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EDITIONS
Wednesday, 7 August, 2002, 11:00 GMT 12:00 UK
Hannan's Call to Order
Veteran political broadcaster Patrick Hannan
BBC Wales political commentator Patrick Hannan looks back at the careers of union chiefs and looks at how the "bitterness and futile sacrifice" of the miners' strike might have been avoided.

Current affairs addicts who find the month of August particularly frustrating can always compensate for the lack of action by indulging in some historical speculation.

They can look at the past and wonder whether our lives would now be totally different if one crucial event had taken a different course.

For example, something of which we've been strongly reminded in the last few days.

If Arthur Scargill had come to a settlement with the National Coal Board in the summer of 1984, would there still be a flourishing British coal industry?


He is an enigma, a charismatic, politically astute leader who led his union to disaster and virtual oblivion

Scargill became President of the National Union of Mineworkers in 1981 and completed his term of office, somewhat reluctantly, on July 31 2002.

The figures alone give a clear picture of what happened to coal mining during his regime. When the strike of 1984-85 began his union had 180,000 members. Now it has 3,000.

It seems pretty likely that this process would have occurred in any case, but many of remain baffled at the extraordinary decisions taken by Scargill at that time.

He is an enigma, a charismatic, politically astute leader who led his union to disaster and virtual oblivion.

Even today no-one can satisfactorily explain why he began a long strike at the end of the winter, a time when coal stocks were high and demand undergoing a seasonal reduction.

Arthur Scargill
Scargill: Stranger to compromise

He was facing a Conservative government with a majority of 144 which was anxious to assert its authority over the NUM.

They were helped in that by the decision of the NUM not to hold a ballot, something that split the union and lead to the founding of the breakaway organisation, the Union of Democratic Miners.

The purpose of the strike was, it was argued, to avert a big pit closure programme.

Scargill and his supporters believed it could be averted by industrial action.

After all, in 1974 their strike had driven the Heath government from office. Surely, they thought, they could do the same again.

It was a disastrous miscalculation but it was clear that any idea of compromise was foreign to Scargill.

Different outcome

There were plenty of occasions during the summer of 1984 when the union could have settled with dignity and, more important, an agreement on reducing the scale of closures.

But there was another factor without which history might have been different.

That was the presence of the NCB Chairman, Ian McGregor, a man of inscrutable eccentricity who once put a plastic bag over his head to pretend he wasn't there.

He had come to the coal board straight from the British Steel Corporation where he had implemented huge cuts in manpower.

Miners' strike
Miners' strike: End of an industry
Anyone but McGregor, people thought, and there might have been a different outcome.

And there were also circumstances in which, although he won the election easily, Scargill might not have been president of the NUM.

His predecessor, Joe Gormley, told me that he, Gormley, had deliberately stayed in office until his vice-president, the Scottish Communist, Mick McGahey, was too old under union rules to stand for the presidency.

If he had won, McGahey, a traditionalist, would not have taken the NUM into what was essentially a political battle at the wrong time and in the wrong circumstances.

Such apparently minor matters might well have changed the course of great events.

No one thinks if some of them had turned out slightly differently we'd still have a flourishing coal industry in Britain.

On the other hand, it does seem likely that its decline could have been better managed and that much of the bitterness and futile sacrifice that came from that long strike might have been avoided.

Patrick Hannan's weekly political programme, Called to Order, is live on Radio Wales, 93-104FM, 882 and 657AM, and DSat channel 867.

You can also listen to BBC Radio Wales live online at http://www.bbc.co.uk/wales/live/rwv5.ram.

e-mail: order@bbc.co.uk

See also:

31 Jul 02 | Breakfast
22 Feb 00 | Labour centenary
01 Aug 02 | UK
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