There was not the same power in his voice or velocity in delivery, but Arthur Scargill lacked none of the drive or passion of the past as he rolled back the years to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Saltley Gates.

Reliving his greatest victory, which was at the height of the 1972 miners’ strike, is a narrative that he knows off by heart.

It is one which still enthrals activists and supporters on the left who crowded into the Quaker Meeting Houses in Birmingham (10.2.2022) for a rare chance to hear him speak.

At the age of 84, having spent some days in hospital only a couple months ago, he took his time to describe how he organised the most famous mass picket in British trade union history.

Scargill’s long standing friend Ricky Tomlinson, the jailed trade unionist turned actor, was the ideal opening speaker for the anniversary rally which became a friendly, family affair when Scargill revealed that in the audience was his grandson who is studying politics at Keele University – and “I’m told he is left winger” said grandfather to laughter and applause. 

During the 1972 strike – which led to a state of emergency, the three-day week and rota power cuts -- the West Midlands Gas Board continued to sell coke from its Saltley depot in Birmingham, and so great was the shortage of coal, that lorries from all over the country queued up for a load.

Scargill, then a working miner, was an activist and organiser for the National Union Mineworkers in Yorkshire. After spending the day organising local picketing, he was in the NUM’s Barnsley office on Saturday afternoon and took a call from the NUM in the Midlands asking if Yorkshire could send pickets to go to Saltley.

Within two hours, with help of his branch president, he had booked four coaches and had four hundred pickets on the road to Birmingham.

On the Sunday, the picket outside the Saltley depot outnumbered the police but by Monday morning it was a different story and the police ranks had been swollen “by hundreds” as 700 lorries were expected that day.

“It was obvious something different was taking place. We’d never seen drilling like it from the police, replenishing the police lines every hour.

“By the end of the Tuesday, which was our worst day, many people had been arrested, including me, and many injured badly. We knew we needed help from the rest of the labour and trade union movement.”

With the support of the Transport and General Workers Union a call went out. That evening and the following day Scargill spoke to 13 meetings of local trade unionists, including members of the powerful Amalgamated Engineering Union which represented workers at engineering plants and car factories.

“In my speech I called for working class solidarity and explained what we had been fighting for from the start of the strike of the 9th of January.

“I told them we don’t want your pounds or sympathy. Will you go down in history as the working class of Birmingham, who stood by while the miners are battered, or you can march into history and become immortal? I don’t ask, but demand you come out on strike and join the picket line.”

Scargill said no-one could have predicted what would happen that Thursday morning – 10 February 1972.

“We marched to the picket line and there was an eerie atmosphere…there was no movement of cars and fear in the eyes of the police.

Scargill had asked lorry drivers with the T&G to drive towards the depot, get out of their cabs, take the keys, and leave their lorries blocking the roads.

“Then a cheer went up. Over the hill we could see thousands of trade unionists were coming to join the picket…they were coming as well from four other directions.

“The chief constable (Sir Derrick Capper) instructed the pickets to move on and pass on through the police lines. Through my microphone I said the police want you to move. I’m asking you to stand here. Not one person moved.

“They were piling up like a sandwich, not just four thousand miners from Yorkshire, Durham and South Wales, but 20,000 pickets from the factories who had stopped work.

“It was a hell of a scene. There were chants of general strike, Heath out, and then the chant “close the gates”. Each time they chanted they moved forward towards the police lines, and the police were backing away.

“I went through the police lines to find the chief constable. Capper said ‘I’m going to close the gates’ but two hours before Maudling had told the cabinet Saltley will remain open at all costs.

“Yet here was the chief constable saying the gates would close and that he would confront the gas board managers and tell them the gates would remain closed until the end of the strike.

“We had won. Here I was at 32, a working miner, and the chief constable said to me, ‘Can you disperse the crowd?” I said yes, but on two conditions – that you allow me to make a speech from the top of that urinal over there, and can I borrow your loudspeaker because mine is knackered.

“I told the pickets you have closed the gates and you can now disperse…and that you didn’t just march to Saltley, but the working class in Birmingham marched into history. I have never been more proud in my life.

“From the age of 15 I had been a socialist. I was in the Young Communists for years. We had delivered not only a victory. We had repaid what happened to us in 1926.”

