We’ve had coal too cheap for too long!

Once, perhaps, the nation would have pulled together in the face of this economic blizzard. But one group of workers saw the global tempest not as a threat, but as an opportunity. The coal miners.

Miner “the trouble is, old friend, they’ve had coal too cheap in the past. Like we had oil too cheap in the past, the old Arabs are getting educated… We’re getting educated.”

The oil crisis played right into the miners’ hands. They knew that Britain’s energy supplies were now under tremendous pressure.

Mining Strike 1974

Coal Mine
Mine Pit Head

If they cut off coal production, then the whole country would come grinding to a halt. The coal miners had the whip hand and they proposed to use it.

Only two years earlier, the miners had walked out for more money, plunging Britain into darkness and forcing Ted Heath’s Tory government into abject retreat. But now that the oil shock that brought the economy to it’s knees, the miners saw their chance. In the dying days of 1973, they came back for more. Much more.

They were led by a straight-talking rugby league fan, from Wigan, a miner since his teens, Joe Gormley. What Joe Gormley wanted for his men was to get rid of the outside loo and the vegetable patch. What he wanted for them, he said, was “A Jag at the front of the house, good schools for the kids and a mini for the wife to go shopping.”

Bristling with confidence, the miners wanted not a 10% deal, or even 20%, but an inflation busting 35% and they were in no mood to compromise.

Joe Gormley
Joe Gormley

Miner “I’ve never been a militant. But I’m more bloody militant today than I’ve ever been in my life!”

It was a showdown that divided the nation. The miners could count on intergalactic backing, with name checks on Doctor Who. While Ted Heath had some rather earthier supporters, Alf Garnet.

Overtime Ban

On 12 November 1973, the miners voted for an overtime ban that would slash coal production by more than half.

News report “The government declares a state of emergency because of the electricity and coal disputes. These regulations will take effect at midnight tomorrow.”

Edward Heath
Edward Heath

Ted Heath “As prime minister, I want to speak to you simply and plainly about the grave emergency now facing our country. We are asking you to come down to the absolute minimum the use of electricity in your homes. In terms of comfort, we shall have a harder Christmas than we have known since the war.”

It was a miserable Christmas. Shops shrouded in darkness, shortages of bread, candles and paraffin, and every night the television shutting down early.

Even the Prime Minister was reduced to Christmas shopping by Gaslight. At the top of the charts, Slade tried to rally a beleaguered nation. So here it is, Merry Christmas. Everybody’s having fun.

1974 began with shortages and blackouts. With Britain on a three-day week and the age of plenty a fading memory, it was as though ordinary families had been hurled back in time to days of scarcity and struggle, when food, heat and light where precious resources.

Houses of Parliament
Houses of Parliament

Many people remember the last age of austerity, during the Second World War. When these things, petrol ration books, where distributed to cope with the expected shortages, it must have seemed like a bad case of déjá vu.

But this time, one thing was missing, the Dunkirk spirit. This time, we couldn’t blame the Germans. The only people we had to blame were ourselves. This industrial action would not be resolved easily.

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