He knew he was right
- Scargill: The Unauthorised Biography by Paul Routledge
HarperCollins, 296 pp, £16.99, September 1993, ISBN 0 300 05365 7
Exactly ten years after the start of the miners’ strike of 1984-85, the questions remain, in ascending order of importance: was Arthur Scargill, then and still President of the NUM, the right leader for the strike? Could the strike have been won? If it had, would this have improved the fortunes of the labour movement? Would such an improvement have altered the course of Thatcher’s government?
Paul Routledge answers some of these questions and finesses others. A long-serving labour correspondent, Routledge did much of his work at the Times. With Mick Costello of the Morning Star, he was the leader of the leftist tendency within the labour and industrial correspondents’ group and for many years the strongest influence within that group. As such, he did what he could to mobilise support for the Left in the unions – especially in the NUM, which he venerated.
He was conscious enough of the absurdity of many on the left as well as the right, but he followed the left line in the correspondents’ group more faithfully than many did. He made no secret of his desire, once Scargill won the presidency of the NUM in 1982, to become editor of the union newspaper, the Miner, a post which entailed membership of the court of King Arthur at his Sheffield Camelot. Routledge was spurned in 1983; it was a painful experience, which may have something to do with his feelings about Scargill. To read that his association with the miners’ leader was a ‘voyage of disillusionment’, that the strike, far from representing an upsurge of working-class militancy, was ‘all about one man’ (as the Queen said to Routledge when visiting the Times) is nonetheless to be surprised, both by the apostasy of a man whose views I had assumed to be rigid, and by its tardiness.
Scargill was the only child of an adoring Christian mother and a mild-mannered Communist father, himself a miner. Since becoming famous, Scargill has evinced a remarkable tenderness towards his mother and insisted on his devastation, at the age of 18, when she died. Sensitive, quite possibly bullied by other children, he refused to sit the exams that could have taken him to grammar school, displaying what Routledge calls the ‘intellectual agoraphobia’ that has dogged him ever since. Instead, he went down the pit, like his father – or rather, he stayed on the surface, initially, working in the coal-screening plant at Woolley Colliery, a few miles from his home:
You couldn’t see more than two yards for dust and the noise was so intense you had to speak with your hands. I had to scrape the caked dust from my lips before I could eat my sandwiches ... I saw men with one arm and one leg, men crippled and emotionally retarded. I nearly turned and ran. I thought – I can’t work in this lot. But I did for a year and I suppose it had a direct effect on my life.
It would be possible to take the view, as Routledge suggests, that this experience accounts for Scargill’s hatred of the mining industry, and the willingness he showed to hasten its destruction. In any event, he buckled to at the age of 17 and went underground, spending much of his spare time in the Barnsley branch of the Young Communist League. Some of the witnesses of his earliest political stirrings were impressed. Monty Meth, then a correspondent for the Daily Worker, remembers him as ‘very bright, always articulate’. Others, like Jimmy Reid, the Clydeside shipworkers’ leader, a hostile colleague on the YCL executive, could see no ‘great potential, politically’.
Later, Scargill boasted that he had increased the YCL’s membership tenfold. During the strike itself, he would claim that he was a ‘better Marxist’ than any of the leaders of the Communist Party – which eventually turned against him. Yet the style of this early period is eerily consistent with that of the NUM President thirty years later, as Routledge illustrates with a report in the Daily Worker of a YCL conference at which Scargill spoke. Just as he would much later, he resorts frequently to military imagery – ‘fights’, ‘battles’, ‘advances’, ‘enemy’ – in describing to his young comrades the details of a strike he claims to have led; he castigates the Party for its ‘criminal’ neglect of youth and demands action ‘now’. He calls for the victory of a party of ‘class political power’ – something in which he continued to believe long after the CP had ceased to do so.
