Meanings of Christmas: Comfort the miners by keeping pits open: In the first of our series of articles for Christmas, the Right Rev Nigel McCulloch argues that energy policy should take account of the human cost of job losses.
Thursday 24 December 1992
The present crisis over threatened pit closures is far removed from the Christological context of that verse. Nevertheless, the agenda of church leaders who, like me, are closely involved in the coal issue, is to help all sides to find the 'way' forward, to discover the 'truth' about the facts, and to protect the dignity and quality of 'life' of those threatened with unemployment.
There is one way forward which should be taken urgently. This country needs an effective overall energy policy. Up to now no political party in power has produced one. This is of concern as much to theologians as to economists, scientists and politicians. When He created this earth, God provided enormous fuel resources. They are precious gifts which should be used in a responsible and complementary way. We need a long-term strategy which balances the use of fossil fuels and renewable energy, exercising wise stewardship to maximise our resources for future generations.
But where among the current claims and counter-claims being made by the management of British Coal and the Department of Trade and Industry does the truth about the present situation lie? The Select Committee is now drafting its report to be published at the end of January. Recent private meetings I have had with Mr Heseltine and then Mr Clarke have proved to me that the nub of the issue is indeed the reducing market for our own coal. But why has this happened?
Politicians blame management for an insufficiently aggressive and imaginative approach to finding new markets. British Coal replies that the market cannot be increased unless and until there is a change of government policy. Its submission to the DTI Coal Review details a range of initiatives to create a market for at least a further 15 million tonnes of British coal - saving 13 pits, safeguarding over 8,000 jobs and reducing costs.
The National Union of Mineworkers and the impressively effective Coalfields Communities Campaign likewise emphasise that present government policy weights the market against coal. There is also widespread cross- party support for the view that the life of the already ageing Magnox stations and the nuclear subsidy be further reduced, the dash to gas in the electricity regions be checked, the 'dumping' of French electricity be curtailed, open-cast mining be more rigorously controlled, and coal imports cut back.
In the search for the truth there has clearly been some movement towards a common mind, and some pits earlier said to be finished are now thought to have further life. The unprecedented level of public opinion, in which the churches have been especially evident, has undoubtedly played its part in the unwinding of previously entrenched positions. But there is still a long way to go - not least by the Government.
The tragedy and disgrace of all this is the effect it is having on the quality of life of so many people. No wonder the appalling way in which the closures were announced caused such public outrage. The human cost should be taken fully into account when political and economic decisions are made. We must not allow people's lives to be wholly dominated by market forces. For every miner's job at least three other jobs in supporting industries will be lost too. It has been said that up to 110,000 jobs are at stake. In Grimethorpe, in my diocese, 404 of the active workforce in that community alone will be unemployed if the pit closes.
Everyone of those individuals matters to God. Those of us who are closely in touch with the pit communities are seeing the strain this is putting on home life, with the inevitable break-up of families. As Christians we deplore this because we regard the family as the essential cell of society. We are also witnessing increased illness, often brought on by sheer despair. With the approach of Christmas our mining communities have a stockpiling not of coal but of stress.
However caring the members of the Government may be as individuals, the perception within the mining communities is that they are not.
What has brought the churches into action on behalf of the miners is the impression the government has given of wanting to put love of money and profit above love and concern for people. Far too many people are now facing what is supposed to be a season of hope and rejoicing with utter despair.
Last week, 1,600 children from the 31 threatened communities joined me in Westminster Abbey for a carol service. Afterwards I took a group of them along to 10 Downing Street. The message we left, with 31 Christmas cards, was simple and poignant: 'In the name of God we appeal to you, Mr Major. Give our mining communities tidings of comfort and joy - and keep our pits open.'
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