The Iron Lady’s lethal legacy

Corby was once a thriving town, but then a Tory government set about “deindustrialising” the steel r

When I was ten years old, my family left a cold, damp prefab in West Fife and moved to Corby, Northamptonshire, where my father quickly found work at what was then the Stewarts & Lloyds steelworks. Because we didn't know any better, we thought - like many other migrant families - that we had finally discovered a home, a place where we could pursue the first glimmers of a confidence and self-respect that others appeared to take for granted.

The steelworks was thriving, and there was plenty of overtime to be had. For a boy of ten, used to the coal bings and rust-coloured burns of Cowdenbeath, the fields and woodland of Kingswood, with its overgrown but stately avenue of copper-barked sequoias, felt like a local version of paradise.

The general opinion, in those days, was that Corby was an eyesore, a dark blot on the English landscape, but those who settled there didn't see it that way. Most of us had come from far worse places and, to the men who produced what many considered to be the best-quality steel tubes in Europe, the works was a source of pride and solidarity.

All of this ended in the early 1980s when the works was closed down. Over a period of a year or so (my father was one of the last to go), thousands of workers were made idle in a town where there had been little investment for decades. Yet it wasn't just the closure that, in a phrase used often by those who lived there, "ripped the heart out of Corby"; it was the tactics used - a process of slow attrition and deception, in which "tubeside" workers were tempted into abandoning their "steelside" colleagues.

The obvious disdain for the community from local and national government did huge damage to Corby's sense of itself. Corby people were proud, bluff, volatile and good-humoured, a mix of Glaswegian, Irish, eastern European and other migrants who had, for the most part, only just begun to believe in the hope of a better life. Now, it seemed, they were being punished for daring to imagine above their station.

Suburban sprawl

Cosmetic efforts followed. In what was touted as a sincere effort to deal with the problem, the Conservatives created a new enterprise zone and, by the early 1990s, Corby had supposedly recovered from the closure. Yet many of the steelmen never worked again, and those who did drifted significantly down the wages ladder. Schools were closed and educational standards fell (according to the 2001 census, Corby had the lowest per-capita degree-level qualifications in England and Wales, and almost 40 per cent of the population had no GCSEs at all). A town that had begun as a trendy architect's cut-rate laboratory had become what the Daily Telegraph called "one of the most malformed places in Britain".

On top of all this, the borough council was forced to fight, but lost, a damaging legal case, in which it was found to have been "extensively negligent in its control and management" of land that it had acquired from British Steel. This led to birth defects in children born in the area, after their mothers inhaled "an atmospheric soup of toxic materials". Suddenly, Corby - supposedly a shining example of Conservative "deindustrialisation" - was being exposed as an environmental, social and human disaster whose ills were caused not by the dark, Satanic mills of the old steelworks, but by human negligence, incompetence and greed.

Deindustrialisation, like development, is what you make of it. It has become clear, over the three decades since the steelworks closed, that deindustrialisation in Corby was never intended to liberate its people from hard labour and pollution. What mattered was the freeing up of land for development and the absorption of EU and other grants for a seemingly more innocent project - suburbanisation.

Like the developers and architects who built Corby New Town in the 1950s and 1960s, the people responsible for that suburbanisation appear not to know or care very much about Corby's history or culture; the point is to develop. Yet, while nobody would argue that sensitive and well-planned development is exactly what brownfield Corby needs, it's the villages and countryside around Corby - that local paradise I so treasured as a child - which are being swallowed up. As Clive Aslet, writing in the Telegraph, said in 2006: "Of all the councils that are doing least to channel development on to brownfield sites, Corby is the worst offender." Now, with an advertising campaign under the slogan More for Your Money, fea-turing the mellifluous voice of Stephen Fry, Corby's developers are hoping to attract residents into the town's formerly green overspill.

A brand new railway station has appeared, with hourly services to St Pancras in London. New shops are springing up. And, according to the website of the local MP Phil Hope: "The impact of investment in recent years has brought about astonishing changes . . . to shops, education, health, transport, housing and sport and culture." Yet what is noticeable about this rosy picture is that there is no mention of local employment, or of Corby's industrial history.

Works of man

All this may sound unduly bleak but, as a former Corbyite, I am saddened by the thought that, over the years, the town has been a test case for all of modern society's ills, from a brutal industrial relations policy, through social neglect and bad planning, to environmental disaster and cynical developers.

Not long before I first arrived, a small boy stepping off a bus one grey morning with a birdcage in one hand and a Children's Classics tale by Hans Christian Andersen in the other, Unesco made a series of recommendations regarding land development, in which it stated: "On account of their beauty and character, the safeguarding of landscapes and sites . . . is necessary to the life of men, for whom they represent a powerful physical, moral and spiritual re­generating influence, while at the same time contributing to the artistic and cultural life of peoples." It went on: "Protection should not be limited to natural landscapes and sites, but should also extend to [those] whose formation is due wholly or in part to the work of man."

