Elizabeth Peacock: Coal – and how it all went wrong

Picture by Simon Hulme

Picture by Simon Hulme

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THE closure of the Kellingley pit marks the end of an industry synonymous with the evolution of modern Britain – deep-mined coal fuelled the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s and helped to build the British Empire.

The deep mining of coal has always been expensive, but it was the only fuel available to meet the demands of emerging new industries. Now, after a long and turbulent history, it has all gone. What did we do wrong?

From their earliest days, coal mines were beset by serious accidents and deaths. The Great Depression in the 1930s put pressure on pricing which made welfare issues more apparent. However this campaign was overtaken by Second World War when the Bevan Boys joined the industry to ensure the availability of sufficient supplies.

As the war ended, and the first effective Labour government was elected, it was obvious that the industry had to be restructured and was taken under national control.

This was the correct move by the Attlee government as it allowed a major restructuring and a means of improving standards. What nationalisation did do, however, was to allow the establishment of even stronger national unions and which extended to other industries, including the docks and car companies. By the 1960s, the whole industrial scene was affected by militancy with major disputes and strikes.

In the next 20 years the number of operational pits was reduced by closure of small pits and mechanisation of larger pits with good coal reserves. However, it became obvious that competition would arise from overseas opencast coal which could be loaded onto ships and transported to Europe cheaper than our own deep-mined commodity.

Things really began to change in 1974 after Edward Heath challenged the unions: “Who rules Britain?” The answer was not Heath, as Labour and Harold Wilson won with a three seat majority in October and miners’ leader Arthur Scargill proclaimed that he governed Britain.

The big problem was that the governments of Macmillan, Wilson, Heath, Thatcher or Major did not have a well established energy policy to which they were committed. When an issue arose, the reaction was market-driven and not government-planned.

By the late 1970s, it was obvious that a Conservative government would follow and that there would be a major clash with the unions, particularly Arthur Scargill and the NUM, to establish who had the power to control the industry.

With the world coal price remaining low, requiring British coal to be highly subsidised, using taxpayers funds, there was a constant need to reduce output by closing uneconomic pits, and which was difficult to achieve without union support.

As Margaret Thatcher took over in 1979, she clearly believed in her own statement “You cannot buck the market”. She strategically instructed Nigel Lawson, her Energy Minister, to stockpile coal at power stations and be ready for an assault by the unions.

When it did come in the form of the 1984 Miners’ Strike, the dispute was more about power and politics than about coal. By 1990, there was general agreement that our energy would come from gas, oil, nuclear and renewable sources and that we should eventually dispense with coal – hence the unrealistic plan of Tim Eggar and my friend, Michael Heseltine, to close 20 uneconomic pits in four weeks and privatise the remainder.

This is the issue which caused me to head a major revolt against my own government because I considered the timescale to be totally unacceptable. With John Major’s government having a small majority, there was always the chance that our rebel group could, with the Labour party, defeat the government, but 
we lost.

With the vast underground reserves of coal, some of the people involved in these debates mistakenly thought that we could mine coal at, or around, the world price if we could lease selected deep mines with accessible coal. Several private companies were established – Budge, UK Coal, Coal Investments, Hargreaves and others to progress the idea.

The coal was mined but selling at a profit soon became a problem as the world price kept falling. All the privatised companies have fallen over.

In summary, the deep mining of coal was destined to fail with the lack of a positive government energy policy; overtly political union activity; taxpayers refusing to support subsidies and privatised companies having insufficient resources.

Do I regret my involvement? Not at all. I made and retain some good friends in the industry. I was involved with Coal Investments, where I lost money, but where I learnt to ride coal conveyors and how to drill holes at the coal face for blasting! Long may the memory of British deep coal mining last.

Elizabeth Peacock was Conservative MP for Batley and Spen from 1983 until 1997.

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