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The bugger, bugged

After a chance meeting with a former News of the World executive who told him his phone had been hacked, Hugh Grant couldn’t resist going back to him – with a hidden tape recorder – to find out if there was more to the story. . .

When I broke down in my midlife crisis car in remotest Kent just before Christmas, a battered white van pulled up on the far carriageway. To help, I thought. But when the driver got out he started taking pictures with a long-lens camera. He came closer to get better shots and I swore at him. Then he offered me a lift the last few miles to my destination. I suspected his motives and swore at him some more. (I'm not entirely sympathetic towards paparazzi.) Then I realised I couldn't get a taxi and was late. So I had to accept the lift.

He turned out to be an ex-News of the World investigative journalist and paparazzo, now running a pub in Dover. He still kept his camera in the car's glove box for just this kind of happy accident.

More than that, he was Paul McMullan, one of two ex-NoW hacks who had blown the whistle (in the Guardian and on Channel 4's Dispatches) on the full extent of phone-hacking at the paper, particularly under its former editor Andy Coulson. This was interesting, as I had been a victim - a fact he confirmed as we drove along. He also had an unusual defence of the practice: that phone-hacking was a price you had to pay for living in a free society. I asked how that worked exactly, but we ran out of time, and next thing we had arrived and he was asking me if I would pose for a photo with him, "not for publication, just for the wall of the pub".

I agreed and the picture duly appeared in the Mail on Sunday that weekend with his creative version of the encounter. He had asked me to drop into his pub some time. So when, some months later, Jemima asked me to write a piece for this paper, it occurred to me it might be interesting to take him up on his invitation.

I wanted to hear more about phone-hacking and the whole business of tabloid journalism. It occurred to me just to interview him straight, as he has, after all, been a whistleblower. But then I thought I might possibly get more, and it might be more fun, if I secretly taped him, The bugger bugged, as it were. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.

