The Miners’ Strike
The present miners’ strike compels an appalled fascination of a kind quite different from that exercised by other industrial disputes. It grips like a thriller. It is partly the question – identified by E.M. Forster as a simple but fundamental aspect of the novel – of what happens next. Will other unions be drawn in? Will we be into power cuts by Christmas? What will Mrs Thatcher do then? It is partly – to take another of Forster’s categories – the actors: the interplay of the cheeky chappie from Yorkshire and the lumbering pensioner from Florida. But there are other ingredients not normally present in industrial disputes. There is the daily violence – brought into every home by television – on the picket-lines, where hordes of tough young miners and uniformed policemen sway and grapple in physical combat like Medieval armies. There is the uneasiness about the accountability of the Police. There are the guerrilla raids at night, presumably by striking miners, which leave a trail of damage and destruction. There are the dignity and guts of isolated working miners, and the cowardice of those who telephone their homes to threaten their children. There is the tragic irony that under their feet, as they stand in picket-lines or sit unwillingly at home, the livelihood of many miners is gradually disappearing, as inexorable geological forces, no longer kept at bay by human skill and ingenuity, buckle roadways, crush machinery, obliterate coalfaces and flood whole pits. There is the sombre feeling that in the mining communities a very British characteristic, a comradeship and sense of humour in the face of adversity, a willingness to suffer hardship and deprivation in a good cause, is being exploited and squandered for obscure and questionable ends. And underneath it all, there is something else: dim memories of 1926; the feeling that in Britain perhaps there was never a peace treaty in the class war, just a truce; that the country, split more than ever into two nations by the recession, is evolving in ways that nobody can predict; the first tremors of an earthquake that might merely dislodge a few tiles from the roof – but could also shake the present painstakingly constructed British political edifice to pieces.
The economics of the dispute are relatively straightforward. The 1974 ‘Plan for Coal’ – endorsed by the Labour Government though drawn up under its Conservative predecessor – was a deal according to which the Government and the Coal Board would invest heavily in new and efficient productive capacity, so ensuring a flourishing industry far into the future, in return for which the union would agree to the phasing-out of the long tail of uneconomic pits. Broadly speaking, the first part of the deal has been honoured; the second part has not. The industry still has a high-cost tail: according to last year’s Monopolies and Mergers Commission report, 15 per cent of coal output involves colliery operating losses of £330 million. The closure of this loss-making capacity would significantly improve the industry’s productivity and financial position. In spite of this, Mr Scargill argues that no pit should be closed until its reserves of coal are exhausted, no matter how expensive it is to extract the coal from it, and that there should be no job losses in the industry.
While the argument in this extreme form is patently absurd, it is impossible to understand the attitude of some of those involved – such as Neil Kinnock – without appreciating that a weaker version of the argument does have a certain intuitive appeal. The case for going on subsidising uneconomic pits rests on two propositions. First, production of North Sea oil will peak next year or very soon after, and within a decade will be in rapid decline. Britain’s reliance on coal will thus increase sharply: therefore, we should not now be closing capacity and running down the mining labour force. Closely examined, this proposition is unsustainable. Declining oil production carries no implication that there should be rising coal production: there is no more reason why a country should aim to be self-sufficient in the production of energy than in the production of steel, cars or tiddlywinks. A country should concentrate on producing the goods and services in which it has a comparative advantage, selling these abroad in exchange for the products in which it has a comparative disadvantage. By the end of the century, Britain ought to be exporting knowledge-intensive goods and services in exchange for cheap coal from Australia and South Africa, and such domestically-produced coal as can compete with these imports – and in principle there could be a lot – will come, not from the uneconomic pits which the Coal Board is rightly determined to close, but from the new pits – the Selbys and Belvoirs – that it is anxious to develop.
The second proposition on which the case for subsidising uneconomic pits rests is that there is no alternative employment in many of the mining areas: better that the men produce coal uneconomically than that they produce nothing at all and live on the dole. In all but the very short run, such an attitude is a recipe for industrial ossification and decay. 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.
