Hillsborough, the miners and leadership
The revelation this week that the Thatcher government contemplated defeat during the miners strike, and considered the alternatives, including deploying troops to move coal stocks, has come as a surprise to some people. In the 1980s I moved in circles in which it was de rigeur to know all the words to ‘Which Side Are You On Boys’ and to know that we could stand up as men, not as lousy scabs. We were willing to believe the Thatcher government capable of anything, and many of us had the scars, the debts and the criminal records to prove it. Given the experiences we had of phone tapping, of police violence, of road blocks and the rigging of the benefits system to starve out miners families, this week’s revelations are not a surprise to me.
It was a decade of sharp dividing lines, and brutal battles. Margaret Thatcher was intent on proving that if you weren’t in her gang, you were against her, and, in the old line beloved of policemen everywhere, that her gang was bigger and better equipped than ours.
I was a prisoner of my rage and my anger for much of that decade; when two young men not much older than me went to prison, wrongly, it transpired, for a futile gesture gone wrong (they dropped a paving slab from a bridge and accidentally killed a taxi driver who was taking a scab to work) I knew exactly how close to the dock I was, and where my temper could have taken me if it had emerged in daylight rather than in my dreams. It was the beginnings of a recovery for me, an engagement with an understanding of how much risk was embodied in choosing to allow myself to be so swift to anger.
Somewhere along the way I realised how much Margaret Thatcher had been motivated by fear as much as hate. One more successful Argentinian raid could have meant defeat in the Falklands War. One more act of trade union solidarity could have brought victory for the miners – we believed that in 1984, and this week’s revelations have confirmed it. Thatcher became a prisoner of her own fear. This is no revisionistic approach to Thatcher, mind you; she really was as amoral as she appeared, and her sense of self was so fragile that she could not contemplate the consequences of defeat.The point about this, of course, was that it was not just evident in the way she slaughtered the crew of the General Belgrano needlessly, or devastated mining communities to make a point but in the way she wasted the windfall from North Sea Oil and undermined her own party by refusing to contemplate any kind of succession planning or collegiate working. Margaret Thatcher knew that her privilege, her position of power and her entitlement would be greatly diminished by the loss of office that would surely follow any defeat, and she valued that privilege and position more than anything else.
Hillsborough though was another test entirely. It was a test because it was transparently obvious from the beginning that the Liverpool supporters were being framed for a disaster that was not of their making. We forget it now at our peril, but there was a clear pattern of danger and disaster in football, from Burnden Park in 1946 through Ibrox, Bradford and Heysel to Hillsborough. Uniquely though, Hillsborough was dominated as a story by the way in which, from the beginning, the police, through the corrupt and corrupting practice of providing off the record briefings, blamed the fans for what the football industry had done to them. This week, quietly, it’s emerged that more police officer’s pocketbooks have been found that prove that police evidence was doctored. The temptation to blame Thatcher should be resisted though.
The link to Thatcher was not that she actively connived at the Hillsborough disaster, but that the police service she had pandered to in her hour of need during the miners strike was beyond her control at the time of Hillsborough. Far from being the Iron Lady, she was a prisoner in an iron mask made up of the praise and support she had lavished upon the police; she could not reverse direction and admit that the police service was institutionally and structurally broken, as much by the venality of the new recruits who flocked in in the wake of the Edmund Davies report as by the structural contradictions of British society and the political impact of the resurgent right in the aftermath of the silent coup perpetrated by the IMF against the welfare state in 1977. (Lest we forget, the deliberate increase in unemployment as an economic tool preceded Thatcher – Jim Callaghan and Dennis Healey were to blame for there being more than a million unemployed by 1979 – a policy that Thatcher exploited.)
And me? I remember, in the months after Hillsborough, wondering if I had helped shape the narrative that emerged. The Thatcher years were dominated by a search for the enemy within, a willingness to create division, and many of us on the left responded willingly, being happy to set our faces against the enemy without compassion as we regarded them.