I cannot imagine the people who drafted these recommendations wishing to preserve the old Corby steelworks in aspic, but I am certain they would agree that the physical, moral and spiritual welfare of the people who once worked there, and that of the next generation, are not well served by sprawl and suburbanisation. As a child, I loved the green fields and the woods around the New Town, but I also came to see the beauty and character of its industry, as evidenced by the steelworks and by the people who worked there. That beauty, that industrial character, has become deeply unfashionable but, to my mind, we lose it at our peril.

“Astonishing" as developments in Corby may appear to some, all I can see is one more stratum of insulting "development", spread thinly over the buried layers of ore and farmland and toxic waste that went before.

John Burnside is an award-winning poet and author

 

As darkness fell . . .

Margaret Thatcher's election in 1979 proved disastrous for many British workers, as Thatcher's commitments to privatisation, the free market and muzzling the trade unions transformed British industry.

Thatcherite economic policy was most acutely felt in the coal industry, where tens of thousands of jobs were lost as pits were shut down. A decisive moment was Thatcher's appointment of Ian MacGregor as chairman of the National Coal Board in 1983. At British Steel, he had halved the workforce by closing plants and helping thousands to decide on voluntary redundancy.

Thatcher turned to MacGregor to pull the same trick at the National Coal Board. Arthur Scargill, president of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), accused him of trying to "destroy the coal mining industry and the NUM". MacGregor replied that he was merely a "plastic surgeon", working "to rebuild damaged features". The surgery involved closing 20 pits that were seen as unprofitable. Meanwhile, Thatcher's government introduced legislation to crush the unions.

The confrontation that followed led to the miners' strike of 1984-85. The industrial action failed to create the kind of blackout that could have swayed the government, and the miners were defeated.

Ian Smith

This article first appeared in the 01 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The Dave Ultimatum

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When heritage becomes hate: why my home town of Charlottesville needs to address its complex past

After an invasion of white supremacists, we need to see what our history means today.

Watching a tragedy happening in slow motion, without any way to stop it - that’s how it has felt to be from Charlottesville, Virginia in the summer of 2017. A city that used to always get voted “happiest town in the USA” when I was growing up was the target this weekend of an ugly white supremacist movement whose roots spread far from the city.

It was a huge surprise when we won the lottery of Nazi flags, with our stupid old statues that have become icons of international fascism, with a park named after a distantly forgotten old man becoming a site of struggle for an attempted racist coup of the United States. Our first reaction is: they aren´t from here. Our second: make them go away. Our third: a realisation we need to examine the way that our own ways of life, which we thought so harmless, have inspired such horrible feelings in strangers.

Maybe for my African-American classmates at high school the statue of Confederate general Robert E Lee, and the park when it was still named after him rather than Emancipation Park, always meant violence. Pulling the statue down says no more about the historical Lee than tearing down Lenin in '89 says about socialism. We've been invaded by people pretending to protect us from invasion, and the symbols of our past will never matter as much as living people do.

***

The invaders picked our town, probably, because Virginia was a confederate state, and was in fact where the southern gentry used to live. Lee exemplified this tradition. He was son of Lighthorse Harry Lee, a hero of the revolutionary war and governor of Virginia, and is a descendant of one of “Virginia’s first families,” the aristocratic Englishmen who emigrated to Virginia when it was a British colony. He is part of Charlottesville's heritage, and perhaps not even all that shameful a part. He opposed the secession of the confederacy, supported the reconstruction after the war, including giving rights to recently freed slaves. Not exactly woke, but for a confederate general, not as bad as some.

We were taught at Venable Elementary School that he fought only reluctantly, to defend his land, not slavery. In the version we learned, one would imagine Lee being very opposed to people from the Midwest coming to Virginia in cars with Ohio license plates to murder Virginians. Many non-racist Virginians, including quite a few friends, respect Lee deeply - the same is true in towns like New Orleans where other Lee statues are being taken down. Yet if once we could fool ourselves into thinking that the statue didn't represent hatred and racial hierarchies, we can't anymore. The discussion of local history has turned into one of national identity. The statue should be gone by Christmas. 

***

The real hero of Charlottesville is the town’s founder, Thomas Jefferson, who was among the most enigmatic of the founding fathers, idealistic and hypocritical - a real American, in other words. His idea of the gentleman farmer is also part of our heritage. It was an alternative to Hamiltonian industrial capitalism, but lost out in the tustle to shape American history. Much like English contemporaries such as William Cobbett, Jefferson believed in a rural ideal, reading poetry by morning, farming by afternoon, playing the harpsichord by night. His thought is also present in our beautiful "academical village" of the University of Virginia which he also founded. It is one of UNESCO’s few world heritage sites in the United States, so I guess it is part fo the globe's heritage as well, and it is also where the white supremacists stomped around with their tiki torches.

