Tuesday, 8 January 2013

What If?

When Margaret Thatcher was in charge of these islands, she made some decisions which left me speechless. Two which still irk me today are the decimation of the coal and steel industries.

At the time she took on Arthur Scargill, (odious man), I was working abroad and all I knew about the confrontation was from English (and Scottish) newspapers.  I worked with a Polish chap occasionally and shortly after German television had broadcast a clip of Arthur Scargill being arrested by the police, my Polish colleague expressed his delight at Margaret Thatcher's stance. Explaining his joy he said (I'm paraphrasing of course):"This is excellent for my country. We will now be able to sell coal to England and charge what we like."  I recall he went on to explain Poland was already supplying Britain's coal supply but, because we had our own mines, the Poles were making little profit on their export.

Of course coal is a dirty word nowadays but here in rural parts some residents depend on it for their wellbeing. Coal lorries can still be seen delivering to outlying homes, albeit the material they supply is now classed as clean coal.

For some years there has been much talk about 'clean' coal and of course coal-based power stations are not acceptable to those who firmly believe that coal is responsible for the country's problems with pollution.

Once upon a time that may have been the case, but with modern technologies cleaning up the fossil fuel, our pollution has reduced radically.

However, this post isn't about the pros and cons of coal, but how short-term most political decisions can be.

We're all aware the great economies of the world - the US, China and India - continue to use coal in abundance and it's reported energy firms may have to rely upon it unless new gas power stations are built.

Just think - if Margaret Thatcher had been more interested in the country rather than her personal feud with Arthur Scargill, Britain could have been exporting coal to these countries and also providing employment for many instead of closing the whole industry down and using the North Sea oil income to soften the blow. If investment in both the coal and steel industries had been made wisely, instead of foolishly, we may have had two modern, although much smaller, industries of which we would have been proud.

Yes, coal mining and steel manufacturing are 'dirty' industries but the workers were skilled and quite rightly had pride in their abilities.  The few remaining coal mines in England have serious problems and since Corus closed the Teeside plant, there is no need to teach steel-making skills to the younger generation.

I wonder, if Thatcher had reorganised the coal and steel industries would they have been profitable or would the coal industry been sold to foreign investors to asset strip? I will never know.

Alex Salmond insists the renewable industry has created numerous jobs.  I've yet to meet anyone who earns their living from this industry, although Scottish renewables claimed, in March last year, 1,526 people were directly employed with a further 8,701 in the supply chain and 909 jobs in academia and the public sector. No mention is made of anyone in the supply chain being based overseas.

However, the renewable industry is still in its infancy and we can but hope that it becomes a major player in the energy market.

(The subject of this post arose from a trip I had to Fife recently. The coal mines are no longer, the communities destroyed and some of the people still hanker after the days when unemployment was low and towns all pulled together. Halcyon times to some who continue to resent losing far more than jobs.)


William said...

I can only concur, SR.

You can argue that a victory over the unions was a necessity given the backdrop of the 1970s but I think there was a point when Scargill was defeated and Thatcher could have claimed victory and still retained a coal industry.

There have been too many industries lost and skills lost that I think were a result of short-term thinking.

It wasn't a particular Thatcher problem, I don't think. If you read Corelli Barnett's 'The Lost Victory' you'll see that even after WWII British politicians didn't realise that industry, manufacturing, research were the backbone of a strong economy.

Unfortunately, I don't really see any political party that's promising a serious industrial strategy.

Key bored warrior. said...

"Alex Salmond insists the renewable industry has created numerous jobs. I've yet to meet anyone who earns their living from this industry, "

Rosie I am really surprised at you making such a statement. Are you really saying that all these win turbines you hate are operated and maintained by remote control from abroad. Why don't you visit Strathclyde Uni and meet some of the people and the excellent work they do on renewables. Or you could pop down the road to the Hydrogen centre in Fife. How about a visit to Scrabster where they have just had massive development and rebuilding to service the Pentland Firth development. I could give you an introduction to an engineer who is putting the finishing touches to a Hydro scheme in Evanton and about to start another down on Loch Ness. If you are not meeting these people it is because your social circle is biased towards those who hate the word renewable, and would sooner talk to sheep or trees. I was thinking of inviting you to Whitlee for a walk and coffee, and meet the staff. But the coffee shop is closed until next month. They do exist in Scotland working and paying taxes and they are graduating from our universities. You really do need to catch up.

Elby the Beserk said...

Scargill was and remains an idiot, and fell headlong into the trap Thatcher laid for him. He is as responsible as she for the destruction of coal mining in the UK - IMHO, of course! And he damaged the union movement at the same time. Dreadful man.

Elby the Beserk said...


