20 January 2005 Edition
Working class hero - Talking to Arthur Scargill 20 years after the Miners' Strike
The name Arthur Scargill will forever be synonymous with trade unionism and left-wing politics. Scargill, who served as President of the most powerful union in Britain, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), for most of the 1980s, came to international prominence 20 years ago, when he led the striking miners in their epic battle with the Thatcher government from 1984 to 1985. Thatcher wanted to shut down pits throughout Britain. The miners wanted to protect their industry and their livelihoods. The strike was one of the most bitter and hard-fought in living memory. For 12 months, miners picketed their pits and faced financial hardship, vicious attacks by the police and demonisation from the establishment media. When they returned to work in March '85, many believed a new era had dawned in Britain. Thatcher had broken the most powerful union in the country and was about to embark on a strategy of privatisation, which would bring about the end of many other traditional industries.
Last Sunday, An Phoblacht's JOANNE CORCORAN met with the legendary Scargill, who was in Dublin to address a public meeting on the 20th anniversary of the Miners' Strike, at the invitation of the Dublin Congress of Trade Unions. He talked to Joanne about his early life and involvement in politics, and about the 1984/'85 strike and its aftermath. In this, the first of a three-part series, Scargill describes his upbringing and early political involvement.
An Phoblacht: Arthur, can you tell our readers about your background and your early life?
Arthur Scargill: I was born in a small village, two miles south of Barnsley in South Yorkshire. I lived in that village all my life and I still live there now.
My father was a miner and my grandfather was a miner.
My great grandparents were Irish, and called McQuillan. I should have been called McQuillan but for the law of the times. You see, my grandparents were having my father before they got married. When they went to register the birth, the registry office put 'no father', on my father's birth certificate, because they weren't married. So, five of his siblings were called McQuillan, and he was called Scargill. In those times life was difficult if you carried a name different to your father.
I remember being very moved later on, when I was elected President of the NUM. He said to me: "It's ironic isn't it — for so many years I've sought to have the name of my brothers and sisters, but tonight the name I was always embarrassed by is known all over the world."
My father was so proud of that. It wasn't that he didn't want to acknowledge his heritage, because he did. He was deeply committed to the Irish cause and a united Ireland. I could never understand as a youngster why my father would be cheering the Ireland football team against England. It took me a while to figure out. Then I started to cheer Ireland too.
When did you begin to take an interest in the political world and trade unionism?
By the age of 13 I had began to read books that my father had around the house, by Jack London, by Shaw, by all the leaders of left politics, including James Connolly. I began to realise that there was something very wrong in a world which could produce enough food and water for everyone, that could build enough houses to house everybody and provide enough clothing to clothe everybody, and yet we had millions of people dying from starvation, and lacking shelter and clothing.
My father was a lifelong Communist, but I actually wrote to the Labour Party to see if I could join their youth section. I must have been bonkers, but that's what I did. I didn't get a reply at all. So after a month I wrote to the Workers' Party and asked whether they had such a thing as a young communist party. Within two days, the Secretary of the Young Communist League visited my house and recruited me.
I decided that I would be an active young communist, there was no point in me joining if I wasn't going to do anything. They had a paper called Challenge, and I asked how many papers they sold a week. In the branch I was in there were six members and they told me they used to order 20 copies, but they'd take two copies each to try and build up the sales and the rest they'd give away.
I said: "Why don't: you sell them?" and they said "Do you think you could sell them?"
So I said yes and they told me to try it. I took the 20 copies and I went to a meeting that I knew was on and sold the lot. They appointed me Challenge organiser, and within three months we were selling 700 papers a week. Unless people are prepared to go out, get up off their backsides and do these things, they won't happen.
What made you decide to go into Trade Unionism rather than politics?
I knew I had to make a decision and I decided the Trade Union Movement was a place where I could exercise real power, not for myself, but on behalf of the workers I would be representing.
So I became very active in the National Union of Mineworkers.
I led my first strike when I was 16, for better conditions, and we won. I became something of a folk hero for the youngsters at the pit after that.
When I was 21 I was elected the youngest delegate in Yorkshire. A delegate is a representative to the area council and it's a very powerful position. For the next three years I was very active in the Yorkshire region.
You played a significant role in the 1972 National Miners' Strike, which eventually led to the downfall of Edward Heath's Government. Can you tell our readers about that?
In 1971, I put forward a proposal for a wage increase for the miners. I said, if we want to go for this, I want none of this nonsense of saying we want two pounds a week and then we negotiate and finish up with 75p. I said, that's not negotiation, it's sell out. If we can't justify two pounds to start with, don't ask for it. If we can justify it, then we'll fight to the death to get it. In my view, that was more principled.
We ended up having a ballot on a wage increase and in 1972 we closed the entire coalfield with a strike. We paralysed the whole of Britain.
I was put in charge of picketing in Yorkshire and we did a great job, picketing East Anglia, Yorkshire and Lincolnshire.
One Saturday I was in the strike office and a couple of lads called into me and said that there was a problem in Birmingham with a coke pit (coke is a by-product of coal).
I thought, 'A problem with a coke pit?'
My idea of a coke pit was one with about 20 tonnes of coke in it, which would deliver every other day. But they said that this was a big coke depot and that the owners were still managing to send coke out. They said the people in the NUM down there couldn't control anything and they wanted pickets sent down.
