Old King Coal in His Labour Robes
January 1st, 1947, saw the opening of one of the funniest political farces for a long time, the inauguration of State coal mines under the National Coal Board: time must pass before the miners discover its tragic aspects. M.P.s who had sung the Red Flag when the law was voted presided over the unfurling of flags bearing the mystic emblem “N.C.B.” – an emblem the irreverent have already happily refashioned. Notice boards were erected at the pitheads informing the coal wage-slaves that the mines are now operated by the State “on behalf of the people.” Leaflets were handed out telling the men of the stupendous transformation. Meetings were held and speeches delivered, at one of which Sir Ben Smith, now a regional coal official, told his miner audience they had reached “the end of a road.” Enough time and energy were spent on publicity to have raised a hundred thousand tons of coal, and all of it based, it, seems, on the curious notion that if you really had removed a prisoner’s handcuffs and leg-irons and thrown open the gates of his prison, you have to tell him so in case it should look to him that to-day is just like yesterday.
Cabinet ministers graced a ceremony at the Board’s London headquarters and the Minister of Fuel. Mr. Shinwell, handed over a specially bound copy of the Act to Lord Hyndley, the Chairman of N.C.B. Mr. Shinwell spoke about the campaign for nationalisation having at last triumphantly reached its goal. He said a few words about the pioneers – Mr. Keir Hardie and Mr. Robert Smillie – though it is at least open to question whether those two, if they were alive to-day, would feel gratified at what has come out of their well-meant but mistaken labours for nationalisation. The workers asked for nationalisation because they thought it would mean higher wages, and security against speeding-up and unemployment. The industrial capitalists wanted cheaper coal for their factories and thought that unification and modernisation of the mines was the way to get it. The Labour Government has adroitly wedded the two by giving the capitalists what they wanted hut under the name that appeals to the workers. The catch will disclose itself in due course.
At Horden Colliery, Durham, the secretary of the local miners’ union “dropped a hatchet into a hole dug in the ground under the National Coal Board flagstaff. They were burying the hatchet, he said, as a symbol that in future there would be no dispute between owners and men. It was the end of the old regime” (Manchester Guardian, 6/1/47). The hatchet is already being dug up again long before it has had time to rust, and it is obvious that some at least of the miners have no illusions. The National Union of Mineworkers, on January 2nd, issued a statement that the miners do not intend to abandon the strike weapon. The statement was issued, the Union explained, in order to correct “a mistaken impression” that had got into the Press (News Chronicle, 3/1/47).
Mr. Ernest Thurtle, Labour M.P., informed the readers of his column in the Sunday Express that “capitalism has been deposed.” “A Socialist theory of long standing is being put to an acid test. It is that if private profit is taken out of an industry, and that industry is owned and controlled for the benefit of the nation as a whole, then the workers in it will exert themselves with increased zeal and enthusiasm” (Sunday Express, 5/1/47). Of course, the tongue-in-its-cheek Daily Worker (4/1/47) had to lend itself to the same game, with a report of a fall in absenteeism under the heading “State Pits Spur Miners to Record Turnout.”
Then to crown the farce one of the “people” who now own the pits was had up in court for stealing “coal worth 1s. 6d. belonging to the National Coal Board” (Daily Express, 7/1/47). The magistrate, binding him over, said “the coal was now the property of the King and stealing it was a serious offence.” Apparently the man had thought it at least equally serious that “he had no coal at home.”
A week later another criminal act took place. Someone unknown, either “as a prank or as an expression of hostility towards nationalisation,” had stolen the N.C.B, flag hoisted at Upton Colliery, Yorkshire. He had taken it “from the 50-foot flagpole which stands near the main offices.” The local miners’ secretary told a reporter “its disappearance had caused indignation among the 700 miners at the pit” (Manchester Guardian, 13/1/47).
Then, by contrast with the flag-wagging and jollifications, Lord Hyndley, Chairman of N.C.B., told some sober facts about the Board’s plans. Writing in the Observer (5/1/47), he mentioned the problem of “the closing of uneconomic pits and consequent transfer of labour,” the raising of £150 million new capital to modernise the .mines, increase output and eliminate waste, and the likelihood that out of the proceeds of the industry some £10 million a year will eventually be needed to pay interest on the capital. (What Mr. Thurtle calls “taking private profit out of an industry” is thus shown merely to consist of calling profit by another name.) Of course, Lord Hyndley gave assurances that in all that is done to secure the production of coal “at the minimum cost,” due regard will be paid to the miners; but they will find that being speeded up, and being eliminated from their jobs by labour-displacing machinery, tastes just as bitter when served out by the capitalist State under the N.C.B. Flag as it does without those trimmings.
Looking to the future, it can be seen that the pressure to screw more and more production out of the miners will he accelerated as cheaper fuels come into competition with coal. The likely development of atomic energy is one and oil is another. The Manchester Guardian (2/1/47) points out that the proposed oil pipe line from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean “would make it profitable to sell oil here at, half the present price. With the cost of coal being what it is and transport on the verge of a great; development of the continuous combustion engine or gas turbine, cheap oil would deeply affect Britain’s industrial future.”
These developments will also deeply affect the miners, and help prove to them that, far from having reached the goal of Socialism which will emancipate them and other workers from capitalist wage-slavery, the struggle has yet to be waged. The ballyhoo surrounding the inauguration of State capitalism in the coal fields serves only to mislead them and to direct their minds away from the real issue that concerns the working class.