He knew he was right

John Lloyd

  • Scargill: The Unauthorised Biography by Paul Routledge
    HarperCollins, 296 pp, £16.99, September 1993, ISBN 0 300 05365 7

Exactly ten years after the start of the miners’ strike of 1984-85, the questions remain, in ascending order of importance: was Arthur Scargill, then and still President of the NUM, the right leader for the strike? Could the strike have been won? If it had, would this have improved the fortunes of the labour movement? Would such an improvement have altered the course of Thatcher’s government?

Paul Routledge answers some of these questions and finesses others. A long-serving labour correspondent, Routledge did much of his work at the Times. With Mick Costello of the Morning Star, he was the leader of the leftist tendency within the labour and industrial correspondents’ group and for many years the strongest influence within that group. As such, he did what he could to mobilise support for the Left in the unions – especially in the NUM, which he venerated.

He was conscious enough of the absurdity of many on the left as well as the right, but he followed the left line in the correspondents’ group more faithfully than many did. He made no secret of his desire, once Scargill won the presidency of the NUM in 1982, to become editor of the union newspaper, the Miner, a post which entailed membership of the court of King Arthur at his Sheffield Camelot. Routledge was spurned in 1983; it was a painful experience, which may have something to do with his feelings about Scargill. To read that his association with the miners’ leader was a ‘voyage of disillusionment’, that the strike, far from representing an upsurge of working-class militancy, was ‘all about one man’ (as the Queen said to Routledge when visiting the Times) is nonetheless to be surprised, both by the apostasy of a man whose views I had assumed to be rigid, and by its tardiness.

Scargill was the only child of an adoring Christian mother and a mild-mannered Communist father, himself a miner. Since becoming famous, Scargill has evinced a remarkable tenderness towards his mother and insisted on his devastation, at the age of 18, when she died. Sensitive, quite possibly bullied by other children, he refused to sit the exams that could have taken him to grammar school, displaying what Routledge calls the ‘intellectual agoraphobia’ that has dogged him ever since. Instead, he went down the pit, like his father – or rather, he stayed on the surface, initially, working in the coal-screening plant at Woolley Colliery, a few miles from his home:

You couldn’t see more than two yards for dust and the noise was so intense you had to speak with your hands. I had to scrape the caked dust from my lips before I could eat my sandwiches ... I saw men with one arm and one leg, men crippled and emotionally retarded. I nearly turned and ran. I thought – I can’t work in this lot. But I did for a year and I suppose it had a direct effect on my life.

It would be possible to take the view, as Routledge suggests, that this experience accounts for Scargill’s hatred of the mining industry, and the willingness he showed to hasten its destruction. In any event, he buckled to at the age of 17 and went underground, spending much of his spare time in the Barnsley branch of the Young Communist League. Some of the witnesses of his earliest political stirrings were impressed. Monty Meth, then a correspondent for the Daily Worker, remembers him as ‘very bright, always articulate’. Others, like Jimmy Reid, the Clydeside shipworkers’ leader, a hostile colleague on the YCL executive, could see no ‘great potential, politically’.

Later, Scargill boasted that he had increased the YCL’s membership tenfold. During the strike itself, he would claim that he was a ‘better Marxist’ than any of the leaders of the Communist Party – which eventually turned against him. Yet the style of this early period is eerily consistent with that of the NUM President thirty years later, as Routledge illustrates with a report in the Daily Worker of a YCL conference at which Scargill spoke. Just as he would much later, he resorts frequently to military imagery – ‘fights’, ‘battles’, ‘advances’, ‘enemy’ – in describing to his young comrades the details of a strike he claims to have led; he castigates the Party for its ‘criminal’ neglect of youth and demands action ‘now’. He calls for the victory of a party of ‘class political power’ – something in which he continued to believe long after the CP had ceased to do so.