Me So, how's the whistleblowing going?
Him I'm trying to get a book published. I sent it off to a publisher who immediately accepted it and then it got legal and they said, "This is never going to get published."
Me Why? Because it accuses too many people of crime?
Him Yes, as I said to the parliamentary commission, Coulson knew all about it and regularly ordered it . . . He [Coulson] rose quickly to the top; he wanted to cover his tracks all the time. So he wouldn't just write a story about a celeb who'd done something. He'd want to make sure they could never sue, so he wanted us to hear the celeb like you on tape saying, "Hello, darling, we had lovely sex last night." So that's on tape - OK, we've got that and so we can publish . . . Historically, the way it went was, in the early days of mobiles, we all had analogue mobiles and that was an absolute joy. You know, you just . . . sat outside Buckingham Palace with a £59 scanner you bought at Argos and get Prince Charles and everything he said.
Me Is that how the Squidgy tapes [of Diana's phone conversations] came out? Which was put down to radio hams, but was in fact . . .
Him Paps in the back of a van, yes . . . I mean, politicians were dropping like flies in the Nineties because it was so easy to get stuff on them. And, obviously, less easy to justify is celebrities. But yes.
Me And . . . it wasn't just the News of the World. It was , you know - the Mail?
Him Oh absolutely, yeah. When I went freelance in 2004 the biggest payers - you'd have thought it would be the NoW, but actually it was the Daily Mail. If I take a good picture, the first person I go to is - such as in your case - the Mail on Sunday. Did you see that story? The picture of you, breaking down . . . I ought to thank you for that. I got £3,000. Whooo!
Me But would they [the Mail] buy a phone-hacked story?
Him For about four or five years they've absolutely been cleaner than clean. And before that they weren't. They were as dirty as anyone . . . They had the most money.
Me So everyone knew? I mean, would Rebekah Wade have known all this stuff was going on?
Him Good question. You're not taping, are you?
Me [slightly shrill voice] No.
Him Well, yeah. Clearly she . . . took over the job of [a journalist] who had a scanner who was trying to sell it to members of his own department. But it wasn't a big crime. [NB: Rebekah Brooks has always denied any knowledge of phone-hacking. The current police investigation is into events that took place after her editorship of the News of the World.]
It started off as fun - you know, it wasn't against the law, so why wouldn't you? And it was only because the MPs who were fiddling their expenses and being generally corrupt kept getting caught so much they changed the law in 2001 to make it illegal to buy and sell a digital scanner. So all we were left with was - you know - finding a blag to get your mobile [records] out of someone at Vodafone. Or, when someone's got it, other people swap things for it.
Me So they all knew? Wade probably knew all about it all?
Him [...] Cameron must have known - that's the bigger scandal. He had to jump into bed with Murdoch as everyone had, starting with Thatcher in the Seventies . . . Tony Blair . . . [tape is hard to hear here] Maggie openly courted Murdoch, saying, you know, "Please support me." So when Cameron, when it came his turn to go to Murdoch via Rebekah Wade . . . Cameron went horse riding regularly with Rebekah. I know, because as well as doorstepping celebrities, I've also doorstepped my ex-boss by hiding in the bushes, waiting for her to come past with Cameron on a horse . . . before the election to show that - you know - Murdoch was backing Cameron.
Me What happened to that story?
Him The Guardian paid for me to do it and I stepped in it and missed them, basically. They'd gone past - not as good as having a picture.
Me Do you think Murdoch knew about phone-hacking?
Him Errr, possibly not. He's a funny bloke given that he owns the Sun and the Screws . . . quite puritanical. Sorry to talk about Divine Brown, but when that came out . . . Murdoch was furious: "What are you putting that on our front page for? You're bringing down the tone of our papers." [Indicating himself] That's what we do over here.
Me Well, it's also because it was his film I was about to come out in.
Him Oh. I see.
Me Yeah. It was a Fox film.
[A pause here while we chat to other customers, and then - ]
Him So anyway, let me finish my story.
Me Murdoch, yes . . .
Him So I was sent to do a feature on Moulin Rouge! at Cannes, which was a great send anyway. Basically my brief was to see who Nicole Kidman was shagging - what she was doing, poking through her bins and get some stuff on her. So Murdoch's paying her five million quid to big up the French and at the same time paying me £5.50 to fuck her up . . . So all hail the master. We're just pawns in his game. How perverse is that?
Me Wow. You reckon he never knew about it?
Him [pause] I don't even think he really worried himself too much about it.
Me What's his son called?
Him James. They're all mates together. They all go horse riding. You've got Jeremy Clarkson lives here [in Oxfordshire]. Cameron lives here, and Rebekah Wade is married to Brooks's son [the former racehorse trainer Charlie Brooks]. Cameron gets dressed up as the Stig to go to Clarkson's 50th birthday party [NB: it was actually to record a video message for the party]. Is that demeaning for a prime minister? It should be the other way round, shouldn't it? So basically, Cameron is very much in debt to Rebekah Wade for helping him not quite win the election . . . So that was my submission to parliament - that Cameron's either a liar or an idiot.
Me But don't you think that all these prime ministers deliberately try to get the police to drag their feet about investigating the whole [phone-hacking] thing because they don't want to upset Murdoch?
