I couldn’t believe this Reuters headline “In mining ruins left by Thatcher, new economy struggles” I saw yesterday. Reuters says:
Thatcher, the most polarising prime minister in modern British history, is nowhere more thoroughly despised than here, in northern England’s coal belt, where her crackdown against striking miners is blamed for wiping out an entire industry that had sustained a community for generations.
You might think that Reuters news agency could provide a bit of perspective but instead it just repeats clichés that are divorced from any analysis.
From the formation of the National Coal Board in 1947 until today employment in mines has dropped pretty much every year. You can see the data here.
It is instructive to compare Harold Wilson’s first term with the Margaret Thatcher period.
At the end of 1964 there were 502,000 mining jobs which went down 212,000 to 290,000 by the end of 1970. Harold Wilson served as Prime Minister from 16th October 1964 to 19th June 1970. So broadly speaking in 6 years Wilson could be said to be responsible for the loss of 212,000 jobs or 42% of the workforce.
At the end of 1978 there were 240,000 mining jobs which went down 191,000 to 49,000 by the end of 1990. Margaret Thatcher served as Prime Minister from 4th May 1979 to 28th November 1990. So broadly speaking in 12 years Thatcher could be said to be responsible for the loss of 191,000 jobs or 80% of the workforce. It is worth remembering that at the end of 1990 they were producing 75% of the coal with 20% of the workforce.
It is harsh to blame either for the uncompetitiveness of British mines or world coal prices driven by opencast mining in empty places like Australia but as Harold Wilson took out slightly more jobs in half the time you could say he was the more vicious if you want to use that language about anyone. Wilson did not have to deal with striking miners who arguably made their own industry less economic and attractive as a business proposition in the process. What did for Margaret Thatcher was that she presided over an 80% loss rather than a 42% loss.
Essentially mining employment held up in the fifties. It halved in the sixties. It kept up again in the seventies. About 80% was lost in the eighties and 80% again in the nineties and half again in the noughties. To single out Margaret Thatcher is just plainly unfair. Reuters really could have been a lot more illuminating rather than just repeating mining village myths.