Britain’s buried fortunes

The ancients were right. Our doom lies in the infernal regions. Fossil fuels, the compounds of petrified, gaseous or liquefied once-living organisms, now promise destruction to those modern civilisations they made.

Coal and oil, once so valued, now deal a double blow. Their continued use makes us increasingly insecure: coal-burning is the largest single human contributor to the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Yet where coal, and even oil, is phased out, it destroys communities, creating what Huw Beynon and Ray Hudson call “a disenfranchised working class”.

And a digitally powered world being prepared for largely uncomprehending humanity is itself increasingly attended by forecasts of a different sort of doom: the creation of a burgeoning underclass, surplus to a world of work being captured by machines. Two books are eager contributors to the pessimism surrounding the conduct of present and future societies — a habitual default of the left. Things can only get worse.

In The Shadow of the Mine, Beynon and Hudson, both academics, write with authority and respect of the former mining communities of Britain. Indeed, respect is always due to miners, who traditionally performed the hardest of labours in semi-darkness and heat, a toil in conditions few not inured to it could stand for longer than an hour. Respect, however, can tip over into sentimentalisation and nostalgia on the part of commentators. Talking to mineworkers while covering their year-long strike, 1984-85, was to hear a militant defence of their jobs — their livelihoods — but also frequent comments that they hoped their sons would not follow them down the pit.

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Politics takes centre stage, for the miners’ unions were highly political from the beginning. They were formed in the teeth of resistance from the private coal owners, in the shadow of deaths from collapsing roofs and tunnels, with poor pay subject to cuts in periods of depression. The Miners’ Federation of Great Britain, later the National Union of Mineworkers, were federal organisations: large regions like South Wales, Yorkshire, and Durham each organised, in the 1940s, more than 100,000 men. They had a large pride in themselves, conscious of keeping overground life bright, warm and productive, the aristocracy, and among the most socially valuable, of organised labour.

As it developed, the governance of the National Coal Board became something of a joint enterprise between union and management, a class war truce which won the wary acquiescence of the many communists in union leadership. The presidency of Arthur Scargill, from the Yorkshire area, changed all that: from his election in 1982, he saw the NUM as a battering ram against the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher, and the programme of pit closures overseen by her appointee as chair, Ian MacGregor, a Scots-born American executive with a mandate and an appetite to close mines fast. Beynon and Hudson believe he saw resistance as “insubordination”.

The 1984-85 strike proved too draining: miners, first in the moderate Nottinghamshire area then later throughout the coalfields, trickled then flooded back to work, and the strike collapsed — as, in a few years following, did the industry. Coal mining, the feedstock of the world’s first industrial revolution, created over three centuries communities — from Fife through Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire to South Wales — of labour, struggle and a particulate kind of comradeship, a unique and often pugnacious relationship with society “outside”, almost separate civilisations. Grassed-over mounds remain: soon, memories based on experience will not.

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Coal and oil coexisted for much of the 20th century, but in its last decades — at least in the UK — the liquid drowned the rock. The two non-academic energy experts who wrote Crude Britannia see the oil industry as having created “a black gold empire built on financial power, political meddling and environmental destruction”. It’s hardly an adequate image of postwar Britain, but it does have force in, for example, their descriptions of corporate capture of the rights to Nigerian oil (and leaving many of the inhabitants in a polluted disaster area). The book is vivid and detailed, too, in the reshaping of Britain’s industrial landscape by the refineries, storage and miles of pipes needed to slake the thirst of a mass motoring, oil-burning economy.

The oil majors, who plunged their rigs into the North Sea from the 1970s on, are vastly rich, were often arrogant and reactionary, openly so into the 1970s and more guardedly even now. BP kept separate male-female dining rooms, the senior ones being all male. In an interview with the head of Shell’s “Scenarios Unit” Jeremy Bentham, the authors learn that the scenarios include opening seven wind farms every year, while there was thought given to “reforesting something like Spain”. The authors cannily check on the company’s investments in 2018: $2bn to be spent on renewables, or “new energies”, $23bn on opening new oil and gasfields.

But — so — what to do? Both books want big change, but are careful to be vague. Marriott and Macalister end by assuring readers that “the days of oil and gas in the UK are numbered . . . and the next challenge is how the world of wind, tide and solar are to be controlled”. But they leave a question, not a programme — “How will the ownership of this common wealth shape the nation?”

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The question increasingly seeks answers in the various economic and social futures now being sketched for a post-Covid world. Many of these assume a more egalitarian spirit, taking its inspiration from the example of collective and often self-sacrificing work of health, service, transport and shop workers, and from growing commentary and academic research pointing to a much more egalitarian society, one whose central economic drive is to “level up”. The authors of these two books endorse such a spirit. It remains, for the present, a spirit in search of a viable politics which can move us to a new level of communal living, shorn of the vast disparities among which we presently live.

The Shadow of the Mine: Coal and the End of Industrial Britain by Huw Beynon and Ray Hudson, Verso £20, 416 pages

Crude Britannia: How Oil Shaped a Nation by James Marriott and Terry Macalister, Pluto £20, 304 pages

John Lloyd is an FT contributing editor

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