Thus the central concession that the miners’ strike is designed to extract from the Coal Board and the Government – that there should be no pit closures except on grounds of exhaustion – makes no economic sense, even when a wider perspective is adopted than the simple accounting one of eliminating the industry’s losses. The strike is not about economics: it is about politics. And although the politics are murkier than the economics, a number of features stand out fairly clearly.
Mrs Thatcher, it would seem, hates and fears trade unions. Perhaps this is because they – and the working-class interests they represent – had no place in the scheme of things at her father’s grocery shop in Grantham. Perhaps it is mainly an intellectual conviction, derived from her right-wing advisers, who have taught her that market forces are the only true progenitor of economic progress, and that in Britain particularly much the biggest impediment to the operation of market forces is the monopoly power of the trade unions. For whatever reason, she came into office determined to weaken the power of trade unions as far as possible, both by legislation and by appointing tough like-minded businessmen to the chairmanship of the nationalised industries whose restrictive practices and excessive wage demands had – as she saw it – been sabotaging the economy for thirty years or more. Thus it was that the hard-headed Scottish-American business tycoon Ian 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 in plants such as Port Talbot raised productivity overnight by far more than had been achieved in a decade of futile negotiation. Following that, Mrs Thatcher seems to have decided – overriding the doubts of close associates – that MacGregor was ready for the big one: the miners. If the miners could be defeated (and they had won a victory over her in February 1981, forcing the Cabinet to retreat over pit closures), then the back of the Union movement would be broken.
The present strike was sparked off by the announcement early in March that Corton-wood – a colliery to which miners had recently been transferred from elsewhere, with a promise that the pit had several years life ahead of it – was now destined for closure within a few months. There is a theory that this provocation was deliberately engineered by MacGregor – no doubt with the connivance of the Prime Minister – in order to get the miners out on strike at the most unfavourable time of year for them. Had a strike not begun until the autumn, after coal stocks had been depleted by the overtime ban which started late last year in protest against the Coal Board’s ‘derisory’ 5.2 per cent pay offer, the miners would have been in a much stronger position. A more plausible explanation, perhaps, is simply that this is America’s, and MacGregor’s, way of doing business: if the pit isn’t paying, close it. Whatever the precise explanation, the basic point was clear: the union’s attempts to thwart the streamlining of the industry by resisting the closure of uneconomic pits were going to be defeated.
It is at this point that the key figure in the entire drama appears on centre stage. It is difficult to believe that, in the absence of Arthur Scargill, the present strike would have followed anything like the course it has – or even, perhaps, that there would have been a strike at all. He is the most charismatic trade-union leader to appear in Britain for a generation. He is young, he is tough and he is tireless. He is wily, he is articulate. He is a mob orator of genius. And he is completely unscrupulous.
He is, in fact, 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. There is the same dedication to the cause, the same disregard for the truth, the same mesmerising oratory, the same repetition of emotive phrases (‘American butcher’, ‘police violence’), the same identification of scapegoats (in Scargill’s case the media), the same adulation by mobs of muscular young men looking for a leader and a punch-up, and the same tacit approval of the violence they indulge in.
For what is the cause in which Mr Scargill so fervently believes? What makes Arthur run? It is very hard to believe that it is the welfare of the miners and their families. It strains credulity that a man of Scargill’s intelligence is leading his members down the present road in the firm belief that at the end of the day they are going to be better-off. He has a different objective from the one he claims; he is playing a different game from the one he appears to be. It is difficult to resist the conclusion, whatever the instinctive reluctance to draw it of those whose earliest political memories include the disgraceful McCarthy period in America, that the name of Mr Scargill’s game is revolution. Mr Scargill does not like the present dispositions of British society, and sees no prospect of securing the election of a Parliament that will significantly change them. Therefore, change must come by some extra-Parliamentary route. The answer, proposed by Marx and adopted by Lenin, lies in the hands of the organised working class. It is the miners’ historic role to be in the vanguard of this great movement, and it is the role – nay, the destiny – of Arthur Scargill to be at the head of the vanguard, at the very tip of the spearhead of revolution.
