Leading Article: The longest war

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The Independent Online
MINING COAL is not a cause, like a war or a crusade, though it can sometimes seem like one. Men die doing it, as three did at Bilsthorpe in Nottinghamshire last week, and all through this century they have 'fought' - sometimes metaphorically, sometimes literally - first to increase or maintain the wages they have earned from it, and latterly to preserve it as a way of working and living. The social history of British coal mining is littered with battles, struggles and disasters, some on the surface and some below ground. It is no wonder that the late Harold Macmillan listed the miners' union with the Brigade of Guards as two institutions a government should never take on; or that, in a different context, he described miners as 'the men who beat the Kaiser'.

All gone, or nearly gone; but what a long war it has been. Coal was systematically dug and used as fuel in Roman Britain. By the 14th century it was being mined, with mining quickly recognised as a dangerous activity plagued by roof-falls, faulty explosives, floods and noxious vapours. A 700-year war then, is now coming to its close. At Bilsthorpe, the pit faced an uncertain future. The particular tragedy of the men who died there resembles that of the soldiers shot by snipers in Flanders at 10.45 on the morning of 11 November 1918. The Armistice was only 15 minutes away.