Above: Eggborough coal fired power station on the Aire/Calder navigation system one of the last coal fired stations. It's neighbour - Drax - has been partially turned over to willow burning
Above: Industrial street names are utterly despised by the new dormitory towns inhabitants now flooding the area who ask for names to be changed to Foxcub Court etc to keep property values on the permanent up
The contentious claim that coal in the long run is due for a come back is examined elsewhere on this site. If it does then inevitably Yorkshire, if only because of the vast coal reserves under the east York's plain extending far out to the sea to the Dutch coast, would be the heart of the industry once more.
News of the death of coal has been much been much exaggerated in the aftermath of the wholesale pit closures of 1992. Coal continued to pour into Yorkshire but increasingly from abroad with high grade coal from Australia and poor quality coal from countries as distant as Columbia and Poland. Coal coming from the former country was often mined by children which accounted for its low cost and would set miners eyes ablaze with fury given the part miners had played in the abolition of child labour here in the 19th and 20th century.
The coal was off-loaded on the Humber and then shipped up on huge barges that plies waterway systems like the Aire/Calder navigation to gigantic power stations like Drax, Ferrybridge and Eggborough. Though hidden from view and progressively from history the market for coal was still thriving.
There are now only 14 deep mined mines left throughout these islands and as things stand in the next few years even the privatised coal industry could be consigned to the ash bin including the recent huge open cast sites which provide about half of Britain's coal. Since 1997 under the Coal Investment scheme, the Labour government has given £163. 8 million in direct subsidy to the private mining companies providing up to 30% of investment costs. Following on from this a further £115 million is to be given to the 'industry' though most of this money despite having been earmarked for investment will in such a robber baron climate probably go to shareholders! A top UK Coal Exec' even had the bare-faced cheek to recently say shareholders were the companies only real commitment. Second on the list of priorities these coal companies see themselves as industrial landlords or estate agents out to make a financial killing and are more interested in new prestige housing estates for middle income employees on former colliery workings which also has the advantage of obliterating all memory of the past and the promise of a new society that lay at their heart of the titanic miners struggles of the 70s and 80s. Within months of the 1984/5 miners' strike ending villages were opened up to housing speculators as cheap properties were snapped up everywhere. These new look landscapes are more like seedy imitations of royal parks than industrial heritage landscapes as the need to wreck vengeance on the past increasingly knows no bounds and overkill really does appear to work. Orgreave the site of the most spectacular and spectacularised battles (see the TV re-enactments) of the near civil war which was the miners' strike is been turned into a science park plus an estate of 1500 houses(1). The same goes for Wooley, Thurcroft and many other former pit sites.
The seeming largesse of the Coal scheme was in fact pitiful and quite unable to halt the coal companies from putting nearly half of the remaining collieries into the colliery review procedure. The modern Selby complex of Wistow, Ricall, Stillingfleet and Gascoigne Wood finally looks set for closure with no chance of a reprieve this time though it is possible caution will prevail and they will be mothballed for a number of years.
If you think this smacks of overkill you are not wrong. John, "A Destroyed Miner" (see elsewhere), memorably said that today it is not enough to kick a person (or cause) when down but to continue kicking long after death has ensued. Not a spark of life can be allowed to remain and this is true of anyone who dares challenge the authority of the State even if the issue is an open and shut case. This myopic short termism and the unremitting way it has been carried out has proved to be successful, but is unlikely to be so in the long term. Britain's "dash for gas", the legacy of the Thatcher era, shows no sign of taking a pause for breath. It was gas more than nuclear power which energy wise defeated the miners. But at the time nuclear power appeared to be the main saboteur and the one energy source that would be triumphant. The state subsidies the nuclear industry were in receipt of was given a good deal of publicity during the miners' strike. However by 2010 natural gas is set to supply over 60% of the UK's energy needs. It is cheap, energy efficient, 'cleaner'. It is also extremely vulnerable. By 2010 Britain will be almost totally dependant on a single gas pipe line stretching from the Russian Stans. Just imagine the mayhem one strategically placed bomb could create within a matter of hours. The irony is that the state-manipulated war on terrorism risks reviving "the enemy within", a slogan coined during the heyday of the Thatcher era and though directed at militant workers in general was aimed especially at the miners. Calls for energy diversification are to be heard with increasing frequency with coal once more playing a major role (up to 30%, with nuclear power - gulp! - supplying another 30% of energy needs with the rest coming from renewables). The problem is given the amount of energy expended in the suppression of all memory of the past such a strategy risks detonating a Freudian return of the repressed. Energy analysts arguing for a return of the repressed memory of coal are naive in the extreme and once apprised of its dangers will much prefer to warble the praises of nuclear power.
