Boris Johnson’s suggestion that Margaret Thatcher gave the UK an “early start” on its climate goals by shutting the nation’s coal mines has “no credible basis in historical fact,” according to a historian of the Welsh coal industry.

The prime minister has been widely condemned for his comments, which he gave to journalists yesterday while discussing the UK’s move away from fossil fuels. First minister Mark Drakeford called Johnson’s statement “crass and offensive,” given the economic damage done to coal-mining communities in Wales and other parts of the UK during the 1984-85 miners’ strike, while Thatcher was in power.

Dr Ben Curtis, postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Wolverhampton, specialises in the history of the Welsh coal industry during the time of the strike, when thousands of miners lost their jobs.

He told The National that Johnson’s notion Thatcher's shutting of the mines was part of a broader environmental policy was a “gross misrepresentation” of what really happened in the mid-1980s, when the Conservative government was hell-bent on taking down the hugely influential National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) by diversifying the UK’s available energy sources.

“The main thing driving the energy policy at that time [was that] the government took the view the British economy was too dependent upon its coal industry,” Dr Curtis said. “On the basis of the 1972 and 1974 national strikes in the coal industry, this wasn’t something they wanted to see continue.

“The plan in that sense was for the reorientation of UK electricity generation away from coal and towards other energy sources, where the trade union movement had less influence.”

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Johnson laughed on Thursday as he told journalists "what we've done already" to transition away from fossil fuels.

"We've transitioned away from coal in my lifetime," he added. "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."

But Dr Curtis said: “I think it’s a gross misrepresentation to say that the main thing that was driving Conservative government policy on pit closures in the mid-1980s was environmental concerns.

“If that was the case, they did a very good job of hiding it and never actually telling anyone that was the reason why they were doing it.

“The message that was continuously given at the time was that these pits were dreadfully inefficient because they were nationalised and they’ve got a powerful trade union movement. The Thatcher administration's view was 'If they can’t adapt to the rigours of the free market, then they don’t deserve to prosper.'"

What did Thatcher say at the time of the strike?

In a TV interview she gave to Panorama three months into the strike, Thatcher argued her government was in fact trying to strengthen British mining through its pit reforms because “a lot of industries need good, cheap coal”.

She said then-National Coal Board chief Ian MacGregor and her government “want a good, prosperous coal industry, producing coal economically at a competitive price that it can sell”.

Her government’s pit closures were going ahead to improve the safety and the health of miners, she argued at the time, through a policy of “heavy investment into the future”.

This interview, given to the BBC as the miners’ strike escalated nationwide, would have been the perfect opportunity for the prime minister to publicly lay out her green agenda for closing the pits – but there was hardly any mention of environmental concerns, save one brief comment about “balancing the needs of the environment… and the needs of coal-mining” when opening up a new pit in the “very beautiful area” of Asfordby, Leicestershire (which closed in 1997).

Her arguments on Panorama in 1984 were instead about the economy and very much suggested British coal was “an industry with a future”. Thatcher framed pit-workers’ concerns and the ensuing industrial action as “not a dispute between miners and government… [but] a dispute between miners and miners” over MacGregor’s reforms, which she said would secure the sector’s future.

This government vision of a 'stronger' coal industry was the solution to perceived inefficiencies in British coal production at the time, Dr Curtis said.

“The main thing driving it was the argument that these were somehow uniquely inefficient when compared with other coal producers around the world and therefore couldn’t pay their way,” he told The National. “There was an argument about intrinsically-inefficient nationalised industry.”

While the PM said publicly the government would improve the lot of the country’s miners, ministers were in fact preparing to sap their collective power by taking on the NUM, which had led the industry’s two national strikes in the early 1970s.

Their policy towards the striking miners was driven by the Ridley Report, an 'Art of War'-style document drawn up while the Tories were in opposition in the late 1970s, outlining the party’s battle plan for taking down another strike in a nationalised industry.

“It talks specifically of the political threat that unions like the NUM presented, and [how] the government’s main policy should be to politically break such unions and look to move away to other energy sources where trade unions had a less influential force,” Dr Curtis said.

“In industries like nuclear, gas and oil – there wasn’t a union with an equivalent industrial muscle of the NUM. Nowadays there are arguments why coal is a particularly dirty form of fuel; that’s what’s being used here [by Johnson] to retrospectively say that was the thinking behind closing these pits, but that wasn’t the case.”