Scargill gives various accounts of why he left the Party – and forged ahead – including one which has him opposing the eviction of Stalin’s body from the Lenin mausoleum. Routledge says flatly that he left because ‘the Communist Party was in his way.’ He moved rapidly up the union ladder and, by the age of 35, had become president of the largest mineworkers’ area in Britain. Yorkshire had already, and in a very short space of time, ceased to be a right-wing – which is to say, anti-Communist – redoubt, an achievement due in large measure to the efforts of the Communist Party, which in 1950 had placed the Canadian lawyer, Bert Ramelson, in the post of area secretary. Ramelson decided that the miners, then much less susceptible to Communism than industrial workers in the big plants, should be a strategic recruitment target: ‘If I was going to do anything useful, of importance, it would be to change the character of the Yorkshire coalfield ... The Yorkshire miners could change the character of the NUM, which in turn could change the composition of the labour movement as a whole. The miners at the time had a big vote. If they could be changed, it could change the role of the TUC General Council.’

A renegade from the Party, Scargill nevertheless commanded its support until the very end. Indeed, he outlasted the CP itself, which collapsed in the early Nineties, while Scargill continued to hang on – as he does to this day – to the presidency of a union which is now in toto less than half the size of the Yorkshire area he inherited in 1973. This support never went without saying. Other figures, less flamboyant though undoubtedly more loyal, could rely on the Party for more backing than Scargill ever got in the jockeying for position. But Scargill always romped home. He was simply better, and usually a great deal better, than they were at marshalling support.

Thanks in part to the evidence of Scargill’s chauffeur-bodyguard, Jim Parker – a former YCL comrade who would eventually break with his charge – Routledge portrays a man of ruthless ambition, driven by an aversion to the off-hours habits of the union leadership – long drinking sessions at which a man’s character, interests, foibles and shortcomings would become apparent – and at the same time by a hunger for acclaim. ‘I’d got them. I had them in the palm of my hand. I could do anything with them,’ Scargill would tell Parker after his name had been roared out at rallies until the participants were hoarse. ‘Diffident at close quarters,’ Routledge writes, ‘he comes alive in front of a sea of undifferentiated faces.’

The miners’ leadership was a formidable drinking club. Especially (but not exclusively) on the left, it was also a culture in which self-education, conspicuous erudition, even philosophical speculation were tolerated as they were not in other union cultures. The brightest star in the left firmament was the Fife miner, Lawrence Daly, who rose to the post of NUM General Secretary under the presidency of Scargill’s predecessor, Joe Gormley. Daly was in many ways the opposite of Scargill: intellectually curious, extraordinarily well-read, ostensibly – and certainly in his later years, when he was destroying himself with drink – devoid of the kind of ambition that coursed through Scargill’s veins.

To my mind Scargill’s Scottish counterpart, Michael McGahey – a lifelong Communist and the leader of the Left until Scargill overtook him – was the more impressive figure, and this despite his unwavering support for the party line throughout the Stalin period and beyond. McGahey was humane, often sentimental. He was also tremendously disciplined, which is largely why he weathered his great disappointment when Joe Gormley, a longstanding rival, denied him the presidency of the NUM by ruling that no one over 55 could stand. McGahey gave his unstinting loyalty to Scargill – far too unstinting – during the strike. His criticism was confined to a series of veiled reservations, often delivered at three in the morning after the second bottle of whisky, about the tactics and conduct of the strike. This was quite unlike the Welsh leadership, which, though almost equally left-wing, broke with Scargill in the course of the strike and led the resistance to him afterwards.

McGahey would stay up late into the night, discussing precedents in labour history, soliciting the views of his companions, reciting fragments of poetry or telling stories about his own life. During the late Thirties, he confessed, he had read Trotsky – at the time an offence punishable by expulsion from the British Party and, in the CPSU, by far graver penalties, including the firing squad. McGahey put his Communism before everything and, more easily than his English colleagues, found an application for it in his trade union duties. Communism had enjoyed currency for some time among Scots miners. For many years West Fife, the largest coalfield in Scotland – all of it now closed – was represented by the Communist MP, Willie Gallagher.

