Claiming victory

John Lloyd

The consensus since the miners’ strike ended in March has been overwhelming: it was a disaster, most of all for the miners themselves. It is irresistible, in the interests of fairness at least, to look at the possibility that that verdict is wrong. Let us suppose – as Arthur Scargill invites us to – that it was forced upon them: that, as he also claims, it was a victory.

There are two sets of reasons for believing that there was no choice but to fight an opponent who had declared war. Geoffrey Goodman makes the first case:

Margaret Thatcher saw the NUM – Arthur Scargill in particular – as the embodiment of all that she held to be endemic in Britain’s economic decline: monopoly trade-unionism in a state industry subsidised well beyond the point of efficient market forces and economic sense ... to her, the special place which the mining industry occupied in the industrial landscape was a major example of sentimental welfarism ... it had to be fought at any price. Moreover, she saw the political need to defeat the NUM – the Coldstream Guards of organised labour – if she was to succeed in her self-appointed role of kicking the whole trade union movement into the Tory future and away from the principles of Labour Party style corporatism.

This is the general case: that the NUM was targeted by the Government as the last great obstacle to an efficient economy whose renaissance was delayed by the lingering power of organised Labour.

‘Insight’ makes the second case:

There was little or no disagreement about the ultimate objective: cutting 20,000 jobs in 20 pits. But especially outside London there was a worry about the wisdom of specifying the whole programme in advance. Siddall [the previous chairman of the National Coal Board], it was discreetly pointed out to MacGregor [the present chairman], had managed to achieve the same sort of result without any bothersome early warnings ... but although there was undoubtedly some dissent along these lines, it was pretty muted. ‘There was a spirit of MacGregorism abroad, and everybody who didn’t attack the bull with a red rag was regarded as a bit of a softie,’ one director now recalls. For MacGregor and his deputy there was no doubt this was the right course: as Cowan [deputy chairman] later confirmed, they deliberately ‘timed’ the presentation (on 6 March 1984) to bring the overtime ban, one way or another, to a head.

This is the particular case: that the NCB, in putting the closure of 20 pits to the miners’ leaders in an undigestible lump, forced them to gag on it with consequences they foresaw.

The two cases are not mutually exclusive: indeed, for Goodman at least, the first is the indispensable preliminary to the second. His book is informed with the judgments and views of a man whose years of writing about the Labour movement for a succession of national newspapers – he is now ending a career of great distinction on a newspaper of dwindling merit, the Mirror – have not eroded a steady adherence to what is now called the ‘sensible left’, and used to be just called the left. His thesis is that for all the NUM leadership’s many faults, they were at least matched by those of a government led by a woman who was determined to ‘turn away from the consensus politics that had dominated British life for a generation’. This fundamentalism on both sides produced a ‘Thatcherism and Scargillism’ which were ‘made for each other; one fortified the other; each seemed to justify the actions of the other.’ One of the many faults he picks up on was the refusal of the NUM leadership to hold a ballot: ‘by denying a membership ballot and then extending the strike principle by a process of mass picketing, it was inescapable that the NUM leadership would encounter a broad hostility.’ It is a central criticism, and if we are to make the case for the defence in the conduct of the strike, it must be faced.

‘Insight’ says that Scargill turned his back on the ballot because he ‘had been just too effective in stirring up the emotions of the rank and file’. A leading supporter of the NUM President, Ken Capstick from Selby, told the ‘Insight’ authors that ‘the trouble was that the national ballot had been made into an issue in itself.’ The lads ‘looked at it that Margaret Thatcher wanted a ballot, Ian MacGregor wanted a ballot, the media wanted a ballot and they weren’t going to have one.’

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