A red line in Merthyr’s dirty opencast coal mine
In 1831, Merthyr flew the red flag of socialism for the first time ever. Nearly 200 years later, the struggle against disastrous extraction projects continues the fight against the injustices of capitalism, writes Russell Warfield.
I broke into a coal mine last week. With hundreds of other climate activists I woke up at 6am, walked through stunning common land near where I grew up in the hills of south Wales, and descended into the UK’s biggest opencast coal mine. Some of us locked onto diggers, while dozens more blockaded the entrance, joined by locals who have been opposing this hazardous extraction project for years.
There was no mining for the day. In its place was our simple message: no new coal, and green jobs for Wales.
Last December, at the Paris COP21 climate talks, the UK government made an agreement with the rest of the world to limit average warming to no more than 1.5 degrees. If we have any chance of doing this, we need to leave 80 per cent of fossil fuels in the ground. That means we need to move away from coal, very quickly, and invest in renewable alternatives.
That’s not what we’re seeing in Merthyr at the moment. Miller Argent – the company which owns the mine we shut down – wants to build another one of a similar size, right next door. This would be a disaster for the climate, and for the local community.
The nearest homes are about 400 metres away. The sound can be heard – constantly – until 10pm every night, across the whole of Merthyr, and further if the wind is right. You can’t hang your washing on the line if you want it to come back in without a filthy film of coal dust. And that doesn’t suggest good things about the air an entire community is breathing.
Whether you’re looking at it from a local perspective or a global perspective, there are loads of important reasons to move away from coal. That’s why hundreds came from all over the UK to act in solidarity with this local campaign. And for me, having grown up just down the road, it felt particularly important. Taking part in this direct action, I was proud to have made a small contribution to Wales’ national history – and Merthyr’s local history – of fighting for social justice.
In the 1820s, a group known as the Scotch Cattle organized in the same hills which we camped in this week, planning our action against the opencast mine. Back then, local workers were powerless against employers who lowered wages while retaining ownership of land and goods, and so they carried out retaliatory action under the cover of night.
In 1831 the unrest culminated in a violent uprising in Merthyr, with nearly 10,000 workers on the streets. This marked the first time that the red flag of socialism was flown by workers, challenging the oppressions of capitalism.
One of those on the streets was a man named Dic Penderyn, who allegedly stabbed a police officer in the leg during the rising. The injuries were not fatal, the cop couldn’t identify Penderyn, and thousands of locals petitioned for his release, confident of the allegation being a scapegoating stitch up. They were right. Penderyn was hanged, with his final words being: ‘O Arglwydd – dyma gamwedd’ (‘O lord – here is inequity’).
Merthyr has a proud history of confronting the injustices of capitalism. Nearly 200 years after the red flag of socialism was flown for the first time, hundreds of climate activists formed a red line through an opencast coal mine in the very same town. We did this to represent just one of the red lines we cannot cross if we want to avoid climate emergencies worse than the ones we’re already experiencing. And of course, there were a couple of red flags flown too, as we occupied the mine for the day.
Naturally, Miller Argent wasn’t impressed that we’d shut down their mine. Responding to our action, it has tried to paint itself as a borderline philanthropic force for good, making two claims of itself: that it provides jobs for local people, and that it provides affordable energy. Neither claim is especially truthful.
When it comes to jobs, the mine does provide about 200 of them, and that’s not to be sniffed at in a town with the economic problems of Merthyr. But these 200 jobs are among only around 2000 mining jobs remaining in the whole of the UK. Compare that to literally tens of thousands of jobs in wind and solar, and think about the fact that two of the world’s biggest coal companies just went bust. These are not secure nor sustainable jobs. It’s clear which direction the economy is moving in.
If you’re worried about jobs, renewables offer the best way forward, and Wales is a great place to invest. We already generate enough wind energy to power nearly half of Welsh homes. Why stop there? I’ve just camped on the side of a hill in Merthyr for three days. You can take it from me that we’re in a good position to lead the world on wind power.
On the point of affordable energy, it depends what you mean by ‘affordable’. Fossil fuels are only economically viable because the UK government subsidises them to the tune of billions every year, while dismantling progressive policies around renewables. And of course, Miller Argent doesn’t factor in the cost of burning this carbon. That’s paid for by the world’s poor.
Leaving aside these claims about jobs and affordable energy, Miller Argent’s relationship with Merthyr has never been harmonious. The community does not want them there. Back in August, when it became obvious they weren’t going to get planning permission for the second mine they threatened to sue the local authority for $144,500. This is in one of the most impoverished boroughs in all of Wales. Since being officially denied permission, they’ve gone above the heads of the local authority, and appealed to a central planning committee to get their way.
They want the coal, and the short term profits it offers. Miller Argent does not care about the local community.
I appreciate the irony of a Welsh socialist trying to shut down a coal mine. But this is a different situation to the ideological attack on unionism which the area experienced in the 1980s; an episode which left Merthyr in the economic situation it still suffers from today.
When we occupied the UK’s biggest opencast coalmine a few days ahead of the Welsh Assembly elections, our action was as much a call for decent, green jobs as it was a call to end coal. The new Welsh Government should take decisive action on both of these issues simultaneously. Assembly Members already voted for a moratorium on opencast coalmining. It wasn’t a legally binding decision, but the political will is there. It could easily become reality if we keep applying pressure after last week’s election.
We have the opportunity to turn Wales into a new energy powerhouse. Sustainable employment can be created for tens of thousands of people – not just a few hundred – and towns like Merthyr can lead the world on renewables. This would follow in the area’s storied tradition of resisting the injustices of capitalism, from the rising of 1831, to the miners’ strikes of the 1980s.
In 2016, climate change takes prominence as a unique and previously unimagined symptom of deregulated capitalism, driven by the short term economic interests of companies like Miller Argent; an employer which pleads benevolence by offering a smattering of jobs and falsehoods about ‘affordable’ energy. The parallels are clear. Merthyr’s fight against opencast coalmining marks a new entry in the proud history of Welsh socialism.