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Letters

Vol. 6 No. 19 · 18 October 1984

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The Miners’ Strike

SIR: Whatever may be the other merits of Michael Stewart’s diatribe against Arthur Scargill and the NUM (LRB, 6 September), he does not further his argument by casting Scargill ‘in the mould of demagogues and would-be dictators down the ages, from those who threatened the Athenian city-state to those who have wrought havoc in our own century’. Our word ‘demagogue’ does have a Greek etymology, being derived from demagogos. But that word meant literally ‘leader of the mass of the people’, and such leaders were as structurally necessary to the direct democracy of ancient Athens as elected representatives are to our own ‘Western’ democracies. It was hostile critics of Athenian democracy like Plato who gave to demagogos its pejorative sense of misleader of the people, and it was men of that ilk rather than the so-called ‘demagogues’ who not only threatened but (in the words of J.S. Mill) ‘on the first show of an opportunity were ready to compass the subversion of the democracy’.

And now, as they used to say, for something completely different. In the same number of LRB D.A.N. Jones speculates on the identity of ‘that old fellow who (Walt Whitman once remarked) said he was seldom less alone than when alone.’ To Jones’s possible candidates may perhaps be added Edward Gibbon, who in his Autobiography (pages 95-6 of the Bonnard edition) wrote: ‘I might say with truth that I was never less alone than when by myself.’ But, unlike the sunbathing Whitman, Gibbon conducted his solitary intercourse, not with Nature, but with the books in his library – or ‘Seraglio’, as he was suggestively to describe it.

Paul Cartledge
Clare College, Cambridge

SIR: If I had ever had any doubts about the depth of the passions stirred up by the miners’ strike, the thoroughly intemperate tone of the replies to my article would have dispelled them (Letters, 20 September and Letters, 4 October). I have picked my way as best I can between Mr Hawthorn’s patches of intellectual incoherence, Mr Milican’s laborious sarcasms and Mr Arblaster’s squeals of outrage that the LRB should have published my piece in the first place, and tried to focus on the main points they seem to be making. These fall under two headings – economic and political.

My basic economic argument was – and remains – that it is nonsense to demand that no pit should be closed except on grounds of exhaustion or safety, regardless of how much it costs to produce coal from that pit. Yet this is what Mr Scargill has been demanding all along, and is still describing as ‘non-negotiable’. The implication of this doctrine is that even if coal can be imported for around £30 a tonne (from Poland, since Mr Arblaster does not like my reference to South Africa), we should nevertheless be made to consume British coal which may, in the uneconomic pits, be costing £50 or £100 a tonne to produce. This process obviously involves heavy subsidies. Mr Scargill, and his intellectual supporters like Messrs Milican and Arblaster, seem to imagine that these subsidies come from heaven, or perhaps are paid for exclusively by the rich. On the contrary: for any given macroeconomic fiscal stance (whether it be Mrs Thatcher’s present one, or some other much more sensible one) these subsidies must mean either higher taxes or lower public expenditure, and either of these, particularly the latter, is likely to hit those in the bottom 20 or 30 percent of the income distribution quite hard. Do your respondents understand this point? If so, do they attach no weight to it at all? Do they still think that no pit should be closed except on grounds of exhaustion, regardless of how big these adverse effects on taxes or public expenditure may be?

This brings me to what is clearly one of the most contentious things I said in my article. Since it is central to the debate, and since I stick by every syllable of it, perhaps I may repeat it in full: ‘The community as a whole, which benefits from economic growth and progress, has a responsibility to help those on whom the costs of economic progress fall most heavily: miners made redundant at uneconomic pits must be given every assistance in travelling to, or being relocated at, viable pits, or in being retrained for new jobs, or being aided financially in setting up their own small businesses. But they cannot be employed indefinitely in producing a product for which there is no market. 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.’

