In 1984-5, mining communities across Britain stood up for jobs and the integrity of their way of life. The year changed politics enormously: at its end LGBT people stood shoulder to shoulder with miners, women had found new ways of becoming politically active, and few were left in any doubt of just how brutal and violent a state can be. But what has the miners’ strike got to do with tomorrow’s referendum? It was decades ago! The reason it is worth thinking again about that year’s events in the context of a referendum that posits ‘vote leave, take back control’ against ‘better together’, between a British state and a European quasi-confederacy, is that it reminds us the former is hardly a benign force that will suddenly turn into your socialist uncle. And of the latter, there is much to say. So let us begin.
Some of the most Eurosceptic areas of Britain today lie in former mining communities. This is on the face of it entirely understandable: having been left behind by decades, politics means the promises of others that are never kept. Blame is the order of the day, as is apathy, cynicism, and disinterest. To vote leave is to try something different, to hope that it might just offer a better future, because carrying on as we are – and have been – isn’t something that can be tolerated any more. When those feelings are derided and packaged up as xenophobia and backwardness, it hardly needs saying that it entrenches them even further. But mining communities have long memories, they remember the miners’ strike, and what it meant. They remember, too, the role of support groups, of women, and of heroes like LGSM.
They ought to remember the international lines of support that flowed into the British coalfields from all over Europe. Europe stood by the miners, when the British government called them the enemy within. Czechs, Poles, Swedes, Norwegians, Irish, French, Belgian, Dutch, German, Russia, Italian, Spanish, all of them gathered together money, food, clothes, offered holidays and solidarity, and even enrolled some in the wartime resistance movements.
From Ludwigsburg, a steel town near Stuttgart, came two lorry loads of toys, clothes, food, and two cheques totalling nearly £4,000. They arrived in Caerphilly – with whom Ludwigsburg was twinned in 1960 – in February 1985. Some of the money came from the steel workers’ union, some of it from the Ludwigsburg town council. From East Germany, Poland, and Czechoslovakia, came money and clothes. From Britanny came £75,000, a sum raised by the grit and determination of the autonomist Union Démocratique Bretonne. From Dublin came the reminder that during the 1913 lockout the miners of Britain had stood shoulder to shoulder and given £1000 a week to support Dubliners, the city’s Labour mayor Michael O’Halloran launched his own special fund to return the favour. From Waterford, a city well used to hardship and the effects of neoliberalism, came thousands of pounds from the city’s crystal factory workforce who willingly stopped some of their pay. From Sweden came money and food, some of it the result of a levy on the wages of public sector employees. And from the Netherlands came thousands in donations to the Gwent Food Fund. Posters appeared, benefit concerts were held, and for a time Leiden seemed as much part of the South Wales Coalfield as Rhymney or Merthyr Tydfil.
That is the measure of Europe and its peoples.
So when we vote on membership of the European Union and say to ourselves that it’s Europe’s fault that our once proud industrial communities are economically dead, that is a lie. When we say to ourselves that it’s Europe’s fault that thousands can move here and drive down wages, that is a lie. When we convince ourselves that Westminster alone can solve the problems that it is actively complicit in creating, we have convinced ourselves of a lie. Europe did not destroy mining communities, the British government did. Europe does not drive down wages, the British government, which encourages competition and is blinded by a neo-liberal commitment to inequality and me versus we, does that well enough. If wages in Romania and Bulgaria and Poland and Greece were on a level with those in Britain or France or Sweden or Germany, does anyone believe that people would move quite as much as they do? Or, put another way, if wages and opportunities in Rochdale and the Rhondda were as good as they are in London, would there be quite such a clamour to move to that polluted, dirty, overcrowded environment?
The Remain camp have failed in this referendum campaign. They’ve spun the wrong arguments, made it too much about discrete fiscal policy and economic disaster. They’ve done so to avoid engaging at all with the immigration question, even though the positive case for Europe – for reform within Europe – would square that circle. To reduce immigration is not about putting up barriers, god forbid a bloody wall or a fence, but about reducing the push factors. Economic development, not xenophobia. Equality, not bigotry. That should have been the case that Remain made. Britain is in Europe to make a difference. The same way that some unionists during the Scottish referendum offered the view – and here I’m thinking particularly of Gordon Brown – that Scotland had made a difference to the rest of the peoples of the United Kingdom. Having grown up in Keir Hardie’s former constituency of Merthyr Boroughs, that’s something I can get on board with.
In one of his beyond Westminster articles recently, the always excellent John Harris remarked on the few Britons who are so Europhile that they believe in a European confederacy. Well, that’s me, I’m one of them. My belief in solidarity and communitarianism has guided me away from forms of national identity. After a long struggle, some of it quite public, I no longer self-identify as British, Welsh, or English. My passport says I am the former, my accent suggests I am the middle category, and my place of birth will forever suggest the latter. I am all of those things, and I am none of them. I’m not, in Raymond Williams’s motif, a ‘Welsh-European’ but a European who happens to live in Wales (which happens to be in the United Kingdom). I’ve long believed that the twenty-first century should be about breaking down national borders, not building them. Let us finally wave goodbye to the nineteenth century! The European Union may not be perfect, but it’ll never be changed unless we take part in the reform process.
It is not the time to be lurking about on the sidelines.