Did Thatcher Destroy British Coal?

Three days on from her death and the debates are still fiercely raging about Margaret Thatcher’s time as PM. They all seem to revolve around the same theme: that Thatcher’s spiteful policies ruined lives and divided the country.

In the twenty-year period since she left office the debate has become criminally over-simplified and certain myths persist, almost entirely unchallenged.

The most significant of which is that she destroyed the British coal mining industry.

This is simply not true.

The fact is that she inherited an industry already in precipitous decline, largely due to increasing global competition from places like Australia, America and even South Africa. See the chart below:

Decline of UK coal industry

The majority of mine closures had already occurred under her two Labour predecessors, Harold Wilson and James Callaghan.

And the 1984 (UK) Monopolies and Mergers Commission found that 75% of British coal mines were losing money, costing the taxpayer an annual £1.3 billion in government subsidies.

The truth of which couldn’t be avoided: British coal was on life support and showing few signs of ever regaining consciousness.

All that was left to Thatcher and her Conservative government was to pull the plug –which they did.

It is perhaps here that one could take issue with the way in which Thatcher decided to handle it.  She viewed it not only as laying to rest a dying industry but also an opportunity to completely crush the trade unions, who she believed were destroying Britain.

So she fought ideologically with ideologues. And won.

But what was lost amidst all the political grandstanding, were the genuine fears and concerns of the coal miners, who for generations had only ever known that type of work and that type of life, and for whom the prospect of retraining and having to begin again was daunting.

And that was why they fought as hard as they did. However misinformed they might have been about the future of British coal.

Maybe if she’d tried to reach them directly and explain the economic realities of their situation, they would have understood that if they didn’t take the pain now that one day their children would have to. That they could be part of a new Britain, that they’d be helped through this cruel time.

But the actions of their union leaders, in the past, had ensured the downfall of her predecessor and Thatcher was determined not to suffer the same fate. The miners were unfortunate collateral.

Could she be accused of coldness? Yes. Arrogance? Maybe.

But, deliberately destroying the coal mining industry and the lives of the coal miners? No.

Their lives were, by harsh circumstance, caught up in an elephantine battle between two competing visions for Britain; against the backdrop of a rapidly changing global economy, beyond the control of anyone, least of all Thatcher.

Candice Holdsworth

Candice Holdsworth is the founder and editor of Imagine Athena. It is mythologised that she sprang fully formed from its pages. Candice has an MSc in Political Philosophy from the London School of Economics, and thus can be most commonly found discussing ideas and culture. Her writing can also be found on Thought Leader and On Netflix Now. Follow her on Twitter @CandiceCarrie and Instagram @candicecholdsworth

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