Coalfield paradoxes

On 9 July, 50,000 or more people poured into Durham city for the 127th Miners’ Gala. More than eighty delegations from pit villages marched in: typically, a brass band and a pit banner followed by a crowd of revellers carrying children, cheering and waving posters protesting against the cuts. Each band, in keeping with tradition, stopped at the County Hotel to play to the party of labour movement speakers watching from the balcony. That took five hours.

At the gala

Although the Gala crowd is not as big as the quarter million or so who used to gather in the early 20th century, it has grown over the last decade. And yet it is 16 years since the closure of Wearmouth, Durham’s last coal mine, and 26 years since the great strike of 1984-85 that pitted these communities against the government and police. Then, county Durham had 19,000 miners; now there are none.

What is going on? This wasn’t a syndicalist old codgers’ reunion. Young men and women – many of whom could scarcely have been in primary school during the great strike – were out, drinking from cans of lager, many dressed in their best, and all proudly cheering the bands and banners.Some even braved a torrential downpour to hear speeches from left-wing trade union leaders including rail workers’ leader Bob Crow and Dave Prentis of Unison, although most were too busy celebrating by then. (See a local newspaper report here.)

What are they celebrating? Not the dirty, dangerous black holes in the ground in which their fathers and grandfathers spent their working lives – which often ended with death or injury in underground accidents or the slow torture of pneumoconiosis (“miners’ lung”), chronic bronchitis or emphysema. Not the Labour Party, every leader of which, prime minister or no, had addressed the gala … until the late 1980s, when Neil Kinnock was interrupted by the Murton pit band playing the Internationale, in protest at his failure to support the miners’ strike. (Since then all Labour leaders have declined invitations: Ed Miliband had promised to show up if elected, but then declined as he didn’t wish to be seen on a platform with railway union leader Bob Crow, who advocates a new socialist workers’ party.) I suppose this year’s marchers were celebrating many different things: while some were surely there for the working class as a movement with its unions and its battle against the cuts, more were there simply for their communities.

Celebrating ...

Why does this Gala keep going? In the other former coalfields (e.g. Scotland and Yorkshire) the Galas died with the mining industry. Part of the answer is that miners’ union officials and activists, supported by others, have successfully broadened local labour organisations to engage with communities in a way that traditional trade unionism rarely has. Part of it, too, must be in the communities themselves. I don’t want to suggest that their life is pretty. Depopulation, unemployment or low-paid employment, poverty and drug abuse have all worsened since the pits closed. But the Gala displayed resilience … surely a good basis for resistance.

Without communities such as this, without the participation and mobilisation of which the Gala day celebration is just one visible reflection, the movement to transform society, to create something better than capitalism, does not and can not exist. To get a grip of the issues, it’s worth looking back to the 1984-85 strike when these same mining communities were involved in a struggle that – more than any other in Britain at least since the second world war – defied capitalism and its state, and pointed to the possibility of a movement past it, towards what I would call socialism or communism.

That year-long battle, during which several were killed, hundreds injured and thousands jailed (including some for long sentences), was fought under the banner of “coal not dole”, of saving jobs in a harsh and dangerous industry. Then, evidence of the links between the use of hydrocarbons (including coal), greenhouse gas emissions and global warming was still in dispute among scientists who studied it, and almost completely unknown to the general public. But the price paid for coal in human terms was known only too well, nowhere better than to mining communities themselves. And here is a paradox. Why would people engage in the greatest industrial conflict in British history, with the aim of prolonging their working lives in these fearsome hell-holes? Why were some of the fiercest battles in defence of this all-male workforce fought by women? And, given the way that the conflict between communities and the police, courts and government broadened out, does the word “strike” explain what was going on at all?

The short answer is that the great strike became a social conflict that went far beyond the bounds of the aim as defined by the miners’ union (to stop pit closures), just as it transcended any sense of an industrial dispute conducted within the legal framework that emerged from nearly a century of labour parliamentarianism, and which the Tory government was working to dismantle. It was a protest against the social exclusion and poverty of a generation. It was a turning-point. It was not just about jobs. The young miners who led the charge against the police on every occasion, while based in pit villages with their own culture, had something in common with the young people who tore the inner cities apart in the 1981 summer riots. These men did not expect to spend their lives down the pits as their fathers had. They wanted something more, however that was articulated. So did their wives and girlfriends who saw the strike as turning not just workplace relationships but household relationships upside down. 

The miners’ strike was also a turning-point in the transition in the world capitalist economy from coal to oil. Coal fired the factories, trains and steamships that underpinned British capital’s dominance in the 19th century; in the 20th, coal was overshadowed by oil and nuclear power, just as Britain and its empire were overshadowed by the USA. In the 1980s, the movement of industry out of Britain to low-wage economies elsewhere, and the reinvention of the British economy as a financial hub, dovetailed neatly with the Tory party’s determination to avenge itself on the miners’ union, which had brought down its government in 1974.

While the working-class movement in Britain has – especially since the strikes of 1972 and 1974 – regarded the miners’ union as a source of inspiration, there was also a particular sympathy for the mineworkers among middle-class people. For a couple of post-war generations, raised on D.H. Lawrence novels and horrified by the Aberfan disaster of 1966, miners were the victims of injustice that social democracy were supposed to rescue. Middle class Labour voters not only supported the 1984-85 strike, but also turned out, along with workers, on two gigantic demonstrations against the final round of pit closures in 1993. But since then, with the rise of environmentalism, this middle class sympathy seems to have faded again. And in 2008 we faced the depressing sight of a new generation of middle-class young people – appalled at the prospect of global warming and the rich world’s hideous cynicism about its impacts – at loggerheads with mining communities whose history they were perhaps only vaguely aware of.