It may not be exactly that, but it is surely something very like it. How else explain, for example, the one great loophole in Scargill’s defences, which has justified more than a quarter of the miners in their decision to go on working, and which may yet lead to intractable legal difficulties: the absence of a national ballot? The obvious answer is that Scargill had lost on the two previous occasions when he balloted the full membership of the union, and wasn’t going to risk losing again. But the point about a democracy is that you are supposed to abide by majority decision: that is the way the system works. Mr Scargill rejected a national ballot, not because it might lead to a setback for him personally (though that, of course, is how the media would present it), but because it might lead to the wrong decision. The mass of ordinary members, influenced and misled in ways they do not understand by the insidious bias of the capitalist media, simply cannot be relied on to make the right choice. Therefore it must be made by the activists, who take the trouble to attend the meetings and debate ‘the issues’. This is exactly the argument that the left wing of the Labour Party has been using to resist selection or re-selection of Parliamentary candidates by the full constituency membership, as opposed to the party activists alone. The difference between the Labour Party and the NUM is that Mr Kinnock, who is a democrat, is opposed to decision-making by activists alone, while Mr Scargill, who is not a democrat, has not only embraced it in theory but has succeeded in putting it into practice.
The conclusion must be, then, that Mr Scargill has organised a strike which has no basis in the democratic procedures of his union, which is probably opposed by a majority of its membership, which is employing mass picketing of a kind that is now illegal, and which involves violence and intimidation on a scale quite alien to British traditions, in an attempt to force a democratically-elected government to abandon some of its policies. Mr Scargill may – ludicrously – be condemned as a collaborationist by leading members of the Revolutionary Communist Party, such as Frank Richards and Mike Freeman, but their vague rhetoric about uniting the working class and ‘taking control’ does not carry the menace that Mr Scargill does.[*] If the Government surrenders to the miners, agreeing to subsidise uneconomic pits indefinitely and to prevent any job losses in the industry, it will be a conclusive demonstration to other unions of the political effectiveness of industrial action. Mr Scargill will encourage union activists to raise their sights. Other government policies which Mr Scargill does not like will come into the line of fire: the level of public expenditure, the tax structure, defence policy. If the Government does not suitably change these policies, Mr Scargill and his friends will bring the country to a halt. Parliamentary democracy will have become a sham. To anyone who believes in such democracy, therefore, the moral is quite clear: Mr Scargill must be defeated, and be seen to be defeated.
But one cannot leave the matter there. Whatever one may think of Mr Scargill’s motives or tactics, it would be foolish to ignore the extent of the discontent and disaffection with the present state of affairs in Britain that he is articulating, or to underestimate the support he is drawing from many white-collar workers, pensioners, unemployed and others, who feel that he at least is taking on Mrs Thatcher in a way that nobody else is. Two statistics reveal a lot about Mrs Thatcher’s Britain. One is the unemployment rate, which has more than doubled since she took office, to a rate of over 13 per cent for the labour force as a whole, and around 25 per cent for those in the 16-25 age group. Although unemployment seems more likely to go on rising than to fall, the Government is not proposing to do anything about it: despite ritualistic ministerial statements of concern, it creates the impression of not caring much one way or the other. The other statistic, published in the latest issue of Economic Trends, relates to the distribution of income: during Mrs Thatcher’s first three years in office (there are no later data) the after-tax income of the top 1 per cent of the population rose by 75 per cent, that of the bottom 50 per cent of the population by only 41 per cent – barely half as much. The fact must be faced that whatever the deficiencies of the Eastern European countries which a Scargillite Britain might come to resemble they do not produce figures like these. There may be a lot of disguised unemployment, but young people who leave school do not find themselves immediately, and for as far ahead as they can see, on the dole. There may be special shops and swanky country retreats for the Party bosses, but there is nothing resembling the glaring inequalities to be found in Mrs Thatcher’s Britain or Mr Reagan’s America. The comfortably-off in these Western countries may reasonably offer daily thanks that they do not live east of the Elbe: for those at the bottom of the pile the right preference is not nearly so obvious.
