Coal not Dole?

‘This island is almost made of coal and surrounded by fish. Only an organising genius could produce a shortage of coal and fish in Great Britain at the same time.’ Aneurin Bevan.


One the  books I’ve been reading in recent weeks has been Marching to the Fault Line: The Miners’ Strike and the Battle for Industrial Britain by Francis Beckett and David Hencke, who co-wrote The Survivor, the best book so far about the  life and times of Tony Blair. I do not think Marching… is as good as The Survivor but it still a worthwhile read.

Beckett and Hencke do not have much time for Arthur Scargill, and argue that some sort of agreement could have been negotiated between the two sides. Much as I distrust anyone, outside the world of professional boxing, who refers to himself in the third person on a regular basis (p.268), I think Scargill or no Scargill, Thatcher wanted the National Union of Mineworkers and their industrial power broken pour encourager les autres come hell or high water. That is why, despite acting very much as Arthur Scargill’s Vicar On Earth, Seamas Milne’s The Enemy Within: The Secret War Against The Miners is well worth reading as well.

You could say it is all very ancient history now. However, we are all living with the consequences (pp.254-5):

In 1980, the UK produced 130m tonnes of coal; in 2006 that figure was 18.5m tonnes, The coal mined in Britain in 1980 produced the same amount of energy as 78.5m tonnes of oil; in 2006 that figure was 11.4m tonnes of oil.[and don’t get me started on how Thatcher and her Mini-Mes wasted North Sea oil…]

It could be argued that the decline of the coal industry is no bad thing…But, in a sense, that is beside the point, because a greener energy industry formed no part of Margaret Thatcher’s objectives in 1984-5. Anyway, we still burn a lot of coal. Coal-fired power stations are still common in the UK…The difference is that now we have to import the stuff from Norway, Russia, South Africa, Australia and Poland- even though there is hundreds of years’ worth of coal under our feet…[and think of the carbon footprint…]We are still an island built on coal, but we cannot any longer get it out the ground. We have six pits, down from 186 pits at the time of the strike. The 170,000 miners are down to fewer than 3,000. Vast coal reserves have been sterilized underground in mines that are now shut and filled in, for the government ensured that many closed pits could never be reopened, by filling them with concrete. [isn’t that interfering with the workings of the free market?]

Over 90 per cent of the UK’s 2004 net energy imports consisted of solid fuel, and the UK is expected to import 90 per cent of its fossil energy in 2020. Coal is no longer an asset- it simply contributes to the high trade deficit that currently plagues the UK.

And what we import is the least environmentally friendly coal. Dave Feickert, one of the NUM head office team in  1984-5, is now a mine safety adviser working in China and New Zealand as well as Europe. In China, he now works alongside some of the former scientists and engineers from the Coal Research Establishment and the Mining Research and Development Establishment, both closed  by the Thatcher government. [quelle sur-bloody-prise!]The UK clean coal combustion programme, the most advanced in the world in 1984-5, was closed a few years after the strike [about the time Thatcher started going on about how the Tories were ‘the true friends of the earth’]. Feickert points out that China now has 80 per cent  of the world’s clean coal power plants [a fact to quote next time you hear someone going on about how China is ‘destroying’ the planet] whereas the UK does not have as single one.

If, like me, you are now thinking that Margaret Thatcher should be tried as an economic war criminal against the people of Britain, it  just gets better (p.257):

We could have been the only country in Europe that was self-sufficient in energy and a net oil exporter. Instead, according to the 2003 Energy White Paper, we are likely to be importing about three quarters of our energy needs by 2020, much of it from countries with unstable regimes.

…The NUM wanted a new technology agreement before the strike, but the NCB were not willing to discuss it. ‘A new technology agreement’, writes Feickert, ‘would have cut working hours and allowed older men to leave, to be replaced by their unemployed sons. Anywhere else in Europe it would have been seized on as a basis for settlement.’ Instead, ‘Britain suffered a needless civil war and the mining communities were destroyed…And now the country is about to lose one of its founding industries, just as it is on the point of being modernised.’

I feel ranted out. When the lights start going out in a few years time at least the Tories won’t be able to blame the miners…

..or someone could do the patriotic thing and bring back the coal industry!


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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Thank you! I have despaired at times that the UK would never be able to face up to its worst modern civil war period……there are signs that even the main political parties now are starting to realise what a deep energy crisis looms, as North Sea oil and gas disappear and electricity generation runs into its 2012-13 capacity crisis – this from warm NZ, where we are 70% renewabale in electricity supply and getting greener.

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