SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 127 - April 2009

Look back in candour

It has taken Arthur Scargill 25 years to speak candidly about the events of the 1984-85 miners’ strike. The account from the former NUM president and de facto leader of the union during the strike, came in an article in the Guardian on 7 March. Five years’ ago, the Socialist Party produced A Civil War without Guns, written by KEN SMITH. Socialism Today spoke to Ken about the new material from Arthur Scargill and whether or not it backed up the analysis of the strike in that book.

What did you make of the article by Arthur Scargill?

I thought he raised many interesting points which confirm the assessment made in the book, A Civil War without Guns. The miners were right to fight, they could have won, and the main reason they lost was the terrible role of leading figures in the Labour and trade union movement at that time.

It also gives revealing insights about the role of some so-called left-wingers and the Communist Party on vital issues such as the preparation of the strike, and the way it was organised over matters such as dispensations for coal distribution and, crucially, the effectiveness of mass picketing.

However, Arthur’s material also raises the need for further discussion on these important tactical issues. He recognises, for example, that some, if not the majority, of left leaders in the NUM areas were completely unprepared for the Tory offensive and the need for national strike action.

He says that some left NUM leaders disbelieved the warnings he gave after receiving a leaked document in late 1983, which showed the extent of the pit closures being lined up. Everything he warned about was borne out by events. But I think it also shows that Arthur made some honest mistakes in his appreciation of the left in the NUM, and that had a bearing on the way the strike developed.

We need to discuss these issues, not to criticise for the sake of it but to learn and assist key groups of workers going into struggle, now and in the future.

Are you saying that the strike’s defeat was down to Arthur Scargill’s mistakes?

No, not at all. Arthur, along with the majority of miners, showed enough courage, determination and tenacity to win the strike many times over. His role inspired the vast majority of rank-and-file miners to see the strike out for nearly a year.

And, while it was overwhelmingly the treacherous role of the right-wing leadership of the trade unions and Labour Party that led to the strike’s defeat, there were, regrettably, weaknesses inside the NUM that were not addressed before or during the strike, which contributed to serious difficulties in the prosecution of the strike.

The assertions of those such as Maurice Jones (editor of The Miner in the 1980s) and Neil Kinnock (Labour Party leader in the 1980s) that the timing of the strike was a monumental misjudgement are complete rubbish. The fact was - as everyone now admits - the dispute was extensively prepared for by the Tory government under Thatcher. They provoked it in March 1984 and were ready to go to just about any lengths to smash the miners in the most brutal example of class hatred this country has probably ever seen.

Former Tory Chancellor Lawson described their preparation as "just like rearming to face the threat of Hitler in the 1930s". One government insider observed: "Our leader will not be satisfied until Scargill is seen trotting round Finchley tethered to the back of the prime ministerial Jaguar". (One of Us, by Hugo Young – Finchley was Thatcher’s parliamentary constituency.)

It was the treacherous role of the right-wing leaders of the labour movement, including Kinnock, which led to the strike’s defeat. But that doesn’t mean that Arthur and others on the left should avoid examining what mistakes were made and what impact they had at the time and since.

Although Arthur doesn’t say it explicitly, I think there is perhaps an implicit recognition that he should have done some things differently. I don’t think anyone would think any less of the marvellous role that he played during the strike and on behalf of the miners if he were to openly discuss what mistakes were made by the NUM, and if he could have done anything to have avoided them.

What struck you as distinctively new in Scargill’s account?

Well, the headlines centred round the fact that the NUM action had forced the Tory government to reach an agreement on five occasions during the strike and that on four occasions it was sabotaged by Thatcher. On the fifth, it appears Thatcher realised the game was up and appeared ready to settle when the leadership of NACODS - a supervisors’ union in the coal industry - effectively saved her bacon. They called off their proposed strike over pit closures when it seemed the government had agreed a watered-down colliery review procedure, a deal the government quickly reneged on.

It’s not surprising that Thatcher tried to scupper deals - despite what others may have advised her. She knew that if she had agreed to a deal she would have been finished. She no doubt calculated that if she was going to go down she might as well fight all the way. I think Arthur made a mistake here - not about negotiating a deal, the substance of which seems like it could have seen a reasonably conclusive, if temporary, victory for the miners in terms of stopping pit closures - but in not going public and revealing that the National Coal Board and Tories had agreed the deal.

Revealing what was going on behind the scenes could have caused huge splits in the Tories and would have probably put pressure on NACODS not to call off their proposed strike until a deal was settled. It would have put pressure on Kinnock to come off the fence and muted the criticisms of right-wing union leaders. And, I think it could have halted the back-to-work movement in some areas that was just beginning to gain momentum.

