Britain's Barnsley - a thorn in the side of Thatcher's government

With its central railway station, war memorial, and arcades of small shops, Barnsley doesn't seem very different from dozens of other British towns. But soon after the Conservative government came into power five years ago, its strategists colored this town red. Red for danger, and red to represent the color of the opposition Labour Party.

The Labour Party is so firmly entrenched in the Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council that it holds 60 of the 66 seats. The few remaining are scattered among Conservatives (3), Liberals (1), Ratepayers (1), and Independents (1).

Striking Barnsley miner Steve Reeves, who kids he's too short to be mistaken for his movie star Superman namesake, says: ''They're very Labour here. They could pin a red rose on a monkey and they'd vote it in.''

Two things about Barnsley get under the skin of the Thatcher government:

The first is that Barnsley is the seat of what the government regards as the radically socialist South Yorkshire County Council. The council embraces Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster, and Rotherham.

Abolition of the Yorkshire County Council, together with the Greater London Council and five other metropolitan councils, is high on the government's legislative agenda this parliamentary session.

The government likes neither their politics nor their propensity for spending money on social programs when the Conservatives are committed to reigned-in public expenditure. Thatcherites view local government generally as the last of the big spenders.

The embattled South Yorkshire County Council, in league with the other threatened metropolitan councils, is fighting the abolition tooth and nail.

A huge sign, with red letters several feet high, covers four floors of a modern glass building that overlooks County Hall in Barnsley.

The sign proclaims: ''We've won the argument. Now let's win the battle.''

The council firmly believes it has vindicated itself in the eyes of the public.

The other unsettling thing to the Conservative government about Barnsley is that it is the home town of striking mining leader Arthur Scargill. He once worked at the Woolley Colliery, just north of Barnsley.

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has alluded to militant miners like Mr. Scargill as the ''enemy within.''

But Barnsley, surrounded by coal pits and steeped in coalfield history, views the striking miners far more sympathetically.

According to Mr. Reeves, three parking places are reserved for striking miners at the parking lot at County Hall.

Diagonally across the street is the old Civic Hall, now used as an entertainment center.

Every one of the 59 steps on the spiral staircase that leads to the striking miners' soup kitchen on the third floor is covered with striking miners, their wives, and small children.

Working in that kitchen is Steve's mother, Betty Reeves. She had already had 150 in for breakfast that morning. Now she was readying for double that number for the noonday meal: meat pie, gravy, peas, mashed potatoes, and carrots.

Says Mrs. Reeves: ''I go and do all the shopping.'' Was the town behind them? ''Yes, we're getting a lot of support from the town. Ordinary people are coming up with donations. Some as much as (STR)100 ($120).''

One bakery gives them bread every day - about 20 or 30 loaves, and another gives them 10 dozen teacakes a day. A farmer donates a crate (20 pints) of milk every day.

Such is the support for Scargill that the local Labour Party has chosen to make Scargill a Freeman of Barnsley.

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