WORLD

MAJOR’S MELTDOWN

ANGRY MINERS, ECONOMIC GLOOM AND REBEL MPS ARE ROCKING BRITAIN’S TORY GOVERNMENT

ANDREW PHILLIPS November 2 1992
WORLD

MAJOR’S MELTDOWN

ANGRY MINERS, ECONOMIC GLOOM AND REBEL MPS ARE ROCKING BRITAIN’S TORY GOVERNMENT

ANDREW PHILLIPS November 2 1992

MAJOR’S MELTDOWN

ANGRY MINERS, ECONOMIC GLOOM AND REBEL MPS ARE ROCKING BRITAIN’S TORY GOVERNMENT

WORLD

Britain's coal miners have traditionally been bogeymen for the country's genteel set—symbols of a militant northern unionism that seemed to

threaten the prosperity of the south. But when thousands of miners paraded last week through some of London’s ritziest streets to protest government plans to close their state-run pits, they found themselves hailed as heroes. Owners of exclusive antique shops hung “Support the miners” signs in their windows; carefully coiffed ladies gave the thumbs-up sign from the windows of their elegant apartments; and pinstriped businessmen raised their lunchtime glasses of white wine in salute. Even bishops in their red robes marched behind the miners union banners—an uncommon alliance that has shaken the government of Prime Minister John Major to its foundations.

What prompted the united front was fear that Britain’s two-year-old recession was souring into a full-scale depression—as well as anger at a government that appears unable to reverse the downward trend. For weeks, Major had stumbled from one crisis to another, losing support within his own Conservative party as well as among many voters. And when the government abruptly announced plans on Oct. 13 to shut down 31 of Britain’s 50 coal mines and fire 31,000 miners, public reaction was immediate and overwhelmingly hostile. The closures seemed both callous and incompetent at a time when Britain is losing 8,000 jobs a week and the unemployment rate is 10 per cent and rising. In a stem letter to The Times of London, six Anglican bishops denounced the decision as “a self-inflicted disaster for our economic and social life.” And a dozen of Major’s own backbench MPs attacked the further dismantlement of Britain’s traditional heavy industry. “We can’t just survive on Kentucky Fried Chicken and playing the money

markets,” said Winston Churchill, grandson of the famous Tory prime minister.

The protests forced the government to retreat last week. It now plans to close only 10 mines this year, and ministers pledged to review the future of 21 others. That was enough to bring most of the Tory rebels back to the fold, and it enabled the government to survive a Commons vote on the issue by a margin of 13 votes. But it did nothing to quell the wave of public discontent. Once-loyal Tory newspapers lined up to denounce Major as weak, vacillating and incompetent. The Times published a searing story depicting him as a lonely man surviving on junk food and unable to handle the stress of his job. Major’s aides dismissed the report, claiming that it was inspired by Tories critical of the Prime Minister’s support for closer European ties. But it did not improve his standing as a new opinion poll gave Major the lowest rating for any postwar British leader. Only 16 per cent of voters said that they are satisfied with Major—even fewer than favored his predecessor, Margaret Thatcher, at her most unpopular.

For the miners, enjoyment of public support for their cause was mixed with the realization that they had won only a temporary reprieve. At Silverhill, a 114-year-old pit in Nottinghamshire that is still scheduled to close this year, workers flew the Union Jack at half-staff and mourned the impending loss of their livelihood. Sean Conway, a 32-year-old miner, recalled bitterly how workers had struggled to improve productivity to ensure their mine’s survival. In December, he and 18 fellow miners set a world record by extracting 36,000 tons of coal in a single week. Managers presented them with neckties, pens and pewter mugs to celebrate their achievement. “We’re proud of what we do, and that made us prouder,” Conway said. “Now, it’s all kicked back in our teeth.”

Major clearly calculated that there was an airtight economic case for closing the mines. Coal powered Britain’s industrial revolution and, after the Second World War, the country still employed more than 700,000 miners. But the industry has been declining for decades under Labour and Tory governments. Only 50,000 miners remain, and the government argues that Britain’s dirty, deep-mine coal cannot compete with cheaper foreign coal or with clean North Sea gas. Keeping the industry alive, say officials, costs $200 million a month in subsidies. The industry’s supporters reply that British mines are now the most productive in Europe, and that gas supplies will last for less

than 50 years, while coal will last for centuries.

But public support for the miners had little to do with the complex economic arguments. When the workers last confronted a Tory government, in an epic yearlong strike that began in 1984, they had little public sympathy outside of their own strongholds in Wales, Scotland and the north of England. Southern England was booming as Thatcher cut taxes and deregulated the economy; radical miners fighting to keep jobs in a heavily subsidized state-owned industry were out of tune with the country’s new free-market ethos.

But southern England is suffering most in the current recession, with massive layoffs in service industries. For southerners, firing

31,000 miners at one time aroused fears that all jobs were in jeopardy—and that the longterm national decline that Thatcherism seemed to halt had resumed. Demonstrations in support of the miners broke out even in elegant Cheltenham, a southern spa town that is far removed from the grittiness of northern mining communities. “This time it affects everyone, and we’re not alone,” said Neil Jones, another miner at Silverhill. “The nation as a whole has had enough.”

The mining controversy was the latest in a

series of embarrassing policy reversals for Major’s government. On Sept. 16, which has already been enshrined in British political folklore as “Black Wednesday,” Britain was forced to cut the link between sterling and other European currencies, allowing the pound to devalue by about 15 per cent. That knocked the foundations out of Major’s economic policy, which was built on maintaining a strong currency with high interest rates in order to squeeze inflation out of the economy—even at the cost of jobs. After a series of confused statements, the Prime Minister last week set out the latest version of his policy. The government, he said,

will now promote economic growth more aggressively. In effect, that means cutting interest rates more quickly and accepting the risk of a little more inflation.

Aside from his economic problems, Major also faces a showdown with dissidents in his party over the Maastricht treaty on European union. He has pledged to push the treaty through Parliament, but the so-called Euroskeptics in Tory ranks vow to fight it. In fact, on both Maastricht and the mine closures Tory rebels provide a more effective check on the

government than Labour MPs manage to do.

Major still retains some important advantages. The Euroskeptics have no credible alternate leader, making an outright assault on the Prime Minister’s leadership unlikely. And most important, his problems come only six months into his five-year term, giving him plenty of time to rebuild his damaged credibility. “If you have to have a few upsets,” one of Major’s closest aides said ruefully, “the lesson is to have them early.” But last week, the Prime Minister was clearly a leader in retreat.

ANDREW PHILLIPS

in London