Thursday, 19 March 2009


Conisbrough was a typical South Yorkshire mining village when I spent the first seven months of 1971 teaching there. It boasted a surprisingly well-preserved Norman Keep and the coal mine at Denaby. The mine dominated the village: pretty well every household had a member working down the pit or, failing that, a near relative from outside the immediate family.

Conisbrough Castle: not a sight I expected to see in a mining village

The school where I taught, Northcliffe County High, had previously had a reputation for being particularly tough. It was the kind of place where teachers would lock themselves in the staff room on the last day of school of the so-called Easter Leavers: these were kids who were getting out at the earliest possible opportunity from an institution which they felt had restricted their freedom while teaching them nothing worth knowing. They liked to lie in wait for any teacher unwary enough to wander into the yard and vent their frustration on him – or her. The legend had it that one teacher had been forced into a metal dustbin which had then been thrown over the school wall. Apparently the experience had been conducive to neither health nor happiness.

By the time I got there, however, the school was being run by Arthur Young, one of the most inspirational head teachers I’ve met. He was a former woodwork teacher and most schools prefer to appoint heads from more academic backgrounds. It took him 33 applications to land Northcliffe County High, presumably because nobody else would touch the place.

‘The worst moment,’ he told me, ‘was when I brought my wife to see the school. That evening, I nearly withdrew my application.’

Well, he didn’t. And he transformed the school. When I was teaching there, the school boasted a new building for the growing majority of students who were preparing to sit exams. Many of them went on to finish school at Mexborough Sixth Form College, in the next town, with a view to going on to university studies, something that would have been unthinkable a few years earlier.

There were some colourful characters at Northcliffe. One of my students was Dougie D’Eath, called Dougie Death by everyone – he even spelled his name that way, but then spelling was never his strong point. That was something I discovered in the remedial classes where I tried to teach him to read and gave up teaching him to write. Dougie was tiny but fired by immense enthusiasm and loyalty, even offering on one occasion to lie in wait for another and much larger kid who was giving me trouble, and beat the living daylights out of him. Had the fight taken place, I have no doubt Dougie would have won.

A high point in my stay was hearing another teacher berating a child in a queue outside a classroom. If you know the voice of Alan Bennett, conjure it up now: this teacher spoke in just that camp Yorkshire accent.

‘You’re daft,’ he was saying. ‘I taught your mother, and she was daft. I taught your father, and he was daft. I often wondered what would happen if they got together, and you’re it.’

If the school was tough, the pit was tougher. A few years earlier, the Denaby football team was threatened with expulsion from the local league, for persistent violent fouls on opponents. To be safe, the club decided that for its next match it would field a team of effete intellectuals – men of relatively slight build, who knew how to read a rule book and tried to respect it, even when the ref wasn’t looking.

Just in case the other side took advantage of this emasculated team, however, they kept one of their biggest and most fearsome players as substitute on the bench.

The match got started and was quickly running against Denaby. The opposition took full advantage of the situation and indulged itself in an orgy of violence. Shortly after half time, with the team trailing badly, a Denaby player was brought down in a particularly cynical foul and had to be stretchered off.

The coach looked across the pitch.

‘Release the sub!’ he shouted.

The colossal player rose and loomed on to the pitch. I’ll draw a veil over what happened next. Let’s just say that Denaby was able to save the day.

Conisbrough was kind to me. I spent a lot of time drinking John Smith’s bitter in the Castle Working Men’s Club, where I listened to Ceili music and played bingo. I visited houses that were modest but which had been turned into homes that were rich. I made friends who were warm, kind and loyal.

I returned to Conisbrough in 1972 and 1974, curious to see how the miners’ strikes in those two years were going. The extent and depth of support from the community to the strikers was breathtaking. Shopkeepers gave food, cigarettes, confectionery for free. Since everyone had a relative in the pit, everyone regarded the fight as their own.

NACODS, the union of mine overseers and deputies, the foremen or junior managers, hadn’t joined the strike, though its members were told not to cross picket lines. Under instructions to attempt to work if possible, a Deputy drove down to Denaby one freezing night. There was no picket at the gates. He parked his car and went into the National Union of Mineworkers hut nearby. The men were inside, warming themselves at a brazier.

‘What’s going on?’ he admonished them. ‘Shouldn’t someone be on the picket line?’

There was a chorus of apologies and one of the strikers struggled into his donkey jacket. The Deputy collected his car and drove up to the gate again, to be confronted by the coalminer in the middle of the road. The Deputy wound down his window.

‘What’s this then?’ he asked.