Indeed. Also, all the post war histories note that those industries that went on to be nationalised then became even MORE inefficient than they had been in private hands.

Crinkly & Ragged Arsed Philosophers said...

On the nail SR - and even more damning is to see the same idealogical bigotry being repeated today with even greater monetary and social costs.

subrosa said...

No, I don't suppose it was purely a Thatcher problem William, however she highlighted it by taking on Scargill. (I wasn't so interested in politics in those days but her actions at that time woke me up).

subrosa said...

No KBW, I'm not saying that at all, but I have been told that some maintenance staff who work/worked on turbines here are employed by the foreign manufacturers. They do a number of days here then have leave home - rather like the oil industry.

I certainly don't hate the word renewable or have a limited outlook about progress in that sector.

Thanks for the invitation to Whitelees but I've already visited and found the place very intimidating - although they have tried hard to make it more like an RSPB visitors centre without the observation hide. :)

If you read the post it says only 1,526 people were directly employed a year ago. That's not a big percentage of our workforce so I don't feel at all embarrassed not knowing one of them personally.

I've never been against wind turbines per se, but I reject the idea that our beautiful countryside is now being scarred by thousands of the things. They may seem a good idea right now but time will tell their true worth, both financially and socially.

Does being acquainted with several who work in the hydro and oil industry count? :)

subrosa said...

Yes Elby, I'd agree with that. There was a point I think when each side could have compromised, but Scargill refused to recognise that. He lost the support of the workers thereafter. Odious right enough.

subrosa said...

Indeed Crinkly. Of course nobody wants to get their hands dirty these days. So many will never have that feeling of personal pride when their day's work resulted in a contented family.

Sobers said...

I don't think any government should ever leave the public at mercy of a small group of individuals by letting them get into such a position of strategic importance that allows them a leverage far in excess of their democratic rights. This goes for bankers as much as miners.

There is also the issue of deep mining never going to be competitive with opencast coal from overseas, assuming a free market price. Thus the UK faced either subsidising coal production ad infinitum, and thereby giving the union movement the power to shut the country down as it chose, or to close the coal industry and rely of foreign coal and subsequently gas.

It is a measure of the union movement attitude/aims that in the nearly 30 years since the miners strike the UK public has not had to suffer any energy crises, despite most of its energy coming from foreigners, whereas the preceding decade (the 70s) the lights went out on the UK public on numerous occasions, acts perpetrated by their fellow countrymen.

Demetrius said...

In the 1970's the UK decided to help Poland and our ship building industry by letting them have 30 cargo vessels on easy credit (never repaid). The calculation was that this would also help both the steel and coal industries. The Poles used them to export coal. Another matter was that there are many types of coal and by 1980 a lot of it coming up from subsidised pits was more or less unusable except for ballast and very expensive ballast at that. We had already mined most of the good stuff. The cost of treating this coal was then astronomical compared to natural gas and petro-chemicals. Also after the industrial problems in the 60's and early 70's both companies and householders were running away from coal for heating etc. In the steel industry, the industry had lagged behind in the making of better quality steel and again there was a reliability problem directly related to the kind of expensive renewal of plant that was needed. This entailed radically changed management and labour structures. Abroad other countries had developed modern high production steel plants that meant increased competition and better products. Thatcher just happened to be PM when the blancmange finally hit the fan.

Joe Public said...

If the miners (& their elected leader) hadn't tried to blackmail all the rest of the country, then perhaps today they'd still have a viable industry. [Greens excepted.]

The good news is that the UK's sat on approx 300-years supply of coal; the bad news is that burning it creates 'orrible smog & smoke.

The Greens' answer is to decimate UK industry & manufacturing by massively increasing energy & fuel costs. This then exports production to places like China, which ignored Kyoto, and uses 'even-dirtier' brown coal to provide energy, to make things, which are then shipped 1/2-way round the world back to us consumers!


That's an interesting statistic provided by Scottish Renewables ".....1,526 people were directly employed ....... and 909 jobs in academia and the public sector. ....."

So 37% are 'non-productive'. No wonder this country's going down the pan.

Dioclese said...

Love or hate Thatcher, she was right to crush the odious little turd that is Scargill who didn't give a monkeys about his members, he just wanted to bring down the government. The traitor Heath was kicked out because of Scargill and his cronies, so we have to thank him for that, but otherwise it was all about himself and not his union.

Coal in the UK will never be viable because the miners in China and the other major producer work in condition and for wages that would never be acceptable in the UK and therefore we simply couldn't compete.

As regard wind turbines, anyone who knows anything about electricity will know that you can't store AC current, so you are relying on the wind blowing at just the right time to meet the demand otherwise what it produced is simply thrown away. It's about politics, not common sense of physics.