The same is not true in the rest of the world. Coal is very high on the agenda. Despite America's attempt to control the world's fast diminishing oil supplies, the emphasis even in a state almost as Canute- like as Britain, is on "diminishing" oil supplies. Somewhere between $6 to $10 billion dollars are being spent on developing coal technology plants in contrast to the paltry sum (around £15 million ) spent on coal technology in the UK. Also some 25 deep coal mines have recently been dug in America.
Should there be a new "future for coal" in Britain it is unlikely that open cast mining and which was such a feature of the northern industrial landscape following the defeat of the miners, will continue. Poor quality coal is not environmentally acceptable. And with that will go the latter day attempts to disguise the quarrying behind an eco-image conscious fa'ade. The green and pleasant hill of Gale Common that rises behind the village of Cridling Stubbs next to Kellingley Colliery in west Yorks conceals a huge carbon quarry owned by British Energy (Norec division) crawling with security guards, CCTV cameras, cranes and dumper trucks.
Though there will not be a return to smoke stack industry (essentially steam power from the burning of coal) we must also take seriously the conclusion arrived at that the dust from smoke stack industries deflected sunlight back in to space and had a cooling effect by lessening the greenhouse effect arising from the build up of CO2 in the atmosphere. Because of the efforts to tackle smoke pollution, CO2 now exists in a 'purified' state and therefore capable of inflicting terrible damage. This is a sobering thought. Clean coal will now have to be really clean and not just in name only. The deaths from respiratory and lung disease rife in the coal industry need to be set beside the 160,000 pa. deaths from malaria, dysentery and malnutrition caused by climate change let alone the hundreds of thousands that have already perished in tropical super storms.
If coal eventually is revived it almost certainly will be along the lines of the Selby complex in North Yorks. The technical composition of capital employed will therefore be high. The actual number of workers that will be taken on is likely to be much lower than was the case even in the immediate past. But whatever the numbers the potential power of these newer fewer miners will be every bit as great as in the past. And there lies the problem.
If the State is forced in to reviving the mining industry can it do so without reigniting the passions which still rage in these abandoned and grassed over former coal fields? And if the State ever was to admit that it had got its sums wrong and that the bloody battle in which thousands of lives had been irredeemably wrecked had been all for nothing, what then?
The miners' strike is still very much alive in the former mining areas despite the fact it lingers on as a half-forgotten memory everywhere else. It could well have happened only yesterday and remains vividly present to those who lived through it at close quarters and, moreover, shows no sign of diminishing. The bitterness between miners and scabs still continues which, if one knows anything about mining communities, is not surprising. However what is surprising are the passions that have been stamped on the sons and daughters of these mining communities, some little more than mites others not yet even born. The defeat broke up families and relationships everywhere but more importantly there is a scalding feeling of a great loss amongst people who scarcely know what a lump of coal looks like. In the event of a newly constituted coal industry, the realization that what was destroyed in the miners' strike was not the coal industry but one of the finest flowers of the industrial workers of the world, could be swift and devastating. The miners had to be destroyed not on account of their greed but because they had a new world in their hearts, which was carrying other people with it. This ever wider collective yearning had to be exorcised, the obstacle removed, so a permanent assault on every level could then go into overdrive. 20 years on and life has turned into prolonged torture with death increasingly the only realistic hope of release. Depression is becoming the rule and an unparalleld gangsterism the norm. Could the State, compromised by events outside of its control, ever be forced to admit something like this did happen and continues to happen without the risk of detonating serious trouble?
The miners as we sadly know were scattered to the four winds and have no profile whatsoever today. Some, like pit electricians, were able to find alternative employment within the same locality almost immediately. Others would only find work cleaning cars or in fast food joints or in the growing security industry. Some even became prison guards locking up former mining comrades, unable after the experience of the picket line to walk the line. But most were only left with the dole, the injured with disability benefit and many left their home turf for good.
