The Coal Muddle C OAL, iron and steel, cotton, shipping—these great
industries loom large across- our horizon as one after another they make some new claim on the State to enable them to hold their own in the world's economy. Behind each and all of them, as we have now been forced to realize, must stand the supporting strength of the whole nation, without which they would founder. The great Cunarder could not be left, unfinished, to be a " folly " of modern engineering on the Clyde ; and in this case the Cunard and White Star lines had the wisdom to arrange the merger which was the condition of State assistance. Iron and steel, languishing under disabilities of which foreign competition was only one, asked for and got a tariff ; but the State is still awaiting the fulfilment of the industry's promise to set its own house in order. Cotton, faced with Japanese competition, will increasingly be disposed to turn to the Government for support. And coal, for a quarter of a century the bad child of British industry and, since the War, the subject of two Royal Commissions and frequent Parliamentary discussion, depends on Government support for its exports, and will be a principal beneficiary from the new Bill to assist the home-production of oil.
All the fundamental conditions affecting the welfare of these industries have been changed in recent years, except, in many cases, the mentality of the owners. It has been too little realized that in a matter affecting the welfare of the whole nation an industrialist cannot get the whole nation to come to his support without incurring corresponding duties and responsibilities. In several basic industries certain owners are deliberately or blindly challenging the interests of the community at the very moment when capitalism is faced with a crisis which presents only two alternatives—to justify itself by its own capacity for refotm, or to go under. On the subject of iron and steel reorganization, much has been and probably will be said, but we do not yet despair of the success of voluntary effort in securing an agreed scheme for improved production. But at the back of iron and steel is coal, a prime source of Britain's industrial great- ness in the past and still the basic industry on which the whole fabric rests. Here the whole situation has been obscured, not for lack of any information, but by reason of the very tediousness of a theme which for decades has presented the same wearisome problems of bickering and disorder. From time to time some incident which. reveals the mis-working of the district quotas, or the unloading of a cargo of Polish coal on the Thames stirs the interest of the public. But the story of contemptuous defiance with which the coal-owners have recently been obstructing the Reorganization Commission set up by Act of Parliament has received little attention from the Guternment, which is defied, or from the public, which is wronged. The amending Bill promised by the Secretary to the Mines Department will not deal with major issues.
To solve the problem of coal is to solve the problem of British industry. For upon the proper development of the mines and subsidiary industries will depend the economic production of power on a national scale— electricity, gas, oil from coal—and innumerable by- products of coal. But we do not need to draw the complete picture of the vast potentialities of the coal-fields of Great Britain when adequately unified and scientifically exploited. Sufficient for the moment that we have been assured again and again by every disinterested expert that the productive efficiency of the mines for present purposes depends on amalgamation of colliery undertakings now competing one against another. The Coal Mines 'Re- organization Commission in its recent report condemned in the strongest terms the "haphazard development of each coalfield by a large number of unco-ordinated units, brought into existence on no national plan, nearly all working below capacity, competing suicidally; whether in capital expenditure or in prices, or both, for a market that cannot absorb the product of all." Carefully prepared amalgamations would provide scope for a "saving of many millions a year" merely by enabling mines to work to capacity ; and this without taking into account the infinite possibilities of co-operation in producing new coal products and rationalized distribution.
It was the duty of the Commission, set up by the Act of 1930, to promote the -reorganization of the industry by means of amalgamations. It was within its powers either to stimulate the industry in the various districts to voluntary action in devising schemes, or, failing this, to resort to compulsion. At every turn it met with opposition either from the Central Committee of the colliery owners or from individual colliery owners who refused to provide them with facilities for investigation. The Commission has recently been forced to fall- back on its powers under the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act, and to summon the chairmen and secretaries of certain companies to appear in London and produce the necessary documents. Not that the Commission has used high-handed methods. It has declared its readiness to accept inferior schemes of reform carried out volun- tarily in preference to superior ones imposed compulsorily ; and in deference to the wishes of a majority in the West Yorkshire district has accepted a scheme of " partial " amalgamation which would involve central control as opposed to one of total amalgamation through financial mergers. The Chairman, Sir Ernest Gowers, and his associates, assured that the Government is behind them, have behaved with the utmost consideration ; but their efforts on behalf of the industry have so far been balked by obscurantist prejudices inherited from the days of small industries and cut-throat competition. "The force of the necessity of things," said Sir Ernest Cowers in a speech last week, will "drive the Parliamen- tary machine up against the industry; it lies with the coal-owners themselves to determine whetherthat machine, is used to destroy their capitalism or to fulfil it."
The present Government stands, not for destroying, but fulfilling. And, therefore, it should be one of its first duties to conic to the help of what is sane in the leadership of the mining industry and rescue it from what is insane and heading for disaster for itself and for the country. Nothing would so speedily settle the whole question of co-ordinating the activities of the industry as to adopt the recommendation of two Royal Commissions, the Sankey and the Samuel Commissions, that the mineral rights should be acquired by the State, which would thus become the lessor of all the mines. This plan has also the approval of Sir Ernest Gowers and all his colleagues on the Reorganization Commission, and of a large number of mine-owners. The reform, whose recommendation rests upon an overwhelming weight of expert evidence, is comprehensive but simple. Royalty-owners would be compensated and satisfied. Mine-owners would be bene- fited. Many economies would at once result. The independent body which would presumably be appointed to act on behalf of the State, would be in a strong position to promote or enforce amalgamations, with central authorities empowered by whole areas to close super- fluous pits, develop the best pits, promote unified selling policies, avoid duplication and conduct research. Nor need it be feared that efficiency in the raising, selling, transport and developed use of coal would increase or perpetuate unemployment. There could be no greater fillip to the whole industry of the country than to increase efficiency in the production and treatment of coal. It would mean more uses for coal, a larger output, and in the long run more employment for miners, and the removal of the long-standing sense of grievance arising from the knowledge that the industry is being mismanaged. The National Government, which has deserved credit for dealing with the financial muddle bequeathed to it in 1931, is in a strong position for taming to the con- structive task of removing the muddle of coal, and so laying the basis for the recovery of all other industries.