A39 Theatre Group and the fight not to be where we have come to be

our authors Oct 3, 2023

by Paul Farmer

On 3 May 1979, the Conservative Party under Margaret Thatcher won the UK General Election. Thatcher and her supplicants did not subscribe to the post-war British consensus, the bargain made with the returning troops of World War Two and the population that had stood unbroken as the home front that there was to be mass housebuilding for municipal rent, a National Health Service and the Welfare State.

So those concessions began to be reversed through the Thatcher government’s Chicago School economics in the form of ‘monetarism’, actually a strategy to shrink the state. The mass unemployment it caused threatened her downfall but the Falklands War gave Thatcher her second victory. And then in March 1984 came the Miners’ Strike.

As Francis Beckett and David Hencke have put it, ‘Britain before the great miners’ strike of 1984-5 and Britain after it are two fundamentally different places, and they have little in common.’(i) The transition from a country with institutions predicated on diminishing inequality and injustice, on universal health care and an end to poverty, to that of today in which homelessness is growing and the NHS dies a slow death by ten thousand cuts, where the life expectancy of certain social groups is decreasing and the gap between the rich and the poor ever growing, begins here.

The Miners’ Strike was a showdown Thatcher and her allies had been planning since long before coming to power, an act of revenge for the miners’ two-fold defeat and eventual removal of Ted Heath’s Tory government of 1970-74. Its prosecution began with the publication of a list of mines to be closed in the British coalfields, where the pit was often also the focus of community and social organisation. So this was not just an attack on an industry but on all the aspects of ways of life. Along with stringent anti-trade union laws, the unstated aim was to inaugurate the systematic removal of the labour movement as a political force in the UK state.

The strike would last for a year during which the leaders of that labour movement would fail to substantively support the miners’ struggle, but among the grass roots of the Labour Party and the trades unions the support for the miners was intense. As Seumas Milne notes:

Throughout the dispute of 1984–5, in the face of a wall of hostile propaganda and nightly scenes of violence played out on television, rarely less than a third of the adult population–representing around 15 million people–supported the NUM and the strike: a strike for jobs and the defence of mining communities, but also a strike for social solidarity and a different kind of Britain. (ii)

Four people in Cornwall were amongst those who felt a burning need to support the strike. What they had in common was experience in theatre so they decided to express their support through performance. This was the birth of A39 Theatre Group. To create the work, we drew on the heritage of agitprop. Other resources were the plays and writings of John McGrath and Bertolt Brecht. Our roots were in our shared socialism and the counterculture of the 1960s and 70s.

Though the strike was defeated we continued our work to disseminate its arguments in Cornish communities through our play One & All!, a social history of Cornwall’s own mining of tin and copper from her granite hillsides. Soon we discovered that the defence and strengthening of Cornish communities was to fight for the same causes as those of the Miners’ Strike.

One of the stories told by my book After the Miners’ Strike is of a theatre company that was a contemporaneous expression of resistance to that transition to the place the UK has become under Thatcher and her legacy. If you want to understand now, you really need to understand then.

(i) Beckett, Francis and David Hencke, ‘Preface’, in Marching to the Fault Line: The Miners’ Strike and the Battle for Industrial Britain (London: Constable, 2009).

(ii) Seumas Milne, The Enemy Within: The Secret War Against the Miners (London: Verso 2014) p. 352.

This is an Open Access title available to read and download for free or to purchase in all available print and ebook formats below.

After the Miners’ Strike: A39 and Cornish Political Theatre versus Thatcher’s Britain: Volume 1
In this rich memoir, the first of two volumes, Paul Farmer traces the story of A39, the Cornish political theatre group he co-founded and ran from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s. Farmer offers a unique insight into A39’s creation, operation, and artistic practice during a period of convulsive poli…

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