Something untypical began to happen to these former mining communities and their inhabitants. Marx and Engels wrote about an enquiring proletariat, anxious to improve itself (though generally not for purposes of self-advancement), and eager for knowledge as a step towards defeating the old world. The miners inherited the mantle of the mill workers around 1880. And thus it remained until ripped to pieces by the defeat of 1985. Throughout these 100 years the miners became renowned not only for their tenacity, solidarity and general humanity but also for their learning, becoming within the limits of their dispossession, all rounded human beings, unafraid of ideas and with a vision, above all, to see the working week reduced to two days a week. They were self taught and redefined everything they alighted on to fit in with their own perspectives and this lack of orthodoxy was a breath of fresh air. I remember as a child been given a wooden roman sword that had been fashioned by a mining uncle and then treated to an unselfconscious plein air history lesson on the Roman Empire whilst out on a stroll, occasionally breaking off to observe a bird or flower. There are facts that stay fixed in the mind like Welsh miners reading Zola and Balzac and the sharing of wives, when incoming single miners were billeted on families. All of this was natural and unaffected, a collective genius in the making.
Looking back there is something naive, genuine and extremely touching in this unrealised aspirations and yet now sorely missed as if belonging to another age. Everything is pitted against its return whatever the form it might take. That the miners collectively possessed such a vision when all is said and done is to their very great merit just as also it had its limitations. In the bourgeoisification of the proletariat it had its baneful counterpart. Many erstwhile miners during the last 100 years were to join the ranks of the political careerists of social democracy, determined to re-adjust the social order and remove the impediments that prevented their sons and daughters from entering higher education and the hollowed portals of art. For example the sculptors Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore were from a mining background in Castleford, W.Yorks and a plaque on the former colliery grounds of Glass Houghton reminds tourists that Henry Moore's Dad worked there. Whatever cutting edge both may have once had, it was rapidly blunted. In terms of the rebellion of the best part of modern art neither Hepworth or Moore had, beyond a vague egalitarianism, much to say. Flirting mildly with surrealism for a short while they hardly amounted to an Artaud or a Breton.
But interestingly after the rebellion of the late 1960s, there were to be found joining the ranks of the miners, people with university degrees who were attracted to mining for leftist reasons or simply on account of the wages that were much improved after the 1972 strike. They were if you like an ideal continuation of some of the Bevin Boys - middle class youths conscripted to work in the mines during the second world war - but who chose to continue working in the mines after the cessation of hostilities. It laid bare a fundamental failing of social democracy, that all real advancement through the professions was illusory. It was a watershed and the assumptions underlying social democracy would never be quite the same ever again. The wheel had turned full circle even if most, like Kim Howells, were unable to stick with it. In fact he is now Minister of Culture in the Blair government famous for having condemned, for all the wrong reasons, "conceptual bullshit" from his own equally reactionary "stuckist", Sunday painter, perspective. A former art student at Hornsey College of Art he played a key role in the sit-in there in 1968 only to then drastically downshift by becoming a Welsh miner. Desirous to now yield a pickaxe rather than hold a palette, his aspirations had turned back upon themselves. He began to compose hilarious doggerel (though that was never the intention) describing how he gossed on the pit manager's office at the end of the shift. He may well have meant it. Rapidly arising through the ranks he became an NUM union official who achieved a degree of media notoriety during the strike. Quick to appreciate an era had come to an end with the defeat of the miners, he flirted with new Labour but was never able to successfully hide his 'radical' past from public scrutiny, which remains a constant source of embarrassment to him. This has undoubtedly blighted his career and though his critique even at the best of times lacked edge, it is obviously too sharp for the half-wits of new labour.
There is no doubting that the intelligence deeply embedded in the mining community had the effect also had the effect of creating deeply dysfunctional families and ones that were eventually to be sharply divided along class lines. Kim Howells was scarcely an exception. The present Lady Mayoress of Sunderland in the NE of England was another having stepped onto the careers ladder from the Easington colliery wives' support group then graduating from university to eventually land a plumb job. On the 20th anniversary of the strike she returned to Easington (the village, like so many others, has become a new-build dormitory village) to open a community centre and daring to suggest it was the same in principle as the centres run by the miners' wives support groups!
The need for women to become actively involved in the strike was also a door to career opportunities but only because the strike was defeated. Most ended up back on the breadline from whence they came. No where was the rueful reflection of the insightful, canny, working class Mother that "I've a daughter about to go to university and a son about to go to jail" more true than of the mining community. Relationships within such families are extremely fraught with one side just getting by and the other scaling the heights of nobocracy - the two sides never able to meet up around the parental dinner table without a few tart exchanges and the threat of heavier manners.
