'Communities were devastated': Boris Johnson criticised for 'crass' joke praising Margaret Thatcher closing coal mines

Johnson has been branded as 'deeply insensitive' for his comments praising Thatcher (Photo: Jane Barlow/Hilaria McCarthy/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has faced considerable backlash for “deeply insensitive” comments he made praising former PM Margaret Thatcher for closing coal mines across the UK, thereby giving the country a “big early start” in the fight against climate change.

The Prime Minister made his comments during a trip to Scotland, speaking to reporters after visiting the Moray East offshore wind farm.

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What did Boris Johnson say?

When pressed on whether he would set a deadline for ending fossil fuel extraction during a visit to a giant wind farm off the coast of Scotland, Johnson hailed existing action to move to greener forms of power.

He stated that when he was a child, 70 per cent to 80 per cent of all electricity had been coal generated, with this figure falling to 40 per cent by the time he became London Mayor.

Since then, he said, “it’s gone right down to one per cent, or sometimes less”.

Johnson said: “Look at what we’ve done already. We’ve transitioned away from coal in my lifetime.

“Thanks to Margaret Thatcher, who closed so many coal mines across the country, we had a big early start and we’re now moving rapidly away from coal altogether.”

It is reported that Johnson laughed, and said to reporters: “I thought that would get you going.”

How did Nicola Sturgeon and Kier Starmer react?

Writing on Twitter, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said: “Lives and communities in Scotland were utterly devastated by Thatcher’s destruction of the coal industry (which had zero to do with any concern she had for the planet).

“To treat that as something to laugh about is crass and deeply insensitive to that reality.”

Sir Kier Starmer Tweeted: “Boris Johnson’s shameful praising of Margaret Thatcher’s closure of the coal mines, brushing off the devastating impact on those communities with a laugh, shows just how out of touch he is with working people.”

What were other responses like?

Many political figures from across all parties condemned Johnson’s comments.

Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar said that the remarks were “just another example of why the Tories are a disaster and the biggest threat to the union”.

The party’s energy spokeswoman at Holyrood, Monica Lennon, criticised the PM for “laughing about Thatcher’s pit closures that decimated our mining communities”.

Fellow Labour MSP Neil Bibby said: “To attempt to turn one of the most divisive and destructive periods in British history into a retrospective victory for the environment is deeply offensive to the people and communities who faced considerable hardship and misery.”

Owen Thompson, SNP MP for Midlothian, said: “The Thatcher years might have been a spiffing time for Johnson, who was busy partying in the elite Bullingdon Club, but in the real world Thatcher devastated communities across Scotland.”

Scottish Greens Central Scotland MSP Gillian Mackay also said: “Thatcher’s decimation of the coal industry had absolutely nothing to do with environmentalism and everything to do with her despicable anti-trade union ideology.

“Communities across Scotland were decimated by these cruel and vindictive policies which destroyed industry and left workers high and dry.

“It’s no surprise that Boris Johnson eulogises Thatcher, but we must ensure his government don’t repeat her actions as Scotland begins to transition from oil and gas to our renewables future.

“The Scottish Greens won’t allow the Tories to repeat the mistakes of the past. We will fight for a fair transition for workers that sees their jobs guaranteed in the sustainable industries of the future.”

Why did Thatcher close the mines?

Margaret Thatcher, who served as Britain’s Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990, and the leader of the Conservative Party from 1975 to 1990.

When Thatcher entered into office in May 1979, one of her promises was to curb the power of unions, which had previously shown how they could bring the country to a standstill during the strikes in the winter of 1978 to 1979.

Britannica says: “Her government enacted a series of measures designed to undermine the unions’ ability to organize and stage strikes, including laws that banned the closed shop, required unions to poll their members before ordering a strike, forbade sympathy strikes, and rendered unions responsible for damages caused by their members.

“In 1984 the National Union of Mineworkers began a nationwide strike to prevent the closing of 20 coal mines that the government claimed were unproductive.”

The miners’ strike lasted from 1984 to 1985 and was led by Arthur Scargill of the National Union of Mineworkers against the National Coal Board, sparked by the announcement that Thatcher planned to close 20 of the 170 working collieries in Britain.

Unfortunately, the strike ended with Thatcher making no concessions to the union, and it was ruled as illegal in September 1984 due to no national ballot of NUM members having been held.

By December 1994, the much-reduced coal industry was privatised and ultimately became UK Coal. By 2015, all of the coal pits were closed, with poverty increasing in former coal mining areas.