An extended version of what I wrote for the New Welsh Review.
From a certain angle of rose-tinted retrospect, Britain in the 1980s is a storyteller’s dream. In the past few decades, British films like Billy Elliott, Brassed Off and The Full Monty have presented the era as one of struggle and defeat for the British working class, with Margaret Thatcher as a grotesque presiding nightmare. Counter-accounts of Thatcher’s rise — notably 2012’s The Iron Lady — have revolved around the victory of the country’s first female Prime Minister over a male-chauvinist political establishment and the macho thuggery of Britain’s trade unions. There has been less cultural coverage of the stories that unfolded in the margins of this grand narrative. Matthew Warchus’s film Pride is distinctive initially for its focus on those at the frequently forgotten intersection of 1980s conflict.
For audiences outside the UK, and even some within it, the details of the Miners’ Strike of 1984-85 are unknown or hazy at best. The ideological clash between the Thatcher government and the National Union of Mineworkers became a titanic struggle for the survival of the British coal industry, played out in mining communities up and down the country in a year long strike. Against the NUM, the Thatcher government deployed an unprecedented degree of police violence, media bias and state surveillance, the extent of which is only recently coming to light. Popular support for the strikers, meanwhile, was generated both by instinctive anti-Tory sentiment and an awareness that the miners were the front line of resistance to a right-wing assault on the economic, political and social fabric of Britain. If the miners were beaten, then sooner or later little of the postwar welfare settlement would be left intact. That they were beaten, and that NUM leader Arthur Scargill’s jeremiads on the triumph of neoliberalism have indeed come to pass, is part of why the strike retains its peculiar status as a cultural and political touchstone in Britain, and why it still has the ability to provoke powerful and frequently bitter reactions both for and against.
If considered purely in terms of popular resistance to neoliberalism’s shock-troops, Pride could be dismissed for pulling its punches, since it shows little of the high political stakes invested in the outcome of the strike or the police occupation, brutality, and harassment to which mining communities were subject. But this is not quite the task it sets for itself. Directed by Matthew Warchus and scripted by Steven Beresford, Pride tells the story of the London-based activist group Lesbians and Gay Men Support the Miners, and their encounters with a group of striking miners from the Welsh coalfield. It’s a true story, though you’d be forgiven for remaining unaware of this until the closing credits, and, like many depictions of the 80s, its dramatic narrative seems almost too good to be true. The strike itself becomes a backdrop to the staple fare of feel-good film: gently comical culture-clashes, personal journeys and gently triumphant coming together in the face of adversity. Where Pride manages to be more than the sum of its parts, however, and where it becomes a particularly useful intervention into contemporary debates, is in its unabashedly political edge.
These days the sentiment of solidarity is absent from mainstream political vocabulary; in Pride, as in the 80s it depicts, the term is everywhere and is used to cut across the divisions of identity politics, bridging class, geographic, and cultural divides. The film opens with LGSM founder Mark Ashton (a bravura turn by Ben Schnetzer) gathering Londoners’ support for the miners by emphasising that the Conservative government, and its brand of economic slash-and-burn and social puritanism, are a common enemy for whole swathes of the UK including the queer community. This unquestioned ideal of solidarity saturates the whole story. ‘Why support one set of rights over another?’ is a theme voiced repeatedly. Like its repeated motif of joined hands, Pride’s message of unity in struggle is simplistic but no less powerful for that. You can forgive the slightly one-note analysis, along with the odd moment of poetic cliché – all the Welsh characters sing like dirty-faced angels at the drop of a collection-bucket, for instance – for a film that is so refreshingly un-shy in making its unfashionable politics explicit.
