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The Iron Lady and the UK coal sector

The Thatcher government’s confrontation with the UK's coal miners was the most bitter industrial dispute the country had ever seen. It changed the UK’s industrial landscape irrevocably, and its effects are still being felt today. But not, perhaps, in a way you would expect

The UK’s first (and, so far, only) female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, who died yesterday at the age of 87, was known as the Iron Lady – a nickname coined by Soviet reporter Yuri Gavrilov in 1976 However, one of her most enduring legacies has nothing to do with iron. It has far more to do with coal.

Thatcher’s clashes with the UK’s powerful trade union movement in the 1980s, centring on plans to privatise the UK’s coal sector, became one of the defining battles – perhaps the defining battle - of her 11-year premiership.

The UK’s coal sector, nationalised by Clement Attlee’s Labour government in 1947, was dominated by the powerful National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). By the mid-1970s, a series of strikes, mostly over pay, was threatening to destabilise the country. By 1979, industrial unrest – which spawned the “Winter of Discontent” had undermined both Edward Heath’s Conservative government (Thatcher was Heath’s education secretary) and that of Labour’s James Callaghan.

When Thatcher led the Conservative party to victory over Callaghan in the 1979 general election, rationalising the nation’s coal industry was a clear government goal. Thatcher often referred to the National Union of Miners (NUM) - and its leader Arthur Scargill in particular - as “the enemy within”. Her government’s confrontation with the NUM was the most bitter industrial dispute the country had ever seen. It changed the UK’s industrial landscape irrevocably and weakened trade unionism in the country. Indeed, the strike's effects are still visible today - some less obvious than others.

Steep decline

The year-long dispute began in 1984, when the National Coal Board announced plans to close 20 pits, saying they were unprofitable. The decision would see 20,000 workers, mostly in northern England and Wales, lose their jobs. Scargill – who refused to call a strike ballot of the NUM’s membership – organised strikes across the country’s coal fields. Pickets often degenerated into direct, violent confrontation between strikers and police; the most brutal of which was the so-called “battle of Orgreave”, outside Rotherham, South Yorkshire. About 5,000 striking miners confronted thousands of police at a coking plant at Orgreave. More than 100 people were injured in the confrontation. Eleven people died in the year-long strike; more than 11,000 people were arrested and about 8,000 charged, mostly for breach of the peace.

The strike was broken by March 1985. The UK’s coal industry has never fully recovered. There are now just two active deep coal mines in the UK, down from 170 in 1984, according to figures from the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC).

In the year before the strike, 1983-1984, the UK produced 105.3 million tonnes of coal. Output tumbled to 42.7m tonnes between 1984 and 1985, then recovered the following year, reaching 104.5m tonnes. But the UK’s coal output never again reached the 225m tonnes it achieved from 945 sites in 1955.

Production continued to decline in the three decades following the miners’ strike and by 2010 the UK’s coal output had tumbled to just 16.7m tonnes from just 51 sites.

The strike had wider effects too. Local economies dependent on the coal industry went into steep decline. Unemployment soared as industries which serviced the mines shut, with nothing to replace them.

It has been 23 years since Thatcher was ousted by her own party. Since then, coal has increasingly been viewed as yesterday’s fuel. In the past decade alone, coal production has tumbled by an estimated 73% as ageing coal-fired power stations have been shut down and policies put in place promoting the use of less carbon-intensive energy sources According to statistics agency Cedigaz, in 2001 UK coal consumption totalled 38.9m tonnes of oil equivalent (toe); by 2011 this had dropped to 30.8m toe.

Today’s Conservative-led coalition government wants gas-fired power stations and nuclear power to meet the UK’s power demand. Renewable energy also has support.The European Commission – an institution Thatcher instinctively detested - has also advanced the anti-coal cause. The Commission’s energy strategy wants to see a 20% cut in greenhouse gas emissions from the 1990 level of 5.5bn tonnes. It wants this reduction achieved by 2020. In the same timeframe, it also wants to see Europe derive 20% of its energy from renewable sources and a further 20% to be saved through efficiencies by the same date. For all the mutual antipathy between Brussels and Thatcher, it appears they had similar ideas about coal.

Yet despite decades of coal-bashing, the fuel is making a comeback in Europe, mostly because it is still cheap. A combination of inexpensive US coal (the US’ shale-gas surge has see it use less coal), low carbon prices, and Europe’s economic woes means it makes to rely on the cheaper fuel – coal – than cleaner, but more expensive, gas.

Her government’s confrontation with the NUM was the most bitter industrial dispute the country had ever seen. It changed the UK’s industrial landscape irrevocably and weakened trade unionism in the country

Europe is now the world’s second-fastest growing market for coal,>second only to China. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), by 2017 coal will come close to challenging oil’s dominance as the world’s most consumed source of energy. The IEA reckons global coal consumption by 2017 will reach 4.32bn toe, up from 3.7bn toe in 2011. Only competitively priced natural gas will be able to challenge coal’s supremacy, the IEA says, as current low carbon prices and economic fragility provide little incentive to curb use of the carbon-intensive fuel.

But the coal revival means Thatcher’s coal legacy is less easy to judge than before. She weaned the UK off a dirty fuel – for a time. In retrospect, though, her policies helped shutter an industry that could, arguably, be in a position to take advantage of a growing hunger for coal.

Last year, the UK imported 44.8m tonnes of coalmainly from Russia, the US and Colombia. This is almost triple the country’s 2012 coal production, UK Coal says.

In 2006, Lord David Howell, energy minister in Margaret Thatcher's first cabinet, told Petroleum Economist that Thatcher once told him that, with energy security, he should expect the unexpected. The revival of Europe’s appetite for coal in recent years has certainly been unexpected. For its struggling economy, it’s a shame the UK is no longer in a position to profit from it.

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