Him Yeah. There's that . . . You also work a lot with policemen as well . . . One of the early stories was [and here he names a much-loved TV actress in her sixties] used to be a street walker - whether or not she was, but that's the tip.
Me and Chum MLTVA?!
Me I can't believe it. Oh no!
Chum Really??
Him Yeah. Well, not now . . .
Chum Oh, it'd be so much better if it was now.
Him So I asked a copper to get his hands on the phone files, but because it's only a caution it's not there any more. So that's the tip . . . it's a policeman ringing up a tabloid reporter and asking him for ten grand because this girl had been cautioned right at the start of his career. And then I ask another policemen to go and check the records . . . So that's happening regularly. So the police don't particularly want to investigate.
Me But do you think they're going to have to now?
Him I mean - 20 per cent of the Met has taken backhanders from tabloid hacks. So why would they want to open up that can of worms? . . . And what's wrong with that, anyway? It doesn't hurt anyone particularly. I mean, it could hurt someone's career - but isn't that the dance with the devil you have to play?
Me Well, I suppose the fact that they're dragging their feet while investigating a mass of phone-hacking - which is a crime - some people would think is a bit depressing about the police.
Him But then - should it be a crime? I mean, scanning never used to be a crime. Why should it be? You're transmitting your thoughts and your voice over the airwaves. How can you not expect someone to just stick up an aerial and listen in?
Me So if someone was on a landline and you had a way of tapping in . . .
Him Much harder to do.
Me But if you could, would you think that was illegal? Do you think that should be illegal?
Him I'd have to say quite possibly, yeah. I'd say that should be illegal.
Me But a mobile phone - a digital phone . . . you'd say it'd be all right to tap that?
Him I'm not sure about that. So we went from a point where anyone could listen in to anything. Like you, me, journalists could listen in to corrupt politicians, and this is why we have a reasonably fair society and a not particularly corrupt or criminal prime minister, whereas other countries have Gaddafi. Do you think it's right the only person with a decent digital scanner these days is the government? Whereas 20 years ago we all had a go? Are you comfortable that the only people who can listen in to you now are - is it MI5 or MI6?
Me I'd rather no one listened in, to be honest. And I might not be alone there. You probably wouldn't want people listening to your conversations.
Him I'm not interesting enough for anyone to want to listen in.
Me Ah . . . I think that was one of the questions asked last week at one of the parliamentary committees. They asked Yates [John Yates, acting deputy commissioner of the Metropolitan Police] if it was true that he thought that the NoW had been hacking the phones of friends and family of those girls who were murdered . . . the Soham murder and the Milly girl [Milly Dowler].
Him Yeah. Yeah. It's more than likely. Yeah . . . It was quite routine. Yeah - friends and family is something that's not as easy to justify as the other things.
Me But celebrities you would justify because they're rich?
Him Yeah. I mean, if you don't like it, you've just got to get off the stage. It'll do wonders.
Me So I should have given up acting?
Him If you live off your image, you can't really complain about someone . . .
Me I live off my acting. Which is different to living off your image.
Him Yeah, but you're still presenting yourself to the public. And if the public didn't know you -
Me They don't give a shit. I got arrested with a hooker and they still came to my films. They don't give a fuck about your public image. They just care about whether you're in an entertaining film or not.
Him That's true . . . I have terrible difficulty with him [points to pap shot of Johnny Depp]. He's really difficult. You know, I was in Venice and he was a nightmare to do because he walks around looking like Michael Jackson. And the punchline was . . . after leading everyone a merry dance the film was shot on an open balcony - I mean, it was like - he was standing there in public.
Me And you don't see the difference between the two situations?
Chum He was actually working at this time? As opposed to having his own private time?
Him You can't hide all the time.
Me So you're saying, if you're Johnny Depp or me, you don't deserve to have a private life?
Him You make so much more money. You know, most people in Dover take home about £200 and struggle.
Me So how much do you think the families of the Milly and Soham girls make?
Him OK, so there are examples that are poor and you can't justify - and that's clearly one of them.
Me I tell you the thing I still don't get - if you think it was all right to do all that stuff, why blow the whistle on it?
Him Errm . . . Right. That's interesting. I actually blew the whistle when a friend of mine at the Guardian kept hassling me for an interview. I said, "Well if you put the name of the Castle [his pub] on the front page of the Guardian, I'll do anything you like." So that's how it started.
Me So, have you been leant on by the NoW, News International, since you blew the whistle?
Him No, they've kept their distance. I mean, there's people who have much better records - my records are non-existent. There are people who actually have tapes and transcripts they did for Andy Coulson.
Me And where are these tapes and transcripts? Do you think they've been destroyed?
Him No, I'm sure they're saving them till they retire.
Me So did you personally ever listen to my voice messages?
Him No, I didn't personally ever listen to your voice messages. I did quite a lot of stories on you, though. You were a very good earner at times.