Within a few hours I had something like five or six hundred of our pickets going down to Birmingham on buses. I followed them down and got into Birmingham about half past one in the morning. I'd never been in Birmingham before and I got completely lost. Then I stumbled on something that looked almost like a cul-de-sac and there were coaches of police there.
So I went up to one of them and said, "Excuse me, can you tell me where the Star Social Club is?"
"Don't ask me," he said. "We're strangers here, we've no idea".
I thought that was funny. It was like they were expecting trouble. So I went on my way and eventually reached the spot where the pickets had gathered. We'd got them bedded in Birmingham, in people's houses, and we started to picket the coke depot the next morning, which was a Sunday. And we managed to close it down.
I said to the lads that the next morning we would have to turn out in force again, because those buggers would re-open it. And they did. That's when they poured in the police, hundreds and hundreds of them. Many of them were in riot gear. They looked almost like a stormtrooper brigade.
We battled like hell for the next two days.
I recall going to a massive meeting of all the trade unions in the centre of Birmingham on the Tuesday. We'd had no sleep, but I got up the energy to made a very passionate speech. I said, 'We don't want your money. We don't want you to give us a pound or a fiver to ease your conscience. We want you out on this strike. We want you to stop the movement of coke out of this depot.'
The chair addressed them after that, looking for suggestions of what to do and this right-wing union secretary said: "I think what we have to do here is mobilise over the next five or six days and then we can get the mass support that brother Scargill is seeking."
I jumped out of my seat at this and said, 'No, Comrade. We don't want to mobilise over the next five or six days. What we're asking is that in two days time, that's on Thursday, you all down tools and come out on strike with us. That means you've got tomorrow to go to your members and tell them to take action. Either you can stand by and see us kicked to bits by the police, or you can say you've had enough. You're not taking this treatment of your fellow workers, and go on strike.'
After the meeting our lot went back on the picket line and on the Thursday, something strange had happened. As we got to the picket line, the police were there as usual. But there was a strange atmosphere. It was almost indescribable. I couldn't figure out what was wrong. Then I suddenly realised that there was no traffic.
There were five roads leading into this giant coke plant, which could produce over a million tonnes for delivery, in the second biggest city in Britain, and there wasn't a single car or truck passing by.
Then suddenly over the hill, there were workers coming. On all the five roads, they were coming in with banners, chanting and marching. They had downed tools and walked out in solidarity with us.
How did the police react?
Well, I heard the Chief Constable saying: "Get the bastards, move them, don't let them stop."
I don't know what possessed me, but I grabbed my megaphone and I ran to the centre of the road and shouted 'Stay!'
As he was shouting, "Move them along", I was shouting 'Stop. They don't want you to stop.'
They were jamming up like a sandwich. Even moderates estimate there were about 20,000 there. They were all chanting different things, and I thought we have to get one chant going. And I took this megaphone and I chanted 'Close the Gates'. And they took it up as one, "Close the gates. Close the gates".
Every time they said it, they moved closer to the gates. And the police didn't know what to do. So the owners of the depot had to close the gates, and within a very short time they had to sit down and sign an agreement with us that they wouldn't allow any coke out of the depot.
It was a victory for the working class, and it sent the establishment into absolute apoplexy. And of course, in the end the miners got their demands.
It meant I was suddenly catapulted onto every front page in Britain.
I stood for election as full-time leader in Yorkshire the same year, and I won it by 70% of the vote.
Time line of Arthur Scargill's life
1938 - Born 11 January in Worsbrough Dale. Started work at Woolley Colliery after leaving school in 1953.
1955 - Joined the Young Communist League.
1957 - Elected NUM Yorkshire Area Youth Delegate. Attended the World Youth Festival in Moscow as a representative of the Yorkshire miners.
1961 - Elected a member of the Woolley NUM Branch Committee
1962 - Joined the Labour Party. Later that year he took a three-year course in economics, industrial relations and social history at the University of Leeds.
1965 - Elected Branch Delegate from Woolley to the Yorkshire NUM Area Council.
1969 - Elected a member of the Yorkshire NUM Area Executive Committee. He played a leading part in the 1969 unofficial miners' strike, which won an eight-hour day for surface mineworkers.
1972 - In the first National Miners' Strike since 1926, Scargill was spokesman for the Barnsley Strike Committee, and picket organiser for the Yorkshire miners. He co-ordinated the 'Battle of Saltley Gates' at the Saltley Coke Depot in Birmingham, considered by many to be the turning point in winning that dispute. The strike indirectly led to the fall of Edward Heath's Government in March 1974.
1973 - Elected leader of the Yorkshire NUM.
1977 - Elected chair of the British Anti-Nuclear Campaign.
1981 - Became President of the NUM.
1984 - One month after the year-long Miners' Strike began, he acted as advocate for all five NUM Trustees of the Mineworkers' Pension Scheme in a legal action over how the coal industry's pension funds should be controlled and invested.
1984-1985 - Led the biggest miners' strike in history
1987 - Voluntarily resigned his position as NUM President, stood for re-election and was elected again as President in January 1988.
1986-1988 - Served as a member of the TUC General Council and as a member of the nuclear review body
1990 - He and the NUM's General Secretary, Peter Heathfield were the targets of an unprecedented media-led smear campaign.
1995 - Following New Labour's abandonment of Clause IV, its commitment to common ownership, Scargill proposed to a group of fellow trade unionists that the time had come to create a new party for Britain's workers. Out of that proposal came the Socialist Labour Party. Scargill currently serves as the party's General Secretary.
2002 - Retired as President of the NUM after over 20 years in the job.