A new report on the legacy of pit closures suggests my old economics tutor was right all along.
During the miners' strike, Andrew Glyn argued that the slogan "coal not dole" made economic sense. He said unprofitable pits should be kept open because the subsidy the government gave them was less than the tax-payer would spend on dole payments to unemployed miners; these, he thought, would not quickly find new jobs.
And it turns out that they didn't. Steve Fothergill says that, of the 213,000 mining jobs lost since 1985, 90,000 have not been replaced. What's more, many of the jobs that have been created in the former coalfields have come only recently; more than 50,000 since 2001.
And even these new jobs have required government help - so one set of subsidized jobs has replaced another. Fothergill says:
The coalfields have come this far along the road to recovery in part because of the intensive practical support they have received from local authorities, development agencies, central government and the European Union.
Does this mean we were right to march for "coal not dole?* Not necessarily. Perhaps the smashing of trades union morale and power contributed to the huge fall we've seen in the Nairu since the mid-80s. But that's another argument; one early and sceptical assessment of it is this pdf. (Leave global warming out of it - I'm in nostalgia mode, and the thought of global warming never occurred to any Oxford student in the mid-80s.)
The lesson here is, I think, still important today. Maybe labour markets aren't as flexible as free-marketeers think, and are far slower to respond to shocks.
* I stress that my support for the miners at the time was not due to any excessive influence from Andrew; I was a Marxist before I met him. He was reticient about advancing the case to his students, only doing so when asked - which, admittedly, was often; he was far more dogmatic about asserting the genuis of Charlie Parker than any political issue. Also, whatever you think of the merits of the "coal not dole" argument, this slogan made (and makes) a hell of a lot more sense than a popular SWP one of the time: "miners and students - one struggle, one fight."