Thatcher’s legacy in the coalfields was devastation

By Dan Jarvis MP and Michael Dugher MP

Much has been said and written this week about Margaret Thatcher’s period in office. Friends and foes alike have rightly and on the whole respectfully acknowledged the achievements of a prime minister who won three general elections, led our country for more than 11 years and dominated the face of British politics. But the view of her premiership from the area where we represent in Barnsley is as stark as it is damning.

Barnsley was a town built on coal. The many communities that sprung up in the large pit villages in the Borough sustained an industry that powered the industrial revolution and brought tremendous wealth to our national economy. Nationally, nearly 200,000 mining jobs were lost due to pit closures from the mid-eighties. Eventually, all of Barnsley’s pits were closed.

In coalfield areas across the country, Margaret Thatcher’s legacy was one of complete devastation. Thatcher’s policy chief at the time was John Redwood, now a Conservative MP and former cabinet minister. In his tribute to Lady Thatcher in the House of Commons this week, Redwood defended what had happened to the coal industry saying that many jobs had been lost before Mrs Thatcher’s time in office. This is true enough. But Redwood argued that all they had tried to do in the 1980s was to “modernise” the industry. But the coal industry wasn’t modernised, or even consolidated, it was decimated.

Following the strike in 1984-85, many mining areas like Barnsley were knocked to their knees and have been struggling to get back up ever since. When the pits shut, a whole way of life disappeared virtually overnight. It is impossible to underestimate the trauma that this had on areas like Barnsley with the entire economic system and social infrastructure that supported mining villages vanishing. And after ‘victory’ had been secured over the striking miners, Mrs Thatcher’s government just walked away with no transition plan in place for the people and communities they had destroyed.

Today only three deep coal pits remain in the UK out of the 170 in operation in 1984. Many Conservatives still argue that the closure of many of the pits was unavoidable. But for Thatcher, defeating the miners and destroying the industry that employed them was both personal and political. She once referred to the miners – hardworking, law-abiding, tax-paying and patriotic British citizens doing a tough and often dangerous job – as the “enemy within”. By referring to them as the “enemy”, she was effectively saying that those working in the coal industry were the moral equivalent of Britain’s real enemies at the time, like the Argentine junta that seized the Falklands by force or the IRA terrorists that bombed the UK. The anger caused by her remarks is still felt today. Many of the pits that were closed were still profitable and – despite other sources of energy becoming available – demand was still strong. Even now, the UK still consumes millions of tonnes of coal every year. Last year alone, the UK consumed 64 million tonnes, using 55 million tonnes for electricity generation. But with so few pits still running, the UK only managed to produce 16.8 million tonnes of this total. So to make up for the short fall, we imported 45 million tonnes of coal last year, with Russia, Columbia and the US being the top three exporters to the UK. Over 2 million tonnes of coking coal was even imported all the way from Australia.

According to 2011 estimates, Britain still has a total coal reserve of 3,196 million tonnes (surface and underground). And with the advent of clean coal technology, there is no reason why the coal industry couldn’t see a revival. The Carbon Capture and Storage Association estimates that the global market is worth £10bn and that the UK could gain many thousands of high skilled jobs in the next three decades if business choose to invest in the right way. These are precisely the kind of jobs we need to see in the UK in the years ahead.

Increased poverty and the return of mass long-term unemployment are what really defined Margaret Thatcher’s governments. Many miners never worked again. Some become self-employed; others eventually got jobs (often less well paid and less satisfying) in areas like retail or distribution. Others simply moved away. But even today, we are still dealing with first, second and third generation unemployment in Barnsley.

And of course all of this precipitated rocketing spending on social security benefits in the years after the pits closed. It is ironic that in the 1980s, the Conservative government pushed the unemployed, including ex-miners, onto disability benefits as a way of massaging the dole figures. Despite all the myths, the truth is welfare dependency is actually central to Thatcher’s impact on Britain.

In Barnsley, recovering from Thatcher’s legacy remains a massive challenge today. Her polices created serious structural, long-lasting and generational decay. A recent report concluded that for Barnsley to reach the average job density for the country, over 30,000 new jobs are needed and that average weekly earnings need to increase by £59.50 to reach the national average.

Of course there have been many improvements in recent years thanks to regeneration funding from Europe, the efforts of the local authority and 13 years of investment under the previous Labour government. The physical infrastructure of Barnsley was dramatically improved. Throughout Borough you can see the new houses, the retail parks, the BSF schools, the new NHS and Sure Start centres. And things like the introduction of the Future Jobs Fund, pioneered in Barnsley, helped thousands of young people gain valuable work before the scheme was scrapped by David Cameron.

The concern now is how to prevent things from slipping backwards. Places like Barnsley suffer disproportionately when times are tough and the cuts have a disproportionately bigger impact. Depressingly, we are seeing the same callous indifference from this Conservative-led government that characterised Margaret Thatcher’s attitude to areas like ours. The bitterness about what happened under the Thatcher governments remains. Many people understandably will never be able to forget, nor forgive, what Margaret Thatcher did to some of the proudest communities in Britain.

Michael Dugher and Dan Jarvis are the Labour MPs for Barnsley East and Barnsley Central respectively.