Count the blessings the miners gave us – often at the cost of their lives
By Christopher Monckton of Brenchley
In the week before Christmas, the last-ever shift of weary mineworkers, faces streaked with sweat and coal dirt, blinked into the gray winter twilight at Britain’s last-ever working deep coal-mine.
The last shift comes up from Kellingley
Kellingley Colliery in Yorkshire, where some of these great men had given 30 years of their lives in dark, difficult and dangerous conditions, is now closed forever. A 30-foot plug of concrete will seal the top of the shaft, the colliery sheds will be demolished and the site will be handed over to property developers.
The men of Kellingley are the latest in a long, ever-growing line of victims of the greenshirts’ war on jobs. The pit could have been kept open for several more years, but in the present campaign of hate against coal the Government decided it must close, saying the investment needed to open a new seam was not “value for money”.
When I was a lad, cutting my journalistic fangs at the Yorkshire Post, I went down Kellingley Colliery at the invitation of a friend who been a miner there. Before the clanking, echoing cage lurched downward, I had thought that perhaps I should become a mineworker. For the miners were paid about twice what journalists at the Yorkshire Post got in those days.
The pithead and winding gear
When we reached the bottom of the shaft, 2600 feet down, and the long, gray, dimly-lit gallery stretched away into the distance, the dust that hung in the air – not coal-dust, my friend hastened to explain, but rock-dust scattered everywhere to smother the coal-dust and make fatal explosions less likely – made breathing difficult.
At the coal-face
This was no picnic, and I’d only been below ground for a few minutes, and I wasn’t even doing any manual labor. Kellingley was a show pit – one of the safest, most modern, most efficiently ventilated of Britain’s 100 deep mines.
Conditions in just about every mine in Britain were considerably worse than what I experienced during my hour-long tourist trip below ground. I thought no more about becoming a miner. I wouldn’t have lasted a week.
On Friday, as the final shift at Kellingley ended, there were cheers, applause and tears. Some of the men carried lumps of coal as mementoes. The last ton of coal from the pit, which once produced 1000 tons a day, will go on display in a mining museum.
At the peak of the coal-mining boom in the 1920s, one British worker in 20 was a miner. Even after the Second World War there were still 750,000 miners underground in close to 1000 pits.
With the advent of gas-fired and nuclear-fired electricity, nearly all of the pits had already closed by 1983/4, when the miners went on strike to try to bring down the elected government of Margaret Thatcher, just as they had ended the Conservative government led by Edward Heath in 1974.
A decade after Heath’s downfall, the miners downed tools out of misplaced loyalty to the Communist leader of their union, Arthur Scargill. I had known Scargill when he used to visit Whitelocks, the 16th-century Leeds pub. He was good company, but his far-out politics would lead to the destruction of deep-mined coal in Britain.
When Scargill called the strike, the miners did not know that on 28 July 1979, a couple of months after Margaret Thatcher had become Prime Minister, he had boarded a Polish freighter at Tilbury, bound for what was then still Leningrad.
There, like Lenin before him, he boarded a sealed train to Moscow. He spent three weeks at the Patrice Lumumba University, where terrorist grunts from all over the world were trained. His tutors, realizing that he was a cut above your average dim suicide bomber, transferred him to the Lenin Institute, where the leaders of terrorist movements from the IRA to the PLO were taught how to undermine the free world.
Five months later, Scargill flew by Aeroflot to Paris, then transferred to a British Airways flight so that, when he landed at Heathrow, he would not be seen to have arrived on a Russian aircraft.
Our problem, at 10 Downing Street, was how to let the miners know of this surely relevant recent episode in his biography. In the end, the account I have given in the previous three paragraphs was published in a discreet column by Ronald Butt, the veteran columnist for The Times.
Since not many mineworkers read The Times, I got on my Ducati Hailwood Rep and rode out to a country house somewhere in England, where lived a property magnate whom I knew to be loyal to Britain and to the Prime Minister.
I chose David Hart to make contact with the miners because he could hold a friendly conversation with working people. Like me, he enjoyed their company and was at ease with them and – as importantly – they with him.
A country house somewhere in England
As I rode along the long drive to the symmetrical front of David’s Elizabethan mansion, later bought by Claudia Schiffer, he was on his tractor mowing the grass in the park. He heard the bike (you could hear a Hailwood Rep four counties away, like Aunt Diana in the hunting field) and got off his tractor. I gave him the cutting from The Times and asked him to visit every pit in Britain, get to know the mineworkers, see to it that they came across a copy of the cutting, and report their reactions directly to the Prime Minister with a daily one-page note.
David left his tractor where it was, showered, changed, grabbed his go-bag and got into his top-of-the-line Mercedes. That year he traveled 29,000 miles on his own time and at his own expense, visiting pits in England, Wales and Scotland. The miners, than whom there are none more loyal to Britain, were horrified to find that their leader was in thrall to a foreign power ill-intentioned towards the country they loved. David reported to the Prime Minister that in Leicestershire, in particular, the miners were so angry that they wanted to do the unthinkable: break the strike.
David – again at his own expense – funded the Leicestershire miners to set up the National Working Miners’ Committee, which eventually became the Union of Democratic Mineworkers. The Leicestershire miners went back to work, a trickle that, thanks to David, soon became a flood.
He paid for an ad campaign that ran for weeks in all major newspapers, saying: “Come on, Arthur, gizzaballot!”