So I think that was significant, and bears out a number of points we made in the book. I also think it brings out some of the pressures Arthur Scargill faced inside the union - particularly the role played by some of the union officials and the Communist Party behind the scenes.

What he says is extremely significant but he is, I feel, not giving the full story of what happened. That detail is still important for those who went through the strike and those who want to learn from it.

What do you mean by that?

Again, we raised this in advance of Arthur’s points, particularly on the role of the Communist Party. The argument that the striking miners displayed blind loyalty to Scargill and his "suicidal vanity", as Kinnock states, is just nonsense. In fact, Kinnock should be the last to throw around remarks about "suicidal vanity" - remember the eve-of-election rally in Sheffield in 1992.

The miners had great loyalty towards their union and its leaders, built up over a century of bitter struggle against the employers. But they weighed up very carefully whether or not to go on strike, as was evidenced in Wales and some other areas, where there was a hesitant, confused start to the strike. This reflected concerns about the timing and doubts about how some of the area leaders approached the struggle and ran their areas.

The left was in a strong position nationally in the NUM, having just seen Scargill and Peter Heathfield (NUM general secretary) elected to office. A mood was growing for action against pit closures. But the left was not organised at a rank-and-file level and its structures were confined to secretive meetings of senior full-time officials nationally and in the areas.

In the book we related rank-and-file doubts about the lack of preparation of some the area leaders, particularly those in the Communist Party. At the time, the CP was drawing political conclusions that effectively meant abandoning any pretence of struggle on behalf of the working class in favour of broad alliances with the church and even progressive Tories - what was called ‘New Realism’ at the time.

The NUM’s federal structure had strengths and weaknesses. The fact that some areas continued working during the strike showed that the national leadership should have addressed the issue of a national ballot in a way that maintained the maximum unity of the miners, overcoming any possible resistance from right-wing area leaders. Unfortunately, that thorny issue was not adequately resolved during the strike and has yet not been properly gone into by Arthur Scargill.

Scargill says the issue of a ballot was raised by others to cover their own guilt about lack of support for the strike. Do you subscribe to that?

Definitely, he’s right on that. If it hadn’t been the ballot then it would have been some other issue. In the run-up to the strike, the TUC, Labour Party and leading trade union figures in Britain hadn’t delivered solidarity for any major strike - the steelworkers’ dispute, for instance, and, in particular, the 1983 Stockport Messenger dispute, when Eddie Shah became the first employer to use the anti-union laws, in this case against the National Graphical Association print workers’ union. This had given the green light for Thatcher to launch her offensive against the miners. Nothing Arthur Scargill or the miners could have done would have moved these individuals to give anything more than lukewarm and equivocal support to the miners.

However, there was an issue about the ballot among sections of the miners and the wider working class, even if it was only a minority, that needed to be addressed. It was a boil that should have been lanced. Doing so would have made it far more straightforward to get solidarity action from below. Not having a ballot caused difficulties in some significant workplaces - especially where the right wing controlled the union structures.

I think there is an implicit recognition by Arthur of the difficulties the lack of a ballot caused. But he doesn’t fully draw out what I think he hints at: that it would have been tactically correct sometime in the first few months of the strike to conduct a national ballot which, according to all indications, would have been overwhelming in support of the action.

Scargill correctly states that, because of the way the strike started, it didn’t require a national ballot. Formally speaking, that is correct. The strike began as a sequence of area strikes against threatened closures, in Yorkshire and Scotland in particular. But it was fairly obvious from the start that this was going to be a national dispute. Right-wing leaders in areas like Nottingham used the lack of a ballot as a get-out clause to avoid taking strike action.

Indeed, Arthur says that the purpose of the special delegate conference on 19 April 1984 was to agree a national strike by the endorsement of a national ballot. He then says that himself, Peter Heathfield and vice-president Mick McGahey were taken by surprise that the conference did not vote for a ballot. He said they had done their arithmetic, thought it would be passed, and had made all the preparations for a ballot. Here is an implicit acknowledgment that it would have been better - despite where the calls for a ballot were coming from - to have held a ballot to cut across attempts to divide the NUM and separate the miners from the wider working-class movement.

But I also think that Scargill and Heathfield were ambiguous about their views on a ballot and this, by their own account, caused confusion at the special conference. Had Scargill believed there should have been a ballot he should have led from the front on it. Miners would have seen that he was not calling for a ballot because he had caved into right-wing pressure but because it was in the best interests of keeping the struggle united.

