Our Friends in the North, written by Peter Flannery, is a nine-part BBC drama series from 1996. Although it spans a period of years from 1964 to 1995, what I’m particularly interested in is its dramatization of the general election of 1979 and the miners’ strike of 1984. The way in which those two events are portrayed should strike a chord for those of us who remember what happened during the general elections of 2017 and 2019. The parallels are all too obvious.
“I want a clean fight,” says Conservative candidate, Claudia Seabrook when she arrives at her constituency. She is the parachuted-in candidate, moneyed, upper class and the daughter of the venal Home Secretary, Claud Seabrook, with his double first from Oxford University.
Despite her assertion, this election campaign is never going to obey any Queensberry Rules.
“Is it true you’re gay?” is the opening question asked of the Labour Party candidate, Nicky Hutchinson, at his official press conference.
When he casually brushes it off the reporters scent blood.
“Well, are you or not?”
Nicky reluctantly gives them an answer in the negative.
“Are you a member of Militant?” is the next question on their lips.
This is followed up by, “Is it right you support the IRA?”
Nicky replies, “I believe in a united Ireland.”
“British troops out?” adds another journalist.
“Well, it’s difficult to imagine a united Ireland with British troops in it.”
“It’s IRA policy isn’t it?” adds one of the sneering journalists.
This exchange provides a damning insight into the way in which the press are used to undermine the Labour candidate and how they pursue a concerted and clearly biased political agenda. Indeed, they relish their work, like a bully goading and laughing at his victim. To be in favour of a united Ireland is therefore conflated with supporting the IRA. And this is how the issue will be conveyed to their readers.
The end result is the following newspaper headline: “Red Nicky denies he’s gay”. What we read here is typical of many right-wing newspapers such as The Sun, and this kind of smear campaign was played out in 2019 just as much as it was in 1979. The reason the reporters are so keen to establish if Nicky is gay hinges on the fact that at least 50% of the British population were actively homophobic in 1979. (These figures are taken from the British Social Attitudes survey of 1983 where 50% of those questioned said that sexual relations between two adults of the same sex were “always wrong”.) So, if it is suggested that Nicky is gay this will effectively alienate half of the electorate.
That he is actually heterosexual makes no difference to the gutter press. Hence the headline is framed in such a way that it appears Nicky is hiding his sexuality. They imply that because he initially refused to answer the question he must therefore be gay, despite his assertion to the contrary. They certainly don’t ask the Tory candidate these sorts of impertinent questions. But then, they are not interested in local issues per se, and certainly not in such wider issues as housing or jobs. In fact we see the same journalists later, lapping up Claudia Seabrook’s words, which mainly revolve around such simplistic mantras as praising “common sense” and the notion that hard work should pay and success be rewarded.
The irony is that Claudia Seabrook’s party worker, Colin Butler, wants to legalise paedophilia, recreational drugs such as cocaine and provide armed support for the Contras – the right-wing rebel group backed and funded by the USA, who were opposed to the socialist government in Nicaragua. Colin also advocates supporting Unita (the right-wing group in Angola), the return of capital punishment, the introduction of toll roads, electronic tagging for prisoners, privatising prisons and scrapping the National Health Service.
It is Colin who is behind the illegal posters – thousands of them – which are plastered throughout the constituency. They bear a simple inflammatory message: “Vote Hutchinson. Support the IRA. They get his vote. Who gets yours?”
The same thing happened during the general election of 2019. Flyers were put up all over the country bearing a photograph of Jeremy Corbyn and a stark warning which read as follows: Would you trust this man with your children? The Conservative Party’s dirty tricks department were obviously behind these orchestrated smears and yet no one was ever brought to justice. In the case of the dramatized election campaign of 1979, Nicky’s address and phone number are even included on the posters to encourage local people to engage in reprisals against him.
Colin Butler is a fascinating figure. Obviously not from the same privileged background as Claudia Seabrook, there is a real animosity between the two of them from the very outset when she deliberately snubs him by not greeting him by name as she does the other party workers. Colin is therefore one of the new breed of Conservatives, probably working class in origin, but someone who has bought into the Thatcherite ideology. When Claudia, who knows he was behind the poster campaign, fires him he delivers the following parting shot: “Those who loathe us will fade away. Those who agree with us will inherit the party.” Despite the prophetic nature of his words, Claudia gives full vent to her class hatred: “Fuck off you scruffy little man, back to your scruffy little friends.”
