Coal used to be everywhere in Britain. Without it, there would have been no foundries, no trains and no gas lamps. Just after the First World War, there were over a million miners. They exercised a powerful influence on the labour movement even, and perhaps especially, after they had left the mines. Anyone looking at strikes in Birmingham factories will come across men who had started their working lives underground in South Wales and migrated to escape unemployment between the wars. One of them, ‘Teg’ Bowen, eventually became lord mayor of the city. ‘Moss’ Evans, the son of another, became leader of the Transport and General Workers’ Union. Jeremy Paxman approaches this topic with characteristic panache. His book covers almost every aspect of British history in the last couple of hundred years. It is punctuated by accounts of those moments – usually a result of pit accidents or strikes – when miners attracted national attention. Paxman is, however, as interested in the use of coal as in its production. He describes the fortunes amassed by those people, often aristocrats, who owned land from which coal was extracted: the third Marquess of Bute (1847–1900), for instance, was said to be the richest man in the world. He also shows how indifferent the rich and powerful could be to those who dug coal. During one strike, George V was more disturbed by the possibility that pit ponies might be left untended than he was by the plight of the miners.
The son of a naval officer, Paxman is particularly good on the role that coal-fuelled ships played in establishing the hegemony of the Royal Navy, and thus also of the British Empire, in the late 19th century. Coal meant that ships became faster and better protected than they had been previously (the coal itself sometimes stopped projectiles), though one drawback was that they needed to put in at coaling stations, which meant that their movements were more predictable to enemy ships and also that their crews spent more time ashore. The ships of Nelson’s navy, a century earlier, were almost continuously at sea.
Elegantly written and often very funny, this book is studded with acidic character sketches. The footnotes alone are worth reading and tell us, for example, that London’s remaining 1,300 gas lamps are tended by four lighters who travel on motorbikes. At times, Paxman’s capacity to combine confident generalisation with vivid detail reminded me of A J P Taylor, though I suspect that this might be partly because some of his historical knowledge does, in fact, derive from Taylor’s work. Paxman also has a Taylor-esque propensity to skate over awkward complexities that might slow the pace of the narrative.
Huw Beynon and Ray Hudson have produced a very different kind of work on a subject that they have lived with for much of their lives. It is about the miners of Durham and South Wales. It describes how the closure of almost all pits in the 1980s and 1990s meant the end of the social institutions that had been built around the mines. In former mining areas, the young sometimes had little to do: in one Welsh village, the authors say, they could be found smoking dope and drinking cider while sitting on the ‘dole wall’ behind the bus station. Up to a sixth of the population of some places took anti-depressants, while mental illness added to the physical ailments from which many former miners suffered. This suited the Department of Health and Social Security, since men defined as suffering from long-term illnesses were removed from the unemployment statistics.
Former miners often remember a world of discipline, danger and mutual loyalty. The terms in which they talk put one in mind of military veterans, though – intriguingly, in view of the bitter conflicts on picket lines – one ex-miner compared his working life to that of a policeman. Beynon and Hudson, however, are unsentimental about the lives of miners and sceptical of the notion that the nationalisation of the mines in 1947 produced a golden age for those who worked in them. Mines were horrible places and miners were, except during a brief period between the successful strikes of the early 1970s and the failed one of 1984–5, poorly paid. Few went underground if they had much choice in the matter and the most shocking revelation in this book is that the local authorities in Durham deliberately discouraged new industries in the area because they knew that young men would not become miners if they had any reasonable alternative.
The authors intend, I think, to trouble their readers, but some of the ways in which their book troubled me were to do with their approach. Their intimacy with those about whom they write gives their book an emotional power but it also raises questions. The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) remained influential in mining areas after the pits had closed and it has sometimes made itself into a curator of memory. Beynon and Hudson often see their topic through the eyes of those associated with the NUM. This becomes a particular problem when they deal with what became, in many ways, the defining event for the NUM: the strike of 1984–5. Beynon and Hudson adopt the language of the NUM. They describe working miners as ‘scabs’. They admire the ‘discipline’ of a miner who worked alongside a man who had broken the strike without addressing a single word to him. What does such ostracism say about the ‘community’ that former miners now regard as having been so important?
