An era over as Scargill bows out

Two decades ago, he was hailed as one of the most powerful men in Britain. When he retires on Thursday, few will notice his departure. This, critics believe, is because Arthur Scargill destroyed the National Union of Mineworkers.

In his native Yorkshire, he is still seen as a local hero. He is the man who stood up to Margaret Thatcher, refused to compromise with her plans to scale back the mining industry and was an object on unmoveable protest during 1984-5. But it was exactly this refusal to compromise - or negotiate - which has left Mr Scargill with a dismal record as a trade unionist. As a trade unionist, the story since 1985 has been one of unalloyed failure.

This is borne out by the statistics. When he was voted leader of the NUM, it had 350,000 unions working in 174 pits. Today it has fewer than 5,000 members - a quarter of the Musicians’ Union - and defends a mere 12 pits. Nor are there many successful negotiating victories under his belt. He leaves the NUM having spent 21 years on its National Executive Committee without ever delivering a pay deal - either in Yorkshire or London.

This is the measure of the man. He did not do compromise with what he saw as the class enemy - and to his supporters, this was a rare quality to be admired.

Mr Scargill’s political activism started when his mother died, when he was 18. He started work at Woolley Colliery and was radicalised not by taking on the management, but the right-wing union branch.

He joined the Young Communist League and by 1964, had become a pit delegate on the NUM branch committee. His launch-pad was the 1972 miners’ dispute - the so-called Battle of Saltley Gate where he organised mass picketing which shut down a Birmingham coke works.

The dispute was extensively televised and Mr Scargill, with a thick head of ginger hair, soon became a media darling. His uncompromising language produced excellent soundbites; his celebrity was guaranteed.

That year, the miners won nearly all their demands and came out with a 27 per cent pay rise. By February 1974, another miners’ strike had toppled the Heath government.

The NUM would never repeat such success - yet, for Mr Scargill, it was a template of political virtue. He always looked back to Saltley and believed that with one more shove, perhaps two, socialism would take command.

By the 1980s, his battle had become political. Industrial victories, no matter how small, were seen as vital to his wider struggle. Any acceptance of redundancy deals or retraining packages was deemed a politically unacceptable defeat. "The greatest achievement is the struggle itself," he declared after his devastated members went back to work in 1984 after nearly a year of conflict.

The year-long struggle - the flying pickets and a stand-off with the full weight of the Thatcher government - was about all he did achieve.

The miners’ strikes are hailed as a battle which Margaret Thatcher won - defeating not only the NUM but the entire trade union movement.

A compromise may have stemmed the industry’s decline, and had more British mines operating now instead of the reliance on cheap foreign coal flooding into the market.

This was what made a faction split off into the Democratic Union of Mineworkers. Their breakaway relieved Mr Scargill of his internal critics and allowed him narrowly to survive a leadership challenge.

Within the mining movement, enemies noted that four months after the strike ended he bought a luxury villa for 125,000. The Lightman Report, set up after media investigations, revealed that he had borrowed 100,000 from a secret fund set up during the strike.

His successor, Steve Kemp, hopes for a new direction for the NUM. "I have to look forward," he says. "Whatever has happened in the past with regard to the union’s links with the Labour Party, Labour MPs, and other trade unionists, among whom we have many friends, the links need to be enhanced."

The NUM, however, still proposes re-nationalisation of the coal industry followed by massive investment. This is a course which Tony Blair’s government, busy privatising parts of the public sector, is unlikely to adopt. The NUM may yet be the final sacrifice of the Scargill struggle.

Lifetime spent fighting for workers

1938: Born in Worsborough, near Barnsley, the son of a Communist miner and a bobbin mill worker.

1955: Started work at Woolley Colliery. Member of the Young Communist League until 1962, but never the Communist Party. Studied social history and industrial relations on a day course at Leeds University.

1960: Joined the Yorkshire branch committee of the National Union of Miners.

1966: Joined the Labour Party and went to the NUM’s national conference for the first time.

1972: Came to public attention during the "Battle of Saltley Gate" in Birmingham.

1973: Elected president of the Yorkshire branch of the NUM.

1981: Elected NUM president with 70 per cent of the vote.

1984-85: The miners’ strike. Scargill’s popularity waned as police and miners clashed.

1988: Stood for re-election against John Walsh, his fiercest critic in the Yorkshire heartland, and scraped past with 54 per cent of the vote.

1995: Embarrassed the Labour leadership by forcing a fresh debate on Clause IV, having mounted a legal challenge to it in the High Court.

2001: His Socialist Labour Party contests general election. Wins no seats.

2002: Leaves the NUM, ahead of his 65th birthday.