“He’s out, signing on,” says Mrs Rashleigh on the doorstep of her terraced house to Nicky when he arrives to canvas her vote. By “signing on” we must take this to mean signing on the dole. Given that Mrs Rashleigh doesn’t appear to have a job either, we can assume this is a non-working household. Let us not forget that 1979 was a time of high unemployment, especially in the North East of England, with firms such as the shipbuilder, Swan Hunter, laying off men.
You would therefore expect Mrs Rashleigh and her husband to be archetypal Labour voters, but you’d be wrong. When Nicky mentions that he lives in the constituency – unlike his rival Conservative candidate – he adds that he lives in the Willow Lane Flats.
“Well, if you’re not clever enough to get yersel oot of those, you’re not clever enough to be an MP” is Mrs Rashleigh’s rejoinder.
There you have a clear example of forelock tugging in action. The implication is that only certain people should be permitted to become MPs, despite the fact that the area could boast many MPs who came from humble backgrounds. Mrs Rashleigh, despite her lowly status, is actually a snob and a racist. And she has a specific target in mind, namely the local traveller camp.
“I’m talking aboot those dirty gypos doing their business in peoples’ back gardens” says Mrs Rashleigh. The racism here is obvious from her choice of the word “gypo”. Hating those whom she considers beneath her in the social stratum, she is effectively a gammon thirty years before her time. She is the “bigoted woman” of Gordon Brown fame who railed against immigration.
The contrast with the visit of Claudia Seabrook is obvious. Once again for the benefit of the press, Mrs Rashleigh poses on her doorstep, this time holding a plate with a stottie cake on it. Claudia then asks, “Can I give you a poster?” and after Mrs Rashleigh gives a nod of approval Claudia says to her assistant, “Is there a poster for this lady?”
Everything is therefore strictly stage-managed. For instance, when Mrs Rashleigh offers her prospective MP the plate with the stottie cake, Claudia proclaims, “It’s delicious!” as if sampling some Michel Roux concoction in an expensive London restaurant. Here Mrs Rashleigh is shown in her allotted role of servant to someone who, in terms of class, is her social superior.
All four main characters – to a certain extent – become victims of the political situation which they find themselves in. Nicky’s response is to oppose the corruption and injustice he encounters in the world around him. Consequently, his political convictions are primarily left-wing, despite a brief flirtation with an anarchist group whose activities are clearly modelled on those of Andreas Baader and the Red Army Faction.
Tosker is not only a Thatcherite, he’s also a slum landlord and a freemason, mixing with people “on the square”. We even see him writing out a cheque to support the strike-breakers before his masonic induction ceremony. As his policeman son says of him: “Now I know why they call it [freemasonry] the mafia of the mediocre. It’s the right place for you, dad.” Yet even Tosker is financially embarrassed after the stock market crash.
Despite being largely apolitical, Geordie is arguably the hardest hit – ending up as a tramp living on the streets of London and then handed a life sentence for arson after he sets fire to a bed in his hostel. Although he doesn’t exhibit any specific learning difficulties, in many ways he becomes a kind of tragic Lennie figure – see Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.
Mary is galvanised by the events of the miners’ strike of 1984 and we see her actively engaged in community organisations before she eventually becomes a Labour MP. Her growth throughout the series shows how the role of women was changing in the country at large, a change that was reflected in the politics of the day.
As far as the miners’ strike is concerned, the Tories are shown as being well prepared for the impending conflict. Knowing that any given police force is typically comprised of men from the local area, whose loyalties will therefore be compromised, they bring in reinforcements from the corrupt Metropolitan police force. These interlopers terrorise the local population of the pit villages in much the same way as the Black and Tans did the Catholics in Ireland, or the Sturmabteilung dealt with their left-wing opponents in Nazi Germany. They effectively become a ruthless paramilitary force employed in Thatcher’s ideological war against the working class.
We also see how clandestine conservative forces seek to undermine the strike by organising and financially supporting the potential strike-breakers. Alan Roe, the lynchpin of the local freemasons, is one of the leaders of this campaign. At one point we observe him driving into the fictional Hibbington colliery, then later we see a group of scabs clambering into a van which bears the name of his company. As Claudia Seabrook says to the local Labour MP, Eddie Wells, in the House of Commons, “We won’t need the army. It’s a sign of intelligence to learn from one’s mistakes.”
Ironically, when the scabs meet in a pub their spokesman uses a phrase which we will remember from the 2019 general election: “We are many, they are few.” The irony is compounded by the fact that this quotation is taken from Shelley’s poem “The Masque of Anarchy.” So, here we have a strike-breaker – or as I would prefer to call him a class traitor – quoting a line from a poet who was himself a political radical and who had a profound influence on later political thinking, especially that of Karl Marx.
History, it seems, does have a habit of repeating itself after all.