The History of the British Coal Industry. Vol. IV, 1913-1946: The Political Economy of Decline 
by Barry Supple.
Oxford, 733 pp., £50, December 1987, 9780198282945
Show More
Show More

‘You never seem to be able to get the numbers right in this industry,’ lamented Sir Norman Siddall, who bravely filled the gap between the Coal Board chairmanship of Sir Derek Ezra, supreme servant and subtle bureaucrat of consensus, and that of Sir Ian MacGregor, vieux terrible of confrontation. ‘There is either too much or too little.’ Not since 1913, in fact, have the figures seemed roughly right. Coal had been ancillary, rather than essential, to Britain’s early Industrial Revolution. Demand had fluctuated consideraoly throughout much of the 19th century, but by the end of that century it had achieved a crushing dominance as the source of heat, light and power, not just in Britain but in the expanding world economy: in 1913 coal provided 75 per cent of the world’s energy requirements, 99.5 per cent of Britain’s own. In that year the British coal industry produced 287 million tons, one-third of which was exported (much of it in the form of fuel for foreign steam ships), with the rest absorbed in industrial and domestic consumption; about 10 per cent of the world’s need for coal was met by Britain, whose coal exports made up 55 per cent of all coal traded internationally. Output fell during the First World War, and there were a number of crises as the Government sought desperately to maintain the coal supplies critical for the national war effort. The war over, it became clear that the world now had too much coal for its needs, that alternative fuels (particularly for shipping and transport) were widely available and usable, and that former British markets were not only producing their own coal supplies but offering them on the international market at prices which the British industry found difficulty in competing with. British coal then suffered a decline in production and employment so nicely paced, and a series of self-inflicted wounds so exquisitely contrived, that the Second World War and the period of reconstruction which followed were marked by one continuing crisis of productivity. Though some sort of stability was seemingly restored to a steadily shrinking industry, getting the numbers right continued to be difficult as oil resources fell and rose in accessibility and nuclear resources rose and fell in acceptability.

Coal may be taken as the extreme case of the run-down of Britain’s traditional heavy industrial base, with all the repercussions this entailed. But as an extreme case, it is also a special case, in which the paradoxes are not simply statistical. As an economic and political phenomenon, the coal industry, in its heyday when the economy so manifestly depended upon it, and in the public agonies of its long and erratic decline, was highly visible: but as a set of social conditions and human relationships it was, even at the height of the most violent picketing of 1984, almost totally invisible. More than any other industrial workers, the miners have pursued their physical existence and their political and cultural being in their own separate and often remote one-class communities. A sense of mystery, a not entirely innocent curiosity, a sometimes maudlin romanticism, have attached themselves to the lives of miners, not utterly distinct from that which attaches to the priesthood. It is well-known that, even as working conditions generally have improved, of all industrial work mining is the most arduous and uncomfortable and the most dangerous. ‘All of us,’ wrote George Orwell in 1937, ‘owe the comparative decency of our lives to poor drudges underground, blackened to the eyes with their throats full of coal dust, driving their shovels forward with arms and belly muscles of steel.’ Herbert Smith, President of the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain, told a wages inquiry in 1924 that in the previous year

212,256 men received injuries disabling them for more than seven days, and in addition 1,297 were fatally injured. These figures mean that: Every working day more than five persons were killed. Every five hours the clock round a life was lost. Every 215,000 tons of coal raised was stained with the crimson of one man’s blood. Every working day 850 men and boys were injured.

Thus miners have been seen as the archetypal victims of rapacious capitalism. But whereas the cry used to be that no human being should be called upon to do such bestial work, and the vow of fathers was that their sons would never follow them into the pit, now the perennial struggle is to keep pits open. The Miners’ Federation of Great Britain, and its successor, from 1 January 1945, the National Union of Mine workers, have been called the vanguard of the working-class movement, its Brigade of Guards, yet many union leaders throughout the period of both Federation and Union have seen these bodies as insulated from wider working-class interests, always wanting to be a special case, always wanting other unions to serve their interests. The activities and attitudes of the mineworkers, and particularly of their leaders, have always been relevant, and sometimes critical, but never consistently crucial, to the fortunes of the Labour movement. The most significant pioneer of independent Labour representation, Keir Hardie, was a miner, yet the mining MPs (sitting as Liberals) held aloof from the Labour Representation Committee founded in 1900, till their accession in 1906 enabled that fledgling political organisation to change its name to Labour Party. Today’s leader is a miner’s son, yet manifestly neither a miner nor associated closely with mining politics. The great emotive events in Labour’s past, Tonypandy, Red Friday, Black Friday, the General Strike, were rooted in the mining industry, but were scarcely central to the long-term course of working-class history. In that history, properly conceived, a most distinctive part was played by miners’ wives. In the everyday struggle for existence in the inter-war years, during the great industrial battles of that era, and the more recent one of 1984, the heaviest burdens, the most taxing managerial problems, and the greatest self-sacrifices, were borne by them. The evidence of 1984 is of a high level of female activism and politicisation: yet an investigation into a Yorkshire mining village of a generation or so before had described the family there as ‘a system of relationships torn by a major contradiction at its heart: husband and wife live separate, and in a sense, secret lives,’ wives being placed ‘in a position which, although they accept it, is more demanding and smacks of inferiority’. Miners’ wives, in other words, were among the most notorious victims of working-class sexism.

