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The man in the hot seat
Derk Ezra was chairman of the National Coal Board for 11 turbulent years. A new book tells his story. Peter Mullen reports.
WHEN I say this tale is about a rather austere scholarly man and his involvement for over a generation in energy production and supply, I think the reader might be excused for thinking “Worthy but dull.” As if I should produce a sonnet on tractor production in the Soviet five-year plan. A sort of Rosie the riveter but lacking the charms of Rosie. But this book isn’t dull at all, and to read it is like being in the middle of a pitched battle.
Derek Ezra was chairman of the National Coal Board from 1971-1982. No one ever sat in that hot seat for longer. And boy, was it hot. These were the years of the miners’ strikes, the first oil crisis of 1973 when OPEC overnight quadrupled its price, prime minister Edward Heath put the nation on a three day week, set a 50mph speed limit on motorways and called a general election, asking the question “Who governs the country?” Three weeks later on 28th February 1974 the voters told him, “Not you guv.”
Never was the slogan We’re All In This Together more true. Aneurin Bevan said, “Britain is an island based on coal and surrounded by fish. Only an organising genius could produce a shortage of coal and fish at the same time.” Derek Ezra was the organising genius who struggled with all his might to make sure that coal supplies were maintained. More than that, he was determined to ensure a long-term future for the mining industry and the welfare of all who worked in it whether at the coal face or in the boss’ office.
This was just before the age of acrimony and attrition, of flying pickets, alleged police brutality and the clash of the irresistible force Arthur Scargill with the immovable object Margaret Thatcher. Ezra’s opposite number as leader of the National Union of Mineworkers was Joe Gormley. Joe certainly held his miners’ safety and living standards paramount but he was no Scargill, the Trotskyist rabble- rouser whose aim was to bring down the government. Ezra and Gormley worked together to achieve compromise in the common interest and usually they did this so amiably and successfully that they became known as the Derek and Joe show.
Joe Gormley paid Ezra this tribute: “The industry has been his life. There wasn’t a fellow in the country who fought harder for the coal industry than he. His heart was totally in it. He’s a man you would call dedicated. For me, Derek Ezra is a worker.”
It was a time of economic turbulence amounting to a transfer of the balance of power to the oil producing states in the Middle East. The sheiks knew this, rejoiced in it and organised a second oil crisis. But there was a deeper crisis and it was political. Coal, you might say, goes deep. It is a seam running through English history for half a millennium. Whole communities were based on coal, as people in the north east know only too well. So there was nothing theoretical about the political crisis: it was personal, visceral, violent, full of sound and fury. The conflict over the mines in the 1970s and 80s cannot be consigned to the history books. Lives were destroyed by it – the real lives of hundreds of thousands of families, fathers, mothers, children, people of real flesh and blood. As we know to our sadness, many of those former mining communities have never recovered from the devastation caused by the pit closures. The antipathies and hatreds generated by what frequently appeared to be class warfare have barely subsided even now. They are the stuff of a bitter, living legend.
Ezra did not cease to be involved after his term as chairman came to an end. On every page of this inspiring, heart-breaking book he features as a man who was ever anxious to seek the middle way, the way of compromise, live and let live. But Maggie was ferociously determined not to suffer the same fate as Ted Heath. On the other side, the miners were led by the fanatical Arthur Scargill. It was a fight to the death. Harold Macmillan said there are three institutions you should never pick a fight with: “The Roman Catholic Church, the brigade of guards and the National Union of Mineworkers.”
Fights were picked as we all know and the whole landscape of the country was strewn with the casualties. The regret must be that the constructive Derek and Joe show could not have been kept going. Then we might never have had to close the coal-house door.
- Derek Ezra: Leadership in Energy, a memoir edited by Roderick Braithwaite – published by The Worshipful Company of Fuellers £29.50 ISBN 978-0-9929210-0-2
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