Those are the highlights. As I drove home past the white cliffs, I thought it was interesting - apart from the fact that Paul hates people like me, and I hate people like him, we got on quite well. And, absurdly, I felt a bit guilty for recording him.

And he does have a very nice pub. The Castle Inn, Dover, for the record. There are rooms available, too. He asked me if I'd like to sample the honeymoon suite some time: "I can guarantee your privacy."

-- Listen to the audio now --

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit

Daily Herald Archive/SSPL/Getty Images
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The last days of the Big K

Kellingley Colliery helped keep Britain’s lights on. But now, as the once mighty coal industry dies, the last deep mine in the country is closing.

The last deep coal mine in Britain is an arresting sight – a sprawling tangle of towers, conveyor belts, processing sheds, railway lines and “muck heaps”, as its mountains of grey-black slag are known in Yorkshire. It is called “the Big K”, and with reason. Kellingley is one of Europe’s largest mines, producing two million tonnes of coal a year. It sits on tens of millions of tonnes of reserves. Its two shafts descend 2,600 feet beneath the surface, and so much coal has been extracted since it opened in 1965 that from the bottom of those shafts miners must now travel six miles, on small battery-powered trains and then conveyor belts, to reach the face. There they labour round the clock, in intense humidity and temperatures that reach 90 degrees Fahrenheit.

Each day, Kellingley despatches three or four trainloads of coal 12 miles to Drax, which is Britain’s biggest coal-fired power station and generates about 7 per cent of the UK’s electricity. For decades Kellingley also supplied huge amounts of coal to Ferrybridge power station, just three miles away in West Yorkshire. It has, in short, helped to keep the country lit and heated – but not for much longer.

Drax has converted three of its six generators to biomass, importing six million tonnes of wood pellets from North America each year to run them, and plans to convert a fourth. In recent years Ferrybridge has increasingly used imported coal, which is cleaner and cheaper than Kellingley’s despite being shipped several thousand miles. In any case, Ferrybridge is closing next year as part of a government drive to shut down all of Britain’s 12 remaining coal-fired power stations within 15 years and halve greenhouse-gas emissions by 2025.

As the market withers, Kellingley is being closed by its owner, UK Coal, the successor company to RJB Mining, which bought most of Britain’s surviving coal mines when the industry was privatised in 1994. The colliery’s giant underground shearing machines will cease operation just before Christmas. The mine buildings will be razed, its shafts and labyrinthine tunnels sealed, and its memorial to the 17 miners who lost their lives at Kellingley over the past half-century moved to the National Coal Mining Museum in Overton, near Wakefield. Except for a few remaining surface mines, an industry that has done so much to shape Britain, for better or worse, will finally die.

By the time the last shift finishes at Kellingley, about 700 miners will have lost their jobs there. They are angry and bewildered. The mine is modern and productive, and they have fought to keep it open. They attempted a buyout, each offering to contribute £2,000 and to take a 10 per cent wage cut. They lobbied MPs, marched through Westminster, even invited the cast of Pride – the film about gay and lesbian activists helping Welsh miners during the 1984-85 strike – to join a demonstration outside the pit. They do not accept that coal has had its day, though it is by far the “dirtiest” source of energy. They believe an industry long synonymous with socialism and working-class struggle is being closed for political as much as economic or environmental reasons. Chris Kitchen, the secretary of the rump National Union of Mineworkers, described it to me as “a vindictive act”.

The sense of betrayal spans generations. Stanley Gilliland, 67, began working at Kellingley when it first opened and he was 16. He lost his left leg in an underground accident in 1974 but stayed on and became the pit’s longest-serving employee. He left in the first batch of redundancies in July with a cheque for just £14,250, and not a handshake or word of thanks for his 51 years of service from the management of UK Coal. “Coal was my livelihood. It was our lives and the country’s lifeblood, and now it’s gone and it’s not coming back,” he said.

Lee Gent, 26, will hold the dubious distinction of being the last underground miner the industry ever employed. The son and grandson of miners, he was one of nine apprentices taken on at Kellingley in January 2014. “They promised us a career,” he said. “The job was quality. It were ace. I’ve never felt euphoria like it.”

When he heard the pit was closing he was distraught. “The best opportunity of my life was given to me in one hand and snatched out of the other. It were the best and worst thing that ever happened to me . . . There’s no future in mining. They’ve made sure of that. It’s a dying shame.”


Deep coal mining in Britain dates back to Tudor times. In the 18th and 19th centuries it powered the Industrial Revolution, providing the fuel for the nation’s steam engines, ironworks, railways and factories. The industry peaked during the arms race before the First World War, with 3,024 mines employing 1.1 million people and producing 292 million tonnes of coal in 1913. (During the fighting, miners were used to tunnel under German lines and blow them up.) In the Second World War coal was so vital to the war effort that miners were banned from joining the armed forces, and Ernest Bevin, the wartime minister of labour, conscripted 48,000 “Bevin Boys” to keep the industry going.

It was filthy work. In The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), George Orwell described miners as “poor drudges underground, blackened to the eyes, with their throats full of coal dust, driving their shovels forward with arms and belly muscles of steel”. As late as the mid-20th century nearly 10 per cent of miners in Britain suffered from pneumoconiosis or “black lung” disease.

It was also uniquely dangerous, with at least 164,000 miners losing their lives in the pits since 1700. Explosions killed 361 men and boys at the Oaks pit near Barnsley in 1866, 295 at the Albion Colliery in Glamorgan in 1894 and 439 at Senghenydd in Glamorgan in 1914. Women and children under the age of ten were not banned from working in mines until 1842. Two shafts became mandatory only after a fallen beam blocked the single shaft at the Hartley Colliery in Northumberland in 1862, killing 204 men and boys. Mining deaths did not fall below a thousand a year until well into the 20th century: 1,297 were killed and 20,000 injured in 1923 alone.

The General Strike of 1926 was called to oppose wage cuts and deteriorating conditions in the coal industry, but it was only after hundreds of privately owned mines were nationalised in 1947 that the newly formed NUM became a force in the land and the miners’ lot improved markedly. At that point “King Coal” supplied 90 per cent of Britain’s energy needs.

In January 1972 the NUM called the first national miners’ strike since 1926 and won a substantial pay increase from Edward Heath’s Tory government. The turning point was the so-called Battle of Saltley Gate, where Arthur Scargill, a young NUM official from Barnsley, persuaded 30,000 Birmingham factory engineers to march on the Saltley coke works and force its closure. “Here was the living proof that the working class had only to flex its muscles and it could bring governments, employers, society to a total standstill,” Scargill boasted.

Two years later another protracted miners’ strike reduced the country to a three-day working week. Heath called a general election on the issue of “Who governs Britain?” and lost. Harold Wilson’s new Labour government swiftly awarded the men a 35 per cent pay rise, and roughly the same again the following year. The miners became the best-paid and most powerful of all industrial workers in Britain – but Margaret Thatcher, the next Conservative leader, had taken note.

The great strike of 1984-85 was triggered by a plan to close 20 unprofitable pits with the loss of 20,000 jobs, but Scargill, by then the NUM’s president, played into the government’s hands by launching it in the spring, when demand for coal was falling. He failed to call a national ballot, splitting the union and undermining the strike’s legitimacy. He used flying pickets to try to force Nottinghamshire’s working miners into line, but merely hardened their resolve. He sought funds from the Soviet Union and Colonel Gaddafi’s Libya. He rejected compromise solutions despite the extreme suffering of the striking miners and their families. It was the most bitter industrial dispute in British history. Riot police fought running battles with armies of pickets seeking to stop “scabs” working. Thousands of miners were arrested and injured. Families and communities were sundered. Thatcher labelled the miners “the enemy within”. But the year-long action ended in abject defeat: the NUM was a spent force, powerless to resist the subsequent destruction of the coal industry. “The NUM and mining industry were seen as part of the socialist movement, in direct conflict with capitalism, and had to be destroyed and defeated at any cost,” said Chris Kitchen, the NUM secretary.

Immediately before the strike, there were 170 mines employing 148,000 workers and producing 120 million tonnes of coal. By the time the Tories privatised the industry a decade later, there were roughly 30 mines, employing 7,000 workers and producing 50 million tonnes. This year just three deep mines remained, but Hatfield in Yorkshire and Thoresby in Nottinghamshire closed in the summer. With so many other sources of energy available – oil, gas, nuclear, wind, solar and biomass – coal now produces barely a quarter of Britain’s power. And of the 48 million tonnes of coal consumed last year, 42 million were imported, mainly from Russia, the United States and Colombia.

The NUM, which once boasted half a million members, has just 800 left, including ten full-time employees. The fine stone building in Barnsley that serves as the union’s headquarters is like a morgue. During the two hours I spent there one recent afternoon I saw no other visitors and heard not a single telephone ring.

The caretaker – Kitchen’s son – showed me the magnificent council chamber with its oak panelling, stained-glass windows and ornate arched ceiling. It has become a veritable museum, a monument to the union’s glory days. Friezes show miners in heroic poses. Huge, colourful banners, each the size of a bedspread, bear slogans proclaiming that “Unity is Strength” and “The Past We Inherit. The Future We Build”. Kellingley’s banner shows a miner throttling a snake labelled “Capitalism”, above the words “Only the Strong Survive”.

It was not just the mining industry that collapsed after the 1984-85 strike. So did the entire socialist vision of working-class struggle and solidarity, trumped by the Thatcherite principles of entrepreneurialism, individualism and free-market economics that even Tony Blair embraced.

Today, miners remain deeply divided about the strike. Kitchen believes it probably slowed the government’s mine closure programme. Others argue that it accelerated the industry’s demise. “We believed everything Scargill said. It was a massive mistake . . . We imploded. We collapsed during that 12-month period,” Stanley Gilliland, the veteran Kellingley miner, said. “We’re left with total capitalism. We’ve managed to make ‘socialism’ a dirty word.”

I wondered what Scargill thought. He and the NUM fell out long ago, not least over the union’s refusal to pay the £34,000 annual cost of maintaining his flat in the Barbican, in London, for the rest of his life, so I decided to visit his home on the outskirts of Worsbrough, near Barnsley.

Now 77 and divorced, Scargill lives down a country lane in a large, isolated stone house ringed by trees, secured with lights and cameras, and overshadowed by the raised bank of the M1 motorway. The property reeked of neglect. The lawns were overgrown, the paintwork was flaking off the window frames and the blinds were down. The knocker was shaped like a miner’s lamp. Scargill opened the door himself, a ghost from the past half hidden by the gloom within.

Could we talk? “I have a lot of work to do,” he replied, amiably enough. How did he feel about the closure of Britain’s last deep mine, I persisted. “Ask the NUM officials,” he said, implying that they should have fought harder. But this was what he had predicted, I observed. Did he feel vindicated? Scargill said nothing.


Thirty years ago there were collieries all over South Yorkshire, linked by a spider’s web of railway lines. Today scarcely a trace of them remains. Their sites are covered by retail and industrial parks, warehouses and distribution centres, few of which actually manufacture anything. The “muck heaps” have been bulldozed and turned into country parks, or housing estates for commuters on streets with names such as “Colliers Way” or “Engine Lane”. Where mine-shaft headgears and winding wheels once towered above the countryside wind turbines now stand – the power of the future replacing the power of the past. “They put them up to rile us,” Keith Hartshorne, a Kellingley NUM delegate, told me. “But we laugh when they’re not turning.”

Look hard and you can find the occasional memorial, like the one in South Elmsall, where Frickley Colliery closed after 90 years in 1993. “Out of these depths this village grows,” it proclaims. A few brass bands survive, but not one member of the celebrated, century-old Grimethorpe Colliery Band lives in that village or worked in its mine. Miners’ lamps and “checks” – the brass discs they would leave by the shafts to show they had gone underground – have become collectors’ pieces. Schoolchildren visiting the National Coal Mining Museum “don’t even know what coal is”, Darran Cowd, its collections officer, said.

