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The irrepressible Mr Scargill

Arthur Scargill, former leader of Britain’s National Union of Mineworkers and leader of the UK Socialist Labour Party, shares his views on Margaret Thatcher, James Connolly and journalism.
Kevin Brannigan

Kevin Brannigan (KB) – Folk singer Billy Bragg recently said, ‘Today’s economic crisis started on March 3rd 1985, the day the Miners were defeated’.  Do you support this view?
Arthur Scargill (AS) – No.  Billy Bragg unfortunately has moved to the right instead of moving to the left.  Billy Bragg supported the miners in 1984/’85 and indeed did a lot of things which were very positive, but I think his analysis is completely wrong.  The position is that the Labour and Trade Union movement failed to understand in 1984/’85 that this was not just a matter of a dispute between an industry and a trade union, this was a fight promoted by the Tory Government to try and destroy trade unionism.  Had other Trade Unions accepted the call of the Miners Union to come out on strike with them the strike would have been over in weeks, but incidentally, you might not know this, but on five separate occasions we reached an agreement to settle the strike, on four of those occasions they were sabotaged by Thatcher and the Government, and on the fifth occasion the most important one in October 1984 we reached an agreement ironically at ACAS [the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service] and with the Deputies Union present I drafted an agreement which would have settled the strike.

I can tell you that the Government accepted, in secret, that deal and it was only when the Trade Union known as NACODS [National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirers] suddenly changed their position, withdrawing from the agreement they had made with the NUM at ACAS, that the Tory Government withdrew from its proposal to settle the strike.  And even to this day nobody has been able to answer the question why did they change their mind? They even refused a plea from the [Trade Union Congress] TUC leadership not to call off their strike.  Probably the first time in history that the TUC has asked somebody to go on strike.

KB – Well why do you think they changed their mind?
AS – I’m still looking for the answer.  It’s like the Ark of the Covenant, but we’ll find out someday.

KB – You said in a Television interview in 1984 that you were “proud to be an enemy of capitalism”.  Saying such stuff was never going to help you find a middle ground with Thatcher.
AS – Absolutely.  You get knocked down, in the middle of the road.  I’ve never been in the middle of the road I’ve always been on the left and always will be for the rest of my life.  You either take a stand and want to see society changed so that the means of production, distribution and exchange are in the hands of ordinary people and not in the hands of a few or you go along with the concept that we support Social Democracy and become part of the system that we become infected with capitalism as a way of life.  I’m sorry I don’t go with that I’m a Socialist and like James Connolly I didn’t want just to see Irish Independence and Nationalism I want to see a Socialist Ireland.  Still do.  United.

KB – Was it class war in 1984/’85?
AS – It’s been class war ever since the beginning of capitalism.  If one looks at it you can only define class in political terms by applying one scientific process.  There are only two classes.  This nonsense about the middle class and the upper-middle class and the lower – middle classes is an invention of the sociologists, perpetuated by the broadcasters on television and radio.  A class is determined by its relationship to the means of production; if you own and control industry and services then you are a member of the capitalist ruling class.  If you work by hand or by brain, no matter what your job is, you are a member of the working class and until people understand that they will never understand the nature of what class is or class warfare.   

KB – When you look back now after 25 years with the ability to analyse and pick out where mistakes were made and you see how Thatcher had stockpiled coal before the strike had started and that she had plans to import coal into Britain.  Do you look back at these events and ever think that you had no chance of success from the start?
AS – See one of the first things you should do, as a journalist, is never make the presumption that your question is the right thing to say.  In other words, never make a presumption that your point is something that’s a fact.  It’s not true.  They didn’t have the reserves.  At the start of the strike in 1984, the coal industry had certain supplies but for major industry, such as the power industry, there was a 26-week supply only.  More important, the cement industry, which is dependent upon coal, had only around 12 weeks’ supply.  But the most vulnerable of all was the steel industry, which had only got 6 weeks supply left and no stocking grounds.  That’s why Orgreave was so important and had people followed my advice to recreate what we did at Saltley in 1972 – and kept up the mass picketing not only at Orgreave but at Ravenscraig and, Llanwern, at Port Talbot and all the other steel plants in Britain – we would have had the strike settled within weeks.  Bearing in mind that at Scunthorpe, for example, which was dependent upon cooking coal, that steel works had only got about a week’s supply left when we had the mass picket at Orgreave.

They couldn’t get coal in by sea because the seamen had stopped it, they couldn’t get coal in by rail because the [National Union of Railwaymen] NUR as it then was had stopped it they couldn’t get it up the wharf because we’d stopped it with our pickets and their only route was by road; and if other Trade Unionists had taken the advice that I gave at the time – indeed if the NUM leadership in many areas had taken the advice to step up the picketing as we had done in 1972 in February – then we would have brought Orgreave to a permanent standstill.  Tell you an interesting story; just a few years after the miners’ strike ended I put a telephone call through to the police HQ at South Yorkshire and I asked them if they could send some police straight away down to Orgreave.  They said “what for, Sir?” Well I said they’re closing it.  “Who’s closing it, Sir?” I said, the British Steel Corporation.  “What’s that got to do with us?” Well, I said, it had a lot to do with you in 1984 – you had 8,200 riot police down here and we had 10,200 pickets trying to stop that plant temporarily just for five or six days.  Here British steel are, closing it permanently and we can’t find one police officer.  By the way, that’s called class struggle.

