Scargillism and the miners

Dave Douglass, secretary of Hatfield Main National Union of Mineworkers, looks back over three decades of struggle and critically analyses the role of Arthur Scargill

During the big coal strike of 1984-85, critics of this or that aspect of the dispute often described the miners' perspectives as 'Scargillism', or alternatively described Arthur Scargill's strategy and perspectives as 'syndicalist', or 'syndicalist/NUMist'. Scargill and Scargillism became one and the same thing in the minds of some. I think The Leninist tendency was guilty of that, and, if I remember correctly, the Sparts too. As a person from an anarcho-syndicalist background and a current member of the International Workers of the World, of course I would reject the term 'syndicalist' being applied to Scargill - particularly during the time of the strike, when he was a card-carrying member of the Labour Party, who from time to time contemplated standing as an MP for that party. Scargill is not and never was a syndicalist, unless you use that word in a totally non-historic sense or impart some foreign, under-political meaning to it. We in the anarcho-syndicalist tradition are not prepared to give up the term or share it with dedicated members of political parties, especially rightwing social democratic parliamentary parties. Yet the term 'Scargillism', used in a precise way, is the most accurate description one can find for Arthur's politics and perspectives. No one else, no matter how sycophantic - and there are a number of those about - can truly ever share the perspective of Scargillism. Only one person can possess that vision, and believe in it so deeply and jealously guard it so much, that all other notions to the contrary are regarded as treason - and that person is of course Arthur Scargill himself. The reason why no one else can experience it so profoundly is because Arthur develops it on the hoof, just as it occurs to him at the time, and it then becomes set in granite. It is passed down to the dedicated band of disciples for whom Arthur, dubbed by the Weekly Worker the "Great Leader", can do no wrong. It is for this reason that input into Scargillism is well nigh a contradiction in terms: there is nothing that Scargill needs from other forces of the left other than their obedience. The experience of the Socialist Labour Party, which I do not intend to dwell on, is illustrative. He will start it; you join it. He will draft the rules; you obey them. He will set the policies; you follow them. The first commandment: 'Thou shalt have no god before me.' It was not always like this. Though I have shared the same field of struggle, in the same industry, in the same unit of the class, through all of its historic battles and mileposts for the last 38 years, it is also correct to say that Arthur and I came to the questions we have encountered from two radically different directions, even if on the face of it the immediate objective, the strategy and even the end goal appear to be the same. As time and history developed, these differences became more manifest. In a sense there is a similarity here with other 'great leaders' of revolutions, as opposed to the rank and file and what they perceive the fight to be about. The 1917 Russian Revolution, the so-called Bolshevik revolution, poses in the same way the question in my mind of whether your 'great leaders' - Lenin and Trotsky included - ever really did share the same perspective of the ordinary soviet punter who took part in the revolution. Was the worker's understanding of what this revolution was all about and who it belonged to ever the same as Lenin's or Trotsky's? Scargill emerges into the Yorkshire coalfield as a young militant of the Young Communist League. I am in the Durham coalfield, also a member of the YCL. Later Arthur graduates to the Communist Party - although at times he is said to have denied membership, most of his contemporaries have it that he was a full member of the party. I was expelled from the YCL's Newcastle branch, along with most of its 80 members, and turned to anarchism, where I suppose my heart had lay during the whole of my 14 dissident months' membership. The development of world events, however, and more particularly local and national events, caused Arthur to leave the CPGB and join the Labour Party - a thing many of his CP coalminer comrades never fully forgave him for. These comrades swear that Arthur left the Communist Party because it was damaging for his career in the NUM, and he could see he would get on better if he was not in it. Membership of the Labour Party was more respectable. Meantime I too, under pressure of events, moved to the right - from anarchism to the Revolutionary Workers Party (Trotskyist) - British Section of the Fourth International (Posadist) - not to be confused with the Workers Revolutionary Party or any other combination of those three words. By now it was the late 1960s. The NUM, which had been collaborating at best in its own demise, and the ongoing slaughter of the coalfields, started to see some sparks of life. There were attempts to organise and coordinate militant action in