“If only”…if only there had been a deal in the 1980s the coal industry might have survived, says Nicholas Jones, who was a BBC labour and industrial correspondent during the 1984-85 miners’ strike.
I returned to Yorkshire for BBC Newsnight to report on the industry’s final demise, and to visit the UK’s very last deep mine that is still producing coal, but only for another few weeks.
Deep mining of coal will cease by the end of the year when the Kellingley pit near Castleford closes in early December.
As I stood in the yard, looking across as coal poured from the pit shaft conveyor, I was almost lost for words, sensing that an historic moment was only weeks away.
“I can hardly believe it…” were my opening words as I described the imminent demise of the Big K, the Yorkshire super pit that once employed 3,000 men, and was the biggest deep mine in Europe.
Kellingley is the last of the three privatised pits that managed to hang on this year despite mounting losses, and intense competition from imported coal.
The two other remaining deep mines, Hatfield, near Doncaster, and Thoresby in Nottinghamshire, both ceased production in July, and are currently being dismantled.
Kellingley, like the two other pits, has vast reserves of coal but could not compete in the face of cheaper imports; the lack of investment; increases in carbon tax on generating electricity from coal; and the switch to green energy.
Coal heated our homes, fuelled the industrial revolution, and over the centuries provided millions of job in coalfields across the United Kingdom, but deep mining is no more, and a way of life is about to end.
I am still an “If only” man: I have always believed that if only there had been an agreement in the 1980s to ensure the long-term delivery of coal to the power stations, a slimmed down industry might well have survived, and the UK would have had a chance of continuing to lead the world in deep mining, and latterly in the clean burning of coal.
My belief in the potential for coal’s long-term viability, if only there had been a negotiated settlement rather than the disaster of the year-long miners’ strike, was reinforced when I went back to interview some of those who had key roles in the events of 1984-85.
Malcolm Edwards, commercial director for the National Coal Board and later British Coal, is convinced that if the National Union of Mineworkers had been prepared to reach a deal guaranteeing the delivery of long-term contracts for the coal-fired power stations, there was every likelihood that the core of the industry could still be operating today with 30 to 40 profitable pits.
The longer the strike went on – and it lasted a year – the greater the damage to the industry, and as the dispute dragged on Mr Edwards said the management realised they were losing the chance of ever getting a deal to ensure the survival of deep mining.
Neil Kinnock was elected Labour Party leader the year before the strike started, and he met Arthur Scargill within weeks of taking office. He said they agreed to campaign together for a new plan for coal, but that understanding was shattered the following March when Mr Scargill and the NUM leadership backed a strike without a pit head ballot.
Lord Kinnock acknowledges he failed to do enough to use his influence as party leader, and should have gone to the union’s executive to argue the case for a pit head ballot.
“The one thing I could and should have done, and regret not doing to my dying day is to make incessantly and repeatedly the call I made several times privately, and made several times publicly, for a ballot. That would have categorically changed the circumstances and produced a process of negotiation, despite Scargill’s reluctance to do so.
“Had we not had that devastating strike and its after effects, there would still be a viable coal industry.”
By the early 1990s a slimmed down British Coal was still operating 50 pits. Output and efficiency were at record levels, but the privatised electricity generators were switching to cheaper imported coal.
In 1992 Michael Heseltine, then President of the Board of Trade, announced a devastating round of 31 pit closures and compulsory redundancies. Arthur Scargill and the other miners’ union leaders were back on the streets, this time not picketing but marching through London evoking widespread public sympathy.
To this day Lord Heseltine believes there was no alternative but to go ahead with the closures when the UK’s big power companies had turned away from deep-mined coal and were also investing instead in new gas-fired power stations because the returns were higher.
“I did everything within my legal and reasonable powers to persuade them but they simply said we can buy coal cheaper on the markets and no deal was done, so there was no market for anything other than a fraction of British deep-mined coal. That led me to the uncomfortable, controversial decision that I had to close 31 pits.”
When the remaining pits were privatised they were effectively consigned to a slow death, having to make do with short-term contracts that meant they lacked investment and did not have the capacity to develop new coal faces.
UK Coal, which owned Kellingley and Thoresby, said the two pits had been in financial difficulty for some months.
A failure to get further government support forced the Hatfield pit, near Doncaster, into receivership. Production stopped in July and the few men kept on to dismantle the pit face an uncertain future in a region that once boasted the highest manual earnings in the country.
Dave Douglass, a former Hatfield NUM pit delegate and secretary, who spent his life at the pit, believes the industry could easily have survived and continued to provide well-paid jobs.
“The only way that a non-professional working class lad could earn a decent living, buy a house and get a decent car and holiday was by being a miner, and being a miner was a very proud thing to be. It is absolutely heart breaking we are in a situation where this industry has been taken away for pure ideological spite.”
Dismantling the pit and sealing off the shafts is the saddest task of all for Derwin Martin, another miner who spent his working life at Hatfield, where he started as an apprentice in 1978, and is spending his final weeks clearing the site.
“It’s been my livelihood. It’s all I know, and that goes for a lot of the men. It was the camaraderie. Everyone wanted to work at a coal mine. You came to work and enjoyed it. I enjoyed it all my life and I would have loved to continue until my retirement age. Everyone joined the industry thinking they would get to a retirement age.
“It has come to a point where coal is not needed, but in 1979-80, even up to 1984, it was one of the major, major power industries and everyone wanted coal. Unfortunately now things have progressed to a point where coal is no longer required.”
So coal was king?
“Yes, coal was king. I am distraught, to be honest. I don’t know what I will do for the rest of my life. It is the end of the road unfortunately, the death knell has sounded.”
Nicholas Jones was named 1986 Industrial Journalist of the Year by the Industrial Society for his BBC coverage of the 1984-85 miners’ strike and its aftermath.