Vol. 6 No. 18 · 4 October 1984

Search by issue:

The Miners’ Strike

SIR: Yes – oh dear yes – the miners’ strike tells a story and we have had to wait a while for the London Review of Books to give us the privilege of reading an interpretation of it in its pages. And when it comes (LRB, 6 September) it turns out to be based on a dream world of Medieval armies, guerrilla raids, and edifices being shaken to pieces: an apocalyptic vision, with its own mythical demonology, in which ignorant armies of ‘muscular’ young men clash by night in their bid to take over and Scargillise Britain. Almost every aspect of the article appals. There is Mr Stewart’s inability to see that the information and statistics he gives cannot possibly sustain his interpretation of them; there is his portrayal of the miners in the stereotypes used by government ministers, journalists and newsreaders – culminating in his identification of striking miners with Hitler’s Brownshirts; there is his insistence that the economic imperative is the only one societies can live by, his unquestioning faith in the benign ends and motives of market forces; and, worst of all, there is his utter estrangement from what is going on in Britain right now.

Mr Stewart’s central assumption is that the economic benefits that accrue to ‘the community as a whole’ must of necessity override any other considerations. Yet he fails to assure us that he has estimated correctly the relative weights of these putative economic benefits against the known human costs that these benefits demand, or indeed that he sets any limit at all to the ‘cost of progress’. And because he assumes that there exists a consensus on what progress is he fails to make clear to us the nature of these benefits or how they will arise. In any case, what does he mean when he says that ‘the community as a whole … benefits from economic growth and progress’? Whose economy is it? It is obvious, even from his own statistics concerning income distribution and unemployment, that there are a large number of people who can have no reasonable interest in seeing more growth if there is not going to be a more equitable distribution of that growth. Be that as it may, Mr Stewart declares it the responsibility of ‘the community as a whole’ to look after miners made redundant at uneconomic pits, giving them ‘every assistance’ in travelling to ‘viable pits’. Assuredly, Mr Stewart has Norman Tebbit’s bicycle in mind here, but if redundant miners are not prepared to travel – and some miners already travel sixty miles or more every day in order to work – they can be ‘relocated’ or ‘retrained for new jobs’. I do not know what jobs he is thinking about – can he possibly mean the ‘knowledge-intensive’ ones? – but I have a feeling that his dreams of mass retraining, like his helpful suggestion that redundant miners should open their own small businesses, would be greeted with bitter laughter by those miners who live in areas of 25-30 per cent unemployment, whose only industry is mining and who have already learned from Cortonwood the Coal Board’s way of ‘relocating’ people.

Perhaps realising that these token gestures, smacking so much of ministerial hypocrisy, lack all credibility, he rushes on to insist, in a flourish of specious pragmatism, that the miners ‘cannot be employed indefinitely in producing a product (i.e. energy) for which there is no market’. Suddenly, it is no longer a question of insufficient resources of coal, of exhausted or uneconomic pits, but of there being no market for this coal. The NCB, in its plans for a ‘flourishing industry’, wishes to cut production by four million tonnes a year and it is evident from the Government’s proposals to build more nuclear reactors by the end of the century that it intends to reduce by as much as possible the 70 per cent of the Electricity Board’s generating capacity that is at present coal-fired. Energy demand will stay at least as high into the next century as it is now. The miners’ strike is about what kind of energy we want to meet that demand. But all of this is of no interest to Mr Stewart, who, in his daunting pursuit of progress, understands only that parts of the mining industry must go: ‘And if that means that some of the remoter mining villages cease to be viable communities that is a cost of progress which, however sad, has to be accepted.’ Remote from whom? Sad for whom? Accepted by whom? From Mr Stewart’s academic standpoint a community is like a pit or a production idea – it is either ‘viable’ or it isn’t – but what to him is the ‘streamlining’ of the industry is, to many communities, the end of a way of life. If miners’ livelihoods are destroyed through their supposed refusal to hold back ‘inexorable geological forces’ it is a ‘tragic irony’: but if these same livelihoods are wrecked through market forces it is merely ‘sad’ and ‘has to be accepted’. I have every confidence that Mr Stewart will find some way of accepting the loss of other people’s jobs and the laying waste of their communities. There is something nobly stoic in the way he finds apologies for MacGregor’s methods of closing pits in general and Cortonwood in particular. Mr Stewart, who works by the same short-term profit-and-loss accounts as the Coal Board itself, suggests that Cortonwood was ‘uneconomic’: in fact, its losses were attributable to the development of new drivages used to open up remaining reserves. The announcement of the pit’s closure was made just when the NCB was coming near to seeing returns on this investment. So what do we mean when we say that something is ‘uneconomic’? Is it economic to maintain an army on the Falklands? Or to send huge numbers of police to contain the miners’ strike, or to sustain a Political Economy Department at a university?