areas which had been traditionally rightwing, and actually to coordinate some kind of national industrial action. I remember coming to London prior to the 1969 unofficial stoppage, and people were shocked rigid to find there were still miners in Britain - there were 350,000 of us at the time. Everyone thought we had gone a long time before that. There were attempts to organise and coordinate: the broad left, the Miners Forum, rank and file papers and groups. Both Arthur and I emerge into this scene. For me and most of the far left at that time, what we were trying to do was to impel the struggle of the rank and file forward, to raise class consciousness, to heighten revolutionary consciousness, and infuse the unofficial movement with a political perspective (Arthur, on the other hand, saw it in a totally different way). That process, which I thought we were trying to further all together, led to the first national stoppage, albeit an unofficial one, in 1969, and to the big unofficial strikes of 1970. Arthur at this time was part of the broad left, a movement which saw its role as running left slates for union positions, and planning coups in branches and on national executive committees. It was far from a popular view in the NUM's Communist Party members to bury all past differences and support Arthur running for the lead position in Yorkshire at that time. Myself and other members of what I would call the far left were meantime producing The Mineworker, a revolutionary miners' paper, and helping to produce agitational regional papers like The Linkup and The New Link, militant papers of the rank and file. We were holding unofficial meetings of miners, who were already beginning to develop wage militancy, inviting speakers from Sinn Féin, the Black Panther Party and other international fronts of the world revolution, as we would have seen it at that time, down to the miners' welfare to address mass meetings of young miners. We also, it is true to say, supported the struggle inside the Labour Party Young Socialists, trying to develop a more overtly revolutionary perspective in the Labour Party to the left of Militant. So in a way we were two complementary wings of the same unofficial movement - which achieved its victory in part by the nationwide strike, and in part by changes in local leaderships in big areas and branches; in the election of leftist candidates; and also in the constitutional changes which paved the way for changing the NUM's rules to a 55% majority for strike action, as against the two-thirds majority which had been impossible to reach. The changes led to the high tide of miners' militancy in the 1972 strike, mass picketing and an outright confrontation with government industrial policy and wage restraint. The unofficial and official wings of this movement were not, however, linked. They reflected two different perspectives of struggle. One, which sees the endeavour essentially about who sits in the top chair, about leaderships, about personalities and big names; the other, about mass rank and file consciousness and control. And yet at this time, given the mass intervention of the membership, the two were complementary. It was only later, as the movement declined on all fronts, that these two perspectives became exposed as actually hostile. In 1972, various areas of the country were subject to NUM picketing - mostly token (though widespread), since the whole movement was backing the miners, and no organised section of the class - from railways to steel works, from docks to shipping - was crossing picket lines. Indeed whole sections of the industrial class that were not immediately affected by the miners' strike did their best to get involved. One example of this was the Cowley car plant in Oxford, which was coal-heated. The carworkers asked the miners to put a picket on the stock of coal to stop them heating the plant so they could come out in sympathy, which we declined to do, but we did picket the gates to make sure no new coal went in. On the Thames, miners from Kent picketed vessels tied up midstream or entering the port of London. The strike took all before it, but the public, national faces were those of the pugnacious Joe Gormley, a rightwing Lancashire man, and Lawrence Daly, industrial militant, Marxist and working class intellectual. Gormley has recently been exposed as a paid informant of state special forces investigating militants and left activists in the union. Flashpoints The only flashpoints were at unorganised sites - the biggest of these being Saltley Gate - or those with the odd rogue scab driver, such as the one at Keedby power station who killed my fellow branch member and comrade, Freddie Matthews, a member of a generational communist family. Saltley was being picketed by the South Wales and Midlands areas of the NUM, but, as the police poured in more and more troops, so an appeal went out to get pickets down to Saltley. Arthur, seeing the opportunity here, gathered up the Yorkshire miners' contingent, with himself at the head, and proved a significant player in the struggle to close down Saltley Gate. He also, for the first time, started to appear