In the past 25 years, there has not been another trade union leader as famous as Arthur Scargill. By the mid-1980s, there was hardly an adult in the United Kingdom who could not name the president of the National Union of Mineworkers.
Arguments would break out over whether he was a working class hero or a menace to democracy. Though he was a Labour Party member until the rise of Tony Blair, his politics were closer to those of the communists. He had no qualms about using union power to bring down a government.
As a young NUM official based in Yorkshire, he organised the mass pickets who brought the Conservative government to its knees in the 1972 miners’ strike. Elected NUM President in 1982, aged only 43, he tried repeatedly to get the miners to vote for a national strike, without success. In 1984, he called them out without a ballot, in an attempt to prevent pit closures.
The decision split the union. Miners in Nottinghamshire went to work past the pickets and later formed a rival union. During the year-long strike, there was sporadic violence on picket lines and a taxi driver who was taking a strike-breaker to work in Wales was killed. It ended in defeat. The NUM had 184,000 members in 1984. Now it has fewer than 1,800.
Scargill has been an isolated figure since the strike. In 1996, he founded the Socialist Labour Party, which still exists though its membership is tiny.
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