No "Just Transition" for Wales
Updated: Sep 14
We're hearing the phrase "just transition" a lot. Especially from right-leaning governments, fossil fuel banks (like HSBC) and oil conglomerates. The idea is that cutting back oil and accelerating renewables too quickly could lead to massive job losses, especially among the most vulnerable communities.
Weirdly, I know something about how this feels. I think everyone who's lived near or around the Welsh Valleys does. And there's a lot. A BBC report found that one-quarter of all Welsh people come from so-called "coal field communities".
As strange as it might seem now, Wales used to have a huge coal mining industry. The closing of the coal mines created a national trauma, that can still be felt today. Huge swathes of the country fell into unemployment that lasted generations. (I am the second or third generation). People from the valleys grew up in the shadows of disused coal mines. In the shade of deeply hurt and frustrated communities. And saw first-hand the devasting effects that followed.
No jobs means no money. No money means train stations close, bus services get reduced, hospitals shut down, shops board up and then it's even harder to get a job. No money means no holidays. No treats. No trips to cities, museums or theatres. You learn about things in school that you will never see. You study languages that you never get to speak in the summer holidays. You watch shows about other countries like it's a different planet. The world is a little bleaker.
More unemployment also means more desperation. More teenage pregnancies. More drug use. More crime. Then vicious cycles start. It's so hard to build up something that keeps falling.
You get ghost towns. Ystalyfera, for example, used to be a vibrant hub of things to do. But decades after the mine closures, it's now abandoned and bleak. Of the three towns I grew up in, one of them didn't have any shops at all. One of them had less than five shops total (a Co-Op, Spa, post office inside someone's house, a chippy and this Aladin's cave of stuff called Jean's... that was it). None of them had a train station. Honestly, there is not a lot of opportunity really.
In this map, the yellow areas indicate the most deprived parts of the UK. As you can see, the former mining communities in the Valleys are hardest hit. This means less access to education, employment, health and housing. These valleys may be just 100 miles away from deep blue Oxford, but in terms of opportunities, they might as well be different worlds.
Original source: ONS
(By the way, in case you're wondering about my story. My whole family made huge sacrifices to send me to be privately educated when I was 11 to break the cycle. Everyone got involved in paying the fees and driving me three hours to school every day. I even lived in a caravan at Cardiff Airport with my grandma for a while. Eventually, we moved to Gilfach Goch, which is one of the yellow areas on the map above when I was 13. The contrast of living in (yellow) Gilfach but going to school in (blue) Cardiff left a profound mark on me. There is an almost insurmountable difference between living standards. I never really knew which one I belonged to.
As soon as I turned 18, I left Wales and have never lived there since... I worked in England, France, Switzerland and now in London. A surprising amount of Welsh people do that. I've always been amazed at the disproportionate number of Welsh CEOs, business owners or Hollywood stars outside the borders. This so-called "brain drain" is another example of how mine closures continue to haunt my country.
It would take generations of people coming back to rebuild what's been lost. The devastating way that the mines closed triggered a wave of disasters that still continues today).
The jobs were not replaced
But... it wasn't exactly the mines closing that caused this generational devastation. Some workers have even since come out and confessed that they hated working in the mines.
Check out this Max Boyce lyric:
"They came down here from England
Because our outputs low
Briefcases full of bank clerks
That had not never been below
And they'll close the valley's oldest mine
Pretending that they're sad
But don't you worry butty bach
We're really very glad"
Boyce goes on to talk about the fear of being in the mines, and the long-standing health problems he's had to endure. (The song is called "Duw, it's hard". Duw is Welsh for God. So it's kind of Wenglish).
No. The problem wasn't necessarily the mines closing, it was the way it was done. It was nasty. There was no kindness or sympathy for the people losing their livelihoods. No meaningful alternative employment. Just BAM! A huge slap in the face.
There was no "just transition". Workers went from coal to dole. Over a decade, more than 25,000 Welsh coal miners lost their jobs. Some jobs were created, but there were not enough. An estimated 41 for every 100 miners.
How about... Just don't be a dick?
But the defeat was especially hard because the shutdowns also came against a backdrop of longstanding oppression from successive English governments. (You could say that Wales was England's first-ever colony, so we've had a tough time of it!)
For example, in the decades leading up to the mine closures (mid-1960s), Welsh-speaking villages like Capel Celyn and Llanwddyn were deliberately flooded to make water reservoirs for Liverpool. Yes. That really happened. This kind of oppression runs deep.
