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

'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

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Actor, model and now record breaker: Jiff the Pomeranian
REX/Eye Candy
Alexis Sanchez celebrates after scoring his first goal for Arsenal in the Champions League qualifier against Besiktas
sportChilean's first goal for the club secures place in draw for Champions League group stages
Arts and Entertainment
Amis: 'The racial situation in the US is as bad as it’s been since the Civil War'
booksAuthor says he might come back across Atlantic after all
Life and Style
Google Doodle celebrates the 200th birthday of Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Jim Carrey and Kate Winslett medically erase each other from their memories
scienceTechnique successfully used to ‘reverse’ bad memories in rodents could be used on trauma victims
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Pixie Lott will take part in Strictly Come Dancing 2014, the BBC has confirmed
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

C# Developer (C#, ASP.NET Developer, SQL, MVC, WPF, Real-Time F

£40000 - £48000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: C# Devel...

C# Swift Payment Developer (C#, ASP.NET, .NET, MVC, Authorize.N

£45000 - £60000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: C# Swift...

Front-End Developer (JavaScript, HTML5, CSS3, C#, GUI)

£55000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Front-End Deve...

Graduate C# Developer (.NET, WPF, SQL, Agile, C++) - London

£30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Graduate C# De...

Day In a Page

Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

What is the appeal of Twitch?

Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

How bosses are making us work harder

As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

A tale of two writers

Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

Should pupils get a lie in?

Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

Prepare for Jewish jokes...

... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

A dream come true for SJ Watson

Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
10 best cycling bags for commuters

10 best cycling bags for commuters

Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

Paul Scholes column

Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

The science of herding is cracked

Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

This tyrant doesn’t rule

It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?