Arthur Horner

The Communist Party and the Coal Crisis


Date: November 25, 1945
Publisher: Communist Party of Great Britain
Printer: Farleigh Press, Ltd.
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2008). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.


[ARTHUR HORNER is a member of the Executive Committee of the National Union of Mineworkers and National Production Officer for the Union, as well as President of the South Wales Area of the Union. He is also a member of the Executive Committee of the Communist Party. This pamphlet records the speech he made to delegates at the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party, November 25th, 1945.]

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TO say that the coal situation of this country is critical is an understatement. It can easily become catastrophic. If the mine-workers of this country fail for any reason at all to produce coal for a period of three weeks, no train would run, no electrical undertaking could be carried on, no gas could be produced and no factory could work. This is the nature of the coal crisis at the present time. And this I suggest adds to the warning given by Comrade Pollitt yesterday* to those who so lightly talk of bringing an end to industrial activities in important industries in this country.

Were it not for the promise which the Government has made to nationalise the mines, the British mining industry would probably be in the same cauldron of discontent as other great industries at this particular time. I would give this warning to those in the country who condemn nationalisation in the mining industry: it is nationalisation or no. They must have one if they are to have the other. There can be no choice so far as the miners are concerned—the industry must be nationalised at the speediest possible moment, otherwise this country will be denuded of the coal it requires to carryon its undertakings.

This coal must be got by miners, and miners are a disappearing force in this country. There are some people who continue to regard the responsibility for coal production as a miner’s obligation. It is not a miner’s obligation—it is the obligation of the general population of this country. We have now reached an unprecedented state. The week before last we had only 697,000 miners working in the mines. This is the lowest number in living memory. We are losing miners at the rate of 45,000 a year, and only a trickle is entering the industry to make up for the loss. Men must be attracted to the mining industry, and you cannot depend any longer upon recruits for the mining industry coming from miners’ sons or from the people who live in the mining areas. We will never admit that we are a section of the community condemned to the responsibility for ever for providing the manpower to get the coal of this country.

Neither will we admit that compulsion is the way by which the man-power must be obtained. Our experience with Bevin boys has taught us that only voluntary labour can be employed with effect in mining. We have resisted all suggestions for the employment of prisoners of war. We will not permit the solution of the mining problem except by the method we have laid down. And that is, that this industry must be so improved as to attract the voluntary labour of British boys in British mines. We will not allow the solution of the mining problem such as obtained in France and in Belgium over a long period of time. We will not allow the importation of foreign—Polish, Italian or even Irish labour to stifle the demand of the British people to have decent conditions in British mines.

The status of the miners must be related to the importance of their job. They are the fundamental workers of this country. They do the hardest, the most dangerous, and the most monotonous work of all, and they must be regarded as the most important fundamental force upon which all British industry must be constructed. It is useless to talk about the absorption of demobilised men, useless to talk about the housing programme, silly to talk of exports until we have mastered the problem of coal production in this country.

And to do that we must have satisfied men who have come into the industry of their own volition. That can only be brought about if wages correspond to the importance of the task. But there are more things than wages. Conditions underground have to be so changed that they correspond with the conditions in factories of the most modern kind. We refuse to be defeated by the difficulties which are inherent in producing coal underground. We will technically master the problems which confront the mining industry under the new organisation.

I want to say this, too. The time has come when the segregation of miners must end. They are not sub-human. They are amongst the most intelligent and politically conscious people in Britain or in any other country. We will not be segregated in isolated villages and sordid surroundings for very much longer. We demand that miners shall have conditions of a social character equal to the best enjoyed by any other sections of this British community.

