As the anniversary of the 1984 miners’ strike approaches, its figurehead Arthur Scargill has become a recluse, at war with the current NUM leadership. We went in search of Yorkshire‘s living legend … and found him

Arthur Scargill at Orgreave

Arthur Scargill leads picketing miners at Orgreave, 1984. Photograph: Don Mcphee for the Guardian

The council chamber at the Barnsley HQ of the National Union of Mineworkers is a jaw-dropping sight: a huge, oak-panelled room, draped with banners that were once kept at collieries across Yorkshire and beyond. One of them is from the nearby Wombwell Main pit, and tells its own story. Its main image is of a solitary miner, with arms aloft, climbing a staircase to the clouds. On the first step, it says “nationalisation”; after that comes “the five-day week”, “social security”, “family allowances”, “health and peace”, and “prosperity and happiness”. At the top, surrounded by sunbeams, is the single word “socialism”: the destination that, some would say, decisively disappeared from view midway through the 1980s.

Here as elsewhere in post-industrial Yorkshire, the surrounding landscape attests to what arrived instead. All but two of the county’s collieries have closed, and in their place are seemingly endless retail parks, the foundations of a local economy in which people work in shops to spend money in other shops. Further afield, amid great stretches of empty space, you find places that seem to be clinging on by their very fingertips, such as the former pit village of Goldthorpe, stranded halfway between Barnsley and Doncaster. Its main street leads to a huge expanse of rubble and weeds; on the way there, you pass a branch of a business called The Recycle Shop. With the promise of at least £5 in cash, its sign reads thus: “We buy your unwanted clothes, shoes, socks, belts, handbags, paired footwear.”

Back at the NUM I have an appointment to meet Betty Cook and Anne Scargill, to discuss the 30th anniversary of the miners’ strike of 1984-5, which began in Yorkshire during the opening days of March 1984. Back then, Scargill was the wife of a man who would soon be among the two or three most famous people in the country, but what she did during the strike pushed her conclusively out of his shadow.

She and Cook, then a miner’s wife were among the founders of an organisation called Women Against Pit Closures, and organised support for striking miners’ families, as well as taking to picket lines: early on in the strike, she was hauled away from one such gathering in Nottinghamshire, and detained for hours at a police station, where she was eventually strip-searched.

When remembering this, she brims with the same rage she must have felt at the time. “I shall never, ever forgive the police for doing that to me,” she says. “And I tell you summat: when I come out of there, I thought to myself, ‘Right – they can’t do owt any worse to me now. So they shouldn’t think they’ve scared me. They’ve made me worse.'”

Half our time is spent discussing the strike and its aftermath; for the remainder, the two of them talk about what has happened to the place where they live since then. “We’re going backwards, aren’t we?” says Scargill. Every Monday, she says, she helps out a local church project that gives free breakfasts to whoever shows up.

“Five years ago, when I first started, if we got 30 or 40, we thought we’d got a lot,” she says. “But we’ve had to move to new premises. And yesterday, do you know what? We got 111. They’re all talking about the bedroom tax, and not being able to afford a good meal.” Herein, she says, lies a direct link to what she did three decades ago. “At least Women Against Pit Closures tried to do something to prevent it happening. So our conscience is clear.”

“It’s Thatcher’s legacy, isn’t it?” offers Cook. “Destroy everything, and create a ‘me-me-me’ class. It’s always those lower down who are suffering. We’ve got food banks now, but they’re doing clothing banks for children and babies as well.”

On a nearby mantelpiece is a small pink calendar, filling up with dates: academic seminars, radio shows, outdoor festivals and more. Downstairs in the NUM’s waiting room there are flyers and posters advertising other events, complete with long lists of invited speakers.

But one name is missing: that of Scargill’s ex-husband, who will forever be synonymous with the events of 1984 and 85, but has seemingly resolved to sit through the anniversary in silence.

Mention of him draws a quick response. “I never, ever talk about my ex-husband,” says Anne Scargill. “I’ve never, ever said owt. I’ve had hundreds and hundreds of pounds offered for my story, and I’m not washing my dirty linen in public.”

They divorced in 2001. Does she think she ever will talk about him?


She won’t be writing a book?

A smile. “I am writing a book, but he’s not mentioned in it. Well, he is, in dispatches [laughs].”

Anne Scargill and Betty CookAnne Scargill (left) and Betty Cook at the National Union of Mineworkers headquarters in Barnsley. Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the GuardianThe intended title, she and Cook tell me, is Only a Miner’s Daughter, and it will tell the story of her entire life, with a seeming focus on the strike. How will she write a book like that while somehow keeping him out of the story?

“In the strike, he were never at home … We didn’t spend much time together that year,” she says. “I was either on a picket line, or in a soup kitchen. We were busy. I were 42, me. I had a job at the Co-op. We did soup kitchens. I drove the picket bus. Arthur’s dad lived with us as well: there were me, Arthur, Margaret [their daughter] and Arthur’s dad. He very, very rarely came home, ‘cos he was always in the offices or organising things.”

