THE National Union of
Mineworkers has opened merger discussions with the transport union, RMT -
I SAW them, swelling in the breeze, like sails of a
fleet, "upon", as Shakespeare had it, "the inconstant billows dancing".
Ornate symbols of Socialism and solidarity, they tacked through Durhamís
streets like an unflagging armada.
Accompanying them were
phalanxes of shimmering instruments on which uniformed, button-bright
bands played marches, in a sense, the brassy battle hymns of the
proletariat - Death or Glory, Cross of Honour and that jaunty tune, often
used as a symbol of two-fingered defiance, Colonel Bogey.
the 1991 minersí Gala Day, the year before Labour, led by Neil Kinnock
was, by the smart money at bookmakersí Ladbrokeís, expected to win the
general election, but was shattered into disputatious, jig-saw-puzzle
fragments by John Majorís Tories.
The Gala, a brave sight, was
largely a parade of the past, many banners symbolising collieries closed
as a result of the National Coal Boardís 1984 decision to shut down 20
pits with the loss of 20,000 jobs, and the demise of other pits after the
resultant 1984-85 minersí strike, led, on picket-line and platform, by
bouffant-hair-styled Arthur Scargill, verbally-pugnacious president of the
National Union of Mineworkers.
COVERING the Gala for the
column, I heard a speech by an optimistic Mr Kinnock who said, in effect,
that miners, in the shining uplands of a Labour government, could look
forward to the future. It was rhetorical, placebo stuff and, in a mixture
of political oracle and a Macbethís witch, I told him, "you will be the
next prime minister," an assertion he accepted as his droit de seigneur.
noticed that "King" Arthur was absent from the proceedings. Was he
wandering, Lear-like on some blasted heath, recalling the 1974 glory days
when his striking miners effectively brought down a Tory government, when
trades union "tanks" on No 10ís lawn produced the threat of an NUM Panzer
division and Margaret Thatcher described him as "the enemy within", or was
he at his union headquarters at Barnsley, south Yorkshire, brooding over
his catastrophic strike defeat by the Thatcher government?
he must have had agonising "might have been" thoughts over his refusal to
hold a national strike ballot - a failure that split the union and led to
Nottinghamshire men forming the Union of Democratic Mineworkers, which
refused to strike.
He must also have had "what if?" thoughts, like
Napoleon after Waterloo, about his tactics at the so-called Battle of
Orgreave on 18 June, 1984, a pivotal confrontation of the strike when
massed pickets of Yorkshire miners tried unsuccessfully to shut down
British Steelís coking plant outside Sheffield, actions resulting in
clashes with mounted police in which 41 policeman and 28 picketing miners
Scargill, courageous but somehow ludicrous, in his
battling baseball cap, was in the thick of the fray and was fined £250 for
obstruction, an imposition that caused national waves of non-sympathy.
witnessed events at a strike flashpoint by transforming myself into a
flying column to face the powder at Bilston Glen colliery, Scotlandís
largest pit, six miles south of Edinburgh, where, from the national
strikeís start, police were hurt in clashes with pickets, arrests were
made, stones thrown, pejorative adjectives flashed, and oaths delivered
with strength and majesty, searing sensitive but determined spirits who,
despite Mr Scargillís dictat, perversely defied picket lines to work.
That flashpoint, and others over disputatious Britain, were first spasms
in the convulsive decline of British coalmining and of a union that once
dominated the political landscape. After the Second World War, it had
533,000 members; now it has about 3,000, and after the strike which split
families, wrecked communities and cost 250,000 jobs, there are only 11
pits - none in Scotland - out of a 1984 total of 170.
merger is successful, the National Union of Mineworkers faces extinction.
Its glory has departed and King Arthur, its former fiery fugleman, founder
and leader of the negligible Socialist Labour Party, has surely had his
Camelot - a matter of regret for the far left, which regard him as a once
doughty and passionate fighter for his union, who told the truth about the
governmentís pit closure "butcherís bill", and of relief by new Labour
politicians like Tory Blair.