Mr Hawthorn has particular difficulty in grasping the concept of ‘the community as a whole’: ‘I certainly know of no economic or political agency of that name. Stewart must mean the Government …’ No, I do not mean the Government. When I talk about economic growth and progress benefiting the community as a whole, I mean that the vast majority of the British people are better-off than they were fifty or a hundred years ago, or than the vast majority of the Ethiopian or Bangladeshi people are today. By ‘better-off’ I mean that real gross domestic product per capita is higher – and before that definition elicits a stream of protest let me say that I am familiar with the literature on measuring economic welfare, and that my proposition would still hold if one took much more basic indicators such as life expectancy or infant mortality. Mr Milican has some problems with the concept of the community as a whole being better-off, too. ‘It is obvious,’ he says, ‘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.’ Some odd logic here: if there is not going to be a more equitable distribution of income and employment (which is presumably what he means), then the only way for the poor to become better-off is to have more growth.

The essential point, however, is this: of its very nature, the economic growth that increases average living standards means the displacement of old industries, old products and old skills. Those who suffer from this process ought to be assisted by society (or in this context, if Mr Hawthorn likes, the Government) to adjust to these changes. I don’t know why Mr Milican should sneer at the idea of relocating or retraining miners, or financially assisting some of them to set up small businesses: the establishment of small businesses has been responsible for much of the phenomenal growth of employment in the United States over the past twenty years. It may be only a small part of the answer in Britain, though that is not self-evident: but why dismiss it out of hand? If the state does not assist miners in these various ways (and you would never know from your respondents’ letters that so far there have been no compulsory redundancies in the industry), then either it has to pay them to produce increasingly uneconomic coal, or it has to sack them and leave them to their fate. In my view, both alternatives are unacceptable.

Finally – on the economic side – let me make it quite clear that while I regard Scargill’s case as economic nonsense, I am far from believing that pits should necessarily be closed as soon as they become unprofitable. Of course there are social costs and benefits to be taken account of (and they were taken account of by the Labour Government in the 1960s to which I was an adviser). I welcome the kind of proposal made by David Metcalf and Gavyn Davies: that the pace of pit closures and job losses over the next decade should be determined by these wider social criteria as well as by narrow financial considerations. If Mr Scargill was prepared to negotiate on this basis, a reasonable solution to the dispute might be possible. But as long as he is not, it is not.

I turn now to the political aspects of the matter. My argument, in a nutshell, was that Mr Scargill has organised a strike which has no basis in the democratic procedures of his union, which uses illegal mass picketing and involves violence and intimidation in an effort to change government policy, if possible to bring down the Government itself, and perhaps any future government that Mr Scargill disapproves of; that this strategy is unacceptable in a democracy and must be defeated; that it – and the support it is getting – are nevertheless understandable by reference, not only to Mrs Thatcher’s appallingly unfair economic policies, but also to her indifference to the spirit of democracy, and the highly questionable legitimacy of some of her actions.

Your respondents react to this argument in various ways (though all of them largely ignore my categorical condemnation of Mrs Thatcher’s policies and procedures). Mr Arblaster challenges my rather cautious statement that the strike was probably opposed by a majority of the union’s membership, calling it ‘a statement for which he offers no evidence at all, and for which, so far as I know, there is no evidence.’ Really? If Mr Arblaster is to pronounce on these matters, he should master a few facts. Does he not know that in the 11 areas which did ballot last March, 18,002 men voted for a strike, and 40,554 against? That seems to me rather powerful evidence in support of my view. While Mr Arblaster denies that a majority of miners were opposed to strike action, Mr Hawthorn implicitly concedes the point, but makes clear that he is untroubled by it: ‘it is by no means agreed that every contentious decision taken by an elected body in the name of its electors should be balloted. If it were … most of the liberal legislation that people like Michael Stewart and me and no doubt you yourself approve of and enjoy would never have been enacted.’ Presumably Mr Hawthorn is thinking of, for example, the death penalty, which Parliament (belatedly) abolished, and has refused to reintroduce, although there is clear evidence that a majority of the population is in favour of it. This example does, of course, raise some interesting questions about the nature and working of democratic systems, but if Mr Hawthorn considers it justifies the NUM executive in ignoring the union’s own rulebook, which states that a strike can only be called if sanctioned by a majority vote in a national ballot, he should say so explicitly, so that the absurdity of the analogy is plain for all to see.