on television. At this time the Yorkshire area of the NUM was still under the sway of traditional rightwing conservative leaders, as were Nottingham and Durham. Arthur Scargill came to be identified with the emerging face of left militancy. It was the exposure that he received during the 1972 strike that really assured his election to the Yorkshire area NUM presidency. The interaction with other sections of the class through the rank and file picket in 1972 has never been matched. We boarded with workers of all kinds and were supported by the workers being picketed. Student unions nationwide threw open their doors to the miners. The left of all varieties intervened. There were mass assemblies, great debates during the long periods of inactivity on the picket lines - those were the days when people actually stayed on the picket line for eight hours, unlike in 1984, when we smashed windows for half an hour and then went home. So there was a large amount of time for people to debate, and the miners, who were already highly politicised, became even more so. Between 1972 and 1974, something odd happened to the mass pickets. There weren't any. Only a certain number were allocated to each place of work, each with their official picket armbands and official picket stickers. The whole thing was tied up very tightly and the interaction of the 1972 strike between workers and forces on the left did not happen. We were told the solidarity action was so comprehensive that there was no need for mass picketing. Many unkind souls believed that some deal had been done with Labour, so as not to upset their election chances, although the miners vigorously resisted attempts to get them to call off the strike during the general election. We were on strike against any government that was not prepared to settle with us and for a time, in the first days of the incoming Labour administration, the miners remained on strike against that government too. Having Arthur in the chair of the Yorkshire area did not give the militants in that coalfield their head. We were sorely disappointed when Doncaster could not pull the rest of the coalfield behind solidarity action with striking mining supplies workers. Or that steel girders were allowed to be salvaged from old mine workings and used during the steel strike to ensure the pits did not close for want of roof supports. Of course all new steel products were blacked and miners joined steelworkers' pickets, but this was not the sort of full-blown solidarity action we had expected. The world revolution was breaking all round, and we young class militants tried repeatedly to get the union to make a conscious intervention into the way we saw that process developing. One such attempt was to gain support for miners in Belgium, who were taking part in a militant strike at the time. They were also, incidentally, part of our revolutionary international miners' link-up, centred around The Mineworker. That attempt saw Arthur Scargill condemn Hatfield as a 'Trot branch'. This produced an angry response from Bill Matthews, who insisted the branch was directed by the Communist Party. To which Tom Mullanny, the branch delegate, called for a show of hands of all the Trotskyists in the room, then the members of the Communist Party, and finally the catholics - the catholics outnumbering both Trots and CPers by 10 to one. Tom then declared that it was the catholic church that directed the branch, not the Trots or the communists. The efforts to win areas over to a left and militant perspective were centred around Arthur as a potential replacement for Gormley. This was not at first universally supported and many had felt the 'man of iron', in the shape of communist Mick McGahey, the leader of the Scottish miners, ought to be the national candidate. It was argued, however, that he was not as popular in Yorkshire, whose votes we would need in order to shift Gormley. So Arthur became the standard-bearer, as Thatcher made her first moves to close down large numbers of pits and take on the NUM. While we rallied nationwide amid confused and diffused actions, Gormley, the president, refused to chair mass meetings, and Arthur, the president-elect, took early charge. The overtime ban and the new leadership caused Thatcher to buckle and withdraw the closure plan. But, as Mick McGahey said, this was a "body swerve - she'll be coming back". The rest is history. But one myth must be exposed - a myth Arthur himself revels in. Arthur Scargill did not bring about the 1984 strike. He supported it, he stood at its head, he made it constitutionally sound, he enthusiastically tried to take it over, but he did not start it. The strike started in Yorkshire. There had been a number of unofficial and quasi-official attempts to start it earlier - at Merthyr Lewis in Wales, Polmeais in Scotland, Bear Park in Durham. All of these failed to ignite the membership into action. It was only when the challenge was thrown down in Yorkshire that there was a strike and the members started to picket out one area after another. Arthur was not at the meeting that took the decision to strike. He was by this time at the national