Why desert us now?: Cal McCrystal hears how support for the miners withered in eight months

Click to follow
The Independent Online
'IT'S AS if last October never happened,' says Mel Thomas of Betws colliery, near Ammanford in South Wales. Remember last October? Tory backbenchers ranting against their government; middle-class housewives marching for mining justice; a halo around Arthur Scargill's blow-dry; Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, buckling under attack from all sides.

How can it be that, only eight months later, the implementation of outrageous proposals to drastically shrink the British coal industry has been virtually completed, with hardly a murmur?

'At the back of my mind we knew the mine was going to close. But last October there was a glimmer of hope,' says Mr Thomas.

'Members of Parliament and councillors came down here to talk to us. We had successful rallies and found new strength to fight for this profitable colliery. The media gave us great publicity. The whole country was rooting for us and giving the Government and British Coal a hard time.'

Mr Thomas folds his arms across his faded red sports shirt and shifts in his chair. 'It was like we were starting to win for the first time, the future bright at last with a viable mine and secure jobs.'

He unfolds his arms, slumping in a chair, a trim man in his thirties whose future has dimmed again. 'Now it's over. Tomorrow the last men sign off the British Coal payroll. They kick us down into the dirt because we are dirt to them.'

He glances at the wall in the tiny National Union of Mineworkers office in the colliery. It is covered with letters from well-wishers, many of them politicians. Then, a 'triple alliance' between miners, politicians of all parties and the media seemed to threaten the Government. An emergency Cabinet meeting was called. The Tory press expressed more than misgivings ('Is Major A Goner?' - the Sun; 'Major Facing His Greatest Crisis' - the Daily Telegraph; 'He looks weak. He is weak.' - the Times).

In April 1921, the famous Triple Alliance between miners, railwaymen and transport workers collapsed under government emergency measures including a show of military force. But in the end, that alliance which became known as the 'Cripple Alliance' did achieve something, making way for a stronger organisation - the General Council of the Trades Union Congress.

The TUC has won many battles since then. It also lost some. What about this time?

The TUC looks back with pride at its campaign against the October proposals. But, says Paul Hackett, a TUC expert on the mining controversy, 'with hindsight it's absolutely clear that Heseltine's agenda was to play it long'.

In other words, if the momentum of protest could be slowed, the closures could go ahead by something approaching stealth.

In Betws, the men ruminate endlessly on these matters. Entering the colliery brings instant disorientation. Keep-out notices flank wide-open, unmanned gates. Metal 'chocks' (tunnel supports) rust in the sun and the mouth of the drift mine is sealed; yet dozens of gleaming cars, some expensive, are parked near the colliery buildings. Inside, a few naked men pad incongruously towards the showers, their skin entirely innocent of coal-dust. Elsewhere inside, miners are being interviewed for possible jobs, even though the colliery formally closed on Friday.

Conversations with some of them heighten the confusion. It is hard to decide whether resentment at the past outweighs hopes for the future, however uncertain. While Mr Thomas talks about being kicked into the dirt, the local NUM chairman, Anthony Jones, interrupts his own gloomy litany with: 'I am quite confident that this mine will remain in production in some form or other.'

Both believe the anthracite mine, which made a pounds 1m profit last year, has several years' life ahead of it. They hope British Coal will yield to a management buy-out proposal rather than to an entrepreneurial contractor who might exploit it for a quick profit and depart. Until a decision is made, Betws will remain rusting in limbo.

'What shocked people in October,' Mr Jones says, 'was the sheer scale of the closures (31 pits with the loss of 30,000 jobs). It wasn't like closing down a couple of factories. Once the mines are closed you can never go back in. So to the people it seemed like industrial suicide. It also showed the complacency of the Government - it felt it could get away with practically anything.'

Why are people not shocked now? 'It has quietened down in the media,' he says. 'The media have been told to keep quiet.' No national newspaper had shown any interest in Betws for months.

Elizabeth Peacock, one of six Tory MPs to vote against the Government last October, thinks the media got sidetracked. 'I don't agree ours is a rebellion that went away. We're still making representations to the Government and to British Coal, though it's not headline news any more.'

