Updated: Aug 29, 2021
Text of the speech Arthur Scargill gave today in Jarrow at the 'Rebel Town Festival', an annual event which commemorates events in Jarrow in the 1830s, with of course heavy reference also to the Jarrow March of 1936. Speakers included Kate Osborne, Labour MP for Jarrow and David Douglass, former NUM Branch Official, author and historian; David Douglass is the central organiser of this event. Nell Myers sets the context - Lots of music; banners; people who've come through hard times - and the hard times are very evident in the town - with a strong sense of the need for struggle. There were groups of former miners there from Nottinghamshire and South Yorkshire, but there was an atmosphere I can only describe as the spirit, somehow, of Jarrow - even in a large block of flats constructed in institutionalised concrete bearing the name 'Wilkinson Court', like wearing a banner.
Folk of Jarrow – Rebel Town Festival, Jarrow
Saturday, 28 August 2021
We meet today to commemorate not only the seven men of Jarrow deported in 1832, the cruel State murder of William Jobling, who was hung and gibbeted in 1832 for a crime he did not commit, and the Jarrow March in 1936, but to honour all the heroes, campaigns and struggles of our class, not only in Durham but throughout the United Kingdom.
For example: it’s right that every year we honour the Tolpuddle Martyrs who were transported to Australia in 1834, but we should also remember that in 1795 – 39 years earlier – two working women of Barnsley in South Yorkshire were attacked by the State because they led a march of angry protesters and seized grain for selling at a fair price.
For this, the local Magistrate ordered that the two women be flogged through town as a warning to workers they must not protest against the exorbitant price of grain.
In 1820, 13 working men of Barnsley in South Yorkshire suffered the fate of transportation because they marched with hundreds of others for the right to combine with fellow-workers.
As members of the Barnsley Union Club, they’d sworn a secret oath and this, it seems, made them particularly dangerous. Contrast that with the position of the Freemasons, who have been swearing on secret oaths for centuries!
The same year, 1820, saw a “Scottish General Strike” take place in the West of Scotland. Again workers were arrested – as at Peterloo the year before - for challenging the capitalist system.
This historical era of protest goes on to include the Newport Rising of 1839, involving 4,000 Chartists who were seeking to free jailed comrades. They were confronted by soldiers of the 45th Regiment of Foot who, under orders, opened fire, killing 20 demonstrators and injuring 50 more.
The leaders of the Rising were convicted of treason and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered – later commuted to transportation.
Throughout the 19th Century, miners took strike action in all the UK coalfields. Like other workers, they devised strategies to evade the punitive legislation of the time.
In this they worked with and were often organised by Chartists such as Bronterre O’Brien, the Irish Chartist leader.
The 1893 Featherstone Massacre
In 1993 – nearly 30 years ago – I spoke at the Centenary of the Featherstone Massacre in West Yorkshire in 1893.
The Staffordshire Regiment shot and killed three miners and injured dozens more who were picketing outside their pit – the last time British workers were shot and killed by British troops on British soil – apart from the thousands killed by British troops on Irish soil.
Another workers’ hero is William Muckle: a North East miner who during the miners’ strike and lockout of 1926 went to prison for de-railing the Flying Scotsman – an incident which, by the way, only happened because, in line with his Union’s instructions, he was determined to stop scab coal travelling by rail.
40 years ago in 1981, a history-changing event took place in South-Eastern England, at the US Cruise Missile base at Greenham Common. A group of women said “NO” to nuclear weapons on British soil and began a protest which came to involve thousands and lasted from 1981 to 2000, when the Greenham women finally closed the base.
Today, they are celebrating that great victory and we send a message to our sisters who suffered, harassment, arrest and imprisonment as they fought to stop the slaughter that takes place all over the world through weapons of mass destruction – including weapons sold by the UK Government.
But here today, at this Rebel Festival, I also want to join in the tributes to giants such as Tommy Hepburn.
I confess that like many other young activists of my generation I had only known of Tommy Hepburn by reading the mining historian Robin Page Arnot.
It was not until 1977 when I met a Durham miner who was to become a close friend that I really understood what Hepburn meant to the miners of the NorthEast and his central role in establishing the United Colliers of Northumberland and Durham Association in 1824.
It was Davison Brenen who first invited me, as a Yorkshire NUM activist and Area Official in 1978, to meet “like-minded” miners who were mobilizing in Durham to challenge a Right-wing Area leadership.
Such was the political climate that meetings were held in secret and, typically, Davison organised our meeting at a disused railway station, which was fine – apart from the fact that mainline trains passed through on a regular basis!
It was in this way that I met Billy Stobbs from Easington and David Hopper from Wearmouth Colliery, and a young miner from the same pit, Alan Mardghum.
Over time, these activists and others such as David Guy from Dawdon and young Paul Price from Vane Tempest worked hard to bring about a fundamental political and industrial change in the Durham coalfield.
We must learn
The more we know of the struggles that went before us, the more we can learn the lessons they teach us.
Miners were involved in strike action from the 1600s; more recently, there were famous strikes in 1911 and 1926 (when the miners were betrayed by the TUC and the leaderships of other unions), the “unofficial” strike of 1969 and the strikes of 1972 and 1974 .
Miners’ Strike 1984/85
The Miners’ Dispute commenced on 1 November 1983 at the start of winter, and became the longest, greatest national strike in history.
