The men and women playing the shiny brass instruments marching behind their colourful pit banner were not some quaint folk tradition. No, they stand for much more. They, and the dozens of other colliery bands, who took pride of place at the Gala, or “the big meeting”, are living symbols of a working class movement that has gone through the harshest of histories.
These communities have endured two centuries of sheer backbreaking drudgery and high mortality rates, the betrayal of the 1926 General Strike, the erosion of jobs, and, finally, the trial of strength between the Thatcher government and the National Union of Mineworkers, led by its president Arthur Scargill, a quarter of a century ago.
The magnificent attendance of around 50,000 at the gala is a demonstration that those workers and their families have not forgotten that history. On the contrary – the grandparents, mothers and fathers and their children strolling through the sunshine – were only too aware that today’s generations stand on the shoulders of their ancestors.
The Gala has been held continuously since 1869 interrupted only by miners’ strikes and the two world wars. At its height, it attracted 250,000 workers and their families. On Saturday, three new banners, Westoe, Boldon, and South Hetton, joined the parade. Two of County Durham’s worst pit disasters - West Stanley in 1909 when 168 men and boys were killed and Easington in 1951, when 83 died – were also commemorated. Gala co-ordinator George Robson said that enthusiasm for the Big Meeting was growing, with groups restoring their banners: “I am dealing with 46 or 47 lodges or community groups and they are springing up all the time."
Amongst those present was an acute awareness that what the miners’ endured in their year-long strike 25 years ago was on the agenda again today, albeit in a new and more comprehensive form which affected all workers as a vast new economic meltdown takes effect. Matt Wrack, secretary of the Fire Brigades Union and Bob Crow of the Rail Maritime and Transport Union joined Dennis Skinner MP and NUM president Ian Lavery and Durham Miners Association and former NUM general secretary David Hopper on the speakers’ platform. Hopper accused Labour MPs of "paving the way for the return of the Tories” while Crow denounced the government and said the future for workers did not lie in the direction of New Labour.
Surveying from the edges and even strolling through the racecourse for the first time at a Gala, police Forward Intelligence Teams (FIT) armed with batons and cameras, strutted their stuff, despite the entirely peaceful and festive nature of the occasion. They were a reminder of the confrontation with state forces in the 1984-5 strike for jobs.
Although the miners were forced to end their strike in the spring of 1985, without achieving their objective of preventing the pit closures, they demonstrated the fighting capacity of their union and their class. The strike marked the end of the post-war epoch in which pressure politics of trade union action could achieve aims such as higher pay and the protection of jobs. The image of the British state as an even-handed mediator standing above the classes in society was stripped away as police cavalry charges and jail sentences rained down on those who had dared to fight for their jobs.
As A World to Win’s new book, Unfinished Business, launched at the Gala concludes:
“The miners in 1984-5 found that they were unable on their own to save their jobs and communities. Ultimately, the power to determine their futures rested with the state and capitalism. Today, new generations and other communities will, like the miners, rise to the challenge and create a leadership that sets its eyes on the main prize: the conquest of power. This is the way to prevent capitalism from turning another industry and its communities into a wasteland. The great miners’ strike remains unfinished business.”
Secretary, A World to Win