Perhaps because this book has been so long in the making, the authors do not make much use of the official documents that have been released in the last few years. This means, in particular, that they lay a heavy emphasis on the report that Nicholas Ridley (later a minister in the Thatcher government) drew up in 1977 for tackling strikes in nationalised industries, extracts of which were leaked to the press. Ridley – a drawling, aristocratic right-winger – was a pantomime villain for the Left, but he was never a particularly important figure in government. Of course, the Tories wanted to break the NUM – it would be strange if a Conservative government did not want to weaken organised labour and amazing if Conservatives at the time had forgiven the miners for bringing down Edward Heath with their strike in 1974. There was nothing particularly ‘Thatcherite’ about this desire. It was felt across much of the British establishment. But this does not mean that the Conservatives came to power in 1979 with a concrete plan to defeat the miners.
Even after its mind was concentrated by a threatened strike in February 1981, the Conservative government did not have a coherent strategy. Its policies, particularly the stockpiling of coal at power stations, were often designed to deter a strike rather than ‘win’ one. John Hoskyns, who ran the Number 10 Policy Unit from 1979 until early 1982, wrote to Thatcher, ‘The main value of a willingness to take on the miners is its deterrent effect: just like the nuclear bomb, you hope never to have to use it.’ The person who really defined Tory policy was not Ridley or Thatcher but Arthur Scargill, who became leader of the NUM in 1982. Scargill wanted a strike. He launched it soon after the Tories had won a large majority in Parliament and in a manner that divided the miners themselves, ensuring that a significant minority stayed at work. The Tories could not believe their luck. Scargill was, as Chris Patten put it, ‘the gift that kept on giving’.
In one sense, Scargill was right. The government and the National Coal Board (NCB) were going to close pits. But they would have been closed more slowly if it had not been for the strike, which also had an odd effect on the way in which the history of mining is seen. It came to loom large in the collective imagination of the Left, and I suspect that the number of historians working on this single event is now greater than the number working on all other aspects of the history of British mining. The NUM often seemed – like the French army after the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954 – to be building its identity around the celebration of what had, in fact, been a crushing defeat.
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In many ways, the age of coal was terrible. Thousands died in mining accidents and thousands more of diseases that they had contracted in pits. When a slag heap at Aberfan collapsed on top of the village primary school in 1966, at the inquest the coroner talked of ‘asphyxia and multiple injuries’, but one miner shouted that the words that he wanted on his child’s death certificate were ‘buried alive by the NCB’. And yet the British remember this age with a curious nostalgia. What could be more reassuringly familiar than the dense, smoky fogs of Sherlock Holmes’s London or the fact that the detective keeps his cigars in the coal scuttle? In Mike Leigh’s film High Hopes, the disappearance of coal is used as a metaphor for the rise of the rootless, yuppie society of the 1980s. ‘Mum, look what they’ve done to your coal hole,’ says one character when she sees how the new owners of a former council house have adapted the cellar. A Hovis television advertisement of 2008, celebrating the last hundred years of British history, featured miners, along with V-E Day parties and a Churchill speech, though, revealingly, it depicted a scene of a picket line in 1984 rather than of an actual working mine.
Why does coal so often seem evocative of a better past? Perhaps it is, as readers of Paxman’s book might conclude, because it was so closely tied to Britain’s status as a great power and because so many British people still feel a half-guilty regret about the loss of that status. Perhaps, as readers of Beynon and Hudson might conclude, it is because the Left once seemed so much more united, even when its leaders did not, in fact, serve the interests of miners very well. Now Brexit, supported by many former miners, cuts across traditional political fault lines. Extinction Rebellion, founded by the daughter of a Yorkshire miner, believes that it is worth paying any price to stop the consumption of fossils fuels. Everyone else is trying to balance contradictory interests – ‘greening’ the economy while not abolishing industrial employment, ‘feminising’ politics without alienating working-class voters who think, as in one Durham mining town, that a boxing club might be a good way to give young men a sense of purpose. Neil Kinnock was probably the last Labour leader who seriously hoped to pull all this together. He is the son of a miner but got a cool reception when he attended the Durham Miners’ Gala in 1985 – presumably because some miners regarded anything other than unqualified support of Scargill as a ‘betrayal’. He never went again.