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.’

But there is a better reason for not having a ballot, one which Scargill and the NUM general secretary Peter Heathfield (especially the latter) used constantly, but which is not to be found in these two books. It is the differential problem: that a ballot on an issue which affects all miners equally is a reasonable proposition, while a ballot which affects different groups differently is not. In this case, the issue was pit closures: for some areas, closures were likely to be few, while for others they were likely to be many. Hence, so the argument went, a national ballot would allow some men to ‘vote others out of jobs’. There is a clear vein of justice to that case.

Scargill is right, too, when he claims that the mineworkers were carrying out TUC and Labour Party policy: for the preceding half-dozen years, both wings of the Labour movement had voted in with acclamation the most ferocious motions of opposition to the Tory Government, the warmest expressions of solidarity and support, the most punitive of threats. He and his miners carried them through. Naturally – to face down another charge – in such a struggle there was no room for children (though there was an honoured role for women): it was not, as Scargill said in his prescient and celebrated interview in New Left Review in 1975, a matter of playing cricket on the green. Even if the patently absurd claim that the violence was the exclusive fault of the police is dismissed, there is a perfectly good case to be made in a number of instances that where the police rolled out a huge show of force to escort in one working miner, of a small handful, then they were not doing their normal duty: that is, warning such people to stay away from large numbers of people who, when encountered, might provoke a breach of the peace. During the recent riots in Brixton, police were turning back motorists who were going about their perfectly lawful business of driving down Brixton or Stockwell roads – because they could not guarantee their safety. Had the same view been taken at the pits of South Yorkshire and Durham and at the Orgreave Coke Depot, matters might have been wholly different.

But victory? Let us discount again the ridiculous part of the Scargill claim: that the 12-month strike has prevented the NCB from shutting the 20 pits it would have shut had the strike not been mounted. First, they are now shutting these pits, and between thirty and thirty-five have been either shut or marked for closure since the beginning of last year. But that other component of claimed victory – that the strike has raised the class-consciousness of a generation of mineworkers, and that the next battle will be the more successful one – is less easily put aside. Who knows? It is not inscribed in history that the present government will again win a majority for its programme, which would then be peacefully carried through – or that a left-of-centre government, either Labour or a Labour/Alliance coalition, will steer the state back along social-democratic consensual lines. If a revolution from the left is on the agenda at all in the coming two decades, Mr Scargill and his young miners will be the best place to turn for leadership and for the Red Guards.

That seems to me to be the best case that can be advanced for the defence of the NUM leadership. It is not all a matter of pure advocacy: many of the points Scargill makes about the strike are just and true – the best being the one which reminds the left critics that the NUM was putting flesh on bones set in place by them. If the mineworkers may be described as ‘lions led by donkeys’ (in Eric Hammond’s typically emollient phrase to the Labour Party Conference in October), then the donkeys could as well retort that they at least led, and that those carping from a position well behind them were no more than paper tigers.

But it does not, finally, work. First, it seeks legitimacy on two levels: the ‘normal’ and the ‘revolutionary’. In a ‘normal’ British strike, certain decencies are assumed: a low level of violence towards fellow workers; as low a level as possible towards the police; discipline of the wilder followers; above all, a positive desire to negotiate, and some sort of relationship between the negotiating chamber and the balance of forces outside it. In a revolutionary strike, none of these features is present, or only in a formal sense: so, there are negotiations, but it becomes clear after a time that they will get nowhere.

Neither Goodman nor ‘Insight’ offers a judgment on one of the most difficult questions of the strike: whether or not a negotiated settlement could have been found. Goodman points to the October negotiations from which the pit deputies’ union Nacods rescued a settlement as being an opportunity lost, and says that, after that, ‘both of the leading personalities were probably incapable of reaching an agreement with each other even if they had been willing to do so.’ ‘Insight’ quotes Michael Eaton, the now-retired Board spokesman, as drawing on his ten years’ experience of negotiations with Scargill to tell ministers that he would not settle.

I believe that settlement was impossible, and that the reasons lay in both the ‘normal’ and the ‘revolutionary’ spheres. In the first, while the NCB produced draft after draft which moved away from an explicit statement that uneconomic pits must shut, to such nostrums as management’s right to manage, and the proposition that pits must shut which cannot be ‘beneficially developed’, still MacGregor never doubted that whatever phrase was used, it permitted him to shut uneconomic pits. In that sense, then, for the NUM leadership to agree to any formula agreeable to the Coal Board was to assent to a pit closure programme which would have seen at least 20,000 men out of the gates in the first 12 months, with more to go as the new, cheaper, more efficiently mined capacity came on stream.

In the ‘revolutionary’ world a settlement was impossible because it acquiesced in the power of capital and the state, and cut off the opportunity to revolutionise many thousands of young proletarians who were clearly willing to be led in any direction (so long as it wasn’t towards compromise) in which Scargill wished to take them. Many believe, with ‘Insight’, that the NUM President had been ‘just too effective’ in this respect, even for his own liking and that he was hoist on his own revolutionary rhetoric long after he wished to come down to earth and settle. That view is not sustainable, however, in face of how the strike ended. The South Wales area produced an end by going back without an agreement: Scargill was against it, and denounced it afterwards. This wasn’t a man desperate for a way out, but one who was determined to continue.

The case for the NUM leadership is more deeply flawed than that they were revolutionaries looking for reformist alibis, though. The real flaw is that the revolutionary road of the kind preferred by Scargill was not only unlikely of achievement, but seen as undesirable by the very people in whose name it was being waged – the British working class.

