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27 January 2005 Edition

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Taking on Thatcher - Talking to Arthur Scargill 20 years after the Miners' Strike

Margaret Thatcher

Margaret Thatcher

From 1979, the Thatcher Government had been planning the privatisation of the British coal industry. The Coal Industry Act (1980) set financial targets so high that they could only be met by closing 'uneconomic' collieries. The Act was intended to make the industry more attractive to private investors.

The government oversaw an increase in coal stocks and coal imports and power stations were converted from coal firing to oil firing, all to prepare to take on the miners. A special mobile squad of police to deal with picketing was created.

In September 1983, anti-union Thatcherite Ian MacGregor, was appointed as chair of the National Coal Board (NCB). He had already helped to cut jobs at British Steel, slashing the workforce by 100,000.

In this, the second of our three-part series, An Phoblacht's JOANNE CORCORAN talks to Arthur Scargill about the start of the 1984 strike, the women's movement that gave it so much support, and how close the miners came to winning.

An Phoblacht: Arthur, history records that the Miners' Strike began in March 1984, following the announcement from the British National Coal Board of the closure of the Cortonwood pit in Yorkshire. What had happened in the months leading up to that announcement?

Arthur Scargill: This is where history gets it wrong. The strike actually began on 1 November 1983.

We'd had a special conference where we'd decided that if the Coal Board didn't give an undertaking not to close pits, and to give us a decent increase in wages, then we would take action.

There was a policy document in existence back then called the 'Plan for Coal' and the government, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the Coal Board had all signed up to it. On 1 November, with no wage increase in sight and pit closures looming, we began our action and that consisted of an overtime ban.

An overtime ban actually meant a partial strike, because you couldn't work more than three days a week. You couldn't work on a Monday, because there would have to be a pre-shift examination of the pit on a Sunday (usually by overtimers). Then you couldn't work on a Friday because there would have to be an inspection that day, which would normally be done on a Saturday. So the Coal Board was losing about 50% of its production. The first pit to go on strike was a pit called Polmaise in Scotland. Then suddenly, in March, the Coal Board announced the names of four other pits to close.

That announcement was the result was a political decision made by Thatcher to provoke a reaction from the union. She wanted to take us on. As far as we were concerned, we could do one of two things. We could protest meekly, or we could fight. I argued that we should fight.

So that's how the strike started. It started because they intended to close pits without going through the normal procedures, which would have taken anything from six to nine months of negotiations. It started because Thatcher wanted to bring down the most powerful union in Britain.

How soon after the Coal Board's announcement did the miners take all-out strike action?

It all happened very quickly. Within a few days, 80% of the miners were out on strike, no national ballot had to be taken. We demonstrated in the courts that they were entitled to do that because it was in the rules. An individual area could take strike action if it wanted. So those people who kept prattling on about ballots don't know what they're talking about.

The ballot question was constantly used as a stick to beat the miners with. Where did that all come from?

The English High Court made its own judgement that the strike was a national strike. How they reached that conclusion, I haven't a clue, because we on the National Executive simply backed areas where strikes were taking place. The fact that we had strikes in all the areas, except Nottinghamshire, South Derbyshire and Leicester, is irrelevant.

What you might not know is that while the English High Court was ruling the strike unlawful, the Scottish High Court was ruling it lawful.

We simply ignored the English decision and we were found guilty of contempt of court. The union was fined £200,000. I was fined a £1,000. I told them to get stuffed. I wouldn't pay it.

Now, you've got to purge your contempt in English law, and that entails going in front of a court grovelling and saying "My Lord I am deeply sorry and will you please remove the contempt?"

Some of the right-wing officials in the unions, and also people who were members of the Communist Party, just wanted it all to stop. Towards the end of the strike they voted by a narrow majority to purge their contempt, but I made it very clear I wouldn't do the same.

I'd no contempt other than for the Tory government, the capitalist class and the establishment, and I wasn't purging myself of that.

I've never paid my fine; somebody paid it for me, rather than see me arrested, I suppose.

