Energy… the core of Thatcher’s legacy?

She’s dead. The heartless witch or the saviour of a nation. The strong woman or the dictatorial harridan, as the past few days of death parties and plans for a […]

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By Sumit Bose

She’s dead.

The heartless witch or the saviour of a nation.

The strong woman or the dictatorial harridan, as the past few days of death parties and plans for a semi-state funeral have shown, Margaret Thatcher in death, as in life, is unforgettable and divisive.

Thatcher’s legacy depends on your point of view; the emancipator of women in powerful roles, the enabler of mass home ownership, distributor of shares and wealth, creator of free market society, major architect in the demise of Communism, divider of society, warmonger, heartless destroyer of manufacturing, narcissistic megalomaniac, asset stripper of the nation and of course murderer of unionism.

Any, if not all, of these views applies to Margaret Hilda Thatcher but perhaps the last one, personified by her outright war on the coal miners during 1984 and 85 is most relevant here to us in the energy world. What ended up a battle drawn along social lines, pitting working class against ruling class, the Left against Right, police state against public resistance, wealth against poverty and North against South, started ever so simply as an economic decision about energy.

For those of you fortunate to be too young to remember the strike, the signature moment of Thatcher’s reign was all about subsidy. Coal was heavily subsidised by the UK government throughout the 70s and 80s, Thatcher had already seen her Tory predecessor Edward Heath toppled by a miners’ strike in 74 and wasn’t about to have the same thing happen so she stockpiled oil and coal reserves before axeing 20 pits at the cost of 20,000 jobs. The rest is history: it ended with hungry families, communities divided, the unions destroyed and our coal industry and sadly many of the towns and villages supported by it in ruins.

Today we have the dying embers of coal mining in the UK but it is not a flame that needs to go out. We maybe shutting down coal plants here such as the closure of Kingsnorth power station in Kent just last week but in India, China and Brazil, huge parts of Eastern Europe and in Africa coal mining is a booming industry. We still have coal reserves here that could be extracted and actually sold overseas let alone facing facts that despite it all, coal will still be needed here to power our transition phase away from fossil fuels.

Thatcher destroyed the mining industry, was that deliberate ideology or a consequence of a tough finanical decision? Only she knew the answer to that. But her legacy in transforming the fuel mix of the nation almost three decades ago along with her privatisation of the energy industry and the willingness to sell British utilities to overseas nations, has created the energy market and industry we have today.

She did many other things which many may consider had bigger social impact but there is no doubting that energy was a major driving force for her decision making and its consequences actually changed the structure of society and our economy forever. Whether that change was for the better or for the worse, depends on your view of the woman who orchestrated it.