She then shoots me a look. “Don’t you think I’ve done enough without him?”

Arthur Scargill is now 76. He keeps a home close to the pit village where he was born, and is said to be close to Nell Myers, the American-born woman who was the NUM’s national press officer during the strike, and continues to assist Scargill in his political and media dealings. Before I set off for Yorkshire, I email her to request an interview with him, citing the fact that my own grandfather was a coalminer and union activist, and many of my close relatives were actively involved in the strike. I receive no reply.

Having been elected president of the NUM in 1981, Scargill held that position for just over 20 years. His time at the top of the union saw not just the strike and his union’s defeat, but the rapid decline of the British coal industry – not least in the early 1990s, when the-then trade minister Michael Heseltine announced that 31 of the UK’s remaining 50 deep collieries were to shut. Cabinet papers released earlier this year proved that when, at the start of the strike, Scargill claimed that there were secret plans to shut around 70 pits in the face of endless official denials, he was unquestionably correct.

To his remaining allies, this fact confirms that his reputation still burns bright: Scargill was right, they say, and this verdict extends beyond the fate of the British coal industry, to every key aspect of his leadership of the NUM. To his detractors, by contrast, the fact that he understood what was at stake is no excuse for a series of elemental mistakes that sealed his union’s fate and marked a huge turning point in postwar history.

One of his closest associates is Ken Capstick, 73, who lives 20 minutes’ drive from Barnsley in a quiet corner of Wakefield. A former miner and vice-president of the Yorkshire NUM, he now serves as the treasurer of the Socialist Labour Party, the would-be challenger to Tony Blair that Scargill founded in 1996, whose membership has since dwindled to around 300. Scargill remains its leader, which may account for its lamentably low profile; after all, if your figurehead is also a media recluse, the world may not be yours for the taking.

Capstick – a genial, soft-spoken man, whose disposition rather belies the rock-solid certainties of his politics – talks to me for well over two hours. One by one, he bats away the standard criticisms of Scargill’s leadership of the strike: that it was ill-advised to commence the strike in the spring, that he should have held a national ballot (“The miners weren’t calling for a ballot – the people who were calling for a ballot were our enemies”), and that in returning to work without an agreement, the miners were left in an impossible position.

“I don’t know what a deal would have been,” he says. “How can you come to a compromise so you, say, agree to close half the pits that were threatened? It was all or nothing. If you’re out for a wage increase, you can cut a deal. But an issue like that – it wasn’t easy to come to a compromise. Either they won or we did.”

Capstick also reiterates something he has said in the past: that somehow, for all that the miners lost the strike, “the victory was in the struggle itself”.

“The way I would put that is this,” he says. “If you’ve got a young lad at school and he’s being bullied, and he comes out of school at the end of the day and the bully is waiting for him, to give him a good hiding … the bully may be bigger than him, but he has a choice. He can either cower down and take his beating, or he can stand and fight, and hope to maybe land a few punches. He may still lose. But his victory is in the struggle itself. We stood and fought against enormous odds, and not just for the pits – for our way of life. The fight was a political one, as well. And did we win that? It’s too soon to say.”

Like Anne Scargill and Betty Cook, Capstick will be appearing at this year’s commemorative events, across Yorkshire and elsewhere. But so far, Arthur Scargill is conspicuous by his absence. So how is he?

“He’s OK,” says Capstick. “It’s strange, because Arthur was a media person. He was on television all the time: a charismatic character. And now he’s ditched all that. He tells me he’s writing a book. I don’t know how far he’s got. But his brain is as active as ever.”

There follows the most illustrative of anecdotes. “One day last year, I was talking to him on the phone. And when I put the phone down, I came and sat in the house, and the television was on, and it came on that Margaret Thatcher had died. So I knew Arthur didn’t know. I got my mobile phone, and I sent him a text. It just said: ‘Thatcher dead.’ And I got a reply.” He reaches for his phone and shows me what he received. Just to hammer the point home, it was in block capitals: “SCARGILL ALIVE!”

“And that,” says Capstick, “was the only thing he said about Thatcher. He wouldn’t say another word.”

ITN, he claims, offered Scargill £7,000 for a five-minute interview. “They asked me to relay that to him. I thought: ‘Well – I’ve got to do it.’ So I sent an email, and the £7,000 was rejected. They came back to me, and said: ‘We’ll up it to £10,000.’ I said: ‘I’ll pass it on. But I can’t promise you there’ll be any chance of an interview.’ Arthur had told me that under no circumstances was he going to give an interview. I sent a message – it was £10,000. ‘No.’ They said: ‘How about £15,000?’ An email came back: ‘No.’ They made a final offer of £16,000.” He smiles. “The gentleman was not for turning.”

What can he tell me about Scargill’s everyday life?

“He doesn’t live lavishly, although he does like a glass of red wine. He lives a normal sort of a life. He has his relatives around him, his two grandsons … ”

As late as 2009, it was said that Scargill was estranged not just from Anne, but his daughter, Margaret, and her husband – and, by extension, his twin grandsons. But apparently not.

