Saturday, April 13, 2013

Vanquished And The Dead

I remember the Thatcher years well. The UK’s first and only female prime minister took office five days after my thirteenth birthday (Figure 61.1) and left it five days after I had received the Freedom of the City of London at the age of 24 (Figure 61.2). I am, therefore, one of ‘Thatcher’s Children’, regardless of choice.

Figure 61.1: For me, the formative Thatcher era began like this ...

Copyright © 1979 Paul Spradbery

Figure 61.2: ... and ended like this.

Copyright © 1990 Paul Spradbery

It is now five days since Margaret Thatcher died. No British politician since Winston Churchill (1874-1965) has made such a dramatic, and lasting, impact – on domestic and international stage alike. Given the woeful calibre of today’s politicians, most of whom have probably never had an original idea between them, it is a safe bet that the accolade will remain with the ‘Iron Lady’ for at least another generation.

This week, statesmen and politicians have provided the requisite comments post mortem. Those on the right of the political spectrum have, understandably, been adulatory in their eulogies. From the left, almost all of whom would have fought Thatcher tooth and nail, most responded nonetheless with dignity and tact. A minority, however, did not. Labour MP Glenda Jackson disgraced herself in the House of Commons with a speech which was both churlish and unwarranted.

Amid the soundbites, one devout old foe has so far remained tight-lipped. His name is Arthur Scargill, President of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) from 1982 to 2002. The political war between him and Margaret Thatcher has become a legendary episode of British industrial history.

To set the scene: in 1974, a Conservative government, led by Edward Heath (1916-2005), was brought down partly by intense industrial action orchestrated by Scargill and the miners’ union. Thatcher succeeded Heath as party leader in 1975 and was elected prime minister in 1979. In 1981, the Thatcher government was on collision course with the NUM over a proposed pit closure program. Remembering the fate of her predecessor, and as national coal stocks were dangerously low, Thatcher backed down. It was a wise tactical retreat; and she realized full well that Scargill had given prior notice of his ultimate intention. The two of them shared the same street-fighter mentality. There would inevitably be a ‘next time’, and it would be ‘winner takes all’.

The program was reinitiated in 1984. Scargill responded with threats of an immediate nationwide strike, and hoped to persuade other trades’ unions to offer full support. This time, however, Thatcher was well prepared. She had spent three years taking shrewd advice. Coal stocks had been replenished. Power station supplies were thus protected. (Why Scargill chose to strike in the Spring never made sense to me.) What followed, for an entire year, was the most bitter and violent industrial dispute Britain has ever experienced (Figure 61.3). Tens of thousands of striking miners, caught in the crossfire, suffered extreme hardship. Mining communities were divided. Lawlessness was rife.

Figure 61.3: Pitched battles between police and striking miners were commonplace in Britain in 1984-5.

Copyright © 2013 Channel 4

In the first weeks of 1985, destitute miners returned to work in increasing numbers. The NUM’s solidarity crumbled. On March 3rd, the epic strike was officially called off. Thatcher had won. Scargill had failed to bring down – or even weaken – her government. The miners had been collectively humiliated, their historical loyalty exploited by a union boss who was too proud, or too arrogant, to realize that he had met more than his match. The playground big-mouth had, in full view of everyone, picked a fight with the head girl – and been routed.

Throughout the following two-and-a-half decades, Scargill and his female nemesis never again locked horns. Nor, as their respective powers ebbed away, did they dwell on past conflict. Since Thatcher’s death, journalists have anticipated Scargill’s comments with bated breath. His silence has disappointed them, but not me. Has he declined offers to comment out of fundamental decency; or does he not wish to draw attention to the fact that his toughest battle ended in abject defeat? It would be greatly to his credit if it were the former; and I am certain that Margaret Thatcher would have responded in the same way had she outlived him.

Virgil was right: there should be no strife with the vanquished or the dead (Figure 61.4).

Figure 61.4: The eponymous Scargill and Thatcher

Copyright © 2013 BBC

Copyright © 2013 Paul Spradbery

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