Mr Stewart acknowledges the theory that the closure of Cortonwood was a provocation deliberately engineered by Thatcher and MacGregor but suggests that a ‘more plausible explanation’ is that this is, ‘simply’, MacGregor’s ‘way of doing business: if the pit isn’t paying, close it.’ As we have seen, this is also Mr Stewart’s economic rationale. But what is it an explanation of? It is supposed to be an explanation of the way MacGregor does business. Question: How does MacGregor do business? Answer: The way he does it. Surely this dispute is about the way public industries should be doing business. What becomes of that great ‘traditional British practice of settling disputes by peaceful negotiation and compromise’ when the chairman of the industry is a North American whose way of doing business is quite alien to this tradition and who has made a mockery of free industrial relations. Mr Stewart himself bears witness to MacGregor’s business methods: ‘MacGregor was appointed to sort out British Steel, and sort it out he did: after a doomed 13-week strike, the men accepted new manning procedures which … raised productivity overnight by far more than had been achieved in a decade of futile negotiation.’ Mr Stewart is in such ecstasies of admiration for MacGregor’s palpable success in promoting economic growth that he doesn’t see that he has just dismissed as ‘futile’ that traditional British practice of ‘peaceful negotiation’ which he pretends to advocate. Nor does he understand that it is, in fact, MacGregor who is ‘playing a different game from the one he appears to be’. It is he who, whilst waving the flag of economic ‘realism’, works intimately with the present government to create a subject class whose influence on market forces, already negligible, will be naught. It is not that Mr Scargill has a firm belief that ‘at the end of the day’ he is going to be better-off: it is rather that he knows he has nothing to lose. Faced with this kind of management, with a government that is prepared to follow through its dogmatism by docking £15 every week off the social security payments made to miners’ families, and with daily caricatures in the media of those human values that have seen them through the past six months, it is little wonder that some miners have acted in ways quite remote from their usual patterns of behaviour.

Furthermore, it is quite erroneous to say, as Mr Stewart does, that only the NCB has honoured the ‘Plan for Coal’. Much of the bitterness within the NUM is a consequence of the Coal Board’s refusal to consult the union on how the promised investment was utilised. As for the NUM’s resistance to the closure of pits, Mr Stewart should be informed that since 1979 alone, over fifty collieries have been closed – about a quarter of the total. Evidently, this is not enough for Mr Stewart, who will be satisfied with nothing less than the defeat of the miners. But if the miners are to be defeated, who is going to defeat Mrs Thatcher? And in what sense? Mr Stewart sees a left-wing revolutionary reaction to rightist tendencies towards an ‘elective dictatorship’ and adjures us to support the Right by virtue of the fact that it, at least, has a base in parliamentary democracy and is hence more susceptible to amelioration. He is too involved in his hatred of Scargill, the ‘mob orator’, the ‘demagogue’, the ‘would-be dictator’, to understand his own statistics. With an electoral system that gives ‘one of the three main party groups 26 per cent of the vote but only 3½ per cent of the Parliamentary seats’, and can give a government with only 31 per cent of the electorate a huge majority, Mr Scargill ‘and his friends’ cannot make a sham of parliamentary democracy: it already is one.

Paul Milican
London SW4

SIR: If Michael Stewart’s article on the miners’ strike had appeared in one of Rupert Murdoch’s classier papers, or in the Daily Telegraph, it would have occasioned no surprise and stirred, I imagine, hardly a ripple. But I was shocked by its appearance in your pages, and by the prominence you gave it. It can certainly be taken as an example of the way in which a dispute of this kind drives even supposedly ‘enlightened’ sections of the intelligentsia into the camp of reaction. But that in itself is nothing new. Mr Stewart’s article falls squarely into the mould of those middle-class cries of anger and fear at working-class or popular militancy which have been repeatedly heard ever since the French Revolution first seriously alarmed the possessing classes.

Many of the classic ingredients are there: the claim that the strike, or its leader(s), is aimed at revolution; that ‘democracy’ is under threat (I wonder that Mr Stewart did not also talk about Civilisation and Society-As-We-Know-It); that the workers are being exploited and misled by ‘demagogues’; that the striking miners constitute a ‘mob’ or ‘mobs’. Anyone who cares to take a look at Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy – to take just one instance – will find there much the same heated talk about ‘roughs’ and ‘mobs’, and much the same demands for governmental firmness and the defeat of the ‘rioters’. All inspired by a Hyde Park demonstration in favour of parliamentary reform which led to the trampling down of some of the railings. Plus ça change … Added to this is a contemporary echo of the old 19th-century liberal economic version of rationality: if economic ‘progress’ requires that ‘some of the remoter’ (remote from where?) ‘mining villages cease to be viable’ – well, that is ‘sad’ but, finally, just too bad. The same note was struck by Malthus and his supposedly ‘scientific’ followers a century and a half ago (and Arnold, to his credit, attacked it). Somehow it is always the working class who are expected to pay the heaviest price for this apparent ‘rationality’. Opposition to it is ‘patently absurd’. We should be importing cheap coal from South Africa – never mind that it’s a racist slave economy – while letting our own coal industry’s scale be dictated by the ‘market’.