“He’s estranged from his ex-wife. But his daughter visits him regularly. So does his son-in-law. He injured himself a couple of years ago playing penalty shoot-out with his grandkids. They’ll probably be 10 or 11 now.”

When did Capstick last see him?

“Today,” he says.

It is only after I leave the NUM’s HQ for the last time that one striking fact hits home. Arthur Scargill’s name is on the list of union officials that adorns one wall, but that is it: among the banners, memorabilia and countless images of the strike, he is nowhere to be seen.

And this is why. Since 2010, Scargill has been battling its current leadership, on issues pertaining to Scargill himself, and matters relating to both the people now in charge of the union, and a small handful of miners who have tried to dislodge them. Many of the details are too complex and arcane to comprehensively explain, let alone understand, though some of what has emerged from all this tussling has been manna from heaven to those sections of the press who would have their readers believe that Scargill’s reputation is beyond repair. We now know, for example, that until late 2012, the NUM paid £34,000 a year in rent for his council flat in the Barbican in London – and that in 1993, he tried to use the Right to Buy scheme pioneered by Thatcher to buy it. Scargill says that if he had succeeded, the property would have been eventually returned to the union; the NUM’s leadership insists there is no evidence to back up this claim.

The union now has just under 1,800 members, who work at a small handful of deep pits and open-cast mines, but its financial holdings are said to total around £20m, which Scargill’s supporters say lies at the heart of their current battles. The NUM says the money is being used to defend what remains of the coal industry and help both its members and former miners. Allies of Scargill counter that there is a clear and present danger that the funds will be misused, and as the union’s membership shrinks, they want its handsome holdings to somehow be ploughed back into former mining communities.

Chris KitchenChris Kitchen, general secretary of the NUM, at the union’s headquarters in Barnsley. Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the GuardianThe NUM’s general secretary is 47-year-old Chris Kitchen. He was 17 at the time of the strike, and an active picketer, in Yorkshire and elsewhere. His last formal tussle with Scargill came on 13 February, when Scargill took four matters to an Employment Appeal Tribunal, and was granted a future hearing.

“There’s definitely a disproportionate amount of time and money being spent fighting Arthur Scargill rather than looking after the members and protecting the union,” he tells me. “It’s sad to be in this position. I’ve never criticised Arthur for what he did during the strike, because I didn’t know the ins and out of it at the time. The man’s had 30 years of decent living out of the union, and he’s got a pension that’s second to none. Had he done the humble thing and walked away with what he were entitled to, his reputation would still be intact.”

Kitchen has said he believes Scargill is out to destroy the NUM.

“Yes. I’ve always said that if Arthur can no longer control the NUM, he’ll try and destroy it. That’s what I believe.”

He’s also claimed that “many” people now believe that Scargill has turned out to be as bad as Margaret Thatcher. Does that include him?

“I don’t see much difference between the way Arthur has lived his life and the capitalist system he built a reputation for fighting – in that he’s all out for his self. And he’s done very well out of it.”

Three decades on from 1984, Kitchen says there are many aspects of the strike and its aftermath that have yet to be thrashed out in public: the precise details of what the Thatcher government were up to, the horrific police violence seen at the Orgreave coking plant, the involvement of MI5 – and some matters relating to Arthur Scargill. “I would have thought that someone who was public enemy number one, with MI5 tapping his calls and following him, and everything else they were allegedly doing to him – I’m very surprised he managed to live the life he did and get away with what he did without being pulled up,” he says.

What I infer from that, I tell him, is that he believes the secret services deliberately turned a blind eye to some aspects of Scargill’s life. But he will not be drawn any further. “I’m just curious as to why some of the stuff we’re finding out and bringing to light wasn’t brought to light years ago,” he says. Among those matters, he says, is Scargill’s attempt to use Right to Buy, and the NUM’s claim that Scargill somehow managed to buy his current house when he was not being paid by the union.

That house sits on the edge of Worsbrough, close to the pit village where Scargill was born. It’s the last place I visit in Yorkshire before I turn the car round and head south: a low, long, stone-clad cottage only 50 or so yards from the M1, with a silver 4×4 parked outside, and a modest set of gates.

Hanging on a door facing the back garden is a fluorescent jacket. There are two security cameras fixed to the front wall, and all the blinds are closed. First, I ring the bell, to no avail, then use a door knocker in the shape of a miner’s lamp.

Five seconds later, the door creaks open, and there he is: the man who once parried the huge forces of British industrial history, dressed in a white-and-blue check shirt and light blue denim trousers. His hair is much thinner than it was 30 years ago. His eyes have sunk a little into his face; the voice is deeper and huskier than it once was.

I’m working on article about the 30th anniversary of the strike, I say. People have said things about him and his affairs, and it’s only fair that he should be given a chance to respond. And as I was in the area, it would be remiss of me not to knock on his door.

He listens to all this with an air of mild amusement. “Well, you’ve knocked on my door,” he says. “Now, good day to you.” And with that, not for the first time, Arthur Scargill retreats, inside.

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