The Miners: Thatcher vs Wilson

UPDATE 4/1/14

I’ve been reading the stories over the last couple of days in the wake of the latest archive releases under the “30 year rule” which have been picked up so excitedly by some in the media.  This blog from last year has started getting a lot of hits again as a result, so I’ll just say a couple of things in response to the hype.

They say that Thatcher threatened to “crush” the miners by using the Army.  But reading the papers it turns out the Army would have driven trucks carrying coal and food – some crackdown.  They say there was a “secret plan” to shut another 70 pits.  Well, most businesses do their planning in secret – they’d be pretty stupid not to.  On the issue of the extra 70 pits, this was planned over a 15-year period, and not at the pace of the original Macgregor Plan.  To conflate the two plans is either stupidity or dishonesty, or when it’s a Labour spokesman doing it, a lot of both. 

I thought there was very little new about the miners’ strike in the latest releases, and unless there is some bombshell in the 1985 papers when they are released next year, the Left’s conspiracy theories about the miners’ strike will continue to look daft.  Whatever people think they can uncover from the latest release, some things are never going to change: no amount of blethering is ever going to make the NCB retrospectively profitable, or the NUM retrospectively democratic.  The original blog continues below.

Put any search into Google about the strike of 1984-5 and you will get all sorts of stuff about it being “the beginning of the end of coal mining”, or a “death knell”, or you can read similar judgments on most news sites in obituaries of Margaret Thatcher.  It has become accepted in the media without any critical examination that Margaret Thatcher killed coal mining in the UK.

Hoever, based on these figures from the government about 290 mines closed under Wilson in all his time in office, and about 160 under Thatcher.  Because the figures are based on year end totals of pits operating, it’s not possible to be precise, but the relative scale of those numbers is clear.  So why isn’t Wilson execrated by the Left for his part in the decline of coal mining?

I remember well the tragedy of the miners’ strike of 1984/5, which was a response to the planned closure of just 23 pits under the MacGregor Plan, but not any upheaval in the 1960s when a much larger programme passed without the level of unrest we saw later on.  One reason may be that in fact the programme of closures could and should have been much more rapid.

The argument about the impact of the closures of the 1980s will go on.  But it should be informed by an appreciation of the huge losses incurred by the National Coal Board, the buying-off of the National Union of Mineworkers over many years by successive governments, and the panicky politicking of Labour in office.  The truth is that while Wilson closed a huge number of mines, he left many open which he might have closed, and his reputation should suffer on two counts which appear initially contradictory.

I wanted to remind myself of the flavour of politics of the Wilson era.  For all his faults, Wilson is an under-rated Prime Minister, who had to contend with tremendous forces of social change, economic change (some of that self-inflicted decline, true), and international change.  He was attacked for being gimmicky, for liking an expedient, but at least it was a testament to his speed of thought that he was able to keep pulling rabbits out of hats.  As an instinctive politician he was far more skillful than anyone I can think of active now.  It is impossible to imagine Callaghan or George Brown doing any better, or Maudling.  Heath became a proven failure.  Macleod, Healey or Powell are all great “what ifs?” who weren’t close enough to the summit at that time.

As it goes with party leaders, so it goes too with diarists and memoir-writers.  It is still the case, nearly 40 years after their publication, that nobody has written anything to touch Richard Crossman’s three-volume Diaries of a Cabinet Minister as an impression of government and politics.  Alistair Campbell or Chris Mullin perhaps run him close.  So naturally I turned to this long-term friend and close collaborator of Wilson to see what he’d recorded about coal.  Crossman never had direct responsibility for anything to do with the industry, but his “political antennae” were receptive (although they often led him to perform bizarre looking U-turns) and he grew in Cabinet seniority over the course of the government.  A few extracts from his diaries, detailing Cabinet or Cabinet Committee discussions, follow.

June 4th 1965: “We were confronted with a very characteristic recommendation from Fred Lee, our trade-union Minister of Power.  His main concern seemed to be that we should on no account give any kind of tapering subsidies to help declining coalfields such as those in Scotland and South Wales.  It’s extraordinary how a Department can get a Minister down.  It would have been difficult to conceive nine months ago that Mr Lee would have been opposed to any kind of help for the coalminers and blind to the fact that tapering subsidies are politically essential”.

So almost 20 years before the MacGregor Plan, Labour were grappling with the reality that mining was in decline and that subsidies during run-down were required to make it politically palatable.  In the event, subsidies were approved, indeed almost forced on Lee, by Cabinet, although far from being “tapering” relief, they became a constant feature as mine closures were delayed for political reasons.

August 4th 1965: “After I had left Cabinet yesterday afternoon there had been a deadlock on coal prices [charged to the consumer], so the problem had been pushed back to EDC [the top Cabinet economics policy committee] this afternoon.  Callaghan had all the logic and arguments on his side.  They were rehearsed by Fred Lee, the Minister of Power, who reminded us that last March he had asked for the necessary increase and it had been postponed because of the municipal elections.  He had asked for it again in June and on that occasion it had been postponed because of the incomes policy. ‘Every postponement,’ he said, ‘costs us several million pounds a week.  For God’s sake give us the increase quickly and in the right places.  Put coal prices up in the unremunerative areas – Wales and Scotland and Lancashire – while keeping them steady where the coal actually makes a profit, in the East Midlands and the West Riding’.  George Brown’s reply was that at the present juncture an increase would be tantamount to political suicide…Callaghan turned round and said, ‘Some time we have to face reality.  That time has come now.  We ought to put the prices up and keep the wages steady’.”

