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Did “Thatcher” leave mining in ruins?

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.

Mining employment

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.

3 replies on “Did “Thatcher” leave mining in ruins?”

This is a thoughtful analysis.

However, given that coal mining was tailing off anyway why did Thatcher make such a hoo hah about breaking the unions and condoning the Police thrashing striking miners with truncheons. This had to be a political approach based around political dogma.

The whole point about Thatcher was that she was divisive. She positively wanted and invited confrontation. Maybe this approach was a defence mechanism to cope with her completely socially dysfunctional personality.

She was an attention seeker – and very good at it!

Eric,

Didn’t the unions need to be broken? Hadn’t their place in British political life got unhealthy? We had got to the point where Labour governments were running all domestic policies by the unions and Conservative governments weren’t far behind.

It wasn’t the NUM’s first confrontation – the NUM bought down the Heath government and it had gone on strike two years before. Arthur Scargill knew he would lose a ballot so he took the miners out without one, hence undermining his own strike as the Nottingham miners kept working. The strike ended after a year when half the miners had drifted back. Even Neil Kinnock has talked of Arthur Scargill’s “Suicidal vanity” and blamed him for the miners’ defeat.

As for the policing, if it was inept then you can blame the police. Do you really think they were any less jealous of their operational independence then than they are now? The police are more accountable now but back then our policing was often very poor.

Phil
You’ve presented a case there for Scargill needing to be broken, not vast swathes of the country beyond the Home counties. As for influence on politics, I’d rather it was large democratic (Scargill excepted perhaps) bodies like the unions that were a dominant force, than what Thatcher replaced them with: a tiny elite of the super rich in the Square Mile. Looking back at the last 30 years from 2014, portraying Thatcher’s efforts to smash the unions as a victory for democracy seems pretty rich.

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