The fact that there is good reason to suppose that a majority of miners were against the strike from the start makes particularly distasteful the conduct of Mr Scargill and his executive, who have been responsible for the six months of hardship in the mining communities – which, incidentally, it does not require Mr Arblaster to explain to us. But it is not the central point. Whether sanctioned by a majority of its members or not, this seems to me in large part a political strike. What is a political strike? It is not easy to provide a precise definition, though I would hope to do better than Mr Hawthorn, who offers us the profound tautology that ‘no dispute between a union and a nominally public corporation can be anything but political.’

Let me suggest two scenarios. First, if the NUM, after a national ballot, went on strike in support of a 10 per cent wage claim, with the NCB refusing to raise its final offer of 5 per cent, and the Government making it clear that it would not increase the industry’s external financing limit whatever the outcome of the strike, I would not call that a political strike. It would be for the Coal Board – like any private employer – to decide whether to concede the wage demand, put up prices and reduce its labour force in response to any subsequent fall in sales; or to sit the strike out in the hope that it would crumble; or to negotiate. The second scenario is at the other extreme: suppose the power workers – who could bring the country to a halt within minutes if they wanted to – announced that they would go on strike in 24 hours’ time unless by then Mrs Thatcher had gone to Buckingham Palace and tendered her resignation. Somewhere between these two extremes there is a murky area one can argue about. My contention is that the present strike is much closer to the second scenario than the first. The NUM is seeking to extract from the Government a large, increasing and open-ended subsidy – in other words, to force the Government to change one of its major policies, or yield place to a government with other policies. To this end, it is using or condoning illegal picketing, intimidation and violence in an effort to get other groups of workers – including, crucially, the power workers – to stop work or at least restrict output, thus producing a general level of economic and social hardship that no government could tolerate. Mrs Thatcher indeed bears a large measure of responsibility for this state of affairs: but that does not legitimise the conduct of Mr Scargill and his executive. Mr Scargill must, as I said in my article, be defeated. ‘If the miners are to be defeated,’ inquires Mr Milican, ‘who is going to defeat Mrs Thatcher?’ What a disgraceful question. To his credit – given some of the people whose support he must rely on – Mr Kinnock provided the right answer to it some time ago: she must be defeated at the ballot box, not on the streets.

The only one of your respondents to whom I would concede a point is Mr Cartledge in the present issue, who objects to my comparison of Mr Scargill with the demagogues ‘who threatened the Athenian city-state’. I particularly had in mind Cleon, described in the Cambridge Ancient History as ‘insensitive, unscrupulous, plausible, vain, resolute and violent’. But I would agree, on reflection, that Mr Cartledge is probably right in saying that leaders like Cleon were structurally necessary to the democracy of ancient Athens. I would certainly not wish, in the context of contemporary Britain, to say the same about Mr Scargill.

Michael Stewart
University College London

Misprints

SIR: In his review of Hans Walter Gabler’s new edition of Ulysses (LRB, 20 September), Denis Donoghue wonders whether I’d have quite such a cavalier attitude to misprints in my own work as, by his account, I have to those in Ulysses. As it happens, there are two footling misprints in my new book, Rich, and there is an equally unimportant misprint in the poem you printed in the same number of LRB. I don’t mind.

On the other hand, I do mind about misrepresentation. The burden of my review of the Garland Ulysses was that Hans Gabler, in his preface, exaggerates the state of textual corruption. Of the vaunted seven errors per page, the majority are manifestly trivial. A few are significant – as I said in my review. If Professor Donoghue thinks all misprints are important, why didn’t he pass on to your readers the misprint I found in the new text? After all, in discussing the lengthy restoration in the library episode, he seems content to follow my sceptical argument without adding anything new to it.

