Price of insubordination
David Douglass mourns the death of coal as a defeat of the working class
December 18 saw Kellingley colliery - the last deep mine in the country - closed. Three days earlier, the petition calling for a public enquiry into policing at the Orgreave coking works during the 1984-85 miners’ Great Strike was presented by the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign to home secretary Theresa May. One might have thought that, given that the reason we were in that field at Orgreave in the first place was to stop pit closures, and the last mine has now closed, ‘justice’ for Orgreave is rather academic.
Ironically, however, a sympathetic ear might be offered for that particular action on that particular day, now that deep coal mining has finally been put to bed. Would the Bloody Sunday enquiry have conceded that unarmed civilians had been shot down in Derry by state forces in 1972 if the national struggle had still been waging and not put on a high shelf by the Good Friday agreement? What was needed was not just the condemnation of the army’s actions on that day, but of the role of British imperialism in Ireland as a whole. Why did the people of Ireland lack the basic democratic right to decide their own future in the whole of the island?
Likewise in this case, if any enquiry was needed, it should have been aimed at exposing the forces driving the whole pit closure policy, the economic and the social consequences of those most disastrous of decisions and, perhaps more importantly, the motives for it. Truth is, the pit closure programme was never motivated by any form of energy policy efficiency, economics or - god help us - ‘the environment’. It was motivated from start to finish by a class-based political endeavour to wipe out a vanguard section of the working class, which occupied a lynchpin position at the heart of British manufacturing industry.
Throughout the history of capitalism, it was the miners who drove industry and were the cornerstone of the ‘workshop of the world’. It was the point of the pick which fuelled the imperial might of Britannia, the ‘handle which threw the world into gear’, as someone once said. It was also the miners who at every turn - from the 1700s, through armed rebellions, strikes and the general strike - challenged government policies, challenged governments themselves and carried since the days of physical-force Chartism, then social democracy and revolutionary communism doctrines and ideologies which stamped the miners as ‘the force most likely to’.
The deindustrialisation of Britain (a western-European-wide process seems to have been unleashed, which is linked ideologically if not organically to the same endeavour), with its accompanying destruction of the mass ranks of class-conscious industrial workers, organised in strategically powerful unions, marks a cataclysmic final settlement of accounts for the ruling class. Thatcher’s faction fight within the Tory Party, demanding hard monetarism, attacks on social security and the welfare state, and an end to ‘public ownership’ municipal, interference in ‘the market’, necessitated two directly linked plans.
Breaking the power of the unions could only work if the industries those unions rested upon were ultimately broken too. ‘Wealth’ would no longer be ‘created’ through the extraction of natural resources and industrial production, but through international speculation. The centre of this new form of ‘production’ would be the City of London and not the teaming proletarian heartlands of the Midlands, the north, Wales and Scotland. This would intensify the ‘north-south divide’, however it is measured - rates of unemployment, level of wages, benefit dependency, housing provision, educational attainment, standards of healthcare, life expectancy, infantile mortality …
The challenge for militants of the working class has always been how to capture the means of production, distribution and exchange and run them in our own interests. Workers would see in an instance how they themselves mined the coal, forged the steel, built the ships, ran the transport system, constructed the buildings, grew the food and a million and one other practical things. But now we are meant to believe that ‘wealth creation’ is based on stocks and shares, figurative piles of fictitious money, trading between international computer screens - to the maximum benefit of the owners of capital and the utter detriment of the mass of humanity.
What value does this new ‘industry’ have? The working class can destroy it, but cannot seize it for our own purposes. And, with the former means of production buried at our expense, the vision of taking back the power to live, irrespective of the capitalist class, is less tangible and practical. The mass of displaced, formally productive workers, the makers of real things, when not trapped in perpetual, generational unemployment, now find themselves in tail-chasing service industries, administering the pointless circuses. Seizing McDonalds or the local call centre is never going to make the ruling class tremble or offer a realistic challenge to the system.
Previously the mass, organised ranks of labour, marshalled as we were in the engine rooms of capitalist manufacture, were a ready-made collective unit, a class-identifiable body, capable of ousting the owners and harnessing the power for our collective use. With this realisation came political consciousness, class-consciousness. The almost utter destruction of traditional industry, and with it mass unions, makes that vision of mass, collective action less clear, more distorted and convoluted, less practical and less like a real plan that everyone could be won to embrace. The real left, as was, warts and all, was rooted in and grew from the day-to-day wages and conditions struggles, major class conflicts and social upheavals. Today’s left is issue-based - liberal, moralistic and disconnected from the working class, which it usually does not understand and frankly does not care.
Thatcher’s initial plan of smashing the National Union of Mineworkers and cutting the coal industry down to a non-unionised, super-profitable, privatised rump had been abandoned by the time of John Major, and now the destruction of the entire industry was clearly on the horizon. Nicholas Ridley in 1978 had drawn up for Thatcher his plans of engagement, culminating in the long-term programme of destroying the coal industry and replacing it with nuclear power, so as not to be ‘held to ransom’ by miners or railway workers.
