Friday, 6 August 2021

A Note on Post-War Pit Closures

Harold Wilson's record on mines and mining was an unexpected front in political struggle today. But then perhaps not given Boris Johnson's joke about Thatcher closing the mines. Amid the sound and the fury, a Tory was always going to pop up and say "Actually, Labour closed more mines than the Tories did in the 1980s." And indeed, one did. It happens to be true as well. King Coal began his decline before Wilson, and so it can be presented - and it suits the Tories - to rewrite the 1980s as a coup de grace for an industry that didn't have a future.

As this comes up infrequently, it's useful to have a ready response. And the matter is a simple one. Coal seams don't last forever, and there is a finite amount of the stuff in the ground. Pits become exhausted and/or uneconomical eventually, and so mining ceases. The pit closure programme began under Macmillan in 1958 and carried on when Labour came to office. This, however, was not a slash and burn affair. Because of the strength of the labour movement, Macmillan's penchant for patrician Toryism and desire to keep the class peace, and the booming economy, the closure of pits were accompanied by generous redundancy packages, retraining (sometimes encouraged by the NUM), and investment to replace what was lost.

For example, consider the closure of Michael Colliery is East Fife in 1967. There was an unsuccessful struggle to keep the pit open, but as it was shutting down Wilson's government were able to attract a major alternative employer to the area. The economic wellbeing of the local community was assured, and the coherence of the union movement was preserved.

Contrast this with Thatcher's pit closure programme. This was understood at the outset as a class war offensive against the bedrock of the British labour movement. Having already thrown millions out of work to weaken manufacturing unions and use mass unemployment consciously as a labour discipline measure, the Tories succeeded in defeating the miners and destroying dozens of communities in the process. there was no investment, no retraining, and no hope for better futures as the Tories tore the hearts out of towns and villages across the country.

One programme of closures was about keeping the balance of class forces in the country by preserving full employment. And the other was a question of setting a new balance, one in which the state actively worked to tip the balance irreversibly toward capital. This was with no regard to the people affected and the ways of life destroyed. Next time Johnson tries to raise a chuckle about this bleak period in British history, just think of the tens of thousands of lives that were ruined then. And the hundreds of thousands of lives he's actively ruining now. To get their own way, for the Tories no price is too high for other people to pay.

Image Credit


Blissex said...

«One programme of closures was about keeping the balance of class forces in the country by preserving full employment. And the other was a question of setting a new balance, one in which the state actively worked to tip the balance irreversibly toward capital. This was with no regard to the people affected and the ways of life destroyed.»

And that is a very good point: the "second harrowing of the north" (which is why I call those the "pushed behind" areas) was done precisely to reduce to misery the areas "infected" by labor unions and done as brutally as possible, with a thoroughly colonial attitude, which has always been used by the "wessician" english elites against their own servant classes and not just against those of the overseas colonies.

But what I must add is that I am outraged by the "leftoids" who romanticize miners and mining because not only seams mined for centuries eventually become infertile, but also:

* Coal is polluting and poisonous, and good riddance. There is some research towards "clean coal", but it is far from obvious it works well and it is economically competitive with

* Part of the reason for the ferociously nasty "second harrowing of the north" was that instead of merely asking for more money and better working conditions, the "syndicalist" adventurist wing of the NUM really believe that "one last heave" would bring about the revolution, and that the answer to "who governs Britain?" would soon become "Supreme Commissar Of The People For Life Arthur Scargill and his mates", and therefore "The Establishment" felt their very existence being threatened and compacted around a (There Is No Alternative") plan to fully extirpate the threat.

* Working the mines was horrible and dangerous. With modern technology and greater expense it can be made better, but the dream of most miners, many of whom died of respiratory problems or lost limbs, was for their children to be spared mine work. Thanks to the foolishness of the adventurist wing, and the ferocious reaction of "The Establishment", their children were spared mine work, but also most chances of getting good jobs.

There is no doubt that UK industry, including mining, was in decline since at least the Edwardian era, due to a combination of asset stripping by its owners to fund luxurious "gentlefolk" lifestyles, and in part the short-sightedness of the representatives of their brutalized employees. If things had evolved more like in northern european countries and less like in the USA, the transition would have been much less painful for the proletarians.

Blissex said...

JM Keynes "The economic consequences of mr. Churchill" (1925)

«Why should coal miners suffer a lower standard of life than other classes of labour? They may be lazy, good-for-nothing fellows who do not work so hard or so long as they should. But is there any evidence that they are more lazy or more good-for-nothing than other people?
On grounds of social justice, no case can be made out for reducing. the wages of the miners. They are the victims of the economic Juggernaut. They represent in the flesh the "fundamental adjustments" engineered by the Treasury and the Bank of England to satisfy the impatience of the City fathers to bridge the "moderate gap" between $4.40 and $4.86. They (and others to follow) are the "moderate sacrifice" still necessary to ensure the stability of the gold standard. The plight of the coal miners is the first, but not — unless we are very lucky — the last, of the Economic Consequences of Mr. Churchill.»

