Boris Johnson and the UK pit closures

by Michael Carberry

On 5 August UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson once again provoked controversy. While visiting Scotland he said that Margaret Thatcher had given a “big early start to green energy by closing the coal mines in the 1980s”. The Labour Party called upon Johnson to apologise for his remarks. When pressed, a spokesman for the P.M. said he recognised the "huge impact and pain" of the closures but did not offer an apology.


In fact, Margaret Thatcher’s decision had nothing to do with green energy. That was never mentioned at the time. Indeed the UK was importing increasing amounts of cheaper, open–cast coal from abroad. It was partly about the economics of deep mining; the government, not unreasonably, wanted to phase out the increasing level of subsidies required by the UK mining industry. But, more importantly for Thatcher, it was about eradicating nationalized industries and destroying the powerful National Union of Miners (NUM) as part of her crusade against “socialism.”


From early on, the Thatcher Government had a secret plan to close all “loss-making pits” and quickly privatise the remainder.


A YouGov opinion poll at the time posed the question of whether the closure of the coal mines was “a good or a bad thing”. 31% said it was a “bad thing”, 27% thought it a “good thing”, and 42% were either unsure or indifferent. That uncertainty is hardly surprising given the very unspecific nature of the question. It clearly illustrates the dangers of poorly designed social surveys and how one can often obtain the answer one wants simply by the way in which the question is phrased. Had people been asked if the closure of an old, dirty, dangerous and highly polluting industry was a good thing, most people would have said “of course”. Had they been asked whether it was right to close down in one fell swoop an industry on which whole communities and, indeed, whole regions in Scotland and the north of England were totally dependent, putting thousands of skilled men out of work, often with no prospect of ever working again, and with huge social and economic costs to the country as a whole, then they would have said “absolutely not.”


There is no doubt that from both an economic and an ecological point of view the coal mining industry in the UK needed to be phased out. The real issue was not “if” coal mining should be ended but rather “how” that was to be achieved. Was it to be a rapid closure imposed from above, or was it to be a gradual process in cooperation with the miners themselves? In the days of former NUM President Joe Gormley and PM Harold Wilson, both sides would probably have sat down over beer and sandwiches in 10 Downing Street and worked out a deal. Joe Gormley was an experienced and skilled negotiator who had won a whopping 21% wage increase for his members to settle the miner’s strike of 1972. But Gormley was also a realist who knew that longer-term the writing was on the wall for the coal industry. In 1982, his last-minute appeal got miners to accept a Government offer of a 9.3% raise, rejecting calls for a strike. He would probably have settled for immediate closure of the most uneconomic pits, early retirement and generous compensation for the older miners, and relocation or retraining for the younger ones. At the same time there might have been a programme of investment and training in the coal field communities to provide alternative employment for the younger generation. This would have permitted the gradual phasing out of all the remaining mines within a reasonable period while supporting and restructuring local economies.


Such a deal would have been welcome to many in the coal mining areas. Mining has always been a dirty, unsociable and extremely dangerous occupation. Spending one’s days deep underground in suffocating heat, surrounded by dust and noise, eating your sandwich lunch with only a metal canteen of lukewarm water, without being able to wash your hands or relieve yourself except in a dark corner was never an enviable job. Few miners actively wanted their sons to follow in their footsteps. But for many men in the coal mining regions it was the only job available. It was reasonably well paid and enabled them to support their families and help them to a better life. My own father spent 51 years in the industry, working on the coal face until he was 65 years old. But all his six children were able to get an education and move into professional jobs. The same pattern was mirrored in other mining families we knew.


So a compromise deal acceptable to most NUM members was perfectly possible. But that was not Thatcher’s way. She had no sympathy for the miners and was careful never to visit any of the coal mining areas. Her undisguised objective was to destroy the power of the Trade Unions, and particularly the NUM. In this she was greatly aided and abetted by Arthur Scargill, the NUM President who succeeded Gormley in 1982. Scargill had made his name as a vigorous and outspoken advocate for the miners. But, although intelligent and not without ability, his meteoric rise to the top job in the NUM went to his head; his increasing arrogance and hubris would lead ultimately to his downfall and that of the union he led. Scargill looked back to the 1970s miners’ strike which had ultimately brought down the Heath government. He believed he could do the same and become the hero of the Labour movement. But to do so he was prepared to ride rough-shod over the wishes and interests of the majority of NUM members. He got a decision to strike but only by getting the union to vote by region rather than by individual member. It split the union. Moreover the circumstances were very different. In Margaret Thatcher Scargill had come up against someone equally intransigent and every bit as much of an ideologue. The government was prepared for a long confrontation. Coal stocks were high and the inevitable result was a catastrophe for the miners. When they went back to work on 5 March 1985 the NUM was split, the miners had lost all appetite for any further strife and the government was able to go ahead with the pit closures Margaret Thatcher had always wanted.


For several years before my father retired, having suffered more than one injury on the job, he hoped and prayed for early retirement; but it was never on offer. Yet within little more than a decade after he retired, thousands of men of all ages were being laid off including his own grandson and his granddaughter’s husband. Many pits had been sunk in rural areas and the communities which had grown up around them, including thousands of families and small businesses, were totally dependent on the mine. Two films of the 1980s - “Brassed off” about a South Yorkshire colliery brass band during the run-up to the pit closures, and “Billy Elliot” about a Durham miner forced to choose between supporting his striking colleagues or going back to work to pay for his son’s place at the Royal Ballet school - show how families and whole communities were torn apart by this issue.


Prior to the 2001 UK general election I campaigned in many of the mining villages around my old home in South Yorkshire. The devastation of the coal mining communities wrought by the closure of the mines was all too obvious. Large scale unemployment, especially youth unemployment with all the consequences of delinquency, drug-use and petty crime, was the norm. In some villages unemployment was as high as 50%. Even the built environment told its own story. Most miners lived in Coal Board housing; rows of neat red-brick terraced houses owned and managed by the National Coal Board some of which had been laid out as “model villages”. In the wake of the closures these were sold off to occupants at knock- down prices in accordance with the Thatcherite “right to buy” philosophy. But without work many could not keep up mortgage payments and were bought out by opportunist landlords, or had little idea of the need for regular maintenance or simply could not afford to do so. Others engaged in quite inappropriate “improvements”, painting the brickwork in garish colours, or putting artificial stone cladding on one house in a row, destroying what had once been a harmonious whole. And while many individual houses were genuinely improved the overall effect was of dereliction and decay.


Thirty years on, things are much improved; but much of the physical damage is still evident and the emotional and psychological scars remain. In 2019 a report by the Coalfields Regeneration Trust, which works with former mining communities, found many had still not recovered a generation on from pit closures. it concluded that, “Issues including unemployment, ill health and social disadvantage still affect areas scarred by the legacy of the past", Not surprisingly, Margaret Thatcher remains a hate figure throughout most of the former mining areas.


Which brings us back to Boris. Did the Prime Minister think that he could cash in on the Thatcher name, still wildly popular with right-wing Tory activists, and by linking it with the Green Revolution would score a double whammy? It seems not. We are alas all too familiar with the Prime Minister’s penchant for making crass and insensitive remarks but what made matters worse in this instance is that he appeared to treat the remarks as a joke! It was certainly not perceived as such in Scotland or the other former mining areas of the UK.


The Prime Minister feels confident that following his landslide victory in the 2019 general election he has the working people of Britain on his side. But he needs to be careful. In 1983 the patriotism and sense of national pride of ordinary British in the wake of the Falklands war won Margaret Thatcher massive working-class support in the general election of that year. But that was gradually eroded, not least as a result of her handling of the miners' strike, until finally her own party decided she had become unelectable. Boris’s Brexit bonus will not last forever. As the months have gone on his government has looked increasingly dysfunctional, with its mismanagement of the pandemic and the continuing ramifications of Brexit. Boris himself has looked more and more out of his depth. In a future election he will need to hang on to a large number of the former “red wall” seats, many of them in old mining areas. He may find that his insensitive and ignorant remarks about the pit closures may cause many former Labour supporters who switched their votes to the Tories to think again.

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