Following the publication of a number of former government Ministers' memoirs, it became obvious how close the miners came to achieving a deal in their favour in 1984. Was the union aware of that at the time?

We always saw the strike as dramatically successful and thought it was misunderstood by academics and historians. We knew we were very close to winning an outright victory. On at least three occasions we actually settled the strike, only for Thatcher to go back on her word.

The most famous non-deal of all was the one where we had reached an agreement to settle the strike, and her lackeys in the Coal Board came back from their break and went back on their word.

We had the bloody thing in our hands, because our typist had been typing for both sides.

Some years later, a former government Minister told me in a television studio, after he'd had a few drinks, that he couldn't understand why the strike hadn't been settled, because he had seen a document that the strike was to be settled in terms that would have been a victory for the NUM.

Even towards the end of the strike, the NUM only called it off by a three-vote majority. I refused to support that vote and three other national leaders also refused. We, and the vast majority of the miners, knew how close we were. We now know the government could not have continued another two months.

I have always maintained that those who term the Miners' Strike a defeat, are totally stupid. They don't understand the nature of politics. It's like suggesting that because Jesus Christ was crucified, he failed. The struggle itself was a victory. We took on Thatcher and we electrified the entire Trade Union Movement. If we had been supported by some of our own, we would have crushed that government, but as it was, we came close and proved how powerful the working class can be.

Next Week: Scargill talks about the miners' feelings towards the police, who orchestrated brutal attacks against the picketing miners; about the smear campaigns orchestrated against him by the Fleet Street media; and about the legacy of the strike.

Cowan v Scargill

Arthur Scargill stood for the national presidency of the NUM in 1981 and won with 70% of the vote. While best remembered for the miners' strike, Scargill also acted as the union's advocate on a number of other issues.

A month after the 1984 strike started, Scargill was in the High Court in a legal action over how the coal industry's pension funds should be invested.

Scargill's case, that miners should be in charge of investments, was rejected by the court after a ten-day hearing, but it's now acknowledged that had the case been accepted, several subsequent frauds perpetrated on British pension schemes could have been prevented.

The famous case, entitled Cowen and Others versus Scargill and Others, is still studied by law students. Here, he recalls one of the best-known exchanges of that court battle.

"I told the judge I had put forward several suggestions of where the money should go; one of them was to buy the Daily Mirror (it would have been nice to have a proper left wing paper in Britain). The Coal Board refused to hear the miners' suggestions, and it ended up in the High Court with us arguing that we should invest where we wanted to invest. Our one condition was that we wouldn't allow any investment in South Africa, because of the Apartheid regime.

The deputy chairman of the Coal Board, Cowen, who was in the witness box, said 'But Mr. Scargill, you have to get the best possible return on your investment.' I said, 'Is that the test then?' His barrister stood up and said it was.

So I turned to Cowen and I said, 'Are you aware Mr Cowen, that the mineworkers' pension scheme's professional fund managers bought a firm called Centre Videos and that that firm produces pornographic videos?'

He said he was and had been appaled when he found out.

Then I said, 'But that firm is a good investment for us, so you should be in favour of it.'

'I am not,' he said, 'and I have ordered that it be got rid of.'

'Ah,' I said. 'So you've got a different set of standards. It's alright to invest in South Africa, where they kill people and treat them as subhuman. But if you invest in a blue movie, you find that appaling and an insult to your moral standing.'

I told him that my moral standing was that the people of South Africa deserved our assistance, not the other way round. He was a bit stumped after that."

The women's struggle

When Margaret Thatcher decided to take on the NUM, little did she know she would be taking on the union members' wives as well. According to Scargill, the women's support groups were a revelation.

"I remember having this meeting with a woman who was a lecturer in a nearby college," Scargill says. "And we were talking about getting the women active and she said: 'Well we could have a meeting and drum up support'.

"I said that if we were going to have a meeting, we might as well have a march. So we set that up, followed by a meeting in Barnsley public hall. The organisers were expecting a couple of hundred women and they even made sandwiches to give them when they arrived.

