Owen Jones, who I rather admire for his dogged and single-minded efforts to turn back the wheel of history and apply an antiquated class-based left-right dichotomy across the whole human condition, has written a piece for the Guardian about the new film ‘Pride’ which tells the story of a group of activists attempting to galvanise support amongst the LGBT community for Arthur Scargill’s disastrous miners’ strike of 1984-85. I haven’t seen the movie yet so I won’t specifically comment on it but I do have a couple of observations to make about the broader subject.
I was a philosophy undergraduate at York University during the Miners’ Strike and was therefore, geographically at least, right in the middle of it. Politically, my attitudes were somewhere around the wet centre: I’d been an early member of the old Social Democratic Party but had become somewhat disenchanted by its inability to make much of an electoral impact. Like many, if not most, of my fellow students, I felt a degree of impotent sympathy for the miners and took part in a few campus-based fund-raising events for them. As we were mostly just skint students, whatever we did collect was a drop in the ocean in comparison to the NUM’s needs but they always received it with polite, charming enthusiasm. Some of the more politically active amongst us – not me, I should add – even joined them on the picket lines: my girlfriend (a staunch ‘upper-class’ Tory then and now) certainly did and was welcomed and looked after as they stood round the braziers outside the pits, confronted by ranks of bussed-in policemen.
But it wasn’t all ‘us and them’ solidarity of workers, progressives and idealists against Margaret Thatcher and her right-wing authoritarian bully boys. My sympathy for the miners came to a hard stop one Saturday evening in York. I’d been out to a pub with a few mates and had a couple of beers before heading back to my college on the university campus, but a couple of them went on to get a curry in town. It was a busy evening and, as they stood outside the curry house, one of them accidentally bumped into a member of a group of miners who were walking past. He apologised but, according to the account of the other friend who was with him, the apology was met with a snarled ‘Fuck off you posh queer’ (or words to that effect, although he was neither – he just had a southern middle-class accent) and a flurry of blows which knocked him to ground, concussed him, fractured his skull and several other bones in his face, and left him partially blind in one eye.
My takeaway from this is that enthusiasm for solidarity between miners and the LGBT community was not universal, at least on the miners’ side, but why would it have been? The social attitudes that defined society’s attitude to the gay community back then were present across the political spectrum: you were just as likely to hear vile, bilious homophobic remarks from staunch lefties as you were from Conservatives; racism too. It wasn’t a question of bigoted, small-minded reactionaries on the right and warm, open-minded progressives on the left: bigots and reactionaries were everywhere, at least in comparison to today.
So my suspicion is that ‘Pride’ is peddling a common fantasy of the modern day left: that membership of minority groups automatically implies identification with the ‘Labour Movement’ and vice-versa. British politics was then and is still essentially tribal, but its tribalism is far more subtle than that. Most of my gay and lesbian friends are staunch Tories – most of my ‘ethnic minority’ friends too – and I’ve come across more than a few homophobes, racists, anti-Semites and other nasties on the left in recent years.
As I said at the beginning, I haven’t seen ‘Pride’ yet and maybe when I do I’ll change my mind but if it’s trying to sell the idea that Scargill’s miners’ strike represented some kind of united front of the cuddly left against the bigoted right, then I’m not buying.