HAS ARTHUR SCARGILL learnt to box clever? On the eve of last week's delegate conference, the president of the National Union of Mineworkers was ready for a strike ballot. Industrial action was the way to stop the 31 pit closures and never mind that striking miners would risk their redundancy payments and that the power stations had enough stocks to last even the hardest winter. 'Miners have a choice,' he said. 'Either to lie down and let this happen or stand up and fight back.'

The conference opened in vintage, finger-wagging Scargillian style. By the time the session closed, the mood of the delegates had sunk in. 'It was amazing,' one delegate said. 'Arthur was listening and keeping his knee-jerk calls for a strike in check. We haven't seen it for a long while, but I call it leadership at last.' A combination of public pressure and legal action might force the Government to change its mind, Mr Scargill acknowledged. 'We don't want a strike,' he said after the conference. 'All we want is to save the British coal industry and save jobs.'

His many critics may well reply that if this had been his only aim during the 1984-85 miners' dispute, when more than twice as many pits and jobs were at stake, the industry would not be in its present sorry state. But Arthur Scargill, convinced Marxist, wanted to topple the government. He failed. Indeed, the defeat of the miners enabled Margaret Thatcher to claim an equivalent of the Falklands war triumph on the home front. He has failed in much else, too.

Since he became NUM president in 1982, more than 100,000 miners have lost their jobs. Though he has called for industrial action every year, he has only twice won majorities for it - for overtime bans in 1983 and 1987. He split the union and presided over a decline in NUM membership from 250,000 to 44,000. No wonder ministers thought they could get away with a casual announcement of pit closures, sandwiched last week between the Tory Party conference and the resumption of Parliament. Even Mr Scargill's prediction in the mid-1980s that the Government and the employers had secret 'hit lists' and planned closures on exactly this scale fails to impress some critics within the industry. 'What's he going to have put on the NUM's tombstone?' asked one. ' 'I was right'?'

ARTHUR SCARGILL was born, in Worsbrough near Barnsley, 54 years ago. His mother died when he was 18, leaving him devastated. He started work at Woolley Colliery on leaving school. He was radicalised by clashes not with the boss class, but with the right-wing union branch. His maiden speech - on training for pit apprentices - prompted a walkout by the old guard. In 1955, he tried to join a youth section of the moribund, right-dominated local Labour Party, but never got a reply. He then joined the Young Communist League - but, unlike his father, a dedicated Communist who died three years ago, Mr Scargill never joined the CP.

He studied social history and industrial relations on day release at Leeds University. By 1964 he was pit delegate on the NUM branch committee and began to meet activists from other pits at area council meetings. Two years later, he was sent to the union's annual conference. It was his launchpad to national prominence.

The 1972 miners' dispute first brought Arthur Scargill to the attention of a wider public. The Battle of Saltley Gate, where mass picketing shut down a Birmingham coke works, became one of the epiphanies of his life. That year, the miners won nearly all their demands and came out with a 27 per cent pay rise. By the end of 1974, when another miners' strike had toppled the Heath government, Arthur was ensconced in Camelot, the Yorkshire NUM HQ in Barnsley, as the area president with his sights set on the national leadership.

He had an uneasy relationship with Joe Gormley, the wily pragmatist who was then president. Yet it was Gormley who opened the way for Scargill to head the national union by staying in office until Mick McGahey, the Communist Scottish miners' leader, was too old for the job. Scargill fought a brilliant campaign, winning more than 70 per cent of the vote. He offered vision and the promise of strong leadership in speeches delivered with wit and passion. In those days, it was thought, nobody could stop the miners.

Scargill is an ideologue; he sees strikes and disputes as battles in a class war, trade unionists as troops who should accept military-style discipline. Thus, at Saltley Gates, he did not ask for the support of other trade unionists but 'demanded' it. When NUM members at Thurcroft, near Rotherham, wanted recently to sink the redundancy money in their pit to save some jobs and sustain a threatened community, they got no support from the NUM president. Pits should be publicly owned and, even when privatisation and redundancy loom, working men should not have to buy up what is rightfully theirs. Scargill has always prided himself on his refusal to compromise or collaborate with the class enemy. He is an acute tactician but a lousy strategist. Since the formation of the Union of Democratic Mineworkers by Nottinghamshire area officials who broke away after the 1984-85 strike, he has refused to sit in the same room as its leaders. For that reason, he has not negotiated a pay rise since the end of the strike. To Mr Scargill, the UDM leaders are pariahs and traitors. It is not in his nature to 'prostitute his principles' and hob- nob with such men.

