Sunday, May 17, 2015

If Music Could Win the Revolution, We'd Already Have Won

"Pride,” directed by Mathew Warchus, written by Stephen Beresford, 2014

This is a one-of-a-kind upbeat film about a group of gays and lesbians from London supporting the 1984-1985 miner’s strike against Thatcher.  The Thatcher government had ordered the closing of the coal pits, attempting to destroy the National Union of Mineworkers (‘NUM’) and the livelihoods of tens of thousands of mining families.  Only in England, where class consciousness rises higher than in the U.S. could a film like this be made.  In the U.S the official GLBT movement leadership is narrowly confined to immediate identity issues and doesn’t ever broaden beyond that.  To my knowledge, it never has, even though most gay and lesbian people in the U.S. are working class. 

NUM Banner - South Wales
The British miners’ strike was an historic battle between capital and labor, as the NUM was one of the strongest unions in the UK.  Its complete and bloody defeat signaled the success of neo-conservatism and its evil twin, neo-liberalism.  After that time, the Labour Party made a turn to the market in the form of Blairite collaboration.  Thatcher’s police attacks on the strikers were a more violent and broad-ranged form of union-busting than Reagan’s parallel busting of PATCO in the U.S. in 1981.  But both drew from the same source.  Essentially the ‘pact’ between capital and labor that existed for a short time after WWII in England and the U.S. ended.  It has been called “the most bitter industrial dispute in British history.” 

In this case, it drew in a group of working-class gays and lesbians, who understood that if the NUM lost, they would too. Both groups had the same enemy – a reactionary government that no longer believed that ‘society’ existed.  The group – unapologetically called ‘Gays and Lesbians Support the Miners” (‘GLSM’) collected thousands of pounds (of money), food and clothing for the strikers.  Their attempts to get through to the NUM headquarters all meet in failure, as they are hung-up on.  They then decide to directly contact a mining town in south Wales, Onllwyn, in the Dulais Valley near Swansea.  They succeed in being invited because the elderly woman taking the call did not hear very well. 

This is a highly emotional and touching film – at least if you give a damn about the working class.  Personal stories intertwine with the main storyline.  Picket lines and police charges are remarkably absent.  It mostly centers on the remarkable alliance between these two groups of people.  The women and older men in the union are the initial contacts, while the young men shy away.  One reactionary in the union works with her son and his friend to oppose the GLSM, with murmurings about AIDs and ‘being a man.’ 

Music is the thread that helps tie the groups together, even though at the beginning the Welsh women allege that “Welshmen can’t dance.”  One older GLSM member shows the Welsh miners how in a rousing performance at the union hall.  GLSM held a huge concert benefit for the miners at the Electric Ballroom in Camden after being lambasted in the yellow press for being “Perverts supporting the Pits.”  Disco, “Bread & Roses” and pop music permeate the film, with songs by Billy Bragg, Pete Seeger, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Bronski Beat, Culture Club, Soft Cell, Grace Jones and more. 

The film does not go into the background of the organizers of the GLSM, but hints are in the film.  I looked it up and its leadership, specifically Mark Ashton, came out of the Young Communist League, the youth group of the Communist Party of Great Britain.  11 groups of the GLSM eventually formed.  It was reported in The Guardian that Arthur Scargill, head of the NUM, was channeling most funds to his pits in Yorkshire and Kent, leaving Wales adrift – which might be one reason why Welsh union locals were receptive.  The benefit concert really happened, as did a large presence of the NUM at the 1985 Gay Pride Parade in London in response to the work of the GLSM.  In 1985 the Labour Party endorsed gay rights, with the block vote from the NUM being crucial, marking a sea-change in Britain.  However, this did not help the NUM or the miners, as it's membership stood at 1,200 members in 2013. Not to mention the coal communities that could no longer get work.  Capitalism rolled on, with or without gay rights.

Red Frog
May 17, 2015

Personal Note:  My grandfather was a Welshman from around Swansea, and after emigrating in the 1920s was elected as a Labor Party councilor for Edmonton and later, to the provincial legislature in Alberta, Canada.  The New Democratic Party has recently retaken the Alberta Provincial government in a landslide victory, ending 44 years of Tory rule.  My grandfather would be happy.

Red Frog will be going on hiatus – taking a break – from publishing.  Please come back when the blog gets started again.  Thanks.

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