Thursday January 10 2013

NUM in court: Arthur Scargill’s dacha debacle

David Douglass comments on the decline and fall of Arthur Scargill's reputation

As we like to remember him

At last the high court has ruled that the long-suffering, minute membership of the National Union of Mineworkers does not in fact have to pay for the rent and associated outgoings of the luxury Barbican flat in London for Arthur Scargill, former NUM president. This item alone had absorbed a large chunk of the union’s membership fees for a number of recent years. It has been a long and disgusting episode which has soured still further the once unblemished reputation of King Arthur and, by association, the whole union.

The existence of this luxury flat was for many years denied. We were told it was a savage rumour. Later, when its existence could no longer be denied, I for one had been told we did not pay for it - it had been loaned to the union by Ken Livingstone as a war bunker during the strike, a secret command post in the centre of London. Still the stories persisted, until the incoming general secretary, Chris Kitchen, elected in 2007, decided to find out once and for all where all the union’s money went, and what exactly we were paying for, as this had been by no means clear. A lot of activity in the union’s higher echelons had been on a ‘nod and wink’ basis and this applied to far too many financial transactions. Requests at conference for transparency were in the past treated from the platform almost as treachery and akin to joining in the press assassination of Arthur Scargill and former general secretary Peter Heathfield. There was also a gut feeling that a man like Arthur, of granite principle and communist values, would never money grub or join any gravy trains.

So how did the case end up? Scargill had argued that all the previous NUM presidents had had houses bought for them to live in and that these houses had all been in London. That the rules allowed the president to occupy this house even after retirement and be retained for the use of any widow in the event of death, at either a very low rent or by buying it at a knock-down price. Context is, of course, key here. This was a necessity from the time when the NUM headquarters was based in London next to those of the National Coal Board. It was also at a time when the officials and their families lived in London and had given up their family home in the coalfields.

Scargill was given use of the Barbican flat near the old NUM HQ (when it was still in London, of course). He did not, however, take up full-time residency, nor did he intend to move his family from Barnsley. Arthur argued that his use of the flat was a life-time obligation on the union. The judge rejected this claim, as nowhere in any contract or agreement or executive meeting had this ever been stated. It was not in his original contract of employment. During the period between 1985 and 1991 the NUM did not in fact pay anything toward the Barbican flat.

It was known Arthur had campaigned to move the NUM HQ out of London and back to the coalfields, and the national office would be coming to Yorkshire. Which is what happened.

At the time Scargill was elected president in 1982, the Yorkshire area of the NUM was paying his mortgage on his Yorkshire residence. But during the 1984-85 Great Strike the union agreed to buy Arthur’s house (in case he was personally sequestrated and then evicted from the property, which would have been a great humiliation for him and the union in terms of propaganda). Arthur then continues to live in that house, and the union agrees this will remain his family home. Just after the strike, he makes the decision to buy ‘Treelands’, a large detached house in Barnsley. He has the money from the previous sale and also, highly controversially, has an interest-free loan from an international fund set up to support striking miners and their families, and to which the Soviet miners’ union had sent massive donations.

It is this issue which the press grabs hold of and splashes all over the front pages. Scargill had allegedly pocketed the money for starving miners’ kids and used it to buy a large ranch. Arthur in fact repaid the loan at a higher than average rate of interest, but that did not take the nasty smell away. Miners lived in £15,000 properties at that time, and a number of men had lost their homes in that long and bitter strike through failed mortgage payments and mounting debt. This luxury detached house was bought just six months after the end of the strike by the national president who had led the dispute.

Arthur argues that the NUM nationally still owes him a house, but that he will forgo this long established right if the union will rent him the Barbican flat again, for the rest of his days and those of any wife he might have. I say ‘argues’, but in fact it was a conclusion he came to himself, and the National Executive Committee was not consulted. The judge ruled that without the NEC approval (or even knowledge) this arrangement was not lawful. Instead of putting the question to the NEC and conference, he then goes and gets legal advice as to whether he can get the flat paid for by the union. But even this ‘advice’ did not discuss whether this arrangement would continue into retirement and beyond the grave. He then goes to the finance department of the NUM and instructs them to start paying for the Barbican flat. He has contracts drawn up in 1992, 1999 and 2002, which state that the NUM must pay for the flat up and to and after his retirement (and death if there is a surviving widow). He and his wife Anne have by now broken up and divorced.

He has arranged for legal advice which confirms that everything is in order. However, in the judge’s words that advice ought to have been “arms-length” and not, as had happened, purely undertaken on his own initiative and control. The advice was based entirely on the information he provided and not the full picture, and in any case he had no authority to assume the powers of the NEC to actually make such decisions. None of this was ever disclosed to the NEC or conference, and therefore was not lawful and the union has no obligation to honour it. Without knowledge or agreement of the NEC, union funds had been used to pay the rent on the Barbican flat since 1992. The issue was disclosed officially to the NEC in 2008 and 2009, but the executive did not agree to the contract or approve it retrospectively.

So at last this issue appears to have been put to bed. There is still to be a second part of the judgment on financial matters: ie, will all that rent have to be paid back? It certainly should, and god knows Arthur has enough of a war chest to pay for it - though how exactly that little treasure trove was accumulated is another tangled web we will doubtless never bottom out.

The whole thing is tragically sad; Arthur was a legend, a working class hero, who was inspirational and magnetic. His leadership of the NUM during the strike, although not faultless, was principled and brave. None of us in the miners union take any joy in having to drag all this stuff through bourgeois courts and air dirty linen in public, let alone in seeing a man’s character and contribution tarnished in this way. But we should perhaps remember it was Arthur who initiated proceedings against the union for ‘non-compliance’ with what he claims was his ‘contract’. All of this seems a long, long way from walking on water, as at one time the rank and file believed he could.

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