Scotland’s coalfields once sprawled across the central belt, from Ayrshire and Lanarkshire on the west coast to Fife and the Lothians on the east. In 1947, 77,000 people worked in Scottish coal. By 1990, that number had slumped to just 6,000. Popular history dictates that the UK coal industry was rapidly wound down during the latter part of the 20th century by Conservative politicians hostile to organized labour. But as Ewan Gibbs explains in Coal Country: The Meaning and Memory of Deindustrialization in Postwar Scotland, the reality is more complicated.
Competition from cheaper fuels and the emergence of nuclear power pushed British coal into decline soon after the Second World War. In the 1950s and ‘60s, governments and mining unions negotiated the closure of nationalized pits and collieries. In the 1970s, there was a sharp uptick in industrial action. In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher abandoned the consensual strategy of previous decades in favour of a more militant – and politicized – approach to the sector. Coal mining in Scotland had already shed half its pre-war employee base by the time Harold Wilson became prime minister in 1964. That base had halved again by the time Thatcher entered Downing Street 15 years later.