Leading Article: Cause and effect in the pits

Click to follow
The Independent Online
FOR the first time since the general election of 1974, miners in conflict with the Government command a lot of public sympathy. The speed and the scale of the cutbacks that the industry faces are shocking. They come when the Government's mishandling of the economy is apparent, and they invite speculation that ministers - who insist that there can be no turning back - are either thoroughly incompetent or are acting in an irrational or vindictive manner.

When Arthur Scargill, the president of the National Union of Mineworkers, addresses an emergency conference of his union today, he can therefore be expected to make two claims. The first is that the Government is punishing the NUM for the strike of 1984-85. The second is that the most alarmist of his warnings about the future of the coal industry are being borne out by events.

Mr Scargill claims to have been fighting to defend his industry. In practice, he has been administering it grievous body blows. British coal used to be attractive above all because supplies were secure. During Mr Scargill's period in office, the pits became a byword for political extremism, industrial unrest and commercial unreliability. Once purchasers have lost faith in an industry's ability to supply their long-term needs in a reliable manner, they begin to look for alternatives.

In this case - as soon as political restraints were removed by a government bent on diversification of supply - it proved possible to buy coal on the world market for little more than half the cost of British coal. (This is not because British Coal is inefficient - it is one of the most efficient producers in Europe - but because some foreign nations are able to use open-cast methods, some, including Germany, subsidise their coal industry and others dump as a matter of policy.) Nor is the defence imperative credible as it relies on the belief that this country may face again a Second World War-style submarine blockade lasting years.

The Government encouraged the main consumer, the electricity supply industry, to look abroad for coal, and to consider the advantages of natural gas, oil and (subsidised) nuclear power. The manner in which electricity supply was privatised gave National Power and PowerGen the ability to pressurise British Coal over the new five-year contracts. They have used this power ruthlessly - perhaps too ruthlessly; government secrecy makes it hard to judge.

The Departments of Energy and of Trade and Industry conducted no formal cost-benefit analysis before deciding whether to authorise the planned closures and to offer pounds 1bn towards the costs involved. Such ministerial briefing papers as were prepared are to remain confidential. As a result, we do not know why the Government decided to 'invest' a very large sum in the consequences of closure rather than using a similar sum to keep marginal pits open. We do not know whether ministers are convinced that long- term energy supplies are secure at reasonable cost, and we do not know what estimates, if any, have been made of the number of likely job losses in addition to the 30,000 that will go in mining. There is little chance of these decisions being reversed, but a combination of secrecy and superficiality is intolerable when the livelihoods of so many people are at stake.