City: Wasted energy

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The Independent Online
THE past 12 months might as well never have happened as far as the coal industry is concerned - it's been tantamount to Macbeth's tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing.

About a year ago, the Independent on Sunday ran a story about how the Government, driven by the imperatives of its own privatisation timetable, was planning to go for the big bang approach by announcing the simultaneous closure of 30 pits with the loss of 30,000 jobs. I can only assume that nobody believed us, because there was hardly any reaction. A couple of months later, the Government, or rather British Coal, finally bit the bullet and made the announcement.

All hell broke loose, Michael Heseltine's reputation as the consummate political operator was demolished, Arthur Scargill, previously one of the most hated figures in the land, became a popular folk hero, Tory backbenchers were up in arms, public opinion swung dramatically behind the poor, trodden- on miners and the whole thing contributed not insubstantially to John Major's demise as a credible political leader. There were mass demonstrations and protests, and ministers were forced into retreat.

You might have thought that all this would have had some impact on Government thinking, but not a bit of it. A year later, and the Government is proposing to introduce its coal bill to Parliament this autumn in almost exactly the same form as a year ago. The energy review, ordered by Mr Heseltine in an attempt to defuse the row, now looks to have been an almost entirely cosmetic exercise. The pit closure programme announced last September with such dramatic political effect has gone ahead quietly anyway, and from July next year, once the necessary legislation has been passed, the 15 to 20 pits that remain will be sold off piecemeal to whoever wants them. The only real effect of that great outpouring of public rage has been to delay things for a year - little more. Meanwhile, the legions of City advisers retained by the Government for coal privatisation have remained on board, with the meter ticking.

Maybe the Government's case on pit closures was always a better one than the public cared to admit. Nevertheless, the ability of ministers to ignore the wishes of electors doesn't seem to say much for democracy. Neither does the determination of the Government to push ahead with rail privatisation. I've yet to come across a single person without a vested interest in the programme who sincerely believes it's going to have anything other than a profoundly damaging effect on both the cost and the quality of service.