Friday, 13 March 2009

Memories of the miners' strike

All these political anniversaries are starting to make me feel old. Last year it was the 40th anniversary of the '68 events, which prompted the first sparks of political consciousness in my adolescent self, and now it's 25 years since the miners' strike, an altogether more problematic memory.

This week's media coverage has brought back personal memories - of collectors with their buckets and 'Coal Not Dole' badges on the streets of London, and of driving through the Dartford Tunnel and being shocked to see the police preventing strike supporters from travelling northwards. And it's reawakened the conflicted feelings I had at the time. On the one hand, instinctive sympathy for the miners and their families combined with equally visceral anger at the coldheartedness of Thatcher and MacGregor, as well as horror at the tactics of the police. But at the same time, sheer frustration at the bloodymindedness and political cackhandedness of Arthur Scargill.

The anniversary has seen Scargill emerging on to the airwaves again after a long silence, and it's been odd hearing that stubborn, strident voice after all these years. He's so right in some aspects of his retrospective analysis, and so wrong in others. He's taken the opportunity to lambast not only the Tories and the Coal Board, but also Neil Kinnock, Labour leader at the time. Now Kinnock has responded, in equally vehement terms. Accusing the miners' leader of 'suicidal vanity', he suggests that the latter walked into Thatcher's carefully laid trap by seeking outright confrontation, and argues that if Scargill had agreed to a national ballot, he could have won over public opinion and given legitimacy to the strike.

It's an argument I found sympathetic at the time, and still think is right. But Scargill had no head for this kind of long-term strategic thinking. He's in a long line of ego-driven 'leaders' on the British left - in their very different ways, George Galloway and Tony Benn are also examples - who prefer grandstanding and gestural oppositionalism to the less glamorous business of building alliances and making strategic compromises.

On the issue of the ballot, Scargill, the maverick pseudo-revolutionary, was wrong, and Mick McGahey, his Communist vice-president, was right. The problem with Scargill, it might be said, was not that he was (as the tabloids delighted in jeering) a Marxist - but that he wasn't enough of one.

(More on the anniversary from Bob here)

1 comment:

bob said...

Excellent post Martin. Spot on about Scargill. It has been quite inspiring to hear his oratory on the radio: his voice has not aged a bit. But what a megalomaniac, egotistical man. I'd hate him to be our dictator.

I've been thinking about Henry Hyndman and Robert Blatchford as our two models of demagogic "left" leaders: Hyndman as Benn, Blatchford as Sargill/Galloway. Not sure if it works.