office, not in Yorkshire, where constitutionally he no longer had a voice. The Yorkshire pickets flooded into neighbouring areas and set off a domino effect, bringing them into de facto national action. True enough, when it came back to the national executive, Arthur called for support for our action, and paved the way for other areas to join in. As the strike progressed, Arthur's problem was he did not have any control over the pickets. It was the areas that held the funds and directed the members. Scargill did not plan the rolling action or the turn to the docks and steelworks, etc. A national coordinating committee was established by the national executive, but we refused to hand over control of our pickets to them. We deployed them from semi-official NUM panels. We considered that picketing could only work as guerrilla action. We were facing something like 25,000 cops, but we outfoxed and ran rings round them. Hit and run action, with formal pickets where there was a response. Mass pickets where necessary. We had to move round the country, hitting different targets and keeping picket locations secret. I thought this a winning strategy, but, since I was one of the authors, perhaps I would say that, wouldn't I? From the point of view of the revolutionary left in general and Arthur in particular, it is very disconcerting not to know where the army of the class is until you read about it next morning in the paper. They never knew where we were going any more than the cops did, and not knowing where anybody is until they have come back is a problem if you see yourself as the vanguard. Arthur's strategy, by contrast, was Orgreave. I do not intend to go into the whole question of how the strategy shifted to Orgreave, although it is an important consideration. In the recent Channel Four documentary The English civil war, part two we explored that particular question. Enough to say that in my view the strategy at Orgreave was fatally flawed - although much of the left thought it was Lourdes and that if we all went there the miners would win. The police always knew where we were going to be. They always knew what time we would arrive. They could always dictate which part of the field we went to. They could always plan and lay out their forces in advance. All they had to do was have a man wave a flag and give us a good beating all day. Next day we would come back and they would bash us again, and so on. It was a fatal strategy - although I am not saying the strike was defeated because of Orgreave. The strike did not "split the union apart", as Paul Routledge alleges in his Scargill, the unauthorised biography. About 180,000 men struck, and 30,000 scabbed. A nasty division, but not half the union, as implied. Neither was this split an accident. It was engineered by the incoming Labour government which rode to victory on the back of the successful miners' strike in 1974. A divisive incentive scheme was imposed on the pits, despite incidentally being rejected by the membership in two national ballots. This made some areas good earners and the others poor relations. It split the national union along regional lines, and made them think locally rather than nationally. That is exactly what it was designed to do. When our young comrade Gareth Jones was killed picketing Ollington colliery in Nottingham, and a riot seemed likely in response, Arthur ordered the pickets to cool it. We stood for a moment in reflective silence, and the cops removed their helmets as a mark of respect. In that moment of peaceful reflection the scabs rushed through the unguarded walls and went to work. If you are prepared to step over a man's body to go to work, if you do not know what side you are on from behind 20,000 riot police shields, all the ballots in the world are not going to make men of scabs. Ballot A national ballot - on reflection, and in retrospective thought - would have been tactically a good idea. If we had held it around September 1984, all the polls predicted that we would have won it, and won it hands down. The excuse to attack us over this issue would have gone. But the scabs would not. They would still have gone to work, ballot or no ballot. It was and remained an excuse. But it was not Arthur's decision not to have a ballot. It was ours. We had a conference to discuss this very matter. Arthur, as national president, did not have a vote - only a casting vote. The conference was to discuss rule changes as to how we would conduct a ballot of the membership, and whether to have a strike ballot or not. When this was reported back to mass meetings of the men, I was nearly hung off the rafters. The men thought we were trying to sell them out. They thought we were trying to find a way out of the strike by balloting to give people who wanted to hide away a chance to ballot us out of jobs. So the membership, at mass meetings all over the country, voted against having a ballot. You may remember the refrain, "Stuff your ballot up your arse", which was the rank and file's response, and not ours. Arthur was quite prepared to accept that we would have a ballot, because we knew that we would win. And we changed the rules