Shrinking market undermines King Coal: Ten years after start of the pits strike, only 17 mines remain in operation, write Mary Fagan and Barrie Clement

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The Independent Online
A decade ago King Coal ruled. At the start of the year-long miners' strike, the National Coal Board employed 191,000 mineworkers at 170 collieries. Today the workforce has shrunk to 10,500 and only 17 pits remain in operation.

The decline appears inexorable as the market for coal continues to shrink. Before the Government privatised the electricity industry, it bought 75 million to 80 million tons a year from British Coal, which also supplied healthy amounts to industry and households. Market forces have since shrunk sales to electricity producers to half their former level and the decline has yet to stop.

Within the next few months mines which British Coal has closed will be opened by private companies who are convinced that there is more of a future for coal than recent history would suggest. Among the most ambitious of these is Coal Investments, a company run by Malcolm Edwards, former commercial director of British Coal. This week the company announced it was raising pounds 11.5m through a rights issue to invest in the future of two deep mines abandoned by British Coal. Production at the mines - Coventry and Trentham - is expected to start around the middle of the year and rise to a total output of 800,000 tons. Mr Edwards will not stop there if he can help it. His ideal portfolio would include about half a dozen pits and he is confident that he could sell 2 million tons a year for the foreseeable future.

Coal imports last year were estimated to be about 5-6 million tons, of which up to 3 million were for power stations. British Coal's exports were only 800,000 but are expected to increase.

David Price, the editor of the industry newsletter, Coal UK, said that British Coal would in future take a lot more from Poland, Colombia, and the United States.

Ironically even former British miners with the right to concessionary coal are probably getting Polish coal in their supplies.

Those thousands of former miners used to be the labour movement's answer to the parachute regiment. Since then 'Arthur's Army' has been routed and the elite have become the ineffectual. Before 1984, the National Union of Mineworkers had scored victory after victory against both management and government. It inspired a loyalty incomprehensible to young workers in the 1990s.

Miners topped the manual earnings league and the union was capable of switching the lights off, so dependent was the nation on coal- fired power.

The union went into the strike with 210,000 members. Now it has fewer than 10,000 members, most of whom work in British Coal's 17 remaining working pits, but an increasing proportion in private collieries. The NUM has almost certainly suffered the fastest decline of any union in history.

Much of the blame has been placed at the door of Arthur Scargill, the NUM president, who took the union into the strike in the spring of 1984, when coal stocks were high.

Despite this tactical error, however, the rot set in long before the left-wing revolutionary won the the presidency and carried through his manifesto of socialist fundamentalism. Henry Richardson, a Scargill loyalist and leader of the Nottinghamshire area of the union, said yesterday that the president was carrying out the union's policy which had been confirmed time after time at annual conferences. Less predictably, John Walsh, Mr Scargill's indefatigable foe within the union, argues that while Mr Scargill was 'the worst president any union has ever had', he was not the principal cause of its downfall.

He said the Conservative Party became determined to destroy the union after it effectively brought down the government of Edward Heath in 1974.

Trevor Bell, also a critic of Mr Scargill, and former head of the union's white-collar section, points to another critical moment in the union's downfall. That was the meeting of the NUM executive on 8 March which under Mr Scargill's tutelage overwhelmingly rejected Mr Bell's proposition that any strike should be backed by a national ballot. Instead the leadership opted for a domino strategy in which areas would be balloted separately or 'picketed out'.

As the colliery closure programe continued apace the NUM could only look on impotently as miners accepted redundancy rather than fight to keep mines open with the risk of reduced severance terms.

Mr Scargill is sticking to his guns despite an absence of ammunition. One senior NUM insider said: 'He doesn't have a strategy and his tactics are simply to fight, fight and fight again. Well they can't fight any more and most of them don't want to.'