So miners had a tendency to become ensnared by a misplaced reverence for cultural/professional specialisms. And after the defeat of 1984/85 the State was able to lay hold of this critical weakness and safely redirect it into the policed channels of academia, youth/community service and housing provision. When interviewing ex- miners who have made this lugubrious transition. it is saddening on this the 20th anniversary to read the junk stipulated by the job the 'quality' newspapers are only too glad to print because it is just the sort of language they recognise. However praiseworthy the initial intention, we all know what it is like to come against a housing bureaucrat especially in a period when "social housing" is under such a sustained free market assault. As for the others those who opted to be cultural hidden persuaders, there was always the role of journalist or writer. Just look at the number of novels timed to appear and cashing in on the 20th anniversary of the strike. It is almost like a re-run of World War Two paperbacks, except the background is one of social war. But at no point will this begin to initiate even a soap stone let alone a lapidary critique if the novel. At the same moment miners strike clothing and tee shirts look set to become the flavour of the month. All that one can say is that as fashion accessories they are better than guns.
It is hardly surprising given that miners historically were prone to cultural professional recuperation that few ex-miners after 1985 or 1992 (the year of the huge pit closure program) became either business men or miners. But some of the best miners remained locked within their struggle unable to forget the past and break away to take other jobs. Still bound hand and foot to the struggle they took the redundancy money on offer - in a tiny minority of cases over £30,000 - and by that 'generous' gesture were handed the poisoned cup that instead of hemlock contained alcohol - at least just so long as the "redundi" lasted. The other inference was just as potent: question the State and you will be destroyed by any means at hand. (C/F "A Destroyed Miner" on this website). And yet this, often drunk, self-destructive minority tended to keep the spirit of resistance alive: though veering on the edge of madness, they were in their moments of sanity wide awake like no other miners before them to the horrors enveloping everything and not just to those down the mine shaft, and which were also steadily closing in on them. We can only guess how they may have dealt with the burning question of clean coal. Or how - given their pronounced sensitivities to nature - they would have redefined conservation if once given the chance. And that would have given the lie to the corporatism of the Greens and much of the press who because of their rejection of class struggle indiscriminately spread the burden of guilt to those who work in polluting industries not seeing that miners were amongst the chief victims anyway (black lung etc.) Many miners saw themselves as the unofficial stewards of the countryside around them. They could turn very militant in their defense of wilderness like on Thorne Moor, south Yorks and dynamite drainage channels that were dug into the raised peat wetland by industrial farmers hell-bent on reclaiming the land for crop growing. ( Incidentally, the full story of what were to become "Bunting's Beavers" has yet to be told)(2). The miners' allotments too had a visionary edge as though they were straining to do something with horticulture never previously attempted. The natural sublime of prized giant vegetables was a distorted expression of this yearning to push nature beyond its limits and add to its might. And always there was this tendency to maintain a distance from official conservation bodies as though they were irredeemably compromised. An ex-miner we got talking to on Dent Head station in the middle of the Yorkshire peaks though passionate about birds refused to have anything to do with the RSPB. Observing our interest in the butterflies flitting along the station it mattered greatly to him if we were "obsessed" by them. To him a mere interest was unworthy. On learning there was an official butterfly conservation body he asked if they had "a lot of guns" implying half-mockingly that armed resistance was now nature's only fighting chance. As of old one experienced afresh that almost childlike depth of curiosity and observation: he had noticed how cow plats stay around in Lincolnshire much longer than elsewhere, surmising that must be due to the drop in the numbers of dung insects. Having long held that insects can do without us but we cannot do without them, it was a sobering thought. He also pointed to some hillocks in the distance and said they were spoil heaps from the building of the railway line. He was right. A typical miner!