"The emancipation of labour"

This clash took the form of an actual conversation at the Kingsnorth power station in Kent. Its owners, E.On, intend to install new coal-fired capacity – the first such built in the UK for thirty years – to replace current coal-fired units that under EU regulations must be closed by 2016. The Camp for Climate Action, which uses direct action to oppose projects that exemplify the danger of global warming, pitched tent near the station and, when they tried to occupy it, faced a violent police response. Two miners’ union representatives – Arthur Scargill, the former union president, and Dave Douglass, an anarchist activist from the Yorkshire coalfield – met with the demonstrators and told them the new coal-fired power generation units should be built. They presented NUM policy: investment in clean coal technology, new coal-fired power generation and the opening of new deep mines.

Talk about a dialogue of the deaf. According to accounts on the internet, it boiled down to an argument about clean coal technology (i.e. carbon capture and storage (CCS)), and whether it will be commercially viable in five years’ time. Some climate campers got the impression that the NUM sees CCS as a magic bullet; Douglass got the impression that some climate campers believed that given the global character of climate change, mining communities would just have to be sacrificed. (Dave Douglass’s account, with comments, is here.) After the climate camp, the NUM arranged a conference in Newcastle to try to debate the issues more calmly. It seemed to have equally little success … although at least it resulted in an interesting article in Mute magazine here.

What, then, are the mining communities – and all the rest of us too – supposed to do in the face of the threat of global warming? Here are three points:

– This is not just about choosing the right technology. There is no doubt, for example, that CCS works, but  the versions currently in operation are themselves energy-intensive and therefore not especially effective, and there are headaches about how to store the carbon dioxide effectively. In fact the arguments between politicians, power companies and environmentalists revolve around whether CCS is “commercially viable”. But that all depends on the rules of commerce – and we know who sets those. Which is why the scientists and engineers say the biggest problems are political.[1] Ultimately, decisions about which forms of energy are used are determined by larger political and economic contexts, by social relationships. We need to concentrate on changing those.

– This is not just about jobs. Of course trades unions in coal- and oil-producing communities routinely call for existing jobs to be defended and new ones created. What else would we expect them to do, faced with the havoc wreaked by unemployment? The drift of some environmentalist arguments – that it’s just too bad, that mines just have to be closed and the local communities just have to bear the pain, to save the planet – carries the implication that people don’t matter. That is seriously wrong. It is not people who are responsible for the juggernaut of excessive greenhouse gas emissions, it is the social relations in which those people are trapped, i.e. capitalist social relations. And it is only people, acting collectively, who will address this problem. Moreover, as I have argued above, the British miners’ struggle during and since the great strike was not simply about jobs. “Coal not dole” was and is about defending communities from a politicised onslaught. As far as I know, no-one in those communities sees a future so bleak that there is no possible alternative to working in dangerous, unhealthy – and carbon-intensive – coal mines. There needs to be a discussion, in those communities and others, about how such alternatives will develop, about what sort of society could transform work itself.

– This is not about finding the right political slogan. Global warming is a problem that can not be resolved without massive reduction in greenhouse gas emissions – which in turn implies a gigantic upheaval of the economy and drastic changes in the way that humanity produces and consumes energy. To me it seems very very unlikely that such drastic changes will happen without a transition to a post-capitalist society … and, whether that’s possible or not, nothing significant will happen short of huge, powerful social movements that take these issues into their hands. The focus therefore needs to be on those movements and their creative activity, i.e. about what we are going to do. There may be times when communities, trades unions or other movements decide to make demands on governments – but why should we get involved, for example, in lobbying capitalist governments for or against one or another form of energy, pitting workers who are tied to those industries against each other? (I think the Just Transition alliance (see here), formed with the laudable aim of resolving the tensions between trade union policies and environmental policies, gets tangled up politically – precisely because these problems can not be solved just at the level of agreeing on good policies with which to lobby capitalist governments. There’s some constructive critique of Just Transition here.)

There are no simple answers to this, because there are no political fixes or techno-fixes. I’m talking a bit generally about discussion and collective action, not because I think that is easy, but because that is the only way that answers will be found. Someone who has given a great deal of thought to all this is the writer and activist Kolya Abramsky. There is a separate post here on the book he recently edited about global warming, the transition to renewable energy, the crisis of capitalism, and social movements.


[1] A recent survey by two academic researchers on CCS concluded: “The greatest challenges do not lie in developing improved carbon capture methods, or in safely and securely storing CO2 undergorund. The two critical problems are primarily political. Firstly, the financing of large individual projects is difficult in a market economy in which CO2 is still not priced at its true environmental cost. Secondly, we urgently need to develop a balanced legal framework to cover the storage sites.” (Stuart Haszeldine and Vivian Scott, “Carbon Capture and Storage”, New Scientist, 2 April 2011.)

Bands and banners queuing to march to the County hotel

3 Responses to Coalfield paradoxes

  1. […] about how such a transition should be achieved (an issue about which I’ve written before, e.g. here and here). That is the reason that I am so pleased to publish Neil Rothnie’s interview and the […]

  2. […] Coalfield paradoxes (an earlier People & Nature article on mining communities) […]

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