WeeklyWorker

10.04.2014
Two Arthur Scargills: then and now

Miners strike: Militants and scabs

Harry Paterson Look back in anger: the miners’ strike in Nottinghamshire 30 years on Five Leaves Publishing, 2014, pp298, £9.99

Harry Paterson’s book on the Nottinghamshire coalfield during the miners’ Great Strike of 1984-85 has been long awaited. To date this is the first serious attempt at an analytical history of the central role of that coalfield in the dispute - although, of course, there have been autobiographical accounts of the strike there.

Harry attempts to set the 84-85 dispute in the context of the vexed traditions of the National Union of Mineworkers in Nottingham - the most negatively dissident section of a once mighty union. I am pleased that Harry has highlighted a number of key myths I was able to dispel in my own work, Ghost dancers, and search out some other important aspects of the story - not least the role of the much maligned and misunderstood area NUM leaders, Henry Richardson and Ray Chadburn. The Nottingham miners had become infamous in the history of the miners union as former Notts NUM vice-president Keith Stanley related in his David Jones Memorial Lecture of 2010:

“We are renowned as ‘scab county’ and it’s obvious why that name has come about. The [Nottinghamshire] miners in 1926 broke the strike and the Spencer breakaway union was formed. And then again history repeated itself in 1984, when the Nottinghamshire miners refused to come out on strike, the majority of them, and again a breakaway union was formed: the UDM [Union of Democratic Mineworkers].”

George Spencer had sold the pass dur­ing the great lock-out of 1926, when he led the Notts miners back to work and broke the resistance of the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain, having set up a ‘yellow dog’ outfit with the fund­ing and assistance of the coal-owners. The endeavour to develop a single miners’ union takes place in 1937. The scab union is readmitted lock, stock and barrel, along with Spencer himself, who becomes president of the Nottinghamshire area. It was at this point Paterson believes the scab virus re-enters the body of the miners’ un­ion; it was to sit dormant for 47 years.

The formation of the National Union of Mineworkers in 1945 did not, it must be noted, create a ‘national’ union in the normal sense of the word - most miners retained a dual identity, reflecting our federated past: an area union and the NUM. The view of many on the Communist Party-inspired left, including Arthur Scargill, was that this ongoing decentralism had caused many in the Notts coalfield to place the authority of their own blacklegging area above that of the national leadership during the Great Strike.

But it is a case of swings and roundabouts: it had been the area union which had launched the strike in Yorkshire, Scotland and Kent and started the domino effect. Had this not been the structure, would all areas have obeyed some national instruction for them to strike? I doubt it. Could a national call have been made with any authority at all outside of the rolling, de facto national, succession of area strikes anyway? Again I doubt it. Harry argues that the debate in Nottingham was about whether the Notts area ballot decision not to strike was subservient to the decision of national conference and the national executive that all areas should walk out. Under the old Miners’ Federation such disputes were not uncommon, but usually it was militant dissident areas defying decisions not to strike, rather than the other way round.

Divisive

Crucial in the trajectory of the Not­tingham area’s scabbery was the question of the 1977 ‘area incentive scheme’, which from its inception was meant to do exactly what it achieved: break the paper-thin unity of the na­tional union since the acceptance of the Spencerists in 1937. Introduced as part of prime minister Jim Callaghan’s ‘social contract’, the scheme broke the unifying principle of the national day wage, which we had fought to achieve since 1912 and was only really estab­lished in 1966.

From the beginning the national conference had rejected the incentive scheme, although Joe Gormley, the then national president, along with the most profitable long-life areas, particularly Nottingham and the Midlands, had mental pictures of bags full of money. For Labour this was a well laid plan to draw the dragon’s teeth. The NEC under Gormley authorised areas to negotiate their own incentive agreements. The militant areas went to court and demanded that such a move was ultra vires, given the conference decision. The court in turn ruled that the NEC had a right to seek a mandate from the membership directly in case conference delegates did not accurately reflect their views. So a national ballot was held and the membership by a vote of nearly 80% rejected the proposal.

But the NEC went ahead and again authorised areas, markedly Nottingham and the Midlands, to negotiate an area bonus scheme. So the rejectionist areas went back to court and complained that, having organised the ballot as per the last ruling, the NEC was now ignoring it. This time the court ruled that a national ballot is not binding on the NEC, which can if it wishes choose to disregard it and exercise its own judgment.

Now, this process did two things: it shifted bargaining responsibility away from the national union to the areas; and it also caused the identity of some miners to shift in the same direction. It allowed Nottingham and Midlands to start earning more in bonuses than the rest of us earned in wages. It bred a ‘dog eat dog’ attitude both at work and in the union, it made for a selfish identity with area agendas and not national ones of mutual solidarity and unity. It also brought the idea of national ballots into utter disrepute. When these same areas started bleating about the sanctity of a ballot as the strike rolled all before it in 1984, that only hardened militant rank-and-file opinion: ‘Stick your national ballot up your arse’ was the sentiment.

