Issue 172 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published Month Year Copyright © Socialist Review

History distorted

Why have the Tories got away with closing pits? In our December issue, we criticised the role of the union leaders. Here Arthur Scargill, president of the miners' union, replies to our article and argues that the campaign did everything possible to win

Arthur Scargill addresses the TUC conference
Arthur Scargill addresses the TUC conference

As a socialist, I expect my class enemies to deliberately distort historical fact and criticise the efforts of working people who struggle to defend and improve their conditions.

However I feel sad when a comrade like Mike Simons (`A battle undermined', Socialist Review, December 1993) twists the truth to suit his conclusions and thus harms our movement's essential learning process. Mike Simons criticises my leadership in the 1992-93 campaign against pit closures on eight counts; in each case he displays ignorance, inaccuracy and a flawed analysis.

Throughout his article runs the theme that I failed to call for strike action. Just how he reached this conclusion escapes my understanding. I proposed, as early as 14 October 1992, that the NUM consult our members with a recommendation to take strike action and urged all unions and workers in rail, power, road transport and related industries to take similar action--a proposal unanimously accepted by the union's NEC and special delegate conference on 15 October.

Mike Simons' claim that I failed to call for the occupation of pits is simply untrue. I did propose occupation from the start of the campaign but the NUM's NEC on 14 October 1992 took a different view, as did the special delegate conference the following day. Mike knows as well as I that if miners had seriously intended to occupy pits in the autumn of 1992 or at any time since, they could have done so on several occasions. I was approached at different times by a number of NUM members who claimed they only needed my 'go ahead'. On every occasion, having stressed the decisions of the NEC and the special delegate conference, I nevertheless made clear that if anyone took direct action including occupation to defend pits, jobs and communities the union would support any and all actions designed to save our industry.

Members of Women Against Pit Closures and comrades from the National Miners' Support Network did not need any 'authorisation' before they occupied pits or colliery premises. They went ahead, and immediately received total support not just from me but from the NEC.

Mike Simons attacks me concerning the first massive London demonstration on 21 October 1992 (called by the NUM and supported by the TUC). He claims that on that day I abused an opportunity to send the miners and their 100,000 supporters to Westminster where they 'would have forced the government into total capitulation'. I find it curious that he holds me responsible for restricting the numbers of people in the area of Parliament Square.

The NUM had to accept a ticket only rally at Westminster Central Hall (to which the Hyde Park demonstration was added as a result of requests from the labour movement) only because conditions for booking the hall carry that restriction. The NUM in fact made 3,000 tickets available for this rally and a further 3,000 tickets for miners and their supporters to gain access to the House of Commons on that day. In other words, the NUM had made arrangements for at least 6,000 people to be outside the House of Commons on that day.

The 6,000 tickets issued did not determine the numbers of people in/around Parliament Square and there was no call from the NUM not to go outside the House of Commons. In fact less than 1,000 made their way to Central Hall or to Parliament Square, for which neither the NUM nor myself is to blame--on the contrary, it would seem that those who attack me on this point have some explaining to do themselves.

Referring to the Hyde Park rally on that day, Mike Simons makes the outrageous claim that I 'chose to defend' Bill Jordan of the AEEU from spontaneous heckling rather than send miners and their supporters 'battering on the gates of parliament'. That accusation is not only untrue but an insult to the NUM, me and all who fought to make the day a success in our fight against the pit closure programme.

The NUM's NEC had invited all members of the TUC general council to attend and speak in Hyde Park. The fact that I intervened when one of those general council members (invited by the NEC) was being heckled cannot honestly be used to link me with his 'new realism' or suggest that I was somehow betraying the class struggle to which I am committed.

Mike Simons attacks my 'failure' to call for a general strike, even though he acknowledges that from the start of the campaign against pit closures 'the mood among the working class generally was far more angry and combative' than it was among NUM members, and that the mood in the coalfields was not one which itself would have supported immediate industrial action.

It is the NUM membership to which I must answer. As national president of the NUM I had to deal from the start with the situation Mike Simons acknowledges, whilst doing everything in my power to lift that mood from one of resignation to collective anger and action against the government's ideological butchery of pits, jobs and communities. To have called in October, November or December 1992 for a general strike would have been staggeringly naive and politically incompetent.