And while Thatcher saw off the miners’ strike in 1985, coal continued to be central to Britain’s short-term energy needs, with the same amount being burned in UK power stations as before the strike. The only difference this time was that the coal powering Britain was now mostly imported; shipped in from Poland, or halfway around the world from Australia.

A green revival?

This is not to say Thatcher was silent on environmental issues during her 11 years in power, and towards the end of her time as PM, less than four years after the miners’ strike ended, she was again on TV, this time giving an interview to the BBC programme Nature about her green credentials.

In that March 1989 interview, the PM said she was “very much so” a friend of the earth whose understanding and appreciation of worldwide environmental challenges had grown over the course of her political career.

She dismissed as “really very silly” the suggestion her new green stance was like a religious awakening akin to St Paul, who on the road to Damascus was converted from a persecutor of Christians to a follower of Jesus. The broader understanding of pollution, emissions and their global consequences were “comparatively recent” realisations when compared with early government work to tackle more local concerns like London’s ‘pea-souper’ smogs in the 1950s, she said.

Thatcher talked up Britain’s work in discovering the hole in the ozone layer and in tackling acid rain – two of the most pressing environmental issues in the media of the 1980s. And the PM, who graduated from Oxford with a chemistry degree in the 1940s, acknowledged how the burning of fossil fuels produces a greenhouse effect and “serious” global warming.

But the interview also showed the limits of her new-found environmental outlook. While she noted “everyone should… try renewable sources of energy as well", Thatcher admitted Britain would “have to do though with coal, oil and gas” when it comes to powering the nation. And despite declaring a long-held fondness for Antarctica and its “marvellous wildlife", the PM also said British research there could discover “probably a good deal of mineral deposits”.

A few months later, Thatcher gave a speech to the United Nations General Assembly in November 1989, by now fully aware of the global implications of rising carbon dioxide emissions and the loss of swathes of rainforest.

“Put in its bluntest form, the main threat to our environment is more and more people, and their activities: the land they cultivate ever more intensively; the forests they cut down and burn; the mountain sides they lay bare; the fossil fuels they burn; the rivers and the seas they pollute,” she told world leaders. “The result is that change in future is likely to be more fundamental and more widespread than anything we have known hitherto. Change to the sea around us, change to the atmosphere above, leading in turn to change in the world's climate, which could alter the way we live in the most fundamental way of all.”

This shows Thatcher had, by the end of her time as PM, embraced emerging climate science and understood what lay in store for future generations. But within a decade she had changed her mind again, warning in her book Statecraft that environmental movements were “alarmist” and paved the way for “worldwide, supra-national socialism,” as the BBC reported.

Ahead of her time?

Johnson’s notion of an environmentalist-led pit closure, then, may not just be historically inaccurate but also impossible, because the miners’ strike predated by several years any government embracing of the dangers of a warming planet.

As Dr Curtis told The National: “In the 70s through to the mid-1980s, I don’t think these environmental factors carried the same kind of gravitas in mainstream political discourse as they do now. There started to be evidence by the 1970s on the role of burning fossil fuels on climate, but [people saying that at the time] were being derided in lots of quarters as nonsense hippy-leftists.”

He added: “I don’t think it was the case the Conservative government in the 1980s was uniquely blinkered to these environmental concerns – the government’s policy at that time reflected a lot of the mainstream views between industrial and economic growth and the environment.”

But while Thatcher and her ministers were not necessarily behind the curve when it came to mainstream understanding of global warming and fossil fuels in the mid-1980s, nor was the PM in 1984 the sort of prescient climate activist that Johnson this week described – an Eighties Greta Thunberg who prophesied the looming environmental crisis, 34 years before the Swedish teenager held her first school strike.

“I don’t think there’s any real credible basis in historical fact for saying environmental factors were driving the government’s energy policy in the 1980s, and it’s really a significant misrepresentation of how the industry and its relationship to the environment was viewed in mainstream political discourse in that period,” Dr Curtis said.

“What we see in Boris Johnson’s comments… is essentially a retrospective reinterpretation of the government’s policy in the 1980s. I think that’s a charitable way of expressing it.”

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