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The Collieries of Wales




Courageous class fighters
Weekly Worker 518 Thursday March 4th 2004


A few years ago, I remember hearing a story that some members of the Socialist Labour Party who were then close to its president, Arthur Scargill, initially resisted the setting up of a newspaper. Their argument ran along the lines of the SLP not needing a paper of its own, as it was very different from the rest of the sects. As it turned out, the organisation did get its deadly dull Socialist News on Scargill’s own insistence.

Unfortunately, one can only assume that his belief in the need to publish does not extend to cyberspace, for King Arthur’s other fiefdom, the National Union of Mineworkers (he remains honorary president), does not appear willing or able to put together even a simple website of its own - particularly surprising when you consider that next week sees the 20th anniversary of the miners’ Great Strike. The nearest to an NUM site is a small page hosted by the TUC’s search engine (www.worksmart.org.uk/unionfinder). Here we have the NUM emblem, its address and phone number, and official membership figures (5,001). Yet the fields for email and website are empty. Not a promising start.

A simple search delivers some mining-related information, partially making up for the lack of an official union site. The first item turning up in my search was a very rough history of mining in Britain (www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/TUminers.htm). This concentrates on the initial movement for the unionisation of the industry in the 19th century. Though purporting to be a page about the NUM, the postwar union only gets a mention in the final paragraph. Incredibly the strike does not get a look-in either. Instead we are blandly informed that “with the decline in the demand for coal, numbers in the industry continued to fall and by the early 1980s membership of the NUM was under 250,000”. I guess it would be too much to expect better from a resource serving schools and colleges.

In every respect, the Coalfield Web Materials site (www.agor.org.uk/cwm) hosted by University of Wales, Swansea is better. The architecture is organised around five themes, ‘Events’, ‘Life’, ‘Place’, ‘People’, and ‘Love and hate’, with each linking to a page of short pieces concerning particular topic areas. The ‘Life’ link, for instance, organises pages around the women, politics, education, etc of the South Wales coalfield. The ‘Events’ page carries material concerning key battles and events in the 20th century. The account it gives of the 84-85 strike is pretty neutral, but does highlight the ballot issue. Nevertheless there are suggestions for further reading. There is also a link to a broad outline of the NUM, but this is taken from a 1977 book, so do not expect anything on Scargill’s behind-the-scenes shenanigans in the NUM (see Weekly Worker July 11 2002). Whilst on a South Wales theme, the Gathering the jewels Welsh cultural history website (www.gtj.org.uk/subjects.php?la-ng=en&s=2613) carries a number of branch and lodge banners.

In much the same vein, the Mining History Network (www.ex.ac.uk/~rburt/minhistnet/bibtoc.html) is basically a bibliography of scholarly books, theses and papers on nearly all aspects of mining in Britain, from the technological to the sociological.

The next item is a bland, text-based page from the Wikipedia online encyclopaedia (www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/national_union_of_mineworkers). Though the associated paragraph is worthless as regards information, there is an option for viewers to submit their own entry which could then be incorporated into the encyclopaedia.

As for accounts of the Great Strike itself, these are thin on the ground. Staffordshire’s Past Track project (www.search.staffspasttrack.org.uk) offers scenes from the struggle around Stoke-on-Trent, accompanied by short descriptions for each photo. The next item to come up is an analysis of the strike (www.fredriley.org.uk/weblog/hamster.html). Reflecting on the excruciating Channel 4 ‘documentary’ of a few weeks back (see Weekly Worker February 5), ‘Fred’ lays into the Nottingham miners who defied the strike and continued working: “Had they come out, the miners would have been in with an even chance of winning … but they didn’t strike, and are thus directly responsible for the defeat,” he concludes.

Strangely it is down to Aslef, the train drivers’ union, to provide a commemorative page. It lists a number of miners’ meetings over the next year, and offers photos and a strike timeline. The most interesting feature is a Guardian (January 11) article by Dave Feickert, which looks at the issues of technology displacing miners’ jobs. This shows how the restructuring/profitability issue was used as a smokescreen, and notes how NUM proposals to manage the decline in mining was rejected out of hand.

It is unfortunate there is no single comprehensive resource documenting the proud history of mining communities in Britain. At the very least there should be an online monument worthy of these courageous class fighters.

Phil Hamilton

This and other articles can be found in the Weekly Worker's Archives