Boris’ coal mining gaff shows he fails to understand the needs of northern England 

Kieran Neild-Ali

August 10, 2021

It’s been almost a week since Boris Johnson resurrected the sore topic of the coal mining industry, an issue which has caused anger and misery across the country for decades, dividing communities and leaving a permanent scare on the fabric of British society. Johnson claimed at a visit to a Scottish windfarm a few days ago that Margaret Thatcher gave the UK a “big early start” in the battle against climate change by closing coal mines in the 1980s. 

Although some Conservative MPs would wish to put his comments down to a light-hearted joke, typical of his style of leadership, the ripple effect from this gaff could have far reaching consequences for the new blue wall.  The coal mining communities of the north may have abandoned Labour in the 2019 general election, but they have not abandoned their heritage and their proud identity which is so closely related to heavy industry.  

The PM should already know this since his flagship policy is to level-up the UK by investing in the regions he offended in the past few days. Whether it’s the old cotton towns of East Lancashire or the former mining towns in the north-east, Boris has put doubt into the minds of new Tory voters as to whether he really is on their side.  

The Thatcher comments are, firstly, an attempt to rewrite history by attributing the decision to close pits to a desire to tackle climate change. This of course was not the case. The coal industry was in decline since the 1920s. In 1923, the UK mined 280 million tonnes of coal, but by the time Mrs Thatcher came to office in 1979 that had more than halved to 122 million tonnes. This long-term decline in coal was not unique to Britain; in the United States employment in the coal-mining industry continued to fall from 180,000 in 1985 to 70,000 in the year 2000 

The decision to close 20 collieries in 1984 was a long time coming. Government subsidies had propped the failing industry up since its nationalisation in 1945, with the operating loss per tonne at £3.05 in 1982/1983. Although Harold Wilson closed more mines than Thatcher, it was the reaction of the National Union of Mineworkers which cemented the images of chaos and rancour in the public consciousness today. Whether or not you agree with the miners’ strike of ’84, the economic case for moving away from coal was solid. 

The main issue many will take to the decline of coal in Britian today was the lack of alternative industries and work for people in the north – a just grievance which doesn’t deserve to be trivialised by our current PM. The levelling-up agenda is an attempt to redress that grievance, acknowledging the north has been left to wallow in a post-industrial wasteland while the south, or London, has gone from strength to strength.  

It’s the reason the Conservative Party has transformed under Boris from the party of fiscal responsibility to the spend thrift government we see today – promising to invest in left behind Britain in exchange for support from a new voter base. But has Boris really understood the desires of the regions, and can it be delivered? No one knows what levelling-up means, how much it will cost and what success looks like for the policy. Moving the civil service to the north may look good on paper, but is it enough to bring back real prosperity?  

Northern voters will be dismayed that their tax burden is at its highest for 70 years, angry at the personal allowance freeze and frustrated by the government’s war on ‘junk food’ which is increasing the cost of living. Although we welcome the shift in emphasis onto the north, the PM’s plan seems undeliverable and full of empty platitudes. 

The IEA recently rose to the challenge of finding a free market alternative to the heavy fisted hand of the state to levelling-up. The winner of this year’s Richard Koch Breakthrough Prize, Timothy Foxley, argued for a ‘peoples rebate’ which would give people a rebate on their income tax and National Insurance (NI) contributions based on where they live; employers would also receive NI rebates. The more deprived the area, the larger the rebate. This policy could help deliver for the former coal mining towns Boris seemingly misunderstands. 

Far from just a faux pas by the Prime Minister, the Thatcher mine comment has shown that Boris is, at best, insensitive to the perils of the past and, at worst, incapable of knowing what’s best for the future of the forgotten regions of Britain. Rather than rewriting history and digging up controversies of the past, his government should focus on a deliverable plan for improving the lives of people up and down the country. 


Written by Kieran Neild-Ali

Kieran Neild-Ali is Communications & Marketing Assistant at the Institute of Economic Affairs

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