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Gary Younge
How the miners' strike taught me to believe in impossible things

'If the civil rights movement is 'dead', and if it gave us nothing else, it gave us each other for ever," wrote a young Alice Walker in The Civil Rights Movement: What Good Was It? - her first published essay. "It gave some of us bread, some of us shelter, some of us knowledge and pride, all of us comfort ... It gave us history and men far greater than presidents. It gave us heroes, selfless men of courage and strength, for our little boys and girls to follow. It gave us hope for tomorrow. It called us to life."

Every generation has its formative political moment, whether it's the Spanish civil war or the Stonewall riots. A moment when the enthusiasm, idealism and impatience of youth has a chance to connect with and impact on vivid and often vicious political reality. A moment that will often go beyond politics and the particular gains and defeats of the day to broader lessons about the society we live in and our possible roles in it. A moment that is deeply personal and yet has nothing, ultimately, to do with us at all.

Mine was the miners' strike. I was 15 and a wannabe revolutionary in search of a revolution. The chances that I would find one in my hometown of Stevenage in Hertfordshire seemed remote. But a few hours away a pitched battle between labour and the state constantly replayed on the evening news simply could not be ignored. Along with adolescent adventure-seeking there was a genuine sense of solidarity and self-interest here. Youth unemployment at the time was over 25%, and for young black men it was far higher. It did not take a huge leap of imagination to join those dots.

As a lesson in how capitalism works, the strike was invaluable. It showed that the state was not neutral and could easily expand its powers to criminalise labour activity. It laid bare the bias of the media and the strategic impotence of the Labour party leadership, which needed the miners to win to remain viable but felt it could not support them and remain credible.

As a lesson in how socialism might work it was edifying. Women kept these communities functioning, and supporters and donations flooded in from across the country and the world. I still recall the conversations of Nottingham miners as they adjusted their worldviews - or at least their language - to the arrival of lesbian and gay, black and feminist support groups. At times I thought the sheer determination to win would carry us through.

But those times were relatively rare. More often you would watch the television report on the "drift back to work", see the riot police in their vans or hear a neighbour complain about how Arthur Scargill, the miners' leader, just got some new carpets fitted, and think: "We don't stand a chance." I remember being driven home one January evening and seeing huge piles of coal, and understanding that the jig was up.

By the time a formal end was announced I had moved on emotionally to imminent A-level exams. But the wounds went deep and cured slowly. I had wedded myself ideologically to the fortunes of the British working class as it was poised to nosedive into inexorable decline. Poverty did not disappear, nor did the people who lived in it. But the organisations created to represent their interests were crushed or imploded and would never really recover.

For me this would mark the beginning of a period of ritual defeat. "If there is no struggle, there is no progress," said the African-American abolitionist Frederick Douglass. "Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will." I kept struggling in the hope that concessions would otherwise never come. Like Beckett's tramps waiting for Godot, I had no idea when they would turn up or what they would look like when they did.

Socialism is an ideology founded on optimism - the hope that the world could be a better place if its relations are rooted in co-operation rather than competition, and solidarity rather than insularity. But for much of my adult life the opportunity to apply those principles has been rare.

If anything, the strike taught me that while a better world was possible, a worse one was far more likely during those years. We lost not only elections but ideological space. The room to understand and explain the world in some other way became cramped.

Twenty five years on, I don't feel the need to pick the scabs of that era as I might if I had been older. The question of whether the unions should have balloted their members and the ethics of secondary picketing seemed esoteric to me at the time, and it is difficult to conjure up indignation about them now. In the words of the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus: "You can't cross the same river twice." The river is different. And you are different.

With hindsight, those days look like a specific chapter in capitalism's own narrative. The protagonists were important - thanks to Scargill, Margaret Thatcher and Neil Kinnock (to name but a few) things developed in a particular way. But they were not essential. There was nothing inevitable about who would benefit, let alone how. Given the nature of technological advance and the limits of the nation state, the plot was always considerably bigger than them. Capitalism was going global and the central role the coal industry had played in the western world since the industrial revolution was diminishing. Most developed nations, whether they had a miners' strike or not, now have towns and cities scarred by economic change and a diminished manufacturing base.

Beyond pits and profits, the real issue in Britain at that time now seems to have been how we managed that decline. Did people matter or would workers and communities be treated as expendable and with contempt? Are we a society that cares for the weak and vulnerable?

If the monetarists' responses to these questions were formulaic and heartless, the left's response was fuzzy and paternalistic. We were seeking to defend the status quo - the postwar consensus of state intervention and the welfare state - which allowed the Tories to pose as dynamic, as though they were embracing change while we sought to stall it.

The idea that there was no alternative was predicated on the invincibility of capitalism. But as we look out over collapsing markets, defaulting countries and begging bankers today, those roles are now reversed. Conservatives (of all partisan colours) are stuck defending an inadequate status quo.

Capitalism, whose inviolability has gone assumed and uninterrogated in the mainstream, now finds itself in intellectual and political retreat. Ideological space is opening up. Bankers and bosses are now the targets of popular ire - their humiliations relayed on YouTube, their excesses exposed by celebrity TV networks.

When moments such as this arrive, "selfless men [and women] of courage" are sure to follow. Whether they will be adequate in number, ability or direction remains to be seen. "I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast," the Queen tells Alice in Through the Looking Glass. After 25 long years, the notion that struggle might produce concessions is no longer one of them.

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