Nick Jones

Trade Union Reporting

For the former mineworkers’ leader Arthur Scargill the last few weeks of 2011 will be a poignant reminder of the power which he once wielded over the British coal industry and the left of the trade union movement.

December the 8th is the 30th anniversary of Scargill’s election as President of the National Union of Mineworkers – and this December also looks like marking the end of the road for what seems to have become an increasingly desperate attempt to continue influencing the NUM’s day-to-day affairs.

Far-reaching proposals for the introduction of driverless trains and fully automated ticketing on London Underground raise the prospect of the kind of dispute with the rail unions not seen since the Thatcher years.

 

2012 is the 30th anniversary of the infamous flexible rostering dispute which paralysed the entire rail network in the first half of 1982 and became an early trial strength between the trade union movement and the government of Margaret Thatcher.

Removing the hidden taxpayer subsidy which meets the salaries of trade union representatives in workplaces across the public services would be a body blow to the British trade union movement.

Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister, has thrown down the gauntlet to union leaders: if widespread industrial action is going to be used to block measures such as the reform of public sector pensions, then the coalition government is ready to retaliate with the withdrawal of the agreement allowing union business to be conducted during paid time at work.

Fresh claims have been made about government manipulation of the BBC’scoverage of the 1984-5 miners’ strike.  It is now alleged that specific instructions were issued from the “highest level of government” to ensure that the BBC’s camera crews focused on the miners’ violence and not on “the police smashing heads”.  The allegation has been made by the former Daily Mirror industrial editor Geoffrey Goodman, chairman of the editorial board of British Journalism Review, who insisted he has an “impeccable source”.  But in a speech on the Untold History of the Miners’ Strike, former BBC industrial correspondent Nicholas Jones said he did not believe that such instruction was issued. However, he acknowledged that towards the end of the year long strike the balance of coverage tipped firmly in favour of Margaret Thatcher and the National Coal Board.     

When Arthur Scargill visited the Camp for Climate Change erected outside the Kingsnorth coal-fired power station in Kent in August 2008, he found himself at odds with a group of activists who back in the 1980s might well have joined him in challenging the policies of Margaret Thatcher.  Undaunted by the placards of environmental campaigners declaring “No new coal”, he used his guest appearance as honorary president of the National Union of Mineworkers to mount a valiant defence of the need for a new and integrated energy policy based on coal and renewables which he hoped would result in the closure of all nuclear power stations.  Delighted though they were both by the publicity which Scargill attracted and his criticism of the stop-and-search powers being exercised by riot police around the camp, the protestors seemed in no mood to be swayed by what smacked of special pleading by the NUM and they were adamant that if there was to be any real chance of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, there had to be a ban on any future investment in coal-fired generation.  Nonetheless Scargill was as ambitious as ever in presenting an action plan to revive the coal industry: + closed pits should be re-opened.+ coal production should be increased to 250 million tons a year (more than twice the level of the pre-1984 level out of output).+ approval should be given for the construction of a new generation of coal-fired power stations designed to incorporate the latest carbon capture technology. 

Marching to the Fault LineBy Francis Beckett and David HenckeConstable £18.99

Review  by Nicholas Jones

If a campaign ever has to be mounted to safeguard the access which has been established under the Freedom of Information Act, then this book should cited as evidence.  It reveals in the cold print of Whitehall documents the alarming lengths to which Margaret Thatcher went to mobilise the forces of the state against the National Union of Mineworkers in what is now remembered as the Great Strike of 1984-5. Secret memos to the Prime Minister, minutes of cabinet committees, letters from secretaries of state, police statistics and a host of other official records were trawled over by the authors after they succeeded under FOI in gaining release of the documents from the Cabinet Office and the National Archives.

 

 

The soul searching of a former BBC correspondent

Just like the sustained scare story over weapons of mass destruction which preceded the war against Iraq, the year-long pit dispute was played out against an equally well-entrenched narrative aimed in this case at demonising the enemy within. For the British news media, the confrontation between Margaret Thatcher and Arthur Scargill had as much potency as the fight to the finish with Saddam Hussein. Many journalists have reflected ruefully on the way they were taken in by the pro-war propaganda of George Bush and Tony Blair in the months leading up to the US offensive in March 2003 and similarly when I think back to my reporting of the 1984-5 strike I have to admit that in the end I got ensnared by the seeming inevitability of the Thatcherite story line that the mineworkers had to be defeated in order to smash trade union militancy.

The 25th anniversary of the pit dispute has provided a timely opportunity to reveal what happened when I become Arthur Scargill's stand-in driver at the height of the strike:

 Using my BBC reporters car in the middle of the 1984-5 miners strike to give Arthur Scargill a lift to London was not something which I ever dared to mention in my broadcasts about the pit dispute.  Just days before our four-hour drive, he had been arrested and subsequently injured during the Battle of Orgreave when ten thousand pickets faced four thousand police officers.  The near-unanimous view of the press was that the President of the National Union of Mineworkers posed an even greater danger to the state than he did at the start of the dispute.  Scargill shunned almost all personal contact with journalists during the year-long strike and he remains as aloof today.  My brief stint as his stand-in driver came about by chance.  I have to admit that at the time nothing from our conversation struck me as being particularly newsworthy; Scargill was too astute for that. But I ended up feeling at a slight disadvantage, fearing I could have compromised my own impartiality and might be accused of taking sides in the dispute.  Once the strike was over I occasionally re-read my notes and, as the years went by, I began to realise that I possessed a rare insight into the thinking and personal routines of the union leader who commanded the most divisive industrial dispute since the general strike of 1926.  

 

If Britain is to avoid the threat of power black outs, the government has little alternative but to give the go ahead to a new generation of nuclear and coal-fired power stations.  But how could a country, which Arthur Scargill says has “over 1,000 years of coal reserves”, end up facing an energy shortfall?  Nicholas Jones says the 25th anniversary of the 1984-5 miners’ strike (March 12, 2009) provides an ironic backdrop at a critical moment.