One morning in the 1970s the wife of a Wigan clergyman opened her curtains to observe: “darling, the garden’s vanished.” The day before it had been the Sunday School treat. In the night the badly backfilled remains of a forgotten ‘bell pit’ silently collapsed — a small coal mine, dug by hand perhaps two centuries earlier. Today, the entire industry has been grassed over, but its presence is still felt not far beneath the surface.
Recent polling by UnHerd found that most of the country supports the Government spending lots of time and energy on green issues. But old coal-mining centres like Wigan make up a handful of areas that remain sceptical. The values of Wigan were shaped underground: hard work, stoicism, bawdy humour, loyalty, and an aversion to pretensions. The town’s motto is ‘Ancient and Loyal’.
In fairness, some green policies around here have been very successful. There are now swathes of green space, and wetlands created by subsidence, where 50 years ago collieries and slag heaps stood. People inhabit the landscape. Fishing and shooting are popular. Whole landscapes have been regenerated since the ‘60s, by government-sponsored environmental policies. These green initiatives engaged communities in improving their own neighbourhoods, removing the toxic legacies of the old industries from the soil. They have demonstrably improved quality of life, and turned what had been private places of exploitation into new common land for recreation.
In Biden’s America coal remains a big industry, but in Britain it’s over. Few old miners would want to reopen the pits. They know coal was dirty, and deadly. It killed many of them. For a time they held sway in British politics, bringing down governments. While U-boats sank tankers, coal saved the day. Perhaps that memory is one of the reasons why there is a striking correlation between the old colliery districts and greater scepticism about the British policy consensus around Net Zero. It isn’t that people in the old mining towns want to go back to the dirtiest fossil fuel, but there is a greater scepticism about the fruits of the green agenda, particularly around energy security and prices.
There’s another correlation: these communities voted Leave. The Wigan miners welcomed George Orwell in the 1930s, but he recognised their honourable tradition of mistrust of intellectuals, ideology and schemes originating among people who have never got their hands dirty. The persistent failure of the old Coal Board’s futile attempts at carbon capture, ‘Clean Coal’, vindicated this mindset. The former mining town of Doncaster is one of the least enthusiastically green in the country, but continues to elect Ed Miliband MP. He is perhaps the principal architect of Britain’s push away from coal in the 2010s, driven by the commitments he wrote into the 2008 Climate Change Act. During the last decade, coal has faded from a dominant to a diminutive part of the British energy mix.
The case of shale gas vindicates the miners, not least since the invasion of Ukraine. Fracking was doomed in Britain by the vocal concerns of homeowners, opposition of environmental campaigners to any new fossil fuel extraction in the UK, and the sunny confidence of ministers that Britain would always be able to buy gas cheaply. The former mining districts, where much of the shale lies, are now among the poorest in the country, and policies that put fuel bills up fall heaviest on the poor.
In the early 2010s, when exploration of Lancashire shale was first mooted, there was excitement again in some of Wigan’s vicarages. The Victorian rectors of the town had built schools and churches with the profits of coal extracted from their land. Might there be a second bonanza for parochial balance sheets, from cleaner shale gas? Policy which leans on the coal miners’ grounded communitarianism, rather than concern over house prices from the anti-frackers, could yet save Britain again.