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Psychological change in the miners’ strike 1984-85

Mar

25

On the 30th anniversary of the miners' strike, Dr John Drury describes his research on psychological changes among participants.

 

 

My research is concerned with the way that collective action can transform participants’ identities. To investigate this, I carried out interviews with a family who had been involved in the miners’ strike of 1984-85. The interviews uncovered some powerful personal stories – of people falling out with their strike-breaking neighbours and never speaking to them again, of ‘housewives’ who became new people with independent interests and careers, and more. I supplemented these interviews with an analysis of secondary sources. The 30th anniversary of the start of the miners’ strike in March is a good time to share some of the findings. The types of psychological changes found in accounts of the experiences of those involved in the strike are divided here into three areas: conceptions of the police; relations with other social groups; and the experiences of the women involved.

 

Relations with the police

The most salient change among the strikers and their families was the reversal from seeing the police as protecting their rights to seeing them as an antagonistic outgroup. Among the experiences that seemed to account for this change, there was the shock amongst strikers at the sheer numerical presence of the police at the pickets, to allow working miners to get into the collieries. Secondly, there was the violence of the police towards the striking miners, which came to be expected and seemed to have no limits. Many of the striking miners reported that police used violence and provocation as a tactic to produce arrests. For example, a police cordon pushed a picket-line towards a hawthorn hedge, and when the miners tried to protect themselves by pushing back they were arrested. Many miners also felt they had been arrested without even doing anything.

The arrests themselves were not seen by the striking miners as isolated acts of coercion; rather they were understood as part of a general strategy of reducing picket-line numbers. Stringent bail conditions imposed on arrested miners served as evidence for this perception. Many striking interviewees felt that their civil liberties - the rights they expected to have to strike and picket - had been curtailed by the police action. The curtailment of rights extended beyond violence, intimidation, provocation and arrest to the police's physical control of whole districts. The fact that police were seen to intervene by moving and excluding people from places that were nowhere near the collieries reinforced the perception that their actions were arbitrary abuses of power.

Miners' new evaluations of the police took the form of seeing them as a political agency out to impose the government's will rather than enforce a neutral system of law and order; most saw strike-breaking as the police's central function during the dispute. Hence also many refer to a ‘police state’. Despite all this - or perhaps because of it - many interviewees also reported feeling greater determination to continue the strike.

 

Relations with other groups

There was a shift among strikers and their families towards a more positive conception of or identification with previously differentiated or despised social groups. In the first place, this kind of change seems to have operated through the support such groups gave to the miners. Meeting members of these groups in the context whereby each supports the other’s opposition to the government enabled the strikers to see ‘them’ for the first time as ‘like us’. Secondly, the unexpected antagonism of the police toward the strikers as a category enabled them to see themselves as like other categories in conflict with the police; where before these groups might have been seen as ‘troublemakers’ now it became easy to regard them instead as ‘persecuted’, like the miners.

 

Women's experiences

Women married to miners changed not only in relation to the police and other groups in the same way as the men; they also changed in relation to the men. The break with old ideas was often more dramatic than the break experienced by the miners themselves.

For many of the women it was their first involvement in a strike and in politics. They got involved on two levels: firstly in giving moral support to their striking husbands (in fact, many of them insisted that their husbands take part in the strike, and were important in resisting returns to work); and second in providing practical support, including raising funds and participating on picket lines and demonstrations. Their involvement was crucial to the strike, but it also enabled them to create an identity for themselves different from the one given to them by society.

The women's support groups entailed a shift from the privatized home to a new, collective sphere. The way the servicing of the men was made a public and joint enterprise provided the means for women to look with a fresh perspective at their own roles as housewives. The support groups - as women-only groups, independent of both the men and the NUM - gave the women confidence in themselves as women. And in becoming ‘politically active’ through the strike, the women also extended their conception of ‘the political’. Again the support of groups they would not otherwise have had contact with and the ruthlessness of the government and its agents seem to have played a role in this.

In many cases, women’s psychological transformation was one of greater confidence. The support groups, as the main source of the women's new-found confidence, were something the women found they wanted to keep in place after the strike. They also wanted to apply the groups to other matters, in effect changing the functions of the structures they had created. The new confidence meant that new choices became available for the women. Since the confidence was bound up with their identity as women, rather than as just their husbands' wives, the new choices reflected this identity, leading many to understand their actions in terms of feminism, whether or not they endorsed this perspective entirely.

These kind of changes in identity sometimes meant conflict or at least divergence in relation to their husbands. Examples of change among miners’ wives included refusing to shave their legs, changing their styles of clothes, taking up careers and further education, leaving a husband and becoming a lesbian. In other words, out of the long dispute, as it played itself out in the relations between the police and the strikers and their supporters, and within the groups of strikers and supporters themselves, new ways of understanding self and other were being forged, and new modes of expressing selfhood were being developed

 

Conclusions

The hypotheses developed from this analysis of accounts from the miners’ strike was the basis of an ethnographic study I carried out later on psychological change in participants in the anti-roads movement, which showed the role of social identity processes in such change.

 

Links

For my blog post on that research, go to: http://splash.sussex.ac.uk/blog/for/psychresearch/2013/01/14/the-social-psychology-of-antiroad-protests

 

For one of my published papers on that research go to: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1348/014466600164642/abstract

 

A longer version of this blog post with a full reference list of sources is available at: http://drury-sussex-the-crowd.blogspot.co.uk/2014/03/psychological-change-in-uk-miners.html