Crossman then records a raging row between George Brown, opposing price increases, and Callaghan, favouring them, before Crossman asked if:

“‘…we could make this year’s £50m deficit [about £850m today] at the Coal Board part of the general write-off?’  Callaghan, forced to reply, said ‘Well, of course it’s technically possible’.  So I then remarked, ‘Well, in that case, I am on George Brown’s side’.  When he’d finished the count [of votes round the table] George Brown said he had a majority on his side…the seven to five majority for economic madness but for political sanity.”

Clearly, the economic case for coal industry rationalisation was overwhelming, to eliminate losses which, accruing to a nationalised industry, were eating up the wealth of the whole nation.  On September 1st 1965, Crossman notes

“…poor Fred Lee was left speechless, with the vast Coal Board losses piling up.”

Those are from the first volume of Diaries of a Cabinet Minister, and in the period covered by the second volume the Wilson government accepts that a plan of closures must proceed.  The plan for rationalising the industry was debated in the Commons on July 18th 1967, Crossman writing (as Leader of the House) of Labour MPs from mining constituencies that:

“…provided they could make their protest these miners felt that they were bound to support the Government in an action which really meant the destruction of the mining industry.  What these miners’ MPs showed was a not very edifying loyalty, because people should not be as loyal as that to a Government which is causing the total ruin of their industry.  As the night went on I was pleased that they were so pleased to have me there but I was also shocked by their pathetic lack of fight”.

This is a revealing passage, because it illustrates that even such a renowned intellectual as Crossman supposed that an industry should be sustained indefinitely in defiance of the facts, and for all the venom Labour MPs produce these days about Thatcher or the fate of the pits, they did little at a time when they were in power.  In the event, Wilson delayed the closures on political grounds because he didn’t want to add to the usual increase in unemployment over the following winter.  However Crossman notes on November 21st 1967 Dick Marsh’s (now the Minister of Power) protest that pit closures were justified because

“…you can’t sell any more coal and we’ve already got some 30 million tons of stocks piled up and there’s no more room to pile coal”.

On February 12th 1968, there is some passing discussion of the proposal to build a coal-fired aluminium smelter in Scotland (“economically ruinous in the sense that the [coal] price would have to be subsidized”).  As an alternative to the smelter as a means of eliminating large piles of surplus coal, Wilson was considering building a new coal-fired power station alongside the nuclear one at Seaton Carew despite

“figures showing that a coal-fired station would load us up for 30 years with inefficient plant and cost far more…Of course in economic terms this proposal was a scandal.”

Lord Robens was Chairman of the NCB, and was part of that generation of Labour politicians like Wilson, Callaghan, and Brown who seemed destined for great things.  But he lacked stomach for the fight, and took the NCB job, where before long he was known as “Old King Coal” in a chauffered Daimler with NCB1 for a licence plate.   In the 10 years this Labour grandee and former darling of the union barons held the post, between 1961 and 1971, about 300,000 miners lost their jobs and around 400 pits closed.  Many of those that remained did so, as the extracts above suggest, in an equivocal relationship with economic reality.

As a consequence of the1967 Fuel White Paper, Robens expected that coal mining would have ended in Scotland, Wales and Durham by 1980. The number of jobs in the industry would contract from 387,000 in 1967 to 65,000 by 1980.  At the start of the 1984 strike, there were still almost 200,000 miners.  Some of that is because there was a brief rally for coal after the 1973 oil crisis, but it was mostly because of union power and the political weakness of Wilson and Heath.  The industry still required subsidy, despite the challenges to other fuel sources posed by the oil crisis.  Figures below are for the 10 years after 1973, in £m, from a written answer in Hansard in 1984:

1973–74     239.8
1974–75     46.1
1975–76     —
1976–77     11.1
1977–78     24.0
1978–79     117.7
1979–80     189.2
1980–81     175.0
1981–82     455.1
1982–83     386.0

By the time Thatcher came to power, she was faced by trade unions drunk with hubris, who had tested the mettle of Parliamentary democracy in the preceding years; and a National Coal Board that had for too long been protected from the realities of modern economics.  In the 60s, the impact of pit closures had been muffled by an economy and employment transitioning into new areas.  But the fundamental weakness of Labour policy at the same time, of failing to devalue sterling, of succumbing to the unions, of pursuing statist models of economic direction, all these damned the economy to the stagnation of the 1970s.  Labour damned the people displaced from the coal industry when eventually final rationalisation took place to a far greater hardship than need have been the case.  I can understand why feelings run high about Thatcher in former coalmining areas, but the fury blinds those who express it to the failures of Labour in power over many years.  Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to see coal mining return to areas  it has left, if it can be done economically and without burdening the state.  The proud traditions of those communities, stretching back generations, are exactly the sorts of things the Tory Party should be seeking to preserve where possible.

A final point: there has been a lot of coverage of the reaction in the old Durham coalfield to Thatcher’s death.  This PDF lists the closures of Durham pits, year by year from 1950-93.  15 pits closed under Thatcher.  Under Wilson, 58.  I mentioned the nuclear plant at Seaton Carew, which happens to be on the edge of the Durham coalfield, and it operates to this day.  Wilson never built the coal-fired power station he intended as a compensation to the Durham miners who felt betrayed by the construction of a nuclear plant.

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2 Responses to The Miners: Thatcher vs Wilson

  1. A GROOME says:


  2. Dwee says:

    It’s open for all to find, but they don’t want to hear the truth; they are interested only in reinforcing their prejudices about Margaret Thatcher. Harold Wilson closed four times as many pits in the Durham coal field as MT, but just try and find a miner who will admit that particular truth. They have no resentment at being made redundant by champagne socialists – it’s only a crime if it’s done by the Conservatives.

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