BOOK REVIEW / Looking back on a life of posturing impossibilism: 'Scargill: The Unauthorised Biography' - Paul Routledge: HarperCollins: 16.99 pounds

Click to follow
The Independent Online
NORMAN WILLIS, the jovial cockney office boy who went to Oxford and eventually became general secretary of the TUC, used to sing, to the tune of the Gay Gordons, 'Arthur Scargill walks on water'. This performance was received with some unease by Scargillite true believers during the miners' strike of 1984-85. In truth, as Paul Routledge makes clear, Arthur Scargill's self-regard and self-indulgence is without parallel in the history of the British labour movement.

The miners' leader blames the Labour Party and the TUC for not giving him adequate support during the great strike. But it was, Routledge demonstrates, his decision to keep Neil Kinnock and Len Murray at arm's length. For King Arthur, 'solidarity' has always been a one-way ticket.

'And when I'm sitting on that desert island,' Scargill told Sue Lawley in 1988, 'I'll be able to sit back under that palm tree looking over that beautiful stretch of sand and say to myself that what I did was right and, above all, I never sold out the men.' Routledge is horrified by such posturing. The miners' strike was an unmitigated failure. Since 1985 almost 150 pits have been closed and 100,000 men have lost their jobs.

Scargill led his members into 'non-negotiable' battle without democratic consultation. He split his union and alienated much of the trade union movement by insisting that the strike was a quasi-revolutionary act. He kept his members out - and their families suffering - long after it was apparent that the strike was lost. As a result, says Routledge, 'there was a powerful degree of self-fulfilment in his prophesies (about job losses and pit closures)'.

The author of this biography comes from a Yorkshire mining village and was for many years a Fleet Street labour correspondent. He was an admirer of Mr Scargill. But the two men are no longer on speaking terms. This book is in part the author's personal 'voyage of disillusion'.

'Impossibilism' - the posing of demands that one knows cannot be met in order to educate the workers into the nature of the class enemy - is what Lenin called 'an infantile disorder', a form of Trotskyism that was much despised by orthodox Marxists. The 1984-85 miners' strike was 'impossibilism' of a high order.

Yet Scargill, a Barnsley boy from a pit family, rose through the ranks of the Yorkshire miners with the support of the Communist Party machine. It is not altogether clear from this account why that invaluable support was offered to a man who had dropped out of the Young Communist League. Perhaps the answer is that since the Sixties the Communist Party had been incapable of generating activists of stature and so had to rely on outsiders whom they hoped to manipulate.

Thus Will Paynter, the most honourable and able Communist of his generation, who had been general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers in the Sixties, was reduced to endorsing Scargill's campaign for the NUM presidency in 1981 in ludicrously inflated terms. He wrote that Scargill was 'one of the ablest and most articulate trade union leaders in the country . . . a recognised, powerful advocate of progressive policies'.

Mick McGahey, the Communist leader of the Scottish miners, behaved even worse. He encouraged Scargill in his counter-productive manoeuvre to deny his members a strike ballot in 1984 - a requirement under the union constitution. McGahey advised cynically that the NUM should not be 'constitutionalised' out of its dispute.

It was the Frankensteins of the NUM's Communist-dominated broad left who created that revolutionary monster, King Arthur. Eventually the creature ran amok, mauling them and wrecking his union. This was perhaps no more than poetic justice. But it was tough on those miners who were willing to take his revolutionary rhetoric seriously.