Grinding The Lens

Image by Getty Images via Daylife

Do you know that TV ad for an insurance company that stitches together a load of resonant images from Ireland’s past, like Charlie Haughey appearing on TV to warn the nation that ‘we’ were living beyond ‘our’ means? The point of the ad seems to be the development of an idea that the company that insures your car is so woven into the fabric of one’s own memories, one’s own sense of the world, that it can be trusted, that it has a real personality, and that it is not in any sense contingent on fluctuations in your own personal fortunes, or that of the country you identify with.

To me, the ad barely resonates at all. So many of the images have no immediate personal relevance for me. I have no recollection of Charlie Haughey appearing on TV to make that address. It might have been broadcast to the North, but I wasn’t watching. Until the end of the 80s, the RTE signal we got in our house was never that reliable, and I only ever looked at it on a Friday afternoon for the children’s TV programmes, and even then it caused a strain on the eyes.

When did news start to make its way into my view of the world? I think it was around the time of the miners’ strike. To me, that event went on for an age. It lasted a year or so, which at the time was about an eighth of my life.

I had a video recording of Superman II, one of my favourite films back then, and the recording also took in the news report either immediately after or immediately before the film. It’s way over 20 years since I last looked at it, yet one of the images that lingers is that of the juxtaposed photos of Arthur Scargill and Margaret Thatcher, each occupying half the entire screen. I don’t remember what the Scargill photo looked like, but the Thatcher photo was the one they always used when they broadcast the audio from the House of Commons: her looking up, tidy, firm, resolute.

What does an eight year old learn from this image? A sense, I think, of a conflict between two individuals of equal power and stature. It is a long time ago, but I can also recall some of the analysis, if you can call it that, that got floated about in the media. That each was as stubborn and intransigent as the other, that neither was for backing down, and so on. So the sense that comes across is one of a conflict of personality.

Now, I can see that the focus on the respective personality traits of Thatcher or Scargill were merely a way of reducing the underlying conflict -between the mobilised working class and the capitalist state- to a mere question of personal disagreement, to be resolved through a degree of compromise. Yet in historical terms, there could be no question of any such compromise: what appears or gets represented as compromise in the confrontation between labour and capital can only ever be a deferral, a sublimation.

Or a defeat. But that depends whose terms you are applying. In an interview with Vincent Browne, Scargill dismisses the idea that the miners were defeated, since the epic nature of the miners’ struggle will always serve as an example to workers struggling under capitalism, no matter where or when. He cites the case of Jesus: no-one would say Jesus was defeated, even though he was crucified. This is true, but there is a problem. For every Jesus there are millions of people who struggled against oppression and were crushed for their resistance, but we know nothing about them because generations of historians writing from the perspective of the ruling class did not see fit to record what happened to them, even if they happened to know about it. We don’t know very much about the people who lived in villages laid to waste by the armies of the Roman Empire. There’s no guarantee that the reality of struggle will get recorded let alone remembered, and there is no guarantee that the miners’ strike will be remembered as Scargill is entitled to hope.

Certainly, as long as the miners’ strike is represented primarily in terms of a showdown between two individuals, the nature of what was really at stake is at risk of being buried and forgotten. An RTE radio news report (audio here) on Scargill’s visit, for instance, was introduced by Edith Piaf singing ‘Je ne regrette rien’. The connotations were fairly clear: the strike was some sort of drama long ended, and Scargill occupied the role of prima donna, and if he did not regret doing what he did, it is certainly something that he would do well to consider. It is hard to imagine a similar introduction being produced for anyone who actively participated in crushing the miners. An Independent columnist had a characteristically bone-headed response to the Scargill visit, claiming that it was down to Scargill’s leadership that miners ‘were starved back to work after a year of suffering. The mining industry subsequently collapsed’, the implication being that if the miners had quietly accepted their fate, they would have saved their jobs, as though it had not really been the intention of the capitalist state led by Thatcher to crush organised labour, and that Scargill had really put them up to it through his intransigence. But this is what you get when history is viewed through a lens that picks out isolated individuals and personal choices but sees neither labour nor capital; this is a lens that grew in power and scope once the miners were crushed.

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October 2009

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