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Writings of Albert Morris
Article 107 - Convulsive days at the court of 'King' Arthur

THE National Union of Mineworkers has opened merger discussions with the transport union, RMT - news report.

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.

It was 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.

I 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?

Wherever, 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 were injured.

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.

I 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.

If the 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.

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