On the far left, but left far behind Profile: Once the scourge of British capitalism, union leader Arthur Scargill preaches the socialist gospel undiluted by exile to the political margin.

Sun Journal

February 25, 1996|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

CARDIFF, Wales -- In a smoke-filled hotel ballroom, jammed with union activists, British socialism is alive and well. Arthur Scargill, president of the National Union of Mineworkers, is preaching the old-time gospel.

Industry? Nationalize it. Workers? Employ them all.

"We are committed to the overthrow of the capitalist view of society," Mr. Scargill says, bringing the crowd to its feet.

Mr. Scargill is bounding around Britain trying to ignite support for his new political vehicle, the Socialist Labor Party, an organization that is far-left and, some would say, far-out. It was trounced this month in its first outing in a Parliamentary election, gaining 5.5 percent of the vote. That placed it just ahead of Britain's most entertaining perennial loser, Screaming Lord Sutch and his Official Monster Raving Loony Party.

For much of this century, socialism was a mainstream British movement and at times the dominant one. Now, it is as dated as a general strike, something known only in memory.

So a visit to a Socialist Labor Party meeting is like a trip back in time -- to the 1930s.

Here, comrades and ex-Communists are welcome and the workers of the world are still trying to unite. People sip beer during political speeches. A little girl with a ponytail crunches potato chips and slides along the dance floor as Mr. Scargill waves a party membership card. It's red.

The scene could come straight from the pages of the Depression-era left-wing American drama, "Waiting for Lefty," a notion that Mr. Scargill takes as a compliment.

"Lefty has arrived," he says.

Mr. Scargill, 58, the coal miner turned militant union leader, is one of the political characters who do not fade away. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, he was the bogyman of British politics, a symbol of union power run amok, and influential enough to make governments quake by sending his union out on strike.

But he overstepped when he called a strike in 1984, one that brought economic havoc. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher used nearly every lever of state power to end the strike and defeat Mr. Scargill.

Her victory set a grim tone for labor relations and paved the way for the government sell-off of the coal mines in the 1990s.

The strike also marked the beginning of the end of Mr. Scargill's ability to wield extensive power. The man who once headed a union of nearly 200,000 workers now commands fewer than 11,000.

Mr. Scargill remains defiant, despite the crushing loss.

"All the people who led on behalf of the government in that dispute, including Margaret Thatcher, have all gone," he says.

"Arthur Scargill is still around. There has to be a moral in there somewhere."

Now, Mr. Scargill finds himself out of step with the blow-dried politicians who dominate the Labor Party he belonged to for more than 30 years. "I didn't leave the Labor Party," he says. "The Labor Party left me."

In a way, he is right. Mr. Scargill, who formally broke from Labor last month, and his supporters in the Socialist Labor Party espouse ideals that fueled the creation of Labor at the beginning of the 20th century.

It was the left and Labor that brought post-World War II Britain socialized medicine and nationalized industries -- mining, steel, railroads, electrical power and water.

But for the past 16 years, the government has been Conservative, not Labor. Most of the nationalized industries have been dismantled, and the debate has moved on. Politicians from across the ideological spectrum talk about the global economy, not full employment.

To mainstream Labor, Mr. Scargill is a pest who might just garner enough votes in the next general election to keep the Conservatives in power. That's a galling prospect for Labor politicians who have learned to live with this motto: Lose some, lose some more.

"He hasn't taken one member of Parliament with him," says Simon Crine, general secretary of the Fabian Society, whose early members included such socialist stalwarts as George Bernard Shaw and Sidney and Beatrice Webb. "Even people sympathetic with Scargill won't go with him because they know they would be obliterated."

The Labor Party of brawny politicians taking orders from rough-hewn union bosses like Mr. Scargill is clearly finished. The party now bills itself as New Labor and is under the control of a leader, Tony Blair, who looks like a television game-show host and talks like a business executive.

Mr. Blair is weaning the party away from the unions and the old left-wing ideology. Last year, Labor shed the last vestige of socialism by dumping its most prized constitutional plank, Clause IV. Written in 1918, it called on the party to nationalize industries for the good of the workers.

Now, Labor pols routinely espouse the merits of free trade and seek advice from Britain's top financiers.

"Blair has slaughtered the sacred cows," Mr. Crine says. "He is prepared to live in the world as he finds it."

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