I remember walking with McGahey and the print union leader, Bill Keys, through the centre of Birmingham to one of the last big rallies as the strike was foundering. McGahey began to talk of the city’s radical, Chartist traditions. The elegiac note on which he ended was, as he clearly intended, appropriate to the pass that the miners had reached in the last days of the strike. The split in the union, which Scargill could have avoided, affected McGahey deeply and he strove, unsuccessfully, to overcome it. He was one of the leadership ‘troika’, with Scargill and the Derbyshire miners’ leader, Peter Heathfield, who became NUM General Secretary under Scargill’s presidency. This arrangement, however, was a fiction: both Heathfield and McGahey were in thrall to Scargill’s unstoppable will.

Scargill evidently had a sense of his own mythic status early on, when he organised and ‘won’ the battle of Saltley Gates, near Birmingham, during the miners’ strike of 1974, widely credited with destroying the Heath Government. Mass picketing by miners at Saltley, supported on the crucial day of closure by several thousand demonstrators from Birmingham, succeeded in closing the gates of an important coke depot. Scargill has given a vivid account of that day in later interviews. It fails to square, on many counts, with the findings of the official inquiry and is no less prodigally embellished than any other feature of the Scargill self-portrait. Helped along by the demagogue-friendly medium of television, Scargill exploited Saltley to the full. In the process he became a local hero, and a national notoriety. The events at Saltley, he concluded fatally, were ‘living proof that the working class had only to flex its muscles and it could bring governments, employers, society to a total standstill. I know the fear of Birmingham on the part of the ruling class. The fear was that what happened in Birmingham could happen in every city in Britain.’

By now NUM President, Scargill embarked on the 1984-85 strike, itching for confrontation. Charismatic in public but unforthcoming in private and extremely suspicious of those about him, he was a man who believed in leadership. On succeeding Gormley, he was quick to impose controls on a staff that had got used to his predecessor’s easygoing style, requiring his personal approval for any visits they made to coalfields, opening and distributing all the mail himself and, eventually, moving the union headquarters from London to his base in Yorkshire, replacing the staff he had inherited with people of his own choosing. The most active members of the rank and file adored Scargill, who condoned their worst impulses, made constant appeals to their dislike of the bosses and the easy-living middle classes and played on the resentment they felt at having spent their youth and most of their physical strength digging coal out of the earth. There was no serious challenge to Scargill’s leadership.

Could the strike have been won? Yes, but the benefits would have been temporary, and winning would have had to be defined in a less absolute way than Scargill was prepared to accept. ‘If ever defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory, it was the miners’ strike,’ Hugh Scanlon – by then, Lord Scanlon – told Routledge. ‘I think they could have got a settlement with honour. I think when you say, “We’re going to bring the government down”, or you say, “Not one man must be declared redundant”, when you put these demands then I think you are heading for defeat.’

Scanlon’s statement assumes that the miners’ strike was just another strike of the kind with which he, as a former leader of the engineering workers, was familiar. But Scargill understood that this was not the case. First, it occurred in what turned out to be the middle of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership. Thatcher was a far greater pragmatist than she or many of her friends and enemies would ever admit, but she had already ducked in the face of one miners’ strike and was determined to win this one. She had also accepted the view that the miners had to be broken: they were an obstacle to modernisation and the reduction of state spending – the National Coal Board usually had the highest subsidy of any state enterprise. The Government, and especially the Energy Secretary, Peter Walker – who had been informed by Thatcher, at the time of his appointment, that his job was to defeat the NUM – had laid the ground as carefully as possible, pushing through legislation which made picketing illegal, preparing the police and changing the guard at the NCB.

Sir Ian MacGregor was the other reason this strike was unlike any other. The choice of MacGregor as chairman of the NCB was made by Nigel Lawson, Peter Walker’s predecessor. MacGregor was as convinced of the rightness of the free enterprise system as Scargill was of its evil. He was thus equally antagonistic to the social-democratic, give-them-the-money-and-get-the-coal-moving-again approach which had been characteristic of the Coal Board, especially under Sir Derek Ezra in the Seventies and early Eighties. Created by the post-war reforming Labour Government as the fulfilment of a long-time pledge, and dedicated to the conditions of the workers as well as to producing coal, the Board was a place where compromise was a way of life, where industrial relations were conducted by men who had usually been union officials themselves and who crossed backwards and forwards across lines which were impassable in other industries.

