Neil Barnett

King coal prepares for a comeback

Neil Barnett says the miners’ union that took on Margaret Thatcher and lost is now talking surprisingly good sense about Britain’s future energy security

Neil Barnett says the miners’ union that took on Margaret Thatcher and lost is now talking surprisingly good sense about Britain’s future energy security

The National Union of Mineworkers’ headquarters in Barnsley has a splendid retro feel. In the assembly hall hang banners celebrating the struggles of the working class: from one of them, Arthur Scargill, Shredded Wheat comb-over to the fore, stares into the middle distance; another from Kellingley Colliery shows a miner wearing only trousers and a helmet, throttling a huge python labelled ‘Capitalism’. The script below declares ‘Only the strong survive’, while behind him an optimist has written ‘Socialism Leads to Prosperity’. The result is an original mixture of Stakhanovite propaganda, Wallace and Gromit and the Village People.

And yet one can’t help admire the tenacity of the NUM. Having come out much the worse from the ‘Great Miners’ Strike’ of 1984-85, its membership dramatically reduced, the union soldiers on, its ideology set in amber. But while the NUM’s rhetoric has not changed, the global energy market has, and suddenly the miners seem to be speaking plain good sense.

Supply and demand is such that energy markets are tightening not only in terms of prices, but so that physical supply can no longer be taken for granted. As North Sea resources run out, our government needs to think seriously how to secure energy supplies in the long term. For now, neither Westminster nor Brussels has more than a fig leaf for an energy strategy; both seem more concerned with appeasing the green lobby. So with hundreds of years’ worth of coal reserves sitting in the ground, last year Britain imported 43 million tonnes of coal, according to Malcolm Wicks, the energy minister, of which half came from Russia. A trifling 17 million tonnes was mined domestically.

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