As Thatcher Goes to Rest, Miners Feel No Less Bitter

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WHITWELL, England -- The old miner walks with a stick now, depleted in body and spirit, but with a pool of resentment that still surges whenever talk turns to the losing battle nearly 30 years ago to save the local coal mine from the economizing zeal of Margaret Thatcher.

"Ten million pounds for a funeral! That's disgusting," he said as he picked his way across the rubble-strewn wasteland that was once the Whitwell colliery, contemplating the elaborate, $15 million rites planned on Wednesday for Mrs. Thatcher, the former prime minister, who died last week at the age of 87. "Ten million pounds! And not 10 pounds for people like me who did all the dirty work here!"

In death as in life, Mrs. Thatcher, whose union-busting battle to close unprofitable coal mines in 1984 and 1985 was one of the hallmarks of her 11 years in power, has proved a deeply polarizing figure -- so much so that the funeral pomp itself, scheduled to play out in the streets of central London, has become a matter of bitter dispute.

Having committed to rites on a scale not seen for a prime minister since the death of Winston Churchill in 1965, the Conservative-led government of Prime Minister David Cameron has said it will not disclose the costs until after the funeral is over. But senior officials have said $15 million is a reasonable estimate.

That has lent ammunition to unforgiving survivors of the battles of the 1980s like the coal miners, many of them from long-closed mines in the industrialized Midlands and the north like Whitwell, who lost their jobs as Mrs. Thatcher privatized nationalized industries like coal and steel that she saw as a dead weight on the economy.

The anger of those who were losers in the Thatcher revolution has found voice in leftist and anarchist groups, including one calling itself Good Riddance Maggie Thatcher. They have promised to lead protests as the flag-draped gun carriage bearing the former prime minister's coffin proceeds to St. Paul's Cathedral, where 2,300 invited guests, including Queen Elizabeth II, will attend the funeral.

Mrs. Thatcher always reveled in a good fight, saying her opponents' vituperation only toughened her conviction that she was right in taking them on. By that standard, she might have taken comfort from the passions she still stirs.

There is no want of people eager to denigrate Mrs. Thatcher in Whitwell, a village that sits between a rust-belt north, where animosity toward Mrs. Thatcher and the Conservatives she led still festers, and the more prosperous south, centered on the financial hub in the City of London and a flourishing network of high-tech start-ups that thrived under Thatcherism.

Whitwell lies in a corner of Derbyshire that adjoins Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire, three counties that were at the heart of Britain's coal country. Along with scores of other coal-mining towns and villages in the region that powered the Industrial Revolution, Whitwell's coal helped make Britain a world power in the century after 1850.

The pit here opened in 1890 and closed in 1986, after a year of battles between thousands of police officers and miners ended in a sweeping victory for Mrs. Thatcher and a gut-wrenching defeat for the miners' union and its militantly socialist leader, Arthur Scargill.

Over the following years, a swath of coal mines were closed, and those that survived were privatized. In time, those, too, mostly foundered, to the point that an industry that boasted more than 170 underground mines and an annual output of about 130 million tons when Mrs. Thatcher came to power in 1979 now has only three deep mines operating, with an output in 2010 of barely 17 million tons -- minuscule compared with America's annual production of about a billion tons. In effect, King Coal, in Britain, was dead.

British industries that depended on coal, including power stations, turned to cheaper imported coal once the union's power was broken. Tens of thousands of miners lost their jobs, nearly 1,000 of them in Whitwell, and many, unwilling to uproot themselves from communities where their families had lived for generations, or too old or unwilling to retrain for other jobs, lived out their working-age lives on welfare.

Many years on, what happened to coal mining is reckoned, for better or worse, as a watershed moment for Britain. It was in the coal fields, more than anywhere, that a socialist vision that prized the welfare of blue-collar communities over profit finally yielded to a new era of individualism, entrepreneurship -- and, for millions beyond the coal fields, prosperity. Eventually, that vision of a new Britian, pioneered by Mrs. Thatcher, was broadly embraced even by the Labour Party, which for much of the 20th century stood as the principal champion of the working class.

But if Mrs. Thatcher moved the center of British politics permanently, her legacy also requires a reckoning with the gloomy consequences for places like Whitwell. The old man encountered at the derelict mine site refused permission for his name to be used because of the resentments that still smolder between miners who went on strike and others, still called scabs by the strikers, who chose to work on or, like the old man at the site, went back to the pits as the strike continued month after month, with many miners' families depending for their survival on soup kitchens and charity shops.

Others who descended more than 1,000 feet into the mine to operate jackhammers and drilling machines, or to drive ponies and plant explosives, told similar stories of a village where men who patronize a Whitwell miners' club that functions as a pub still go to separate rooms to drink, depending on whether they joined the strike or kept working. One man who was attacked on a visit to the miners' club in a dispute over the strike said he still carries a field hockey stick in his car trunk, in case his assailants come after him again.

The old man at the mine site noted that he belonged to the third generation in his family that had worked in the mine, and that he had spent 36 years at the coal face. Gazing across a vista of broken concrete, rusting rail lines, blackened sacks half-buried in the ground and filled-in shafts whose circular outlines are still visible when rain softens the earth, he offered a bitter eulogy for the woman who is blamed for the miseries of the village.

"Mrs. Thatcher? She's not to be mentioned," he said. "Just don't mention the lady. She set people against each other, she broke up families, and it's still the same today. There are still people who won't talk to each other, who'll cross the road rather than run into somebody they worked with for 30 years."

A short walk away, Neil Wale, 47, a former miner who has set up a welding business in the mine's ramshackle old electrical shop with his 18-year-old son, offered a judgment that was still more brusque. Pushing up his welder's visor, he glowered at the mention of the former prime minister's name.

"Mrs. Thatcher? She should rot in hell for what she did to us," he said.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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