None of this was inevitable. We could have won way back in 84-85 - at least three times we were on the cusp of victory. The Labour Party could have changed the whole direction of the plan, but, Thatcherite through and through, not only did Labour not lift a finger to regenerate the coal industry: Ed Miliband went on to draw up the most stringent anti-coal ‘environmental’ measures in the world and insisted they were pushed through in Britain far more than anywhere else in Europe. He went on to sign a tripartite agreement with the Tories and Liberal Democrats to end coal power by the 2020s. Whoever won office, the miners were on the road to hell with the consent of our mining MPs - Caroline Flint, shadow energy minister, and Miliband, leader of HM opposition, included. These were people who joined our rallies, went on our marches, but all the time were pursuing the anti-coal agenda.
Actually, it is simple enough to mine coal and generate power from coal without any CO2 emissions. My pit, Hatfield Main, was due to be the forerunner of the ambitious Don Valley clean-coal power station - a scheme described by the European Union as “the best CO2 reduction scheme in the world”. The coalition pulled the plug on it. Hatfield, the second last deep mine in Britain, closed after surviving this tidal wave, only to be hit, two weeks into the new Tory government with the new carbon tax, making a levy of 75% of the cost of coal at the point of purchase. It was a scheme custom-built to drive Hatfield’s coal off the market, a million unsold tonnes sitting at the pit head.
Drax power station was meantime forging ahead with its own White Rose clean-power carbon capture and storage (CCS) scheme, assisted by government funding. The new plant, almost ready, was due to generate coal power without emissions, when David Cameron pulled the plug and it was abandoned on the verge of completion. With the international price of coal dropping through the floor to less than the cost of production and the climate-change panic in full flight, Kellingley was refused temporary subsidy and could not sell its coal - even though the biggest consumer of coal in Europe sits a couple of hundred yards away in its own back yard.
Steel is going through the same process, for the same reasons. The international price is following in the footsteps of coal - dropping through the floor, driving capacity out of existence. The carbon tax hit major coal consumers, who could not compete, thanks to taxes 100% higher than those levied. In the case of steel, however, the government has now lifted the carbon tax - a bit late, but something it refused to do for the last two deep coal mines.
Coal power, wherever produced - by open cast here, or from mines abroad - is set now to end completely in the 2020s, despite being the cheapest form of energy generation by far. With coal gone, and nuclear and wind massively expensive, there will only be imported gas to hang onto, as energy prices soar, leaving millions in fuel poverty and tens of thousands threatened by hyperthermia. The government has already started paying industry not to produce in order to save energy. While coal without the fossil fuel tax worked out at £30 per megawatt-hour, the cost now is £2,500 per MWh. I sincerely hope the army of green, middle class anti-coal campaigners, who have hounded us and cheer-led the government’s anti-industrial campaigns, will be at hand with their electricity-generating bikes to help power old folk’s homes, nurseries and operating theatres, as the power shuts off.
The centres of international capital are driving the industrial proletariat off their lawns and off their lands. They are securing a second front, ensuring that mining of minerals and wealth of all sorts - from rare earth metals for their computers and iPhones, to oil and gas, coal and steel, gems, uranium and gold - are produced elsewhere: in the third world, where unions are weak and the working class less organised and rebellious; more under the whip of poverty and the autocratic international corporations.
Coal production, despite the frantic, ‘sky is falling in’ conference on climate change, will double in the next 10 years and double again in the 10 years after that. Coal power is technology, it is science, it is progress. It is rising living standards, lower birth rates, higher levels of education, health and hygiene, power and energy. The poorest countries in the world have most of it and they intend to carry on along the road to social progress. The rich west, meanwhile, wants to halt C02 emissions, to the point where the earth can naturally absorbed them.
The solution, though obvious, was missed by this world coven of scientists and special people. CCS - coal power without emissions, based upon the Don Valley scheme, would mean the total elimination of coal-inspired energy emissions in the time it takes to build the plants. In the meantime the ongoing destruction of the earth’s rain forests and jungles should be halted and a mass replanting scheme set up to reseed the areas of desertification caused by deforesting. Start on a world project to substitute meat consumption with man-made and vegetable-based proteins. Sorted.
The coal miners of Britain are leaving this stage of history after 2,000 years - not because our race is finally run, but because the fortunes of the class war on this occasion favoured the bourgeoisie. Something in the order of 60 trillion tonnes of untapped coal lie in virgin seams underground and offshore. The total figure worldwide is incalculable, but a vast underground treasury will remain untapped. Coal mining is unlikely to end across the world any time soon, and clean coal technology will continue to develop and expand its utility. But it is unlikely to make a reappearance here - unless we see the birth of an earth-shattering political movement, the election of a union-based, far-left government … or, more likely, a catastrophic nuclear disaster.
As we leave the stage, perhaps we should recall the words of a certain Ian MacGregor, head of the National Coal Board during the Great Strike. In 1986 he said that the miners were now “learning the price of insubordination and insurrection”. He added: “And, boy, are we going to make it stick.”