Did we create the conditions in which Hillsborough could happen? It’s laughable to ask the question now, but at the time it was a serious concern. A song that dominated my mental landscape at the time was Cautious Man, by Bruce Springsteen. I had a vision of myself as Billie Horton, love tattooed on my right hand, fear tattooed on the left, unclear as to which hand held my fate. Gradually I figured out that actually all of us bear the same tattoos, and all of us have to reach the same conclusions about the responsibility we bear to resist some otherwise dominant emotions.
I made peace with my anger when I realised that the mature way to be was to love all those who were capable of being loved, and to fear my own anger. The 1980s, culminating in the horror of Hillsborough, were dominated by a fierce tribal loyalty to those we recognised as similar to ourselves, and a fear of those who were not like us. Those loyalties made it possible for Hillsborough to become a narrative of dishonesty, propaganda and indifference.
My reaction to the cabinet papers that have emerged this week has to be understood in that context. Margaret Thatcher epitomized a brutal, spiteful belligerent state in the 1980s, a state that feared for its own existence, and she led it with relish, but she was acutely aware that her tenure at its head was capable of being brought to an end, and that once again she would be just a grocer’s daughter, an ambitious petit bourgeois willing to do anything to sit at the top table, but marked by the power brokers as a failure for ever outside the door rather than within.
The state is not one person, whatever Charles de Gaulle believed. It is a set of economic interests transmitted via culture and structures of power. The individuals who control those structures of power, or who have the privilege of cultural influence, do so only while they serve the interests of capital. Margaret Thatcher learned that lesson when she was brutally defenestrated by her own party to reduce the risk of a slightly more radical Labour Party coming to power and challenging the over-weaning and unhealthy influence of finance capital on the British economy.
The point of re-visiting this history shouldn’t be so I can demonstrate how prescient some of us were in 1984, or to recount how shit scared we were, or how, when drunk, we’d listen and not criticize as friends fantasized about finding those bastard mounted coppers from Orgreave and giving them a taste of their own medicine.
It’s always the case that history is a learning experience, that we use it to inform the present and the future. If you aspire to political leadership or cultural influence, don’t focus on the Margaret Thatcher we all love to hate, the one who got away from the IRA. Focus on the inconsolable Thatcher who was ruthlessly dispatched by her own party and sent into a kind of internal exile.
It doesn’t matter if you’re Prime Minister or a single issue campaigner with a happy relationship with the cardinals of the commentariat at Radio 4. If you prize your position more than your principles (which, in Thatcher’s case, was not difficult since she seemed entirely lacking in any kind of principles or moral compass other than might is right) sooner or later you will do vile and unpleasant things to defend that position. (Incidentally, lest anyone think this is a right wing trait only, it’s worth reading Danny the Red’s accounts of the travails within the NUM recently.) Some of the way I view the world is necessary self defence – anger is not good for me, but some of it, too, is an attempt to work out a way of being better at what I try to do politically and in my community.
In case I need to spell this out, here it comes. When I read about prominent single issue feminists treating women of colour, trans people, or women whose sexuality they don’t approve of, like shit, I do get angry. But I try to channel that anger into analysis, into trying to understand the level of principle that underpins the individual, and the extent to which they’re being a shit because they’re defending a position, or simply because they want to be in the tent pissing champagne out at the rest of us. I fear for those who think their place inside the tent is bought and paid for, with bank notes or with dutiful service at the temple of hegemony, slapping down dissent and diversity, because the one certainty is that unless they are willing to contemplate harming and knocking down others, abandoning any last vestige of principle along the way, their tenure will be strictly limited.
It’s reported this week that Thatcher, alone in Downing Street, contemplated imposing a State of Emergency and effectively abandoning democracy in order to use troops to move coal. Would she have used those self same troops to crush any dissent? Of course. Did she set out to be a few steps away from dictatorship, presiding over a government that accepted shoot to kill in Ulster or casually ordering the death of hundreds of sailors in the South Atlantic to make a point, back in the 1950s when she set her sights at a seat in Parliament? I doubt it. That lesson needs to be remembered by anyone who thinks that, in any given situation, it’s more important to defend a position or a privilege than a principle.