MacGregor hated all of that. Unable to distinguish moderate from revolutionary socialists, he regarded the whole thing as a conspiracy against the consumer. He was always ready to give instances of his own industry’s failings, as Thatcher was when it came to her government. Early on in his term, MacGregor held a working breakfast for the industrial and labour correspondents – itself a cause of bitter comment from a group that took pride in its morning bleariness – to demonstrate, with the help of charts and coloured markers, how the markets were moving inexorably against deep-mined – and relatively expensive – British coal. The pre-MacGregor Board would never have jeopardised the industry’s subsidies by discussing such things in the open.

MacGregor was a maladroit negotiator. At one stage he nearly gave in to a wording that Walker, who was of course ‘not involved’, thought disastrous. At other times he needled his opponent, whom he came to detest, by suggesting he was mentally unstable and that he ‘lies through his teeth’. But he wanted a deal that allowed him to continue with the pit closure plan he had already set in motion and which was coming, on the whole, to be accepted up and down the coalfields, because of the handsome pay-offs that Walker had argued for and won from a sceptical Cabinet. Routledge calls MacGregor a ‘political rhinoceros’. If he means MacGregor was an antediluvian creature who charged brainlessly at his opponents, he is wrong.

In Britain, as in most of Western Europe, coal mining was under threat from cheaper sources in the US, India, China and Eastern Europe. Sooner or later, the choice between endless, heavy subsidisation and a closure programme would have had to be made and it is inconceivable that any government would have chosen the former. The issue was not the transition itself, but how well the Government and the NCB could handle it. Routledge does not make enough of this, preferring to criticise Scargill – as the CP did once the strike was over – for throwing his members onto the guns under the banner of ‘total victory’ and refusing them the lines of retreat that a canny leader, left or right would have kept open.

Scargill boasts frequently that all of his predictions were proved correct. Routledge has a sad little vignette of him bringing out a postcard marked ‘A. Scargill’s Predictions’ to show reporters. To anyone who knew the industry well, however, most of what he said was obvious. Coal mining was, as he repeated often, destined to be ‘butchered’. But Scargill could not see that – with or without a show of strength – his duty was to secure the best possible deal for his members in the light of the closure programme. By goading them into industrial fury, Scargill probably made the post-strike task of the NCB much easier, as Routledge suggests, especially since it was dealing, by then, with a split union.

Would a victory on qualified terms have raised the morale and the militancy of the British labour movement? Routledge notes that the movement was already a little punch drunk. When Eddy Shah, editor of a local freesheet in Warrington, took on the National Graphical Association, and got his paper out, and when the NGA had its funds sequestered for contempt of a court order not to engage in mass picketing, the TUC had refused support. And this in spite of a solemn pledge taken at a conference in Wembley to fight the Thatcher employment laws. From then on, Routledge argues, it was clear that the TUC – and thus the bulk of its affiliated unions – was a paper tiger.

That is true as far as it goes. Equally important, however, is the fact that at Wembley and elsewhere, the TUC constantly pledged itself to action as militant as anything that Scargill ultimately undertook – its rhetoric throughout the Thatcher years was little short of revolutionary. Scargill’s great merit was to expose this rhetoric for the hot air it was, apparently by taking it seriously. His habitual public stance towards the media, which did so much to make him, was one of unbending hostility, leavened with sarcasm. Only once did he comment favourably on anything I wrote. It was a report in the FT suggesting that, by committing itself at the 1984 Conference to public support for Scargill, the TUC had put its credibility on the line. Scargill was acutely aware of inconveniencing the union leaders he despised, or at best regarded as assistants in a struggle of which he was in charge.

Some trade unions came to Scargill’s aid – mostly those with a left leadership, including the transport union, which was so important for his secondary picketing tactics. The Transport and General Workers’ Union tried to prevent its members from crossing picket lines, but was widely flouted, especially at the working pits in Nottingham and the Midlands.

