Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet papers for the 1984-5 miners’ strike have raised as many questions as answers – not least about the behaviour of the South Yorkshire Police – but once again a missing voice has been that of Arthur Scargill.
Perhaps his absence from the debate provoked by publication of secret government papers was only to be expected given that the former president of the National Union of Mineworkers remains mired in a complex series of financial disputes between himself and the current leadership of the NUM.
In recent years Scargill has refused repeated requests to give radio or television interviews reflecting on his role in the year-long strike and his union’s defeat by the Thatcher government.
His close ally, Ken Capstick, the former editor of The Miner, said Scargill had refused “on principle” to give interviews; they would simply be used to “attack Scargill’s leadership” whereas the cabinet papers had proved yet again the truth of the NUM’s claim that the National Coal Board chairman Ian MacGregor intended to close 70 pits and butcher the coal industry.
Capstick’s messages on Twitter give an indication of Scargill’s reasoning for refusing to engage with the news media:
“Happy birthday Arthur Scargill You have been proved right again The truth you have spoken being twisted by knaves to set a trap for fools.” (January 11, 2014)
“The sickly agenda is to masquerade being in support of the strike and its validity using that standpoint to attack Arthur Scargill’s leadership.” (January 19, 2014)
But the events that took place thirty years ago do have lessons for today: Andy Burnham, Labour’s shadow health secretary, who is fighting for justice for the 96 victims of the Hillsborough football disaster, believes Mrs Thatcher’s papers have confirmed what so many suspected, that her government did provide “full cover” for the South Yorkshire Police when confronting striking miners at the Battle of Orgreave in 1984 and subsequently when dealing with Liverpool football supporters at Hillsborough in 1989.
Burnham is convinced that the tactics used against the Orgreave pickets do have “similarities” with what happened four years later at Hillsborough. But in his opinion the Thatcher papers are only the “tip of the iceberg” and far more will come out at the Hillsborough inquest in two months time when the public will see the lengths to which the South Yorkshire Police went to “blacken the name” of those Liverpool supporters.
“The miners’ strike and what happened at Orgreave are linked to Hillsborough...The cabinet papers show how the government of the day relied on South Yorkshire police in the midst of the miners’ strike...The South Yorkshire Police used tactics at Ogreave that have similarities with what they did at Hillsborough...cases taken to court and then collapsed and the miners exonerated.
I think the police were given full cover by the government of the day to do what they wanted and they did do what they wanted to do. They tried to shift all the blame on to the supporters.” (Andy Burnham, Any Questions, BBC Radio 4 17.1.2014)
The knock-on for the Hillsborough Justice Campaign from the revelations about the secret support Mrs Thatcher’s government gave to the South Yorkshire chief constable, the late Peter Wright, is just one of the many insights contained in her 1984 cabinet papers.
Of far greater significance for the NUM is the release of a secret Downing Street document from September 1983 revealing that six months before he became NCB chairman MacGregor did have a target hit list of 75 pit closures – a fact that was not only covered up but then denied during an extensive campaign of government misinformation.
During the strike Scargill claimed that he had received leaked documents proving the NUM’s claim that MacGregor had intended all along to “butcher” the coal industry; the NUM president made similar claims about having secret information on the measures the government had taken to prepare for possible power cuts.
Mrs Thatcher has had no escape from the past: her papers relating to the strike have now been published for the period up until November 1984, and the remainder, from November through to the end of the strike in March 1985, are due to be published in July/August 2014.
But there is no comparable release of hitherto unpublished papers by Scargill – and in my opinion there probably never will be. In the immediate post-strike years Scargill told me on several occasions that he planned to write a book on the strike but nothing has appeared so far.
Instead he has become immersed in a seemingly never ending series of financial disputes with today’s leadership of the NUM over payment of rent for his City of London flat in the Barbican and the expenses to which he believes he is still entitled.
When Scargill became president of the NUM in 1982 it had 249,000 members; such was the strength of its finances that former union presidents were provided with a home for life. But in the straightened times of today, with only three pits remaining and the NUM representing a few thousand miners, the union says it has had no alternative but scale back its expenditure.
Scargill continues to fight on for the remuneration to which he believes he is entitled and although as Ken Capstick has indicated Scargill has no intention of giving radio or television interviews, he does respond vigorously to attacks on his financial probity.
A BBC investigation for the Inside Out series, which examined Scargill’s own financial dealings with the NUM and the whereabouts of money donated to the International Miners Organisation (of which Scargill remains president), did prompt a detailed reply.
At several points in the programme, the presenter Dan Johnson quoted from a statement which Scargill had supplied. (Inside Out for Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, 13.1.2014) The seven-page written response by Scargill, which was sent five days before transmission, constituted a point-by-point rebuttal of “insinuations and false allegations.”
Scargill made it clear to the Inside Out producer that this would be his only response to the programme: “I am not opening a dialogue but correcting fundamental errors in your allegations. As you have asked for my responses to a litany of accusation, I expect you to present and report these responses in full.” (See www.strikingback.net)
Illustration: The Guardian 12.2.2012