies of Militant or Newsline from this period, but due to the wonders of the internet, I thought it would be interesting to also look at how Red Action, a small splinter group from the SWP dedicated to militant anti-fascism, reacted to the bombing, as all copies of Red Action are now online. The attitude of Red Action towards the bombing is significant because Red Action was probably the most pro-Republican leftist group in Britain at the time. As Mark Hayes has written on his chapter on Red Action in our forthcoming volume on the British far left:

Red Action supported local Irish activities and sustained practical political contact with Republican paramilitary organisations. Red Action believed that genuine revolutionary socialist groups should place Irish national liberation high on their agenda.64 According to Red Action the liberal left in Britain had, in effect, abandoned the issue of ‘Northern Ireland’ when the struggle for civil liberties was transformed into an armed insurrection. Even the Trotskyist left, which had the habit of offering ‘conditional support’ for Republicanism, was decidedly equivocal when it came to the use of armalites and semtex… Red Action, on the other hand, resolved to offer unwavering support.

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Issue 15 of Red Action from November 1984 contrasted the IRA bombing with the sinking of the Belgrano by the British (under Thatcher’s orders) during the Falklands War and argued that violence was given a moral worth depending on who perpetrated it. The paper noted that the reaction from the working class towards the bombing was quite muted and that this had changed from the anti-Irish sentiment that was prevalent during the 1970s. It was argued that this latest bombing incident was different because it ‘attacked an obvious and clearly political target’ and because the government ‘had done no favours to the British working class since it had been in office’.

Using the example of the 1981 riots, Red Action stated that the paramilitary policing tactics employed in Northern Ireland were now being used on the British mainland. The group thought that this might create a greater understanding in Britain of the Republican cause. The article finished with this:

Perhaps some of the working class are now beginning to realise that the IRA/INLA are not looney crazed terrorists – just people who realised that the only way that their voice would be heard was by their taking direct physical action against the state.

It cannot be said that the news of the Brighton bomb brought cheers of ‘up the provos’ [sic] but there were plenty of people who thought that it would hsve been better if it had been more successful.

The Brighton bomb gave Thatcher a brief respite from the pressure of the miners strike and public opinion swung behind her momentarily for the first time really ‘since the Falklands War. But many of those who were involved in the strike did not sympathise with Thatcher in the wake of the bombing, although most were critical of the strategies used by the Provisional IRA. The bombing also solidified in her mind that the ‘enemy within’ was a clear and present threat, even though if she wasn’t willing to say it on October 13, 1984 – Irish Republicans, trade unionists, communists, etc, were to be handled with the necessary toughness that the situation required. This line of thinking informed the political and criminal justice outlook of the Thatcher government until its end in November 1990.

Writing the History of the British Far Left: Book launch talk on Youtube

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Last month, Matthew Worley and I pre-emptively launched our forthcoming edited collection, Against the Grain: The British Far Left from 1956 (Manchester University Press, 2014), at the London Socialist Historians Group seminar series, located within London’s Institute of Historical Research. The launch was well attended, but was a bit more formal than I had anticipated. So I gave a 30 min talk on compiling the book (reading a few excerpts from the intro) and we had a short Q&A (which was perhaps dominated by discussion of whether the book should have included pictures).  The IHR now records most of its seminars and the talk I gave is now available on Youtube. You can listen to it below.

As with all my media appearances, I haven’t been able to listen to myself speak, but hopefully it is enlightening to others.

By the way, the book will be out in October. Please recommend it to your university, college or council library.

EDITED TO ADD: You can now also listen to the talk as a podcast here.

Against the Grain: The British far left from 1956 – chapter list announcement

The proofs have been handed back to Manchester University Press. The index has been compiled. All we need to do now is wait until the book is published.

And with that, I’d thought I would finally publish the list of chapters and authors contributing to the collection. We are very happy with the wide range of topics and of authors, both activists and academics, as well as young and more established scholars. Matt and I have enjoyed putting this collection together and hope it will be widely read by all of those interested in the British far left, from either an academic or activist perspective (or both).

So here it is:

From the third issue of 'The Reasoner' (Nov 1956) by E.P. Thompson and John Saville

From the third issue of ‘The Reasoner’ (Nov 1956) by E.P. Thompson and John Saville

AGAINST THE GRAIN: THE BRITISH FAR LEFT FROM 1956 (Manchester University Press, 2014)

Evan Smith & Matthew Worley (eds)

Introduction: the far left in Britain from 1956

Evan Smith and Matthew Worley 

Part I Movements

1 Engaging with Trotsky: the influence of Trotskyism in Britain

John Callaghan 

2 The New Left: beyond Stalinism and social democracy?

Paul Blackledge

3 Narratives of radical lives: the roots of 1960s activism and the making of the British left

Celia Hughes

4 Marching separately, seldom together: the political history of two principal trends in British Trotskyism, 1945–2009

Phil Burton-Cartledge 

5 Opposition in slow motion: the CPGB’s ‘anti-revisionists’ in the 1960s and 1970s

Lawrence Parker

6 Dissent from dissent: the ‘Smith/Party’ Group in the 1970s CPGB

Andrew Pearmain

7 British anarchism in the era of Thatcherism

Rich Cross

Part II Issues

8 Jam tomorrow? Socialist women and Women’s Liberation, 1968–82: an oral history approach

Sue Bruley

9 Something new under the sun: the revolutionary left and gay politics

Graham Willett

10 ‘Vicarious pleasure’? The British far left and the third world, 1956–79

Ian Birchall 

11 Anti-racism and the socialist left, 1968–79

Satnam Virdee

 12 Red Action – left-wing pariah: Some observations regarding ideological apostasy and the discourse of proletarian resistance

Mark Hayes

13 Anti-fascism in Britain, 1997–2012

David Renton

BRS1977

Hopefully the book will be out in the next few months. As soon as publication date has been set, be sure that I will announce it on this blog.

 

Far left book update

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In case you were wondering, here’s an update on the far left edited collection being put together by Matthew Worley and myself. Against the Grain: The British far left since 1956 is currently at the copy-edit stage with Manchester University Press and we anticipate a release date in April/May 2014. We are hoping to have launches for the book in London and Manchester in late June 2014.

We are very excited about this forthcoming volume and the wider range of topics covered, by new and established scholars. A chapter/author list will be posted in the near future, but the book will include chapters on the following subjects:

  • the transmission of Trotsky’s ideas amongst the Labour left
  • the first new left
  • the political education of young radicals in the 1950s/60s
  • the trajectories of Militant/SP and the IS/SWP
  • the development of anti-revisionism inside the CPGB
  • opposition groups inside the CPGB
  • anarchism in the 1980s
  • Red Action and the AFA
  • the far left and women’s liberation
  • the far left and gay/lesbian rights
  • the far left and the ‘Third World’
  • the far left and the anti-racist movement 
  • militant anti-fascism in the 21st century

Further information on publication date and chapter titles/authors will be made available soon.

Thanks for the interest people have already shown in the forthcoming book.