KB – How different a place would Britain be today if the miners had won in 1984/’85?
AB – Well I don’t believe we were defeated – so let’s get that absolutely clear – and I resent and reject this concept that we were defeated.  What person in his right mind today would say that James Connolly and those who stormed the GPO in 1916 were defeated? Nobody in their right mind.  You wouldn’t have the Republic of Ireland without their campaign, their determination and their heroism.  Looking through history, people have been told that they were defeated only to see time and time again that was not the case.  Probably the most significant is in Cuba.  They celebrate 1956 and the storming of the Moncada Barracks where it was commonly conceded that they had lost.  1959, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara walked into Havana and raised the flag of the Revolution, which still flies today.  Who won?

KB – The British working class have elected two fascists to the European Parliament.  Why has this happened?
AS – Well it’s simple.  You have got economic condition now prevailing not dissimilar to those that prevailed in the 1930s and it’s throughout Europe.  It’s caused by capitalism and it’s certainly caused by membership of the European Union.  Anyone who is daft enough to support the concept of the EU doesn’t understand the damage that it does to countries like Great Britain or to countries like Ireland where the crisis has been catastrophic.  We for example, have not only the free movement of capital but the free movement of labour, in other words it can just move around as it wants and it can close down a factory, it can close down a business in Ireland – it can move it to another country.  If workers want to go on strike and do exactly the same thing, withdraw their labour, they’re suddenly confronted with legislation and legal constraints and that demonstrates how they try to keep peoples living standards down.

KB –In January of this year we had the Lindsey oil refinery strike in England, which featured placards with the legend ‘British Jobs for British Workers’.  What was that about?
AS – It’s about the same thing I’ve just told you about.  You can’t have a situation were people can just move factories out of Britain or move labour – not about immigration not asylum seekers.  There is a difference.  You can’t have a situation were you can just move migrant labour, migrant capital into a society with it having devastating effects on the whole society because it will undermine the whole system that exists.

KB – You left the Labour Party in 1995 and the Socialist Labour Party [SLP] was set up after that.  Can the left reclaim ‘New Labour’?
AS – No it can’t.  First of all let me correct you, the SLP was established in 1902 at a conference in Edinburgh by James Connolly.  Our policies are as near as they possibly could be to those devised by James Connolly in the original manifesto.  We re-founded the SLP in 1996 because of the betrayal of the Labour leadership.  It’s now abandoned any vestige of pretending to be a party that supports socialism.  It’s eliminated from its constitution any commitment to socialism or public ownership.  But more than that it’s dropped the twin cornerstones which formed the Labour party, a social democratic party one is Propositional Representation, which was abandoned by Ramsay MacDonald, that arch betrayer of the Labour movement, in 1926 and then in 1995 Blair abandoned the commitment to common ownership.  Now you can’t have those twin policies removed and make any distinction from the Tory party or the Liberal Party, indeed making it to the right of the Liberal party, and then saying we can re-claim it.  You might as well say we can go into the Tory party and re-claim that or change it.  It’s complete and utter nonsense you can’t do it.
KB – You’re a supporter of Sinn Féin, to an extent, how do you think they have preformed in Government in the North of Ireland?
AS – Again you see you make presumptions.  I’m a supporter of the Socialist Labour Party.  I want to see a socialist Ireland.  To do that you need a socialist policy and you need to make that absolutely crystal clear to the electorate on both sides of the border.

KB- Has Sinn Féin been socialist enough since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement?
AS – Well I think with respect I’ve just answered your question.  I will support any argument by any organisation for independence.  I will support any organisation that campaigns for the right of self-determination.  That’s the reason why I supported for years the campaigns put forward by Republicans in Ireland for a united Ireland.  That’s why I supported the [African National Congress] ANC in South Africa, because I wanted to see an independent South Africa free from apartheid.  But of course that’s not far enough what you need is a socialist South Africa and a socialist Ireland.

KB – What is your opinion on how much Trade Union leaders should earn?
AS – I think Trade Union leaders should be paid in accordance to decisions taken by their members.  I think that’s perfectly reasonable and perfectly understandable.  I don’t go for the Trotskyite argument, which appears to be coming from your question about what they should be paid.  No outside body should start interfering.  You’ll find that by and large if you look at trade Union leaders it’s not their salaries that are the problem it’s their policies.  And some of the leaders in the past who have been the most militant have been the most attacked and vilified and I don’t need to spell them out to you, certainly as someone who has been under surveillance by the British state on their own admission since 1955.

KB- Finally, regular contributor to Village magazine, George Monbiot [green campaigner] has yet to take you up on your challenge to stand in a room full of radiation for more than two minutes.  [Arthur Scargill challenged Monbiot in an article in The Guardian last year, “I challenge George Monbiot to test out which is the most dangerous fuel – coal or nuclear power.  I am prepared to go into a room full of CO2 for two minutes, if he is prepared to go into a room full of radiation for two minutes.”]
AS – I’m still waiting for him to take up the challenge but he never has.  Of course if he walked into a room full of radiation – my choosing not his – he wouldn’t last.  I know I can hold my breath for two minutes because I’ve tried it you see and I know what happens with carbon dioxide.  But what also is important is that he can’t get rid of radiation from nuclear power stations and so in supporting nuclear power stations I would say he needs to see a psychiatrist! In the case of coal we now know, we’ve got the proof, we can remove the carbon by a system called ‘carbon capture’, and that means no carbon will escape into the atmosphere so we don’t have the global warming problem coming from coal.  It’s high time people began to identify where the emissions are coming from.  They’re coming from air transport, they’re coming from transport on the roads, and they’re coming from shipping and of course many other areas that they don’t often refer to throughout the world.  The real problem is there isn’t a sensible integrated energy policy that excludes nuclear power completely and begins to develop in our case the 1,000 years plus of coal and extract from that coal all the oil, gas and petro chemicals we need and at the same time does not emit dangerous gases including CO2 into the atmosphere.