Gradualism has had enormous attractions for that class, especially since the war but even before it. Its romantic heroes may have been men like A.J. Cook and now his successor, Arthur Scargill: but the real hero, and towering genius, was Ernest Bevin, who in his ‘first career’ as trade-union leader, helped establish the system of joint bargaining to which trade-unionism became so deeply wedded; and in his second, as Employment Minister, presided over the largest mobilisation of labour, the largest assumption of power by the unions, and the biggest advance for industrial democracy, that the country had seen. The establishment of a universal system of health and welfare provision, built on since its establishment in 1945-50, further encouraged the mass of people to find in social democracy enough to justify a broad, unideological allegiance. Since 1979, that has been under some strain: but then so have the main pillars of the postwar consensus – notably the trade unions. For all that the Thatcher Government has cast aside much of the baggage once thought necessary to muddle through without annoying the lower classes, it has not done so sufficiently thoroughly to destroy attachment to social-democratic values – at the heart of which is an aversion to frontal attacks on the state and the party currently occupying it.

Scargill believed otherwise. He thought that the scale of the devastation caused by the Thatcher Government was itself a casus belli, and that the cowardice of Labour leaders, the mendacity of the press, and state repression through police and judiciary, were the barriers that stood between misery and liberation. An enthusiast for the Cuban revolution, he likened his mission to that of Castro against Battista. He was able to communicate some of this to the young miners, to his many adherents in the Trotskyist and other Far Left groups in and out of the Labour Party, but to almost no one else. The miners received enormous financial support from people who felt sympathy for them, or guilt about them, or who just didn’t like the Government: when workers came to take the more serious decision whether to strike in their support, they emphatically refused, for the most part. The mineworkers’ President was pitting himself, not just against the Government and the National Coal Board, but against the very reluctance of a class to be involved in an adventure.

Goodman and ‘Insight’ have little to say about the effects of this adventure, since they have limited themselves, in time and in scope, to the events of the strike itself. ‘Insight’ is easily the more careful chronicler of these events. Donald Macintyre – at the time of the strike the Sunday Times’s Labour Editor, now the Times’s Labour Editor – is among the best reporters of the day, in his own or any other field. In the course of the miners’ strike he was paid the singular compliment (by the NUM secretary, Peter Heathfield) of being seriously thought to have bugged a crucial National Executive meeting, so accurate was his reporting of it. The book is free of much of the irritating ‘Insight’ style (though it has an obsession with the colours of carpets), is well written (largely by Peter Wilsher) and sticks to its last of narrative, rarely essaying instant analysis. Goodman is much less detailed, more polemical: his detestation of the Government softens every criticism of the miners’ leaders, sharpens every comment on the behaviour of the Board, of the police and of ministers. Among the most effective parts are the small-scale descriptions of, for example, a police action in the village of Armthorpe in August.

I heard him paid a different sort of compliment from that offered to Macintyre during the strike: a middle-aged striking miner said of one of his Mirror columns (now closed down) that it made him look at his life with a new eye. There are few writers in popular journalism who can do that. His judgments, especially of the miners themselves, are generously warm.

For many of the women, as for the young miners, the strike produced an unexpected excitement: it was a new adventure. The curtains were drawn on the outside world and the entire scene began to change before their eyes. It was, for many, a revelation, so different from the world they read about in the newspapers or saw on TV. Of course there was hardship, often on a terrible scale. People did go hungry. Families were huddled together in cold rooms, going to bed with coats on. But it was a shared misery. And it all seemed worthwhile: a sacrifice they were forced to make to preserve their way of life and retain a future for their children. That was what induced the comparison with wartime Britain – the sacrifice for a better future.

The effects will become clear only slowly; it will need a number of years before a careful historian, removed from the nose-against-the-window-pane posture of journalism, or the unthinking partisanship which has characterised most of the many books on the strike from the left, can help us to form a settled judgment. But we can say this: a major outcome has been the necessity to redefine what kind of socialism is legitimate in the UK. The Labour Party had had the imperative of drawing the line between itself and its revolutionary adherents long before Scargill became NUM president: but there is little doubt that Neil Kinnock’s two speeches to the Labour Party Conference this year took much of their inspiration from the hard lesson he’d had of it as he watched the miners’ strike grind to its ineluctable defeat without being able to say much more than generalities about its conduct, trying vainly to pin responsibility on a government which never lost the moral edge. The second of those speeches, exclusively on the strike itself, spoken into howls of rage from those who thought him a class traitor (and were often, by birth, a few notches up the class scale from the speaker), was a mixture of clinical precision and angry emotion: the anger must have in part derived from the realisation that the democratic socialism he had espoused, and had suffered for at the hands of old leftist comrades when he made it public five years before, was under sustained and powerful challenge from the NUM. On the principle of an ill wind, that is thoroughly good. But it will take more than two good speeches to make the Labour Party a convincing government-in-waiting once more: it may be that the Party is so rootedly out of step with ‘the times’ (whatever they might be) that no amount of manipulation from the top can make it electable. But if it is to be so, it will owe to Arthur Scargill, the driven and unassuageable man who sprang from the mining industry but never seemed able to find rest either there or anywhere else, a considerable debt. His message, for those who care to read it, is that there can no longer be any careless conflation of the democratic with the revolutionary. Both have their separate forms and their separate responsibilities. Scargill showed, in the main, that he was prepared to face up to his responsibilities and Kinnock ultimately showed he was able to do likewise. Scargill did not do what he set out to, but he clarified a choice for the rest of us.