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Dust - Raking Over The Coals of the Miners Strike

When Ralph Bernard met Arthur Scargill, Bernard was in the thick of
making a documentary radio on the history of the coal industry called
Down To Earth. Scargill was the leader of the Yorkshire Miners, and had
yet to become president for life of the National Union of Miners (NUM).
That was in the 1970s, when industrial action could hold governments to
ransom during a time when Britain's winter of discontent was just
around the corner.

Five years later, Scargill may have been in charge of the NUM at a
national level, but Margaret Thatcher was in Downing Street, and in
what effectively became a civil war during the 1984/85 miner's strike,
she was as stubborn as her opponent. The collapse of the strike and
subsequent closure of pits throughout Britain ended a period of trade
union power in Britain which it has never fully recovered from. Yet,
while Thatcher has long been swept from office, even if her ideologies
still linger, the 73-year old Scargill remains the NUM's honorary
president, even if the current union leadership has informed him he no
longer qualifies for membership.

Bernard's observations of King Arthur's rise and fall inspired Dust, a
new play designed to mark the thirtieth anniversary of Scargill's
election as union president. Set on the day of Thatcher's long-awaited
death in Scargill's flat in Barbican, the nominal miner's leader
receives a visit from an ageing comrade from the frontline of the
struggle, while in recession-blighted northern England, history repeats
itself as the cuts bite deep.

“I see Arthur Scargill as a tragic figure,” says Bernard as he prepares
for the play, scripted and directed by Ade Morris, whose previous work
has been seen at London's Tricycle Theatre. “He says the victory of the
miners was the struggle itself, but his tragedy was that he never saw
the strike for what it was.”

This may sound like sacrilege for old leftists, especially in the
current political climate, when protest against the UK's current
Conservative government is coming from forces outwith the political
mainstream. It was Scargill, let's not forget, who identified
Thatcher's goal of dismantling the mining industry as a whole. His
claims that the NUM had been infiltrated by government-backed spies was
eventually proved equally correct, despite being scorned at the time.

One of the strike's flashpoints was what came to be known as the Battle
of Orgreave, in which on June 18th 1984 pitched battles took place
between several thousand police and similar numbers of striking miners
on a field close to a steel coking plant in South Yorkshire. These
events were re-enacted by artist Jeremy Deller in 1991, the same year
the police paid out half a million pounds in an out of court settlement
to thirty-nine pickets who'd sued for unlawful arrest after their
trials collapsed in 1987.

“This is a play not unsympathetic to Scargill,” qualifies Bernard,
“because a lot of what he said has come to pass, but it does take him
to task as well, and I think he has a lot to answer for. If he'd gone
about the strike in a different manner, there might've been a different
result. The strike started in spring, when the government had five
years worth of coal stored up, but the biggest mistake of all was not
having a ballot.”

Bernard sees this as a typical act of arrogance by Scargill, whose
absolutist approach he feels brought about his downfall.

“The first rule of persuasion is to recognise that you don't have a
monopoly on what you see as the correct points of view,” Bernard points
out. “The reason why the previous NUM leader Joe Gormley was respected
was that he understood that a negotiation is exactly that. You don't
get everything you want. If you go in demanding everything the way
Scargill did, they'll tell you to get stuffed. Margaret Thatcher was
the same. Neither of them could accept that there was such a thing as
another point of view.”

Given everything that has come to pass both since the strike and in the
play, what, one wonders, would the real Scargill make of how Bernard
and Morris depict him onstage in a play for which former Labour Party
leader Neil Kinnock has written a programme note?

“I'm not sure what Scargill's reaction to it would be,” Bernard admits.
“All the way through the twenty-fifth anniversary of the strike there
was a view that you couldn't make a programme about it unless it was
balanced, and Scargill wouldn't take part in one. I will be writing go
him to let him know about the play, though, so we'll see. What happened
in 1984 and 1985 was the beginning of the end of significant trade
union power. Today there's a backlash against the public spending cuts,
but we live in a completely different culture now. Scargill's tragedy
is that the miner's strike need never have happened the way it did.”

Dust, New Town Theatre, August 4-28, 3.30-4.50pm

The Herald, August 5th 2011



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