The novel and its period
The period of the miner’s strike is one of the most fascinating in English political history, one whose legacy is felt today in the current shape of the British economic, political, and social landscape. For me, it is the defining period of the post-War decades, further reaching in its impact even than the social revolution of the sixties.
In our own time, we daily see evidence of the gap that has opened between police and public and the consequence of this for civil order. This was perhaps most obviously manifested in the Blackberry riots of 2011 that ravaged areas of London, Birmingham and other major cities, and in the G8 riots.
Such tears in the fabric of social order would appear to be symptoms of discontent with many aspects of modern urban living - the rage against exploitation, anger over the financial scandals of global economics, the greed of faceless corporations, the failure of education policies and of welfare provision. The list could go on.
Bearing the brunt of this aggression at the time of the strike, the front-line of this mistrust, were the police, a body that for many – even those of the middle ground and the liberal right - are no longer seen as trustworthy. Such a view has been sustained by judgments like the Stephen Lawrence Enquiry, with its findings of institutional racism, and the enquiry into Hillsborough that discovered far-reaching levels of corruption and collusion amongst senior officers. This sense that the police are now defenders of privilege rather than agents of the law, eroding the tradition of policing by consent, has its roots in the miners strike.
The seeming politicization of the police is the direct result of the Police Act passed by the Thatcher government in the period leading up to the strike. That act was a key piece of legislation whose intention was to pave the way for the aggressive actions of police forces during a strike that, so recently released records indicate, was fermented by a government desperate for a fight that they conceived as bringing about the end of mass union power. The manner in which the police used this legislation to contain the strikers saw police roadblocks and actions against pickets that created the greatest breeches of national civil liberties this side of Magna Carta.
Beyond this, the miners’ accusations of police ‘black operations’ during the strike, dismissed at the time, are now seen to be well-founded, with the actions of agent-provocateurs and military units an accepted fact of the strike. The subsequent revelations of the Police Special Demonstration Squad and undercover infiltration of activist groups lend further credence to the accusations regarding 'black' operations conducted by police and security services around the period of the strike with the intention to discredit and then destroy the miners' action.
Kim Howells, the former Labour politician and who filled the 'M' role in British Intelligence in the Blair government, wrote to me after reading Borderline confirming that the fiction of the novel was in his experience of such things very close to the actualities of the time
Researching for Borderline I came across hundreds of eye-witness accounts, not only of the violence of the policing of the picket lines but of the darker violence perpetrated. Keith Poulson living in Fitzwilliam at the time describes one night where “The police came over the bridge, swinging truncheons the size of broom handles and chanting. They knocked one lad down and kept hitting him. His uncle told them they'd given him enough, then, they knocked him down and gave him the same. Then the people all came out of their houses.” Villagers built barricades and set fire to NCB property. "The whole village just erupted. Whatever they could do to get back, they did it.” Months later in court Michael Mansfield, QC, defended several Fitzwilliam men charged with rioting. Witnesses there gave evidence of how police had handcuffed young men to lampposts in front of their lines to discourage stone-throwing. They were found guilty. Around 10,000 miners were arrested during the strike, several thousand convicted, and a thousand sacked.
So where did the idea for the novel come from?
Borderline came to me as a simple idea, a big question. The opening of the novel - the police snatch squad lost in the field in the aftermath of the picket that had lead to the original murder – was pretty much a complete whole that I had in place right from the start. That lead me to the contemplation of the central narrative, the dilemma that Kalus faces in finding a killer amongst over six hundred men all armed with heavy batons and clubs. From there, the research into police actions and those of the miners indicated plot devices that could enable an exploration of the politics of the period - the deeply divisive positions taken by each side that poured out as vitriol and violence the like of which had never been seen between police and pickets.
So why the miner’s strike?
The basic idea – the notion of a murder with hundreds of suspects – could, in theory, have been set in a variety of situations - such as a modern day riot, like those at the G8, or even those of 2011 in London and my own city of Birmingham. But I’d been looking for something with a little more grit to it, something that was a little more about the society we live in, how we got here. I’d just come off writing A Secret Wound [which,though written prior to Borderline, will now be a later published novel] with its themes of contemporary Birmingham and the whole melting pot of a city, and it started me thinking about how we got here. Secret Wound is very much a novel about the police, how it operates in a modern urban environment and how it polices - in short, the whole idea of policing by consent.
I was living in Tamworth, and one particulalry wet, bleak day, I stopped at the traffic lights on the A5 by the old Hurley colliery, a piece of land which is now a massive light industrial warehouse park. It got me thinking about living there in the eighties during the strike – the sense of community in the local villages in supporting the miners; the anger at the policing, and the erosion of civil liberties for the wider community during the strike; the abiding sense of loss in the years following as everything shut down. The pit died and the villages with it.
From there the book started to come together as a coherent whole. That and the idea of weaving it into the wider politics of the time – Ireland, the IRA. From that point on the basic plotting fell into place and the research then fleshed it all out.
Do you have sympathies for the miners?
I do. But I also have a lot of empathy with many of the police who found themselves increasingly politicized, and felt they could do nothing about it. I’ve tried to construct an unbiased novel. There was good and bad on both sides. The miners clearly had moral right on their side but they faced a government intent on destroying them, forcing them into corners where their cause was made to appear extreme when all most of them wanted was to work and to protect their jobs, their communities.
For me, it was clear that Kalus had to be a man who had feet in both camps. a dedicated office troubled by the politics of the role being asked of them. That his father was a retired miner, that Kalus had grown up in such a community, was essential. Other voices give a range of competing viewpoints - PC Jones who sees the miners as 'asking for it' by the nature of their actions and others like WPC Lawrence who voice the concerns of those who left to police the communities when the strike is finished. The miners, too, have a range of positions. Craig, the colliery manager sees the justice of the strike whilst trying to keep the pit alive; McKinnon, the local NUM leader, is a realist whose ideology does not blind him to the realities of the action they are taking as his speech in the epilogue so clearly shows.
But it is Kalus whose story is crucial. Kalus who understands that there will be no real victory for either side: the unions would lose, their power broken forever, but the true cost would be the death of policing by consent. Thatcher would have her victory, but the tear in the social fabric would be ruinous to her, her party, and to the faith in the democratic process.