Scargill said the lesson of Saltley was that the working class of Birmingham had demonstrated what could be achieved “provided they took real action”.

“It is no good walking out for an hour or a day’s strike. It is a class war,” said Mr Scargill, a member and former leader of the Socialist Labour Party.

He launched a withering critique of the failings of the current Labour Party leadership and the “ridiculous compromise” the party had proposed for the rise in energy prices.

“It is a disgrace the former leader of the Labour Party has been thrown out by new Labour. If we had stuck to the 2017 policies in the 2019 general election, we would have had a different government today.”

Scargill insisted that the coal reserves under the UK could be extracted to produce liquid gas, petrol, oil, and petro-chemicals. He called for all basic industries such as energy to be taken back into public ownership.

“The reason we have climate change is not because of global warming. It is caused by the destruction of the Amazon rain forest. That is behind all of it.”

His rallying cry at the end of his speech was personal and revealing:

“I have fought as hard as I can. I have done meetings when I have been ill, and I spent some days in hospital only a couple of months ago. I have fought for socialism, and I will go on fighting for a different system…that day fifty years ago was one of the proudest of my life and this is an opportunity to say thank you to the trade unionists and people of Birmingham who marched into working class history.”

In his speech opening the rally, Ricky Tomlinson, who was jailed for two years in 1972 along with fellow picket Des Warren, having been convicted of “conspiracy to intimidate”, described how he had been arrested and charged for organising picketing in the 1972 building strike.

“Once inside, we were proper little shits for the establishment. We would not work, would not wear clothes, and spent most of the time in solitary confinement.

“They would get us up at 7am and take the bed out, throw water on the floor and make us sit on a chair. I spent most of my time in solitary confinement, and then we went on hunger strike.”

Tomlinson said a turning point was what happened at Leicester Prison. “They’d split us up, and the Leicester governor was an ex-brick layer. He said you are a political prisoner. He gave me to read The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists. That book changed my life.”

After a long campaign the “Shrewsbury Two” as they became known were eventually cleared by the Court of Appeal in 2021 when their convictions were overturned after evidence was discovered which showed that the police had destroyed witness statements which would have exonerated them.

Warren died in 2004 and Tomlinson told the rally that Scargill was the only trade union leader who attended Warren’s funeral.

“Finally, after all those years, they admitted it was a cover up from day one. The police had redone every single statement that had been made. They had redone them three times, making the statements against us worse, to make sure they would get a conviction.

“That is why I have so much respect for the NUM.  Tears flowed down my cheeks in 1985 watching the miners go back to work with their banners flying.”

In thanking Tomlinson for his support, Scargill said the reminder of “what the state did to Des Warren” should be sufficient for all trade unionists to say, “never again”.

Scargill called on those at the rally to support campaign to free Julian Assange. “Assange exposed the crimes of the USA and the CIA…and throughout the world it is incumbent on us to stand firm behind him.”

Scargill rarely speaks or give radio or television interviews, but he did agree to be interviewed by BBC Midlands Today on the eve of the 50th anniversary rally.

I last heard him speak –and interviewed him – at the 40th anniversary rally for Saltley in 2012. What was so striking, looking back on my notes for that speech and interview, was how his storylines and phraseology were repeated almost word for word in his 2022 address.

Scargill’s commanding presence, his ability to speak off-the-cuff in front of a mass picket or crowded rally, marked him out as one of a dying breed of trade union leaders, capable of rallying support and securing a vote in favour of strike action, the street oratory that was needed to swing a pit head meeting and get the backing of perhaps reluctant mineworkers who were probably ending or just starting their shifts underground.

At the end of the rally in Birmingham I had a brief chat with Scargill, and he acknowledged that he had read with interest my articles and commentaries on the revelations contained in the cabinet records of Margaret Thatcher’s government. His farewell words were to the point: “You do know that more and more people are saying now that I was right about the 84 strike?”


Illustrations (from left to right): Ricky Tomlinson; Arthur Scargill; Ken Capstick, former Vice-chairman, NUM Yorkshire area; and Ian Hodson, President of the Bakers’ union, BFAWU.

Pickets arriving at Saltley coke depot

Also Scargill in conversation with Ian Hodson after the rally.