The Spectacular Decline of the UK Coal Industry

In 1984, Arthur Scargill passionately spoke to 140,000 miners to fight for their jobs, communities and livelihoods. Coal was the black gold which kept the country going. Coal miners were the working class heroes, with the capacity to bring down a government or fuel the engine of the economy. After descending a coal mine in Wigan, George Orwell was left in awe of the coal miner and noted how much civilisation was founded on coal. A few decades ago, that was true.


But today, the British coal industry has all but collapsed. When England won the World Cup in 1966, coal provided more than half of all the country’s energy needs, today, it is less than 1%. Coal was once king, but now it has been dethroned by gas, solar and wind. The future is renewable. But, what can we learn from the decline of the coal industry? Was it inevitable and was Thatcher right to close the mines after all?

The Dramatic Death of the UK Coal Industry

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In the mid-1920s, over 1 million people were employed in the coal industry. Whole towns and communities were focused on the coal pit. It led to a working class solidarity and community unrivalled perhaps for the friendship forged in the army. The work was hard, dirty and dangerous, but, perhaps because of this, it forged a strong community and civic pride. Brass bands, rugby and a political movement were all forged on a common identity of coal mining. When the coal mines began to close, whole communities were ripped apart, leading to unemployment, loss of purpose and social decay. The economist Joseph Schumpeter claimed an essential part of capitalism was creative destruction. This meant inefficient, outdated industries have to close down in order for workers and capital to move to more productive industries. This is all very well to write in your academic ivory tower, but for communities affected by coal closures, the impact was devastating. A few jobs in Lidl, deliveroo or a warehouse can never replace the strength of purpose of 400 miners working in close proximity. One of the worst economic legacies of the 1980s was the rise in unemployment precipitated by the industrial decline of the period. Reaching 3 million in the early 1980s, unemployment declined only slowly. It left former coal towns with persistently high unemployment, lack of opportunity and a rise in social problems such as drug use. It’s hard to attract investment when the biggest employer leaves town.

Inefficiency of Mines


But, was there ever an alternative to closing the mines? Even putting aside the environmental costs of coal, there is a ruthless capitalist incentive to switch to renewables. The cost of solar has plummeted 90% in 10 years, and has continued to fall. The cost of coal has remained stagnant. People might claim that solar and wind are too unreliable to replace fossil fuels. You can burn coal even in winter on a windless day. This might have been true a few years ago, but improvements in battery storage technology mean this argument is losing relevance. There is simply no logic to subsidise fossil fuels and avoid the fact renewables are becoming much economical. Deep red states like Texas and Utah in the US are building solar and wind, not because of woke ideology, but the marginal cost of renewables is much cheaper than maintaining coal mines, and this gap is only set to grow as technological progress continues to reduce the cost of renewables but not fossil fuels.

CO2 Emissions


But, the decline of the coal industry also had a very significant long-term effect on reducing the UK’s CO2 emissions.  Peaking in the 1970s, the closure of the coal mines, led to a dramatic drop in UK CO2 emissions. For a time, the UK was a global leader in reducing CO2 showing how it is possible to reduce emissions without compromising economic growth. Coal doesn’t just produce CO2 but also includes a variety of other pollutants such as soot, sulfur and nitrous oxide which are responsible for respiratory problems and higher cancer rates. Reducing coal consumption has improved the nation’s health and saved lives. It is the invisible benefit of reducing coal production. This is a benefit largely lost in the debate on fossil fuels. Some may argue the UK just replaced domestic production of coal with imports. And this was true for a few years, but now even imports have also fallen. Last week saw the last-ever delivery of coal by rail to Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station. Coal is on the way out, and although it took two decades, UK unemployment is much lower. The lost jobs of the coal industry have been replaced with new jobs elsewhere in the economy. In the nineteenth century, the Luddites smashed clothing machines fearing for their jobs. But, the days of making clothes by hand are over. You can’t hold back technological change.

Structural Change


In 1960, over half a million still worked in the coal industry, is it bad thing that today that is just 600? Should the government subsidise an industry to protect jobs forever? The UK struggles to fill fruit picking jobs and care workers, would a school leaver really aspire to spend a lifetime digging coal? Coal was the most dangerous industry, with miners at risk of fatal accidents. It is still 1000 times more dangerous than energy from solar. Is the loss of dangerous jobs something to be mourned?

A better question to ask is not should the UK coal industry be permanently kept going, but how do you manage the transition? The coal industry was particularly tricky because of how a whole town became dependent on one industry. When a coal mine closed it affected everybody. The Miner’s Strike was doubly tragic for those involved. If the economy needs to transition from coal to other energy sources, then those who lose out from this transition, need to be amply compensated. It’s not enough to say overall the economy benefits. If the economy benefits, the potential losers also have to share in the gains, or at least be better insulated from the worst effects of pit closures. There was no logic in keeping 140,000 miners permanently in work, like Arthur Scargill wanted, but the government could have used the tax bonanza of the north sea to fund new employment and training in the mining areas. It is hard to look beyond your immediate job, but mining communities could have been better served, by an NUM which sought a future beyond coal.

Mrs Thatcher closed the coal mines. It is the kind of job, you are glad someone else did. It is hard to be the one who ends centuries of tradition, prosperity and community. But, at the same time, it would have been a mistake to prop up the industry forever.

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