Mansfield, England — HE could well be the most controversial man in Britain right now. The country, now in the 10th week of a coal strike, watches every move of the man who called the strike and who has brought about a radical split in the ranks of the miners, the entire trade union movement, and Britain's political left.
Many Britons who don't subscribe to any of the above causes react to him with implacable hostility. ''I simply detest the man,'' said a Londoner who blames him for Britain's industrial strife.
News media critics claim he is unscrupulous in his use of statistics, doubling the number of pits the National Coal Board says it is closing. Such is the controversy surrounding Britain's most publicized union leader that the Daily Express missed publishing one day because of an editorial storm on how to represent his views.
Meet Arthur Scargill, Yorkshire leader of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), who wants to do more than defend the rights and jobs of British miners. He also wants to radically socialize Britain. Perhaps only Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher - for different reasons - arouses as many passions as Mr. Scargill, who evokes enmity in some parts of Britain but also has a fervent following.
''Arthur! Arthur! Arthur!'' they shout at a rally here in the small town of Mansfield, in the heart of the Nottinghamshire coalfields. Young lads dash to greet him as though he were a football hero. ''Scar-gill! Scar-gill! Scar-gill!'' militant marchers roar.
Yet Arthur Scargill, small in physical stature compared with his brawny mining colleagues from Yorkshire and Scotland, might go unnoticed in the crowd, except that he is probably the only man wearing a suit.
As the 15,000-strong march winds through the streets of Mansfield, marchers say rude things about Prime Minister Thatcher and Ian MacGregor, the tough National Coal Board chairman who aims to streamline the troubled coal industry by closing unproductive pits. The glory is left for Arthur Scargill.
But just where Scargill is leading his followers is uncertain. This strike, however it ends, will almost certainly determine Scargill's credibility and viability as a major British trade union leader.
Doubts have been raised as to how accurately he judged the mood of the miners when he called them out on strike. Unswerving loyalty to the union can no longer be taken for granted, and whereas the miners' union had the clout to topple Prime Minister Edward Heath in 1974, that is no longer the case.
Asked at the start of the Mansfield rally what he expected the major achievement of the march to be, Scargill replied: ''I think it's a magnificent display of solidarity and determination to save our pits.''
Some marchers like Dave Clowes were confident that a good show of strength would bring an end to the strike. It didn't. And Nottinghamshire miners remained aloof. They preferred to work below ground while Scargill and his striking miners marched in the sunshine.
Although the British coal industry is more generally associated with Newcastle and the Welsh mining valleys, and Nottinghamshire with the legend of Robin Hood - Sherwood Forest is close by - this county is vital coal-mining country. It is critical to the miners' strike.
Nottinghamshire is Britain's richest coal-producing area. It also is the second-largest coalmining region in Britain. Unless Nottinghamshire miners strike, the union's call for solidarity is meaningless.
So far some 49,000 of Britain's 183,000 miners continue to work 43 pits: 25 of them in Nottinghamshire. But 121 mines are on strike, and 6 are in partial production.
Scargill's appeals go largely unheeded here because most Nottinghamshire mines are profitable, and the Nottinghamshire miners don't take kindly to what they regard as Scargill's bullying.
Early in the strike miners here voted 3:1 against striking. By just as great a margin they insisted: ''No British coal strike without a national ballot.'' That is taken as a democratic right here, and they don't like to see regular procedures subverted. Some Nottinghamshire miners are taking their local leaders to court on this issue.
Scargill has refused calls for a national ballot. The last two went against him. To get around the national ballot and get miners to put down their tools, he sends in flying pickets - men brought in from more radical areas like Yorkshire. Condemned as blatant intimidation by the British media, the tactic is called ''lobbying'' by one of Scargill's colleagues.
The union's hopes of cajoling miners into striking were dashed by a huge police presence that took the union by surprise. Militant miners resorted to threatening miners in their homes. Some miners have stayed home from the night shift to protect their families.
When questioned about such tactics, Mr. Clowes, the Staffordshire miner, looks embarrassed, but he insists it is the result of miner frustration. Mr. Clowes says striking is the only way to stand up to the closure of his pit by the coal board, but the cost is beginning to tell.
When times are good, he says he brings in as much as (STR)190 ($266) a week, including overtime pay. Now he has to rely on his father's generosity and the weekly social security check to provide for his family.
Miners like Clowes are prime recruits for Scargill's campaign to keep mines open because, according to Clowes, coal board assurances that men can find jobs at other nearby pits don't wash.
''I have nowhere to go. The pits nearby have gone or already have too many men.'' Many miners resent what they perceive as MacGregor's unilateralist approach. They say he called for pit closures without sufficient consultation with the miners.
Yet the miners' traditional resolve to stick together is being undermined by the coal board's offers of generous redundancy payments. For a miner with 30 years' experience it amounts to as much as (STR)36,000 ($50,000).
The offer is proving a great temptation. In the first week after it was made, coal board offices throughout the country were besieged with 12,000 calls from miners wanting further information. Some 2,000 came from Scargill's own power base of Yorkshire. Privately some miners indicate they are unhappy with union leaders and want to get out while they can.
The so-called triple alliance of coal, steel, and rail workers has been fractured by steelworkers' refusal to go along with the miners. Even within the miners' union, a good deal of cold water is being thrown on Scargill's more fiery rhetoric.
Neil Kinnock, leader of the Labour Party (which was founded by the trade union movement), was slow in supporting the striking miners. This reluctance could be explained by Mr. Kinnock's growing awareness that radical stands right now tend to lose votes to the Conservatives and Liberal-Social Democratic alliance at election time.
Thus Scargill's claim that the miners will help unseat the Thatcher government sounds more like the political script of the 1970s than the scenario for 1984.
With adequate coal stocks in the country and a government apparently determined not to buckle under this time, it could be miners like Clowes, trying to make ends meet, who will have to give in first. And it may just mean Scargill will witness his own political demise before that of Mrs. Thatcher.