Solidarity, that most fundamental principle of progressive movements, seems in short supply these days. Even as the aftershocks of the economic crisis – or perhaps the signs of the earthquake to come – reverberate, it is the exploitation of division that defines political discourses across the globe.
You can see it clearly in Britain, a big society that has rarely seemed so small. Recent months have seen the ominous rise of the xenophobic neoliberals of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and their allegedly down-to-earth-everyday-man-in-the-street leader Nigel Farage, who before entering politics worked in that most common and relatable of professions, stockbroking. Of course, the UKIP is not alone using racism to cynically carve a slice of the political pie, but the party has certainly monopolised much of the media attention through its alleged success in speaking to the ‘common person’, the average working-class voter.
The rise of UKIP symbolises the divisions that have become so familiar in electoral systems around the globe, and that have sent Britain’s major parties into racist tailspin as they seek to cut off this threat from the Right. The implications are clear: at the time when those who don’t belong to the money-grubbing elite (remember the whole 99 percent thing?) need to stand together, bonds of social unity are being splintered almost beyond repair.
An effective antidote to this depressing picture comes from an unlikely source, the BBC, with the relatively small and relatively new British release: the flamboyantly ‘wonderful’ and ‘irresistible’ movie, Pride.
This remarkable film tells the story of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM), a small group that took the daring step of fundraising within their community to support the National Union of Miners (NUM), which was embroiled in the bitterest industrial dispute in sixty years.
Set in 1984, as the horror of the AIDS crisis was becoming apparent, the film shows how the small group resists hesitancy and suspicion in the lesbian and gay community, and the initial bigotry and cynicism of the miners, to demonstrate solidarity with another battling community. When the NUM national leadership won’t agree to take their money, they bypass it altogether, simply phoning up the miners village by village. Eventually, they contact the strikers in the Dulais valley of Southern Wales who tentatively agree to send a representative to meet them.
The scene is set for a clash of cultures: queer London meets straight southern Wales. It’s the sort of thing that the British do so well. The tale unfolds with that quintessential quirkiness, driven by lovable and affable characters whom we can’t help but care for as they find ways to reach across the cultural gap.
Beneath the warmth, struggle is never far away. This is a movie set in a time of life and death for two different communities: one seeking to defend a way of life being eroded by economic ‘necessity’, and one trying to escape a more direct killer.
It is amazing how this film manages to incorporate both these threads throughout its narrative. Yet it still manages to provide a fundamental optimism, one that is born of the solidarity forged in struggle. Even more amazing is that this is not the product of an enthusiastic imagination, a new, interesting, idiosyncratic way to tell the story of the miners’ strike, or the queer experience. It happened.
Well, mostly. Like all fictional representations, the film does take some liberties with the truth, but when that mostly involves Dominic West dancing to ‘Shame, Shame, Shame’ by Shirley & Co., you’re inclined to let it slide.
Much of the historical memory of this watershed event lives on in the hearts and minds of the participants. But one particularly interesting historical artefact has survived. It is a short film created by LGSM called ‘All Out! Dancing in Dulais’, available on Youtube. This film, upon which writer Stephen Beresford drew for Pride, is very much an activists’ chronicle. In it, Mark Ashton, one of the key figures to LGSM, explains his involvement with a group that began:
so that one community could give solidarity to the other…it was really illogical, when you think about it, it is quite illogical, to
actually say well, I’m gay and I’m into defending the ‘gay community’ but I don’t care about anything else, it’s ludicrous. It’s important that if you’re defending communities that you also defend all communities, and not just one. And that’s one of the reasons, that’s the main reason why I’m involved in it.
In Pride, the character of Ashton tries to drum up support for the idea of a queer support group for the miners. He explains to a roomful of mostly sceptical activists that there are fewer police gathering outside the queer bars, clubs and bookshops because they had gone somewhere else. The point is underlined when he brandishes the famous newspaper headline of a horse-riding policeman at a NUM picket wielding a baton at the head of a protestor. The reason to support the miners is simple for they are experiencing what lesbians and gays had experienced: the violence, the harassment, the hate. It is now the miners who are the outcasts, and it is LGSM’s job to help them.