Scargill gives various accounts of why he left the Party – and forged ahead – including one which has him opposing the eviction of Stalin’s body from the Lenin mausoleum. Routledge says flatly that he left because ‘the Communist Party was in his way.’ He moved rapidly up the union ladder and, by the age of 35, had become president of the largest mineworkers’ area in Britain. Yorkshire had already, and in a very short space of time, ceased to be a right-wing – which is to say, anti-Communist – redoubt, an achievement due in large measure to the efforts of the Communist Party, which in 1950 had placed the Canadian lawyer, Bert Ramelson, in the post of area secretary. Ramelson decided that the miners, then much less susceptible to Communism than industrial workers in the big plants, should be a strategic recruitment target: ‘If I was going to do anything useful, of importance, it would be to change the character of the Yorkshire coalfield ... The Yorkshire miners could change the character of the NUM, which in turn could change the composition of the labour movement as a whole. The miners at the time had a big vote. If they could be changed, it could change the role of the TUC General Council.’
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 16 No. 6 · 24 March 1994
John Lloyd’s account of the 1984 miners’ strike (LRB, 10 March) is excessively fatalistic. His uncomplicated determinism stands in sharp contrast to his book, written in the immediate aftermath, where the evident motivation was to investigate how events had taken what most people at the time considered to be a bizarre turn. Distance, both temporal and spatial, has made Lloyd more selective in his memories. The underlying assumption in his bleak account of the strike is that, once Scargill had become president of the NUM, an all-out national strike was inevitable. It seems that it was Scargill’s overweening will, excessive vanity and extraordinary ambition that enabled him to thwart the attempts of his more humane and pragmatic colleagues like Mick McGahey.
It would be difficult to find a practising British historian who subscribed to the view that Hitler’s psyche was primarily responsible for the triumph of Fascism in Germany or that it was Stalin’s character which mainly determined the fate of the USSR after Lenin’s death. Why should Scargill’s personality be any more important in deciding the outcome of events than the two most notorious megalomaniacs of the mid-20th century? British contemporary historians have been notably less objective about their indigenous demoniac figures, be they Scargill or Thatcher. Like Lloyd, they consign the 1984 miners’ strike to the realm of great tragedy, the outcome of which is predetermined by the gods’ inexorable revenge on human hubris. Analysing the social and political currents in the strike is evidently too painful.
The 1984 miners’ strike was lost through hubris, but it was not Scargill’s – though he undoubtedly possessed abundant amounts of this quality. It was a collective hubris exhibited poignantly, stubbornly and unhesitatingly by the entire cohort of British trade-union leadership and their ‘brains’, the intellectuals and putative strategists inside their research departments. They had ample evidence before March 1984 that Scargill intended to embark on an all-out confrontation with the Government and that this time the Government intended to resist with equal tenacity. John Lloyd will have witnessed them commiserating in private about Scargill and his lack of judgment. Publicly they kept up the appearance of unity and they signally failed to embark on essential damage limitation to distance the rest of the trade-union movement from Scargill’s total war.
Had the TUC General Council and the Labour shadow cabinet been prepared to cajole, wheedle and threaten, it is possible that the pragmatic opposition to Scargill inside the NUM would have been able to outflank him. There were significant numbers of branch and lodge officials leading their members in an all-out strike while recognising Scargill’s dogmatic refusal to compromise. Their moral predicament was not unlike that of officers in the trenches in World War One. John Lloyd met many of these officials at the time. He has evidently forgotten that outside Yorkshire there were activists who were waiting for an opportunity to push the NUM away from collective suicide. Their ‘comrades’ in the movement never gave them the chance.
John Lloyd has also forgotten that the great British public was highly ambivalent about the NUM’s defeat in 1984-5. The inspired attempts of government and press to portray Scargill as the devil incarnate and to magnify the set-piece battles in which he continued in vain to deploy his forces had a great deal of evidence to draw on and distort. But ordinary people still felt sympathy and respect for the miners. Their sentiment may have been anachronistic and uncapitalist. It was genuine nonetheless.
