I was reading the headlines last week about the so-called ‘cost of living crisis’ and in particular the cost of filling a car with petrol or diesel. And it struck me that newspapers like The Guardian, who were punching the government about not doing enough to help, were wrongheaded in their approach to this issue. Because the fact is that this government’s freeze on the fuel tax accumulator over the past 10 years has kept prices artificially low. And if we want to encourage people (including the people writing these words) out of their cars and onto bicycles and public transport, then the cost of running a car needs to get higher, not lower. And then yesterday, when the remaining electric car purchase subsidy was lifted (finally!), we should be cheering from the rooftops because private car ownership is not the answer. Doesn’t matter whether we’re driving electric or diesel or petrol: we need to be consuming less. Of everything.
And this has been the problem really, since the privatisation of the utility companies in the 1980s. A for-profit privatised electricity generator and distributor has no incentive to encourage consumer economy, fuel parsimony. Since 1986, nobody has been telling us to switch off lights, have showers instead of baths, turn the heating down a notch or rely less on electrical gadgets. (The logo above comes from a UK government energy saving campaign in the early 1970s.)
Which brings us to Sherwood (BBC iPlayer)
As time has passed, the stand-off between the British government and the coalminers in 1984-5 looms larger and larger in our national psyche. The more remote these stakes are from the lives of subsequent generations, the greater its significance in legend. At the time, it seemed both like a fight to save a way of life and a form of brutal, petty vengeance that had been a long time coming. How long? *cracks knuckles*
In 1910, Winston Churchill (then Home Secretary), sent troops to break a 10-month long strike in Wales by charging striking miners with fixed bayonets. The consequence of this was eventually a national strike in 1912 (referenced by J B Priestley in An Inspector Calls, natch), with over a million coalminers flexing their industrial muscles. The government of 1914-18 then tried to use the excuse of war to attack miners’ pay and conditions (a classic play they repeated in 1939-45), and the fractious relationship between the government, the mine owners, and the miners led to the General Strike of 1926. While the national version of this strike was short-lived, the miners were out for seven months.
The disputes and confrontations continued into the hungry 1930s, with miners’ pay and conditions continually under attack. In Nottinghamshire, where a breakaway (‘Spencer’) union had formed, pay was the lowest in the country (because that’s what you get when you undermine solidarity). Miners loyal to the main national trade union (then called the MFGB) were victimised. Sound familiar?
After the Second World War, the government nationalised the coal mines, and the new National Union of Mineworkers was formed. This powerhouse union had the ability to bring the country to a standstill: and did. But not straight away. This country was, frankly, a socialist paradise between 1945 and 1966, so it wasn’t until 1972 that the first strike of the modern era happened. It only lasted a month or so, and the miners achieved an improved pay offer from the Heath-led Conservative government. That’s what strikes are for.
Following the 1973 oil shock, there was another miners’ strike in 1974, after an overtime ban had reduced coal stocks. In response to the coal shortage, the Heath government introduced the three-day working week (yes please!) and anyone old enough to remember those days will recall the heady thrill of nightly power cuts: candles at the ready! ITV and BBC took it in turns to stop broadcasting at 10:30 pm. Bed time, everyone! Oh, and SAVE IT.
With the miners now voting to strike, Heath went to the country, asking the electorate to choose who was running the country. Voters (narrowly) chose Harold Wilson’s Labour party (and then again in the October 1974 election).
Humiliated, the Conservatives brooded like trolls until they were back in power. Thatcher’s 1979 government was perhaps not secure enough to take on the miners, so she waited until after the 1983 election to have the showdown her party had been waiting nearly 10 years to have. And it was brutal.
Nominally, this was a dispute over the future of the industry. Nowadays, I have mixed feelings. I didn’t want communities all over the country, from Kent to Wales and Nottingham to Yorkshire and Scotland, to die. But nowadays I know that we really should have stopped digging coal out of the ground a long time ago. All those Tomorrow’s World etc. segments about wind and wave power, from the 1950s onwards, should have been taken more seriously. But Thatcher’s project of closing down the coal industry wasn’t about the environment and climate change. She wanted to put the mines down so she could put the miners down. Revenge was her dish, and she had been prepared so long that it was indeed served cold.
Even though the miners were on strike for a year, there were no power cuts; there was no three-day week. Coal had been stockpiled, a lot of power stations had converted to gas, and the government was importing coal from the continent. The miners were fucked.
This didn’t stop the Nottinghamshire miners, who had a history of this kind of thing, from forming a breakaway union and continuing to work (they were not alone, actually: the strike was never solid). It didn’t save them: they betrayed their comrades for nothing.
As a young union organiser at the time, in the tax office union, I did my bit to support the strike. Organised raffles, raised money to pay striking miners. Because of this activity, I was definitely blacklisted by the government, and my own working career blighted (I’ve written about this before).
The miners were defeated, the unions and the trades union movement broken, and (as such), we were all damaged. The hedge fund managers, the Tory spivs, moved in, the Labour movement was enfeebled, heavy industry was hollowed out, and debt took over as the means people use to make ends meet. The average credit card debt per household in March this year was £2,173. It now takes 26 years, at average savings rates, to put aside enough money for a deposit on a house. Average debt per UK adult is now 108% of earnings (source).
Many communities have never recovered. For our Oxford and Cambridge educated political and media elites, the wild country North of Watford Gap is a blasted wasteland of hoodies and deprivation. People up there put cheese on their chips.
This is all background to Sherwood, the BBC’s new drama about a murder in a former coal mining community (a former community is the best way to put it) in Nottinghamshire.
A friend asked me if I thought it was realistic that someone would (nearly 40 years later) be called a scab, as one character was in the first episode. I replied, I would.
I’ve often said on here how I look out of the window and seethe with dislike towards my Tory neighbours. The flag wavers across the road, the white-haired, red-trousered old men I see around the neighbourhood and in the local supermarkets. I’ve also said on here that Thatcher was my Vietnam. The fact is, my anger and resentment towards the people who live around here (and who have consistently returned a Conservative MP to Parliament at every single election) does date back forty years. And, yes, I’ll still mutter fascist under my breath when I see that union jack draped outside the house opposite. It’s not as if these are the people benefitting when London is turned into the world’s money laundering capital. But they’re the ones who keep voting for it. Nothing worse, as I often say, than a working class Tory.
So Sherwood does seem quite authentic, as far as the social background goes. The Guardian awarded five stars and was fulsome in its praise. The Times, true to form (as the newspaper of the spivs), offered a more grudging four stars.
Me? I think it’s all right, but nothing like this will ever wholly win me over. Too many clichés of the form. The opening aerial drone shot of the forest (see every Scandi noir, and any other rural-set thriller); the local cop who grew up in the community and is now semi-detached from it because s/he’s one of the few with a steady job; the lock-up full of surprising evidence; the raft of familiar faces, from that woman who always plays the slightly less well off sister to the guy who always plays the hard-headed class warrior, and the other guy who always plays the haunted-looking geezer you wouldn’t want to encounter in the dark. I can never really get past the small pool of talent that British TV producers draw from. But even the “working class community fallen on hard times and divided against itself” theme is a hoary old trope. The same critics were surely gushing about the same idea in Mare of Easttown just last year.
Anyway, it’s watchable, it’s on the iPlayer, and it’s another reminder that our country and its assets was stolen from us. If you need me, I’m over here: the human face being stamped on by a boot—forever.