In the summer of 2012 a small group of ex-miners and labour movement activists met in a pub in Sheffield. We had just heard of the Spanish miners’ strike against the attempts by the right-wing government of Manuel Rajoy to withdraw subsidies to the mining industry and thereby, in effect, close it down.
A ‘fact-finding’ trip to Spain then followed and on returning to the UK a Spanish Miners Solidarity Committee was formed, raising 28,000 Euro in something like six weeks – money that went to support the families of the strikers. After which time the miners called off the strike.
Nevertheless, I wasn’t that surprised to read the short report in Solidarity (no. 484) about the agreement with the government to close the industry down. For the last 30-40 years mining across Europe has been relentlessly contracted and one by one the coalfields of the continent, whose memories are etched into working class history, have gone.
Given the direction of European Union energy and environmental policy it is illusory to believe that coal has any future left in Europe. From South Wales to Silesia, Yorkshire to the Borinage, the Pas de Calais to the Jiu valley in Romania the mines have closed, soon to be joined by ‘Red Asturias’ and the mines of Leon and Castille.
The last pages are now being turned in a history which has been central to the struggles of the European labour movement from the very earliest days of the industrial revolution.
This is a time both for reflection – on a glorious and proud past and for some hard-nosed thinking. The Pas de Calais, once the centre of France’s militant mining community is now one of the power bases for Marine Le Pen and her racist National Rally party (formerly the National Front). The ‘old’ left in France, both the Socialist Party and the Communist Party (and its successor organisations) must take their share of responsibility for this state of affairs while a rejuvenated French left, which must surely come, will have to fight to win back this region – anything less is a betrayal of all the sacrifices that past generations have made.
For the history of the working class movement is punctuated and in some places defined by the struggles, defeats and victories of the miners: from around the world hundreds of miners answered the call to fight for the Spanish republic; in the UK in 1972, 1974 and 1984-5 the miners and their allies took on the Tory governments of the day and in the first two instances forced ignominious defeat on them; the only major resistance to the dictatorship of the Ceauşescu dictatorship in Romania came from the miners of the Jiu Valley; in Red Asturias, the miners, guns in hand, fought pitched battles with the troops of Franco; while in Czechoslovakia the mining village of Lidice paid a terrible price for anti-fascist resistance when 340 inhabitants were murdered by the Gestapo …the list could go on.
Future generations may never hold a lump of coal in their hands or see a head gear (except in a mining museum) but history is a living thing, it doesn’t exist just in books, it is to be found in both memory and practice. In the present we also act out the past and build the future – history, present, future all becomes one. The values of the miners, their comradeship, solidarity and political struggle will live on and continue to inspire.
The Welsh miner poet, Mogg Williams finished his poem about the 1984-5 strike with the words ‘…we belong to history’ but he didn’t mean this in any passive way. This is most definitely not ‘emotion recollected in tranquility’ to use the phrase of Wordsworth after he had abandoned his youthful radicalism. The words of Mogg Williams are those of a righteous and justified anger, of militancy and struggle.
The miners may belong to history but they also belong to the present and the future. To the many miners I met in Spain in that eventful summer of 2012 I can only say ‘la lucha continua’ – ‘the fight goes on’. You will be there, in the collective memory and in every fight till we achieve our final victory. No Pasaran!
John Cunningham once worked at Dinnington Colliery, South Yorkshire and was treasurer and secretary of the Spanish Miners Solidarity Committee in 2012