Wednesday, 11 April 2012

A bloody good read THE BIG MEETING – A history of the Durham Miners’ Gala

A bloody good read

THE BIG MEETING – A history of the Durham Miners’ Gala

By Dave Temple

Former miner Dave Temple has done a fine job in bringing to life the spirit of the Durham Miners’ Gala, which was first organised in 1871.

Held on the second Saturday in July, last year’s (the 127th) brought 130,000 people onto the cobbled streets of the historic City. Durham’s magnificent castle and cathedral always provides the perfect background for an impressive display of banners, that are accompanied by dozens of brass bands as marchers make their way to the Racecourse grounds next to River Wear to listen to speeches from distinguished trade union and labour movement figures.

Later, there’s a chance to relax, enjoy a few beers, have a chat with old friends and take a trip on the showground attractions. If you’ve never been before then you really have missed a treat.

Temple has tapped into the atmosphere and the sense of belonging felt by the many hundreds of thousands who have over the years taken part in the Gala. The first pioneers were after ‘a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work’ and over the years the miners had to fight tooth and nail with their employers and government’s of all political persuasions to get it. Being collectively organised was the key, and the struggle to achieve this was mirrored by the Gala speakers of the day, many of whom Temple does brilliantly to bring alive.

Nationalisation, once seen as providing permanent employment and improved pay and working conditions, may have been welcomed in 1947 but few were happy that the hated coal owners got massive payouts - totalling £165 million with the royalty owners getting a further £78 million - for handing over mines that lacked up-to-date technology. The burden of debt thus inherited by the NCB would be a drain on its resources for generations. Temple is thus left to chart the pit closures of the post war years - which peaked under Labour in the 1960s - that impacted harshly on Gala attendances.

Speaking at the 1980 Gala, Arthur Scargill warned that closure numbers were going to get even worse, but not even he realised by how much! For having successfully stood up to former Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath’s wage restraint policies, Margaret Thatcher’s Government was determined to destroy the National Union of Mineworkers and stockpiled coal and created a national police force before Ian McGregor, head of the National Coal Board, announced the decimation of mining communities across Britain.

All of which meant that the holding of the 1984 Gala was in the middle of a year long strike and for the first time it drew on the support of the wider trade union movement, who again marched in large numbers in 1992 when the Tories, under Michael Heseltine’s closure programme, provided the final nail in the coffin for an energy source that could still – with the development of clean coal technology – provide much of Britain’s energy needs. As such Durham no longer has any mines, but it still has a fighting trade union spirit and joining former miners at last year’s Gala were plenty of trade union members from different parts of the country.

Because as Unite general secretary Len McCluskie said from the speakers platform: ‘The Durham Miners’ Gala is the most important event in the whole of the labour movement and I salute the Durham Miners and their communities for continuing to give all of us so much inspiration.”

The Big Meeting is 244 pages long and is packed with photographs and illustrations.
It can be obtained through the Durham Miners’ Association at £17.50 soft back or £23.50 hard back.

By Mark Metcalf. 

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