Coupled with this inhuman, and ultimately blinkered, ‘economic sense’, we find an equal indifference to the hardships endured by striking miners and their families. Mr Stewart finds space to laud ‘the dignity and guts of isolated working miners’, and to add his ha’p’orth to the condemnations of ‘the daily violence … on the picket lines’ and the ‘mobs … looking for a punch-up’. But what explanation does he have to offer of the fact that for more than six months more than three-quarters of Britain’s miners and their families have been prepared to live in the direst poverty, prepared to forego every minimal luxury, prepared to depend upon what the active solidarity and support of the Labour movement can provide?

On the one hand, he suggests that a majority of miners ‘probably oppose’ the strike – a statement for which he offers no evidence at all, and for which, so far as I know, there is no evidence. Indeed, there is plenty of evidence that the reverse is true. Miners have had every encouragement, from the Coal Board, from the Government, from the press and media, to break the strike and return to work. Week after week, a crumbling of the strike has been predicted. It has not happened. I suppose that Mr Stewart would attribute that to ‘intimidation’. Just as the only explanation he can offer for the solidity of the strike is that the miners have been misled by the ‘demagogue’ and ‘would-be dictator’, Arthur Scargill. It almost passes belief that this kind of nonsense can appear in a serious intellectual journal. It rests on attributing near-demonic powers of persuasion and manipulation to Mr Scargill, and virtually nil intelligence, integrity or independence to the miners themselves.

This is such an insulting view of the miners and their families that it is hardly worth discussing. But once again it fits a traditional pattern, identified long ago by William Cobbett: the agitator theory. This is the view that ‘behind’ every protest or revolt lies a tiny bunch of agitators, troublemakers etc, who, somewhat paradoxically, succeed in manipulating gullible ordinary people into taking extreme actions to which they are ‘probably opposed’. It was a silly theory in Cobbett’s day, as he pointed out, and it still is. It doesn’t even fit the facts of the miners’ strike, which was certainly not engineered or initiated by Arthur Scargill, but began with an unofficial, spontaneous stoppage in Yorkshire in response to the sudden threat to close Cortonwood colliery. The ‘completely unscrupulous’ Mr Scargill, whose ‘game is revolution’, according to Mr Stewart – although once again he offers no evidence for either of these assertions – is not so stupid as to have chosen to launch a national coal strike at the end of a winter, just when the demand for coal is falling. For a supposed revolutionary, that would be amazingly incompetent.

It is revealing to find an academic accepting so uncritically the media’s crude personalisation of the dispute, with his demand that ‘Scargill’ be ‘fought and defeated’. Anyone with any experience of this dispute knows that it is the miners, and the miners’ union, who are in conflict with the NCB, the Government and their supporters like Mr Stewart. Mr Scargill leads the miners, but if they were not ready and willing to follow him, he would be utterly powerless. Those, like Mr Stewart, who use the military terminology of ‘surrender’ and ‘defeat’ should know that they are opposing, not an individual ‘demagogue’ and ‘would-be dictator’, but a large body of working people who, for more than six months, have commanded active support from an even wider range of people who reject both the supposed economic rationality and the unsubstantiated smears of commentators like Mr Stewart.

Anthony Arblaster

SIR: Michael Stewart calls it ‘ironic’ that ‘those who believe in democracy, the rule of law, and the traditional British practice of settling disputes by peaceful negotiation and compromise’ should be supporting the Government in the miners’ strike. I would have thought a better description would be ‘incredible’. Does Mr Stewart seriously believe that if the Government ‘won’ the current dispute – to the ecstatic applause of Fleet Street – any further opposition to its policies would be effective, or that people would dare even to initiate it? It is to be hoped that if Mrs Thatcher does secure the ‘victory’ Mr Stewart is so anxious to see, he will raise no complaint over the assaults on ‘traditional British practice’ which the Government will launch as the process of creating Thatcher’s utopia begins in earnest. Mr Stewart will be amongst those who will have given it its real mandate.

Alan Weston

The Great Debate

SIR: Thank you for printing the marvellously fatuous piece by Danny Karlin (‘A Night at Greenham’, LRB, 2 August). The wimpish antics of Danny, Pat, Polly and Gaimond are much too precious not to be published. Danny promised: ‘we’ll go again.’ Might your readers look forward to a sequel? Perhaps to be entitled ‘Danny brings an extra flask of coffee’?