Because that struggle was such a threat to the British State – and since I’m here – it’s important to recall some facts and dispel some of the lies.
It’s a fact that during the course of the 12 months’ strike, we had over 13,000 miners arrested, over 11,000 injured, and 11 people died – two of them on the picket line: David Jones and Joe Green.
I had known that the National Coal Board and Tory Government had a hit list of 70 pits earmarked for closure. The NUM had been operating a highly effective overtime ban from 1 November 1983 in protest.
On 5th March 1984, two NUM Areas asked the Union’s National Executive Committee permission in accordance with NUM Rules to take Area strike action to stop pit closures.
We knew that the following day, 6th March, the NCB would announce its plan to “take out capacity”, meaning the closure of at least 20 pits. Permission to take Area action was given on 8th March.
On 19 April, some six weeks after the strikes had begun, a special national Union conference was called in Sheffield to decide whether or not to hold a ballot on strike action.
This conference endorsed the actions taken by the Union’s NEC on 8th and 12th March 1984 and called for all Areas to join the 80% of NUM members already on strike.
Historians should remember that our national overtime ban which had started in November 1983 was still in place and had dramatically reduced NCB production. That ban remained in place throughout the entire dispute, from 1st November 1983 until 2nd April 1985.
During the strike, I myself was criticized, indeed attacked – even by my own colleagues - for arguing that the NUM’s prime picketing targets should be steelworks, coking plants, power stations, ports and cement works.
My view that the Orgreave coking plant in South Yorkshire should be a primary target is controversial to this day – but the mass picketing at Orgreave on 18 June 1984 forced British Steel Chairman Robert Haslam to send a telex closing the plant on that day. (I was given a copy of Haslam’s telex)
I had been injured by the police during the afternoon and taken to hospital, and was shocked to learn the following day that instead of intensifying the pickets as NUM Secretary Peter Heathfield and I had called for, NUM Area leaders had called them off instead.
Ironically, my view that the weakest link was steel plants is confirmed in Thatcher’s autobiography. She admits that on 12th March 1984 – at the start of the strike – the steel plants at Redcar, Scunthorpe, Port Talbot, Ravenscraig and Llanwern had only three-to-five weeks’ supply of coke, and once the strike started were being crippled by the solidarity action of the NUR and ASLEF rail unions and the National Union of Seamen, led by Jim Slater.
In any war, including class war, it is essential to know ones own strengths and weaknesses, and those of the opposition. Thatcher did, because of information reported to her by the security services
- But so did I, because I’d been supplied with information about the weakness of the steel plants, as I had been in 1974 when the Yorkshire miners blockaded the Scunthorpe steel plant and closed the Thorpe Marsh power station.
The outcome of the 1984/85 strike was determined by the failure – with honourable exceptions – of the Trade Union and Labour Movement leaderships to mobilise solidarity action. This was a betrayal, exactly like that of the TUC and trade union leaders in 1926.
The most profound betrayal was by the leaders of the pit deputies’ union, NACODS, in October 1984.
NACODS members had voted in favour of strike action by 82%, and its officials had reached agreement with the NUM National Officials that the strike would only be settled on our terms – when inexplicably the NACODS officials suddenly, two days after reaching that agreement, called their strike off. To this day no-one knows why.
A former Tory Minister, Alan Clark, told me in 1992, in the presence of television presenters Tracey McCloud and Michael Gove that Thatcher had told the Government’s Emergency Committee that NACODS joining the NUM meant that the Government would have to settle on the NUM’s terms.
Yet, two days later, she told the Committee that the NACODS national officials had called off their strike and that as a consequence the Government no longer needed to settle the strike in October 1984.
The greatest victory in the 1984/85 miners’ strike was the struggle itself. And that is what we should be thinking about and acting on today.
We’re gathered here to honour the past – but this event only has real meaning if we are determined to translate the lessons of the past struggles into the struggles we face today.
I’m referring not just to the fight for workers’ rights, but to the struggles against racism, sexism, xenophobia and all the intolerances that can lead to fascism.
These evils are the product of a rotten, corrupt capitalist system that still oppresses people of colour, women or people of Muslim, Jewish or any other religious faith.
How the NUM fought back
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the National Union of Mineworkers acted on the lessons of the past.
Our Union involved itself in action after action – on behalf of nurses, health service workers and in 1977 supporting the Asian workers at Grunwick in London and the steelworkers in 1980.
Our members confronted racism and anti-semitism, as working-class people did in the 1930s, in the Battle of Cable Street in London against Oswald Moseley’s Black-Shirts.
The NUM and its members stood side-by-side with others of our class against exploitation and oppression.
Our solidarity was richly returned in our strike of 1984/85, with the wonderful support that came to the NUM from so many diverse communities throughout the UK.
Today, we must learn from the lessons of our past:
· Defend the NHS
· Defend all workers who are being exploited
· Fight for full employment – once upon a time that was TUC policy
· Demand that all people who are unable to gain employment or who have to look after families are paid the average national wage
· Oppose the privatisation of occupational pension schemes
What we need today is solidarity action as advocated by the great Irish trade union leader Jim Larkin – it’s a shameful fact that its importance has been buried over the past 30-odd years, by unforgivable compromises on the part of politicians and, sadly, trade union leaders. But the feeling is still there. It’s time to organise again.