SEARCHLIGHT ON COAL
By WALTER TAPLIN
THERE is something symbolic -in the act of thinking about coal in a heat-wave. It shows our predicament in a flash. We now have to consider in detail, with care and circumspection, a matter which, throughout our industrial history, we have previously managed to take for granted. The effort for most people is painful and distasteful. The more public-spirited can usually be persuaded to make it if they are reminded sufficiently vividly that their pain and distaste are vastly less keen than that experienced by a working miner in high summer. In most mining districts bright sunshine only serves to make hideousness more clearly visible, but the instinctive rebellion against the daily decision to go down the pit is not removed by that. Thinking about coal at ninety in the shade for a few days in the year is still preferable to hewing it at the same temperature in total darkness all the year round. The duty to imagine what it is like to be a miner is constant. But a new duty has been imposed on the public at large. It is the duty to do every- thing possible to acquaint oneself with the current state of the nationalised coal-mining industry. Right from the start the more sensible observers of the Government's nationalisation programme —that is to say all observers who were governed by practical reason rather than theoretical prejudice for or against—have been saying that it is necessary to be sure how the first experiment is going before new ones are undertaken. And now the materials for a balanced judgement are available. The first and second Annual Reports of the National Coal Board appeared two weeks ago—clear and detailed statements accompanied by accounts and statistics which, if the word could apply in such a" sober context, might be called magnificent. They will not go out of date in a few days.
A new and unobtainable statistic would now be of great interest— the figure showing the number of citizens who have read these Reports from cover to cover with care. However large or small it may be—and I suspect it is small—there will have to be some realignment of the forces of opinion. Those who have not read the Reports will still have a perfect right to go on giving their views on coal nationalisation, but there will be less reason why the others should listen to them. From now on knowledge is available in a more or less satisfactory form to the public at large. It is therefore most important to know just how much reliance can be placed in the Coal Board's Report, and that question does not admit of an unqualified answer. What were the authors of the Report trying to do? One thing is clear from the start. They were not trying simply and solely to give an objective and dispassionate account of
the Board's activities. There was more to it' than that. No careful reader can get 'very far in his reading of the Report without dis- covering that its authors are, in the commercial jargon, trying to "sell " the Coal Board. At first this effort of self-justification may give him a bit of a shock. But is it an entirely unreasonable or dishonest effort? Is there any ultimate virtue in the fish-like indifference of the ordinary civil service report, insulated as it is from personal war-Frith by the precise walls of " terms of reference "? After all, the Coal Board is not quite a Government Department.
By all means let its 'supporters try to " sell " the Board to the public. But caveat emptor. He must be convinced either that the nationalised industry as at present organised can succeed in pro- ducing plentiful and cheap coal in an efficient and humane manner, or that all necessary steps are being taken to improve the organisation. The Report is not completely convincing on either count:, There has been plain evidence at Grimethorpe and elsewhere that the present structure is over-centralised. There is nothing in the particulars of organisation given in the Report to contradict this evidence. It is known that the first reaction of- the Board to the charge of over- centralisation was to deny it. And there is very little sign in the Report to indicate that it has changed its mind. As to the financial results, no excuses and no appeal to special circumstances can alter the fact that in 1947 they were rank bad and that the promise of improvement in 1948 is not sufficiently bright to lend any con- viction to the. Board's claim that the deficit is not a charge on the taxpayer. It is much too early to claim anything of the sort.
At the same time it would be a gross over-simplification to place all the blame for a shaky start on the organisation of the Board itself. In fact, it is difficult to see how any Board, however constituted, could undertake to remove the central difficulty, which is the constant insistence of the miners on more pay and better conditions coupled with an equally constant resistance to more work. Once again it is the Report which provides the answer. It records claim after claim by the miners' unions for more pay and better conditions, without any solid guarantee of harder work. This process began even before nationalisation was a fact, as the separate Report on the first six months of the life of the Coal Board, in 1946, clearly shows. It goes on still, with dispiriting monotony. Always the demands are firm and always the corresponding promises are vague.
It is at this point that the disadvantages of an apologetic report can be seen. For it is impossible to judge from the text just what the explanation of this particular failure was. It is clear from external evidence that the Board has not succeeded in capturing the imagination of the working miners. It is clear from the Report that the unions have done little to help it in this respect. But it is still not possible 'to conclude (and this needs to be said with the greatest emphasis) that the miners are unable, or even fundamentally unwilling, to produce more coal. It is always salutary for those who talk glibly of the miners' low morale to consider how miners behave in the face of death and disaster, with which they are constantly familiar. The Report gives the barest outline of the necessary facts. But in a few paragraphs headed " Accidents in 1947 " it provides enough evidence of morale to silence all but the most stupid critics. Yet it still does not explain why this fund of courage, energy and skill has not been directed to the production of more coal. If at this moment more and more people are coming to regard the miners as the worst enemies of progress and prosperity (and that is undoubtedly the, case), then the most reasonable conclusion for reasonable people is not that the miners really are an army of saboteurs but that somehow they have been misrepresented to the public. In other words, they have been betrayed.
That charge needs to be investigated. Perhaps the next Coal Board Report will have something to say about it. This one cer- tainly does not. What evidence is there that the union leaders really are behind the drive for more effort and fuller use of machinery ? What is the precise effect of the so-called target of 211,000,000 tons in 1948, and why is it that, despite its pitiful inadequacy, there is little hope that it will be exceeded? Such targets are a disaster in themselves. If production fell short this year by 25,000,000 tons we should at least be brought face to face with our desperate plight. .If it exceeded the target by the same amount (with some reduction in costs per ton) the whole of British industry would be encouraged to go forward with complete confidence. But the exact achievement of the target at present costs) can merely keep the British coal- mining industry in a position in which it is certain to be upset by the first blast of foreign competition. And that blast will not be long in coming. Again the Report itself is the authority. Its short reference to the possibility of Polish and German competition is more than enough to reveal the threat of a drop in selling prices. It is in failing to warn the miners of the full consequences of failure to meet that threat by higher production at lower costs that their leaders have betrayed them. As it is, events are shaping in such a way that the drop, when it comes, will do the maximum damage. It will catch the British coal industry with its costs at a maximum and its ability to reduce those costs at a minimum. There is no way out of it. If the lesson is not learned before the world price of coal begins to fall, it will be learned much more painfully after- wards. And if the Coal Board does not succeed in bringing home these facts to the miners it will have failed in its major task. Its Annual Report gives no detailed explanation of how it proposes to tackle that task. Possibly that was beyond its power in its first difficult year. But if there is no explanation, and no tangible result, in the next Report, then it will be a document of mainly antiquarian interest.