It was the working miners who gave the union moderates qualms and offered them a way out. Faced with a union whose militancy was being leached away by high pay-offs, and unable to get a national strike through a ballot, Scargill decided on the tactic of the area strike. An area strike could be called by the area executive, then made official by the national executive. If all or a majority of areas called a strike in this way, it would be tantamount to a national strike – an option foreseen by Scargill a year before it happened. In early 1984, the Yorkshire pit of Cortonwood was closed by the NCB. Two days later, on 6 March, the Board met the mining unions to broach cuts of four million tonnes in 1984-85 – the real figure they had in mind, as Scargill correctly divined, was eight million – with the loss of some twenty thousand jobs. Scargill put his plan into operation. Yorkshire and Scotland, followed by most other areas, declared themselves on strike, usually without an area ballot or ignoring the result if it came out against strike action.

Nottingham stuck, however. In Henry Richardson it had a left-wing general secretary and, in Ray Chadburn, an ineffectual, moderate president. To the Left, it had a notoriously moderate tradition reaching back to the miners’ strike of 1926 when the ‘Spencer’ union broke away from the Mining Federation of Great Britain. The Notts men did not want to strike. They were faced by waves of Yorkshire pickets; quite soon the pit villages became little battlegrounds between pickets and ‘scabs’. The persistence of the Notts workers won them support from the lower ranks of the leadership, including Roy Lynk, who later formed the Union of Democratic Mineworkers, which is still in existence.

It was the struggle of miner against miner that eventually tore the heart out of the strike. In the late summer of 1984, dissidents began to appear in Yorkshire itself: Ken Foulstone and Robert Taylor, miners at Manton colliery, petitioned to be allowed to return to work and had the strike declared unlawful, both in Yorkshire and nationally. These men and others like them were helped by a network of ‘advisers’, shadowy at first but increasingly brazen, who had links with MacGregor, or Walker, or Thatcher, and rode to the rescue of the working miners like knights to maidens in distress.

One of these was David Hart, a former property magnate and bankrupt, who had recovered and lived in grand style, country-squiring, looking for a safe Tory seat and writing novels. Hart was deeply attached to Thatcher and to MacGregor, whom he had met before the strike. Pulling his many strings – among them Routledge’s editor at the Times, the late Charles Douglas-Home – he got commissions for articles about the coalfields which he wrote while engaged on reconnaissance missions. Hart spotted, and helped to sponsor, the rebels and working miners; he organised secret meetings, held MacGregor’s hand when his spirits were low and came more and more to dictate strategy, much to the fury of NCB officials, for whose chairman he stood in more than once. He had, I think, a sense that he, too, was a warrior in a class struggle – but on the other side of the barricades. It was a sign of the labour movement’s weakness in the face of Thatcher’s labour legislation that Hart should have been able to wield such power.

Had the strike been even a qualified victory for the NUM, and the TUC been able to take some of the credit, the labour movement as a whole would have enjoyed a fillip, but I suspect no more than that: the miners were bound to lose the war, even if they had won that particular battle. Organised British labour, with its ossified and suicidally competitive structure, simply failed to adapt to the challenge of Thatcher; nor could it weather the trend against organised labour that was, and remains, observable throughout the developed world.

The Labour Party, too, might have profited had the miners won, especially if the victory had been achieved without the violence and abusive language that gave Neil Kinnock such headaches and which he believed to be gravely retarding the Party’s recovery. Having first distrusted Scargill, Kinnock came to hate him; he was not prepared to speak to him, relying instead on briefings from Kim Howells, the South Wales research officer who is now MP for Pontypridd and was the first on the union left to break with Scargill, long before it was safe to do so. On most fronts, Kinnock was outgunned and outmanoeuvred by Thatcher, but he showed at least as much courage as she did, in squaring his views about the strike with his own background as the son of a miner, and insisting on the principles of civility.

It’s unlikely that Thatcher could have been rocked by a strike of this kind. For all the support and sympathy that the miners attracted, I found that most people – miners included – had little hope for the future of the mining industry. Routledge talks about the storm unleashed in October 1992, when Michael Heseltine unveiled a new closure plan and Scargill headed a protest which this time had the support of the TUC and that of a good swathe of the public, and which led to the plan being retracted. The victory was deceptive. What the Government could not do by frontal assault it has since achieved by stealth, on a pit-by-pit basis.