Mining Coal Is Good, But Burning Coal Is Bad? Struggling To Understand The Left

Posted on Thu 04/18/2013 by


Daniel Hannan CEBy Daniel Hannan ~20130408_margaret_thatcher_1992_

This isn’t another blog about the Iron Lady. There have been quite enough of those already: we have, so to speak, reached Thatcheration point. Rather, it’s an attempt to get to grips with why so many people react with venomous rage to her name. Some of the abuse, of course, is simply the idiotic teenage posturing that you get on Twitter (I have favorited some examples, to give you a sense of what I mean). But plenty comes from people who, in other contexts, are balanced and considerate.

I have spent three days trying to understand the intensity of their reaction. As far as I can make out, anti-Thatcherites have two main complaints. First, that the Tory leader heartlessly closed coal mines and other heavy industries. Second, that, in increasing the gap between rich and poor, she made Britain more materialistic and selfish.

Let us deal with them in turn. It’s true that the UK, in common with every Western country, was going through a process of deindustrialization in the 1980s. That process had begun at least half a century earlier, and had accelerated through the Sixties and Seventies, when Harold Wilson closed nearly twice as many pits as Margaret Thatcher was to do. Of course, what we mean by ‘closed’ is that the Government discontinued the grants that had kept unprofitable mines in operation. Neither Wilson nor Thatcher prohibited the extraction of coal; they simply stopped obliging everyone else to subsidize it.

Why were the mines and other heavy industries unprofitable? Partly because of lower production costs in developing countries, and partly because of trade union militancy at home.

As in every age and nation, some sectors expanded while others contracted. Just as telephones put stenographers out of work, so there was a shift from heavy industry to services. Such shifts are never easy. Even the men who used their redundancy payments to build successful second careers look back painfully on the transition. I can quite understand why there were strong feelings at the time.

What I find bewildering is why the mine closures are cited now as evidence of Tory wickedness. No one, with the exceptions of the SWP and the BNP, wants to recreate a state-owned coal industry today. Indeed, the people who complain most bitterly about the pit closures are generally those who are most against burning coal.

Ah, you say, but you can’t just have a service-sector economy. Maybe. But why is building cars for a living more valuable than driving them? Why is making boilers more important than installing them? The expansion of the service sector has improved our lives immeasurably. It has given us better medical care, more convenient shopping hours, wider leisure activities.

Don’t get me wrong, making things is wonderful. We are the eighth largest manufacturing economy on Earth, selling tea to China and vodka to Poland, and exporting more cars than we import for the first time since the early 1970s. And we’re doing it all without subsidy. Despite – or, rather, because of – the removal of state aid, manufacturing output was 7.5 per cent higher when Margaret Thatcher left office than when she entered it. The nostalgia, in other words, is not for making things per se, but for particular industries: coal, shipbuilding, steel.

It is a nostalgia which, I confess, I simply can’t grasp. My grandfather worked in the Clyde shipyards between the wars and, like many of his workmates, died in his sixties. He never wanted that life for his grandson.

What, then, of the second charge, that we became more heartless as our social cohesion loosened? It’s certainly true that the gap between rich and poor widened, but this has been happening all over the industrialized world since the 1960s, for reasons which social scientists dispute. The two most popular explanations, as far as I can understand, are greater social mobility, which drains poor areas of their ablest inhabitants, and the tendency of wealthy people to marry each other – a tendency that followed the large-scale entry of women into the workforce.

I don’t know what the explanation is. What I do know, though, is that the gap between rich and poor widened further under Labour. I know, too, that charitable giving doubled – over and above inflation – during the Thatcher years. By that most empirical of measures, we have become less selfish. Certainly less selfish than the Lady’s trade union adversaries, who never lost their belief that the world owed them a living.

I’ve tried, I really have, to understand the anger, but it eludes me. I know that this blog is followed by many tolerant, reasonable, Labour-voting readers. Maybe one of you chaps could help. Contributor Daniel Hannan is an British writer and journalist, and has been a Conservative MEP (Member of the European Parliament) for South East England since 1999. He speaks French and Spanish and loves Europe, but believes that the EU is making its constituent nations poorer, less democratic and less free. He is the winner of the Bastiat Award for online journalism.

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