Mineworkers' leader Scargill twists and turns to avert British law

Britain's National Union of Mineworkers has been forced to adopt a bifocal view of the law as it battles for victory in the ninth month of the coal strike. Faced with high court orders that his union's more than (STR)8 million ($9.6 million) in funds should be placed in the hands of an official receiver, Arthur Scargill has decided to go on defying British law.

But, with most of the NUM's money lodged in foreign bank accounts, Mr. Scargill tried to insist that the laws of Luxembourg and Switzerland should be used to protect it.

The improbable agent appointed by the high court in London to take control of the union's multimillion-pound nest egg was Herbert Brewer, a bluff, bespectacled Derbyshire solicitor.

He traveled from London to Luxembourg to try to recover (STR)4.3 million ($5. 16 million) worth of NUM funds which the high court had earlier decided should be removed from the charge of Scargill and other senior union officials.

But when he rang the bell of the Nobis Finance International Bank in Luxembourg, Mr. Brewer was told to go away. He began an action in a local court, demanding the handover of the money.

The NUM, seeking to operate within Luxembourg law, prepared to resist Brewer's action.

In London, Scargill was faced with a major crisis within his union when a majority of NUM executive members voted to cooperate with the official receiver - a move that would have been tantamount to accepting the jurisdiction of the British courts in the coal strike.

Rather than accept the executive vote, Scargill called a special emergency meeting of miners' union delagates from around Britain and secured a majority overturning the executive's view.

The result, Scargill said, was that the strike would go on. British law, meanwhile, was to be disobeyed.

As the law seemed to close in on the striking miners, Scargill's position was made more difficult by a tragedy in the Welsh coalfields. Striking miners on a bridge dropped a huge concrete block on a taxi carrying a working miner to his pit. The taxi driver died instantly and two miners were later held, pending charges of murder.

The incident persuaded Scargill to issue an apparently reluctant condemnation of violence, but the union leader restricted his remarks, implying that violence on the picket line was acceptable.

Politicians and police spokesmen criticized Scargill for failing to condemn violence earlier. The impact on public opinion of the driver's death was considerable. It temporarily put Scargill on the defensive.

But within 48 hours, fortified by the special delegate vote, he was again condemning police for instigating violence and insisting that the striking miners would come out winners in their confrontation with the National Coal Board.

The NUM's funds may become Scargill's Achilles' heel. Sixteen working miners obtained a high court order declaring the NUM president and two other trustees unfit to control the money.

The NUM executive lost an appeal against the judgment and faced the likelihood that the funds would be frozen, making it virtually impossible for the union to operate normally.

There were doubts over how union officials, including Scargill, would be paid. If the official receiver succeeds in retrieving or at least blocking the (STR)8 million squirreled away in foreign banks, the NUM may have to declare itself effectively bankrupt.

As Scargill twisted and turned to avert the impact of British law and take advantage of European law, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher adopted a low profile.

Government officials seemed content to let the law take its course, assuming that in the end the NUM would have no choice but to purge its contempt by apologizing to the courts and paying fines imposed because of past violations.

In the coalfields, a slow drift back to work continued, but the rate was lower than the Coal Board had hoped. At present speed, it might be springtime before a majority of miners decide to disobey Scargill's strike call and return to work.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.