in anticipation so that we would only need a simple majority. This was a strike more than any other under the direction, and the direct control, at least initially, of the rank and file miners and their families. This is the thing that rattles me most about Routledge. I am quoting from Routledge because he is indicative of the kind of false attacks that have been made on Scargill. In order to attack Arthur for the strike, he denies us, the rank and file miner and his family, our role in this turning point in history. It is a year none of us will ever forget. It is a year I would not swap for any other year of my life. It is a year that we fought with everything that we could. There was nothing else we could give. And nothing that Routledge writes can change that. Following the defeat, areas were subjected to varying degrees of assault. Some such as Doncaster were faced with harsh disciplinary measures, the tearing up of old practices, enforcement of rules that had never been employed before, attacks on time off work for union officials. Everywhere profit became god. Areas and pits were forced to regurgitate figures about cost per gigajoule, and we were forced to negotiate new contract schemes just to stay in the game. But Arthur refused to recognise the new situation, accusing everybody of treachery. He spoke as if we had just been magnificently successful. He urged all to hold the line without flinching. Those pits that tried that strategy went to the wall. Others, that tried new strategies and new ways of negotiating to stay in business, were accused of being traitors. This is when the first breaks started to happen. First of all South Wales, then Scotland, became the targets of inter-area wrangles. Old comrades were being designated weak or sellouts. In this period there was a complex, long-run assault on the constitution of the miners' union. At the time we thought it was aimed at greater involvement of the rank and file, shifting control to the branches and cutting out the area leaderships and bureaucracy. As it turned out, the plan was to place the national officials - ultimately Arthur - in sole command of the apparatus of the union, with increasing attacks on the ability of the rank and file to influence events. The sinking of area identities into the national union by means of exchange of engagements, has meant, for example, that Arthur, who previously had no control over area funds and membership base, came back into Yorkshire as chairman of the area - fighting by fair means and foul (mostly foul) to get the block votes of Yorkshire behind his plans and obstruct those areas opposed to him. This route brought conflict with old comrades who until so recently had been Arthur's closest allies and friends. Branch officials who opposed Arthur had the guns turned on them. In the case of Barnsley Road Transport, the branch was closed down: it was suddenly discovered that it did not have enough members to remain in existence. In my own case all payments for work done on behalf on the union were stopped, and the way I was operating within the union changed, in a conscious effort, I believe, to starve me out. An effort, I might say, which has come very close to succeeding, because although I am dedicated, living on £5,000 a year is extremely difficult. Just how far Arthur would go to ensure a constitution which placed him at the centre of all things, walled in by a rule book drafted and launched by him, many reflected on. This was particularly so following the imposition of a new rule book on the Yorkshire area, the biggest part of the NUM, against the unanimous opposition of every Yorkshire delegate. The rule book was taken to the national executive committee, approved and sent back to us. When I asked if this rule book was subject to amendment, he replied: "Yes, if the amendments are in order." And who would judge whether they were in order? Well, Arthur would of course. In any dispute over interpretation of the rules the president's view shall prevail. The pope cannot err in matters of scripture - any fool knows that. Two previous Weekly Worker articles I wrote go into the anomalies in these rule changes and the way they were imposed in some detail (February 7, July 11). I note that nobody replied in the letters page to say that I was in error - what I stated was quite simply the facts. Arthur set about destroying democratic control of the NUM by the members, branches and areas. This involves in part the most gross patronage, old cronyism and its hard-cop twin, isolation. It involves being declared a sort of political-industrial heretic, or in my case described as wildly eccentric, or worse. It involves the now infamous rule, allowing dead areas and (literally) dead people's votes to outvote the active, living, working miners of the NUM. Outvote It is an absolute scandal that areas with not a single miner in them can outvote the areas where men are still working down the pit. The 'membership' consists not even of miners' widows, but anybody who happens to have signed an agreement to pay a mandate to the union at some point in the future - if, for example, the NUM wins a settlement on