Arthur Marwick, 31 March 1988
‘You never seem to be able to get the numbers right in this industry,’ lamented Sir Norman Siddall, who bravely filled the gap between the Coal Board chairmanship of Sir Derek Ezra, supreme servant and subtle bureaucrat of consensus, and that of Sir Ian MacGregor, vieux terrible of confrontation. ‘There is either too much or too little.’ Not since 1913, in fact, have the figures seemed roughly right. Coal had been ancillary, rather than essential, to Britain’s early Industrial Revolution. Demand had fluctuated consideraoly throughout much of the 19th century, but by the end of that century it had achieved a crushing dominance as the source of heat, light and power, not just in Britain but in the expanding world economy: in 1913 coal provided 75 per cent of the world’s energy requirements, 99.5 per cent of Britain’s own. In that year the British coal industry produced 287 million tons, one-third of which was exported (much of it in the form of fuel for foreign steam ships), with the rest absorbed in industrial and domestic consumption; about 10 per cent of the world’s need for coal was met by Britain, whose coal exports made up 55 per cent of all coal traded internationally. Output fell during the First World War, and there were a number of crises as the Government sought desperately to maintain the coal supplies critical for the national war effort. The war over, it became clear that the world now had too much coal for its needs, that alternative fuels (particularly for shipping and transport) were widely available and usable, and that former British markets were not only producing their own coal supplies but offering them on the international market at prices which the British industry found difficulty in competing with. British coal then suffered a decline in production and employment so nicely paced, and a series of self-inflicted wounds so exquisitely contrived, that the Second World War and the period of reconstruction which followed were marked by one continuing crisis of productivity. Though some sort of stability was seemingly restored to a steadily shrinking industry, getting the numbers right continued to be difficult as oil resources fell and rose in accessibility and nuclear resources rose and fell in acceptability.