One of Britain’s best-known trade unionists, a familiar face and voice in the media for decades, turns 80 today.
Arthur Scargill, who served as president of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) for 20 years from 1982 to 2002, was born near Barnsley, West Yorkshire, on January 11th, 1938. His father, Harold, was a coal miner and a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, while his mother, Alice, was a professional cook and devoutly non-political.
At 15 years old, Arthur left school and, in common with most young men in his community, went to work at a local colliery, in the pit village of Woolley. He would work there for 19 years, becoming steadily more involved in trade unions and socialist politics. He joined the Young Communist League in 1955, two years after leaving school, and the following year became its Yorkshire District Chairman and then a member of its National Executive Committee.
In 1957 he was elected the NUM’s youth delegate for Yorkshire and attended a festival in Moscow representing his county’s miners. The following year he attended a trade unions’ youth congress in Prague, another Communist-led state. By 1961 he was a member of the Woolley NUM Branch Committee and increasingly seen as a rising star in the union. He joined the Labour Party in 1962 and the same year began a three-year part-time course at the University of Leeds, studying economics, industrial relations and social history.
By 1969 Scargill was elected to the NUM’s influential Yorkshire Area Executive Committee and that same year led his first unofficial strike, beginning in Yorkshire and spreading across the country. He was already coming into conflict with less militant elements in the NUM and seen by many as a left-wing firebrand who was not afraid to speak his mind, or use industrial action to achieve his aims.
He is often credited with inventing “flying pickets” – large numbers of committed strikers who could be bussed to less supportive areas to form picket lines which workers were reluctant to cross. He would use the tactic several times and with considerable success until the police got wise to it.
In 1973 Scargill earned the respect of many miners during West Yorkshire’s Lofthouse Colliery Disaster, where he accompanied rescue teams underground and stayed on site for six days, often with relatives of the 10 miners killed in the disaster. At the official inquiry he successfully argued the National Coal Board could have foreseen and prevented the disaster, helping win compensation for bereaved families.
When the president of the Yorkshire NUM died suddenly, Scargill was a popular choice as his replacement, holding the post for eight years until 1981. More victories over ‘the bosses’ followed and in 1974 he was instrumental in organising the miners’ strike that led to the downfall of Edward Heath’s Conservative Government.
In the 1981 election for national NUM president, there was little surprise when Scargill secured around 70% of the total vote. At the head of a powerful union, seemingly capable of bringing down governments, he was at the peak of his powers, but he was about to meet his nemesis – Britain’s first female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher.
She was determined to break the power of the trade unions, especially the miners, and ruthless in achieving that aim. The power struggle between the two sides led by Thatcher and Scargill was played out in the bitter year-long 1984/85 miners’ strike, and it was Thatcher’s Conservative Government which emerged victorious. Some claimed Scargill was arrogant and over-confident, calling the strike at the wrong time, on the wrong issue and refusing any compromise. Others said he had no choice but to act when the Government embarked on a programme of pit closures.
Whatever the case, the NUM, and other trade unions, would never again wield the same power in national politics, and Scargill’s image was tarnished. His own pit, at Woolley, was closed in 1987. Opponents within the NUM saw a weakened Scargill who soon became the subject of successive challenges and accusations.
In 1990 the Daily Mirror, despite being traditionally left-wing, published damaging articles alleging Scargill had misused union funds during the strike, including to spend on his own house. He was never prosecuted, but did pay money back to the union, which took legal action against him. He would remain as national president of the NUM until 2002, but his influence was greatly reduced while his detractors grew in power.
In 1996 he fell out with the Labour Party, which he believed had abandoned its socialist roots, and founded the far-left Socialist Labour Party. He twice stood for election as an MP, in 1997 and 2001, but was roundly beaten on both occasions. Although he still leads the SLP, it is now thought to have fewer than 400 members nationwide and has never had an elected MP.
As he turns 80 today, Arthur Scargill can look back on a career which was at times spectacular and often dominated national headlines. His determination to preserve Britain’s ailing mining industry was, perhaps, more than any man could achieve.