It's a matter of public record that I was calling for strike action from the start--action not only by miners but by workers in rail, power, road transport and related industries. Following the calls I made on 14 and 15 October, I urged action at the TUC special general council meeting on 17 October. I made the call again at the massive TUC London rally on 25 October and at the TUC general council meeting in Doncaster on 25 November. From the beginning, I was urging the TUC and its affiliates to support a day of action which could have transformed the entire situation.

As Mike Simons acknowledges, the TUC throughout refused to support a 24 hour strike (or any stoppages including a South African style 'stayaway') as did the Labour Party leadership--even after the ballot vote taken by miners and railway workers in March 1993.

His accusation that miners' leaders were 'climbing down' on action while 'the leaders of NALGO were throwing their weight behind action on 18 February' is a disgraceful statement and blatantly untrue. He writes, 'Predictably with Arthur Scargill once again naming a day and then pulling back, the NALGO leadership dropped their agitation, while the TUC did nothing to organise for 18 February.'

Mike Simons knows there was a national circular from NALGO to its members which did not support strike action on 18 February and that we had been informed by the leadership of RMT that they were not in a position to take action on this date. To have called miners out on strike in splendid isolation would have been irresponsible, and in conflict with the specific instruction of our rank and file membership to take joint action with other coal and rail unions.

In these circumstances, it was politically and tactically correct to coordinate the campaign and seek mass support for the one day strikes called by the coal and rail unions.

For Mike Simons to write that, overall, I failed because I played by TUC rules is an insult to the struggles of the NUM and shows a failure to understand the nature of British trade unionism. I am a democratically elected official of a TUC affiliated trade union, and I plead guilty to accepting the democratic decisions of my members. It is not possible to insist on democracy on the one hand and ignore it when rank and file members take decisions at odds with an individual ideological point of view.

2 April 1993: six million stayed away from work
2 April 1993: six million stayed away from work

However, despite our isolation and the betrayals of the TUC and Labour Party (repeats of events in 1984-85), the NUM's tactics resulted in two 24 hour strikes on 2 and 16 April 1993, which saw over 6 million people staying away from work and cost the coal and rail industries alone some £40 million.

I certainly do believe that our movement as a whole has much to learn from events of the past 15 to 16 months, but Mike Simons' article does not help the search for understanding. I find it strange, for example, that for all his analysis he makes no attempt to explain exactly why there was such an exodus from the industry of miners throughout the 15 month campaign and fails to examine the government and British coal tactics which were in part responsible.

I am not condemning miners who were blackmailed psychologically and emotionally into taking the highest redundancy payments in British industry. I understand all too well that the betrayal by the TUC and Labour Party leaderships left them feeling, yet again, isolated and vulnerable and that this, to a great extent, is why the blackmail had its effect. At the same time, we owe a special debt to all those miners including the entire workforce at Vane Tempest in the north east, the branch officials at Parkside in Lancashire and the sole miner at Markham Main in Yorkshire who refused to accept redundancy, and in so doing fought for the survival of the NUM itself.

History will show that the campaigning which followed the government's pit closure announcement in October 1992 enabled the NUM in less than five months to win a strike ballot against incredible odds, confounding among others all our 'new realist' critics who said we could never again win the NUM's membership for strike action. If the massive support seen in the two giant London demonstrations (sparked by solidarity with the NUM's long fight against the Tories) and in all the magnificent demonstrations around Britain had been translated into support for direct action including strike action then the outcome of the campaign could indeed have been very different. The conditions were certainly created in that extraordinary period for winning not only an industrial but a political fight against a government intent on destroying jobs, healthcare, education, public transport, housing and all vestiges of our welfare state.

Mike Simons would have done better to concentrate his attack on our common class enemy, and examine what needs to be done amongst TUC affiliated unions. At a time when governments and multinationals are attacking jobs and services across Western Europe (let alone Eastern Europe!) there is an unanswerable case for coordinated strike action on a European wide basis as we all seek to defend our livelihoods and the future of our families and communities.

The sooner Britain's working class shakes off submission and starts resisting, the sooner we shall all succeed.

Return to Contents page: Return to Socialist Review Index Home page