Tribune leader, 16 October 1992
The pit closure plan announced by British Coal on Tuesday is an unmitigated social disaster. Some 30,000 workers in the coal industry will lose their jobs, some of them today. Perhaps twice that number of workers in related industries will join the dole queue as the coal industry contracts. Large areas of Britain will be left jobless.
And all for what? According to British Coal, the closure plan is inevitable because of lack of demand for its coal. Market forces dictate that it take drastic action to match its supply to the demand.
Yet the reason for this lack of demand is the way in which the Government privatised electricity. It created two giant generating companies, PowerGen and National Power, with complete freedom to buy their coal where they like and to replace coal with gas if they choose.
Unlike nuclear power, which was carefully hived off and protected from the ravages of the market place, the coal industry was earmarked for privatisation and deliberately exposed to a market in which two giant customers could dictate terms.
The generating companies’ decisions to buy cheaper imported coal and to “dash for gas” made British Coal’s short-term position impossible. Or rather, it made it impossible until devaluation. The collapse of sterling in the past month has priced back into competitiveness many of the pits chosen for closure.
Even taking into account only short-term market factors, the closure list is ridiculously long.
If one looks at the decision from a longer-term perspective, it looks completely absurd. Gas is cheap right now, although not if the costs of building new gas-fired power stations are included. But domestic reserves of natural gas will run out within 20 years. Similarly, although imported coal is cheap now, there is no reason to expect that it will always be so. Then there are the deleterious effects of coal imports on the already burgeoning balance of trade deficit.
In short, coal is a classic case of an industry that cannot simply be left to the ravages of the market. What it needed from the state was long-term strategic planning and investment. What it got from this government was, at best, neglect and, at worst, irrational hostility.
Miners are understandably angry at the way they have been treated, thrown on to the scrap-heap despite massive increases in their productivity. No one should be surprised if that anger expresses itself in support for industrial action. If the miners do vote to strike, they will not only deserve the support of every other trade unionist in Britain but need it. They will surely be defeated if they are left to stand alone.
If, on the other hand, they decide that a strike would be unwinnable, that decision too will deserve respect. In the depths of a slump, it would not be unreasonable for miners to see a decent redundancy pay-off as a better prospect than months on the picket line with nothing in the end to show for it.