Having a ballot wouldn’t have meant that the strike was won. As Scargill says, there were other even bigger issues that had to be addressed, particularly the strategy over coal supplies going to power stations, steelworks and so on.

Do you think Scargill was right in going for mass picketing of Orgreave and no dispensations of coal for steelworks?

In broad terms, he was right. Given that the strike started in March, although it followed a very successful overtime ban, it was not the best time to be effective in halting power stations. But, it was the Tories who chose to provoke the strike. If the miners had not responded in March there would have been at least 20 pits immediately closed, with the loss of about 30,000 jobs.

So, from being on the back foot at the start of the strike, the response of the miners - backed by the most inspiring display of working-class solidarity in Britain and internationally - turned things round to the point where the government it appears was willing to deal.

The precariousness of the government’s position and Thatcher in particular was illustrated by many insights that came out after the strike. Thatcher and the Tories got very wobbly at key stages in the dispute. The Tory government had to spend nearly £30 billion in today’s money to try and defeat the strike. In the words of former Chancellor Lawson, the ruling class thought "it was a price worth paying".

In that sense, the strike was effective, despite the role of power workers’ leaders like Eric Hammond and Gavin Laird. Rank-and-file power, railway and transport workers delivered massive solidarity action - some were even sacked for their solidarity.

Again, there are issues about certain aspects of the handling of the strategy that need to be examined. Scargill draws on two main issues, the way that some of the left/Communist Party leaders in the areas handled the question of coal dispensations, and the issue of the mass picket to close down Orgreave.

It is clear that if there was one fundamental faultline in the way Scargill prepared for the strike, it wasn’t the broad strategy he outlined or the inspiration he gave to the rank-and-file miners. It was the failure to draw rank-and-file miners into an open, national left movement in the NUM to discuss and implement strategy in detail in a way that could undercut the baneful role of the so-called left leaders in the CP and their fellow travellers. As the experience and activity of Militant miners in 1984-85 shows, a mass rank-and-file movement could have developed very rapidly during the course of the strike.

I don’t think Arthur is quite correct when he says that the plan to picket Orgreave was rubbished. It may have been the case that some of the area leaders were opposed, but this wasn’t the view of the majority of striking miners who realised the huge significance of what was happening at Orgreave. Given the increasing turnout to the picket there is no doubt they would have been prepared to see it through to the end.

Scargill says, correctly, that the battle of Orgreave, despite the police brutality and bias of the media coverage - the BBC switched around the actual sequence of events - succeeded in twice shutting the coking plant. But then he says: "At Orgreave on 19 June 1984 the pickets were completely withdrawn by the Yorkshire and Derbyshire areas and other coalfield leaders, despite my desperate urging that picketing be stepped up. Had picketing at Orgreave been increased the day after 18 June, I have no doubt that Orgreave - and Scunthorpe - would have faced immediate closure, forcing the government to settle the strike".

These points are all valid, but they expose the weaknesses at the top of the union and why Scargill should have gone over the heads of those area leaders and appealed to a rank-and-file movement that could have held to account those area leaders who were effectively blocking the most effective prosecution of the strike.

Do you think that sometimes it is what Scargill doesn’t say in his article that is important?

Arthur has said that a full account has yet to be written. Well, there have been many books written on the strike, most of them rewriting history and rubbishing what the strike represented and how it was conducted.

Arthur says in his article that the greatest victory of the strike was "the struggle itself". It was a monumental struggle that inspired millions around the world. There is no doubt the strike was historically justified, as has been borne out many times in the years since.

Just look at the mass movement that erupted in 1992, when hundreds of thousands took to the streets after the Tory government announced a massive pit closure programme as Arthur Scargill and the NUM had predicted. At that time, the TUC ‘took charge’ of the labour movement response. The potential to call generalised action to stop the pit closure programme and get rid of the Tories was probably even greater than in 1984. Unsurprisingly, the TUC didn’t do this, the pits were closed and the jobs were lost within months without any effective struggle. That is what would have happened in 1984 without the strike, and the pit closure programme and attacks on trade unions would have greatly accelerated as a result.

But, ultimately, we can’t just say that the greatest victory in 1984-85 was the struggle itself. That would be to hide from the fact that the strike could have been won and that its defeat ushered in a very difficult era for the workers’ movement.

So I think it would be beneficial for Arthur to write a full account and frame it in a way that can assist all those workers now and in future who will be conducting struggles against their employers and the capitalist system they represent.


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