If we threw the money we have pissed up the wall on turbines and the like into fusion research, we might just have achieved a viable long term solution by now. As it is, the French lead the way in this area.

So much for British ingenuity and world beating innovation. Brunel, Newton, Rutherford and many others must be turning in their graves...

Brian said...

The coal and steel industries needed massive amounts of investment and were costing £billions of subsidy annually to keep jobs that were unable to compete with foreign competition. What was needed was the rationalisation, concentration on high tech and quality instead of volume.

Unfortunately, the rationalisation wasn't accompanied by simultaneous redevelopment and growth of new industries in the areas affected - and this happened in the Midlands to the mass-market vehicle industry. As a result the highly-skilled machine-tool industry was decimated in Coventry. In the Potteries of North Staffs, the similarly high-skilled ceramics industry continued to decline. I have no idea what industries could have supplanted coal and steel in the eighties.

Perhaps the greatest change that Lady Thatcher wrought was the realisation that things couldn't go on as before and that if one wanted something doing one had to do it oneself.

As for the aircraft and aero-engine industries: if only Attlee had nationalised and rationalised them instead of both parties allowing diffusion of effort and talent while building penny-packets of aircraft with little export potential that even the RAF and BOAC didn't really want. It's only been since British Aerospace and Bae Systems and Rolls-Royce (1971) that the industry has been able to compete on the world stage. We may not build many complete planes anymore, but we build an awful lot more bits that go in many more aircraft.

Chef Files said...

Scargill and Thatcher, soon to be a double act in front of the divil. What a party that will be.

Allan said...

You could add the shipyards to the fate of coal as well...

Yes the well worn argument goes that shipbuilding was on it's upper in this country... and that we shouldn't be subsidising dead duck industries. Yet both Poland & Germany have been given Scotland's crown as the manufacturer of the best ships on the planet, thanks to a lack of foresight by the Wilson/Heath/Callaghan governments and Thatch puuling the trigger.

JohnB said...

So many myths repeated about how coal production in the U.K. was unproductive/over-costly at the time. Not true.

Thatcher set a trap, and Scargill walked right into it.

The decision to intentionally flood productive mines with water - which means coal extraction was (and in most cases still is) prohibitively expensive is one of the most shocking things about that horrid period in the 1980's.

Asset-stripping is one thing, but actually removing access to them? Disgraceful.

subrosa said...

I'd agree Sobers, there has to be abalance, but now we have no balance at all.

Surely it would be better for a country to supply its own fossil fuel than import it?

I see your point though.Would it be better if each country's energy was supplied by another country to avoid such scenarios? That's a whole nest of worms I suppose.

subrosa said...

Super contribution Demetrius.

I thought it was the introduction of the Clean Air Act which caused folks to back off using coal. As I said in the post many in rural areas still use it and always have done.

The steel industry was perhaps a better example of mismanagement by both politicians and managers. So much money invested for little result.

subrosa said...

It is an interesting one Joe. I thought the figures would be far higher by now. After all, renewables have been on the go for some years.

subrosa said...

She may have been right Dioclese but unfortunately she's recorded as having destroyed British industry because of it.

I doubt if we could compete either now.

Now I must go and research more on fusion.

subrosa said...

Yes Brian, that is what was needed but there wasn't the will from politicians or management so government continued to throw money at these industries and management continued to fritter it away.

subrosa said...

Scargill comes much higher up my obnoxious list than Thatcher Chef. :)

subrosa said...

Yes and I should have done so Allan. So many skill people worked in that industry.

Aye, Poland gets the accolade while Scotland gets the dross now.

Tom Mein said...

May I suggest that you do a poll and find out how many parents would be happy to see their children take a job working down a mine?
I come from South Shields(Westoe Pit) and have seen the effects of underground working on peoples lives. How much compensation was paid out by the government to cover the damage to peoples lives?

subrosa said...

I don't think a poll is needed Tom as, like you, I have a good idea what the result would be.

Indeed, there are many jobs which would not have the approval of parents such as joining the military these days.

However, don't forget the pride and sense of community that the coal mining, ship building, weaving and steel industry gave to people. These people were dignified because they did a hard day's work for - sometimes - poor pay.

Let's not forget there were few health and safety rules then too.

The point of my post was to show that with the demise of our big industries the country has lost something and it has never been replaced.

Weekend Yachtsman said...

"Alex Salmond insists the renewable industry has created numerous jobs."

Jobs created in an industry which makes no profits and exists only because of huge subsidies are a COST not a benefit.

If those people were not soaking up other peoples' wealth building and running useless windmills they could be out there doing something worthwhile.

Key bored warrior. said...

