Thursday, March 05, 2009

Coal is our lifeline

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the start of the year long miners strike which was to lead, ultimately, to the breaking of union power and also to the decimation of the coal industry.

Back then, it was one of the most divisive issues of the time - you were either for Thatcher or for Scargill - but it was never really as cut and dried as people make it seem. Neither Thatcher nor Scargill were entirely honest about their intentions. The truth is that the strike was never really about coal, but about who governs the country.

Scargill was an unreformed Marxist who believed that the unions represented the proletariat and that the proletariat was where true governmental power should lie. Never mind the issue of democracy - that was never a big deal to Marxists (still isn't) - for Scargill this was about the power of the working man to dictate terms to the ruling classes. That, on its own, could be considered a noble cause, but Scargill was also a self-important egoist.

He'd seen the almost legendary status that Joe Gormley achieved when he led the miners strike that eventually brought the Heath government to its knees and he wanted a similar confrontation to bolster his own reputation. Thatcher recognised this character flaw and set about preparing to give Scargill the confrontation he wanted - but this time with a different outcome.

Both sides had been preparing for this battle for years. The government had begun stockpiling coal at least three years in advance - easy to do as Britain was producing far more coal than we could actually sell, while Scargill had been sniping at the government and stirring up the miners to prepare them for the battle months in advance.

When the confrontation actually began it was portrayed as being a fight by the miners to retain their jobs against a government determined to break the union power which they believed - quite rightly - as being the single biggest barrier to Britain's economic progress. Many of those who supported Thatcher - myself included - supported her not because we wanted to see the closure of pits and the end of coal mining in Britain (far from it, in my view), but that we just wanted to see an end to that union power.

Those who supported Scargill often supported him more because they wanted to prevent pit closures and preserve their jobs, but weren't really interested in usurping the government which was Scargill's actually intention.

As it happened, the miners lost and union power was finally broken. Scargill's tactics had given Thatcher all the excuses she needed to bring in new laws to restrict union practices which most people in Britain actually agreed with.

What we didn't agree with was the rampant pit closures that followed. Britain was producing too much coal which we couldn't sell, but this was always going to be a temporary problem. There was no need to close so many pits - just cut back on their production so that they were kept open and viable for when we needed them again. Yes, there would still have been thousands of job losses, but the mines would still be there and the communities that depended on those mines would not have been ravaged when the pit closed.

The 1984-1985 miners strike was a folly driven by two massive egos and the consequences of that are still felt today. For Scargill, it was a folly driven by his craze for power and status, but Thatcher having won the confrontation then embarked on a folly of her own as the pit closures were driven by a desire to "punish" those who had challenged her government's authority.

Although I can't prove it, I remember saying even back in the mid-eighties that the pit closures would come back to haunt Thatcher and Britain. The dash for gas and oil based on North Sea reserves was always going to be nothing more than a bubble which would eventually burst and we would, eventually, regret not having the coal mining capacity to make use of our most important natural fuel reserve.

As we enter what I believe will be a prolonged and deep depression it is my opinion that we now need to start making use of those reserves again. The countries that come out of this depression best will be those countries who have something they produce that they can either use or sell.

As I have been saying since I started this blog - a nation that makes nothing is worth nothing. We don't make anything - but we could. We have coal in abundance and we need to start opening up pits and mining that coal right now. We don't have to restore the power of the unions to do that, but we do have to do it.


bernard said...

Don't forget Stan, Thatcher then went on and privatised the power industries...selling them on to foreign companies. That was a catastrophic (and deeply unpatriotic) mistake, the ramifications of which no amount of coal will rectify.

Stan said...

Agreed, bernard - well, to a point anyway. Over the next ten years we are going to be increasingly short of power - although the depression will lessen the impact of that. Oil and gas will be in higher demand, increasingly hard to get hold of and very, very expensive. Consequently you will see a sudden dash for coal fuelled power stations and, of course, demand for coal will shoot up all over the world.

Whether or not the privatised power companies in this country take advantage of that is irrelevant (although I believe they will be back in public ownership within ten years) the world won't be able to get enough of coal. We'll also be using coal to liquid technology to produce fuel for our cars and power stations.

We have an estimated 1000 years of coal reserves in this country - 200 years worth of which is readily accessible. Once we have a government that recognises the potential of coal - and I have no doubt that the harsh realities of the developing economic situation will ensure this - then we'll be making use of it.

The biggest worry for me is that we allow foreign companies to plunder our coal reserves. That really would be the final nail in our coffin and has to be avoided at all costs.