Not that he hob-nobs much with anybody. He married a local girl, Anne Harper, daughter of a Woolley NUM branch committee man. They have one daughter, Margaret. He has few really close friends - they include Norman West, the Barnsley Euro MP, and Frank Watters, an engaging veteran communist and Morning Star seller, who helped him organise Saltley Gate. He likes to jest with journalists - before a press conference he will promise with a grin or even a wink 'a bit of raw meat' for 'my piranah fish'. He does have favoured reporters, but if they cross him or start writing things he does not agree with, the favours soon cease. During the 1984-85 strike, he largely avoided direct dealings with the hated capitalist press, especially those papers owned by Rupert Murdoch. Nell Myers, his personal assistant and press officer, was more willing to talk to journalists - but strictly circumscribed in what she could say.

Mr Scargill has the knack of evoking fierce loyalty - from Ms Myers and others. But the ego is huge. Those not for him are against him, and that includes former loyalists who dare to disagree with him.

It was during the 1984-85 strike that Scargill's inflexibility and absolute confidence in his fundamentalist politics was most acutely highlighted. Under NUM rules, he was able to ballot coalfields area by area and thus avoid the risk of holding and losing a national ballot. Men in one area, he argued, did not have the right to tell those in another that they must lose their jobs. Clashes between police and pickets damaged the miners' cause, distracting attention from their case. Yet Scargill seemed oblivious to the need for public support or even the need to convince fellow trade unionists. Once more, he 'demanded' support. He refused to denounce the violence. He despatched an emissary to get money from Colonel Gaddafi, the Libyan dictator, shortly after a young London policewoman had been shot by a henchman at the Libyan Embassy in London. He took loans from other unions, yet refused to listen to their advice or even to discuss the strike with Congress House for almost six months.

Sympathetic union leaders would shrug their shoulders and say: 'Well, that's Arthur, he'll never change.' But he surrounded himself with aides who would never dream of questioning his approach. As the strike dragged on to its desperate end, and hardship increased among miners and their families, even union leaders on the left tried to persuade him to call off the heroic struggle. They sometimes had to compromise; why couldn't he? To no avail. He and his young miners were right; the rest of the labour movement was out of step.

He had opportunities to claim a partial victory, at least. Ian MacGregor, the chairman of the Coal Board, and his negotiating team, seemed ready to agree a new formula for defining 'economically viable' pits. It might have limited the number of lost jobs. But Scargill turned it down and the strike continued for another seven months. He was always an intransigent negotiator - he would never, for example, recommend a Coal Board offer of a pay rise because it was never as high as the claim.

In the years after the strike, bad publicity piled on bad publicity. In 1990, Robert Maxwell's Daily Mirror launched a campaign to expose corruption. But the allegations were never substantiated. Questionable stewardship of the union, maybe - corruption, no. The case against Mr Scargill and other union officials collapsed in court.

WHEN SCARGILL stood for re-election in 1988, his majority was much reduced. The coalfields are littered with his disillusioned former supporters. They have mixed views about what to expect of him now. Kevin Barron, Labour MP for Rother Valley, former Maltby miner and Scargill presidential campaigner, said: 'If we are seeing Arthur Scargill recognising reality, it's not before time.' Frank Slater, a picket-line stalwart and branch delegate at Maltby, said before the delegate conference: 'If Arthur Scargill puts his job, his retirement package and his bungalow on the line and is prepared to stand in the same dole queue as me, I'd support him if he called for a strike. But there's about as much chance of that as there is the Pope popping round here for tea.' After the conference, he said: 'I reckon he's using his brains for once.'

Arthur Scargill would hate people to say he has mellowed. But, for the first time in his union career, he is no longer Public Enemy Number One. His cause has the support of Tory MPs, the press, the Southern middle-classes, even, for a day or two at least, the courts.

He has outlasted his greatest enemies: Thatcher, Kinnock, Maxwell. Once more, he is ready to take on the forces of the British state, but he has stopped using that language; the talk is no longer of war. Building broad alliances is not the Scargill style but it seems that, at last, he will accept support from class enemies and traitors. If he plays his cards right, Arthur's dream could come true and he could be in at the kill of a Tory government.

(Photograph omitted)