"As regard wind turbines, anyone who knows anything about electricity will know that you can't store AC current, so you are relying on the wind blowing at just the right time to meet the demand otherwise what it produced is simply thrown away. It's about politics, not common sense of physics."

Yet more guff. Never heard of pumped Hydro.

In an interesting marriage of clean and dirty tech, Deutsche Welle is reporting that the state government of Lower Saxony in Germany is looking into repurposing old abandoned coal mines inside the Harz mountains as pumped storage for wind power.

The idea has attracted approval not only from environmentalists in the region, who like the invisibility of the storage, but also from former coal miners, who like the idea of the disused coal mines being put to good use as a kind of “green battery” for wind power.

“The tradition of mining is so great in the Harz region, that they want to see the mines back in use again, so there are practically no critics of the project,” noted Marko Schmidt, an engineer for Lower Saxony’s Energy Research Center, who came up with the concept.

This acceptance is surprising to someone who has lived for so long in America, where green energy has to do battle, for different reasons, with both sides. Perhaps this pragmatic approach (when coupled with its uncomplicated embrace of green energy) is responsible for Germany’s economic growth.

Variations on ideas for pumped storage are surfacing now that the world needs to integrate intermittent wind power with the grid, but Schmidt’s innovative idea would be the world’s first use of an abandoned coal mine for this purpose.

Traditional pumped storage uses gravity to harness wind power. Water is pumped up a hill to a reservoir by wind power when it is available, typically at night, so that it can be released downhill when it is needed, using gravity to drive the turbines to make electricity.

In this case, the pumped water would be stored inside the mountaintop, rather than on it, in a reservoir, but it would still be high enough so that gravity could be used at the bottom to drive turbines when it is released. This would be a contained loop system, so the water does not contaminate rivers at the bottom.

Schmidt estimates that a pilot plant could be built in Bad Grund within the next three to five years for between 170 and 200 million euros, that would be large enough to provide up to 400 MW of storage capacity at a time, enough to power 40,000 households for a day.

Each typical windy night could be “time shifted” to power the following day’s daytime needs in this way, one day at a time. Schmidt also believes that there are up to 100 other sites in Germany that could be similarly utilized, simply by adapting the no longer used infrastructure of the fossil age.

Clean Technica (http://s.tt/12GXc)
Read more at http://cleantechnica.com/2011/06/20/germany-to-store-wind-power-in-mountains/#7OCkRvfwo4FT8hS7.99

Launch of the UK’s first Hydrogen Boiler by Pure Energy® Centre

Weekend Yachtsman your comments are just bizarre, a shame that such extremism has been attracted to this subject. Going by your argument the billions we have had extracted from us for Nuclear power and the thousands of people who have been employed by that disgraceful polluting con of an industry should have been digging ditches.

Alex Salmond and his party are taking Scotland in exactly the right direction on this and that has been acknowledged internationally. The UK are as usual all over the place, and now cannot even find contractors willing to take on their nuclear ambitions. The sooner Scotland is free of their madness the better we will become.

Key bored warrior. said...

Rosie I have done some research after reading about your experience at Whitlee and I am sure you are suffering from anemomenophobia. Which is a phobia or fear of wind turbines. Remember when people were afraid of Stage Coaches and used to throw stonea at them? I believe it was particularly bad in Dundee ;o)))

Key bored warrior. said...




subrosa said...

Indeed WY and it was the same with the industries which are now gone.

subrosa said...

I've heard of pumped hydro or what I suppose is pumped KBW. Rural dwellers can store the power made by their hydro systems. However, I'm no expert.

subrosa said...

You're on the wrong track KBW, I wasn't afraid of the things, I just felt uncomfortable being around them because they weren't appropriate to the environment I knew. They were intimidating.

Are you suggesting I need windmill therapy? :)

Nessimmersion said...

Mmm, I'd suggest KBW visits no hot air for a quick update on power generation costs. He/she still hasn't answered WYs valid point that the jobs "created" by windfarms are a cost not a benefit. He also hasn't looked at the overall costs to the german or danish economies of their reliance on intermittent wind power, (see http://sackersonsenergypage.blogspot.co.uk/2013/01/what-lessons-from-germany-and-denmark-2.html)
I never cease to be astonished at the readiness of certain segments of the scottish twitterati to sink both our and our childrens generation further in debt to satisfy their obsessions.
Any society can only support a limited number of non-economic activities, I'd vastly prefer we spent as much as possible educating the young, caring for the old & sick & building better infrastructure rather than subsisdising schemes which transfer wealth out of the pockets of the poor to landowners & wealtjy corporates while simultaneously burdening every employer with increased costs.

subrosa said...

Excellent points Nessimmersion and I concur with your last paragraph too.

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