Vesting Day, January 1, 1947, saw the nationalisation of Britainï¿½s coal industry. Mining communities believed this marked the winning of an epic struggle for decent wages, family security and public ownership of a vital resource.
On Vesting Day, miners and their families marched in thousands behind banners and colliery bands to the pit heads. They cheered. and some openly wept, as the blue and white flag of the National Coal Board was unfurled above them. They crowded round the unveiled plaques which proclaimed:
The dawn of nationalisation brought hope to the miners who had lived with the evils of privately owned pits all their lives. One could almost hear the cheers of heroes and heroines from the past as well as the present, celebrating the reality of public ownership.
The National Union of Mineworkers had drawn up a ï¿½Minersï¿½ Charterï¿½ setting out a strategy for the industry and those who kept it going; it called for modernisation at existing pits together with the sinking of new ones; adequate training for young people; new safety laws; proper compensation payments for industrial injury and disease; a five-day week without loss of pay; adequate pensions at the age of fifty five, and construction of new towns and villages with good housing in mining areas.
The five-day week was won at last in the famous Agreement of 1947, while minersï¿½ wages began to rise steadily, by 1950, they were at the top of the industrial wages league, in startling contrast to the starvation pay of pre-war private enterprise.
Under the terms of the 1946 Nationalisation Act, the National Coal Board was charged with providing Britain with adequate supplies of fuel which in quantity and price were ï¿½in the public interestï¿½. This was welcomed as bringing an end to the cut-throat competition which had been the hallmark of private coal owners as they grasped at individual profits in national and international markets.
Soon, however, hopes and dreams began to sour as miners became increasingly aware that private ownership has been replaced by State rather than common ownership. It was now apparent that control and management of the industry had been left in the hands of those who had previously been either managers or actual owners of private mines.
To add injury to this injustice, the fledgling nationalised concern was forced to pay compensation to former owners, including compensation for pits which had already been closed!
Miners soon realised that ï¿½theirï¿½ industry was labouring under a number of unfair burdens, burdens which did not affect other, private enterprises, and which would weigh heavily in the decades ahead.
The NCB was instructed by the Government to sell its coal at less than the commercial price applicable throughout Europe; a policy which, according to senior managementï¿½s later estimates, lost the industry over ï¿½2 billion income during the ten years following nationalisation. This meant that the new nationalised NCB, which was in reality extremely profitable, consistently showed a loss on its balance sheet because of Government policy and direction.
But while certain industries in post-war Britain were getting ï¿½cheap coalï¿½ on the Government instruction, domestic users had to pay very much higher prices; it was thus, so soon, that the first seeds were sown for anti-nationalisation campaigning.
Another injustice was that whilst the coal industry itself had been nationalised, the main supply and service concerns directly connected with coal mining - distribution, the manufacture and supply of equipment and machinery - were left in the hands of private companies.
These were among the burdens the NUM would be forced to carry. But there were others. In the aftermath of war, there was a desperate shortage of coal. The Government and Coal Board sought an agreement with the NUM in a major drive for increased production, and asked the Union to agree to miners working a sixth shift voluntarily on a Saturday.
The NUM accepted this proposal in a spirit of co-operation, but many within the Union worried that not only was the arrangement in conflict with the Five Day Week Agreement, but it could eventually be used more extensively against mineworkers.
The Coal Boardï¿½s demands for increased production and higher productivity within months of nationalisation clashed with minersï¿½ growing unease. There was a major strike at Yorkshireï¿½s Grimethorpe Colliery, and action spread like wildfire through the coalfields. Both the MFGB and the NUM had been born from anger against the private enterprise tactics, and miners were in no mood to accept those same tactics from the NCB.
In the ten years following Vesting Day, miners, who represented 4 per cent of the nationï¿½s workers, accounted for one-third of all work days lost due to industrial action. It was obvious that the exploitation and injustices of centuries would not be fully ended or redressed by what many saw as ï¿½capitalistï¿½ nationalisation.
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