However, it is not just Mrs Thatcher’s economic policies which help to explain, though not excuse, Mr Scargill’s willingness to seek an extra-Parliamentary route to power. Mr Scargill is wrong to reject democracy. But if democracy is to claim the continuing allegiance of its citizens, it must be honoured in the spirit as well as in the letter. A government should be fine-tuned to the legitimacy of its actions, particularly in contemporary Britain, whose antiquated electoral system can give one of the three main party groupings 26 per cent of the vote but only 3½ per cent of the Parliamentary seats. A government cannot realistically behave as though it has a mandate to put into effect every proposal in its election manifesto – particularly a government like the present one, which obtained the votes of only 31 per cent of the electorate. There is no evidence that Mrs Thatcher respects or even understands these precepts. She has used her huge Parliamentary majority to ram through legislation, such as that on rate-capping and the abolition of the GLC and other metropolitan councils, which is at best of questionable legitimacy and at worst the consequence of personal pique. She has made arbitrary decisions, such as the decision to ban unions at GCHQ, without even bothering to consult those of her ministers most directly concerned. It is not surprising that Lord Hailsham’s ominous phrase ‘elective dictatorship’ is being so frequently used.
Scargill must certainly be fought and defeated. Ironically, this calls for those who believe in democracy, the rule of law, and the traditional British practice of settling disputes by peaceful negotiation and compromise, to support the Government in the stand it is taking. But that stand cannot be permanently successful as long as the attempt to flout democracy by the Left can be seen as a response to a willingness to flout democracy on the right. Mr Scargill must be defeated, but so, in a sense, must Mrs Thatcher.
[*] The Miners’ Next Step by Frank Richards. Junius, 50 pp., 50p, July, 0 950 8404 6 7. Taking Control: A Handbook for Trade-Unionists by Mike Freeman. Junius, 277 pp., £2.95, 10 September, 0 950 8404 5 9.
Vol. 6 No. 17 · 20 September 1984
SIR: No one, surely, can be surprised at the fact that Arthur Scargill reviles the media. Most of them are unashamedly right-wing. Most of them simply assume that he is bent on ‘the destruction of the British way of life’ and say so in clichés of this kind. But in a paper like the London Review of Books it is, to say the least, disappointing to see a long line of such clichés wheeled out under cover of rational reflection (LRB, 6 September).
In the first place, it is sad, if scarcely surprising, to see a professional economist taking as wooden a view of what is ‘economic’ as did the courts in the face of the case against the GLC’s decision to reduce London’s fares. Australian and South African coal is indeed cheaper than most of our own. ‘Comparative advantage’ would indeed seem to suggest that we should switch to it. The Japanese did so ten years ago. But if the Japanese had always interpreted comparative advantage as rigidly as Michael Stewart does, ‘they would,’ as Stephen Marglin has recently said in the New York Review of Books, ‘still be exporting silk cloth and parasols rather than automobiles, cameras, television sets and semiconductors.’ Terms of trade are not easy to predict. One’s future advantages and disadvantages are a complicated gamble. ‘By the end of the century,’ says Stewart, ‘Britain ought to be exporting knowledge-intensive goods and services in exchange for cheap coal.’ Well yes, it ought to be. But one could be forgiven for thinking that the present government, in pricing one such service, higher education, out of the international market, takes a different view. And there is no good reason at all why I should be writing this letter on a cheap and by the standards of 1984 technically very simple word-processor which is imported from the USA, except that there is no British equivalent. It is not inconceivable that by the end of the century we could be importing even more in value, in these goods and services as in others, than we are now. The economics of the present dispute between the NCB and the NUM are not so ‘relatively straightforward’ as Stewart says they are.
