Thousands of British miners heard the news they had long feared on October 13th, 1992 – that their pits would close and they would lose their livelihoods.
It was 25 years ago today that John Major’s Conservative government announced it was planning to close up to 31 of Britain’s 50 remaining deep coal mines, with the loss of 31,000 jobs.
The first six pits would close by the end of the week, affecting 6,000 miners. They were at Cotgrave, Sherwood and Silverhill in Nottinghamshire, Shirebrook in Derbyshire, Allerton Bywater in Yorkshire, and Bickershaw in Lancashire.
Although grim and unwanted news for the miners, few were surprised. Almost 100 collieries of all types had already been shut since the beginning of the bitter year-long Miners’ Strike of 1984-85. It ended in defeat for the miners and their once powerful union, the NUM, which was now powerless to prevent further pit closures.
After the privatisation of the power industries in 1990, British coal had struggled to compete with cheaper foreign imports, especially from Eastern European countries which began exporting with the end of the Cold War. On top of that, most of Britain’s traditionally coal-fired power stations were switching to cheaper and cleaner North Sea gas, drastically reducing the demand for coal.
Back in 1974, the strength of the miners’ unions and their readiness to call regional and even national strikes was widely credited with bringing down Edward Heath’s Conservative Government. When Margaret Thatcher regained power for the Tories in 1979 she was determined that would not happen again and resolved to crush the unions’ power.
It fell to one of her former Ministers, Michael Heseltine – now President of the Board of Trade – to announce the closure programme on October 13th, 1992. He dismissed any suggestion that Britain should follow Germany’s lead in preserving its coalfields through extra government subsidies. Instead he said that remaining pits must find new ways to return to profitability in a competitive marketplace if they were to have any hope of survival.
According to Mr Heseltine’s closure timetable, only 19 deep coal mines would be left by March of the following year, grouped in the Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire areas. His announcement was tempered with news of an extra £1bn from the Treasury to meet the cost of redundancy payments and support mining communities which faced devastation with the closure of the pits they were built around.
But there was also a stark warning to any minors planning to fight the closures through industrial action. Any who did so would risk losing their redundancy entitlements, worth up to £37,000.
Miners’ leader Arthur Scargill nevertheless urged NUM members to fight the Government, branding its closure programme a “savage, brutal act of vandalism”. But his pleas fell on deaf ears, most miners by now resigned to the downfall of their industry.
Labour’s trade spokesman, Robin Cook, also condemned the closures, calling them a bad decision not only for the communities directly affected, but for all taxpayers and electricity consumers who would ultimately pick up the costs. However, Labour stopped short of backing Mr Scargill’s calls for industrial action.
Sure enough, another dozen pits closed the following year, including Grimethorpe, famous for its colliery brass band, and another six in 1994, with a steady trickle of closure in the years following. Britain’s last deep coal mine, Kellingley Colliery, in Yorkshire, closed in December 2015 and now only around 25 small-scale open cast mining operations remain, mostly in Scotland.
On April 21st this year, Britain went a full day without using any coal power to generate electricity for the first time since the Industrial Revolution. What remains of the British coal industry now employs around 2,000 people, compared to more than a million working in almost 1,000 mines when the industry was at its peak during the Second World War.