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Still the enemy within: the strike that split Britain

'Still the Enemy Within', on the 1984-5 Miners' Strike, will be screened at London's Somerset House on 7th March. Two filmmakers who worked on the award-winning documentary tell the story. 

Republished as part of our partnership with the Unorthodocs programme of documentary screenings and events, which asks why so many award-winning documentaries never make it onto British TV.

Riot police confront miners, Cortonwood Colliery. John Sturrock/reportdigital.co.uk

“There was only one thing standing in the way of privatisation, market rule and free market capitalism, and that was us. We knew and they knew it, but we were still shocked at how far they were prepared to go.” That's Paul Symonds, once a Yorkshire miner, reflecting on the strike that split Britain nearly thirty years ago.

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famously branded the miners 'the enemy within' at a private meeting of Conservative MPs in July 1984. "We had to fight the enemy without in the Falklands," she said. "We always have to be aware of the enemy within, which is much more difficult to fight and more dangerous to liberty." (Mining families had lost sons in the Falklands).

We are London-based filmmakers exploring the reasons behind the strike, what happened that year and what we can learn today from the miners. For our film, Still the enemy within, we have interviewed front line pickets, women and men who organised the soup kitchens, and members of support groups to get some insight into the dispute 30 years on.

Steve Hammill was a young underground electrician at the Silverwood colliery near Rotherham in 1984. “The Tories hated the miners," he told us. "We humiliated them with two strikes in 1972 and 1974. Prime Minister Edward Heath called a General Election asking, ‘Who runs the country, the government or the miners?’ The answer came back, ‘not you chum’."

“We knew they’d want revenge,” he said, “and that was what the 84-85 miners’ strike was about. We were fighting for our jobs and communities. They were fighting to avenge their defeat ten years before and destroy the most powerful union in the land.”

Paul Symonds was a young development worker driving tunnels to create new coal faces underground at Frickley colliery near Wakefield when the strike started.

“They spent years preparing," Paul said. "They had the Ridley Plan, which lots of us had read. Create mobile police riot squads, recruit strike breaking lorry drivers, outlaw solidarity strikes, fragment the unions.”

These days Paul Symonds drives a lorry for his living. He told us: “I see kettling on the news and it is described as a new policing technique. That is not true. Kettling was invented in 1984; it was dangerous then and it's dangerous now.”

Joe Henry, a coal face worker at South Elmsall colliery near Doncaster, summed up the feeling in the coalfield after the first few weeks of picketing:

“We’d seen the riot police deployed against black communities in the Brixton riots. We’d seen the police and army tactics in Northern Ireland. We didn’t expect to see the same thing on our picket lines and in our villages, but that is what happened.”

Joe went on: “We were attacked by the police when we tried to talk to miners at other pits who weren’t sure of the reasons for the strike. The most scary thing though, was when later on in the strike the police invaded and terrorised our villages.”

He remembers "waking up in the middle of the night and hearing this enormous roar from the centre of the village, it was almost medieval. I went to see what was happening and it can only be described as a riot but carried out by police with truncheons, attacking people, smashing up pubs. And this was where we lived.”

Former Durham miner Norman Strike, who was there, described the Battle of Orgreave, overseen by the same police force — South Yorkshire — whose behaviour five years later would contribute to the deaths of 96 people in the Hillsborough stadium disaster. 

“Orgreave was a trap,” said Norman:

“The police had spent months stopping us picketing where we wanted, then suddenly we were all allowed to gather at Orgreave. It was soon obvious why. A few thousand lads in T-shirts and pumps were attacked by riot police kitted up with NATO helmets, shields and batons. They set the horses and dogs on us and then the BBC edited the film so it showed the miners attacking the police. In reality it was the other way round. Years after the strike the BBC admitted they’d made a ‘mistake’.” 

Norman went on: “I remember being in the village at Orgreave and it was a battlefield. There were bodies all over the ground, it was madness, absolute madness. The police were using their horses to crush people against cars. I saw a police on horseback trying to chase a miner up a fire escape to beat him. There is no way you could 'mistake' who was attacking who."  

Recently the Independent Police Complaints Commission ordered police forces across England and Wales to search their archives for documents relating to Orgreave. The inquiry was prompted by last year's BBC 'Inside Out' revelations that police witness statements appeared to have been fabricated.

The strike wasn’t only about hardship and brutality. Mining communities were sustained by an unprecedented wave of solidarity. During the strike, particularly in the lead up to Christmas, convoys of lorries could be seen traveling up the motorway to mining areas, with the words ‘They shall not starve’ emblazoned across the side, sent by Trade unions and activists from across the world.

Members of Frickley Ladies Action Group, who lived in the same area as Paul Symonds, told us “We often didn’t know what had been sent for us to eat until we opened the tin because solidarity came from all over the world”. They added “The only thing we could never get used to were the tins of snails from France.”

Across England and Wales, union branches in towns were twinned with mining villages. The Lesbian and Gay Miners support group played such a vital role in raising money for the strike that the National Union of Mine Workers led the Pride demonstration in London in 1985.

Silverwood electrician Steve Hammill said the strike was “a beacon for those who wanted to fight all kinds of oppression, whether it was gay oppression, female oppression or racism. How can you be a racist when you are taking food to feed your children from another person who is an ordinary worker like you but who has had to deal with the added oppression of racism?”

Joyce Shepard, in 1984 the wife of a striking miner from Bentley colliery near Doncaster, described how women changed. The backbone of Thorne Women against Pit Closures, Joyce told us:

“At first it was like hunter gatherer society. The men when out picketing and all the dangerous stuff while the women were supposedly doing what women do best – putting a pinnie on and working in the kitchen. But it didn’t stay that way… for good reasons. People broke out of that. Women didn’t want to just be serving up the mince and the bread. This idea blossomed that women could go picketing.”

She said: “Maybe it would be different women went picketing, maybe the police would not be so violent but as it turns out they were worse. It opened a lot of people’s eyes about what were going on. I certainly changed, there was no going back to how things were before.”

Asked if the strike was worthwhile, despite the defeat, Steve Hammill said: “I would do it ten times over. We lost the battle, we’ve not lost the whole war.”

Joe Henry said: “I was proud to be the enemy within then against a rotten Tory government in 1984, and I am proud to still be the enemy within against the current government.”

Our film is backed by veteran filmmakers John Pilger, Ken Loach and Christo Hird and by left wing MPs and trade union leaders. Jeremy Corbyn MP, Diane Abbott MP, and Dennis Skinner MP have all given messages of support, as have the Fire Brigades’ Union, The Communication Workers’ Union and the National Union of Teachers.


Still the Enemy Within is produced by Bad Bonobo (producers Sinead Kirwan & Mark Lacey; director Owen Gower) with journalist Mike Simons (author of ‘Striking Back’ and ‘Blood, Sweat and Tears: Photographs from the Great Miners’ Strike’). 

About the author

Sinead Kirwan is a film and television producer at Bad Bonobo. Journalist Mike Simons is author of ‘Striking Back’ and ‘Blood, Sweat and Tears: Photographs from the Great Miners’ Strike’.

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