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The Big Meeting

The 123rd Annual Durham Miners Gala or the 'Big Meeting' as it is called took place on Saturday 14th July. Defying forecasts of the torrential rain which had fell incessantly for weeks, 70,000 people were blessed with glorious sunshine which reigned all day and into the evening. The spender and magnificence of Durham takes some putting into words. Hundreds of traditional Lodge banners from the cornerstones of industrial history and a once massive coal industry parade each year. Thirty five brass bands, now frequently staffed by youngsters alongside older musicians, march with huge martial and pomp and circumstance.
The banners, bearing the age old messages of solidarity, class struggle, and 'the World for the Workers' together with religious themes of mutual aid and compassion. Where the ancient lodge banner has given up the ghost and long ago disintergrated into dust, new recommissioned banners take their place. Banner Committees, draw in the people of the old community, old colliers and their families and people who never seen a pit head. The last mine closed in Durham in 1994, some might have thought the culture and tradition of the miners would rapidly die as we became faceless unemployed or soulless service workers lost in sea of low pay and dog eat dog. They would have been mistaken, the Durham miners communities refused to die, refused to give up the vision of a better world, a world of co-operation and solidarity and an end to capitalism.

This year as every year, miners from across the globe marched with us, previously Australians and Canadians, this year Hungarians, and Poles. German miners in their pit uniforms strode through the crowds.

Durham is now supported by most of the big unions, their contingents growing year by year and from further and further a field. Union leaders on the platform often reflect the extent to their union's involvement. Tony Woodley, (of TGWU/Unite)
Paul Kenny, Gen Sec of GMB, and even the TUC in the guise of its Deputy General Secretary Frances O Grady who actually made one of the most powerful speeches of the day. Dennis Skinner a long time favourite speaker because of his irreverence to the Tories, Thatcher and the monarchy, with no Tory windmill to tilt at this year instead gave us a lesson in what this government had done for us all. Sadly he wasn't being sarcastic. It was a little sad actually, although very critical of the war, and he pointed out he, unlike the Liberals has opposed it while it's still on and not just before it started, in the end was trying to tell us New Labour wasn't just the Tories by another name. The crowd seemed far from convinced. The crowd it must be said this year was the largest I have ever seen actually listening to the speakers; the field was massed with working people and their families. Woodley was trying to put a spin in Gate Gormay, saying the law didn't allow the BA luggage handlers to take secondary action but he had been proud of them and they had saved 170 of the jobs at the Gormays. He ducked from the fact that if ever we were going to kick those anti union laws into touch, that action starting at Heathrow could have been the spark. It should have been let rip right through the industry and then across all TGWU sites and industries with an appeal for all workers to down tools in solidarity with the Gate Gormay workers- we couldn't have wished for a better issue, more strongly felt across the country. This could have been our 1971 docker's action which killed the Industrial Relations Bill of the period, with a wildcat general strike. Instead we had had the TGWU telling workers not to take solidarity action.

He and the other leaders dodged it, because they were scared of sequestration, scared of loosing the trappings of office and the privileged positions that go with it. Not for him Jack Taylor's (President of the Yorkshire Miners in 1984) resolve as the sequestrators moved in that "if we have to run the union out of a Porto cabin at the bottom of my garden then that is what we shall do".

Davie Hopper the militant secretary of the Durham miners, lambasted Blair "invited ten years running and ignored ten years running" ridiculing his appointment as a peace envoy and attacking his role in Government. It is little surprise no Labour Leader has been back here though, since Kinnock was booed off stage following his stabbing us in the back during the great strike. Prescott had got some right welly too from the crowds about Liverpool dockers, and anti union laws. Imagen the response Blair would have got and before the eyes of the media? Davie's demand nonetheless was realistic, this was the real arena of his constituency, these were the people who he was supposed to represent, and it was this crowd he should have had the guts to face.

Ian Lavery the current president of the NUM gave a no compromise defence of clean coal as a technology to meet global warming and climate change. A little tongue in cheek he 'blamed the cows not the miners' for most of the CO2 being expended. Actually if he had blamed meat eaters in the west and the big meat companies he wouldn't have been far off the mark, not just the CO2 but the forests they decimate and burn to make room for all those cows.

The SWP were meantime leafleting the crowd with Respect 'Make The Break From Labour' leaflets, I couldn't resist asking them when they were going to 'make the break from Islam'?

The gala fringe is a mass of leftist and campaigning stalls, do it yourself booksellers and historians, mining memorabilia, pit lamps, strike badges, photos. A few years back they were selling confiscated truncheons, police helmets and radios from the strike (I had considered hauling my riot shield along, but gave it to a deserving collector instead) they contrast to the big exhibition tents by the big unions, or the council history societies or the library.

The music stage was a treat of folk song and invited ethnic diversity as Indian dancers in traditional custom accompanied by an Indian version of a brass and drum band wowed the crowds. Kids delighted in face paint, and screams of terror came from the big fair ground rides adjacent to the field.

It was absolutely heartening to see the masses of young people there out enjoying themselves and Durham has again become a place where teenagers go to em 'engage', and tumble on the grassy banks by the river, or else partake in underage drinking as we ourselves did so many years ago.

After staging a provocation in 2004 with the riot police putting on a show of strength but then rapidly backing off as the pitmen and their communities rushed to meet the challenge, the cops have kept a lower than low profile. The only exception was their new tactic this year of moving in near the final hours of the gala to disperse groups of youngsters doing nothing more than being young and together. This caused a few short lived fights and some arrests. Last year an inter-village fight between teenage groups had erupted in the field near the end and taken the cops completely by surprise. This used to be an unwelcome feature of the gala up to 40 years ago and was commonplace. Obviously the cops decided they aren't going to let it become a tradition. Could be they give rise to another tradition for which we became famous in 84/85..fighting the cops.

Durham yes is about nostalgia, it's a historic pageant, it's a procession of our history and culture as it was when we had 200,000 miners and when we had I million miners.
But it is also about now, the slogans and banners, the inevitable groups of striking workers each year taking pride of place in the march, express that this is vital and real. The speeches are not history lessons, they are about politics, the state, control, and fighting back, and while it is a long time since Peter Kropotkin was a regular guest on stage at Durham, this gala is still a place for Anarchists. It would be nice to see many more comrades from the anarchist movement there next year, perhaps in sufficient numbers to stage an 'addendum to the platform' following the official platform?? I'm certain it would be a success.

David Douglass

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