Not for turning

All the old strengths and weaknesses were on show at the London meeting to commemorate the miners' strike of 1984-85

Arthur Scargill is still a class act when he is playing to a sympathetic crowd and the 200-plus comrades who packed out the main hall of London’s Conway Hall on March 12 were definitely his kind of people. The meeting- to commemorate the miners’ Great Strike of 1984-85 - was officially organised by the Socialist Labour Party and Kent area National Union of Mineworkers.

His speech  brought practically the whole audience - Trotskyist, Stalinist and Labourite alike - to its feet in a long and stormy ovation. He certainly spoke extremely well, mixing very funny anecdotes with ringing denunciations of the duplicity of the Labour leadership, the TUC, the foul role played by the media, police and courts in beating the miners. (Not that he admitted that it had been a defeat, of course. Instead, he told us that “the miners’ union was not successful in winning a swift victory” - an intriguing way to put it).

However, apart from some revelations about the treacherous role of particular individuals and organisations, there was no genuine reflection on the reasons why the strike failed. “For the first time tonight,” he promised, “I’ll tell you who the guilty were. I’ll tell you about agreements reached and betrayed.” Interesting, but not that much use any more.

A list of secondary speakers - including John Moyle of the Kent miners, Alain Simon of the French CGT, today’s chair of the National Union of Mineworkers, Ian Lavery - recounted some of their own reminiscences of the strike and made some mundane, but broadly correct points, about the lack of effective solidarity from the wider movement. Even if ritualistically at times, all praised the heroic leadership of Arthur Scargill.

For Arthur himself, it was all very simple. The TUC had “betrayed” the miners. Neil Kinnock had “betrayed” the miners. “The Communist Party” - he meant the Eurocommunist leadership of our organisation at the time - “stands in the dock tonight: it acted in a shameful way”. There was state interference from the secret service and the government, pressure on vacillating elements in the union to fold and on the Coal Board not to settle, a plan to decimate the industry and paramilitary-style policing. While he gave some new evidence to back up these observations, they are hardly a surprise. They could have been made during the strike or at any time since.

Much like his political nemesis, Margaret Thatcher, Scargill is clearly not for turning (or learning). On the one hand, his inability to countenance defeat, his refusal to entertain anything other than the cast-iron certainty that victory would be won, represented a huge asset to the union he led. Yet this same single-mindedness translated into a disastrous stubbornness when it came to the tactics being pursued. The man has not changed - “Who was right?” he demanded, contrasting his own perspicacity with the wilful myopia of others in the workers’ movement.

Well, Arthur was certainly right about the politically motivated nature of the strike on the government side - the need to inflict a strategic defeat on the miners as a prelude to taking on other key sections. He was therefore right that the rest of the class needed to strike alongside the miners. He was right that the Tories had determined on the destruction of the British coal industry. He was right that the miners had no option but to strike - “You don’t lie down: you fight back!”

Yet he was profoundly wrong to rely on the official structures of the trade union bureaucracy and TUC to deliver that solidarity action. Time and time again, Scargill seemed content with pious solidarity resolutions from the official apparatus that would clearly never be honoured in practice. Effectively solidarity could only be delivered through bypassing official structures where the bureaucrats refused to fight - an anathema to Scargill, a ‘player’ in that bureaucracy himself, of course. “If Norman Willis [then general secretary of the TUC] and the general council had had an ounce of bottle,” Scargill thundered, “they would have called the movement out on strike” alongside the miners.

I can confirm from personal experience that in 1984-85 there was no widely held illusion that Willis or the TUC had any stomach for a fight - so the key question was how to win generalised solidarity action, with or without the treacherous official leadership of the movement.

Like other speakers on the night, Scargill spoke at length about the question of a national ballot. The fact that so much time was spent on this question underlines that the establishment’s ‘story’ about the strike is the dominant one in the aftermath of its defeat. Essentially, 20 years later, this runs along the lines that it was a heroic, but doomed struggle, led by a class war dinosaur whose kind were soon to be extinct. In particular, the failure to hold a national ballot is upheld as the supreme folly of the NUM leadership, almost the central explanation for the defeat of the strike.

Scargill effectively exposed the hypocrisy of those who demanded a ballot in the name of abstract democracy - “those who called for a ballot were those who wanted to call off the strike,” he correctly pointed out. He recalled the rejection by a national ballot of the divisive incentive scheme in 1977. “The Notts miners - those super-democrats who wanted a ballot in 1984 - ignored the ballot decision and signed an incentive agreement. So much for your ballot! So much for your democracy! If they could ignore it in 1977, they’d have done the same bloody thing in 1984-85!”

True, but not really the point. If a national ballot had been won during the Great Strike - which every thinking miner you met believed it could - then the national ballot question could have been transformed from a stick with which to beat the NUM into a weapon against the scabs. This was, of course, a secondary issue - the key to victory was effective solidarity action - but it had its costs.

Scargill’s standing in the movement has waned considerably since the defeat of the strike - not least because of the debacle of the SLP, where comrade Scargill gave full rein to his autocratic control-freakery and insistence that critical voices be excluded.

It is a tragic end in many ways. This intransigent and charismatic man was the embodiment of many of that inspiring strike’s strengths - his rather sad political history since its defeat underlines the wider malaise of working class politics.

Emphasising his commitment to “socialism” in his concluding remarks, the comrade told us: “I want to see this movement speak with one voice.” I think we all know whose voice he is talking about. The meeting closed without debate or contributions from the floor.