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Searching for Scargill

By Nicholas Jones
Former BBC industrial correspondent

It is the 25th anniversary of the pit closure at Cortonwood in Yorkshire - the event which triggered the start of the 1984-5 miners strike.

Arthur Scargill with his two grandsons, and his friend Ricky Tomlinson
Arthur Scargill poses with his grandsons and friend Ricky Tomlinson at a store opening in Barnsley in 2008

The dispute became a trial of strength between the NUM and the government - and a fight to the finish between Arthur Scargill and Margaret Thatcher.

In the intervening 25 years, the coal industry has been decimated. Today, just seven working pits are left and the National Union of Mineworkers has just 2,000 members: a fraction of what it once was.

Reporting the miners' strike was for me the most momentous story in 50 years of journalism.

So it seemed an appropriate moment to return to the Yorkshire coalfields, to try to renew my acquaintance with Arthur Scargill.

Hostile stance

Policemen divide two factions involved in a Right To Work Rally by miners at the Nottinghamshire NUM headquarters
Tensions ran high throughout the miners' strike

I spent a lot time interviewing the miners' leader, but he was always hostile to the media and difficult to find.

Would it be any different when I revisited the offices of the NUM in Barnsley?

I had not been back since the height of the strike in 1984. There are so many questions I would like to ask Mr Scargill, but when I knock at the door, there was no clear answer as to whether he was there. It was the same at his home.

There are many who are still supporters of Arthur Scargill, and I wanted to find why they believe he is - and will remain - a working class hero.

"I think Arthur Scargill was absolutely 100% correct," says Ken Capstick, an NUM branch delegate during the strike and now editor of the union's magazine, The Miner.

"I can't see how people can criticise Scargill, who fought to keep the pits open and fought for the mining industry, when it was other people that were trying to butcher it."

Maltby colliery
The people who were supporting Mr Scargill are totally against him, and that begs the question why
Malcom Lister

I was right, Mr Scargill was inside the NUM office after all, and Mr Capstick was sent out to speak on his behalf.

"By fighting, we gave ourselves a fighting chance to save the industry," he says.

"Could we have sat down and negotiated with Margaret Thatcher about the closure of the pits when it was clear that it was her determination to smash the mining industry anyway?

"I believe it was a valiant struggle, I'm proud I took part in it and I wouldn't change one day of it."

But there are many within the NUM and the wider trade union movement who think the strike was a disaster and that Mr Scargill has never been held properly to account, not least over what precisely happened to the millions of pounds raised for the miners.

Silent man

Malcom Lister, the architect who designed the NUM's headquarters in Sheffield, is an unofficial voice for aggrieved NUM officials critical of Mr Scargill. He says there are many who are unhappy with the president.

Statue outside NUM
To many, Arthur Scargill is still a working class hero

"It's fact that millions came from the Russian miners and Mr Scargill wouldn't let our miners have it.

"The people who were supporting Mr Scargill are now totally against him. Now that begs the question why."

Mr Scargill has always denied that the money was misused but critics like Mr Lister believe they cannot speak freely.

"The thing Mr Scargill trades on, which I think is despicable, is on this bond the miners have of silence. A strong man is silent."

But what about the elusive Mr Scargill? Once, during the strike, I drove him to London and I talked to him a lot. He thinks all journalists are class enemies and according to Ken Capstick, we're still demonising him, portraying him as a recluse, estranged from his family.

"Arthur has been accused of not having close ties, saying he's estranged from his family," Mr Capstick says.

At this point, Mr Capstick shows me a picture of Mr Scargill with his grandchildren, saying that he has seen them at his home.

I tried but failed to interview Mr Scargill - there is no doubt he's still firmly in control, and 25 years on, he is keeping a tight lid on how the NUM handles the fall out from the strike.

We are now seeing in cold print in Cabinet records how the Thatcher government took unprecedented action to defeat the miners.

I was told Mr Scargill is writing a book about the dispute, but I still think he'll probably take many of his secrets to the grave.




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