Yesterday, whilst on a tour of Northern Scotland, Boris Johnson said: “Thanks to Margaret Thatcher, who closed so many coal mines across the country, we had a big early start and we’re now moving rapidly away from coal altogether.”
Johnson is reported to have laughed about his comments, saying he was looking for a reaction from the press.
An official government spokesperson commented: “The prime minister recognises the huge impact and pain closing coal mines had in communities across the UK.” But the PM has refused to apologise for his comments.
His comments sparked widespread backlash from across the political spectrum, with Scottish FM, Nicola Sturgeon, tweeting: “Lives & communities in Scotland were utterly devastated by Thatcher’s destruction of the coal industry.”
Johnson already refused to meet the Scottish First Minister, and has made clear his opposition to another independence referendum.
Labour leader, Keir Starmer, has also said: “For Boris Johnson to laugh when talking about the closure of the coal mines is a slap in the face for communities still suffering from the devastating effects of Margaret Thatcher’s callous actions.”
Not only are these comments insensitive, they also ignore the fact that the Tories did not, and do not care about the environment. Thatcher did not close hundreds of coal mines because she was some kind of champion for the environment. She did so because she understood the potential for class conflict which existed at the heart of them, thanks to the power of the National Union of Miners (NUM) and the Communist Party.
Echoing this point, Labour MP for Easington, Grahame Morris, said: “Pushing Thatcher as some sort of eco-warrior for closing coal mines is a rewriting of history … Closing 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.“
When most people talk of regret over mine closures, it’s because they understand the purposeful destruction of communities that the closures represented. The vast majority do not support reopening the mines, and most understand the environmental disaster that such a move would represent.
However, the speed at which the mines were closed by the Thatcher government in the 1980s, has meant that communities have never recovered. If we look at a map of deprivation throughout Britain, it offers a near perfect illustration of the impact of these closures, and the further demise of British manufacturing.
The impact of the mine closures on working communities offers a stark example of the dangers of divestment where subsequent reinvestment and retraining is not secured. Any transition away from fossil fuels must ensure workers are not left behind. A just transition isn’t just a fancy buzzword, it’s a crucial demand for both the environment and for society.
It is a positive that our coal usage in Britain continues to decline, indeed it is an essential part of our plans to achieve carbon neutrality, but the comments from the PM, deliberately made to rile up opposition, further highlights the Tories’ disregard for ordinary working class communities in this country. Just as there was no support for communities left behind in the 1980s, we have seen a further generation left behind by this Tory Government over the last decade. Poverty is rising. Deprivation is rising. In-work poverty is soaring. Meanwhile, the Tories continue plundering every asset the state has ever had at its disposal, maintaining and deepening Thatcher’s legacy of privatisation and destruction.
Furthermore, the PM’s supposed support for the environment, and his bleak attempts to rewrite Thatcher’s legacy, are barely even paper thin. This week, Johnson indicated that the UK Government would not block plans for the new Cambo Oil Field in the North Sea despite it’s serious impact on the country’s carbon emissions.
As ever, Johnson and the Tories are determined to say one thing while doing the exact opposite. We have seen this time and time again with climate issues, and it’s almost certain that November’s COP26 will follow a similar pattern. We have to step up our efforts to ensure this is not the case.
Let’s use the destructive legacy of Thatcher’s Britain to ensure that any transition away from coal and other fossil fuels in the 21st century, does not leave the same demolition in its path.