Boris Johnson’s Comments on The Pit Closures Were a Joke… But He Has A Point | Kieran Burt

Recently, Boris Johnson made the news by making light of Margaret Thatcher’s continued closure of coal mines and received significant backlash because of it. It caused Thatcher to trend again on Twitter, with many people condemning the comments as insensitive and failing to grasp the history of the situation. The Labour Leader, Sir Keir Starmer, called on Johnson to apologise immediately, while the SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon called the comments “crass and deeply insensitive”. But these comments do however have some truth to them. 

Now, this article is not going to argue that there was no damage to communities caused because of the pit closures. There was. However, these closures were justified for a number of reasons, such as removing trade unions as an undemocratic, non-Parliamentary source of strength in British politics, the mines themselves were uneconomical and therefore made no sense to keep open, and finally yes, because of the climate. 

So, let’s take the climate reason for a second. While not the explicitly stated reason for the pit closures, they did have the beneficial side-effects of improving the climate. These mines are environmentally damaging, causing eyesores to otherwise beautiful areas of countryside. In addition, whilst it has become increasingly dependent on Chinese coal-utilising industries, Britain itself had to begin the transition away from coa; this goes without mentioning that coal is a finite resource. These closures proved that Britain was able to successfully move away from domestic coal, which needed to happen in the long term. Thatcher closing the mines heavily reduced the lobbying power of the unions and helped bring more climate conscious thinking to the mainstream. If the unions still had the lobbying power that they did, they would have undoubtedly prevented this type of thinking; just look at the lobbying power in the US preventing similar moves. 

Thatcher is also more of an environmentalist than people give her credit for. She gave passionate speeches about environmentalism, two in 1988, and one to the UN in 1989. These speeches put environmental issues on the landscape, being the first prominent politician to raise awareness of the issue. Before then if you spoke about climate change you were likely to get laughed at. Thatcher invested in supercomputers to model climate change at the world leading Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research, something which no doubt contributed to their status. While climate has since fallen under the monopoly of the left wing, Thatcher proves that it was actually the right that brought the issue to the forefront of people’s minds. 

Progressives who espouse radical action to save the climate ought to be happy with the mine closures. Firstly, because there was extensive action from within and secondly because it allowed the UK to become a leader in climate policy. It allowed for the green thinking that permeates British politics today. 

As has been touched on already, the power of the unions had to be reduced. During the post-war period, they had proved too powerful and had a stranglehold on the government’s ability to act. The unions frustrated Harold Wilson’s 1964-1970 Government, Edward Heath’s 1970-1974 Government and the Harold Wilson/James Callaghan Government of 1974-1979. Strikes were commonplace, bringing down both the Heath Government and the Callaghan Government. 

Thatcher rightfully realised that this couldn’t go on. Parliament is the sovereign body in the UK, not the unions. So, determined not to fall to them, she stood up to them. When they striked during 1984-1985, Thatcher held out against their demands. She learnt from previous mistakes and stockpiled resources, thus preventing Britain once again being held hostage to union action. She prevailed over the radical union leader Arthur Scargill.

The mines were also uneconomic. Coal had been failing to make a profit for forty years, meaning that due to government nationalisation under Clement Attlee money was being thrown—almost literally—into a bottomless pit. Privatisation allowed the closure of uneconomic pits. Imported coal was also becoming much cheaper, meaning domestic coal simply could not compete. The UK economy was moving away from industrial output, and toward an economy not based on heavy industry. There was simply no place for British coal.

In my view, while Johnson’s comments overplay the climate as a reason that Thatcher had for closing the mines, it was nonetheless still present. Thatcher was more of a climate supporter than many realise, and closing the mines had clear benefits to that end. Reasons like the need to reduce union power and the economics of coal drove the bulk of policy decisions around coal, however the climate case should be considered.

Photo Credit.

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1 Response

  1. Richard Goddard says:

    The only people looking for an apology for these comments are those who helped return a Tory MP for places like Bassetlaw, Bolsover, Don Valley, Rother Valley & Wakefield. All places that had a tough time from pit closures. And where avoidance of the name Margaret Thatcher was desirable in the campaigning for the last general election. Incidentally, the seat where bad taste lefties burn Iron Lady effigies remained Labour but would’ve only needed about 1,200 more to go blue. The candidate admits little mention Margaret Thatcher was deliberate.

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