Mrs Peacock, who represents a mining constituency in Nottingham, concedes that the shouts of outrage in October have not prevented British Coal doing what they set out to do. 'Those of us who did rebel all the way initially achieved a stay of execution, giving time for more thought. But I do wonder what we did achieve, apart from time.'

Last week's resigned sighs contrast weakly with the October din, when a quarter of a million demonstrators took to London's streets twice in one week, sent showers of eggs against the Energy minister, Tim Eggar, in Gateshead, and prompted Sir Marcus Fox, chairman of the Tory 1922 Committee to concede: 'Colleagues are incensed. . . .'

Now, on the day before the last of the 110 workers leave the payroll, fiery responses are absent. Mr Jones digs in a filing cabinet for souvenirs: a page of yellow stickers which say 'Vote Yes Save All 31 Pits'; two December posters ('Rally For Your Valley' and 'Is This The End]'); and a third which says, 'British Coal sponsor Rugby League. Electricity Companies Sponsor Rugby Union. Who sponsors Betws Mine?'

He opens a cardboard box containing a commemorative plate. On the back is recorded the fact that in 1913 there were 620 mines in the South Wales coalfield, employing 232,800 men. By the end of 1990 five mines employed 2,100 men. The future of the remaining three, Betws among them, is marked on the faces of the half-dozen men sitting tensely outside Mr Jones's door.

Not all rebel Tories feel the cause is entirely lost. John Armstrong-Holmes, finance chairman of Nottinghamshire County Council, says: 'If we hadn't shouted we would not have had a review, or a White Paper, or an agreement to have certain areas declared regeneration zones - though this seems to be taking time; or the revelation that the hierarchy of British Coal is totally incompetent.'

Mr Hackett believes the Government's critics were appeased by the prospect of a review of the proposals, by a High Court injunction against some being closed, and by the impression that if the Commons trade and industry select committee could produce a unanimous compromise report, the Government - and British Coal - would abide by it.

However, the High Court injunction has since been reversed, and the select committee was entirely eclipsed by the government's White Paper in March, offering a short-term subsidised future for only 12 of the pits and doing nothing at all towards restructuring the energy market. In the past six weeks 19 pits have been closed, bringing to 17,000 the miners made redundant since last October.

There were other distractions: for the Tories, Maastricht produced a different crop of rebels; Labour was increasingly preoccupied with union block-votes (the NUM's declining membership - now 50,000-60,000 - claims less attention than those of the big unions with a million-plus). The TUC was similarly preoccupied.

'The public outrage was about unemployment and the industrial and historical elements to the pit closures,' Mr Hackett says. 'The key part, the restructuring of a market that was rigged (in favour of the gas industry), was forgotten. The emotional level of debate was pitched so high the intellectual level got lost. Meanwhile, the miners were being blackmailed into taking their pay-offs. They were already leaving.'

At one point, the pit closures were a clear symbol of the nation's plight following 14 years of Conservative government. But other symbols came along: the flight of Asil Nadir, the departure of Norman Lamont.

Inertia was also a problem. 'Well yes,' concedes a Labour insider, 'Labour may have seen its job as how to build on the resentment and anger thrown up by the pit closures. Anyway, as a party in Parliament they too became the target of an anti-Establishment mood that swept the country in October. They couldn't harness that mood, so they were put slightly on the defensive.'

Perhaps this deflated the grassroots campaign. Bishops stopped writing to papers, rallies petered out, yellow stickers disappeared from lapels. The TUC pressed on, having held, in Doncaster, its first-ever general council meeting outside London. But that gesture of solidarity with the miners may have been love at last sight.

'There's something else I should say to you,' explains the Labour Party insider. 'The TUC is trying to modernise itself - changing its historical clothing, presenting a new, cool, streetwise face to the world, networking. And although Arthur (Scargill) has been unusually contained and reasoned in his speeches about these closures, it may well be that the miners are being sacrificed on the altar for the greater union good. But I wouldn't stand up before the Congress and say that.'

Nor would he shout it from the flat green top of Betws mountain which a few drift miners climbed yesterday in order to regard their former place of employment, before drifting into the Miners Welfare Hall for a pint or two.

Leading article, page 24