Bjarne G. Nilsen
Marietta, Ohio

Who killed Jesus?

SIR: Ernst Bammel (Letters, 6 September) makes no attempt to counter the arguments of my review. Instead, he seeks to convict me of false ‘innuendo’ against Ethelbert Stauffer, and questions whether I have read Ernst Bizer’s account of the matter. I made no ‘innuendo’, but stated very plainly that Stauffer was a strong supporter of Nazism. The full facts can be checked in Ernst Bizer’s ‘Zur Geschichte der Evangelische Theologie Fakultät von 1919 bis 1945’, in Bonner Gelehrte, Bonn, 1968. I assure Dr Bammel that I have read this with great care. It is a long and damning account of Stauffer’s association with Nazism, from which Dr Bammel quotes only one equivocal incident. Dr Bammel’s interpretation of Bizer is even more selective and misleading than his interpretations of the Talmud.

Bizer’s account shows that Stauffer first came to prominence when he led an agitation at Bonn University in 1933 against Karl Barth, who had refused to take an oath of allegiance to Hitler. Stauffer then received rapid promotion to a professorship, in which, to quote Bizer, ‘he seems to have seen his chief task … as polemic against Barth.’ Stauffer’s endeavours bore fruit when Karl Barth was expelled from Bonn University in 1934. In 1933, Stauffer published a pro-Nazi book, Unser Glaube und unsere Geschichte. Zur Begegnung zwischen Kreuz und Hakenkreuz (‘Our Faith and our History. Towards a Meeting between Cross and Swastika’). As Bizer points out, Stauffer suppressed the subtitle of this work when he submitted a list of his publications to the Allied authorities after the war. Also in 1933, Stauffer joined the Deutsche Christen, whose proclaimed policies were to support Hitler’s racialist campaign against the Jews, and to call for the dismissal of Christian clergy of Jewish extraction. He became a prominent and active member of this organisation. As Bizer documents in detail, Stauffer, as professor in Bonn University, actively supported all measures to suppress anti-Nazi opinion.

He retained his professorship for nine years, until 1943, when he got into difficulties with the Gestapo (this is the incident to which Dr Bammel refers). In a lecture on ‘Augustus and Cleopatra’, he was alleged by police informers to have quoted Nazi slogans in a sarcastic tone, causing laughter in his audience. For example, he quoted Cleopatra as saying, at the time of her disaster: ‘The Jews are to blame.’ The Gestapo evidently did not take the matter too seriously, as they left it to the University to punish him. The Dean, Anton Jirku (who had previously quarrelled with Stauffer), demanded that he should be deprived of his professorship and sent to the Army. The highest University authorities, however, ‘took a more lenient view’. His professorship was taken away, but he continued to teach at the University. Even if Stauffer did actually mean to satirise Nazism in his lecture, this would have been an astute and timely move, when the tide of war had turned decisively against Germany in North Africa and Russia. Certainly, at his hearing before the Allied authorities after the war, Stauffer made the most of the incident. He claimed that he had been in trouble with the Nazi authorities since 1936. This was a lie: he had been on excellent terms with them for ten years, and had played a despicable role during a period when distinguished academics, including Karl Barth and K.L. Schmidt, were hounded out of Bonn University because they refused to show subservience to Hitler.

When Stauffer is quoted in support of the theory that crucifixion was a Jewish punishment, many people suppose him to have been a reputable scholar of high academic standing, putting forward objective views. Of course, every argument must be considered on its merits. But the opinions of a person with Stauffer’s record should be scrutinised with particular care, especially when they touch on Jews and Judaism.

Hyam Maccoby
Leo Baeck College, London N3

Old Boy

SIR: Further to the interesting squabble between Mr Lodge and Dr Butler about the true nature of Kingsley Amis’s new novel Stanley and the Women: Nicky Bird’s entirely sensible suggestion that someone ask the old boy himself to settle the argument was greeted by you with some scepticism as to whether the old boy would reply (Letters, 5 July). On the strength of a recent interview which I had with him for Time Out magazine, in which he proved sane, good-natured and very good company for some three hours, I would guess that the old boy definitely would reply. Guessing further, I suspect that the old boy would come down heavily in favour of Mr Lodge. And before Dr Butler chimes in with something about not trusting the author’s intentions, it is worth noting that the old boy, unlike many authors, is very shrewd indeed about his own work. He also invents good cocktails.

Chris Peachment
Film Editor, Time Out, London WC2


SIR: Bit by bit, John Bayley pins down Virginia Woolf (LRB, 6 September). What he has caught is the anorectic personality. ‘I think it is true that one gains a certain hold on sausage and haddock by writing them down.’ Non-anorectics use their teeth. But Anorexia Nervosa is not a failing in a writer – some of the greatest have suffered from it. Self-deception is.

J. Hevesi

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences