Sir Norman Siddall 1918-2002

Old-style National Coal Board chief whose shrewd approach might have staved off the 1984 pit strike

Martin Adeney Saturday January 12, 2002 The Guardian

Sir Norman Siddall, who has died aged 83, will go down in history as the man who might have staved off the 1984 miners' strike if his health had permitted.

His 15-month term as chairman of the National Coal Board (NCB), during which he skilfully accelerated the modernisation programme without provoking a dispute, offered a tantalising glimpse of how the industry might have been run more successfully - both before and after his tenure. But, pressed to stay by Mrs Thatcher, he declined on doctor's orders, and the stage was set for the appointment of Ian McGregor and the ruinous confront-ation with Arthur Scargill, of the National Union of Mineworkers.

Siddall typified much of the best in the old NCB - an encyclopaedic knowledge gained from starting at the coalface, coupled with an understanding of the importance of human relations and pit communities. But he also epitomised the house management style - gruff, blunt-spoken, introspective and impatient at the restrictions imposed by politics.

He was born in Sheffield. His father, Fred, a knife-grinder, died when he was 16, and the family took a corner shop. A scholarship boy at King Edward VII school, Siddall studied mining engineering at Sheffield University and joined Bestwood collieries before nationalisation.

In 1943, he married Pauline (Peggy) Arthur, with whom he had two sons and a daughter. By nationalisation in 1947, he was manager of Bestwood and Calverton collieries, in Nottinghamshire. New technology helped make his name. His pits were the first in the world to have power supports, and he progressed to area production manager and general manager posts in the East Midlands before the NCB chairman, Lord Robens, took him to London in 1966, to the new post of chief mining engineer.

Siddall continued to live in the coalfield at Mansfield, and, a year later, was made director general of production, joining the coal board itself in 1971. By 1973, he was deputy chairman to Derek Ezra, a more emollient and cerebral character. Relations were not always easy, and they were difficult years. The trauma of the miners' successful 1972 strike was followed by the debacle of 1974 and the fall of the Heath government. Siddall, in charge of negotiations, took some of the blame.

The prospects for coal were briefly transformed by the oil price rise following the 1967 six-day war and the tripartite 1974 Plan For Coal, which envisaged major new investment and expansion. But the industry could not meet demand, and Ezra and the NUM president, Joe Gormley, stumped the coalfields to drum up productivity, sometimes derided in Whitehall as the "Derek and Joe Show".

By 1982, when Ezra retired, the climate was harsh. Recession had ravaged markets, and the Conservative government was deeply suspicious of the NCB's consensual style and concerned about the cost of subsidy. Siddall, too, had his own problems. A heart bypass operation had stubbornly refused to heal, and his only interest was whether he would survive - not who the next chairman would be. But after the government rejected the idea of moving McGregor across from the British Steel Corporation, it turned to the recovering Siddall. He agreed for "sheer bloody vanity" and a wish to shape the industry for his successors, on a "basis of fact so that management and unions can work together through recession". Warmly greeted as a fellow Yorkshireman by Scargill at the 1982 NUM conference, Siddall used the occasion to insist that big production cuts were needed. The union was soon involved in local ballots to resist closures, and tried, unsuccessfully, to spark action by linking pay and closures. Siddall shrewdly faced them down. Keeping activity strictly local, he rejected talk of hit lists. But, by the end of his time, more than 20 mines had been closed or merged, and he reported clear progress, with productivity the best for many years. Concurrently, he advised the government that the best way to defeat Scargill was "to step to one side and let him fall through the ropes". If they kept talking about a showdown long enough, he said, "they would get it".

Unable to stay on as chairman in August 1983, Siddall was privately appalled at the appointment of the elderly McGregor, even though he, himself, had favoured a replacement from outside the industry. He advised caution, but understood that the appointment would be taken as a signal of the confrontation which soon came.

He retired to Mansfield, his grandchildren and his garden. He was appointed CBE in 1973, and knighted 10 years later.

Asked, after the strike, whether his approach could have been sustained, he said: "I think it could have continued. But it is very difficult looking back, and I don't know how long they could have done it." Subsequent market pressures on the coal industry suggest confrontation would have come at some point, but things could conceivably have been different had Siddall taken the reins earlier.

Norman Siddall, industrialist, born May 4 1918; died January 9 2002