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Ken Coates

The Mines

(Spring 1962)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.8, Spring 1962, p.30.
Thanks to Ted Crawford & the late Will Fancy.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Miners in Crisis and War
R. Page Arnot
Allen & Unwin. 42s.

This is the third heavy volume of Mr Page Arnot’s history of the Miners’ Union, and with it he brings his story up to the beginning of the year 1945. It is a masterly work of compression.

On page 144, for instance, we are given a table of the main colliery disasters which happened between 1914 and 1942. It lists 41 entries. Only one of these, that at Gresford, is extensively treated. All the mutilating greed of the coal-owners, and all the painful helplessness of the defeated miners, is made explicit in these pages, which speak of murderous contraventions of the most elementary safety-precautions, pitiless speed-up, brutal intimidation and victimisation.

‘There is no language’, said an MP after the event, ‘... in which to describe the inferno ... There were men working almost stark naked, clogs with holes bored in the bottom to let the sweat out ... the air thick with fumes and dust from blasting, the banjack hissing to waft the gas out of the face and into the unpacked waste, a space 200 yards long and 100 yards wide above the wind road full of inflammable gas and impenetrable for that reason.’

The book is not all defeat, though. Towards the end of the ’thirties the tide began to turn. The battle against company unions, especially against the Spencer Union of Nottinghamshire, marked out the beginnings of better times. The chapter on the epic dispute of Harworth, which killed the independent organisation of Spencer, if not Spencerism, is long and valuable.

But the book does not say everything that needs to be said, because this is an official history, and traces the surface appearances more faithfully than the undercurrents. One learns more from Arthur Horner’s reminiscences about the struggle against company unions in Wales, with all his emphasis on the strategic conduct they called forth, than can be gathered from Arnot’s impeccably documented pages on Harworth. This is not to say that he is wrong about the heroism of Mick Kane and the other Harworth Martyrs: indeed his account does much to set right the shabby record of neglect for the memory of Harworth. Yet the real problems of the conduct of the dispute are not adequately explained here, while the bitter arguments to which it gave rise are not covered.

But there is no doubt whatever that Arnot has written an important book, which will remain important for a long time to come.

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Last updated: 2 March 2010