By pure coincidence, last night I had a chance to see a History Channel documentary on the destruction of the coal industry in Britain. The following is the blurb for the program, with a couple of additions of mine in brackets.
“We join actor and former trade union activist Ricky Tomlinson [appeared in Cracker and a long-running comedy series in the UK] as he traces the development and decline of Britain’s coal industry. He looks at the physically demanding nature of work in the country’s mines, outlining the dangers and hazards that British miners have faced. He reveals that these conditions invariably created a close camaraderie amongst mining communities.
Tomlinson conducts a thorough investigation into the gradual and violent destruction of the British coal mining industry. In 1947, the National Coal Board was created by Clement Attlee’s post-War Labour administration to run the coal industry. By 1950, this industry employed over 700,000 people. Yet successive governments pursued ever more deleterious measures regarding the mining industry.
He examines the damaging spate of pit closures which began in the 1960s, and goes on to outline the events of the 1974 coal strike which brought down Edward Heath’s Conservative government. He then revisits the bitterness, violence and tragedy of the 1984 miners’ strike [the back-story in Billy Elliott]. The immediate trigger for the dispute was the announcement of the closure of the Cortonwood pit in Yorkshire. It was the first stage of a programme of twenty pit closures. Miners across Britain responded by downing tools; by 12th March half of the country’s 187,000 miners were on strike.
The face-off came as little to surprise to anybody who had observed Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s actions during her first five years in office. She believed that nationalised industry lay at the heart of Britain’s problems, perceiving a situation in which monopoly unions conspired with monopoly suppliers to create inefficient and uneconomic services. She felt that British industry had been strangled and confined by state control and the absence of market competition.
This uncompromising outlook led her to embark upon a virulent and ferocious crusade against the supposed beneficiaries of nationalised industry, the trade unions. During her first term, the 1980 and 1982 Employment Acts were introduced to restrict picketing, weaken the closed shop and curtail union immunities for secondary action. Strikes in the steel strike and civil service sectors met with an obdurate government response; in early 1981, a pit-strike was only narrowly avoided by a swift government climb down.
Hugo Young explains that: “No name was scarred more deeply on the Conservative soul than that of the NUM.” Thatcher had long been anticipating a confrontation with the powerful and militant National Union of Mineworkers. On the morning after her 1983 election victory, she informed Peter Wilson, the new Secretary of State for Energy, that conflict with the miners’ leader, Arthur Scargill, would occur during the next parliament. She also appointed Ian MacGregor, whose reputation as an industrial hatchet man preceded him, as head of the Coal Board. In an act of grim forward planning, she stockpiled coal at power stations so that the miners’ campaign would have little initial effect.
In early 1984, the decision to ban GCHQ employees from trade union membership set the stage for a larger struggle that would soon encompass the entire industrial nation. As the government continued to justify pit closures in the name of an efficient coal industry, Thatcher described the striking miners as “a scar across the face of the country”, and commented: “We had to fight an enemy without in the Falklands. We always have to be more aware of the enemy within, which is more difficult to fight and more dangerous to liberty.”
As Britain’s pits became battlegrounds of flying pickets and police brutality, the financial situation became untenable for many miners. They had gone from being some of the most highly paid manual workers in the country to relying on soup kitchens and charity to feed their families. As a growing number of miners chose to return to work, negotiations between Scargill and the Coal board reached an impasse.
On 3rd March 1985, bleared NUM delegates finally voted to call off the strike; many miners returned to work in the following days. Crushed by an uncaring and unscrupulous government, the miners would watch in horror as the pit closure programme marched inexorably forward throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Tony Benn, the left-wing Labour firebrand [who is interviewed in Michael Moore’s Sicko], saw the treatment the miners endured as symptomatic of: “The whole rotten philosophy of the 1980s. That it is all about cash, and you bring in a chartered accountant and he’ll tell you what to do. It isn’t about that. It’s about whether our society puts people in a place of dignity and serves them.”
When Tomlinson makes an emotional visit to Tower Colliery, a mine in South Wales which was closed by British Coal in April 1994, and then bought and run by the miners themselves, it becomes obvious that British coal mining does have a future. The presenter clearly concurs with Benn’s viewpoint, as he delivers a pointed message to the Iron Lady: “Mrs. Thatcher, where you’re going in a few years time, you won’t have to worry about coal because it’ll be bloody roasting where you’re going. And I hope the miners have a bloody day out when it happens, because I’ll be there with them having a pint.”