WORLD/COVER

A union of prelate and the miners

MICHAEL POSNER October 22 1984
WORLD/COVER

A union of prelate and the miners

MICHAEL POSNER October 22 1984

A union of prelate and the miners

WORLD/COVER

The bishop of Birmingham chided the government’s “politics of confrontation.” The bishop of Durham termed his correspondence with a senior cabinet minister a “dialogue with the deaf.” And the Archbishop of Canterbury himself, the Most Rev. Robert Runcie, decried the absence of “leadership that will unite, not divide, the nation.” Clearly, if Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher ever believed that the Church of England was only “the Conservative Party at prayer”—as cynics have occasionally suggested—her faith last week was profoundly shaken.

What prompted the church’s extraordinary entry into Britain’s political life was the Thatcher government’s handling of the bitter, seven-month-old coalminers’ strike. Provoked by the National Union of Mineworkers’ increasingly violent tactics, police and picketers have engaged in bloody clashes. The result: 7,000 arrests, hundreds injured and a social climate poisoned by inflammatory rhetoric on both sides.

Contempt: Ostensibly, the 183,000member NUM is protesting the National Coal Board’s plan for closing 20 moneylosing mines and eliminating 20,000 j obs through attrition. But if that controversial proposal prompted the initial walkout last March 12, the strike has long since become as much a political as an economic statement. Last week a British high court fined the miners’ Communist president, Arthur Scargill $1,600 (£1,000)—and the union itself $320,000 (£200,000)—for contempt of court. In defiance of a court order, Scargill had declared his strike legal when, in fact, the NUM membership has never been balloted on the issue. The question of legality is important because if the strike is unlawful the NUM is not entitled to discourage dissident miners from crossing picket lines to return to work. Some 25 per cent of Britain’s 175 state-owned mines are still operating. “What [Scargill] is actually fighting,” conceded The Guardian, a newspaper generally more tolerant of the union’s excesses,

“is the long-established and long-accepted civil law of the land.”

Legality aside, the plight of the miners —symbolic, perhaps, of

Britain’s labor-rich but obsolete industries—still elicits a fair measure of sympathy, not least from the clergy. Interviewed in the London Times, Runcie warned that the divisions created by the strike “will take generations to heal.” And challenging the government’s economic rationale for the pit closures, the Anglican cleric said, “ If the human consequences of such aims mean unemployment on an unprecedented scale, poverty, bureaucracy, despair about the future, the objectives must be called into question.”

Illogical: Predictably, Runcie’s charges, delivered on the eve of the annual Conservative Party conference, drew a swift and critical response from Tory MPs. “Mindless,” said Anthony Beaumont Dark. Let ö him “eat coal in public,” z suggested Nicholas Fair^ bairn. If the archbishop £ preached Christianity

instead of “Scargillism,” added Terry Dicks, “maybe his churches would have more people sitting in them.” But senior Conservatives were more restrained. Observed party chairman John Gummer: “It is perfectly proper for bishops of the Church of England or any other church to comment about politics.

If they don’t comment, they are missing out part of their job.” But Gummer insisted that Runcie’s own logic was flawed. “If you keep open uneconomic pits, you deny jobs to those who could otherwise have them, not only in the mines but in the industries that depend on the coal and electricity produced.” The pro-govern§ ment Times agreed, but lt; noted: “The fact that Dr.

1 Runcie’s observations lt;5 were illogical does not diz minish their potency.”

9 Where Thatcher had failed, a Times editorial suggested, was in not exposing the strikers’ political ambitions or using available legal remedies to curb them sooner than she did.

Vindication: Ironically, last week’s controversy coincided with the most promising developments yet in the longfrustrated efforts to end the dispute. Ian MacGregor, the American chairman of the coal board, accepted a mediation proposal—presented by an independent conciliator—that Scargill had already endorsed. MacGregor said the proposed settlement would permit the mediation service to resolve the central issue: the closure of unprofitable mines. Previously, the coal board had refused to negotiate its right to order shutdowns. Scargill has insisted that only pits no longer considered safe for mining could be closed. Observers speculated that if last week’s optimism leads to a settlement, the final agreement would contain language ambiguous enough to allow both sides to claim vindication, if not victory. Conversely, should the talks fail—as they have failed before—picket line violence is likely to escalate. And that would exert more pressure on Margaret Thatcher’s government.

-MICHAEL POSNER !