William Manchester "The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill Visions of Glory 1874-1932", 1983, Sphere Books

«Up to this point, Churchill's sympathies had been with the miners. Labour didn't appreciate that; when the coal subsidy forced him to cut health and unemployment insurance appropriations, there were cries of 'Robber!' from the Opposition benches, to which he replied that for one who had frequently been called a 'murderer,' this was 'a sort of promotion.' Unknown to them, he had sent young Harold Macmillan to Newcastle, asking him to report on the situation there, and on April 10 Macmillan - who felt it 'a great honour to be taken into your confidence' - wrote describing 'the appalling conditions in this area.' He thought that 'the patience and the .endurance of the workers as a whole is really remarkable. Certainly adversity brings out greater virtues than prosperity in all classes, but peculiarly so among the working people.' Churchill was optimistic; he felt certain that a way to reward these virtues would be found. After all, those on both sides were Englishmen. Speaking to the Belfast Chamber of Commerce he said that he did not share the opinion, so widespread abroad, particularly in the United States, 'that Britain is down and out, that the foundations of our commerce and industrial greatness have been sapped; that the stamina of our people is impaired; that the workmen are lazy; that our employers are indolent; that our Empire is falling to pieces. I have never been able to take that view.' He assured his audience that the justifiable grievances of 'our much-abused coal miners' would be peacefully resolved.»

JK Galbraith "Money: whence it came, where it went", 1975

«The error they defended was in restoring the pound to its pre-war gold content of 123.27 grains of fine gold, its old exchange rate of $4.87. In 1920, the pound had fallen to as low as $3.40 in gold-based dollars. [...] So, other things equal, British coal, textiles and other manufactured toods could only become competitive at the new exchange rates if their prices were to come down by approximately 10 per cent. A very uncomfortable process. The case of coal was especially disagreeable, for the pits, still in private hands, were poorly equipped, often indifferently managed and manned by an ill-used, angry and highly intelligent labour force. Lower prices for coal would require lower wages. Agreeing that there would be problems in the coal industry, Churchill attributed these difficulties to the poor condition of the business. In a bold substitution of metaphor for thought he averred that the exchange rate had no more to do with the troubles of coal than with the Gulf Stream.»

Blissex said...

Andre Marr "A history of modern Britain"

«Priestley inspired other writers, notably George Orwell who famously took the road to Wigan Pier (it does not exist) on foot, three years later, as well as photographers and early documentary film-makers who followed him deep into wrecked Britain. The grim condition of old industrial Britain was only tentatively addressed before the war. The coalmining industry, still key to Britain’s economy, was a mass of independent, under-invested companies, using technology which was hilariously old-fashioned by American or German standards. Britain’s miners orked with picks, wearing only trousers in stifling heat and near-darkness, for low wages and without any kind of job security. Back in the thirties, there seemed neither possibility nor prospect of any real change. This was just how things were. Yet evidence of catastrophic decline was piling up. Once, investment and innovation had been at the heart of British heavy industry. No longer. [...] The Scottish poet
Edwin Muir bitterly describes the small industrial town of Cathcart, now effectively part of Glasgow, in his Scottish Journey. He found ‘a debased landscape in which every growing thing seemed to be poisoned and stunted, a landscape which involuntarily roused evil thoughts and seemed to be made to be the scene of murders and rapes’. He comes across abandoned coal pits where along black slag paths ‘one would see stunted naked boys bathing in the filthy pools, from which rose a smell of various acids and urine’.»
«Arthur Scargill seemed to be relishing the fight as much as the Prime Minister. We last glimpsed him in the miners’ confrontation with Heath, when he had led the flying pickets at Saltley coke depot, and then tangling with Kinnock during Labour’s civil war. Some sense of his unique mix of revolutionary simplicity and wit comes from an exchange he had with the Welsh miners’ leader Dai Francis, when he called to ask for flying pickets to come to Birmingham and help at the coke depot. Francis asked when they were needed:
‘Tomorrow, Saturday.’
Dai paused: ‘But Wales are playing Scotland at Cardiff Arms Park.’
There was a silence and Scargill replied, ‘But Dai, the working class are playing the ruling class at Saltley.’

Many found Scargill inspiring; many others found him frankly scary. He had been a Communist and retained strong Marxist views and a penchant for denouncing anyone who disagreed with him as a traitor. Some found a megalomaniac atmosphere at his Barnsley headquarters, already known
as Arthur’s Castle. Kim Howells, then a Communist and later a New Labour minister, visited him there and was taken aback to find him sitting at ‘this Mussolini desk with a great space in front of it’ and behind him a huge painting of himself on the back of a lorry, posed like Lenin, urging picketing workers in London to overthrow the ruling class. Howells thought anyone who could put up a painting like that was nuts and returned to express his fears to the Welsh miners. ‘And of course the South Wales executive almost to a man agreed with me. But then they said, “He’s the only one we’ve got, see, boy. The Left has decided.”’»

BCFG said...

I live in a former mining village in the North and the outcome of the ’harrowing’ has been a huge gentrification, and let me tell you one thing about these non mining people; they are the biggest planet fuckers in human history.

Growing up in a mining/former mining village I can also say that if the ruling class were concerned about their imminent overthrow they were simply being astonishingly paranoid, the politics were somewhere between the BNP and Hitler at the best of times (unbelievable bigotry mixed with a socialist sense of grievance) . There was the odd muttering of disobedience but as we see with populism throughout the world today, disobedience and fake rebellion is at the core of their identity.

The other thing to mention is that the main problem with the working class in Britain, both now and historically, is that they value hard work too highly, and many of their idiotic notions stem from this idiotic virtue, of which they are so so so proud.

The idea that mining communities hated mining, seems such a bourgeois liberal idea to my mind. It is like the conceit that grammar school, well educated people end up in the office and the dunces end up in the mines. That inference was always there and always resented. Mining was seen as a proper job, while the others were simply pen pushers. Having said that I am sure the mothers were happy to see their children end up escaping that existence.

Speaking of the mothers, I don’t know what it was like where you lived but when I was growing up we very much lived in a matriarchal society. Which I fully recommend by the way!