A proud history, on the slag heap: That it should come to this] Geoffrey Goodman, a long-time observer of the British industrial scene, tells what the miners have meant to the labour movement and to the country

Click to follow
The astonishing closure programme for what is left of our coal industry is the final curtain on the British industrial revolution. A huge chunk of Britain's economic history has been dumped on the slag heap of market mania. And there is no road back, despite 300 years of coal left under our soils.

In any rational and sensible society, what is happening to our coal industry would be laughed at in derision. It is industrial lunacy with the distinct flavour of political malice. But perhaps, above all, the whole situation carries with it an undertone of grave social threat, since the speed of the pit closures must inevitably tear another large hole in the social fabric of mining communities already savaged by years of job erosion.

To be sure, something similar has happened to other ancient sinews of Britain's industrial body - ship building, steel production, printing, even heavy engineering. But none of them has been punished at such speed and with such dubious political motivation.

Consider the role of coal in our national history. It was the principal arsenal of the first industrial revolution. It generated much of the economic impulses of the 19th century as well as shaping the radical political and social development of the labour movement.

When the various miners' associations finally came together during the First World War to form the Miners' Federation of Great Britain (forerunner of the NUM) it could boast more than one million men. Together with the railwaymen and transport workers they formed the core of the Labour movement. Throughout the Thirties the miners continued to form the basis of the Labour Party, though they were overtaken in membership figures by Ernest Bevin's Transport and General Workers' Union briefly at the end of that decade. During the Second World War, the colliers' work became a protected occupation and so vital that 'Bevin Boys' were drafted into the pits as an alternative to fighting with the armed forces.

In 1947 when coal was nationalised - the first great industry to be taken into public ownership by Attlee's Labour government - there were 720,000 miners working in 958 pits. Vesting day was regarded by the miners and much of management as a day of rejoicing. A dream had come true. They believed it was their industry.

In that post-war era the miners' leaders were men of remarkable ability and stature: William Lawther, Jim Bowman, Arthur Horner and Abe Moffat. All of them fought to sustain the enthusiasm of early nationalisation. The nation needed every ounce of coal it could scratch from the earth for reconstruction and Attlee's government pleaded with the NUM to support an extended six-day production cycle. He told them that the nation's economic future depended on their efforts. The miners' leaders toured the coalfields to persuade sceptical members: 'Do it for your country,' they urged, not least the remarkable Arthur Horner, the NUM's Communist general secretary.

They pressed their membership forward not just because they were a cornerstone of the Labour movement and wanted to sustain their government. They did it because miners, by and large, were a special breed. Their pride in their work was a pride in their manhood; their pride in their politics was their manifestation of a radical culture based on a brotherhood at work. They wanted their sons to find new ways of life away from the pit village which, paradoxically, they loved and hated at the same time. It is hard for anyone who has never been down a pit to grasp all that fully.

When in 1960 Harold Macmillan, as prime minister, invited Alfred Robens (Lord Robens of Woldingham) to take on the chairmanship of the National Coal Board, Robens had to be persuaded. He was then a senior figure on Labour's parliamentary front bench and might easily have succeeded Gaitskell as leader instead of Harold Wilson. Robens also knew the coal industry and that it required drastic change and modernisation. Macmillan admitted this. Robens pointed out the economics of the problem and the need for huge investment and pit closures, saying: 'Prime minister, if I take this job, given the problems, I'm never going to get the industry to balance its books.' Macmillan looked at him and replied: 'My dear boy, you will have to blur the figures, blur the edges.'

Harold Macmillan's advice to Tory colleagues was summed up in his famous aphorism: 'No government in its senses will pick a fight with the Brigade of Guards, the Catholic church, or the National Union of Mineworkers.' In his eyes, the miners were part of the family silver. And so they were.

So where did it all go wrong? Robens, in his 10 years (1961-71) as Coal Board chairman, closed 400 pits and made 300,000 men redundant. Yet he did it with great care, immense social provision to cushion the human impact and with the co-operation of the NUM and its outstanding general secretary, Will Paynter, another Communist. Of course, this was at a time when the general level of unemployment was low. It was never easy but it was handled with political skill and sympathy. Oil was then the main competitor, with the development of North Sea oil and gas to offset dependence on the Middle East.

By the early Seventies, most of the experts were predicting a slow but carefully planned decline in coal as the nation's primary energy source. Before he left the Coal Board, Robens argued strongly for a national energy policy but Whitehall would never accept his logic. The government machine was already seduced by the gushing glitter of North Sea oil and gas - cheaper, they believed, than coal and free from the dependence on the miners.

In 1972 came the first of the major coal disputes over pay - rather than pit closures - which forced the Heath government to change course on its economic policy as well as industrial relations law. It was during this dispute that Arthur Scargill emerged as a national name with his 'flying pickets'. Scargill was brilliant, impetuous, but altogether lacking in political judgement and the ability to compromise. His purity in search of his socialist grail was to lead ultimately to his own undoing as well as weakening the miners' cause.

Then in 1974, again over pay, while the miners were still led by the moderate national president Joe Gormley, the Heath government was forced into ordering industry on to a three-day week. Coal was still crucial to electricity generation. In February of that year the Conservatives fell from office having retreated to a general election.

One of the still-secret stories of that retreat was a Cabinet vote to go to the country rather than fight the miners. Two ministers demanded a battle to the end rather than an election. They were Sir Keith Joseph and Margaret Thatcher. Heath overruled them; they neither forgot nor forgave. That factor was to play a key part in shaping Mrs Thatcher's attitude to the miners during the 1984-85 strike; her determination to take them on was made all the stronger when even she had to backtrack in 1981 over a programme of pit closures. She appointed Ian MacGregor as Coal Board chairman in 1983 and immediately began preparations for a showdown - the trap into which Scargill marched in the spring of 1984.

Maybe everything after that became inevitable. Energy resources were changing. Nuclear power, highly expensive and environmentally hazardous, remained a force that the government could not ignore. More critical, however, was the growth of natural gas supplies: still more expensive than coal for electricity generation, it was easier to handle. If Arthur Scargill had played his cards differently in 1984-85, if he had been ready to do a deal with a government that was frequently vulnerable and uncertain of itself, the miners' leader might have salvaged something more lasting for his industry, however. But he played into Mrs Thatcher's hands - and electricity privatisation completed the task, as it was meant to do.

The breakaway Union of Democratic Mineworkers now feels betrayed and abandoned after its role in keeping the crucial Nottingham coalfield at work during the 1984-85 strike. But they failed to reckon with the ruthlessness of political life. The UDM became as expendable as the NUM in the eyes of the government.

It is an extraordinary story of culpability, stupidity, political malice, and social and economic blindness. There remains room for a modern, smaller-sized coal industry of about 60 or 70 pits. It is an industry that has become the most productive, cost-efficient and technically superior coal production machine in the world. It is sheer folly to cut back numbers in this way and desperately wrong to destroy the mining communities still further when there is simply no alternative work in view. The government's pounds 1bn, most of which will go on redundancy pay, will nowhere meet the real challenge.

It is a tragic end to an industry and people who have earnt the nation's respect for their years of industrial heroism, physical sacrifice and remarkable loyalty. It is a folly that I fear we will live to regret.

The writer is former industrial editor of Mirror Group Newspapers, where he was a leading writer on labour relations for many years.

(Photograph omitted)