Peter Heathfield obituary

NUM leader caught between Scargill and Thatcher in the miners' strike of 1984-85

As general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), Peter Heathfield, who has died aged 81, was at the heart of its leadership during the miners' strike of 1984-85. He was a member of the NUM's so-called troika, along with its president Arthur Scargill and vice-president Mick McGahey: of these two, Heathfield was closest to Scargill, and their partnership provided the basis on which the union's president fought his battle. While the relationship between Scargill and the prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, determined the outcome of the strike, which changed Britain's political climate, Heathfield's role was crucial to its conduct.

When the Conservative government announced its intention to close 20 pits, Heathfield backed Scargill from the start of the strike in March 1984, and, like his president, rejected a coalfield ballot. Yet everyone who knew Heathfield believed that he harboured inner doubts about Scargill's strategy. All it needed, at any moment during the following year, would have been for Heathfield, sitting in an adjoining room in the NUM's Sheffield headquarters, to have said: "Arthur, we can't go on like this; we're heading for disaster. I can no longer support you," and the course of history might have been very different. But that would be to imagine the absurd. Heathfield's loyalty to Scargill, and the men on strike, was total and unremitting, whatever his private thoughts. The end result – a return to work in March 1985 with no new agreement with the National Coal Board (NCB) – left Heathfield in absolute despair, a condition of mind from which he never really recovered.

He saw the industry in which he had spent his life disappear pit by pit on to the slagheap of history. Yet he refused to utter a word of criticism about Scargill, of whom, to the end, he remained an admirer. His own critical moment probably came in October 1984, when a compromise deal with the NCB seemed agonisingly close, but was then, he was informed, vetoed by Downing Street. Many neutral observers remain convinced that a deal could have been reached at that point, except for the fact that Thatcher, like Scargill, wanted total victory.

After the strike came charges of financial irregularity in the way NUM funds had been handled – charges triggered by sensational disclosures in the Daily Mirror and by Central Television in 1990. The NUM appointed an independent inquiry under the chairmanship of Gavin Lightman QC, which cleared both Scargill and Heathfield of all the main accusations. It became obvious that there had been a deliberate attempt to vilify both NUM leaders – or, at least, to seriously exaggerate minor irregularities – very possibly with some secret political involvement in a bid to finally discredit and destroy the union leadership. Indeed, in 2002, Roy Greenslade, the editor of the Daily Mirror at the time of the original disclosure story, admitted that he was misled into running the accounts. Greenslade offered a public apology to Scargill and Heathfield, but Heathfield bore the scars for life.

In 1992, at the age of 63, he retired early from the general secretary post of a severely depleted NUM. His marriage with his wife Betty, who had led the miners' wives campaign during the strike, had broken up in 1989 when he moved in with Sue Rolstone, 22 years his junior. They married after his divorce from Betty in 2001, by which time Heathfield had become an isolated figure, removed from many of his old mining community friends. His health also suffered.

In October 1990, Heathfield gave a rare interview to the Financial Times that reflected the depth of his bitterness: "I never imagined I would have to face the kind of pressure that I experienced during the year-long strike, but the animosity and vilification that has emerged in large sections of the media during the past four months has been pretty overpowering." Heathfield moved away from his home area of Chesterfield, in Derbyshire, to settle in North Anston, near Sheffield. He became a symbolic figure reflecting the social and psychological upheaval that had been wrought throughout Britain's mining communities, leaving memories that are still bitter.

Heathfield was born in the Derbyshire village of Somercotes, near Alfreton, the son of a railway signalman who moved his young family to Chesterfield, where Peter went to school. He was tempted to follow his father on to the railways, but Chesterfield was a strong mining town, and he worked in a colliery drawing office until, at 18, he signed up for underground work at Williamthorpe colliery.

He quickly became an active member of the North Derbyshire region of the NUM, which was influenced by a gifted and eloquent local leader, Bert Wynn. Wynn was on the lookout for able, intelligent young men who had been denied higher education, and steered them towards it – either to Ruskin College, Oxford, or Sheffield University's extramural department, where his principal link was the leftwing economist Sir Ken Alexander.

Heathfield went on Sheffield courses, and the Wynn-Alexander group also included the young Eric Varley, an eventual cabinet minister and peer, and the Bolsover MP Dennis Skinner. Heathfield was an active Labour party man, a local councillor in Chesterfield, and in 1963 was only narrowly beaten for the parliamentary candidacy in the old Ilkeston constituency. Betty was a member of the Communist party from the early 1950s until she rejoined the Labour party at the time of the miners' strike, and a strong political influence.

Heathfield spent 18 years working at the coalface before being elected to a full-time union post in 1966. He then made rapid progress, becoming vice-president of the Derbyshire NUM in 1970. Three years later he was elected Derbyshire area secretary, the top post in the region, and when Scargill ran for the NUM national presidency in 1981, Heathfield was tipped as a serious challenger – but stood aside to avoid any leftwing competition against Scargill, who was 10 years younger.

Heathfield was already 54 when he was elected general secretary in January 1984 to succeed Lawrence Daly, but did not take over until 1 March – five days before the strike began. In effect number two to his hero Scargill, he nevertheless proclaimed his independence: "I am not going to be anybody's lapdog." But events were to betray that ambition.

Another of Heathfield's heroes was Tony Benn, whose victory in a byelection in Chesterfield, also on 1 March, was due largely to Heathfield's influence and local power base.

Heathfield was a man of immense charm, with remarkably few enemies either on the left or right of the political spectrum. In his trade union he was always seen as a realist and a pragmatist – and an improbable ally of a romantic adventurist like Scargill. Indeed, of all those around Scargill, Heathfield always appeared the least likely disciple. He is survived by Sue and his three sons and a daughter by Betty; she died in 2006.

• Peter Heathfield, trade unionist, born 2 March 1929; died 4 May 2010


Geoffrey Goodman

The GuardianTramp

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