Mark Seddon: The last days of King Coal

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"The NUM delegate conference has voted to end the strike, and miners will be returning to work next week." Taffy's wife, Linda looked up; a smile of relief flickered across her face. Then she looked at Taff, who had moved from the contracting South Wales coalfield to Ollerton in Nottinghamshire, where coal was supposed to be king, and broke down in tears.

Ollerton had been at the heart of the strike - many local miners had continued working in protest at not being allowed a national ballot. Some of the most bitter clashes of the strike had ripped the heart from the village. At times Ollerton was cordoned off by police road blocks, and still Taff and his band of strikers fanned out across the county as flying pickets, ready to shut down the small East Anglian ports where imported coal was being landed. On that day in January 1985, Linda was relieved and crestfallen for her proud husband who had given his all - and still lost.

As a politically active student I supported the miners and their last battle against the free-market juggernaut that was soon to sweep away an industry and a community. I spent the best part of a year travelling the coalfields, working to get food to the soup kitchens, joining the pickets and putting up striking miners.

I won't forget the pinched faces, the van-load of coal delivered as a "thank you" in our Norwich backyard, the fantastic camaraderie of Christmas in Ollerton Welfare Hall, where all around people had next to nothing and yet everything. Ironically, Maggie Thatcher, who believed "there was no such thing as society", had called for a return to "Victorian values". Yet in those pit villages, people still didn't lock their doors.

Twenty years on and it has all been swept away. Arthur Scargill underestimated what was to come. He said that Tories were intent on reducing the mining industry to "a hundred pits". In fact, there are barely a dozen still operating, and most of those will be shut by the end of the decade.

Instead, a new industry has grown up around the wreckage of King Coal, a new army of care workers, many of whom once worked in the mines, whose job it is to salvage something from the drug and crime culture that now permeates.

The anniversary of the Great Strike is a chance for anyone under 35 to learn of a very different time, when communities stood together and risked everything in a bitter year-long strike that at times became a localised civil war. In 1984, you were either for or against the miners. For Taffy King and his flying pickets, their strike was a battle for survival. "If we lose", I recall him saying, "it will never be the same again". The still devastated coalfields, the house-trained unions and an ersatz "New Labour" party that worships at the same free-market altar as Maggie Thatcher, are testament to that.

Recently the last few hundred miners at Hatfield Main Colliery in South Yorkshire lost their jobs. The mine sits atop 50 per cent of Britain's accessible reserves, and there was never any shortage of customers. It is a familiar story - for the market is now king, and gas comes more cheaply in a pipe from Azerbaijan.

Twenty years on, the final chapter closes and a thousand years of coal are flooded for good. Hatfield's local MP and former NUM official, Kevin Hughes, sums it up. "At this rate," he says, "there will be no indigenous coal industry at all - which puts us at the mercy of, well, anyone."

SeddonZQ1@aol.com

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