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PRESS HOUNDS AND COW PATS
on 26 June 2015
It’s true that some mutts just love rolling in the stuff: it’s also true that some journalists are drawn to ringleader explanations of industrial disputes so as to vilify trade unionists like Red Robbo, Hugh Scanlon, Jack Jones and Arthur Scargill.
This book is deficient because of the ‘ringleader’ tendency; because it is inadequately researched and owing, in part, to its reliance on an axe-grinding individual in reaching its conclusions. That said, it does contain a few, new revelations For example, that the selection of Cortonwood colliery for closure was a clodhopping mistake on the part of the National Coal Board and, secondly, that the Government, despite its denials to Parliament, was heavily involved in efforts to defeat the strike.
Illustrative of inadequate research is the authors’ reference on p129 to Nicholas Ridley’s 1975 ‘blueprint’. Apart from the fact that it dates from 1977, the twenty-eight page Ridley Plan was critical to the Tory strike preparations from the 1979 election onwards. It deserves more than passing mention because of the implementation of its provisions prior to the strike. More importantly it was the first clear documentary evidence of a Tory conspiracy against the miners.
Since the Economist published the annex to the Ridley report in May 1978, post-strike revelations in the form of Parliamentary disclosures, books and memoirs, have provided a steady stream of evidence that Thatcher and her ministers told lie upon lie to conceal their direct involvement in the strike and their intention of provoking it to defeat the NUM.
The 2014 release of cabinet minutes under the thirty-year rule, albeit coming after the publication of this book, confirmed that, against denials to the contrary, Scargill was correct in claiming that the National Coal Board and the Thatcher Government intended to close 70 collieries. The NUM knew what the Tories were planning as early as 1980 (before Scargill’s presidential elevation) and made this clear in its vigorously argued publication “The Miners and the Battle for Britain”.
Contrary to popular belief, ownership of the strike was that of a majority of the miners themselves. Their delegates, on the basis of mandates from packed lodge meetings, decreed it and it is unlikely that Scargill could have prevented it even if he had been of a mind to try. The appointment of Ian McGregor; the announcement of pit closures in breach of the colliery review procedure and the intended summary shutdown of the selected pits were intended to be inflammatory and provocative. Critically, the selection for closure of Cortonwood colliery on economic grounds set alarms ringing for miners in pits that were bigger loss-makers. Miners’ concerns were not only about their own jobs, they knew of the devastation colliery closures would cause to pit communities
In his book ‘My Generation’, ex-NUM General Secretary, Will Paynter captured very well what the loss of a pit can mean:
“I wonder sometimes if those who decide on policies to precipitate the contraction of the coal industry have any idea of what a pit closure means to the community built around it. It is the death of a creation that gave the community life and sustained that life no matter how deprived and anguished it might have sometimes been. Closure thus represents a disaster as poignant and harrowing as a death in the family. For older people it creates a sense of helplessness and hopelessness. No fancy clichés of ‘national interest’, ‘redeployment’ and ‘mobility of labour’ or of ‘increased dole payments’ by the economists can rationalise out of existence these very real feelings.”
So finely tuned were Mrs Thatcher’s preparations that her Ministers were instructed to refer to “the coal dispute” as opposed to ‘a miners’ strike’. They worried that referring to a ’miners’ strike’ might generate sympathy for the miners.
Michael Foot, a backbench MP during the strike, accused Mrs Thatcher of lying to the House when she claimed that the Government was not intervening in the coal strike. Wrote Hugo Young in ‘One of Us’, “...the Speaker, unusually, did not require him to withdraw the accusation”. The authors should have learned from Ian McGregor’s “The Enemies Within” of Mrs Thatcher ‘leaning’ on him. A richer source altogether than McGregor’s co-written, glossed account of his time as NCB chairman is Ned Smith’s”The 1984 Miners’ Strike: The Actual Account”. Ned Smith was the National Coal Board’s Director General of Industrial Relations until his resignation in January 1985. Smith was appalled by the cantankerous behaviour of McGregor and by the latter’s abrupt about-turns and unpredictability.
Frankly, the space given by the authors to the efforts of Bill Keys, ex-SOGAT, and Norman Willis of the TUC to act as honest brokers in the NCB/NUM negotiations is wasted and naive. Keys and Willis were out of their depth - and if the NCB could con NACODS, the pit deputies’ union, into signing up to the Modified Colliery Review Procedure (MCRP), then Keys, the TUC and Stan Orme, then a Labour Party MP who also sought to help, didn’t know enough about the coal industry to improve on that. Following the strike, the MCRP failed to save a single pit from closure. Keys and Willis served as window dressing for the Government, which, via the tabloid press, used it to continue their anti-Scargill smears.
Scargill, of whom I have my own criticisms, was too sharp and alert to fall for the MRCP.
Ned Smith, a key participant in negotiations between the NUM and the NCB for much the greater part of the strike (and who, as one might expect, disapproved of the NUM’s handing of it), wrote:
“As the strike progressed, however, there were influential people who decided that the strike should not be settled in the conventional way by industrial management action but that for political reasons the miners had to be seen to be defeated. I can now say that with conviction because on Thursday, 18th July 1986 Mr David Hart, one of Sir Ian McGregor’s outside advisors ...was interviewed in a Channel 4 programme and confirmed that from the summer of 1984 onwards the Chairman of the NCB had been advised that a settlement of the strike was not wanted”. (p222, op cit).
To blame Arthur Scargill for blocking a settlement is not only wrong, it egregiously offends the evidence pointing so clearly to Mrs Thatcher’s pulverising intentions towards the NUM.
What is risible, is that the authors of ‘Marching ...’ allowed Neil Kinnock to help them focus unduly on Arthur Scargill. Kinnock’s role in the strike was as contemptible as it was craven. His emphasis on strike violence ought to have been directed towards police thuggery, but he preferred to join with the Sun newspaper AND the BBC in helping give the impression that the violence was mainly perpetrated by NUM members. Kinnock’s role in the strike was widely criticised and, together with his other gaffes, helped discredit him.
I agree with Seamus Milne, author of the ‘The Enemy Within’, who in reviewing ‘Marching...’, concluded “That the history the strike deserves is waiting to be written”. Seamus Milne’s book, op cit; Harry Paterson’s ‘Look Back in Anger’, Michael Mansfield’s ‘Memoirs of a Radical Lawyer’, “A Year of Our Lives” by Dave Douglas and ‘How Black was Our Valley’ by N Butts-Thompson and D Price (all available via Amazon) are books I’d recommend, in addition to those mentioned earlier, to anyone wanting to advance on the tabloid account that ‘Marching to the Fault Line’ provides. It seems that some press hounds are happy to roll and wallow in the ideological deposits of the Tories and the Tory press.