Interview: The Coal Board chairman who got away: Arthur Scargill could have gone to Oxford, he could have been the boss. But he has his principles

Hunter Davies
Monday 12 April 1993 23:02

IT'S NOT easy, getting into the HQ of the NUM. They are in Sheffield, as is known, in a modern building next to the Civic Hall, but there's no front entrance, no signs, no instructions. You have to go into an underground car park, speak into a machine on the wall, wait for the metal doors to be lifted, walk through into a concrete cavern, the sort where Deep Throats meet, then wait till an unseen voice tells you which door to open. Spooky. By comparison, MI5 is a doddle.

It's not easy, interviewing Arthur Scargill, the NUM's president. The HQ is a symbolic warning, indicating No Compromise. They do have a front foyer, complete with red carpets and plants, all carefully tended, but you can't get up to it as there are no steps, thanks to a complicated row with the local council that's lasted four years, all about who should pay for the pavement outside. 'We're not paying a penny,' says Mr Scargill. 'Even if it takes 40 years. I can be pretty stubborn.' Too true, squire.

Inside, there is a feeling of being under siege, cut off from reality, or at least cut off from the enemy, ever waiting to trick or trap. Any journalist is deemed hostile.

'Do you miss Mrs Thatcher?' I said, making idle chat.


'Fair hair, used to be prime minister.'

'Never met her.'

In interviews, one throws a topic into the pool, hoping for some ripples. That's the game. He wasn't playing. OK, so you haven't met her, but it's generally accepted that her claim to fame is that she reduced the powers of the unions.

'That's wrong. The only thing that weakened the unions was the weakness of the union leaders. They should have taken a determined stand.' So do you share part of the blame as a union leader? 'No. I am the exception that proved the rule.'

The not-so-general view is that Mrs Thatcher got lucky being in power when the public mood had turned against the unions anyway.

'Wrong again. If the unions had been strong, they could have created the public mood. Only the miners' union was strong. Tea or coffee?'

He bustled off to make it himself, but a secretary stopped him. Very neat striped shirt, hair creatively combed. Back in his black leather chair, he sat defiantly behind his desk, ready for all comers. No, he wouldn't move to a couch for the photograph. 'Why should I?' he said, flatly.

There's a better light, I said. And you'd be helping the photographer, a worker trying to do his job. He glared.

It was like dealing with a child, an only child, used to getting his own way. Several times he trotted out 10- minute speeches, such as on the harassment he had to put up with in 1990 when the Daily Mirror had a campaign against him, all unfair, all unproved, but all well known. When I tried to get him off the subject, he said I'd brought it up. I said I didn't. He said I did. Thus we wasted another 10 minutes.

He was an only child. Once we got on to that, he revealed a riveting piece of information. His name should not be Scargill. His paternal grandfather was called Joe McQuillan - a miner, Irish background, originally from Drogheda. Joe had a child by a woman called Scargill - but didn't marry her until three months after the child was born. This child, Harold - Arthur's father - took his mother's surname. His parents went on to have three girls and two more boys, all called McQuillan.

'My father went through life in this small mining village, the same one I was brought up in, with a different surname from his brothers and sisters - so everyone knew what happened. It was a stigma he took through life. He was an active Communist, but I think this stigma was the reason he never stood for any public office. When I became president of the Yorkshire miners in 1973, he said to me it was the first time in his life he hadn't been ashamed of his name.'

You failed the 11-plus, I said, and went to the local secondary modern school. 'No, I didn't'

That's what's in all the profiles about you.

'Wrong again.'

More glaring, more defiance, more dopey games. OK, you were ill?

'No. I refused to sit it. I thought the grammar school was a place for snobs and I didn't want to go.'

You had the awareness and strength of mind at 11 not to take an exam the whole country was taking? I've never met anyone who did that. 'You haven't met anyone like me before.'

At 15, he left his sec mod. He tried for a job in engineering, as his parents didn't want him to be a miner. No luck, so he started in the pit on pounds 3.50 a week.

'I can remember the first day so clearly. I arrived at five in the morning, along with some other new boys, and we waited in the Engineer's office. I can see the coal burning in his fire and the clock ticking so loudly it was like Big Ben. The Engineer arrived in his brown pork pie hat and brown suit. 'If I have trouble with you lads, you won't last a week. Take 'em away.'

'We were then taken to the screening plant. It was like Dante's Inferno. It was full of miners who had been injured, the mentally retarded or young kids just starting. It was so thick with dust you couldn't see a yard in front of you. The noise was so intense people spoke in sign language.'

At 11, you had the strength of will to refuse an exam. Why at 15 didn't you refuse to work in what sounds like hell?

'In retrospect, perhaps I should have done. But after six months I got involved in politics. I also got promoted, got better money, went underground, become a pony driver, then I worked at the coal-face. I was a miner in all for 191 2 years. Working underground the conditions were freezing, with icicles 20ft long . . .'

If it's so horrible, why haven't you been fighting these past 30 years for the end of mining? 'It's much worse working for a national newspaper.'

Not physically, I don't see many 20ft icicles when I'm writing.

'Ah, but you suffer psychological damage. Newspapers proprietors tell you what to write.'

