The Documentary and Industrial Conflict in 1970s and 1980s Britain
There was no shortage of industrial conflict in Britain in the 1970s as workers, especially those in the public sector, attempted to resist the efforts of Tory and Labour governments to limit their pay at times of rapidly rising prices. The conflict sharpened in 1976 when, mainly as a result of the quadrupling of oil prices by various Arab states after the Six Day War of 1973, Britain was forced to seek a £2.3 bn. loan from the International Monetary Fund, the price of which was massive cuts in public spending. Industrial conflict became even more bitter in the 1980s as a result of the election of the Thatcher government in 1979. This was firmly committed to neo-liberal policies, and set about the privatisation of as much of the public sector as it could, and the neutering of the trade unions as an effective oppositional force.
Independent film-making organisations such as Cinema Action and, later, the Film and Video Workshops, played a key role in documenting workers’ efforts to defend themselves. And not only in documenting them but in supporting them too, as, unlike those working for the mainstream broadcasters, the BBC and ITV, they were not required to be ‘impartial’ – an ‘impartiality’ which all too often resulted in implicit support for the status quo and the demonization of those who opposed it. In the 1980s, Channel 4, with its statutory remit to cater to tastes and interests not generally catered for by BBC and ITV, and to encourage innovation and experiment in the form and content of its programmes, did manage to show a good deal of work from the independent film-making sector, but even this enlightened broadcaster felt that it had to ‘balance’ Ken Loach’s WHICH SIDE ARE YOU ON? with an attack on the miners’ leader Arthur Scargill. In fact this programme did not emanate from the independent sector but from the ITV company London Weekend Television, who refused point blank to show it at all as they regarded it as ‘biased’. This illustrates neatly the relative freedom offered by working in the independent sector, but it is surely deeply ironic that the attack on Scargill was fronted by Jimmy Reid, the firebrand trade unionist shown repeatedly in UPPER CLYDE SHIPBUILDERS some fourteen years earlier powerfully defending his comrades’ right to work.