Arthur Scargill, British socialist
, coal miner
He was born in 1938 in Leeds, Yorkshire -- the heart of the British coal mining
industry. At this time coal was still the primary power source in Britain and one of
the industrial powerhouses which had helped build the British Empire. Nearly a million
men worked down the mines and the politicisation which swept Europe after the
end of World War I certainly hadn't passed the miners by. A series of strikes for
better safety and pay in what was one of the most dangerous jobs in the country,
culminating in a long dispute and a 10-day long general strike in 1926 meant that
the miners were not only aware of their economic power but had proved willing to
As with most of his peers, Scargill started work as a miner immediately after leaving
school at the age of 15. He quickly became attracted by the left wing ideas and
strong trades unionism that characterised the Yorkshire miners. The previously
privately-owned coal mines had been nationalised by the post-war Labour
government and a nationally-recognised union, the National Union of Mineworkers
(NUM) grew ever stronger in numbers and influence. The young Scargill quickly
became a union representative as well as a member of the local Communist Party.
In 1966 he left the Communists and joined the Labour Party and then a few years
later he was elected president of the Yorkshire region of the NUM. His firebrand
speeches and considerable oratory powers quickly marked him out as a man to be
watched, and his strong left-wing political ideals often led him and his members into
confrontation with his employers, the National Coal Board, who ran the mines on
behalf of the British Government.
In 1981 he was elected national president of the NUM which effectively made him
leader of the most powerful union in the country. In the 1970s the miners had twice
wielded their muscle, and twice brought down governments. They were certainly a
force to be reckoned with and any government that sought confrontation with them
did so at its peril.
Margaret Thatcher recognised this and realised that if she was going to smash the
power of the unions, which had so recently shown what they could do if angered during
the winter of discontent, she had to do so by breaking them at their strongest link,
namely the mineworkers. For several years she stockpiled coal and oil to ensure
that the power stations wouldn't be affected by any potential shortages. She also
brought in a range of new laws restricting the right to strike and the right to picket.
Finally in 1984 she decided the time was right to take on the miners, and hence the
entire machinery of the British trades union movement.
Engineering the situation so that the miners would be forced to call a strike,
the country suddenly found itself at war ... internally. The entire might of the British
state was called up against the striking miners with huge confrontations outside
coal mines, notably the battle of Orgreave where 15,000 police on foot, on horses and
in vehicles broke through a picket line of 10,000 miners. Miners travelling around the
country to support their colleagues at other pits found their vehicles illegally stopped
and turned back, and the confrontation grew increasingly bitter. Arthur Scargill and
Margaret Thatcher were quite literally playing out the class war the length and breadth
of Britain and both were equally determined to win.
Scargill himself was arrested twice during the miner's strike although ultimately no
charges were ever brought. After a year of the strike, the miners eventually voted to
accept the conditions imposed on them and to return to work as they just couldn't
continue battling against the entire British state any longer. Within a decade of the end
of the strike the coal mines had been mostly shut down, the few remaining had been
privatised and the number of miners in Britain had fallen from 500,000 to less than
10,000. Scargill found himself at the head of a broken and demoralised organisation
and as the NUM collapsed under falling membership bitter recriminations broke out,
with false stories appearing in the press about Scargill having illegally siphoned off
funds and other rumours.
With the collapse of the mining industry Scargill lost his power base. As the
Labour Party moved ever rightwards his traditional socialist beliefs seemed to be
ever more marginalised and eventually he left the Labour Party to set up his own
organisation, the Socialist Labour Party. Never particularly strong at the polls even
in the old mining heartlands, Scargill is now at the edge of British politics,
occasionally appearing to give speeches at various rallies around the country, where
his trademark ginger hair and fiery oratory make him a compelling speaker.
As to non communist's claims about Scargill's defence of the Soviet Union: firstly
they need to be taken in context. Most of the claims come from television
interviews where he (quite correctly) points out that as many people suffer from the
effects of global capitalism as suffered under Soviet-style communism -- this is
something that all those involved in the recent demonstrations against the
World Trade Talks would probably agree on. Heresy in the 1980s era of
"greed is good" yuppiedom but not quite so controversial today. Additionally he is
an ex-member of the Communist Party, something that might seem quite shocking to
modern day Americans, but something that was very normal amongst left-wing
Europeans in the 1950s and 1960s.