ONE of my first memories of life was crawling up to a window from a cot-bed in my nan’s council house in Whitehaven in Cumbria. I had been woken by what sounded like drummers banging hard the concrete road outside, I later learnt it was the sound of miners in clog boots, walking to the early shift at the Haig Pit.

Through the curtains I could only see the boots marching to the daily grind and to death.

This week, Michael Gove ignored ­climate change warnings and approved the first British coal mine in 30 years. It was an ­announcement that not only divided ­opinion but brought two of the great forces of our era, head-to-head.

Environmental campaigners were ­dumfounded by the decision, claiming it was the equivalent of having 200,000 new cars on the road. But those that still hang on to the hope that a community can be saved by job creation were welcoming the prospect of 500 new jobs into what is a deeply deprived town.

One thing is certain, there will be a ­legal challenge led by those that claim the idea breaches UK climate ambitions to each net zero by 2050 and that ­excavating the mine, if history is a guide, will be a ­dramatic and costly enterprise.

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I know a lot about Whitehaven – its where my mum was born and where I spent ­every holiday in my schooldays, trawling the beaches outside ­Sellafield and ­gathering junk next to the old ­Marchon factory the largest single-site producer of Sulphuric Acid in Europe where Zip ­firelighters were manufactured.

Viewed retrospectively, it was not the most romantic seaside promenade but I spent hours happily collecting polluted junk into a plastic bucket imagining it was treasure, unaware of the risk to life and limb. It is on the site of the old ­Marchon factory that the new coal mine will be built.

Whitehaven is a mystery, it is in ­England but then again it is not. Like my own family, many of the miners who lived and worked locally were from Ireland and as the land stretched eastwards to the iron-ore town of Cleator Moor, was in the post-war period the most Irish town in England. Had it been transported north of the Border it was Coatbridge.

On a clear day, Whitehaven is nearly in Scotland, a half decent pair of binoculars can pick out Kirkcudbright across the ­Solway Firth, and the nearest main town is Carlisle, the proverbial last stop to ­Glasgow Central.

It is perhaps predictable that the ­proposal of a new coal mine in ­Whitehaven has been framed as a ­debate about the ­environment, since ­Britain ­hosted COP26 in Glasgow it is the ­undeniable issue of our times.

The new proposal promises many things, that is will produce coking coal primarily for export; it will be ­environmentally ­sensitive, and by a ­chemical sleight-of-hand it will be as close to carbon-neutral as a corporate press release can claim. They may be able to spin the science but what the backers and their ­compliant government cannot do is rewrite ­Whitehaven’s past.

Whitehaven’s legacy tells a very ­industrial story, it is one of ­monumental risk, unacceptable levels of injury and death and a story of working class ­exploitation that ranks with the very worst of modern capitalism.

My grandfather was a miner, although throughout my life he was never actually down the pit. He had retired disabled ­after one of Whitehaven’s many pit disasters.

The collieries around Whitehaven, some of which reached out beneath the Irish Sea, were infamous for the ­prevalence of methane and so were susceptible to ­explosions and suffocating fires.

Between 1922 and 1931, 79 men died as a result of three separate explosions, a further 130 miners had perished in 1910 and the most costly explosion occurred soon after the Second World War in 1947 at William Pit.

Such is the overwhelming debate about the environment that the very real risks to mining in Cumbria have been relegated or understated.

It was this latter pit disaster that ended by grandfather’s working life, although he was pronounced one of the lucky ones – 104 miners died in the explosion trapped in a colliery to die of methane ­poisoning or to suffocate to death beneath slag heaps of coal.

For me this is the untold story of the Conservative government’s proven ­history. They cannot be trusted to put the concerns of working people first, to ­consider safety to be paramount and, ­pathetic as it may seem, issues like the ­environment are subjects they giggle about off camera.

Ask them about how safety standards will be met in the new Whitehaven mine and thy will mouth latitudes about the highest safety standards in the world, second to none, and much higher than the EU would have demanded. So why is that is the case now has safety been so ­flagrantly overlooked in mining for the last 100 years, under private mine owners and state industries?

READ MORE: Gove stokes anger with approval of first UK coal mine in 30 years

WHITEHAVEN’S history gives the lie to extracting coal from underneath the sea bed is either environ­mentally or humanly cost-effective.

Conservative ministers know they will struggle to convince the public that this is a well thought out plan, there was no announcement in the House of Commons, and no ministerial visit to the outposts of Cumbria for self-congratulatory photo-shoots. Even the unctuous Michael Gove (below), knows this a plan that go spectacularly ugly. Protesters are already planning the mother of all resistance, stopping the dig, delaying excavation in the courts and plotting all kinds of unpredictable stunts.


One of the most vocal supporters of the new mine is the Tory MP for Workington, Mark Jenkinson whose constituency base is a few miles north of Whitehaven.

Those that follow the caricatures much loved by voting surveys and ­electoral ­pundits will remember ­“Workington Man” – the term used ahead of the 2019 General Election to describe a ­stereotypical swing voter who it was ­believed would ­determine the election outcome and break Labour’s so-called red wall of ­traditional working-class support.

“Workington Man” yearned for ­Brexit, for fewer immigrants and for ­simpler times before globalisation and the ­service economies, when local industry ­guaranteed jobs.

It was the rise of the “Workington Man” caricature that finally brought to an end the Unionist and Labour Party canard that working-class communities in Scotland and the north of England were interchangeable.

As Labour embarks on the long and winding road to electoral ­recovery, they would help themselves if they ­acknowledged that remaining faithful to Brexit and the economic damage of being outside the single market might work in the troubled mind of Workington Man, but it is not working further north.