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Thursday, 1 August, 2002, 09:54 GMT 10:54 UK
Scargill's legacy
Arthur Scargill in a miner's helmet
Scargill: Miner, militant, hero or villain?

One of Britain's most militant trade union leaders and the man behind the 1984-5 miners' strike, Arthur Scargill, has retired. Nicholas Jones covered the strike for the BBC and looks back at 20 turbulent years.

There could hardly have been a more poignant reminder of the coal industry's demise than the announcement a fortnight ago of the closure of the Selby coalfield in Yorkshire, the most modern mining complex in Britain.

Its development in the early 1980s was seen as guaranteeing coal's long-term future. But those hopes were dashed by the year-long miners' strike which started in the spring of 1984.

A reconstruction of the Battle of Orgreave for a recent film
1984 strike: Violence [film reconstruction]
Arthur Scargill and the National Union of Mineworkers took on Margaret Thatcher in a desperate attempt to halt pit closures.

But after a level of violence not seen before during a British industrial dispute, she was able to declare victory when over half the miners had given up and returned to work.

Mr Scargill remains convinced to this day that he was right: That the Conservatives were intent on shutting down the coal industry.

But his refusal to compromise was widely condemned within the trade union movement and the failure to hold a pit head ballot weakened the NUM's authority.

Subsequently, as the miners had feared, the Conservatives did turn their back on coal, ushering in the "dash for gas", with North Sea gas instead of coal being used increasingly to generate electricity.

At the start of the strike the National Coal Board had 170 pits and a labour force of 180,000. Now there are just 13 deep mines and a membership of 5,000 is all that can be claimed by the once mighty National Union of Mineworkers.

Open in new window : Arthur Scargill
In pictures: Arthur Scargill's legacy

Mr Scargill's election as NUM president in 1981 had an electrifying effect on the union movement.

The miners had already built up a fearsome reputation as the shock troops for organised labour and during his time as leader of the Yorkshire coalfield, Mr Scargill had rarely been out of the news.

Police arrest Arthur Scargill at the Battle of Orgreave during the 1985/5 miners' strike
Arrested: Scargill confronted the authorities
The miners' strikes and power black-outs of the the 1970s had left governments fearful of taking on the NUM. Under the wily leadership of their previous president, Joe Gormley, the union had become used to securing impressive pay increases.

By the time Mr Scargill took the helm, miners were among the highest-paid industrial workers in the country and they were often asked to support other groups fighting for higher wages.

After her victory in retaking the Falklands Islands and the Conservatives' re-election in 1983, Margaret Thatcher was ready finally to stand up to the unions.

Once she appointed the tough American mine manager Ian MacGregor as chairman of the National Coal Board, it was only a matter of time before there would be confrontation with Mr Scargill.

Trial of strength

Once the strike started in March 1984 it turned rapidly into a massive trial of strength.

It took months to wear the down the solidarity of the pit villages and mining communities in strongholds like Yorkshire, Derbyshire, Scotland and South Wales.

Margaret Thatcher pictured in the 1980s
Thatcher: Determined to face-down miners
But the forces of the state were lined up against them: Forceful policing of the picket lines provoked violent clashes but each week more and more men, dubbed the 'new faces', abandoned the strike and agreed to go back down their pits.

For journalists like myself, covering the strike was a roller coaster ride.

We knew we were reporting a make-or-break dispute which could possibly bring down the government. Never before had a union leader challenged so directly the Prime Minister of the day.

In the early 1980s coal was king; miners topped the earnings league and most power generation relied on the output of the pits.

Mr Scargill's resolute defence of mining jobs was about to make him a hero among union militants.

Scargill's legacy

But Arthur Scargill's defeat paved the way for Mrs Thatcher's much wider assault on trade union power.

The way he had conducted the strike and the manner of his defeat gave the Conservatives the justification they were looking for: never again would a Tory Prime Minister suffer the indignity inflicted on Ted Heath who lost the 1974 general election after failing to come to terms with a miners' strike.

Nonetheless the name Scargill will always have a place in British trade union history.

The pit strike was a dispute about the right to work and as the rate of factory closures and redundancies gathered pace in the 1980s many trade unionists believed the NUM was right to make a stand in the defence of jobs.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The legend of King Arthur
Newsnight looks back at his career
Former energy secretary Lord Walker:
"Scargill did enormous damage"
See also:

22 Feb 00 | Labour centenary
31 Jul 02 | Politics
20 Jul 02 | Politics
20 Jul 02 | Politics
20 Jul 02 | Breakfast
26 Jun 02 | Politics
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