As the remnants of what was once British Steel cling to survival, it is hard not to feel mournful for a Britain that is no more. From the window of my Clydeside flat I can see the BAE Systems shipyard opposite, busily working on the Royal Navy’s new aircraft carriers. Other than that, there is little evidence remaining of an industrial past, just empty expanses of drab wasteland. Whereas talk of Britain’s vast financial sector fills any normal person with a vague sense of ennui, the memory of British heavy industry warms many with pride.
A couple of weeks ago, I took the train down to Lanarkshire, onetime coal-mining country, to visit a friend. As we sat talking politics over a pint in an old pit village pub, I mentioned, tentatively, that I had my doubts as to whether Margaret Thatcher had actually quite been THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND OF THE ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH (Revelation 17:5). My friend had lent forward and, literally in a hushed tone, advised me not to speak favourably of Thatcher “round here”. Not after what she had done to the mining industry. For this is the belief: that, uniquely in the history of all democracies, Thatcher had ended a supposedly great and profitable industry for absolutely no reason at all. This is the analysis that I have heard all my life. In it, Thatcher attains her apotheosis, becoming Shiva, God of Destruction. We cannot question why: Thatcher just is.
On the day of Thatcher’s death, The Guardian ran an interview with an ex-miner and veteran of Orgreave: “Thatcher wanted to crush the miners”, he said. “That was her goal, that’s all she wanted“. Labour MP and former NUM president Ian Lavery sums it up thus: “Mrs Thatcher was involved in the wilful destruction of the coal industry”. And you know what? Maybe Thatcher did get it all terribly wrong. Perhaps there were ways around the £250 million a year that the industry was losing. Maybe the social benefits of keeping these communities working would have outweighed any (possibly temporary) losses that the industry was making. Perhaps the rank-and-file mineworkers, who had three times rejected industrial action prior to Scargill’s brutal and unofficial 1984 strike, had been punished for the failures of their appalling union leaders. Who knows? I am just making this up as I go along, but still, I am coming out with more believable arguments than the usual West of Scotland narrative, which presents us with THATCHER: SHE WHO DESTROYED. This bogey(wo)man thesis serves only to undermine the Left’s own case. It is a narrative which never seems to facilitate the mind leap whereby anybody asks why the coal industry needed to be propped up by government intervention in the first place?
As I sat with my friend in that Lanarkshire pub, I might have countered (had I been cleverer) that the mining industry had been struggling since as far back as the 1920s, when the then PM, evil Tory Stanley Baldwin, had had to step in and subsidise unsustainable miners’ wages with taxpayers money. Or that, by the time Thatcher turned up, eighty percent of British mines had already closed. Or that more pits closed under Labour in the 1960s and 1970s than under Thatcher. They closed because of cheaper alternatives, poor industrial relations, the working out of some of the more accessible seams. But to sum up, the industry collapsed for actual reasons.
I might also have pointed out to my friend that there is one vast impediment to the British coal industry ever having a future again and that is ‘progressive’/ecological thought. Given the political will, an eventual partial recovery of our coal industry is not wholly inconceivable. As the British Geological Survey states, “despite a long history of coal mining in Great Britain, considerable resources remain at depths readily accessible by underground mining”. Indeed, until the 2000s, about a quarter of Britain’s coal supply was indigenous. The problem is that foreign sources are cheaper, but this disparity is, of course, not some immutable fact. It is entirely possible that at some future date British coal may once more become competitive. And it is a fact that there will be huge markets in which to sell this coal – India and China are building a mindboggling array of coal-fuelled power stations. As Christopher Booker writes, “India alone plans to add 124GW of coal-fired capacity by 2020, more than eight times the entire capacity left in Britain”. All at the same time as Britain is winding up its coal-powered stations, by far the cheapest way of producing electricity, in its pursuit of a carbon-free future.
As British heavy industry fights for survival, one thing is certain: the Left will never, ever, ever do anything to revive coal mining. It is committed to carbon taxes, renewable energy and to the European project. Only the unconscionable Ukip has offered any hope to the coal industry. At the last election its energy spokesman, Roger Helmer, voiced his desire for a renaissance in British coal, announcing that “Ukip have agreed to press for a special Commission to look at future opportunities for British coal”. But Ukip are monstrous right-wingers. The enemy of the working man.
(Image: Ben Slater)