Nevertheless, one might allow the NCB the fact that it’s difficult to see future costs and benefits, and concede that on a more immediately narrow economic calculation, some pits should now be closed. Nor is there any doubt, as Stewart grants, that ‘the community as a whole has a responsibility to help those on whom the costs of [what Stewart and MacGregor and the Daily Mail believe to be] economic progress fall most heavily.’ I am not sure what ‘the community as a whole’ is. I certainly know of no economic or political agency of that name. Stewart must mean the Government, which, as he says at the end of his piece, commands the assent of but 31 per cent of the enfranchised ‘community’. And this Government as he also points out – let alone the 31 per cent who voted it in – has a somewhat attenuated sense of social responsibility. More surprisingly, it has a somewhat attenuated sense of economic responsibility too. For if it were to shake itself free of its atavistic dogmas, it would see that the Japanese Government anticipated the diseconomies of domestic coal production, planned its demise, and with the extremely firm financial control that characterises its still very successful capitalism, made sure that most of the members of what economists would call the high-quality workforce were re-trained for new firms within reach of their homes. The oddest feature of the British Government’s economic policy is the assumption that ‘the market’ and not it must govern. Even the present Administration in America has got itself out of its recent difficulties with a series of classically Keynesian moves.
But of course, and as Stewart in effect concedes, Thatcher cares less about the economy than she does about the distribution of power within it. When the Social Democrats appear if only by default to agree with her, when the Labour Party havers, and when even the General Secretary of the TUC justifies his recent decision to retire by saying that there is no large issue facing his movement, is Scargill self-evidently mistaken to believe that someone has to do something? Obviously, he cares most about his industry and about his power within it. He would not be worth his job if he didn’t. Naturally, he sees that against the NCB, the Government, the media, even the Labour Party and parts of the TUC itself, he has to be clever and on occasion unscrupulous. He would not survive a day in politics if he didn’t. Certainly, he is selective in his recourses to ‘democracy’. But even Stewart agrees at the end of his piece that what he calls at the beginning – against all the more plausible accounts of how it has come to be – ‘the present painstakingly constructed British political edifice’ is being dismantled, with breathtaking ease, by the Prime Minister herself.
‘Democracy’, one is embarrassed to have to point out, is not so straightforward. The law against ‘secondary picketing’ is not so clearly more acceptable than the law against crossing state lines for the purposes of inciting a riot which was hastily passed by a frightened Congress in 1967. The present interpretation and enforcement of existing laws about disturbing the peace and obstructing the highway and so on is not so clearly more reasonable than the interpretation and enforcement of comparable laws in Alabama and Mississippi in 1965. And 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, one is again embarrassed to have to say, 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. Enlightened élitism in the supposed interests of others is not the prerogative of the élite.
If, however, it is advocated by anyone else, it is, so Stewart would have us believe (‘how else’, he asks, ‘explain’ it?), clear evidence of Leninist intent. He certainly provides no other. But it is not, of course, evidence of anything of the kind. If it were, we would have good reason to fear the Social Democrats’ reason for leaving Labour. Scargill doubtless does believe that things could be arranged better for ‘the working class’, or however one now describes those whom the economy and its corollaries disadvantage. Who can doubt him? Certainly not Stewart, who agrees that in this respect things are better in Eastern Europe. And if Scargill does believe this, he has some grounds also to believe, as I said before, that there is not much hope to be put in the Labour Party or even much of the TUC. Perhaps he does envisage a revolution, if by that is meant the capture of the state by force of arms in the name of some class or other. But if he is as ‘wily’ as Stewart says he is, indeed if he is even half-way sane, he almost certainly does not. To impute that belief to him is merely an insult and a smear.
