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Category: Trade Union Reporting

After fifty years as a reporter and then broadcasters there is no doubt in my mind as to who were my two most intransigent interviewees: the Reverend Ian Paisley and Arthur Scargill. 

In the 1970s, as a correspondent reporting the Northern Ireland Troubles, I frequently interviewed Paisley, especially during the two week strike organised by the Ulster Workers’ Council which brought down the 1974 power-sharing assembly and executive. Paisley had championed the mobilisation of Protestant power station workers to bring Northern Ireland to a halt.

A decade later I faced an equally defiant– but eventually unsuccessful – Arthur Scargill as he led the National Union of Mineworkers in the 1984-5 strike against pit closures.

I could not help thinking of Paisley, lying in the Ulster Hospital being treated for a heart problem, as I listened to Scargill speaking in Birmingham at a rallyto commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Battle of Saltley Gates on February 10, 1972.

The Battle of Saltley Gates, outside the Saltley coke depot, was a demonstration of the power of the flying picket, the industrial muscle which Scargill mobilised to a devastating effect and which proved so strong that the then Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath was forced to concede a 27 per cent pay increase for the mineworkers.  

One of my first assignments with the BBC was reporting the rota power cuts of 1972 and their alarming impact was a foretaste of the disruption that Northern Ireland faced in 1974.

Four decades later Scargill told the rally to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Saltley demonstration that although he was older he was just as determined, ready and willing to lead a “British spring” to bring down capitalism and create a fairer system of socialism.

 

There was not a hint of a possible reconciliation between the Scargill of the 1984-5 pit dispute and the realities of the trade unionism of 2012.  Perish the thought of a Paisley-style conversion and the setting aside of a life time of opposition to the powers that be. 

Paisley’s acceptance of power sharing with Sinn Fein and his election in 2007 as First Minister of Northern Ireland was a journey that I could never have contemplated in 1974; similarly in the mid 1980s I realised that Scargill would never compromise with Margaret Thatcher over pit closures. 

Nonetheless, as the years have elapsed, I have often wondered whether there might one day be a softening in his approach. Not a chance. 

Scargill’s speech at the 40th anniversary rally did not quite match his fiery oratory of the 1980s but as I listened the years rolled back, nothing had changed. Here was the former NUM President, seemingly immortalising himself as a working class hero through his description of the day he urged 15,000 of Birmingham’s engineering workers to join the striking miners at the Saltley depot.

“When we asked workers in Birmingham for support, I made no apology, saying to the Transport and General and the Engineering Workers’ Union: ‘We don’t want pound notes but support’.

“I said at the Bull Ring you can either stand on the side walk and watch what happens or join us and march into history and in my words become immortal in the working class; to their eternal credit they joined the miners.

“On that day everything I believed in as a trade unionist and socialist crystalised ...workers were supporting their brothers and sister in struggle.  Today, forty years on, we should learn the lessons of what happened in the Birmingham spring of 1972 and translate that in 2012 and the 21st. Century by putting them into action.

“I want the regeneration of our society. Forty years ago we not only had the Saltley coke depot (now demolished) but we had an economy based 80 per cent in manufacturing; today we have only 20 per cent in manufacturing.

“We have seen the destruction of coal, steel and shipbuilding and this city of Birmingham has been decimated as a result of the politics of capitalism.”    

Bob Crow, leader of the rail union, the RMT, spoke in support of Scargill.  He recalled that he was a boy of ten in 1972 but remembered the power cuts which took place. “Then we had a leadership of the trade union and labour movement which wanted to be seen on the picket lines with strikers...imagine Ed Miliband coming here to Birmingham let alone the Saltley Gates.”

Scargill – who was introduced by Ken Capstick, a former NUM Vice President, as the “greatest trade union leader this country has ever seen” – went on in a series of interviews to set out his vision for the future of the coal industry.

He urged miners at the nearby Coventry colliery of Daw Mill – the last in the West Midlands – to stand firm against the threat of closure. He said Britain should immediately stop importing 40 million tons of coal a year as the country had 1,000 years of indigenous coal reserves.

“We could re-open pits which have been closed and develop new mines...the government should re-open  100 to 150 pits...I think all the mines which were closed could be re-opened as easily as ABC.”

 Illustrations: The Guardian, 11 February 2012; Close the Gates! by Pete Jackson, Bookmarks Publications