By the time Notts held its area ballot on whether to strike or not, the pickets from striking areas were rolling and few pits anywhere were working - none normally. The results from Nottingham were truly appalling and demonstrated the gulf which existed between Notts and the rest of the miners. Of 27,551 Nottingham miners who took part in the ballot, 20,188 voted to defy the national executive committee and their fellow miners across the country and continue working. Just 7,285 had voted to strike. Of the 31 Notts branches, not a single one had a majority in favour of strike action.

But the signs had been there for some time. According to Keith Stanley, “In 1980 when they announced they [the NCB] were shutting Teversal pit [in the Notts coalfield] the lads there went on strike … and the Notts area balloted on strike action. Not one single pit voted to strike! Not one. Apart from Teversal itself. If they weren’t even going to strike to save one of their own pits, in their own backyard, what chance was there of them striking to save someone else’s?” (my emphasis). More and more of the area union infrastructure was coming under the control of what was becoming an anti-strike force working in collaboration with the Tory Party, the National Coal Board and a great number of businesses.

As attitudes hardened in 1984-85, crude repression was unleashed on the strikers and their families by scabs and the institutions of the state. It was strikers who were attacked, had their cars damaged, had their houses daubed with paint, had their kids threatened. Features which the press failed to publicise. Six months into the strike, the strikers decided to meet force with force and a guerrilla hit squad of up to 100 men emerged. According to one miner quoted by the author, they “deployed tactics including sabotage, terrorising of individual strike-breakers and the destruction of NCB and personal property”.

But this was more than justified: “It were war. Plain and simple … They smashed up our cars and told lies about us in court. Our families were intimidated, harassed and beaten up. The coppers, scabs, media, government and the Coal Board thought it was OK to steal our funds; stop benefits to starve us back to work. So why shouldn’t we fight fire with fire?”

Different

Whereas the length and breadth of the country mining communities had traditionally embraced socialistic and before that radical and revolution­ary doctrines (coalfield communities weighed votes for Labour candidates by the sackful against the handful for the Tories), the situation in Notting­ham was surprisingly different. “In the general election of 1983, barely eight months before the strike started, the newly created constituency of Sher­wood was won for the Conservatives by former Nottinghamshire county councillor Andy Stewart. What was remarkable about Stewart’s victory, albeit by a majority of just 637, was that it occurred in a constituency con­taining 10 working pits and the highest concentration of miners, per head of the population, of any constituency in the UK.” The newly elected member for Sherwood joked that “he might end up becoming the first NUM-sponsored Tory MP”. It was no fluke. In the first post-strike general election in 1987, in the aftermath of the massive closure programme following the defeat of the strike, Stewart went on to increase his majority to 4,495.

By September 1984 the strike-breakers had taken complete control of the NUM in Notts, removing every single striker from branch positions, and there was an attempt to expel striking members as ‘unfinancial’. Things had moved far beyond the stated aim of ‘restoring democracy within the NUM’ to an active campaign to break the union itself, not simply the strike. On September 15 1984 Maggie Thatcher sent a personal, handwritten letter of thanks on official Downing Street notepaper to all 31 NUM branches in Nottingham, saying how grateful she was to all the strike-breakers.

When the National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirers (Nacods) finally came off the fence and voted, with 75.8% in favour, to join the strike, in so doing they shut down every mine in Britain, including all of Nottingham. After shouting for eight months that Nottingham was working because they had been deprived of a national ballot and the ballot was sacrosanct, now the scabs declared they would cross the Nacods picket lines and would be willing to do any work its members normally did.

The Nottingham area had in practice become completely separate from the national union and the decision to break away and form the UDM - a true inheritor of the Spencer of ‘I’m all right, Jack’ - was a mere formality. The letter of thanks from Thatcher and the pledges that the Nottingham coalfield had nothing to worry about - it would be exempt from any closures - fuelled the determination of the bulk of the miners to cross the picket lines: there were those who would not come out of the pit if it was on fire. As John Major embarked on his 1990s policy of privatisation and near total destruction of the coal industry, the Nottingham pits fell like nine pins. Today only one remains.

When it comes to the part played in the strike and in particular negotiations, Harry adopts a slightly contradictory position. He asserts that there never was any possibility of a compromise over the central question of pit closures. Yet he agrees that in July 84 we came close to a negotiated settlement, when one phrase stopped the signing of an agreement to withdraw all the closures and accept the NUM’s Plan for Coal. That phrase was “beneficially developed”. If it was possible that pits could be “beneficially developed” they would not be closed.

Arthur wanted the phrase taken out, as its meaning was obscure and could be interpreted as ‘economically developed’. But the point is - and perhaps this is being wise after the fact - Thatcher had been shaken by the national docks strike and was on the verge of conceding had it continued. The coal stocks at power stations were tottering on the brink.

The NUM had compromised in allowing the definition of what constituted a coal seam to be changed: it had to be not less than 30 inches thick. We agreed unsafe seams would not be worked. What was missing was an agreement on a binding independent panel decision and no loss of earnings during the review process. Such an agreement could and would have clinched it. We can speculate that they might have come back with another closure programme, but did they have the capacity to do so? Wouldn’t the massive success of the strike have made miners stronger to resist any future attack?

Apart from which, even had pits closed after the extended review contained in the draft agreement, it would have taken 12 months. We were defending pits with five years’ life (like Cortonwood) and a number of mines would have been naturally exhausted before the review was completed. Even if the independent review body had gone against us some of the time, it would have taken decades to implement the closure plan. Such is retrospective wisdom.

I made it clear in Ghost dancers that the government was ready to concede and grant us a magnificent victory on at least three occasions when it was forced into a corner, and Harry confirms this. So I just take issue with the assertion that “no compromise was available”. There was, but, of course, this would have been with the knowledge that at some point further down the line we might have to defend the mines once again.

Harry writes: “Post-strike Nottinghamshire was a strange world of contradiction. Working miners who never missed a shift remained in the NUM and shunned the breakaway, while committed militants joined the UDM.” He should have been there during the twilight period after the strike and before the formal break, when the NUM was forced to campaign for scabs to actually stay in the union rather than join the breakaway UDM. It was one of the greatest contradictions that I - as, let us say, a vigorous picket and picketing co-coordinator - had to face at the end of that bitter strike. Campaigning among the blokes I had bricked to stay in the NUM … but perhaps that is something Harry can add in a later edition - if there is one to come.

Distraction

There are 17 chapters in this book and up to chapter 17 I would not take is­sue with anything much. One could nit-pick over the quote from Seumas Milne about the benefit of ‘commu­nism’ in the USSR, but that is another story. Likewise Harry’s casual defence of Scargill’s refusal in the Socialist Labour Party not simply to recognise factions, but to accept dissent over pol­icy and programme: “Scargill insisted there would be no federalist structure” (to be fair, one could hardly blame him for that!). Likewise another debate and another story. But the book is a clas­sic piece of well researched historical analysis. Where there are conflicting views, Harry has presented them both and allowed the reader to judge.

He fails in the last chapter because of a knee-jerk reaction to automatically defend Arthur Scargill against any accusation of malpractice and personal greed or corruption. This is justified by reference to the BBC programme Inside out of January 2014, which investigated Scargill’s recent war against the NUM leadership. It has become legend among Arthur’s dwindling fan base that any attack on him must be put down to some fresh state conspiracy and Harry sees Inside out as part of a plot to counter the effect of the revelations in the 30-year-old cabinet papers of government interference and police conspiracy at Orgreave. The flaw with that notion is that this is the same BBC team and the same producer whose programme revealed the police cover-up at Orgreave, the 181 identical ‘police statements’ and much else. The programme, in fact, was a direct spur for the launch of the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign.

I am sorry to say that in three and a half paragraphs Harry totally misrepresents the ongoing conflict between the NUM and Scargill, and its causes: the totally indefensible, autocratic and obsessive behaviour of Scargill in the years up to and following his supposed retirement as national president. The origins of this situation are clearly outlined in my book, Ghost dancers - the rule-rigging, the conference-fixing, the misuse of votes, position and privilege. Harry knows about this, because he has thoroughly read and discussed that book with me. It is indicative, I think, that the only chapter of his own book that he did not ask me to comment on is this one.

The problem with this starry-eyed defence is that it utterly distracts from the authority of the rest of the book and that is deeply regrettable. Remaining NUM militants will find these pages will colour their whole attitude to the book in general and that too is totally regrettable. Fully rebutting Harry’s assertions on this matter and setting the record straight would take up as much space as this whole review, however, so that will have to wait for another occasion.

However, let me say this. Any future assessment of Arthur Scargill will, I believe, conclude, as I have done, that there were two people of that name. The Scargill of the strike, the hero of the picket line, the man we would have marched with to the end of the earth. The second Arthur is the one who emerged on his retirement from the union. He resorted to entirely undemocratic and bizarre, bureaucratic devices to cling onto his position and privileges at the expense of the members who loved him and every cause he ever embraced.

But those three and a half rogue paragraphs are an unnecessary distraction from the achievements of the book. I recommend it for anyone wishing to gain a comprehensive picture of the strike and the central role of the Nottingham coalfield in that epochal struggle l

David Douglass