The National Union of Mineworkers annual conference in Scarborough:: Martin Whitfield looks back on the Scargill decade and weighs up the state of the union

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Indy Politics
THE WORDS from Arthur Scargill's mouth retain the same volatile mixture of history, struggle and ideology. But the context, ten years since he was elected president of the National Union of Mineworkers and seven years since the end of the year-long pit strike, makes them sound distinctly out of time.

Mr Scargill's speeches seem to be trapped in the rhetoric of his most influential period. No glimmer of his reduced power is acknowledged. That he is in control of fewer than 40,000 members, not the 200,000 that followed him in 1984. That he is irrelevant to the Labour Party and TUC rather than a major influence on thousands of left-wing activists.

Mistakes are recognised only in others: thus the Labour Party must understand 'that the only way to fight back against this Government is not to try and ameliorate them but to resist policies which are undemocratic and destructive'. The vocabulary has not changed: it is one of the mass campaign, absolute confrontation, no compromises.

Combined with the insistence on intellectual socialist purity over the past 13 years and the correct prediction of what a Conservative government might inflict on the coal industry, the language gives Mr Scargill his timeless flavour. Union critics maintain that the style is as dated as such other icons from the early days of protest against Thatcherism as Militant, the Anti-Nazi League and Labour's municipal socialists.

Mr Scargill's approach is seen as providing no answer for the industry's problems. Strong statements of principle do not make effective strategies of resistance or identify methods to defend members' interests.

A motion approved yesterday opposing the coal sell-off by 'any means necessary' holds out the prospect of industrial action.

Mr Scargill will not accept the harsh reality that more than 150,000 pitmen have settled for voluntary redundancy. That the mass of miners do not want to be involved in class struggle and have consistently rejected his calls to arms since the defeat in the strike of 1984-85.

Blame is placed on the leaderships of the various NUM areas for not campaigning hard enough on wages, on resisting six-day working, on opposing the UDM. But Mr Scargill has shown an unwillingness to listen to what the areas have been saying, either in ballot results of the membership or in vote after vote to accept colliery closures. The result has been that the weakened union has suffered internal split after split.

Appeals by Mr Scargill on Monday for the union to unite against the common external enemy show no sign of being effective. An apparently united executive in favour of all methods of opposing privatisation is in reality a deeply divided body of 17 men.

Scottish officials are deeply involved in attempts to make sure that British Coal's interests in Scotland are sold off as a single unit. They believe that such a sale will give Longannet, the sole remaining deep mine in Scotland, its best chance of survival.

Other areas, such as Derbyshire and the union's white collar section, Cosa, do not agree that privatisation can be resisted indefinitely. They want a more flexible approach so that they can talk to potential bidders, particularly any management buy-outs.

The conference may be able to paper over some cracks in unanimous votes of principle. But the future under privatisation is all too clear - small area groups will assume responsibility for all negotiations for the four or five pits controlled by a particular buyer.

Vic Allen, a mining union historian and former professor at Leeds University, stated in the Morning Star on the day the conference opened: 'In a privatised industry, British Coal's policy of non-recognition would undoubtedly be continued and all national agreements would be scrapped. The NUM would most probably be fragmented but, in any event, it would be too small to be viable.'

Arthur Scargill is able to claim political correctness over the past 10 years. But the decade of his leadership is likely to end with the aristocrats of Labour being broken up or left as a rump of 15,000 members within the Transport and General Workers' Union.

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