Arthur Scargill emerged from semi-retirement from politics to speak at a meeting of the Communist Party of Britain’s wretched little pro-Brexit front organisation Leave Fight Transform (LeFT) in Brighton on 11 September, alongside Eddie Dempsey (the man who said Tommy Robinson supporters were right to hate the “liberal left”) and other assorted xenophobes, nationalists and social conservatives.
According to the Morning Star Scargill said that “every single MP who wants us to go back into Europe should be opposed.” That would be the majority of Labour MPs, then, Arthur?
It’s easy to mock Arthur Scargill.
These days he only gets to speak at the crankiest of Stalinist events. Scargill has so burnt his bridges with the NUM and the broad left of the labour movement that his name is never mentioned at Durham miners’ gala or at other miners’ strike commemorations. Yet he was a decisive figure in the great strike of 1984-85.
There are those on the would-be “left” who will willingly attempt to defend people accused of rape, individuals who beat their partners, those who think there is vast Jewish conspiracy against Corbyn, and elements that think trans people are mentally ill.
Scargill seems to have almost no one to advocate for him. Not even many of the Stalinists he hangs round with. Perhaps they’re embarrassed by this reminder of how the Stalinist and reformist left squandered the power and influence it once had in British politics.
Yet he was a trade union leader who helped lead a strike that brought down a Tory government (1974) and correctly understood that Thatcher was out to smash the unions and that they needed to fight back.
We may criticise some of the tactics he used in the 1984-5 miners’ strike, but we cannot dispute that he gave real leadership and was serious about wanting to defeat the Tories.
In March 2014, ex-miner John Cunningham attended the memorial meeting for the two Yorkshire miners killed in the strike, Davy Jones and Joe Green. This event is held every year at the Barnsley Headquarters of the NUM and acquired particular poignancy that year as it coincided with the 30th anniversary of the strike.
John wrote in Solidarity:
“Arthur Scargill was in attendance but it was noteworthy (and significant) that he remained a peripheral figure being greeted by only a few of those attending. He was not addressed or greeted from the platform, though as Honorary Life President of the NUM it might be expected, as a courtesy if nothing else, that his presence would be acknowledged. Scargill, once the hero of the miners, now cuts a rather sad, isolated figure and this is a complex post-1985 story.
“At the risk of paraphrasing, Karl Marx once wrote that the great figures of history appear first as tragedy and then as farce. However, if the outcome of the 84-5 strike can be regarded, at one level, as a tragedy, then Scargill’s post-85 trajectory can only be viewed as an even deeper tragedy.
“His post-1985 decision to try and build a political organisation — the so-called Socialist Labour Party — turned out to be a disaster and created nothing more than a pathetic, personal bandwagon which spluttered briefly before the wheels fell off. Riddled with Stalinist politics and practice and some of the worst sectarianism imaginable, it has no meaningful existence today”.
Back in 1983 (even before the great miners’ strike) the forunner of Solidarity (Socialist Organiser) condemned Scargill’s attacks on the independent Polish union movement Solidarnosc, but also identified the root cause of Scargill’s tragic error (nationalism) and denounced the hypocrisy of many of his critics within the labour movement:
“It’s no news that Scargill has a scandalous attitude to Solidarnosc. …[he fails to see that] the working class is a world class. The motto, ‘An injury to one is an injury to all’, applies world-wide. Yet Arthur Scargill clearly sees class struggle as just British workers versus British bosses.
“That’s why he can write one third of the world’s workers — those who live in the Stalinist states — out of the class struggle, allotting them no role but to support their ‘socialist’ rulers…
“The same nationalism explains why Arthur Scargill, alongside his industrial militancy, supports a not-at-all-militant programme of import controls, withdrawal from the EEC, and siege economy. He is looking for ‘socialism in one country’, and since that is impossible he ends up with a recipe of ‘capitalism in one country’”.
That is what we need to remember these days when we think of Scargill. His nationalist backwardness on Brexit (and immigration, to judge by a letter published in the Guardian on 29 August 2017) cannot be forgiven. We also remember his relatively principled role within the UK labour movement of the 1970s and 80s.
Which makes his present-day role (such as it is) in politics all the more tragic.