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Showdown and climbdown

5 July 2006

4:56 PM

5 July 2006

4:56 PM

When Arthur Met Maggie Patrick Hannan

Seren Books, pp.224, 9.99

Of course, he never did. Margaret Thatcher had more sense than to enter into any kind of discussion with Arthur Scargill — the horror of the beer-and-sandwiches relations between previous governments and the unions was too great. Before the 1984-5 miners’ strike which dominated and defined Thatcher’s second term in office, just as the Falklands war dominated the first, she would not have wanted to be in the same room as Scargill. Afterwards, of course, so comprehensive was the government’s victory over Scargill’s intentions, the question would hardly have arisen. These days, as Patrick Hannan says, hardly one educated person in ten thousand could tell you the name of anyone connected with the National Union of Mineworkers.

Scargill was, without a doubt, a comic creation of considerable vivacity. Dickens himself could hardly have improved on him, even if some of his utterances at the time seemed more gruesome than amusing. Talking to the Sunday Times in 1982, he denied that he’d left the Communist party over Hungary:

Oh no. I supported the Soviet Union over Hungary. The Hungarian revolution was joined by known fascists … I also objected to the moving of Stalin’s body outside the mausoleum and changing the name of Stalingrad. It would be like trying to pretend Churchill never existed.

The comic appeal came with Scargill’s Citizen-Smith-like attempts to keep the greater struggle before the eyes of his more worldly and wavering troops. In 1972, he telephoned a Communist leader of the South Wales miners, trying to organise flying pickets at the Saltley coke works. According to the memory of Dai Francis’s son Hywel:

Arthur Scargill rang up the day before and said, ‘Look, Dai, we need pickets up at Saltley, in Birmingham.’ Dai said, ‘Where’s that?’ Arthur explained. ‘Yes, we can organise them. When do you want them?’ ‘Tomorrow, Saturday.’ Dai paused. ‘But Wales are playing Scotland at Cardiff Arms Park.’ There was a silence, and Scargill replied, ‘But Dai, the working class are playing the ruling class at Saltley.’

Even Dickens, however, might, in the interests of plausibility, have drawn the line at the hairdo and at Scargill’s office in Barnsley, usually known as ‘Arthur’s Castle’. In the version of Kim Howells, then a historical researcher and member of the Communist party, now a minister in the Foreign Office:

I saw this Mussolini desk with a great space in front of it, and behind him this huge portrait on the wall, this big painting of Arthur on the back of a lorry in this Leninist pose where apparently he was portrayed at Grunwicks [a photographic processors, the site of a long industrial dispute in 1976-7] urging the working class to overthrow the oppressors. I thought that anyone who can put a painting like that behind his desk is nuts.

Scargill wasn’t nuts, but he and his troops had been persuaded into a position of invulnerability. Macmillan had a bon mot that there were three organisations which no sane man took on: the Brigade of Guards, the Roman Catholic Church and the NUM. Subsequent events seemed to bear him out — they effectively drove Heath from office. During the 1972 strike, at the talks in Downing Street, the NUM executive

finally came back and said they’d run out of things to ask for. At that point Dai [Francis] said that in that case, he moved a return to work. But the Kent miners still weren’t satisfied. ‘No, no, no,’ they said. ‘We’ve got to wait.’ ‘But we haven’t got any more concessions to ask for.’ ‘Yes, but just give us a bit more time and we can think of something.’

This was not a union lacking in self- confidence, and they had no doubt that they could bring down the democratically elected government of Thatcher through ‘extra-parliamentary action’. Indeed, hadn’t Thatcher already collapsed once when challenged, in 1981 over pit closures? The list of the NUM’s demands was long and ludicrous, and fundamentally would have meant that no mine could ever be closed, no matter how little coal was left in it. That was only an excuse, however; and they saw no particular reason why they should fail to achieve their bold goal, always having succeeded at everything else.

What they failed to take into account was that Thatcher’s 1981 climbdown was the act of a tactician. She knew that coal stocks were not high enough then to win a long-drawn-out confrontation. By 1984, Peter Walker, the Energy Secretary, had quietly amassed a small mountain of coal. (His decisive actions gained him no particular kudos in the end — one of the most startling examples of Thatcher’s tendency to ingratitude towards her ministers.) Scargill himself had no understanding of elementary tactics, and called the strike in the spring, at the end of the period of highest demand. Despite some unattractive posturing on both sides — given the human misery on the ground, Thatcher might have spared everyone the comments about ‘the enemy within’ — it was a battle that had to be won sooner or later, and it decisively was. There was no question, despite what was said at the time, that this was just an act of Tory revenge for 1972. The nettle simply had to be grasped. It was one of the most important things Thatcher ever did. Scargill lives on, incidentally, presiding over a fantastical body called the Socialist Labour Party with 5,000 members in a state of constant vituperative mass expulsions and ongoing fission.

Patrick Hannan gives such a sympathetic account of the miners’ strike that one wishes that his whole book, as its title indeed suggests, was devoted to it. Certainly, we could do with a decent history of the episode, one of the most important in post-war political life, and this essay suggests that Hannan could have written it. The other chapters in the book are often excellent and amusing, but on diverse topics, and it’s difficult to see them as forming a single subject. It is fair enough to move on from the miners’ strike to Kinnock’s reform of the Labour party; the first had made the second imperative, though I see less irony than Hannan does in the fact that Thatcher’s destruction of union power ultimately made the Conservative party redundant for a long period. Her concern was national life, not the preservation of a political faction.

Beyond that we move into miscellaneous reflections; an essay about Bevan and Roy Jenkins, the devolved assemblies, the West Lothian Question and finally a lot about Welsh Nationalist politics. That last, though probably of interest to some Welsh readers, struggles to hold the attention of anyone else. As several people, all apparently called Dafydd, stab each other in the back, make uneasy Cardiff alliances, denounce each other or appear at the opera with their arms round each other as a public statement, the non-Welsh reader will have to try to remember why any of it matters. Anyway, the general seriousness of the region’s political life has long ago been marked by Rhodri Morgan, the Welsh First Minister, who is quoted by Hannan as saying, on the fifth anniversary of his taking office, ‘My own personal ambition is to try to undo the damage that Margaret Thatcher did to Wales — that’s what I have a burning ambition to do.’ It all sounds far too much like common-room politics.

The Welsh thread that runs through all of this is obviously where Hannan’s interest lies — he is the author of The Welsh Illusion, Wales Off Message, 2001: A Year in Wales. Perhaps he is satisfied to be famous in Cardiff, and I hope the Welsh are proud of him; he certainly writes very entertainingly. I th
ink that he would get the wider audience he deserves if he wrote more consistently on more general subjects. The big history of the miners’ strike might be just the thing.

Seren Books, 57 Nolton Street, Bridgend, CF31 3AE. Tel: 01656 663018

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