The problems facing the coal industry may not be the most pressing that face the country, but they do now, as they have done since the end of the First World War, pose questions which lie at the very heart of contemporary political debate: private ownership versus public ownership; free-market economics versus subsidies and other forms of state intervention; the rights of management; the right to work; the preservation (or otherwise) of traditional communities; the role of ideology. In the 19th century there had been state regulation of the employment of women and children. In the Edwardian era there was instituted the Ten-Hour Day for male workers and basic trade-union rights in the face of Common Law were firmly re-established: otherwise the free market ruled. In the war emergency private ownership proved seriously inadequate, while governments could not risk interruptions to desperately needed supplies of coal. Miners’ wages rose, and government took over control of the industry. In the inter-war years full private ownership was restored, and the owners, faced with falling demand and strong foreign competition, endeavoured to impose wage cuts. Twice the Government averted open industrial confrontation by using temporary subsidies to keep wages up; on the second occasion, in 1925, it simply bought time until it was prepared to face the General Strike which duly arrived in May 1926. As the alienated and dispirited miners failed to meet production targets in the Second World War it became clear that private ownership could not survive, and that completely new initiatives would be needed. Nationalisation followed, with full compensation (which meant that the coal owners simply exchanged one set of assets for another, and suffered no penalty for their widely perceived inadequacies). There was nothing approaching industrial democracy, nor did there seem to be much demand for it. A Tory MP suggested that the actual effects on the miner himself would not be great: ‘He will go to the same pit and get the same lamp from the same man; he will go into the same cage, he will probably be lowered by the same man, and when he gets to the bottom he will, if he is in certain parts of the country, see the same expression on the face of the pony. He will see the same manager, the same deputy, the old roadway, the same coalface, and, on the Friday, he will probably be paid by the same man.’

Still, years of relative tranquillity, and even obscurity, ensued. There was a co-ordinated national policy of sorts, there were subsidies, and, in a time of full employment, the coal industry could continue to shrink relatively painlessly. Influence on behalf of the miners was asserted through their union leadership, which in the early Seventies suddenly became much more active. There had been a new twist in the numbers game. The shrinkage in markets had, ironically, given the miners a new, though dangerously temporary power: almost all coal now went to the electricity generating stations, so that cutting off supplies could drastically disrupt the nation’s industrial and domestic life. Joe Gormley accepted planned closures and redundancies, exacting in return wage rises which put miners back at the top of the earnings league. Edward Heath was unwise enough to get into confrontation with the miners, an important factor in his loss of the prime ministership in 1974. After 1979, the Thatcher Government was keen to scale down the industry much more rapidly and make it self-supporting, but drew back from open confrontation in February 1981, preparing carefully for the strike which did in fact come in 1984. The defeat of the miners in that strike marked the triumph of the principle of the right to manage, and closures and job losses, together with an insistence on flexible working and the six-day week, have rapidly followed.

The five-volume History of the British Coal Industry was commissioned by Sir Derek Ezra as Chairman of the National Coal Board in one of those acts of public patronage which today seem as archaically worthy as the very title National Coal Board – now, of course, as an earnest of its ruthless pursuit of profitability, British Coal. The volumes which have previously appeared have been greeted as classics of that form of business and industrial history which has accompanied the general revival since the mid-Seventies of faith in the entrepreneurial virtues. The entire series is under the general guidance of the Master of Downing College, Cambridge, and the author of Volume IV is the Professor of Economic History in the same university, and Master of St Catharine’s College; the provision of research assistance and other facilities seems to have been generous. One could not expect the work under review to be anything less than excellent. In this particular school of historical writing it has become fashionable to exonerate late 19th-century British entrepreneurs from the accusations made against them by Martin Wiener and others: entrepreneurs, the argument goes, will be entrepreneurs. Thus Professor Supple sums up the record of the British coal owners in the inter-war years as follows: ‘The historical debate about entrepreneurship in the coal industry has possibly been too much influenced by an understandable dislike of the coal owner’s political and industrial-relations postures. Certainly, the owner’s arguments may have been vapid and their public stance obstinately reactionary; compared with other industries they may have neglected to explore the possibility of collective action. But, given the curious structure of their industry and the survival power of apparently less efficient firms, it is hard to see how they could reasonably have been expected to be any more vigorous, enterprising and reckless of resources and risks than any other category of businessmen.’

