Wednesday, April 10, 2013

More Jobs As Welfare

Watch the vid (if you can) and then check out the bile in the YT comments

For those of us who believe Margaret Thatcher rescued Britain from a 50 year spiral of economic decline, the bile still directed at her from the left is hard to stomach. Surely these people can now see how there really was no alternative. Surely they realise that the vast majority of us are much better off because of the changes she bulldozed through. And they must at least understand that our public services have benefited from our higher level of general prosperity.

But no. Just as the Greeks blame the Germans for their economic reality check, much of Britain still blames Thatcher.

One of the most emotive charges against her is that she vindictively crushed the miners and smashed their communities into dust. That she provoked them into a strike and then refused to countenance any settlement other than their abject and unconditional surrender - a surrender immediately followed by mass closures and redundancies.

And it's certainly true that the numbers of mines and miners were slashed under Thatcher. in 1980 there were 211 coal mines and 230,000 miners. By 1990 the numbers had fallen to 65 and 57,000 respectively (see here).  We can see why the mining communities felt as if they had been punished by the nasty vengeful Tories.

But the strike and its aftermath didn't appear out of a clear blue sky. There was a lot of history.

To begin with, coal mining had been in steep decline for decades before Thatcher, and employment was only around one-fifth of its peak. Just in the previous 20 years the number of both mines and miners had fallen by two-thirds, with most of the cuts taking place under Labour governments. In fact there were more mine closures and job losses under Harold Wilson than under Margaret Thatcher.

And that's because British coal mining was inefficient, uncompetitive, and increasingly expensive. It may have fuelled the industrial revolution and Victorian Britain, but much cheaper alternatives were now available. The industry was only kept going by being taken into state ownership and propped up by massive subsidies, including rigged prices for supplying our coal-fired power stations. Taxpayers and electricity consumers - including our vital manufacturing industries - were being forced to pay through the nose for one of life's essentials.

On top of that, by the 1980s the miners had established for themselves a shameful record of industrial blackmail. There had been two prolonged national pay strikes in the early 1970s, necessitating extensive power cuts and a three day working week imposed to eke out supplies. The entire nation had suffered at the hands of the miners and their militant union bosses, and by bringing down the Heath government in 1974 they had shown its successors who was really in charge. They had lived by the sword, so could hardly complain when it was turned back on them.

The reality was that by the 1980s, the British coal industry had become too expensive and too unreliable to survive.

Of course, in the romantic fantasies woven by people like Billy Bragg, none of that matters. Thatcher's crime was to destroy the lives of miners and their families, and - according to their myth - to do so with the cruellest of capitalist smiles playing across her lips. If she'd possessed one ounce of humanity she would have supported the miners and nurtured their noble way of life. She'd have found the money to keep the jobs going by taxing the idle rich.

We've blogged before about public sector jobs as welfare, and by the 1980s most mining jobs had become precisely that. They had become economically unviable, and increasingly depended on taxes and subsidies grabbed from the rest of society. Moreover, whereas five-day-coodinators and most of the other public sector non-jobs are at least safe occupations, mining is not. We were subsiding people to do dirty and dangerous work that we no longer needed.

The tragedy is that so few of these ex-mining areas have developed alternative sources of prosperity. Decades after the mines were closed, unemployment remains high and for far too many, one form of welfare dependency has been replaced by another. As we've blogged before, we think the solution is to radically improve tax incentives in those areas - something we'll come back to.

PS We've met St Billy several times on BOM - start here.


  1. In the late 70's I was a medical rep in South Yorkshire. I visited many surgeries in the mining areas. Every one seemed to be full of men old before their time, crippled with emphysema and other lung diseases, a direct consequence of the nobility of labour Bragg and others spout so eloquently about. The economic and public health costs of keeping those mines going was appalling - but the union leaders and their fellow travellers were more interested in their own power and position than they were in serving the communities they purported to serve.

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  2. Replies
    1. Anonymous9:45 am


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  3. Perhaps BoM is not aware but there is still a demand for coal and there are still mines and mine workers. Those jobs are less well paid and more dangerous than the mines of the 70s and 80s but they still exist.

    Why did the demand for coal diminish? Partly because households have central heating and not the old coal fires but partly because of a political decision to replace coal fired power stations with gas powered ones.

    To ignore your own natural resources in order to buy expensive gas controlled by foreign powers is the economics of the madhouse.

    1. Obligato4:01 pm

      Perhaps you are not aware that at the time this decision was made the gas was from our own North Sea resources.