A large portion of Ashton’s audience pointedly leave when he asks for volunteers. The LGSM group is only eventually invited to the town for a reception, after an extended debate on the strike organising committee. The unease in the community, particularly amongst the male miners, is palpable, broken down (in part) over time as the experience of support is demonstrated and lived. The hesitancy and suspicion is only eroded due to an intervention by the more politically savvy members of the community (noticeably, mostly women), and the persistence of the group in supporting the strike. Unexpectedly, this light-hearted romp embodies important points about the experience of solidarity: that the correct attitudes, language and understandings are not the pre-requisite of solidarity in the context of struggle. They can, however, be its product.
The LGSM were determined to be taken on their own terms in their offer of solidarity. They would not hide who they were, and so their involvement was a matter of pride. One of the indefatigable strikers in Dulais was Siân James, one of the movie’s real heroes. In All Out! she speaks about the effect of LGSM’s involvement broadly on the community:
Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners came to our aid when we really really needed help, and I mean it was the best sort of help, because, it was not only financial, we also gained something else, we gained an insight into a way of life, into other people’s sexuality, into other people’s problems.
For James and the community at Dulais, this was a significant adjustment to a culture not given much chance to express itself in the Welsh valleys. As James explains, the personal experience of a similar victimisation and harassment at the hands of the Tory government altered the mindset in the valley:
All of a sudden … we were there, and we knew what it was like, we were next in line after the lesbians and gays, black men black women, there was another fair group that was anybody’s for grabs, and that was the miners, and I mean it is a horrifying position to be in, you cannot sympathise with an oppressed group, until you’ve actually been a member of one.
One of the most poignant moments in Pride comes near the end of the film when the probability of defeat looms over the horizon. In the Dulais Miners Lodge hall, LGSM is gathered together with the community. Not too long before their first encounter in that hall had been stilted, uncertain, tinged with danger. But that moment had passed, and together they sit discussing the struggle. Ashton is pushed to pledge the group to do something remarkable to show their support, a promise that would become the ‘Pits and Perverts’ benefit concert. A young woman stands and begins to sing (it is, after all, Wales). She begins ‘Bread and Roses’, a song (based on the poem) emerging from the 1912 Lawrence Textile strike, led largely by women in the United States. It is a song about the need not just to survive but to live:
Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;
Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses!
Soon all the women of Dulais are singing; soon, too, so are the men.
It is a powerful scene that could have so easily lost its poignancy to fumbling cliché. But there is a beauty in it, deriving from the moment of connection. The voices raised in the hall, the disparate groups who have come together in common cause, the sense of history and pride behind those words, the connection to those who have struggled before and the legacy being crafted for those yet to come.
But so what? What does it matter? Pride reminds us that what is remarkable is not solidarity occurring in the ‘unlikeliest’ of places – what is remarkable is that it doesn’t happen more often.
For what is so unlikely about a group of people from one way of life finding commonality with those from another?
Take the men of the mining village, who had spent their lives bound to certain understandings about themselves, how they were supposed to act, who they were supposed to love. In the strike, this entire worldview was challenged, as they were degraded by the government that was supposed to protect them. Their names dragged through the mud by a hostile press. Their sense of self, their belief in the future, was shaken to its core. They found themselves standing together, day after day, against an enemy of much greater size and strength. In that context, looking for solidarity – and learning to accept it when it comes – is the likeliest thing in the world.
Today, communities are again under siege. Now, if anything, the attack has expanded to target large swathes of the population. Apart from the elites themselves, who is not under assault in some manner or other at the moment?
History doesn’t have a repeat button and nothing is ever lived out the same way twice. But in this climate stories of solidarity are more important than ever.
That’s why a movie like Pride is so significant. The politics of difference and exploitation are not always bound to win. The working-class is not just an unchanging morass, waiting to be duped by the lies of the elite.
Solidarity can be a messy thing but a powerful weapon for our side. That, after all, is why they are so afraid of it.