There is something quintessentially typical about this piece by Sarah Vine. Does she really think that there is even the slightest rationale for claiming that Mrs Thatcher’s “Climate Change awareness” was in any way behind her taking on the National Union of Mineworkers? I call the piece “typical” because it is a classic example of a supporter of the political Right inventing “facts” and peddling them in high circulation online outlets.
Vine conflates two things that at the time were unconnected. Margaret Thatcher’s genuine (if short-lived) concern about the dangers of climate change, on the one hand, and her determination to defeat the NUM on the other. To anyone with the smallest knowledge about, or recollection of, the 1980s this conflation is Fake News.
As I made clear in my piece on Boris Johnson’s claim that Thatcher was motivated by environmental considerations in respect of the mining sector is bunkum. Later in the decade she did have a short-lived Green period and it is fair to praise her insight on this. But it certainly was not in any way a factor in her handling of the Miners’ strike and her determination to go ahead with a swingeing pit closure programme.
But Sarah Vine isn’t interested in the truth which she could easily have checked – the story is hardly a secret. I was close to the issue when I worked in Scotland during the Miners’ strike. This is a personal story and for me a memorable one. Vine berates the “Left” in her piece but she is wrong to do so. Many on the Left, whilst horrified by Thatcher, were less than enthusiastic supporters of Arthur Scargill.
I don’t think anyone on the Left “needs a lesson on 1970s history”, but Sarah Vine certainly does. When Edward Heath’s Conservatives came to power in 1970 Britain’s Energy industry was relatively stable. Coal to Fuel Oil conversion was well underway in the industrial sector but for power generation this was more problematic. Coal was institutionalised as the primary energy source and most power stations were strongly linked to coal mines. When the price of oil tripled the development of the then alternatives to coal (oil and gas) pretty much ceased for a time. This strengthened the hand of the already strong Miners’ Union.
Edward Heath unwisely and incompetently took on the NUM. He fought a battle at the wrong time and in the wrong way. In 1974 he fought and lost two elections on the issue of “Who governs Britain”. The Callaghan government of 1976-79 received a hospital pass from Heath (after a brief spell of comparative peace under the wiley Harold Wilson). Callaghan tried but failed to do a deal with an intransigent Trades Union movement. The Unions, not Margaret Thatcher, brought him down.
So the Conservatives were as responsible as Labour for the troubled 1970s decade. From Harold Wilson’s first administration in 1964 onwards successive British governments of both Parties failed to curb Union power. Energy lay at the heart of this. Power generation was insufficiently diversified and the only alternative to British coal was imported coal.
Thatcher won the post Falklands 1983 General Election and in her manifesto she had said this:
“In the next Parliament, the interests of the whole country require Britain’s massive coal industry, on which we depend for the overwhelming bulk of our electricity generation, to return to economic viability.”
To some extent this was code and there was no overt promise of confrontation with the miners. But “economic viability” could only come from reducing costs. In effect by closing loss-making mines and switching gradually to other energy sources (Natural Gas and Nuclear)
So Margaret Thatcher took on Arthur Scargill and won. But the damage to the social order was enormous. Politics descended into street fighting and the scars of that terrible time still remain.
Thatcher was re-elected in 1987 and the working class vote facilitated this. Notwithstanding the bitter class divisions of the Miners’ strike Thatcher received support across the board.
Millions of working class people, previously solid Labour, voted for Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives in the 1980s. Sound familiar ? Then as now extremism of the Left was a turn off for the majority of voters. Voter motivations can be complex but it is fair to hazard a guess that nobody who voted for Thatcher did so because she was “ahead of her time on climate change awareness”.
The Conservative manifesto in 1987 said “The world’s resources of fossil fuels will come under increasing strain during the 21st century; so may the global environment if the build-up of carbon dioxide the so-called “greenhouse effect” significantly raises temperatures and changes climates.” This was, of course, well after the end of the Miners’ strike. The Tory solution was a commitment to Nuclear Power, though, to be fair, Renewables do get a passing reference.
Boris Johnson was being disingenuous in his assertion, joke or not, that Thatcher “gave the UK a head start in its efforts to reduce its carbon emissions by closing so many coal mines across the country”. In defending the Prime Minister Sarah Vine misses a trick. The key contributor to the decline of Coal was the rise of the use of Gas in power stations (see above) and this started towards the end of the Thatcher years. Gas firing is still threatening to the environment but far less polluting than Coal. North Sea gas as part of the energy mix was driven mainly by its increasing availability and the Thatcher governments helped facilitate this. But again the driver was not the Environment but economics.
The reduction in U.K. coal production started long before Thatcher took on the miners and continued in the decades that followed irrespective of whether it was a Conservative or a Labour government. Thatcher’s failure was not to manage the ongoing and inevitable decline in U.K. Coal production sensitively. I have argued that switching away from coal in the long term was desirable but that the confrontational way that it was done was deplorable.