What Scargill doubtless does believe, not least because it is a fact, appreciated by all except the most categorical of academic economists, is that the enemy is not now private capital but the state. The state is the largest employer, in the hands of a government like ours the most ruthless, and it has behind it, and behind its cloak of legitimacy, a force to impose its will that would have been beyond the wildest fantasy of a Carnegie or a Frick. Scargill, like almost everyone else, therefore sees that no dispute between a union and a nominally public corporation can be anything but political. Stewart’s imputation of Scargill’s political motive, presented as a discovery for us to wonder and shudder at, is what anyone who knows anything about any Western economy in the past two or three decades would regard as a statement of the obvious. And if, as Stewart does rightly and rather less obviously say, the extraordinary fact about Thatcher is that no one is standing up to her, in Parliament, in her own party, in the press (with one or two exceptions – including, on the matter of the Falklands, your paper) or in the judiciary, there is some reason, even if one is not a miner, and even if one accepts the most optimistic view of the supply of affordable energy at the end of the century, to be grateful for the fact that Scargill is. Indeed, one does not have to think too hard, although harder, it is true, than Stewart seems to be able to do, to see Scargill doing more for the general good than most others, with a more obvious obligation in the ‘political edifice’ to do so, are now doing.
Vol. 6 No. 18 · 4 October 1984
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.
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.
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.
Vol. 6 No. 19 · 18 October 1984
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.
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.
University College London
Vol. 6 No. 20 · 1 November 1984
SIR: Both Arthur Scargill and Margaret Thatcher seem to me to be demagogues, but Scargill is better at it than Thatcher is. In his rather hysterical response to Michael Stewart’s article, Anthony Arblaster (Letters, 4 October) assumes that Scargill would need ‘near-demonic powers of persuasion and manipulation’ to fit Stewart’s stereotype. Surely those capacities, working off large-scale feelings of insecurity and economic hardship, are exactly what the finest demagogues have; the history of this century offers many salutary examples, though not in Britain. But why, sadly, should we be exempt?
SIR: How much does a pit have to cost the country before your correspondents will agree to its closure? The Treforgan colliery in South Wales lost £6.5 m in 1981-82, which works out at £13,000 per employee. As Christopher Huhne put it, writing in the Guardian of 3 May: ‘It would have been cheaper for the taxpayer to pay each Treforgan employee more than double the then male average wage NOT to mine coal.’ Where do your correspondents think the money comes from? Defence? The universities? No, it will come from those without the muscle of the service chiefs or the dons or the NUM. I refer to the pensioners, the unemployed and the sick. Funny how they don’t rate a mention in this debate: it’s as though finite resources are a consequence of Mrs Thatcher. Some people seem to think that pit closures are also a result of a specifically Tory philosophy. Again I quote Mr Huhne: ‘the Tories have closed fewer pits in five years than the Labour Government managed to do in the single year of 1968.’ Mr Arblaster (LRB, 6 September) says there is plenty of evidence that most miners support the strike. Why, then, has there been no ballot?
There are many sticks with which Mrs Thatcher’s government could be beaten. Her treatment of the mineworkers is not one of them. She knows that, and she knows that the majority of the country knows it. Mr Huhne’s Guardian article asked: ‘Is Mrs Thatcher in reality the miners’ best friend?’ We don’t know whether she is any more, but it’s quite obvious who is her best friend and who is doing the most to ensure her re-election.
Vol. 6 No. 21 · 15 November 1984
SIR Paul Milican (Letters, 4 October) fails to inform us of some salient facts in the debate over the miners’ strike, which is not surprising because they make his arguments look, in places, pretty silly. He tells us that since 1979 alone over fifty collieries have been closed. Why not inform us at the same time that Mr Callaghan’s government closed 300 pits? To read Mr Milican’s letter, one would think that pit closures began in 1979, not a decade and a half before. It is true that the NCB has not kept exactly to its pledges in the ‘Plan for Coal’. It has bettered them by investing £650 million more in the coal industry than had been agreed under the plan. Of somewhat lesser import, Mr MacGregor is not a North American, as Mr Milican puts it: he was born in, and lived for a considerable number of years in, Scotland.