The war room
In characteristically bombastic style, David set up a war-room in a rented suite at Claridges, London’s swankiest hotel. There, maps and papers were spread across the polished burr-walnut top of the grand piano, telephones were installed, and Personages discreetly came and went.
Eventually the Secretary of State for Industry, Peter Walker, who was far to the Left of the Prime Minister, discovered that David, not he, was running the response to the strike on behalf of the Government. In a fury, he telephoned David on one of the hotlines to the war room and yelled: “You can’t run this strike from Claridges!”
David calmly replied: “Well, Peter, perhaps you’d like to speak to Sir Ian McGregor, the Chairman of the National Coal Board, who runs all the pits? He’s with me now.”
From left: Sir Peter Walker, David Hart, Sir Ian McGregor
Without David Hart, the Communists would have won the strike. David is now merry in Heaven as he was always merry on Earth, and it is high time that his central role in bringing Scargill down and defending democracy was recognized. Our war was never against the miners: it was always and only against their Communist leaders.
Some weeks later, just before the winter set in, Scargill announced that the mineworkers would stage a demonstration in London. I was at Downing Street that afternoon. Shortly after lunch, Oliver Letwin, then a fellow member of the Policy Unit and now a Cabinet Minister, ran into the room.
“It’s so unEnglish!” he wailed. “It’s the miners – they’re rioting all over Parliament Square!” Oliver tended to talk like a tabloid headline when he was agitated.
“Not to worry,” I said, “They do that in Yorkshire every Friday night when the pubs close. They mean no harm by it.”
“That’s all very well,” said Oliver, “but they’re marching on Downing Street!”
Sure enough, yelling mineworkers had gathered at the far end of Downing Street, where in those days a few flimsy barriers were all that stood between them and us.
“Tell you what,” I said, “I’ll go and talk to them.” I reached for my bowler hat.
“But, but, but, they’ll eat you alive!” said Oliver. “Surely you’re not going to wear that ridiculous Charlie Chaplin hat!”
Monckton in a reinforced hunting bowler
“Watch and learn,” I said. I had had crowd-control training from a phlegmatic, pragmatic Yorkshireman in the Wetherby Division of the St John Ambulance Brigade.
“The most important thing if you want to approach an angry crowd and calm them down,” our instructor had said, in his matter-of-fact, down-to-earth, no-nonsense style, “is to wear a hat. Doffing it is the only way to make an unmistakably polite gesture at a distance.”
A sketch of the big black door, signed by Margaret Thatcher
It worked a treat. As I stepped out of the big black door and Jim the Door closed it behind me, the miners jeered at the apparition of a pinstripe-suited twerp complete with bowler hat and furled umbrella.
I marched steadily towards them and, when I had halved the distance, I lifted my hat to them and smiled. Instantly, the jeers turned to cheering that you could have heard as far away as Kellingley.
The St John Ambulance instructor had said, “When addressing a rowdy crowd, just talk quietly to one man at the front. Don’t worry about the others. They’ll all go quiet so they can hear what you’re saying.”
That worked a treat too. After a quick word of reassurance to the nervous policeman at the barrier, I addressed a miner at the front of the crowd. “Gentlemen,” I said, “You’ve come a long way to give your message to the Prime Minister, but she’s out today. If you’ll come across the road with me I’ll get you all a pint in the pub. It’s the least I can do. Then you can tell me what you wanted to tell her, and I’ll put a note of it in her box this evening.”
The Downing Street barrier, now replaced by cast-iron gates
The miners formed a docile crocodile as we crossed Whitehall to the pub. Their main grievance was that they were not paid enough. On this point, I agreed with them. Coal mining, as I had seen down the pit at Kellingley, is one of the hardest, most dangerous and most unpleasant jobs on Earth.
We parted as good friends, and two miners came to my farewell party in the State Apartments at Downing Street a few years later – the first miners, as far as I could discover, who had ever been inside the Prime Minister’s residence during a Conservative administration. What a curse is undue partisanship.
After the strike collapsed, the remaining pits were closed down one by one, for opencast mining was safer and cheaper and imported coal was also far less costly than our own hard-won deep-mined product.
I salute these great men who gave their all – and too often gave their lives – to power the industrial revolution. Eleven men died at Kellingley alone during its half century of operation, and that was one of Britain’s safest pits. Thousands more throughout Britain died of pneumoconiosis – dust on the lung.
In the 1950s and ’60s the particulate pollution from the coal-fired power stations of Britain used to kill an estimated 37,000 people a year through respiratory diseases. But, though it is not fashionable to say so, millions more were spared death by the many benefits of coal-fired power. The environmentalist totalitarians have yet to learn that an equation has two sides: benefit as well as cost.
What a tragic paradox it is, now that coal-fired power using pelletized, fluidized-bed and high-temperature combustion with filtering and fly-ash trapping is the cleanest source of energy per megawatt-hour delivered, that the men who made that great, life-saving revolution possible are now cast on to the tailings-heap of history by the totalitarian foolishness of the soi-disant “greens” whose generation-long refusal to allow poor nations to build cheap, clean, base-load power stations is killing tens of millions a year before their time by denying them the benefits of base-load power.
On the sad day that Britain’s last deep coal-mine closes, it is right to give thanks for the strength, the courage and the loyalty of those heroes of labor who dug the darkness underground to bring men light.
With gratitude we will remember them