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.
Scargill’s last official connections with his old union are about to expire: at the end of the year his honorary presidency of the NUM will be terminated and so will his last remaining paid employment as an adviser to the NUM’s Yorkshire and Lancashire Area Trust Funds.
The union’s confirmation that Scargill’s final links with the NUM are about to end will close a seemingly sad finale to the reign of King Coal – perhaps Britain’s most controversial post-war trade union leader.
Amid the commentary over the recent deaths of four miners at the Gleision colliery in South Wales and a fifth at Kellingley in North Yorkshire, I have looked in vain for reaction from one of the coal industry’s most vociferous campaigners for pit safety.
In his day Scargill was easily the most effective communicator in the labour movement; like so few of his trade union contemporaries he knew how to get the news media dancing to his tune.
After his repeated warnings that the privatisation – and subsequent decimation of the coal industry – would jeopardise mine safety in the few pits which continued to operate, his views on the recent fatalities would have commanded the attention of radio, television and the national press and perhaps won him some belated respect within the coal industry.
The five deaths this autumn followed three fatalities at Daw Mill colliery near Coventry in 2006 and a fourth at Welbeck colliery, Nottinghamshire, in 2007.
But unlike other notable former union figure heads such as the late transport workers’ leader Jack Jones or the ex Unison general secretary Rodney Bickerstaffe, Scargill has not remained accessible to journalists.
Except for periodic political campaigning through his leadership of the Socialist Labour Party, he has spent much of the last decade engaged in protracted and acrimonious legal action with the NUM and former colleagues such as the ex NUM chief executive Roger Windsor.
Scargill became the NUM’s honorary president after standing down in 2002 but the intervening years have been marred by a litany disputes which culminated in August last year with a ruling that he no longer qualified for NUM membership.
Despite this set back – and on-going legal action to try to gain the reinstatement of allowances for his home in Yorkshire and his council-owned London flat in the Barbican – he managed to retain his honorary presidency. But that is being terminated at the end of December 2011 along – says the union – with paid employment for himself as an adviser to the Yorkshire and Lancashire Area Trust funds and remuneration for his researcher Nell Myers.
Scargill – formerly the union’s Yorkshire President – was elected President of the NUM on December 8 1981 securing an overwhelming victory with 70.3 per cent of the total vote. He took up the post the following year, two years before the start of the 1984-5 miners’ strike and their subsequent defeat at the hands of the then Conservative Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher.