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Editorial – Riddle of the Mines

9 August 1941

Mexborough & Swinton Times Saturday 09 August 1941

Riddle of the Mines

The House of Commons debate this week did little to elucidate the mystery of the mines and their deficiencies in the war effort. The truth seems to lie between our theories; criticisms, complaints, rebuke, reproaches, apologies, excuses and counter-charges.

Perhaps we had better accept the Government explanation that the shortage is due to loss of man-power and let it go at that. We have become so accustomed, during the last fifteen years, to the bitter cry of the industry’s unemployed that it is difficult to adjust ourselves in a moment to the reality that the industry has no unemployed who are fit or ready for employment in the industry.

Mr. Grenfell gave us some surprising figures on Tuesday. The industry employed half a million more men in the last year of the last war than it employs to-day, and not more °than half the pits open then are open now”. A hundred thousand men have left the industry since the outbreak of the present war ; many of them, in spite of reservation, have gone to fight, and many have gone into other industries, not necessarily to make more money (for there is good money to be made in the coal industry) but from a feeling that they are more directly in the front line.

That is possibly one of the reasons for the apathy with which appeals for a higher coal output have so far been met. The miners are not imaginative as a class, and it is not easy for them to grasp the truth that so normal a service as coal getting can be as vital, or urgent, as shell-making, to say nothing of shell-firing.

On the political side the miner is familiar with the idea that the country depends on coal, and is very much in the debt of those who win it ; he has been easily persuaded that coal is a fundamental form of wealth, the proceeds of which ought to be divided between the miners and the nation ; but Marxian doctrines, though they have filtered down to him in many forms, have never had much to say about the miner’s duty in war that is to say, in a righteous war of which the miners approve. Until Russia became involved in the war the energetic Communist element in the coal industry—the soil most favourable to Communism in this country—has astutely exploited the war to wring concessions while giving little in return.

The case is now altered, and the Communists to-day are the keenest to see that Russia does not go down for want of British coal, though meanwhile a great deal of mischief has been done. It is true also that a great deal of nonsense has been talked and written on the failure of coal output, mainly by people who know little of the special problems of the industry, and assume that in an emergency coal output can be suddenly expanded without difficulty, if not without strain, and that there is no limit to the productivity of a pit or the stamina of a coal-getting miner.

We know that practical difficulties have entered into this coal shortage far more than laziness, indifference, or bed citizenship. We know that the coal industry, if it can be said to be organised at all, is not organised for war and cannot under present conditions make an effort comparable with that of the 300,000 farmers who are giving us this great and glorious harvest of home-grown food. It is more true of the minerals under the earth than of the soil at the surface that it has its times and seasons, and that the process of wresting coal from its bed can be hurried only at the peril of those who pit themselves against nature in such a matter. The land will not be hurried—our extra harvest comes from new land and not from intensified cultivation of the old—and that is true even more of the coal. To get more food we have had to employ more labour on the land; to get more coal it is clear that we must do the same, and the Government has reluctantly accepted this position to the extent of agreeing to return fifty thousand miners from the Army while appealing to ex-miners who have found a “better ‘ole” to put their country first and go back into the pits. The threat of a coal shortage has long been a worry, but it is wrong to put it in terms of crisis. We aro assured that the war effort is not likely to flag for want of fuel or power, and that the rationed community, given efficient distribution —a matter outside the control of the coal industry—will not stiffer unreasonable Hardship during the coming winter. On the very lowest ground the miners cannot afford to let the nation down; to do so in present circumstances would be to destroy any chance of nationalisation hereafter, for manifestly those who will not exert their full industrial strength to preserve the nation in war can have no ground for inviting the nation to entrust the industry to their zeal in time of peace. And in any case, let us not lose sight of the staunch and stern devotion, in peace and war, of the majority—that is, of the typical miner—who pursues his difficult dangerous, and disagreeable calling until his career is ended by disaster or decay.

After all, the coal industry has achieved much and is achieving more. We have a million tons of coal more in stock than we had a year ago, and the margin is now mounting. Let us not count our sheep before they are black.