The Miners’ Strike

Michael Stewart

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.