Sunday, March 08, 2009

alternative Yorkshire

25 years; the strike was the first political event, indeed one of the first events, I actually remember. At least I remember power cuts and TV news broadcasts with the number of weeks the miners had been out counting up. After that, I recall Chernobyl - they set up a radiation monitor in the car park and my mother was interviewed on TV in front of it - and Gorbachev (we had a photo of him, complete with birthmark!), and then, it all starts rolling past.

Years later I actually met Scargill, at a conference of economics students; it was some testimony to his oratory that he was cheered to the echo by an audience that included about fifty per cent Young Conservatives. Perhaps it was the other fifty per cent. The organisers certainly aimed for stimulation - the other keynote speakers were John Redwood and Patrick Minford, of all people. Around the same time I met my first Scargill-hater, who actually was an ex-miner. History is like that.

Here is the man himself's version. I don't know the detailed history well enough to criticise it, although it strikes me that his idea of cutting off the coal supply to the steel industry, a sort of John Robb-ish cascade-failure attack, was based on a fundamentally false assumption. Namely, it assumed Thatcher cared what happened to the steelworks; as we now know, she was just as keen to screw them as she was the miners, and not much better with regard to the downstream steel-consuming industries either.

But one thing I don't think anyone has mentioned about this is that whatever had happened in 1984, there could only ever have been a stay of execution for ten years. In 1995, the starting gun for serious climate fear was fired when the IPCC scenarios crossed the 95% confidence interval into significance; and as James Hansen says, it's the coal. Essentially lumps of carbon, with some added toxic heavy metals for laughs, and there's so much of the stuff that we won't run out before we cook the planet.

Consider the alternate history for a moment; NACODS walk out as well, the government is forced to give in. Thatcher, of course, doesn't quit, but there is either a 1922 Committee coup or else she loses the 1987 election, or perhaps there is a repeat of 1974 - she calls an election for a mandate to take on the miners again, and loses. Neil Kinnock walks into Downing Street, either in a Labour government or a coalition with the Liberals and SDP.

Where do we go from here? The TUC-driven European turn in the Labour Party hasn't happened yet, but neither has the D-Mark shadowing and ERM fiasco. The Labour Party has taken a goodly dose of the new social movements, as in the original time-line, but the prestige of the NUM on the Left would be immense.

But whatever happens in the Kinnock-Steel government, at some point in 1995 the Chief Scientific Advisor walks into the Cabinet Room, and about ten minutes later, all hell breaks loose. After all, in this scenario we've been merrily burning much more coal than in the original timeline for the last ten years, and the coal lobby is the strength of the Left.

The political implications would be more than weird. The activist Left, all other things being equal, is heavily green-influenced, so it ends up against the miners. The mainstream Labour Party is wildly conflicted. And the rightwing science-dodger ecosystem has no choice but to support the miners; Anthony Browne and friends in Doncaster, probably with bags of Exxon-provided cash. Thrill as they try to tack between screwing the government and keeping their North Sea investments.

So the strike 2.0 happens in the late 90s/early 2000s, with mobile phones and the Internet on the protesters' side (flashmobs at Ferrybridge), tasers and pervasive CCTV on the police side, and all the party affiliations surreally flipped. God knows how that would have played out.

Someone ought to write the book.

One thing this brings up is just how necessary social democracy is; sometimes, it's not enough to be right, and huge impersonal forces are going to work their will, like the steadily rising concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. And then, it's up to the society we create around ourselves whether the changes that will happen will be humane or brutal and tragic.


nojay said...

The 1984 strike was about halting the proposed pit closure program, but there was damn-all coal left to get in a lot of them. There was a core of deep-mine pits with reserves for a decade or more but the rest were pretty much played out after two centuries of fuelling the Industrial Revolution. Even if Arthur had won the strike the coal industry would have dried up, only more slowly with massive subsidies for every tonne of coal brought to the surface.

We kept on burning lots of coal in power stations anyway, even after the decline in operational deep pits -- cheap Polish coal delivered to coastal power stations by unpicketable ship plus an expansion of open-cast non-unionised coal mining, something that was anathema to the NUM in years past and hence never permitted by the mostly-Labour governments of the 60s and 70s.

Alex said...

Good points, well made. How do you think alt.Yorks would have turned out?

Doug said...

Have you paged Charlie Stross on this? Alt-history is not exactly his cuppa, but he'd make something wicked out of it...

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