When did Britain’s age of coal come to an end? A commonsensical answer to this question is likely to appeal to the decisive defeat the miners suffered during the great strike of 1984-5 and the swift closure of collieries that followed in the decade after.
Energy scholars such as Timothy Mitchell are more likely to point to the transition towards an oil economy in the immediate postwar period. Long before the mid-1980s, Britain had become a car-driven society dependent on petrochemical manufacturing processes and oil had even begun to play a significant role in Britain’s electricity generation by the early 1970s.
King coal’s fall was certainly longer than a story of rapid contraction allows for, but rather than being squarely located in an earlier time-period, it is a story that stretches into the present. British coal production and employment peaked at almost 300 million tons and over a million miners during the second decade of the twentieth century and has been in more or less sustained contraction since the early 1920s. It was only in 2020, during the midst of lockdown, that Britain went without coal-fired electricity for two months for the first time in over 130 years.
These developments are a sign of things to come. Britain is on track to end coal-fired electricity by the mid-2020s. Scotland’s last coal power station, Longannet, closed in 2016. Fourteen years earlier, in 2002, the curtain was brought down on a centuries-long historical saga when miners rose from the last of the drift mines dug to supply Longannet for the final time. This brought Scottish deep coal mining to an end.
I was finalising my PhD thesis on deindustrialization in Scotland’s coalfields when Longannet power station closed. My research included several interviews with men who had worked at the complex and were among the nation’s last miners. My first monograph was published this year, Coal Country: The Meaning and Memory of Deindustrialization in Postwar Scotland.
Coal Country approaches deindustrialization, the declining significance of industrial activities to employment and economic production, as a long-term historical economic process which had foundational cultural and political consequences. It understands the entire lifetime of Longannet power station, and the modernised mining complex which directly fuelled it with coal won beneath the Firth of Forth, as framed by deindustrialization.
Longannet was planned during the 1960s and contextualised by the numerical peak of coal mining job losses. Scottish coalfield employment stood at just over 30,000 in 1970 when the power station began producing electricity, less than half what it had been a decade before. These tens of thousands of job losses were negotiated through moral economy customs that evolved between the management of Britain’s nationalised coal industry and the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM).
Closures were agreed in consultation with union representatives, transfers to suitable jobs were found for miners within travel distance of their homes and suitable accommodations were made for injured, disabled and elderly miners, including the option to retire early in some cases.
These practices evolved over time, originating in responses to sustained closured in the Shotts area of Lanarkshire after the Second World War when the workforce defied Coal Board expectations of mass emigration to collieries in eastern and central Scotland. Instead, a ‘take work to the workers’ policy was pursued by civil servants, including the direction of inward investment in engineering to stabilise the local labour market. This approach was subsequently followed across the Scottish coalfields during the 1950s and 1960s.
Job losses and fears of economic insecurity nevertheless fuelled dissatisfaction. Longannet became a key site in the 1972 strike over miners’ wages when the NUM Scottish Area (NUMSA) mounted mass pickets who clashed with police. A decade earlier, a ‘strong coal lobby’ connected to the Scottish Office had insisted on investment in additional electricity capacity due to concern about sector’s future and employment consequences. Later in the 1960s, the NUMSA responded to mounting colliery closures by becoming a leading proponent of a devolved Scottish parliament within the labour movement.
Longannet strengthened the articulation of a Scottish national coalfield community that overcame traditional parochial associations. Pat Egan relocated from Twechar in Lanarkshire to Glenrothes in Fife so he could take up work at the complex after Bedlay colliery shut in 1982. When I interviewed him in 2014, Pat explained that regional voting blocs in union elections dissipated over time and that trusting relationships were built between men who travelled to work at Longannet each day from Lanarkshire, Fife, Clackmannanshire and the Lothians.
Coal Country confronts the need to understand deindustrialization as a formative structural process and an intensely personal experience whose intricacies determined life courses and remoulded community, class and nationhood. The contraction of Scotland’s coalfields unfolded across the second half of the twentieth century, but its pace was determined by the agency of workers, politicians, nationalised industry managers and civil servants.
Archival records from government, industry and unions provide a detailed vantage on the contingencies that shaped deindustrialization. Oral testimonies are insightful for understanding how workplace closures and job losses were experienced in the coalfields and what these changes came to mean in the twenty-first century.
Earlier this year, Longannet power station’s boiler house was subject to a controlled demolition and the large chimney is set to follow soon. Visible signs of the role coal played in transforming Scotland over the last two centuries are disappearing from the landscape, whilst the energy transition that led to Longannet’s closure continues apace. The Neart na Gaoithe windfarm is under construction in the North Sea near the Fife coast.
Moral economy sentiments and arguments over the responsibility of governments to use Scottish national resources in the interests of communities continue to animate workers’ perspectives. Unions have condemned of the ‘paltry return’ of local jobs and production provided by wind turbine multinational supply chains. The concerns and conflicts which animated deindustrialization in the Scottish coalfields will continue to reverberate in the context of debates over a ‘just transition’ to renewables.
Ewan Gibbs is a lecturer in Economic and Social History at the University of Glasgow. He published Coal Country: The Meaning and Memory of Deindustrialization in Postwar Scotland with the University of London Press and is beginning a BA-Wolfson Fellowship studying energy transitions. You can find Ewan on Twitter @ewangibbs
Cover image: Longannet Power Station 7 December 2011, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Longannet_Power_Station_7_December_2011.jpg [accessed 25 July 2021]
 Timothy Mitchell, Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil (London: Verso, 2013).
 James Marriott and Terry Macalister, Crude Britannia: How Oil Shaped a Nation Kindle Edition (London: Pluto, 2021).
 Ewan Gibbs, Coal Country: The Meaning and Memory of Deindustrialization in Postwar Scotland (London: University of London Press, 2021).
 The National Records of Scotland, Edinburgh, Scottish Economic Policy, 4/762, H. S. Phillips, Research studies: geographical movement of labour, 9 August 1948.
 Jim Phillips, The Industrial Politics of Devolution: Scotland in the 1960s and 1970s (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2008) p.126.
 The National Archives, Kew, London, Ministry of Fuel and Power, 14/1495, Ministry of Power General Division, TUC and Fuel and Power policy brief for minister’s meeting on 12 February 1963.
 STUC, Annual Report 1967–1968, lxxi (1968), 191–2.
 Pat Egan, interview with author, Fife College, Glenrothes, 5 February 2014.