Maggie ruled like a despot - but at least she ruled

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Indy Lifestyle Online
'IT WOULD never have happened under Maggie]' At first, my own reaction to the sentence on the coal mines seemed crazy. Who else but Margaret Thatcher had lured Arthur Scargill and the National Union of Mineworkers into the great ambush of the 1985 strike? Her victory in the coal strike had reduced the rebel miners to helpless captivity. Were not the mass hangings bound to follow sooner or later?

The difference is about authority. Margaret Thatcher ruled autocratically, often destructively - but she ruled. She took power in the name of market forces, promising small government. But she overwhelmed Parliament with new laws, and she centralised political power on London to a degree not seen since the last war. She used the free market like an axe, swinging it selectively against her enemies. In the matter of British Coal, she would have taken advice, heard the figures, then made up her mind according to her view of national interest - an unpredictable view, but her own.

John Major's Government does not work like that. He is a reasonable man, but the degeneration of political authority in recent months has been terrifying. It is strange that he and his colleagues, who knew Mrs T so well, seem not have understood that her talk about 'irresistible' world market forces and conditions was substantially humbug. When she felt like resisting an irresistible world force, she stood up and bashed it. This Government, in contrast, just lets things happen.

Partly this is because the ministers around Mr Major lack character and intellectual quality and, since Black Wednesday, have been paralysed by fear. Partly, though, it is because they stand genuinely in awe of market forces, and believe that the new privatised monopolies express those forces. They have no forum in which to consult and collaborate with capital or labour. They have only the little green money-digits twiddling down to zero on their screens. They are sensorily deprived, and alone.

That is the most pathetic aspect of it. It is suggested that 'the figures' by themselves dictated the murder of the coal industry. It is suggested that the decision belonged alone to independent British Coal. But this is eyewash. Figures do not 'speak'. Figures are selected, then arranged to support or demolish a case. The speaking is done by human beings - in this case, officials from British Coal.

They chose their figures and finally they presented their case. They explained why the only course for the industry was immediate mass closure. And nobody in the Government, it seems, could think of a good reason why not.

Within hours of the announcement, it was snowing good reasons. The media, including the Tory papers, screamed murder. Conservative backbenchers and peers protested. Industrialists, already panicky about the steep new rise of bankruptcies and the fall in manufacturing, were horrified. The City itself was unnerved. The rate of the pound against the mark, which had been crawling painfully back since Black Wednesday, crashed again. The public, which has always been inclined to sympathise with miners (if not with Arthur Scargill), burst into reproachful tears.

I hear two explanations for this utter failure to foresee consequences. One is that this was blind revenge: the final act of the vendetta which began in 1974 when 'the miners' overthrew the Heath government. (They did no such thing, of course. The voters did so, partly because a substantial number of them felt the miners had been unfairly handled.) I prefer the explanation from Neil Kinnock. He said that it was simply callousness. The Major Government had lost touch with the human consequences of recession and unemployment. That line is less spectacular, but ultimately more frightening. An administration which has grown numb to the human consequences of economic events is also numb to the economy. The recession now deepening towards a slump is out of control.

Only one section of the community was shocked, but not surprised. That was the miners themselves. Arthur Scargill was absolutely wrong in 1985 to fight the Waterloo of the NUM on a battlefield prepared by Mrs Thatcher. After the defeat, though, he was absolutely right about what would be done to the industry and its people. It took rather longer and was rather worse than he predicted. But he was right. As for the people of the coalfields, it did not take the 1985 strike to make them feel marginal. They have always felt it.

One day long ago, when I was in a pub in Warrington, an old man sat down beside me and began to tell a story. As a boy, he had started work in a coal mine like his father before him. He did it for about a week. Then, one brilliant early morning in summer, he was walking to the colliery with his best friend when something happened to him. 'I turned to Bob. I looked around at the sunlight and the flowers and that. I said to Bob: 'I'm not going down that deep, dark hole no more. Let's be off, you and me.' '

And they ran for it, across the fields and down to the Mersey, and they kept going till they got to Liverpool, and made very different lives - as seamen, as drivers, as gardeners or soldiers. I forget what happened to Bob. But the first boy did not come back to Warrington until he was middle-aged. Now he sat placidly beside me, still a little radiant about that decision for light over darkness taken 50 years before.

Coal-mining people have always been ambiguous about what they do. There is pride, but there is also an emotion which smells like the opposite of pride. 'Do you want your boy to go down the pit, like you did?' In my own random experience, the answer is more often no than yes. And if it is yes, then that is often because 'there's nothing else going round here'.

The sensible, socialist analysis of miners' motives was provided by (among many others) George Orwell: 'The conditions are such that human beings simply will not stand them except under some kind of compulsion.'

This left two alternatives. Either mining life must be transformed out of all recognition - something which even nationalisation and the old National Coal Board were unable to achieve - or coal mining should be brought to an end.

But there are feelings deeper than economic necessity. Miners have a long collective memory. Once, in the time of the ancestors, they were pressed down to the condition of animals, so wretched and tormented that their very appearance put fear into the hearts of more fortunate people. Since then, by their own efforts and solidarity against the owners, the miners have risen. They emerged from degradation to become the steadiest and most far-sighted component of the old working class.

The memory of historical degradation, all the same, is like an individual's memory of torture. It isolates, and it cuts into self-confidence. Britain's miners to this day feel marginal, and the reign of Arthur Scargill has hidden the fact that their political tradition has been cautious and patient rather than romantic.

The miners lacked confidence, but Britain drew a sort of confidence from them. They were the last true industrial community, as all other ways of life grew fluid and indistinct. Now they are to be destroyed. There was always a case, as Orwell implied, for stopping human beings going down 'that deep, dark hole'. But the loss of them, junked in this almost casual way, leaves us all adrift.

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