‘Official NUM picket line,’ came the answer.

‘Fair enough,’ said the Deputy, turned his car and drove away.

The second strike, of 1974, has gone down in mythology as having brought down a Conservative government. Of course, that’s an overstatement. There was no revolution, the constitution was respected and there’s no constitutional provision for a government to be brought down by an industrial group, even one as proud and powerful as the miners. What happened is that the Prime Minister, Ted Heath, called an election on the calculation that there would be a backlash against the strike and the swing of votes to his side would see him re-elected. He got it wrong, but not by much: the Conservatives took more votes than Labour but Labour won four more parliamentary seats, enough to form a minority government.

So in a sense the strike brought down the government. And many of us rejoiced, though with hindsight I think we rejoiced too soon. The Conservatives lost again in October 1974 and Ted Heath had to go. For all his faults, Heath was relatively open to the concept that he didn’t have a monopoly on the truth. Another candidate who threw her hat in the ring was never bothered by such inconvenient doubts. She was a former Education Secretary, famous or at least notorious for only one thing: she had put an end to free milk in schools, a measure which saved some trivial amount of money and caused real hardship to some of the poorest children. Obscure, ill-connected and from a modest background, she had no chance of winning the leadership. Her campaign was brilliantly handled by two of the most astute politicians in the Conservative Party, Airey Neave and Norman Tebbit. Working on small groups of Conservative parliamentarians separately, and presenting to each the different aspects of their candidate’s policies that would specifically appeal to them, they persuaded many to vote for her in the first round of balloting only, simply to frighten Ted Heath. Unfortunately, so many cast their votes for her on that basis that she emerged from the ballot with a commanding lead over other candidates. The result: we got Maggie Thatcher as leader of the Conservatives.

The Unions, meanwhile, proud at having unseated one government, flexed their muscles against the next. In the winter of 1978 to 1979 they ran a series of strikes that came to be known as the ‘Winter of Discontent’. The result was a popular revulsion against Labour and the May 1979 election was won by Thatcher, with her promise to tame union action.

By 1984, the National Union of Mineworkers was no longer led by the highly effective Joe Gormley who had won the strikes in 1972 and 1974. Though his actions had led to the collapse of a right-wing government, in union terms he was himself a right winger. What that chiefly meant was that he was an inveterate anti-Communist. So he did all he could to make sure that he was not followed into the top job by the Scottish miners’ leader, Mick McGahey, a known member of the Communist Party. That would have been fine if he’d had another candidate available as wily and as effective as himself or McGahey. Unfortunately, the next best placed candidate was Arthur Scargill from Yorkshire. Though not a Communist, he was certainly a radical left winger. It quickly became clear that his programme was to drive another Conservative government out of office, as the best means to avoid pit closures and to defend miners’ jobs.

So he managed to get a strike started in March 1984, the worst time of year since that’s when energy demand is falling. He failed to call a national ballot of his members which might have demonstrated full support for the strike. The Union split, with some members working while a majority struck. At the head of a divided union, Scargill was unable to win support from others or the Labour party. In addition, Thatcher was no Heath. She was altogether tougher, indifferent to the suffering of her adversaries and utterly resolved to see any course of action she had decided on through to its conclusion – a trait which would ultimately destroy her own career when she made some major misjudgements and was kicked out by her colleagues.

After a year long strike of growing pain and privation, the miners were broken and returned to work without a settlement.

Ten years later coal mining practically came to an end in Britain.

Worse still, the principles of Thatcherism with its belief that the best way to look after the poor is to enrich the wealthiest – ‘trickle down’ as it used to be called – remain entrenched in our politics. They inspire even the current Labour government. Peter Mandelson, today’s Business Minister, once told us that the Labour Party was ‘intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich as long as they pay their taxes’. Sadly getting filthy rich isn’t likely to be a clean process, and paying taxes is one of the virtues that is pretty quickly dropped. Some of the people that became richest were bankers, and we’re learning every day about the scams they used to avoid paying tax, which hasn’t stopped them turning to the taxpayer to bale them out now that they’ve got us all into trouble.

So we have the filthy rich, and we have the poor that just have to put up with filth.

And what of Conisbrough?

When I lived there it had a population of 16,000. Today, with the pit closed, the population is below 10,000. Unemployment is running at nearly 9.5% against a national average of 5%, but that gives only a partial picture. For many years, officials have been disguising long-term unemployment as disability. In Conisbrough, the sickness and disablement rate runs at over 18% against less than 9% nationally.

That’s the legacy that Thatcher and Scargill left us.

No comments: