BY Juliet Jacques in Opinion | 28 JUN 24

Art Keeps the Memory of Protest Movements Alive

Juliet Jacques revisits books, film and art which commemorate the 40th anniversary of the British miners’ strike and working class politics

BY Juliet Jacques in Opinion | 28 JUN 24

On display at Bishop Auckland’s Mining Art Gallery as part of ‘The Last Cage Down’ – an exhibition commemorating the 40th anniversary of the UK miners’ strike – Robert Olley’s painting Orgreave after Guernica (2018) combines two of the western left’s most disastrous defeats of the 20th century. Referencing Pablo Picasso’s infamous 1937 depiction of the fascist bombing of a Basque town during the Spanish Civil War (1936–39), Olley portrays the pitched battle between picketing miners and South Yorkshire police at a British Steel Corporation coking plant in Rotherham in 1984. The Battle of Orgreave, as it became known, generated the most enduring visual images of the strike. Almost medieval in nature, this episode of legalized state violence was widely broadcast, with the BBC notoriously editing the footage to look like the miners had provoked the police – justifying the violent disorder charges used at high-profile trials to turn public opinion against them.

Appropriating Picasso’s famous horse motif, Olley shows the police trampling over unarmed men cowering under truncheons and riot shields. This scene depicts the conclusion to the Battle; another work in the exhibition – Barrie Ormsby’s Miners’ Strike 1984 (c.1980s), a social-realist watercolour – anticipates it, showing the miners and police facing off in a countryside pit village. The work draws its power from the knowledge of what came next: not just the brutality of the attack, but the realization that the South Yorkshire police were prepared, with their ranks bolstered from elsewhere, and that the media lies which enabled the UK state to cover up its tactics, defeat the miners and launch a long war against organized workers were so effective that, in later years, Labour leader Tony Blair could boast about making UK law ‘the most restrictive on trade unions in the Western world’.

Barrie Ormsby, Miners' Strike 1984, c.1980s, watercolour on paper. Courtesy: The Mining Art Gallery, Bishop Auckland

Canongate’s recent John Berger anthology, The Underground Sea: Miners and the Miners’ Strike (2024), edited by Tom Overton and Matthew Harle, contains one brief essay pertaining to the strike, entitled ‘Miners’ (1989). It’s Berger at his most incendiary, asking what happens when ‘the just cause is defeated [and] the courageous are humiliated’ and ‘you realize that they are out to break you’ – your skills, communities, clubs, poetry, homes and bones. Berger did not claim to know the answer, but called for art to judge the judges, and to ‘[show] to the future what the past has suffered’ so it will never be forgotten. In books more extensively documenting the strike, which follow Berger’s imperative, Orgreave looms large, be it Seumas Milne’s definitive history, The Enemy Within: The Secret War Against the Miners (1994), or David Peace’s novel GB84 (2004). Jeremy Deller famously re-created it for his film The Battle of Orgreave in 2001, casting 200 former miners to re-enact the confrontation as he saw it on television in 1984.

The original footage also features in contemporary agitprop by independent filmmakers, collected on the British Film Institute’s The Miners’ Campaign Tapes (1984), but these works emphasize the importance of solidarity – from other unions, and from Women Against Pit Closures – although the Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners alliance does not feature, being memorialized instead in Matthew Warchus’s film Pride (2014), released 30 years after the strike began. The recordings share techniques with the scratch video movement, using rapid montages over pop and post-punk music alongside interviews with union figures and left-wing politicians, such as Tony Benn and Dennis Skinner.

John Berger, The Underground Sea: Miners and the Miners' Strike, 2024, book cover. Courtesy: Canongate 

A battle was also being waged for control over the strike’s visual imagery: print unions refused to publish a The Sun newspaper cover featuring a faked photo of Arthur Scargill, leader of the National Union of Mineworkers, doing a Nazi salute. Incensed, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher sought to destroy the print unions, too. The results of her actions can still be witnessed all around us: on the desolate high streets of deindustrialized and depopulated former mining towns; in precarious employment and minimal workers’ rights; and in the barely regulated and politically beholden media outlets that manufacture consent for disasters ranging from austerity to the Iraq War.

Labour leader Neil Kinnock and his shadow cabinet did not support the miners’ strike, and the party did not elect a figurehead who wanted to discuss its legacy for another 30 years, when Jeremy Corbyn took charge and made Seumas Milne his director of communications. During that time, it was left largely to people on the margins of politics, publishing and the arts to keep its memory alive, either by collating the visual culture of that traumatic year or by creating it anew. The Rough Trade anthology In Loving Memory of Work (2023) – edited by Craig Oldham, himself a miner’s son – is ‘a visual record of and testament to the creative and cultural dissent of the working-class miners, their wives, families and communities’ during the strike. Its posters and slogans remain simple and striking, while the photographs capture a different world: men and women separated into workers and supporters, no middle management placed amongst employees to smooth over class conflicts.

Craig Oldham, In Loving Memory of Work, 2023, book spread. Courtesy: Rough Trade Books

At more recent protests – notably against poor pay and redundancies at Tate in 2020 – I saw similar banners to those in Oldham’s anthology, including one belonging to veterans of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners. By then, the anti-austerity, anti-authoritarian and anti-deindustrialization strands that fed into Corbyn’s Labour had suffered a chastening electoral defeat, and have since become as badly scattered as they were after the miners returned to work in March 1985. But compiling the art and craft of a movement, and continuing to depict its key moments after its loss, can keep its embers burning, and help its memory to inform other struggles for justice in the future.

Main image: Matthew Warchus, Pride, 2014, film still. Courtesy: BBC Films

Juliet Jacques is a writer, filmmaker, broadcaster and academic. Her short story collection, Variations, was published by Influx Press in June 2022. Her second short story collection, The Woman in the Portrait, will be published in July.