There is one thing about which we are absolutely insistent. We will not invite workers to go into these mines with the knowledge that one in four will be injured every year; that 700-800 will be killed. We will not invite people to enter this industry so long as the income they receive if they are injured is a miserable 2 5s. a week. We warn the Government: we will not tolerate this present Industrial Injuries Bill. Miners represent half the industrial injuries of this country. We only compromised at the T.U.C., for we require and mean to have no loss of wages in the event of injury in the service of the employer. The pain and anguish of the injury is enough. That we cannot avoid. But to suffer destitution and semi-starvation because of it, is something we can no longer tolerate in the mining industry. But I tell this Congress, and through you, this country; this is the minimum price which this country must pay far coal—decent conditions, decent pits and decent reward if the men are injured when employed in these pits. And if the country cannot undertake to pay that reasonable price, then the country must take the consequences in being short of the coal which it must have in order to exist.

Two other things I want to say. One in retrospect. Many delegates were confused in April, 1944, when widespread strikes broke out in various parts of the country. And I am certain that there were misgivings amongst the delegates as to whether the leadership of the Party was correct in the attitude we adopted. Now let me tell you this for the first time. When these strikes were going on, many of us were aware that the Second Front was being prepared, and these strikes, had they continued, would have prevented the launching of the Second Front. The Sheffield works were almost stopped—we were bringing coal from Durham into Yorkshire to produce the armaments essential to the launching of D-Day. Of course, we could not tell the country that. To tell the country would have been to tell the enemy. At the same time the leadership of this Party knew the steps which were being taken to safeguard the miners’ conditions in the Agreement ending 1948, so that miners were raised from 86th place in the list, to among the first half dozen.

I suggest to this Congress that on future occasions it might not be possible to inform all the members of the desire of the leadership to serve greater purposes than even the interests of a section of the working class, and you must from this experience learn to have faith in the leadership of this Party, which under the most difficult circumstances faced unpopularity and misunderstanding in the interests of a greater cause. Had D-Day never come there would have been no London in which we could meet today. The action of the Party, the resistance it exercised, the influence it brought to bear beyond the leadership of the National Union of Mineworkers, deserved recognition which I now give it, as having been a great factor in saving Britain and enabling her to defeat Nazi Germany.

One last word in the immediate prospect. With the consciousness the miners have; with the understanding they have acquired of the great implications which would arise from a miners’ stoppage, I think we can keep the mining industry going satisfactorily through this winter. Of course, we will not be able to produce enough coal. We would like to produce coal to send to France, Belgium, Holland—where all the industries have suffered from lack of coal. The man-power we possess is not enough to do this. We cannot reorganise the mines in six months or completely in six years. It is a big job. It is a vital job to the future of this country, but we shall get through this winter. Will there be shortage? Of course there will be shortage. We cannot physically produce enough coal to meet the requirements of this country until we get more man-power and better organised pits.

We will, however, succeed in maintaining the main functions of this country given the support of the miners, given the conscious leadership of the best members of the Labour movement; and if I were given as much support by the Labour Party as I am given by the Communist Party, I would have no doubts at all about the ultimate success.

At the same time I have to express my appreciation of the Amalgamated Engineering Union and to express thanks to the Association of Scientific Workers, for they have endeavoured to bring about an avoidance of wastage of fuel, not by asking the house wife, who hasn’t any coal to economise, but by using ingenuity in their works and factories to avoid mass waste, by the utilisation of better methods of burning coal. I would welcome from all comrades engaged in important industries their reciprocation to the miners by their giving to us all they know about avoiding waste of this essential commodity at the present time. It isn’t only a miner’s task. Engineers, workers in factories of all kinds—you can help our saving campaign this way—not by taking bits from the housewife which she needs for her fire.

The future of Britain depends on how we solve this task. Without coal, industrial Britain cannot exist. Half the population of this country cannot remain here. The miners will play their part. But it is a part and not the sole responsibility. It is Britain’s fate which is at stake. The people of Britain must co-operate so as to provide the miners and those people who remain in the pits with the conditions to which they are entitled and which have a relation to the importance, the nature and the dangers which they are called upon to perform and face.

 

Notes

* At the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party.