I am really looking forward to today’s RSA Thursday. Lord Kinnock and former Conservative Minister for Coal, Lord Hunt, will be responding to David Hencke and Francis Beckett’s new history of the miners’ strike.
So I took particular interest in Seamus Milne’s piece in the Guardian this morning. As could be expected, Milne rejects all criticisms of the NUM leadership and argues that the world would have been a much better place if the strike had been victorious. He even manages to say that maintaining the coal industry would have been good for the environment!
There is one paragraph in the piece that I have read over and over but I simply don’t understand:
‘And the claim that the miners’ leaders threw away that chance [to win] by refusing to hold a national ballot ignores the realities of the time: most NUM activists were convinced that once more than 80% of the workforce were already on strike, calling a ballot would be seen as a get-out and invite a ‘no’ vote – and deny those prepared to defend their jobs the chanced to do so’
Not only does this statement argue that democratic accountability is a principle one should only adhere to if it is guaranteed to produce the right results, it contains a huge non sequitur. If 80% of miners were out on strike voluntarily (not to mention those among the 20% who said they would vote for a strike but wouldn't go out without a ballot), why on earth would a vote have been lost?
More emotively, the thing that gets me about Milne’s piece is that it implies that anyone who didn’t support Scargill’s disastrous tactics had no sympathy with the miners’ struggle.
I do remember the ‘reality of the time’. I was very active in the Keresley Miners’ support group in Leamington Spa, going out every weekend to collect food donations and regularly visiting the colliery to join the early morning picket line. But like many other people, I combined compassion for the strikers, hostility to the industrial strategy of the Government and despair at the way the miners’ cause was being manipulated by a bunch of head-banging Stalinists and Trots. Indeed our local group was continually on the verge of splitting as the spotty teenagers from the local Socialist Workers Party argued that wet liberals like me shouldn’t be allowed to participate in support group activities unless we took a blood oath to Scargill.
Milne is right that the miners’ strike was a disaster for the trade unions and for the left in general. But to suggest that this was because we didn’t all line up behind Scargill’s disastrous leadership is utter nonsense.
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