For over 15 years from the 1972 strike to the year long strike of 1984/85 the miners had become more powerful here than at any other time in their history. They catalysed forces that were felt everywhere. When they destroyed PM Heath's Tory government in the early 1970`s, they also finished off "Selsdon Man", that aborted anticipation of the free market individual that was to become well nigh universal 20 years later. The UK miners couldn't be thrown off course either like the South African miners. Not having an unbearable racial persecution to contend with they likewise did not have to deal with a brutal state orchestrated Stalinism as in Poland. Despite the Achilles Heel concerning an often tremendous confusion about trade unionism generally - it was perhaps the major weakness in the strike - the way was much clearer for the UK miners to confront head on the emerging free market liberalism which as the years went by was gradually to become the model world wide. As such it proved to be a focus to those opposed to the coming change. Yet the violence of the means tore into the neo-conservatism of the state capitalist opposition intent on retaining Clause 4 of the Labour party's constitution: the nationalisation of production, distribution and exchange, (a Santa Claus if ever there was). Once battle had commenced supporting the miners in that fateful year was never going to be a comfortable option. Whereas in Poland and S. Africa a real uprising was hi-jacked by an opposition able to successfully ride the tiger, here not only the UK miners went down to defeat but left-leaning union bureaucrats and left wing ideologist run out of town as well.
If the miners had won a Labour government would most likely have been elected and then had little choice but to manipulate the miners into surrendering. More forceful means like military style policing would have been out of the question. It would have been the sweetest victory imaginable not only to the miners but to the rest of the working class and other sectors like some gays and women who uniquely made it their own struggle and thus changed its nature. And it would have been a lesson to the rest of the world not to even contemplate imposing such a solution which is still being played out across the world wherever a measure of labour protection is still in place. There would probably have been no tax cutting budget like Nigel Lawson's famous tax cutting budget which had such an impact on the increasingly demoralised state capitalist eastern block. Though the Berlin Wall may well have come down in any case, a free market mockery of freedom would not have taken its place with such apparent ease and neither would the resistance movements in S. Africa and Poland turned into the dismal flops we see today. This can be dismissed as mere speculation but the passions unleashed by the miners' strike and the level of support it received both here and across the rest of the world underlines that here was a struggle of gigantic proportions that unfolded on a global scale and whose impact either way, come victory or defeat, would be momentous. As such it bears comparison with the defeat of the German Revolution of 1918/21. The world thereafter would never be the same and just as fascism was one consequence of the defeat of 1918/21 so the defeat of the miners is the real bedrock on which free market totalitarianism is founded and which with each moment that passes becomes more unassailable.
(Footnote (1): In fact the re-enactment, a project commissioned by Artangel four years ago, was put together by an artist, Jeremy Deller. The event was filmed for Channel 4 TV. Deller's name has now been put forward as a possible winner of the 2004 annual Turner prize. The re-enactment was considerably more interesting - in particular there were a number of powerful interviews with miners and their wives - than the usual stock-in-trade, predictable shock jock, seen it 200 times before, end-of-art art, typical of the Turner prize. However Deller is light years away from a revolutionary critique of culture and is now quite happy as artiste in residence collaborating on providing a cultural face-lift to the Thames Gateway development in Kent. His powder puff critique of modern urbanism amounts to no more than complaints against the short supply of "public art" when in fact we crave liberation from the superabundance of these space-eaters. The congestion charge for cars should be extended to "public art".
(Footnote (2): Bunting, a brilliant amateur naturalist who discovered two previously unknown lichens, became active on Thorne Moor or Wastes during the 1970s and was undoubtedly influenced by the direct action tactics deployed by insurgent workers at the time particularly the local dockers and miners. By trade an engineer, Bunting's natural constituency were the miners living in the pit village of Moorends that virtually spills out onto the wetlands. Once the ranchers and horticultural developers started making major incursions into the largest raised wetlands in Western Europe, Bunting and his mining-based "beavers" hit back. They not only persistently cut through razor-wired fences announcing the new enclosures but deployed dynamite to blow up the earth infill blocking off dykes that criss-cross the Wastes. They also built dams and though damned themselves at the time - "we were running the gauntlet, doing what we had to do - bandits if you like" (John Hitchcock) - these very dams are now maintained by English Nature who once regarding them as renegade, now see them as practical good sense. Bunting would stalk across the wetlands with cutlass and gun, leaving calling cards which, among other pithy statements, would invariably end up by saying "sue me you buggers if you dare". Frequently arrested and spending time in jail the example of the beavers became inspirational as they declared war on private capital, the local state and weak-kneed conservation bodies like English Nature.
Above: No Turner Prize but the real battle of Orgreave in 1984
For further articles on the miners' strike of 1984-5 see the following on the Revolt Against Plenty web: