Ghost dancers: the miners' last generation by David John Douglass [Book review]

2014 sees the 30th anniversary of the start of the 1984-5 miners’ strike, one of the most important milestones in recent British history. David Douglass was a significant figure in the strike, and this book builds on his other writings on it. He critically engages with academic histories, and can challenge some of the myths round the strike (like the government line that it was all the doing of Arthur Scargill). The particular strength of Ghost dancers is that it examines the ‘long war’ and deliberate destruction of the British coal industry: “I am now certain that the basic plan, with two or three variants, was laid back in the ‘70s […] A full-scale massacre had not initially been on the cards, only a systematic culling and neutering. When this had proved inconclusive then a ‘final solution’, by the planned destruction of coal’s markets, was consciously and deliberately planned – that is, for political not commercial, economic grounds or those of fuel efficiency, still less care of the environment.” (p314) The coal did not “run out”. Douglass is understandably angry recounting the consequences of “pitracide”.

Political biographies have two possible faults: leaving in too much detail or sanitising the story by leaving out the interesting bits! Ghost dancers is a big book, and there is plenty here on internal rulebook debates and the fight for more democracy in the National Union of Mineworkers. But the whole book is leavened with jokes and stories. Not much tidied away, either: this is not a celebration that avoids difficult points like “redundancy fever” after the strike. The book is incomparably better for the grassroots view it brings: “There are 150,000 individual stories of the strike. That year, how it impacted on individual families in all of its tragic, proud, gut-wrenching, comic, exhilarating, fearful, desperate, heroic and indescribable emotional variants is another story. That story, told well and in the necessary detail, would fill volumes and every page would resist the gross stereotyping of the strikers which the media, sympathetic as well as hostile, have made out for us since the strike ended. Very few strikers or their families ever went near a picket line. For those that did, few pickets were ever violent, and most were humdrum and boring, at least until the government decided to open up a second front by seeking to put a scab into every pit. Then an occupation army arrived and all the paraphernalia of flying pickets and confrontation landed on the doorstep every day.” (p46) Ghost dancers presents the strike from the perspective of those who lived it in a way that we rarely see – and not just the strike. It’s part of a tradition of working class writing that shows working class culture be a rich and complex experience.

David Douglass is one of a kind, so if you don’t find something to disagree with here, you’re not paying attention. I expected the Marxist-Anarchist combination, but I find it hard to agree that some doddering Stalinist spy is the guardian angel that keeps Douglass out of prison despite his revolutionary convictions (p474). Surely that honour belongs to his fellow Hatfield miners? To me, Ghost dancers is both a primary source and vital piece of history from below. But I’ll leave the final word to Barry Pateman: “David Douglass has a very engaging style of writing that’s passionate and takes no prisoners. It’s a worthy successor to the works of Jack Lawson, Bert Coombes, etc. Anyone anywhere on the left who ignores this voice does so at their peril.”


Ghost Dancers (ISBN 9781873976401, £12.95) is published by Christiebooks. Available direct from the author: Also available on Kindle