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A profile picture of Professor Ray Hudson and the cover of his book 'In the Shadow of the Mine'

This week marks the 40th anniversary of the start of the UK miners’ strikes of the 1980s.

Mining communities across North East England were hugely impacted by the strikes, with many former pit villages plunged into joblessness and poverty due to the subsequent demise of the UK’s coal industry.

We spoke to our Emeritus Professor Ray Hudson, co-author of ‘The Shadow of the Mine: Coal and the End of Industrial Britain’ to find out more about how former mining regions are still impacted and what a future without coal power looks like.

What are the challenges still facing ex-mining communities today?

There’s no doubt that they continue to be scarred by the destruction of the coal mining industry. Problems of poverty and inequality persist, partly a result of the lack of alternative jobs – especially better paid jobs – on and accessible to those living in the former coalfield communities, partly a reflection of the legacies of working in the coalmines and their impacts on health and well-being.

Former miners still struggle to come to terms with life without the collieries, in a labour market in which their wives and daughters are seen as more employable than them, and in which young people living in former coalfield communities find their opportunities limited.

How optimistic are you that these communities can ever fully recover economically and socially?

Realistically, without some quite fundamental political and economic changes, structural changes that at best are on a very distant horizon, that isn’t going to happen. That’s not to say that there aren’t possibilities to improve life in the former coalfield communities.

Charitable organisations now help to support a variety of local initiatives, some seeking to plug gaps created by council cuts as central government austerity policies intensified, but the extent to which such local projects and voluntary efforts can compensate for the consequences of the destruction of coal mining will remain limited.

That’s not to say they don’t matter locally, and supporting those seeking to improve life in their communities and involving more local people in doing so is important, but it is to say there needs to be realism as to the scope and extent of their impacts.

Your book ‘The Shadow of the Mine’ has now been released in paperback, with additional text, to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the strikes. What is the additional section about?

A lot has happened since we finished writing the book in 2019. The extent and scale of those wider changes is unprecedented; a Prime Minister who seemed securely in place with a huge parliamentary majority has gone, as has his successor and we may even have a fourth by the end of this year. The UK has left the European Union; we’ve lived through the Covid pandemic, whose effects linger on; and there is a war in Europe that is exacerbating the energy crisis. 

We wanted to say something about the implications of all this for the former coal mining communities, and in this context it’s important to point out that the much-heralded post-Brexit “levelling up” funds have largely assiduously avoided former coalfield communities, especially those that continued to return Labour Members of Parliament.

What are your thoughts on political motives around green energy?

In the run-up to the Glasgow COP conference, then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson had made the outrageous and truly risible claim that Margaret Thatcher’s policy of provoking the miners’ strike, eroding the power of trades unions and ending coal mining, was motivated by a desire to bring in a green energy policy.

It looked ridiculous then and even more so now, for while coal mining has ended, there is no sign of a realistic and feasible green energy alternative, no clear green industrialisation strategy.

Given the current drive to cut carbon emissions and switch to ‘green’ energy sources, what do you think the next 40-years holds for the coal industry?

There is no doubt that continuing global warming due to increasing emissions of greenhouse gases poses an existential threat to life as we know it.

Whether there can be technological fixes to mitigate these effects remains at best uncertain. More likely, seeking to tackle the problem in that way constitutes another example of the impossible being necessary but the necessary being impossible.

In the UK at least, coal has no future; it’s already gone and the transition out of coal was demonstrably an unjust one.

The transition out of coal is becoming a pressing question in parts of the world where coalmining remains significant – Australia, China, Colombia, Russia and so on.

Likewise, in those places – notably India - in which coal mining is still expanding, though for now the questions are more to do with the use of coal and a transition into coal mining.

What are the risks of transitioning away from coal?

It by no means follows that any green transition will be a just one, either in or beyond the UK.

For places, mainly in the Global South, that have the major deposits of minerals on which any attempted green transition in the Global North would depend, the mining of these materials results in massive environmental destruction. It requires massive energy inputs from fossil fuels, and typically involves exploitative labour practices, often involving women and children working illegally in dangerous and polluted environments for minimal wages.

For them, producing the minerals required for a putative green transition elsewhere involves an unjust transition in the areas in which they work and live.

And it leaves unanswered the question of how to construct a pathway to a just transition to something else once these deposits are exhausted or no longer in demand.

In short, there are no easy answers as to how the achieve a just transition out of coal and into the use of green(er) energy and green(er) economies and societies.

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