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As Britain's Coal Industry Loses Its Glow, Miners Feel Betrayed


Britain's last deep coal mine will be closing in a few weeks' time. It marks the death of a centuries-old industry that helped fuel the Industrial Revolution and build an empire. But stations are now buying cheaper fuel from abroad, and British coal miners say they feel betrayed by their government. NPR's Leila Fadel visited that last mine.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: The parking lot of Kellingley Colliery in northern Yorkshire is almost empty. A solitary miner leans out from the top of one of the buildings. In its heyday, Kellingley employed more than 2,500 people. But on December 18, this mine will close. Chris Kitchen, the general secretary of the National Union of Mine Workers, meet us just outside the mine.

CHRIS KITCHEN: There just doesn't seem to be a political will to do anything to assist coal.

FADEL: Kitchen is dressed in a three-piece suit. He wears a button from the miner's strike in the 1980s.

KITCHEN: So it seems like all the basic foundation industries that you would need to rebuild a manufacturing economy, the UK government's just not interested in protecting. And they're prepared to see them go to the wall because, in essence, they're trying to run a country like a business, and you cannot run a country like a business.

FADEL: Standing nearby is Keith Paulson. He's one of the last miners in an industry that once employed over a million people. When he loses his job at the end of the year, he'll be 55.

KEITH PAULSON: What's going to happen to us? Basically we've been thrown onto the scrap heap. Why are we doing this? Why are we smashing our industries? You can't understand it. You can't understand it.

FADEL: Britain was the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, and now it's come full circle. Like in other developed countries, Britain is closing its coal mines and turning to cheap imports and alternative energy. Julian Hoppit, a historian at University College London, says Kellingley is a symbol of the death of industry in Britain.

JULIAN HOPPIT: The closure of the last mine is the closure of a long episode in British history.

FADEL: Britain led the world in manufacturing in the 1700s and 1800s, using coal to power steam engines and heat homes. But in the 20th century, as labor costs grew and coal became more and more expensive to dig up, Britain, like most developed economies, couldn't compete on the global market. In the 1980s, then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher went after the coal miners union.

HOPPIT: There's a sense in which the crucial moment was under Margaret Thatcher's government, when she took on the trade unions, the mining unions and tried and succeeded to force market pressures to work much more directly upon the way the industry worked.

FADEL: Today, Britain is only dependent on manufacturing for about 10 percent of its economy. And the scars of the closures are apparent. Back in northern England, 20 miles from Kellingley, lies the former mining town of Goldthorpe. In 2013, people burned an effigy of Thatcher when she died. They blamed her for killing the coal industry and this once-buzzing mining town. Most storefronts in Goldthorpe are shuttered. The streets are quiet. At a local pub, the afternoon drinkers are mostly former miners. Peter Cooper chats with friends over a pint. He lost his mining job in 1987.

PETER COOPER: Within a 10-mile radius of this village there were 17 comma. It's crucified the place. You've seen it, haven't you? There's nothing here. Nobody's in work.

FADEL: These men say that the coal industry kept Britain fighting through two World Wars. And now, they say the country has forgotten them. Leila Fadel, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.