There is practically nothing on the passion and the tragedy of the General Strike; and while the working and living conditions of the miners are far from neglected, Supple feels constrained to rate quantities above common-sense observation: ‘there is surprisingly little quantitative evidence of any long-run deterioration in the health of the population through the years of the slump ... most statistical evidence therefore appears to contradict the common-sense observations of contemporaries – that the unemployed and newly poor were often at the margin of subsistence and were growing significantly less healthy.’ To be fair to Supple, the half-hidden agenda here is that he is combating overblown attempts to maintain that increasing immiseration, as the Marxist jargon has it, was the inevitable consequence of capitalism in the Thirties. Actually, the only sizeable hole in his account relates to coal owners. We learn nothing about their lifestyles or class affiliations. Although some of the big family names are mentioned, there is nothing about the political and social dominance exercised, particularly by the great coal barons of Newcastle. Supple feels that market conditions did make wage reductions a necessity; he gives no indication as to what cuts might or might not have been sustainable in coal owners’ profits.

In covering the period from the heyday of 1913, across the strikes, crises and unemployment of the Twenties and Thirties, to nationalisation at the end of the Second World War, Professor Supple sees the basic problem as that of supply and demand: ‘the coal industry created by the long Victorian and Edwardian boom was simply too large for its markets after the First World War.’ More tentatively, he suggests that it may ‘be the case that the evolution of policy towards the coal industry exemplifies a defensive, sentimental and ultimately conservative strain in modern British economic history.’ In a fine justification of the significance of the period with which his book deals, he adds that ‘forty and more years later ... it is apparent that, with public ownership, coal mining had still not divested itself of its own history.’ Supple most effectively sees off Emanuel Shinwell’s silly assertion, taken up by others who ought to have known better, that as Minister of Fuel and Power he had to carry through coal nationalisation without the help of any party blueprint. He accuses Shinwell of false naivety, and remarks, correctly, that there could have been no reasonable expectation that such a blueprint would have been worked out. Within the secular trend of inevitable decline, and in defiance of what has recently become the fashionable trend in historical writing, he gives great weight to the two world wars in determining the precise way in which shorter-term developments came about. Speaking of the industry at the beginning of the Twenties, he says that ‘as in many other spheres of the nation’s economic life, the war had changed things so drastically, that men were for some time unable to grasp the character and implications of the new world around them.’ The crises of World War Two brought ‘decisive’ government intervention with respect to ‘the long-run future of the industry’ and ‘the political economy of coal’. There was also a ‘decisive’ transformation of miners’ pay, effecting a ‘virtual revolution in the relative position of miners in the wages league’. Finally, ‘the experience of war brought the issue of nationalisation to the forefront of the debate, and provided a momentum towards public ownership which was perhaps only marginally increased by the victory of the Labour Party in the General Election of July 1945.’

Decisive changes indeed. The poverty and degradation of the Thirties simply do not exist any more. But long-run market forces continue to threaten the security of those who have survived in a much-reduced industry. What is indicated by both the past and present of the coal industry, long-term trends as well as the often nonplussing short-term fluctuations within these trends, is the non-viability of ideological solutions. The working class is not a revolutionary element in this or any other society. The miners are not the revolutionary vanguard of the working class. Capitalism is not on the point of collapse; with energy and thought it might be transformed in a more rational and humane direction. To leave coal to the naked forces of the world market would be as inadvisable as to ignore altogether the existence of these forces. For all the belief of early reformers that coal-winning was itself such an inhumane business that it ought to be abolished, it is clear, given the imponderables affecting all alternative sources of energy, that the maintenance of a secure coal industry is a national necessity. If power stations can be built to use imported coal, they can be built to use British coal. If coal can be imported, it can be exported. The right to manage is a poor battle-cry against the need to get things right. Joe Gormley always argued for a National Energy Plan; it would have to be more flexible than the one he envisaged, since circumstances do change rapidly. In the Twenties and Thirties no one thought out the proper place of British coal in a changing world; reactions, as Supple shows, were defensive, conservative, and perhaps (but not very) sentimental. The problem that needs addressing today, untrammelled by the shibboleths of socialism or of monetarism, is that of preserving, in the interests of social harmony and stability, a coal industry, tiny by the standards of 1913 or even 1945, which, consistent with the maintenance and extension of living standards and with the directive use of subsidy, is efficient and competitive.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences