Trolling coal: jobs, climate and the Iron Lady

The pre-recorded televised tributes have ended. The street parties are over. In Britain, the outrage that swelled in some quarters over the Baroness Margaret Thatcher’s faux state funeral has died away, leaving in its wake the dull, tedious thrumming of politics as usual. Still, the polarisation of the British people remains, festering beneath the surface. Thatcher’s staunchest defenders remember her as her country’s most important and impactful post-war Prime Minister; her staunchest detractors, as some kind of demonic caricature: a milk thief, an unemployment generator, a life destroyer. Everyone else – particularly those who tend to tack left – has been cast intellectually adrift in their attempts to fairly place in history a woman who shattered the glass ceiling, but in the process laid the popular foundations of the modern economic orthodoxy that so many of us today reject. Like it or lump it: you can’t deny that it’s a Thatcherite world out there today.

One of the often glossed over sticky points for the left on Thatcher’s legacy is of course coal. The Conservative Member of the European Parliament Daniel Hannan makes the point for the Telegraph:

What I find bewildering is why the mine closures are cited now as evidence of Tory wickedness. No one, with the exceptions of the SWP and the BNP, wants to recreate a state-owned coal industry today. Indeed, the people who complain most bitterly about the pit closures are generally those who are most against burning coal.

It is on this issue that the Greens and indeed a decent swathe of the Labor Party find themselves in rather closer political proximity to the Iron Lady than they might like: in recent years, the Greens have been vociferous opponents of both coal-fired power and investing in clean coal technology at the expense of cleaner and more renewable energy sources. The Greens would in an ideal world like to see all of Australia’s coal-fired power stations closed down, something that the Baroness indirectly took a step or two towards in the United Kingdom in the early 1980’s through her program of mine closures. Admittedly, climate change was not in the forefront of anyone’s mind in those days, but the fact remains that if Thatcher was alive and in power today in Australia, closing coal mines across the country, it could, in a strange twist of fate, be perceived as something like a progressive policy. Imagine that: Christine Milne and Margaret Thatcher, arm-in-arm.

In truth, Thatcher’s closure of the pit mines and the reaction of both the blinkered right and the blinkered left to them shines a light on the violence that the oversimplification of issues can bring to bear on ordinary working people. Daniel Hannan is apparently “bewildered” by the outrage still felt by people, decades after the Conservative Party’s role in shutting down unprofitable mining operations across the country. I find his bewilderment bewildering – but then I am sure that Hannan and many others like him will never know what it is like for whole families and whole communities to lose their livelihoods in one swift stroke. He is, at heart, a Eurosceptic who is nevertheless more at home in Brussels than Sheffield; make of that what you will.

Similarly, when the Greens talk about the “transition” to a low carbon economy, it seems to me that there is potentially a great deal of trauma concealed within that rather unfairly peaceful word. If Australia were to scale back its export of coal to China and India on principle, for example, and to commence the shutdown of its existing coal-driven energy industry, how many thousands of jobs would be lost? How many communities near coal mines and coal-fired power stations would be rent asunder? Are the people who are dependent on coal industry for their livelihoods just to be collateral damage in the nation’s drive towards a low carbon economy, much in the same way that mining communities reaped the whirlwinds of Margaret Thatcher’s war on unions and unprofitability in the 1980’s?

I appreciate that tens or hundreds of thousands of jobs stand to be created in the green energy industry in the coming decades – but clearly, it is not simply going to be a case of governments picking up people working in coal mining and energy jobs and dropping them neatly into green energy jobs, as if they were so many Lego figurines. Communities and brown energy workers will need support from government and industry, including compensation and retraining to help them adapt to the “new energy world” that is to be shaped by the increasingly interventionist role that the Federal Government may play in the energy market in the future. It is this sort of detail that gets lost in the sorts of black and white “coal is evil” or “coal is Australia’s economic future” messages that have tended to emanate from all of Australia’s political parties in recent times.

Can Australia reduce its emissions effectively without unleashing the unsympathetic economic trauma of the like perpetrated by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government on mining communities across Britain? Only time will tell, but the signs are not that promising, and the playing field in any case looks set to be flipped end over end all over again come September, creating even more uncertainty.