UK’s King Coal abdicates

An industry that in 1925 employed more than 1.2million workers will this week employ precisely none.

After decades of decline, the very last working deep mine in the UK will lower its cages to seams two miles underground for the last time.

Kellingley Colliery near York will close this week, bringing to an end an industry which for decades of the 20th century was perhaps the most powerful in the country. With the transport and power industries heavily reliant on coal, as well as it being the staple for domestic heating it had a hold like no other.

Coal was Britain’s life blood, and without it, the economy could come to a standstill. Even as late as 1973 this was still true when striking miners brought the country to its knees and Edward Heath’s conservative government down to boot.

But change was in the air even then. The reality of King Coal’s dominance was an exercise in PR spin from the likes of NUM firebrands Arthur Scargill and Mick MacGahey.

Coal production in the UK peaked in the 1920s and had been on the decline ever since. By the time of the second national miners’ strike in 1984 the union’s dominance was already in decline. Scargill’s decision not to hold a national ballot split the miners and left the NUM in an unwinnable position over the long term.

In some ways Scargill was right when he said losing the strike would be the end of the coal industry. But it wasn’t Margaret Thatcher who did the damage, she merely accelerated it, changing energy usage and cheaper imports meant that the industry’s light was already burning out.

The UK today imports the vast majority of the coal that fuels its power plants, with imports first surpassing local production back in 2001. Russia, America and Columbia are all major suppliers who can sell at less than two thirds of the price it costs to mine the home produced product.

Many former miners will today look back with rose tinted glasses at an industry that was in the DNA of central Scotland, Fife, the Lothians and Ayrshire as well huge swathes of industrial England and Wales. For the past 100 years there were few working class families in these areas who didn’t have some connection with coal, my own grandfather included.

However, the reality is that time moves on, it was and still is, a dirty dangerous business and a move towards cleaner energy and jobs was inevitable.

Will UK coal ever make a comeback? With an estimated 30 million tons of coal remaining stranded in the ground under Kellingley and similar reserves elsewhere the raw material is certainly there. Whether it will ever be economical or environmental sustainable to extract in a world turning its back on ‘dirty’ energy sources is another matter.