Craig Raine
Faber, London WC1

Superchild

SIR: As one who admires and respects John Bayley, I was sorry to read his review of Virginia Woolf’s Diary (LRB, 6 September). The qualities of good sense, even temper, perceptiveness, charity which normally distinguish his work were markedly absent from this piece. Professor Bayley opens by pointing to the gap between the art and personality of Virginia Woolf, a phenomenon which might have been expected to appeal to an admirer of T.S. Eliot. Yet he proceeds to empty and trivialise the art by reading it entirely through the personality; for him the novels are essentially ‘her Diary by other means’, and that Diary reveals a pretty nasty piece of work ‘having no nature but the communal one of those on whom she sharpened her malice’. No nature? To be distracted by the glare of her biography, to swallow Woolf completely in Bloomsbury is a common failing, but it is dismaying that so uncommon a man as Bayley should make it. His pervasive suggestion that the Diary consists of nothing but accounts of social climbing, Bloomsbury petting and scratching, the feckless recordings of the ‘Head Girl’ is alarmingly partial, taking a part for the whole in a way which is thoroughly, not to say perversely, misleading. ‘Would Virginia Woolf have been surprised to be told that she had no more time than has a very busy businessman for the life of culture and the mind?’ he asks rhetorically. Well, yes, she would, given her pleasure in music, her delight in long walks on the Downs ‘making up the scenes’ of her novels, or her passionate devotion to reading – activities which play a great part in the life recorded in her Diary, though not the bits Bayley notices.

But there is something wrong, very wrong somewhere. Bayley’s caricature of Virginia Woolf is based on a carefully selective reading which ignores that opposite pull, the need for solitude and ‘silence’ which is forcefully expressed throughout the Diary and which is the mainspring of her art. After the ‘very animated summer’ of 1928, for example, she wrote that ‘often down here’ – at Rodmell – ‘I have entered into a sanctuary; a nunnery; had a religious retreat … and got then to a consciousness of what I call “reality" … this is the most necessary thing to me: that which I seek.’ This was the entry W.H. Auden characteristically and shrewdly noticed in his review of Virginia Woolf’s Diary, since it identifies just that element of withdrawal, of retreat from the noise and glitter of party-going to explore darker, more hidden mysteries of identity which he recognised as essential to her life as a writer. Most readers of her Diary will, like Auden, see this current as too deep and forecful to be ignored. By ignoring it Professor Bayley is able to slight her work more easily, but in the process he misses most of what is significant and valuable in her art.

In particular, he misses the most interesting thing about the Diary – namely, the tension it reveals between these two sides of Virginia Woolf. Though occasionally he brushes over Woolf’s anxiety about her role in Bloomsbury, Bayley never deepens his attention to consider this as the central and engaging conflict which it is. That conflict between the active, restless, social self which emerged in Bloomsbury and the submerged and silent portion of ‘reality’ does much to define the ‘personality’ Professor Bayley claims she does not have, just as it shapes the art he says she does not possess. One can see this in Mrs Dalloway’s climactic withdrawal from the ‘corruption, lies, chatter’ of her party into the ‘darkened room’ alone, where she meditates on the obscure war veteran’s death; or again in the alternate attraction and repulsion Mrs Ramsay feels for the assembled guests at her dinner. Indeed one of the most striking instances of this tension is that strange part of her career which draws most of Bayley’s attention – that long period in the Thirties culminating in The Years (in its first version, ‘The Pargiters’). It is true that during this period Woolf concentrated on ‘externals’ as part of a ‘deliberate policy’, caught up with the idea of observation and a passive recording of events. However, Professor Bayley skates fast over some pretty thin ice when he vaguely declares that ‘all her novels are in some sense’ like this. In what sense? The fact is that the method she explored in the Thirties was a deliberate reaction to the stance and standard of her previous works, with their expressive and introspective aesthetic. She was determinedly writing against the grain at this time, which is why The Years took her so long to produce, why it brought her so close to collapse and, above all, why, in marked contrast to her earlier novels, there is no penetration to the consciousness of her characters.

All the sensitivity and attention which customarily enliven Professor Bayley’s writing have been switched off in the case of Virginia Woolf. Perhaps this is a generational matter as his review insists: perhaps, that is, to have been young and moved by Woolf around the time of her death bars one from a just appreciation now, at a time when, for mostly factitious reasons, she has become a cult.

Eric Warner
Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge

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