This piece is part of HWO’s feature on Radical Friendship. The feature is an exploration of different configurations of friendship, both intimate and symbolic, and the radical potential of these relationships. You can read an introduction to the series here.
I met many of my friends through some form of political activity. In turn, networks of friendship have very often animated and amplified the activism of which I have been a part. Long coach journeys help: whether travelling from Newcastle to London to protest the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, or from Finsbury Park to Codnor in an attempt to blockade the BNP’s annual fascist festival in the Derbyshire countryside. Standing on picket lines in the snow, rain and occasional sunshine has similarly produced powerful feelings of comradeship, and provided a lot of time to talk. In the last five years, I’ve become close to many people I met organising and campaigning in an attempt to elect a Corbyn-led Labour government. Such relationships were solidified through the collective joy of drinking in an Islington pub after the 2017 exit poll. And hardened in the shared misery at the election count in Glasgow’s SEC last December as it all collapsed so spectacularly.
On the other hand, some of the people I’ve disliked most intensely in my life I also met through activism. In short, politics tends to produce powerful emotions. The more important an event – or at least, the more central it is to your own life – the greater the intensity of feelings swirling around it seem to be. And the quicker they can grip you.
The 1984-5 miners’ strike was charged with emotion: anger at the plans to close pits, hatred for those held responsible, desperation as the sense of defeat becomes clear. All of those feelings and more were heightened in the aftermath of the dispute as the colliery closures unfolded. As part of an oral history project, I interviewed a miner from Blidworth colliery in Nottinghamshire, Brian Lawton, who spent much of the strike in London raising support. He spoke movingly about the immense hardship of the year, and the period afterwards, for many people.
But he wanted to emphasise something else as well. He described miners coming down to London to build the solidarity campaign, and the novel friendships they made there. ‘For first time in their life they were seeing black people who they never knew, they’d never speak to … and with Ireland as well. People just said, well your struggle is our struggle, you have problems with police, we have problems with police, that’s our common denominator. Almost immediately all these things were broken down.’ He told me about meeting feminists for the first time, previously homophobic miners staying in the houses of gay people, and strong friendships that were established between miners, Rastafarians and Jewish people.
There are many such stories of friendship during the miners’ strike. The importance of this was in part the sense – in the middle of extraordinary hostility from multiple directions – that they weren’t alone. One Cannock miner talked about the support from London printworkers: ‘although the money aid is crucial to our cause, the feelings of warmth and friendship and solidarity with which they bring with them gives us heart to carry on the fight.’
Of course, many people made friends with their workmates or neighbours in the coalfields during that year. The strike was often understood as a defence of communities. For some, though, it was the very experiences of those twelve months that produced a sense of community in the places they lived and worked. But what Lawton draws attention to, and what I’m particularly interested in here, is the friendships that people from the mining areas established with distant strangers; with people and places that at least appeared very different. As one miner put it: ‘the friendship that was shown to us by people we would never have met if this dispute had not taken place.’
This history raises overlapping questions of friendship, solidarity and difference. Clare Land’s insightful book Decolonizing Solidarity considers such issues in a study of white supporters of Aboriginal struggles in Australia. She argues, convincingly, that friendship shouldn’t be the goal of such activism, even if it may – in the long term – be a side effect. A desire for friendship on behalf of white activists, Land suggests, is premised on a misplaced desire to eliminate difference, obscuring disparities of privilege and power. Land’s case is compelling in relation to the particular relationships she explores. But I think her argument reflects broader tendencies in how sections of the left have come to see solidarity. That is, solidarity frequently seems to be understood as a relationship where a comparatively privileged group provides support for the oppressed.
Some people viewed support for the miners’ strike a little like this but drew notably different conclusions. In the 1986 History Workshop book about the strike, The Enemy Within, Raphael Samuel wrote that the high point of support came in a Christmas Appeal for the coalfields. This form of support, Samuel argued, resembled conscience money. That many of the donations came from London and the prosperous south east, reflecting geographical inequalities of wealth in Britain, was significant for Samuel. He argued that ‘it seems to have been cross-class in character, more akin to the 1920s adoption of pit villages in the Rhondda by places like Bournemouth and Hampstead, than to solidarity.’ Rather than differences and imbalances of privilege being a feature of solidarity, as in Land’s account, here the same factors make it something more akin to charity.
For all the limitations of the support movement for the miners, Samuel’s was quite a partial picture. This is the case even just within London, where the range of support – from across the trade union movement, political parties, feminist organisations, Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, Black Delegation to the Mining Communities, the Durham-Docklands Miners’ Support Committee, to mention just a fraction – can’t be understood within such an account. In other words, it was as much Hackney as Hampstead, if we want to reduce it to such markers.
Nor, however, does the experience of the miners easily fit into the logic of solidarity that we can see in Land’s book. It makes little sense to ask who’s privileged and who’s oppressed when Blaenant miners from South Wales received support from residents on the Broadwater Farm Estate in Tottenham. Many of the relationships made during the miners’ strike can’t be understood in binaries of either difference or sameness. When the largely, although not exclusively, white miners established connections with black campaigners in London both, of course, recognised differences. But they could also see commonalities: often based on shared experiences of police violence, but also sometimes identifications of class and/or gender.
The language, and experience, of friendship played a particular role here. In the aftermath of the strike, the minutes of the South Wales group that twinned with London Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) – made famous by the film Pride – note: ‘We take this opportunity to express our gratitude to this group who are not only generous, but kind and caring and we value their friendship a great deal.’ This was not an attempt to eliminate difference, I would argue, but more a recognition of a broad equality.
In other words, solidarity can sometimes be understood as a mutual relationship. Friendship was a way of expressing how these connections could be relied on beyond one particular struggle. The secretary of Dodworth Colliery National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), in South Yorkshire, wrote during the miners’ strike that ‘new friendships have been born from this dispute, friendships that will be cemented in the years to come.’ As Gavin Brown and Helen Yaffe have argued in their work on the anti-apartheid movement, ‘relations of solidarity can travel in more than one direction simultaneously, building complex webs of reciprocity’.
LGSM is a clear example of this: not just when the coaches arrived in London from South Wales for the 1985 Lesbian and Gay Pride march, but also later in the decade when the NUM supported the campaign against Clause 28. But there are other cases building on the relationships I’ve already mentioned. For instance, miners and coalfield women joined picket lines during the 1986 printers’ strike against Rupert Murdoch’s News International. In the same year, a delegation from Broadwater Farm travelled to the Onllwyn Miners’ Welfare Hall. These visitors were welcomed, the Valley’s Star newsletter explained, as a ‘gesture of solidarity’ with the young black people who had suffered at the hands of the Metropolitan police.
Such personal relationships had meaning in themselves, but they also mattered because of how these stories could be mobilised. In the aftermath of the strike, lesbian and gay rights motions were passed by TUC and national Labour Party conferences for the first time. In both cases the NUM backed the motions. Proposing the Labour conference resolution, Sarah Roelofs explained: ‘The miners’ strike showed what we need in practice and a sister from a South Wales mining community said to us this week – “We are your friends now, and you are our friends and you have changed our world.”’ Friendship meant not a temporary alliance but a meaningful relationship based on at least some level of equality, without necessarily requiring the erasure of difference.
For Brian Lawton, the diverse relationships he and other miners made during that year give meaning to the strike: ‘When people say the strike was lost, it was fucking lost, but there were so many good things come out of it. So many fantastic things’. In one sense, this is of course an attempt to make sense of defeat. And there’s plenty of defeat to deal with. More recently, to return to my own experiences, we didn’t stop New Labour’s wars and we failed horribly in December’s election.
I’m not suggesting, of course, that making friends, as a matter of personal relationships, somehow mitigates any of this. But understood more politically – with the broader meaning of friendship evident during the miners’ strike – the networks built up during many of these campaigns are essential. For instance, they have often been the basis for the grassroots work that has sustained people through the recent pandemic. In the language of ‘mutual aid’ we can see the kind of relationship of equals I’ve discussed: solidarity not charity.
The long-term, mutual and egalitarian relationships signalled by the word ‘friendship’ during the miners’ strike should be embedded in our organising, anticipating the type of world we want to make. Still, as we struggle over the kind of societies that we want to emerge out of this crisis – and try to respond to the catastrophic climate situation – we’re going to need something more than the defensive networks the left has maintained even in defeat. We’re going to have to find a way to actually start winning.
Diarmaid Kelliher is a lecturer in human geography at the University of Glasgow. He is currently working on a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship project on the spatial politics of the picket line, and writing a book for Routledge: Making Cultures of Solidarity: London and the 1984-5 Miners’ Strike.
He tweets at @Kelliher_D