Friday 27 June 2014

Billy and the miners

I haven’t seen the movie (yet), but I would thoroughly recommend Billy Elliot the musical. And, my, is the kid gifted (I’m not talking about the fictional one, but the very real kid who plays the lead character).
Still, I’m not going to try and write a critique for which I would lack the words, not to mention a deep understanding of the form. Rather, I’d like to mention the depiction of the secondary plot: the miners’ strike.

There are times in the musical when some of the own-goals that the working class (like it or not, and in my case mostly not, but the UK’s is a class system) sometimes scores, but to me, on the catchy and powerful tune of “Solidarity, solidarity, solidarity forever!” it was hard not to side with the miners. You’d see Billy’s family coming home with injuries caused by the police –what, you’d almost think that striking was no longer a right in the UK. And as the musical progressed, it was clear that it was not only their jobs being destroyed (as if that wasn’t massive enough), but themselves.
I don’t know how the British people received it, having been sat next to a French boy who was having the context explained live by his mother (which is fine by the way, you don’t need absolute silence to enjoy a musical). I don’t know to what extent it would make them think. What I know is that, in the South East where I live, I have long noticed how most of the people would describe that period as a heroic fight to bring the UK out of decadence and into a shining modernity in which it would strive. The country had to be grasped from the clutching hands of the unions that wanted to strangle it to death.
I’ve even had a young man (who is not rich and, as a person, rather kind and generous) explain to me that he did not see any reason for a union to exist, as he had a strong belief in markets. Presumable the reasoning goes “the company is an individual (well, has personhood rights in some jurisdiction), so is the employee, so they should interact one to one or it’s not fair”. I mean, surely employment is the epitome of market distortions…

Don’t get me wrong: the coal mines had to close. In fact, considering their terrible environmental impact, it’s a shame that they had not closed long before. But how has much of the UK (and certainly USA, too) descended into a culture of blaming the victims? Why should the necessary closure of an obsolescent industry mean that people who were employed in it should be thrown in misery, that entire regions should be deprived of dignity and a significant livelihood? Three decades later, media report (fancifully, for the most) on families having lived on (very meagre) benefits for generations, you get helpful advice such as “get on your bike and find work” from politicians who were born into wealth.
Well, even though some economic models assume immediate transfer from one occupation to the next, however different, and ability to relocate at no cost (financial or otherwise), the reality is that if you destroy the main industry in a region, you had better give that region a lot of support or you’ll destroy the region and its people with it. And they would deserve sympathy, not the recurrent accusation of laziness that they get. As the musical kept going, I had the strong feeling that, while they’d never see me as one of them, I’d definitely feel like one with them.

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