As an 80s period-piece, Pride also impresses, whether in its meticulously reconstructed sets – including the iconic London bookshop Gay’s The Word – its characters’ crimped candyfloss hair, geometric blusher and ubiquitous denim, or its tone of political earnestness. It succeeds in side-stepping many of the pitfalls that could beset such a production, not least the danger of presenting ‘queer’ and ‘working-class’ as mutually exclusive identities, and of reinforcing negative stereotypes of both. Instead, the story starts in London, with the LGSM’s founding and quest to distribute to the miners the support funds they raise. This means both the LGSM and we are introduced to the Welsh as exotic creatures from far afield, in a neat reversal of the strikers’ own expected attitude to culturally alien interlopers. The personality clashes that take place in the coalfield are juxtaposed with the intolerance and hostility that also exists in the capital – Andrew Scott, as gay expatriate Gethin, observes in a moment of grim foreshadowing, ‘I don’t need to travel to Wales to get my head kicked in’. The (somewhat predictable) coming out of Bill Nighy’s cultured and diffident village elder, Cliff, is comically underplayed, but its casual acceptance by his peers is contrasted with George MacKay’s unwilling outing and rueful retreat from his uncomprehending family in the London suburbs. Pride has no truck with the idea that queer sexuality is an alien import, something that individuals from working-class communities must undergo exile to a debauched metropolis in order to indulge.
While the illegality of police operations in the mining villages is briefly addressed, the police presence in the film remains mostly sidelined. Conflict is displaced from the political (miners vs state) to more whimsical instances of socio-cultural conflict and its overcoming. Any violence, when it erupts, does so off-screen. The film’s true villain is bigotry and ignorance, portrayed here in the toxic 80s concordance of a rampant right-wing press, moral panic over AIDS, and the concern with protecting working-class and masculine dignity from stigma by association – an anxiety to which Lisa Palfrey’s pinch-lipped refusenik Maureen and her followers fall victim. Pride’s advocacy of wider cross-cultural solidarity here anticipates the aftermath of the strike, in which mining communities were made conscious of their marginalised position in Thatcherite Britain, as pitilessly outcast as any ‘deviant’ subculture.
It’s a strange feeling, for this viewer at least, to feel nostalgia for the earnest certainties and communities of the 80s, but Pride manages to inspire it, particularly in comparison with the flood of irony, individualism and atomisation which swept away the concept of solidarity from the 90s onwards. The strike’s ultimate defeat is almost possible to overlook here, providing as it does only a momentary note of downbeat dignity before the heart-swelling crescendo of the film’s final scene in which the 1985 Gay Pride March is led by a cavalcade of miners. Pride thereby achieves a final note of victory in cross-cultural solidarity despite the strike’s defeat, which, taken on its own terms, is a dramatically satisfying conclusion. It does however highlight the relative absence of such avenues for solidarity today in light of campaigns for liberation or resistance riven by splits between class and identity politics — subcultures often more aware of their power as assimilationist consumers of a ‘lifestyle’ than as pressure groups. Its final scene could be seen as a critique of contemporary preferences within liberation movements for partying over politics, but Pride’s deeply unfashionable emphasis on the politicised power of music and collective gathering, whether union folk-songs or benefit concerts headlined by Bronski Beat, also demonstrates that partying and protesting are another set of categories that needn’t be mutually exclusive.
Pride also provides a corrective to contemporary arguments for intersectionality which mischaracterise it as a theory of competing monopolies of oppression, rather than one which advocates inclusivity and solidarity. Crucially, the film resists the dominant narrative of identity politics by focusing on class as a fundamental rather than incidental intersection. Pride’s intersectional drive, however, does stumble along the way in its off-hand and almost dismissive treatment of the idea of female separatism. When female LGSM members raise the issue of ‘safe space’ the response from their fellow activists is derisive, and although the exchange is ambiguous as to which side the audience’s sympathies should lie, it is still an oddly jarring note.
The happy ending, of course, raises further questions. The story told in Pride is more than a story, it is ongoing social and political history which has seen the deliberate destruction of industry, economy, and community in Britain in a way that even Thatcher’s right-hand man Norman Tebbit retrospectively called ‘unduly harsh’. The Valleys characters that Pride immortalises, and their descendants, are today dealing with the story’s aftermath – their derelict and neglected communities perhaps imbued with greater liberal tolerance as a result of the encounters Pride depicts, but scarcely otherwise liberated. This dispiriting coda to the grand symphony of the 1980s also requires attention, despite the lack of laughs or warmed hearts to be had.