South of the River – Us and them


Compass-SouthComment logo 2A minor headline in a left wing newspaper seems to have created a bit of a stir in the mainstream media.

Socialist Worker reported the inquiry into the death of a boy who was killed by a polar bear under the headline ‘Eton by bear? The inquest begins’. In The Guardian Owen Jones denounced this as the politics of envy saying “Some on the left despise those from privileged backgrounds. But losing compassion merely boosts the enemies of social justice.”

If you’re not familiar with the story you need to know that the 17 year old was on the arctic island of Svalbard when his camp was attacked by a polar bear. He was a pupil at Eton College on a trip organised by the British Schools Exploring Society. It’s not been disclosed how much the trip cost.

Of course it’s sad to see to see anyone die, especially so young – who knows what he might have gone on to do? Except … except that he was being educated at Eton where privileged children are prepared for leading privileged lives. Not just as government ministers like David Cameron, but in the civil service, industry and the armed forces.

Last weekend I was lucky enough to see both a play and a film about the miners strike whilst I was down in that London.

For Wonderland, the Hampstead Theatre had been transformed into a coalmine and we were introduced to life underground through the experience of two lads starting work down the pit. We experienced the noise, heat and danger; the coarse banter and camaraderie that come from working in close quarters and depending on each other for safety. We understood that sticking together underground leads to sticking together in the union.

We also saw the lengths that Thatcher’s government went to set up a confrontation and then, eventually, to defeat the National Union of Mineworkers – the NUM. It’s thirty years since the strike and that means that secret government papers have been released. Many of us knew Thatcher was lying when she said it was just an industrial dispute that she wouldn’t get involved with, that police deployments were just a matter of public order. With the release of the papers we can prove those were lies.

The film was called Still The Enemy Within. It’s a documentary that uses first hand accounts of rank and file miners that were involved in the dispute. It brought back many memories; I was active in support groups throughout the strike and knew some of the people in the film. I was in tears a many points, often with laughter, sometimes with sadness but mostly in anger.

It was quite clear to everyone on the left that the dispute was political. It was clear that a defeat for the miners would be a defeat for all workers and yet our so-called leaders in the TUC and the Labour Party found reasons to keep the miners isolated. It was the isolation, despite the financial help and food parcels of compassionate socialists like Owen Jones, that led to an unnecessary defeat.

Did the defeat of the miners really matter? If you want to know just go to Hemsworth, or South Elmsall, or Goldthorpe, or Bently … Go to Doncaster. Thirty years on these communities are still trying to recover. They have high rates of mental illness, domestic violence, drug use. Poor health, poor housing and poor educational attainment. Kids from Hemsworth don’t go on trips to arctic glaciers.

Who knows what might have been avoided if the miners had won – privatisation of the utilities and the railways? the Iraq war?

Jeremy Morton Aug13So when I think about Horatio Chapple dying on an arctic glacier, I’m not happy, but I do think he’s fair game for a bad pun in a leftie newspaper. It’s not the politics of envy, it’s the politics of anger.

I’ll be back next week with more of my views from South of the River. If you’re on Twitter, you can follow me: @BeestonJeremy.