Not in my case.

'That's what Paul Foot said to me, sitting where you're sitting. Then what happened to his column?'

The politics Arthur became involved with at 15 was the Young Communist League. He had written to the Labour Party, asking about youth groups, but they didn't reply.

When he was 26 he attended day- release courses at Leeds University, which he enjoyed. 'I was then offered a place at Oxford.'

At Ruskin?

'No, University College.'

How come, without an entrance exam or interview?

'I'm just telling you what I was told, I was told it could be fixed. But I didn't want it.'

It was through his Young Communist work he met his wife, Anne, so it's said.

'Wrong again. I met her because her father was a union official and I went to her house.'

Did you have girlfriends before your wife? 'Yes, I was engaged for three years.'

To a Yorkshire girl? 'No, to a French girl called Helene from Lyons. We met at a Young Communist meeting in Prague. We used to meet five or six times a year. I don't speak French, but her English was good. We grew apart in the end. Then I met my wife.'

Have you seen Helene since? 'Funnily enough, I met her not long ago, for the first time in 30 years. Her husband is in the French TUC.'

Arthur and Anne married in 1961 and have one daughter, aged 31, who is a doctor working in a hospital in Barnsley. Is she married? 'No, why are you asking all these personal things? You'll be asking how often I have sex with my wife next.'

OK then, how often? 'I'll keep that for my autobiography.'

How's it going? 'I've written 80,000 words so far. It's not true I'm only up to the age of four. I haven't reached the age of three yet . . .'

A joke at last. Or had I missed some so far? His twisted sense of humour is not always easy to follow. While going on about journalists being capitalist lackeys, he gave a wink to the photographer. But it was still clear he meant it.

No living person in the land has had a worse press. The right-wing tabloids have smeared him for years, turning him into Public Enemy No 1. Any paranoia is understandable.

But now, something unexpected has happened, in the past three months. Almost by doing nothing, keeping a low profile - in fact his wife is getting more publicity than him - he is emerging as a popular hero. Do you find that ironic, or amusing?

'What are you talking about? I've not kept a low profile. We've been working as hard as ever. That's your perception. If the London media choose not to report what we've been doing, it doesn't mean to say we've not been doing it.'

But surely it was Mr Heseltine's inept handling of the proposed pit closures, and then the revolt of the Tory backbenchers, that made the Government delay things?

'The Tory rebels had nothing to do with it. We brought pressure on the Tories. Up to 250,000 supported our two marches in October. We would have kept up the pressure, but the Government made a body swerve, thanks to our efforts, and the fact we went to the High Court and won our case . . .'

In the long run, can you win? Aren't you just delaying the inevitable? In 1983 when you became president, there were 250,000 miners. Now there's only 44,000.

'It's nave to judge matters arithmetically. It shows a lack of understanding of history. Was Jesus Christ a loser because he ended up on his own and couldn't even get a seconder? Few people today would say he didn't have an impact. They said Castro was a loser. They said Martin Luther King would never win. My aim is to keep all our pits open, until their reserves are exhausted - and that has to be agreed by both sides.

'I don't accept British pits are uneconomical. The figures are rigged. We have resources for 1,000 years. It would be criminal to close them. I can see the time soon when technology will be able to extract the energy from coal without having to bring it to the surface.'

Anyway, forget the reasons. Would you agree or not that you are suddenly being seen as a Good Guy?

'In 1984-85, during the miners' strike, I was popular in the labour movement in a very specific, passionate way. Now, I agree, my popularity is widespread, from all walks of life. I've had thousands of letters of support - from Conservatives and Liberals. In those October marches, we had Tory councillors joining in, uninvited. When I talk at mass meetings, I'm pulling in 2,000 to 3,000 people, in little mining villages, but this not reported. The Government has now put pressure on the newspapers to keep off the miners.'

I smiled.

'I don't always believe there's a conspiracy against me . . .'

At 55, you have outlived all your enemies. Thatcher has gone, and Maxwell, and Kinnock. Did he count as an enemy? 'He wasn't a friend. You've missed out four chairmen of the Coal Board. That was a job I could have had, by the way.'

Excuse me? 'In 1977 I was offered it.'

In writing? 'Verbally. My wife was present.'

By whom? 'By the person who had it in his power. No, I won't give his name.'

Despite the endless conspiracies, are you enjoying your new-found popularity? 'It is pleasing on the train or the Tube to have people coming up to me, spontaneously, to congratulate me. That's not happened before. I was in Kent in December and this bowler-hatted gent with a rolled umbrella came up to me. I thought he was going to belt me one. 'I have to say you are doing a damn good job. They shan't get away with it. No they shan't . . .' '

Arthur did a suitably posh accent, plus gestures. He is a good mimic, but saves it for public platforms.

'A friend asked me yesterday if I wasn't worried my new popularity would disappear with the 24-hour strikes. If it's a choice between popularity and principle, I'll choose principle any time.'

Must be nice, being liked, after 30 years as a baddie? 'It won't last. I give it three months.'

Yes, but it shows every person is not out to get you. Even journalists. So why not relax, Arthur? Enjoy it.

(Photograph omitted)

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