their behalf over a claim for compensation for vibration white finger. Then there is the continued squandering of time and money in the plastic cut-out International Miners and Energy Organisation - an organisation allegedly of millions, who have not the slightest say in or control over its direction, policy or finance. An organisation of union bureaucrats with their own funds, devoid of interfering members, rank and file factions and arguments or definitive conferences. Arthur's idea of heaven. I will not repeat what I wrote in those articles - the details and manoeuvres are there to read. Of course, when spokespersons for the bourgeoisie attack Arthur Scargill, they often do so for precisely the reasons we supported him, and over the things which by and large we agreed with. In those circumstances we have no choice but to stand in defence not simply of Arthur Scargill, but of ourselves and our own activities. Coming to the last great public campaign, in 1992, against what in essence was the final fateful blow against the coal industry as an industry, the first task of the NUM's campaign - and in retrospect the one that we were least successful with - was to win our own members to the idea that we could take on the fight and win this time. Many just wanted out, while others were determined that they would never fight alone again. There was no reason why they should. Thirty-five thousand electricity workers at coal-powered stations were going to lose their job, along with the pit closure plan. Coal accounted for something like 70% of rail freight, so many railworkers were also threatened. The common-sense strategy was to win joint industrial action across the three industries. After all a simple powerworkers' overtime ban, without even a strike, would have turned the lights off and brought the country to a standstill. With a rail strike thrown in for good measure and tens of thousands of miners and their supporters on the streets in militant protests, strategically, with the right will, we could have won. Perhaps even easily. We needed a little time to build the will to fight, and to convince other union leaderships that were in the immediate alliance. We needed to turn the attention of the country at large to what was going on. Well, mass public campaigns, with the upper middle classes rattling their jewellery in support of the miners and posh London suburbia hanging out the banners, and maybe a million people on two separate days of protest was brilliant. But it was never meant to be for and of itself. It would never work on its own. Routledge seems to think that we promised that we would never use industrial action in return for this mass outpouring of liberal support. Utter crap of course. We did not use industrial action in the first instance because we were loaded with blanks. The powder was wet. We could not fight because the men did not want to fight. I cannot overstate the fact that the miners felt industrially and socially exhausted. And trying to crank-start them into some kind of action was not something we could just do. They are not soldiers: we could not march them out of barracks at the time that we thought they should fight. As it turned out, the powerworkers could not be persuaded to do the least thing in their own defence. Nothing at all. The closures steamed through despite the most massive public opposition ever seen on any issue. The miners did not have the will to fight on. Somehow, Routledge lays this at Arthur's door, as a final crowning glory to his defeats. Mind you, Arthur's continued cry of 'traitor' against men who battled to a standstill, gave up the fight and took enhanced redundancy terms, allowing the pits to close without further obstruction, showed incredible lack of empathy and sensitivity over the enormity of what they and their families had been through. As I said to Arthur at the time, when he was telling miners to get off their knees, they were on their knees because they had been battered that hard on the head. Arthur is a man I have struggled to keep as a comrade and struggled to keep as a friend. The only way he will allow that to happen is if you do not criticise him, if you do not come out in open, public opposition. It saddens me that a man of Arthur's potential and charisma, a man who stood alongside us in the heat of battles I have described in 1969, 1972, 1974, 1984-85 and 1992, now makes a stand against democracy, and the control of the members over our own working class organisation. I am sorry, but nobody, not even Arthur Scargill, is bigger than the working class. Nobody, not even Arthur Scargill, is more important that the members themselves. If it is not run by the members, if it is not understood by the members, if it is not controlled by the members, then somebody is missing the point. The point is, when the tide of history turns and the moment is ours again, there will be somebody in the leadership somewhere, wanting to take it from us and deciding that they are going to run the movement, rather than the people it belongs to, the rank and file. And for that reason, more than any other, it is important that we learn the lessons.