From Socialist Review, No. 173, March 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
I was a miner at Frickley Colliery for 19 years, and was made redundant 19 years to the day I started. I feel angry and bitter at events over the last 16 months. After reading Arthur Scargill’s article History Distorted (February SR) I’d like to tell a few home truths.
Scargill’s article leaves one feeling that everything that could have been done was done. Not true, and Arthur Scargill and the NUM have to take some responsibility.
When the government decided to destroy the mining industry in October 1992, it faced almost total opposition from a labour movement that we had been told was dead. The two massive marches in London took everyone by surprise. The first was 150,000 strong and was billed as a mass lobby of parliament.
I remember the feeling at work. I was on the branch committee and helped organise the 20 coaches from our pit. Miners were really looking forward to it, saying things like the Tories would have to dress as road sweepers to even get in parliament, let alone vote. But instead we were dropped in Hyde Park and marched around a field. We felt robbed of the chance to vent our anger and felt we’d wasted our time. Many of us were running the risk of disciplinary action for taking the day off work.
Scargill’s admission that the NUM had to accept a ticket only rally is a joke. Why did we have to accept it?
That day could have been so different. There was a mood to lobby parliament but it needed to be led. And only Scargill could have done it. Instead he was busy defending Bill Jordan. Scargill did call for strike action, but calling on the likes of Jordan and Willis was always a non-starter. To pull anything off we had to go over the heads of the leaders and appeal straight to the rank and file. But after the TUC march of over 250,000 people, we were fed a diet of small, demoralising local marches and told to wait for the end of a Commons Select Committee report, again toeing the TUC line.
One of the most disgusting things Scargill says is about the pit occupations. When he says if miners had seriously intended to occupy the pits they would have, it is an insult to all the miners who were prepared to risk the sack and maybe imprisonment. SWP miners worked hard to pull together miners from up and down the country who were prepared to go into occupation. Scargill was well aware of this.
For our pains we were attacked by Scargill in a packed meeting at Armthorpe, in front of men who until then were willing to occupy. By the new year we had men at six to eight pits ready to go into occupation.
This was no small step for us, for if things went wrong we all faced the sack, including men with families and mortgages who’d worked in the pits for 20 or 30 years. We needed at least the assurance that Scargill and the left in the NUM would come out in full support of the occupations. But we were told the time wasn’t right, that we should just occupy the ten most threatened pits – none of which were in production. In pits like Frickley, where we had a good base, Scargill was against occupation. Without Scargill’s approval we couldn’t convince any of the non-SWP miners to go ahead. It would have been suicide for the SWP miners to go it alone.
The NUM campaign was sadly lacking on all fronts. In November and December Scargill said it would have been naive and politically incompetent to call a general strike. But if we couldn’t pull anything in November, we had little chance the following spring when Scargill finally got round to calling for it.
When the TUC met in Doncaster on 25 November, the NUM refused to back a lobby. Even then many miners still turned up to tell Willis and Co what we thought of their campaign – which was leading us to the dole queue.
This wasn’t just another dispute. The NUM and the mining industry were at stake. If we had thrown everything into a fight we could have beaten the government and opened the floodgates for millions of workers to do the same.
The lesson is simple. We can’t trust any bureaucrat, no matter how left wing they are. But there is an alternative: rank and file organisation – and SWP miners almost pulled off the pit occupations independently of the union. If we had had five or six more members in the pits we would have had enough to sway a section of men into occupation.
It saddens me to have to write such a critical letter of Scargill, but we have to learn the lessons.
Last updated: 8 March 2017