There are some seriously creepy videos around of the underwater church graveyards and building remains... I would be a bit nervous to drink the water in Liverpool in case it's haunted! 👻
The drowning of the Welsh villages meant that communities were forced to abandon their homes, and divide up families... and rumour has it that it was a ploy to finally wipe out the Welsh language. For centuries, English governments have tried to do this by banning the language in schools (Google "Welsh Not") and forbidding Welsh from being used in any official documents. It wasn't until 1993 that the English government allowed Welsh to be used in courts of law... In WALES!
The government also tore apart Welsh infrastructure. For example, most of Wales' rail networks were forced closed in 1963, thanks to a Westminster guy who didn't really like us called Richard Beeching. By the end of all the closures, we were left with just three lines and some ludicrously long journeys. Check out this great "improvement" from Beeching below - thanks to Wales Online for the image! We still have to travel like this today - it's a nightmare. That's why almost all rural Welsh kids like me can either drive a car or ride a horse... It's more reliable than the public transport.
The 1960s and 1970s were defined by a rise of Welsh nationalism. People went to prison fighting for independence. And - brutally - when family members visited, they were forced to speak in English. For many, the mine closures must've felt like the final bullet in a long and drawn-out battle.
Wales was denied its own autonomy, drained of democracy and slowly crushed. That was what caused the devastation... not the mine closures. It still goes on today, you can see it everywhere. Recently, King Charles decided to name his son Prince of Wales, without even asking our First Minister. Like WTF. Wales isn't a gift for royalty to hand out freely. They wouldn't dare try to offer up Scotland as a present.
There's a whole thing about why the title is offensive btw. Check out this explanation from Michael Sheen.
Ok so rant over. What lessons can be learnt from the Welsh mine closures?
Wales didn't get a Just Transition. That much is clear. But perhaps, nearly half a century later, there are lessons which can learnt and applied. Countries like Oman, Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Brunei Darussalam all rely on fossil fuels. 30% of the entire GDP of the UAE depends on oil. They don't want to lose their competitive advantage and way of life. Fair enough. So, what could support them in the transition? Here are some ideas:
There needs to be investment in renewable replacements IMAGINE for a moment that Wales' mines were replaced with green energy plants. Can you even picture that? I actually can't. Imagine if all the miners went back to work in renewable plants. If they set about building hydropower systems like in Switzerland. I don't want to brag, but we have a hell of a lot of water in Wales. We could have done that. If Wales had started to work on building a circular economy back in the 1980s, we'd be a world leader by now. So that's my first point. Bring back the pride. Invest in something good, and help the people work towards something sustainable. I don't want to state the f**king obvious, but surely Oman, Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Brunei Darussalam would be quite good solar power spots? Personally, I think there could be a lot of demand for solar power data centres in this region... feel free to steal this idea anyone!
There needs to be kindness ... to the right people I am not talking about being kind to the big banks. F**k that. They have their dirty profits to keep them warm. I am talking about ordinary people who have no control over what their banks and governments are doing. I am talking about the workers who will be anxious about losing their livelihoods. Workers cannot be bullied or oppressed. Ordinary people matter. They need to feel valued and part of the change ... which, of course, they are. More so than we realise. Even today, the media frequently takes the piss out of Welsh people, often portraying us as stupid. Calling someone a sheep shagger is so normal, it's not even considered racist. (My first ever party at Exeter University, I was so shocked at some of the things these rich Southern England kids said to me, it never really left my mind. About how I should be grateful to them for paying for my country, and that I am 10% human, 90% sheep. But in hindsight, I wonder if they were just trying to impress and neg me). So, I think it would be helpful to learn about these cultures. Respect them and give these communities a real feeling of togetherness. We are a team!
Treat the "Just Transition" with a healthy dose of scepticism Let's not forget that the UK leaders talking about a "Just Transition" are probably part of the same group who didn't give a sh*t about crushing Welsh livelihoods. We're talking right-leaning politicians and banks. Don't trust them completely. Rishi Sunak is talking about a just energy transition as he scales-up oil licences and misses every climate goal spectacularly. The CEO of Shell is also using the "just transition" as an excuse to drill for new oil, and backpedal on pledges. The greenwash is real. Huge numbers of our politicians are paid by oil companies. I wrote a blog about it, and the research actually made me sick in my mouth. These are greedy people, who do not care about others. Especially vulnerable communities. Oh. And don't get me started on banks who greenwash. I can't even bring myself to write about the "just transition" claims of Barclays, JPMorgan or HSBC. It's too depressing. As we say in Wenglish, what a load of Cachgi💩.