Bill Carmichael: A monument to union folly

IN the centre of Sheffield is an unremarkable 1980s’ office block; its angular lines of glass and steel making it an incongruous neighbour to the classical splendour of the magnificent City Hall that lies next door.

The years have not been kind to this symbol of modernism. It remains empty and forlorn; weeds choke the abandoned forecourt and the buddleias run riot in the once carefully tended flowerbeds.

There is certainly little sign from its dilapidated appearance that this was once one of the most important buildings in England – the beating heart of what was widely known as the Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire.

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For a few short years in the 1980s’ this was the UK headquarters of the National Union of Mineworkers. So grand and powerful was the NUM that locals nicknamed the building Camelot, and it is where “King” Arthur Scargill held court, plotting the overthrow of capitalism and the downfall of his arch nemesis, Margaret Thatcher.

It didn’t work out quite like that. Instead, Scargill blundered into a catastrophic year-long strike that destroyed his union and broke the political power of the industrial working class for ever.

Not that Scargill suffered unduly – although his members did. The joke at the time was that he started the strike with a big union and a small house, and finished it with a small union and a big house.

Membership of the NUM shrunk from 140,000 to little over 3,500 during his time as leader, and far from halting pit closures, the strikes accelerated them.

Any chief executive with a record like that would be sacked, but Scargill enjoys the El-Presidente-for-life tenure rarely seen outside banana republics.

Scargill’s spirit lives on today in the big public sector unions that are determined to inflict misery on the paying public with a new wave of strikes.

The new militants are not miners, dockers and lorry drivers, but middle-class teachers, civil servants and town hall pen-pushers.

They may lack the clout of the old industrial unions, but they defend their taxpayer-funded entitlements and cushy sinecures with a selfish tenacity that would make your average Barnsley miner blush for shame.

As in the 1980s, the new strikes are overtly political. The aim, frequently openly expressed, is to bring down a democratically-elected government.

To the leaders of these unions, the interests of the members don’t really matter. Like the miners before them, they are just cannon fodder to be chewed up in the new class war.

But one thing is certain. Whatever happens, no matter how disastrous the impact of the strikes, the union leaders won’t suffer. They’ll still have their fat salaries and lavish pensions. Like Scargill, they are set up for life.

I can never walk past the old NUM building without thinking of the Percy Bysshe Shelley poem that tells the story of “traveller from an antique land” who stumbles across the shattered remains of an ancient civilisation.

The head of a statue, showing “the sneer of cold command”, lies half-buried in the ground and on an empty plinth are these words: “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings: Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”

The latest plan for the NUM building is to turn it into an archetypical capitalist venture – a casino – which at least would be an amusing twist in the saga.

But perhaps it should be left to rot, like Ozymandias’s statue, a powerful monument to man’s hubris and the ephemeral nature of political power.

And perhaps it would give passing union members pause for thought, before they blindly march over a cliff at the behest of their leaders, like the miners did for Arthur Scargill.