He knew he was right

John Lloyd

  • 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.’

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