Nick Jones

If Britain is to avoid the threat of power black outs, the government has little alternative but to give the go ahead to a new generation of nuclear and coal-fired power stations.  But how could a country, which Arthur Scargill says has “over 1,000 years of coal reserves”, end up facing an energy shortfall?  Nicholas Jones says the 25th anniversary of the 1984-5 miners’ strike (March 12, 2009) provides an ironic backdrop at a critical moment.

Years of indecision about Britain's looming energy deficit are a tragic but salutary reminder of the utlimate futility of the 1984-5 miners' strike and the Conservatives' wilful destruction of a once formidable industry. 

The 25th anniversary of the dispute also serves to underline the failure of successive governments to exploit the full potential of indigenous coal reserves.

It was the massive closure programme of 1992, when Michael Heseltine forced through the closure of thirty-one of the remaining fifty pits with the loss of 30,000 jobs, which finally broke the back of the industry. Short-term profits being generated by the “dash for gas” were such an enticing prospect that there was no longer any incentive for the electricity generators to commission new, clean-burning coal-fired power stations.  

What has been so tragic about the miners’ fate was the sense of finality surrounding their struggle. Because the cost of re-opening closed pits has remained so prohibitive, there was never any real hope of restoring lost jobs or shattered communities.   

While there is no place for wishful thinking, not least in the middle of a recession, there is some point in projecting what might have been, if only for the help it gives in learning the lessons of history and in understanding the scale of the missed opportunities. To coincide with the 20th anniversary of the strike, I floated the idea of a radio programme which would examine what might have happened if only there had been a settlement to the strike in 1984.   

What would the industry have looked like in 2004 if it had been possible for Britain to retain the world lead which the National Coal Board had established in the technology of deep-mining; in the potential for the clean burning of coal; and for research into the possibility of producing oil from coal? 

I found a couple of producers who saw the merit of an “If only…” investigation but a commission was never forthcoming because the editors of the day favoured what they thought was the far sexier idea of a programme which posed the question: “What if Arthur Scargill had won?”   I had to admit defeat: I knew only too well that a story line of that kind was far too fanciful to sustain. 

The might of the establishment and the forces of the state were full-square behind Margaret Thatcher in her determination to ensure that the strike ended in defeat and the initial failure to hold a pit head ballot had left the miners divided about the validity of their struggle. 

Nonetheless I found myself fired up by the task of trying to expose the calamitous destruction of a nationalised industry which, in some respects, had truly been a partnership between managers and workers and which had been at the forefront of innovation. Pre-1984, before the fight against pit closures brought a halt to co-operation between the National Union of Mineworkers and the NCB, most independent observers believed there was undoubtedly a bright future for the industry, if only it could reduce the number exhausted and loss-making pits. 

In those pre-strike years the UK was leading the way in the development of deep mining and the future utilisation of coal.  Tests at Grimethorpe were indicating that fluidised-bed combustion could increase power station efficiency by up to fifty per cent; the NCB’s scientists were stimulating world-wide interest with their experiments to produce liquid fuels, chemical feedstock and substitute natural gas; and there had been the promise of government support for the construction of a liquefaction plant at the Point of Ayr colliery in North Wales. 

More to the point, what my inquiries revealed, was that if there had been a settlement to the strike in 1984 – and if Heseltine had not forced through the 1992 closure programme – UK coal output in 2004 could easily have been exceeding 50 million tons a year and might well have been sustaining a workforce of 20,000.    

What the NCB needed in 1984, if there was to have been any hope of negotiated end to the strike, was agreement from the NUM to deliver security of supply in return for a three or perhaps four-year pay deal linked to the retail prices index.   Once the dispute passed the point of no return and the government’s sole objective was to increase the number of “new faces” abandoning the strike, the die had been cast. 

Pioneering work on the development of clean-coal technology became one of the many casualties, nothing more than an historical footnote to the most divisive industrial dispute since the general strike of 1926. But yet again research for my “If Only…” scenario was quite positive.

If there had been continued long-term investment in new pits and in the construction of a new generation of coal-fired power stations, there was every indication that Britain would have taken a commanding lead in technological developments like the capture of CO2 emissions.    

What so strengthened my argument was the unity which I myself had witnessed when Joe Gormley and Derek Ezra used their final appearances at the NUM’s 1981 conference to pledge their full support for research into the future utilisation of coal.  There was heady talk of what could be achieved if coal could be combusted at higher rates of heat and how ground up coal could be mixed with a solvent at high temperatures to produce a form of liquid crude.     

Any thought of continued collaboration between the NUM and the NCB was smashed to smithereens once the union began its fight to the death over pit closures.  Nonetheless I was reminded of the optimism of the Gormley-Ezra era during Arthur Scargill’s confrontation last year with environmentalists campaigning against the construction of a new coal-fired station at Kingsnorth in Kent. 

Placards declaring “No new coal” adorned the Camp for Climate Change in August 2008 and Scargill faced implacable opposition when he argued the case for a new and integrated energy policy based not on nuclear power but on coal and renewables. Scargill claimed that he had always been the champion of clean coal and had been campaigning for years for carbon capture, not just for coal but also for gas and oil-fired power stations.   

While the NUM’s honorary president insisted he had every justification in defending his green credentials, the union has had to play catch up and one inevitable consequence of the devastation of the coal industry, was that the mineworkers lost any leverage they once had over government policy on the environment.     

Nicholas Jones ( www.nicholasjones.org.uk ) reported the 1984-5 strike for BBC radio.  Jones is among the contributors to Shafted: The Media, The Miners’ Strike and The Aftermath (£9.99p) to be published in March by the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom.           ( www.cpbf.org.uk/shafted )    10.1.2009