      Ignoring our own resources is what we will do now if we turn our back on shale gas in favour of imported uranium in nuclear power stations built and operated by a foreign company

    2. Yes I was aware, but thanks for the point well made. I also remember one of the arguments against the pit closures was that we had enough coal for 200 years but only enough North Sea gas for 20. At the time it did make economic sense to "dash for gas" but now we're living in the long term and that short-sighted decision will have ill effects on our economy for many years to come.

      Fracking to release shale gas is something I think I'm in favour of. There have been worries that fracking can contaminate the water table, but as long as there's no danger of that (and I'm not qualified to have a view on whether it does) there's no reason why we shouldn't harness our natural resources. Likewise the idea of the Severn Barrage is something that we should do, we don't have much sun but we do have lots of wave energy and frankly sod the wading birds if it means we can generate cheaper power for our homes and businesses.

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  4. Living in Huddersfield (not mining country, more woollens) we do get TV that also covers South Yorkshire. Our local BBC news has just had a bit on Treeton Colliery from the local Treeton Working Mens Club. They are complaining that there is no work since the pit shut, etc, etc, etc all Maggies fault.
    I did a quick Wikipedia search on Treeton colliery, it started in 1875 and between 1881 and 1905, 400 houses were built to house miners. In 1851 there was a population (including the parishes of Ulley and Brampton-en-le-Morthen of 663. In 1901 the population was 1,969, increasing to 2,040 by 1951, but this was only for the village of Treeton. So prior to the mine starting there were jobs to support, I am assuming a rural population of 663, in 3 parishes. So after the mine opened the population was 3 times higher than as a pastoral village, so obviously people at the time must have got on their bikes and gone to the village to work in the mine, where the work was. The population in 2001 was 2,514, the mine closed in 1990. I am sure you can work out what is going on here, or more exactly what is not going on! In the mean time we have 100’s of 1000’s of eastern European workers coming in here “taking their jobs”


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  5. If you look only at the British coal fields of Yorkshire, Wales and the North East etc, and restrict your view to that period in the middle 80's then yes, the case against Thatcher looks damning indeed. But as the post here highlighted; the years before were much worse for the British mines. And so it is/was for others if you look further afield.

    The great coal mining industry in Germany has suffered also - albeit coming later than ours. Their coal is also subsidised and I believe the closures have left them with just 8 working mines now. Much worse, the EU has ordered that all state coal subsidies across the EU must end by October 2014 (the date seems to move around a bit). In some former mining towns in the Ruhr the unemployment rate is higher than that found in Eastern Germany (and here).

    So. Thatcher's fault or merely global reality?

    And lets not forget, many of the complaining ex-miners now seen stabbing effigies of Thatcher received handsome redundancies. Some getting £30,000+ and even those with only a short history down the pit getting £5-7000. Sadly, I suspect much of this money went on boats and caravans rather than starting businesses... ermmm, that would be Thatcher's fault too in Billy's world.

  6. Anonymous9:03 pm

    I was a true lover of MT. What alot of people seem to forget is sometimes, sacrifices have to be made to make better. The people that are hurt by these sacrifices will always be the unhappy ones.

    Also forgotten, Margaret Thatcher owned the SAS and gave the go ahead for many important missions they carried out!

  7. The miners were the builders of their own demise.


    ONE, and ONLY one thing I will NOT forgive her "Government" for, is the "Work agency culture".

    IF I do a good job. My firm remains "fluid", why the Hel SHOULD I not expect a "job for life"?????

    This idea has poluted the entire workforce of a CONTINENT!

    THAT is unforgivable!

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  11. I guess her legacy did reap benefits for the elite few. Thatcher era is the worst. What is your agenda by saying that the coal industry -- the traditional fossil fuels was too unrealiable to survive then? Yet until now we are still using those? You just failed to establishe any rational arguments by implying that she's not the sole factor of the crisis before. Think about it.
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  12. Anonymous6:46 pm

    It was Thatcher's fault ... it wasn't Thatcher's fault. The argument rages and rages. But there were earlier factors. Has everyone forgotten the Clean Air Acts? And what about the mechanisation of mining, which led to dramatic increases in mine waste, and to the Aberfan disaster of 1st October 1966, with the subsequent imposition of costly safety legislation. Also, after centuries of carrying wood and then coal, people opted for energy sources that were more convenient. Steam all but vanished from the railways and from ships: this was a process that started before Thatcher was even born.

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