Anyone with a grasp of the history of Britain knows that its once considerable power, and much of its still considerable prosperity, was built on coal. The geological accident of these islands containing coal gave us the industrial revolution and the first railways, and consolidated British naval power. Implicit in that accident was the fact that a few landowners, under whose acres the coalfields spread, became astonishingly rich as a result — people such as the Butes, the Londonderrys and the Fitzwilliams, who lived self-indulgent lives in their stately homes while half a mile below semi-naked men crawled in coal dust five-and-a-half days a week to make them so wealthy.
These emotive comparisons are why mining became such a political activity, with the eventual formation of the once massively powerful National Union of Mineworkers and the nationalisation of the pits in 1947 by the Attlee government. They are also why it is easy to write colourful books on this otherwise black subject. Not only did mining appear to exploit working-class men and their families, who became the captive labour force for the industry, but it also exposed them to horrible injuries, diseases and death.
Jeremy Paxman’s thorough but rather unoriginal book (despite having interviewed some veterans of the mining industry, much of what he writes is well known, and his use of secondary sources is extensive) rightly makes much of the terrible ordeals that the men (and, until the 1840s, women and children) who worked underground had to endure. He also writes sourly of the riches their work bestowed on the coal owners.
Yet this is not a predictable leftist diatribe against the forces of capitalism — though in his account of the 1984 coal strike Paxman does emphasise the suffering at the hands of the police of a female protestor who stupidly walked to the front line of the Orgreave dispute and was clouted with a baton, while the killing of David Wilkie, a Welsh taxi driver who was taking two miners to work when strikers dropped a concrete post on his car, receives no such overt condemnation.
Paxman concedes (though not enough) that while many coal owners were obtuse, exploitative and unfeeling towards their workers, equally many were not. One of the more enlightened families were the Fitz-williams of Wentworth Woodhouse, one of the grandest houses in Britain and indeed in Europe. He quotes a story from Catherine Bailey’s superb 2007 book about the Fitzwilliams, Black Diamonds, concerning the repellent Manny Shinwell, Minister of Fuel and Power in the Attlee administration.
Shinwell’s class hatreds were notorious, to the point where today he would probably be prosecuted for hate crime. In 1947, he decided the national interest justified securing rapid access to sizeable deposits of coal under the Repton-designed gardens of Wentworth Woodhouse, and, despite protests from people of all political colours, ordered the destruction of the gardens to create an open-cast mine right under the house’s windows.
Paxman does not hold back on the philistinism, vindictiveness and ignorance of Shinwell, whose commitment to the socialist cause saw him end up in the House of Lords. And later on he dwells on the egomania of Arthur Scargill, the committed communist who lived high off the hog at the NUM’s expense, and whose dedication to extra-parliamentary revolutionary action finally destroyed his union and helped significantly to destroy his industry.
The book covers a sweep of time from the late Middle Ages, through the period when Britain was entirely coal-powered, until the affirmation in the last century that the burning of fossil fuels was contributing to climate change. But, as Paxman realises, it was not simply a desire to clean up the environment that caused the decline of coal. Other forms of energy generation, such as oil, natural gas and, of course, nuclear power, were cheaper as well as cleaner, and less subject to disruption from industrial muscle.
Yet this book does have its perplexing aspects. There is the occasional confident statement of things that aren’t true: for example, Ramsay MacDonald was 33, not 43, in 1900, and was certainly not then known as the grand old man of the Labour movement. And there is the odd remarkable fact that may well be true but is supported by no reference to justify it — such as that ‘one estimate’ had it that between 1500 and 1900 an average of two coaling ships a week sank off the Yorkshire coast as they ran coals from Newcastle down to the industry’s greatest customer, London. Over 400 years that represents the loss of more than 38,000 vessels, a marine holocaust that seems to require more than a footnote.
Also, Paxman can’t resist the journalistic sneer, which can get rather in the way of credible history. Although he presents plenty of evidence for being rude about Scargill, other characters are branded variously a ‘prig’, a ‘pompous bore’ and (on several occasions) ‘smug’, without evidence of why being adduced.
While accepting the industry had to wind down and run its course, Paxman does not address in any depth the key paradox in the history of coal mining: that when it had for so long been such a horrible job, that weighed so heavily on the health and lives of the men who undertook it, people even less extreme and deranged than Scargill went to enormous lengths to ensure the right of men to continue to suffer in this way. That book remains to be written; but I suspect we are still too close to those times for it to happen yet.
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