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The tangled political web behind Britain's eight-month coal strike

Britsh outrage over recent contacts between Libya and Britain's National Union of Mineworkers is one more sign of the impact of the eight-month-old coal strike on politics here.

The following questions and answers probe the causes of the strike and why it has continued so long:

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Q: What brought on Britain's longest industrial strike?

A: Fear that coal mines that were not economic would close, shedding thousands of jobs.

Q: Was that a reasonable fear?

A: Yes. The National Coal Board announced March 6 that the industry would need to reduce deep-mined coal output by 4 million tons. That was taken to mean 20 pits would close, putting 20,000 men out of work. Britain is producing far more coal than it can sell, and producing some of it at uneconomic prices.

Q: How did the miners respond?

A: Within days strike action began. Soon afterward the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) called the strike official. But thousands of miners continued to work. Today about one-third of the miners ignore the strike call.

Q. Why the sharp division?

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A. NUM leader Arthur Scargill and his supporters say official strike action was sanctioned by a vote of the NUM executive. Working miners say the NUM's constitution calls for a national ballot. Scargill refused to call it.

Q: What were the consequences of not calling a national ballot?

A: Working miners took the NUM to court. The courts decided in their favor and declared the strike illegal.

Q: Will this end the strike then?

A: It leaves Scargill and his supporters unmoved. Legal proceedings, including an order to confiscate NUM assets, continue. So does the struggle.

Q. What form does it take?

A: The consequences of pitting miner against miner have been violent. Working miners who feel the strike lacks legitimacy because they have not exercised their democratic rights have attempted to cross picket lines at striking mines. This has enraged striking miners. Thousands have turned out to prevent working miners getting to work because they believe crossing a picket line is a violation of a cardinal union principle.

Q: Have the pickets turned back working miners?

A: Police have tried to protect miners who want to work. Critics of Scargill claim thousands more would work if it were not for fear of intimidation from striking miners.

Q: If pit closures are ''a fact of life'' and former Labour governments have done it, why is there such a fuss this time around?

A: The economic and political climate is different.

Pits are closing down at a time when unemployment in Britain has never been higher and fears of unemployment are great. The Coal Board's response has been that there would be no compulsory redundancies.

Q: But wouldn't closing 20 pits mean 20,000 would lose their jobs?

A: The men would lose their jobs in those areas directly affected by the closures. But the intention is to transfer them where possible within daily commuting of nearby collieries. The Coal Board claims that acceptances of redundancy payments more than offset the number of redundancies needed to effect the closures.

Q: Does this meet the striking miners' objections?

A: No. Scargill claims that Ian MacGregor, the National Coal Board chairman, is out to ''butcher'' the coal industry because he was previously involved in heavy cutbacks in the declining steel industry. Striking miners say MacGregor will close down many more pits is he gets his way.

They say compensations beg the question of what happens to entire village communities that are dependent on their collieries' staying open.

Scargill complains the March 6 closures are a violation of a signed agreement , known as the Plan for Coal, worked out among the NUM, the Coal Board, and the government in 1974.

Q: And was it?

A: The Plan for Coal was written at a time when the British coal industry was ready to expand. Since then there has been a dramatic falloff in demand. The Plan, however, did say, ''Inevitably some pits will have to close as their useful economic reserves of coal are depleted.''

Q: What about the change of political environment?

A: Some miners would prefer to work under a Labour rather than the present Conservative government. They argue that a Labour government that closed pits was more understanding and that communication was much better. Government sources are quick to admit that Coal Board chairman MacGregor has not been the most sensitive of public officials.

Q: What about NUM politics?

A: Far more radical under the leadership of Arthur Scargill than any of his predecessors.

Q: How has this changed the picture?

A: It directly affects the negotiations. Scargill is a self-proclaimed Marxist. He attacks the balance-sheet mentality of the Coal Board. He says there are no uneconomic pits - they just lack adequate investment. Hestands fast on no closure of pits on economic grounds.

Q: Are there no areas for compromise then?

A: The Coal Board has made concessions, including a reprieve for five of the coal mines scheduled to close - subject to certain mutually agreed provisions. The sticking point so far has been trying to define when a marginal mine has exhausted its economically useful reserves.

Q: Has Scargill made any concessions?

A. Apart from a readiness to meet with the Coal Board, Scargill prides himself on not budging an inch since the dispute began. He sees no need to compromise. He also believes the strike has achieved what the Coal Board set out to do - reduce production.

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