A Visiting Briton's View of the Miners' Strike

When The Times calls for the Thatcher government to heal the wounds caused by the National Union of Mineworkers' strike (March 6), "Britain: Healing the Wounds," it wrongly perpetuates the typically American view that, like family rows, labor disputes are non-ideological events that can and should be smoothed over as quickly as possible.

Though the liberal American press salves its conscience by urging (almost certainly vainly) a policy of benevolence and amnesty on a reactionary Margaret Thatcher, its visible relief at the defeat of the "Marxist" Arthur Scargill reeks of hypocrisy.

If we are to believe the American press, British workers have become the dupes of Marxist leaders who have led them into an "excessive militancy," which is to blame for Britain's economic woes. There is no discussion in the press of the legitimacy of the workers' militancy; rather, the Thatcher government's strike-breaking and union-busting is treated as an economic necessity.

Thatcher escapes all blame for Britain's poor economic performance or the palpable hopelessness one feels in Britain these days. She, like her kindred spirit in Washington, is never called to account for the failures of her economic policies. And failures they have been. Only North Sea oil income, which is due to run out soon, masks the huge deficits that the Tories have run and are running under Thatcher.

The pound no longer merits respect on world currency markets. In this situation, Thatcher uses unemployment as a deflationary device: more than 3 million Britons are without jobs today and there is no end in sight to the rise in unemployment. Much of this unemployment will be permanent. For their part, the Tories have given little but lip service to the plight of workers in dying industries, school-leavers and the rest of the unemployed. Instead, they drone on about high technology, the private sector and economic rationalization.

The labor unions have been among Thatcher's loudest opponents. And only a strong labor movement can continue to oppose Tory policies, which, while throwing ever more delicious bones to businessmen, force the majority of Britons to bear the burdens of economic and technological change. Thatcher knows this: she has attacked unions relentlessly since her election in 1979, and has sponsored legislation that has attempted to damage the labor movement. She has used unemployment as a weapon to weaken the ties of labor organization, rewarding workers who eschew unionization with jobs. Labor is on the defensive in today's Britain. To plead for benevolence for labor from Thatcher and actually expect to receive it, is the highest form of self-delusion and it totally misreads the meaning of the miners' struggle.

As the traditionally most militant and hardiest of British unions, the miners strike had a significance far beyond the issue of closing some uneconomic pits. Having broken the miners, Thatcher now has an almost free rein to destroy the labor movement as an effective opponent of her policies.

It is unlikely that the moderation of the Trades Union Council and Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock, or their lukewarm support of the miners will serve them very well in the months to come. Scargill's leadership of the miners was indeed suspect. But unlike the press that uses his Marxism to explain his performance and to raise public fear, I have little problem with Scargill's Marxism. What concerns me more are his misjudgments and the way in which Scargill's personality has been used to obscure the real story of the miners' strike.

What matters in the end is that for 51 weeks tens of thousands of miners, over 75% of those employed in the pits, said "NO!" to Thatcherism for themselves, for the rest of the labor movement and for Britain. These miners were not the dupes of their leaders. They stayed out on strike for almost a year despite police brutality, government harassment and attacks on their and their families' benefits and severe personal hardship. Their heroism deserves to be celebrated.


Los Angeles

Seleski is a visiting lecturer in modern British history at UCLA.

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