Mick Welsh: Miner and politician who fought for greater safety in Britain's pits


Thursday 02 February 2012 01:00

It was his friend Sir Patrick Duffy, long-serving MP for Sheffield, war hero and Navy Minister, who encapsulated the career of Mick Welsh – few called him Michael – the MP for Don Valley from 1979-83 and Doncaster North from 1983-92. "The thing about Mick was that, albeit an authentic Yorkshire miner – no frills – he worked well with Conservatives, to whom some of his views must have anathema. Due to his personality and easy-going temperament, he knew how to get on on a Select Committee."

Welsh's most important contribution to parliament was as a member of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs. His 13 years in the House were all spent in opposition, but his time was not squandered. Certainly, the Foreign Affairs Select Committee in those years had a Conservative chairman and a Conservative majority, but his Tory colleagues told me that they listened to what he had to say. They described him as a charming, witty and cheerful travelling companion when the Committee went abroad on parliamentary business. It was helpful to show foreigners that Brits could get on with each other, albeit from different political stables.

Born into a mining family, Welsh left school on his 14th birthday to go down the pit. His father Danny had been killed in a pit accident in 1934 when Welsh was eight; his mother Winnie encouraged him to take advantage of night-school opportunities. He became a well-qualified shot-firer and a junior union representative. His potential was spotted by the Department of Extramural Studies at the University of Sheffield, whose Industrial Project was run by a group of remarkable tutors: Harry Barnes, later a prominent MP, John Halstead, Carl Hedwick, Nick Howard, James McFarland and Phil Wright. After three years' day release the Sheffield group arranged for Welsh to proceed to Ruskin College, Oxford.

Introducing himself to me when I was guest speaker at a Doncaster Labour Party supper before he was selected as an MP, Welsh came up to me with his broad grin and chuckled – his normal demeanour – and said, "I'm Mick Welsh – one of those who gave you a really hard time when you came to Ruskin to speak on the Labour government's prices and income policy." I remembered – so he had. It was a torrid evening from my point of view in which I was badly mauled by (hospitable) Ruskin students. Years later Welsh reflected to me, "Ruskin was the making of me."

In 1962 he was elected to the Doncaster Council – then a very good local authority – and served until 1969. He had good relations with the Yorkshire local authorities when he was elected MP for Don Valley in 1979. The Tory candidate Roger Freeman, later a cabinet minister, told me that Welsh had been a conspicuously good-mannered opponent – "A miner and a gentleman."

Rosie Winterton – Doncaster MP, Health Minister and Labour Chief Whip – told me: "There is a deep appreciation among Doncaster people for the way Mick worked to raise their concerns, and those of the mining industry. He was a good man and Doncaster was proud to have him in Parliament."

Those of us who heard it remember Welsh's contribution to the highly controversial Coal Industry Bill. Speaking on 12 December 1983 he said that the most vital issue was the great lack of investment in previous years. He argued that investment in the 1960s went only to coalface production, not shafts and pit bottoms. It was vital, he said, to remember that investment improved safety.

Welsh thanked God that investment in machinery on the coalface had meant fewer fatal accidents. But, poignantly, he reminded the House of the death of his own father, giving it as an example of the need for investment in safety.

In his constituency was the huge Thorne pit, which had been mothballed. Welsh argued that millions of pounds of investment would be required to develop the colliery, which had 10ft thick seams of coal of the best quality in Britain, if not in Europe. When he made a plea on behalf of his constituents we knew that he really meant it.

The only time Welsh was annoyed with me was when I implied that he should support Labour policy in relation to the industrial action of the NUM. With a flash of anger he snorted, "It's all very well for you. You may have three collieries in your constituency, but you are not sponsored by the NUM. I am. You have to deal with Mick McGahey [the Communist leader of the Scottish miners, but a generous man in not fermenting trouble for most Labour MPs in Scotland]. I have Arthur Scargill, and I agree with a lot of what he says."

If Welsh wanted to retain the miners' nomination he had to be careful not cross the Scargill faction: the late Alec Woodhall, the courageous, loyal and good MP for Hemsworth, took them on and was deselected, losing his seat.

Arthur Scargill told me: "I first knew Mick in the early 1960s, when together we formed the Left Forum, which led to the transformation of the NUM from a right-wing majority organisation into a progressive left-wing organisation. I nominated him as Labour member for Don Valley, and in those days in mining constituencies the NUM could command the majority of delegates, and therefore it was a foregone conclusion. In fact he was selected overwhelmingly, and well-received by delegates other than those sponsored by the NUM. He had been a person of great significance to the NUM in our numerous contacts with miners in other countries."

Welsh told me that it was his experience in the NUM that had led him to become so interested in foreign affairs, and made his service on the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs such an important ingredient of his later career.

Tam Dalyell

Michael Collins Welsh, coalminer and politician: born Doncaster 23 November 1926; Member, Doncaster local authority 1962-69; MP for Don Valley 1979-83, Doncaster North 1983-1992; married 1950 Brenda Nicholson (two sons); died Carcroft, South Yorkshire 24 January 2012.

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