The long shadow: Boris Johnson on the closure of mines in Britain

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Debates regarding the ethics and morality behind the closure of the mines under the Thatcher administration have been reignited following Boris Johnson’s recent comments. He acknowledged the “huge impact and pain“ that the dismantling of the domestic mining industry caused for many but claimed that the former Prime Minister gave the UK a “big early start” to move away from fossil fuels.

Mrs Thatcher had famously been ecologically aware, stating that “the main threat to our environment is more and more people and their activities”. She engaged in discussions concerning the reduction of the use of fossil fuels and, judging her only by her rhetoric, she could plausibly be labelled somewhat of an environmentalist – at least relatively speaking for a 20th century Tory politician. However, her policies throughout the miners’ strikes were primarily politically motivated, actively trying to reduce the political power of the trade unions and push Britain away from heavy industry, no matter the costs to livelihoods. It is because of this that Mr Johnson’s comments have come across as incredibly insensitive and out of touch.

Mr Johnson’s comments have reopened old wounds for many

It is easy to forget with the privilege of time that the closing of the mines had devastating impacts on entire communities, the ripples of which are still felt today in many old mining communities. The ‘North-South divide’, whether harsh reality or modern myth, remains a testament to this. The utterance of Mrs Thatcher’s name in a northern town will almost always prompt an eye-roll or a tut. Emotions are powerful and still fuel disdain for her memory in these communities.

This disdain is not ill-warranted, either; the closing of the mines deeply impacted many – over 160,000 pit workers faced redundancy at this time. Easington Labour MP Grahame Morris has since hit back at Mr Johnson, stating that “closing the coal mines had nothing to do with saving the environment, it was an assault on a way of life, on trade unions and on communities that did not fit with Thatcher’s free market brand of Conservatism that worshipped money, speculation, the City of London and greed over community and society.” This is still very much the prevailing opinion in these areas.

Mr Johnson’s comments have reopened old wounds for many – coalfield areas are among the most deprived in the country, with areas such as Yorkshire and the Humber, and the North East, being some of the most affected by deprivation. Conflating intentions to outsource fossil fuels while dismantling the stronghold which the trade unions held over the working people with intentions to save the environment is a deeply insulting blow to those who faced some of the hardest times in recent memory.

Though the mines may have been a relic to a dying industry, at the time they were the income of whole communities. Allowing the evaporation of an entire industry – without regard for the livelihoods at risk – is what many in these communities believe to be the most bitter part of the mine closures.

They are a testament to how safe Mr Johnson feels in his leadership of the Conservative party and its dominance of the ‘red wall’

The 2019 election saw the Tories tear down Labour’s ‘red wall’, with huge areas of previously Labour-safe seats being snatched by the Conservatives. After nearly four years of Brexit back-and-forth dominating politics, it is not a wonder why they won a landslide victory: the Tories brought a clear promise to end the Brexit saga. But what impact will Mr Johnson’s comments have on his new coalition?  

With the dust of the Brexit debacle settled, the Tories would hope to cling onto their new blue territories. However, in exacerbating the working class-Conservative (here, finding new, offensive justifications to defend mine closures), Mr Johnson is failing to actively keep this support. Though many (even ex-Labour voters) believe today’s Labour to be effectively unelectable, the Tories are at risk of many of these defecting voters returning to Labour in the future.

There is no doubting that the climate crisis is an essential topic of political discussion, and the Conservative party under Mr Johnson have made strides in fighting climate change. But using the hindsight of renewable energy to vindicate political actions (which were not ecologically motivated in the first place) has only reminded many in ex-mining communities of a painful history.

The comments which the Prime Minister has made have been called tone deaf and insulting. But they reveal more than this. They are a testament to how safe Mr Johnson feels in his leadership of the Conservative party and its dominance of the ‘red wall’. Labour is not effective enough to reclaim ground at this point. The outrage caused has reminded the political sphere that Mrs Thatcher’s legacy with the coalfield communities is still strongly held, driven by as much emotion and anger as ever. As the world moves forward, it is important to recognise the power that politicians hold to uproot the foundations of what we call life.

Image: Adeline Zhao

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