Despite the huge amounts of EU money pumped into South Yorkshire to rebuild its economy after the pit closures of the 1990s, the mining villages are mostly depressed, run-down places with shuttered shops, closed pubs and neglected colliery sports grounds. The camaraderie and community spirit born of shared danger and hardship have largely gone. Where the ’stute – the Miners’ Institute – once stood in Grimethorpe, now there is just a rubble-strewn wasteland next to an overgrown field that used to be the bowling green. In Goldthorpe, whose pit closed in 1994, a three-bedroom terraced house, or “back-to-back”, fetches barely £50,000. Of South Elmsall an old miner said: “It’s died a death.”

The warehouses and distribution centres employ dozens of people, not the hundreds or thousands that worked in the mines, and at far lower salaries. Younger miners who lost their jobs in the 1990s mostly found work elsewhere, but not the older ones. They live on their pensions or benefits. You find them on their allotments, walking dogs, standing on street corners, or drinking, perhaps, in the Rusty Dudley pub on Goldthorpe’s high street on weekday mornings. When Thatcher died in 2013 they burned her effigy.


It is hard not to feel sympathy for Kellingley’s miners as they face a similarly bleak future. They are proud, hard-working men; a fading photo in the NUM’s pit office shows them posing as European champions in 1986 after producing 40,094 tonnes of coal in a single week. Most went down the mine straight from school and spent twenty, thirty or forty years producing a commodity that the country used to value. They believed they had jobs for life.

Lee Gent, the 26-year-old apprentice hired last year, is fortunate to have found a job with a steel company. His older colleagues may never work again – or if they do it will likely be in a minimum-wage job in some service industry.

“I’ve never been for an interview before and I’m 50 . . . I’m dreading the future,” said one miner, as he sat in the pit’s almost deserted canteen. Another said: “All the skills we’ve accrued are obsolete. We’re like fish out of water.”

Their jobs have been destroyed not just by the drive for clean energy and cheap imported coal but also, the miners claim, by the government’s refusal to help their industry. They argue that Britain is sitting on three billion tonnes of coal that could fuel the country for generations, reducing its dependence on foreign oil and gas, the vagaries of wind and sun, and Chinese-financed nuclear power. “The country will pay for this mistake,” Keith Poulson, the pit’s NUM secretary, said.

Union officials complain that although nuclear and renewable energies are heavily subsidised, coal-fired power stations are taxed £18 for every tonne of carbon dioxide they produce. They insist that they could compete with foreign coal if Russian and Colombian mines had to adopt proper safety standards and pay decent wages. “We can compete if it’s a level playing field,” Chris Kitchen says.

Above all, they insist that coal could be rendered as clean as any other form of energy if the government more aggressively pursued carbon capture and storage (CCS), a technology that can remove 90 per cent of coal’s harmful emissions. It has allocated £1bn for the purpose, and is funding two pilot projects, but too late to save Kellingley. Britain’s last deep mine will shut long before CCS becomes a viable commercial proposition. UK Coal, which refused to give interviews or allow access to Kellingley for this article, will presumably have ceased to exist, leaving its sister company, the property developer Harworth Estates, to exploit the pit’s huge and valuable site hard by the A1 and M62.

The NUM’s future is uncertain: some members want to wind it up and divvy out its £11m of assets, but Kitchen argues that it should continue as long as it can serve former miners and their widows. The more immediate issue is how Kellingley’s miners should mark the death of their industry in December. Some simply want to walk away after the last shift, allowing the media no chance to gawp. “Personally, I wouldn’t give them the fucking pleasure,” Poulson said.

Kitchen favours brass bands, banners and a final display of pride and solidarity. “We’ve fought nature to do this job. We’ve fought adversity and harsh conditions. We’ve fought governments and economic pressures, and I don’t think anybody should be ashamed of what we’ve done,” he said. “I think every miner has earned the right to walk out with his head held high.”

Martin Fletcher is a former foreign editor of the Times

This article first appeared in the 05 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The end of Europe