The normally mild and unextreme British, for whom compromise is habitual, have always felt admiration for people of principle. Nevertheless, the unyielding Ian McGregor never found his way into the public’s affections. On the other hand, Scargill’s intransigence was even viewed by many as admirable because he was ‘standing up for what he believed’. Throughout the summer and autumn of 1984, the public’s expectation was that a compromise would be reached. If the TUC leaders and/or Neil Kinnock and his shadow cabinet had been prepared to bang NUM heads in the privacy of the General Council chamber and Walworth Road, they might have presided over a change in the NUM’s internal balance sufficient to produce a conciliatory acquiescence to one of the many schemes in the air at the time. There were schemes thought up by the great and good – assorted bishops and experts. There was also a substantial anti-McGregor faction at the top of the NCB with whom the General Council could have conspired. The outcome of the strike could have been different.
Vol. 16 No. 7 · 7 April 1994
John Lloyd got only some of it right in reviewing Paul Routledge’s biography of Arthur Scargill (LRB, 10 March). Unsurprisingly, his comments are most accurate when focused on the 1984-85 strike period and its aftermath, which he covered for the Financial Times. But while the loss of most jobs and the majority of pits was inevitable because of the technological revolution that began in the industry in the late Seventies, the death of the coal industry itself is by no means inevitable. In 1972 a group of us from Bradford University showed the NUM Executive how 80 per cent of miners’ jobs were at risk, while current output could be maintained if the Coal Board applied all its new technology. The jobs went as did the pits, but even in 1992 nearly 70 percent of deep mine capacity remained.
By that year the majority of the remaining deep mines were already competitive with their cheapest competitor fuel, imported coal, at their main market – Britain’s huge inland coal-fired power stations. These mines were finally squeezed out of this market by the policy decisions of Lord Wakeham (the former Energy Secretary, who was brought back to lead the Cabinet through the final coal crisis in October 1992). He made sure that the ‘dash for gas’ in power generation went ahead, in spite of his previous promises to the contrary to the Energy Select Committee.
Wakeham had assured the Committee that if gas-fired power stations were more expensive than coal stations, the coal stations would remain open. His appointee, Professor Stephen Littlechild, the electricity regulator, made sure that this would not happen, even though he knew, as we all did, that the existing coal stations were cheaper than most of the proposed gas stations. After all, it was not just the NUM research department – which I headed at the time – that was saying so but the Major Energy Users Council and the big generating companies themselves.
The death of Britain’s coal industry is not a question of the geopolitics of energy. Quite simply it is a manifestation of brutal politics. The country now has only 17 large British coal mines left operating. Some of these are to close over the next months. Quite a few others have been mothballed or been put up for sale as licensed mines. No more of these mines should be allowed to close. The real geopolitics of energy, determined by present events in Russia (which supplies 10 per cent of the European Union’s energy), Algeria (which supplies 12 per cent of the EU’s gas) and the Middle East (which supplies most of the EU’s oil), could lead very quickly to a new energy crisis. This is foreshadowed by the Ukraine cutting the supply of gas to the West in a dispute with Russia over payment, but would explode on the arrival of an ultra-nationalist regime in Russia that renewed its military ties with Iraq. Then not only Britain but Western Europe as a whole would need every tonne of British coal it could get.
John Lloyd’s criticism of Arthur Scargill is to be commended for a generosity of spirit usually lacking in similar pieces. He is, however, particularly wrong to defend Kim Howells’s successful move to call off the 1984-85 strike without a settlement: in effect, to surrender for fear of a worse defeat. I do not doubt the honour of Dr Howells’s motivation. The fact remains that not only did this leave hundreds of victimised miners without their jobs, but in the long term the conclusions that were drawn from it helped fashion a strategy of preferring to concede rather than risk a fight; and this has had a disastrous effect on the morale and effectiveness of the trade-union movement. It is now the rule rather than the exception for ballots to be held and won, and then action not called (this, strangely, causes no foot-stamping about ‘democracy’ in the press) – or for ballots not to be held at all. It is doubtful whether this strategy has saved a single job or prevented a single pay cut: it is proving singularly ineffective in responding to the current pay freeze. And certainly it has not come remotely as close to beating the Tories as did Arthur Scargill and the National Union of Mineworkers.