Well, when I arrived in Barnsley I saw a sight that will stay with me for the rest of my life. I've never seen so many bloody women. There were thousands and they all had placards and banners. Jean, the lecturer, said to me, 'I don't believe it, what are we going to do?' And I said, 'Well, we're going ahead.'

So we set off on the march, and a police officer came up to me and said it was too big to go down the main thoroughfare. I said, 'It's not my march, it's the women's march and they've told me that's exactly where they're going'. He was completely nonplussed, and we carried on straight to the centre of town, stopping traffic and everything. When we got back to the public hall, they were still leaving the starting point.

Now there's a by-law in England that says you can't take banners into the public hall. I knew this and union members usually took their banners down. But the women didn't know this and they marched straight towards the meeting hall, banners up. So the police stopped me and said 'They can't come in here with them'. I said, 'You'll have to tell them'. Well he shouted it out and the women just surged forward, hitting the police out of the way with their banners as they went.

There were four floors in this hall and when we got inside every single floor was packed to capacity. This chap from the fire brigade came up to me and said, 'Mr Scargill, can I point out that you're breaking fire regulations by having all these people in here. You can't hold this meeting.'

I said, 'You go to the centre of the stage and tell them they can't hold their meeting'.

With that, he looked around, folded his arms and said, 'Well, as long as it doesn't go on too bloody long.'

These women, many of whom had never been outside their villages in their lives, would have stayed there debating politics all day.

By the end of it, a massive women's movement had been established.

They went all over the world, from Australia to Canada, asking people for support and they got it.

Ireland, of course, was the greatest supporter we ever had, financially and vocally. They always said to us that it was in return for the support we gave them during the 1913 Lockout. And we'll never forget what they gave us."

Timeline of the miners' strike

1983

November - The NUM implemented an overtime ban to prevent pit closures and get the miners a wage increase.

1984

March - The British National Coal Board announced the closure of Cortonwood colliery. Coal Board Chair, Ian MacGregor, said 20,000 jobs would go over the next 12 months. The majority of miners decided to strike. The first casualty of the strike was David Gareth Jones, a 24-year-old miner from Yorkshire, who died after receiving a fatal injury on a picket line.

April - Miners across the country rejected the accusation that the strike was unlawful because no ballot had been held. Flying pickets were sent to Nottinghamshire, where many pits were refusing to strike.

May - Police stepped up their attacks on pickets, using increasingly violent tactics to ensure the delivery of Polish scab coal to Ravenscraig steelworks. The battle of Orgreave coking plant, which saw the most vicious assault from the police, began on 28 May. Scargill was arrested on the 30th.

June - Thatcher tried to bribe the transport union with wage increases to stop them helping the miners. Striking miners' social security benefits were cut by £16 a week, in an attempt to starve them back into work. The 18th marked the second and biggest battle outside Orgreave. 55-year-old miner Joe Green was crushed to death when a lorry reversed into him as he stood on a picket line.

July - Thatcher's right-hand man, Home Secretary Leon Brittan, ordered the police to clamp down on the huge public support for the miners, given in the form of food and money. The Trade Union Council was slammed by the miners for refusing to help the NUM, an affiliated member.

Thatcher said she would meet the miners as she had met the "enemy in the Falklands". On the 31st, South Wales miners occupied their union's headquarters to prevent a sequestration order by the English High Court going ahead.

August - Fleet Street stepped up its attacks on the striking miners. The unloading of scab coal at Hunterstown in Scotland sparked a national dock strike.

In Yorkshire, riot police baton-charged 6,000 picketers to protect a lone scab as he entered a pit.

Next week: September 1984 - March 1985

An Phoblacht Magazine

AN PHOBLACHT MAGAZINE:

  • The first edition of this new magazine will feature a 10 page special on the life and legacy of our leader Martin McGuinness to mark the first anniversary of his untimely passing.
  • It will include a personal reminiscence by Gerry Adams and contributions from the McGuinness family.
  • There will also be an exclusive interview with our new Uachtarán Mary Lou McDonald.

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