The Guardian 2 March, 2005

Twenty years on from
the British Miners' strike

Arthur Scargill: "On the Women's Groups"

When British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher took on the National Union of Miners (NUM) in 1983, little did she know she would be taking on the union members' partners as well.

According to Arthur Scargill, the NUM President at the time, the women's groups were a revelation to him.

"I remember having this meeting with a woman who was a lecturer in a nearby college", Scargill says. "And we were talking about getting the women active and she said: "Well we could have a meeting and drum up support".

"I said that if we have a meeting, we might as well have a march. So we set that up, followed by a meeting in Barnsley public hall.

"The organisers were expecting a couple of hundred women and they even made sandwiches to give them when they arrived.

"Well, when I arrived in Barnsley I saw a sight that will stay with me for the rest of my life. I've never seen so many bloody women. There were thousands and they all had placards and banners. Jean, the lecturer, said to me, 'I don't believe it, what are we going to do?' And I said, 'Well, we are going ahead'.

"So we set off on the march, and a police officer came up to me and said it was too big to go down the main thoroughfare. I said, 'It's not my march, it's the women's march and they've told me that's exactly where they're going'.

"He was completely nonplussed, and we carried on straight to the centre of town, stopping traffic and everything. When we got back to the public hall, they were still leaving the starting point.

"Now there's a by-law in England that says you can't take banners into the public hall. I knew this and union members usually took their banners down. But the women didn't know this and they marched straight towards the meeting hall, banners up.

"So the police stopped me and said 'They can't come in here with them'. I said, 'You'll have to tell them'. Well he shouted it out and the women just surged forward, hitting the police out of the way with their banners as they went.

"There were four floors in this hall and when we got inside every single floor was packed to capacity. This chap from the fire brigade came up to me and said, ''Mr Scargill, can I point out that you're breaking fire regulations by having all these people in here. You can't hold this meeting'.

"I said, 'You go to the centre of the stage and tell them they can't hold their meeting'. With that he looked around, folded his arms and said, 'Well, as long as it doesn't go too bloody long'.

"These women, many of whom had never been outside their villages in their lives, would have stayed there debating politics all day. By the end of it, a massive women's movement had been established.

"They went all over the world, from Australia to Canada, asking people for support and they got it. Ireland, of course, was the greatest supporter we ever had, financially and vocally. They always said to us that it was in return for the support we gave them during the 1913 Lockout. And we'll never forget what they gave us."

The strike continued for a full 12 months, a magnificent struggle on the part of the miners, their union, women and other supporters.

During that period miners were killed, others received long jail sentences for picket line activity, unions were fined, the NUM sequestrated, and the miners condemned as "terrorists" by the government.

Finally, members voted for a return to work by a narrow majority as the TUC joined with the media and Thatcher in pressuring a return to work.

Now the mines are all closed. But we should not underestimate the importance of that heroic struggle, the solidarity of the women who supported their partners and international solidarity, including from Australia.

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