It’s time for us to stop being romantic about Jefferson, too. The statue in our minds needs to come down. We can recognize the great parts of his work, of his thought, in Charlottesville today, but we can also recognise that he allowed himself to use violence to dominate others, that he owned slaves and raped them. And we can recognise that equivalent scenarios continue to play out today, and will continue to play out until we are willing to face the truth.

There can be no more excuses. It’s not about Jefferson, or Lee, after all. We use monuments, statues, heroes, to inspire ourselves. In the end, the “truth” about Jefferson or Lee is a matter of trivia and history. Today, for every white male in America, we need to deconstruct the parts of our identity built on the graves of others. It’s not easy.

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Jefferson's gentleman farmer was the forerunner of the people who populate the gentrified Charlottesville that exists today of expensive coffee-shops and celebrity-filled suburbs. This romantic idea, much like the lifestyles of the American and English elite today, seems to engender a lot of resentment from those who can only watch helplessly, and are often gentrified out. It’s not only immigrants or, in the United States, African-Americans, who are denied access to America's Williamsburgs and Charlottesvilles, London's Shoreditches and Oxfords. In Charlottesville, descendants of white sharecroppers and black slaves alike are unable to afford $15 glasses of local Virginia wine.

The paradox implicit in Jefferson’s beautiful idea is that in the end, it’s impossible to sustain this chilled-out and happy lifestyle without the labor being done by others, be they slaves, sharecroppers, or factory workers in China. If America is in trouble now, the conflict comes precisely from the fact that our universalist ideas of freedom, equality, and liberty correspond to an economy that is anything but universal. We actually did it, keep doing it, and unless we can use these ridiculous men dancing through our streets iin Halloween costumes as a funhouse mirror to make us see ourselves as we are, we’ll probably keep doing it.

I resent Jefferson for his hypocrisy, because in truth, I would love it if America looked more like Charlottesville than the industrialized and nasty-looking Interstate 95 highway that leads up the East Coast, the aftermath of Hamiltonian industrial-revolution factory America. The New Jersey towns, the gas stations, what we contemptuously call “McMansions,” suburban Northern Virginia... none of it is really authentic enough. Parallel to the rich and ugly suburbs, are poor and ugly towns, the sort of places with unemployment and discounts on cereal that tastes like sugary trash in the supermarket.

The residents of these towns don’t hate the residents of more gentrified towns for our organic granola, they hate the world for the structures of oppression that they can’t escape, even as an international class, an educated class, a well-meaning class, escapes without even needing to. We coexisted in the same place but not the same set of opportunities, and we glided on to new and bigger worlds of possibility, ones denied to those of different class backgrounds, regardless of their ethnicity.

***

Some of my African-American classmates at Charlottesville High School were likely descendants of Jefferson’s slaves, coming from poorer neighbourhoods and housing projects and taking "standard" level classes, with honors and AP classes for students whose parents worked in the University (very liberal, of course), a genteel place where every year, some kid wears blackface or a Nazi outfit to a party - as a joke, of course. While my classmates in AP and Honors classes got help from our teachers in applying to Ivy League schools, the general level classes saw black and white students who shared poorer backgrounds acting out to get attention from harried teachers. This was public school, but Charlottesville’s many excellent private schools, of course, didn’t even have the general level students at all.

Despite some southerners such as Lee supporting the post-war “reconstruction,” white resistance to racial equality led to a Jim Crow system that wasn’t much better than slavery, and an American South which dozed in sweaty decline while the rest of the country industrialised and modernized. From 1865 to 1965, not much happened in the South. True, there were intellectual movements like the Agrarians, whose 1920s manifesto “I’ll Take My Stand” I found one high school afternoon in the local bookstore, we had our Faulkners, our occasional geniuses. But as a society, it was stagnant. 

It was only when the civil rights movement began that the south began to actually rise again. UVa went from being a minor regional school to being a world-class one. Charlottesville went from being a mediocre gentleman’s club to a place that people of all backgrounds could make lives for themselves in the public service. And we, the public, gained so much - that’s why my family chose to live there.

I remember as a child strolling the beautiful downtown mall to go to dinner al fresco with my parents, my father pointed out a man in a turban; it was Satyendra Huja, a Sikh professor at the university who had planned the downtown mall, and made a useless street into one of the nicest places to congregate in town. In 2012, Huja became the mayor. I guess the former mayor of Charlottesville who single-handedly made Charlottesville one of the most charming towns in the country often gets told to “go home,” as if that's somewhere else.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday is a national holiday in the United States, but in Virginia it used to be “Lee/King/Jackson” day, with two confederate officers added in just as a reminder. That’s not really our heritage, and as students, we were grateful for the day but always laughed at how immature it was that the powers that be needed to block out Dr. King’s achievements so much.

***

Charlottesville is a southern town true to and even obsessed with our heritage - a place filled with museums, historians, bookstores - which wants to dissect that heritage to remove the parts of our forefathers (and mothers) lives that we can’t accept, like a sandwich that you open up, take the pickles out of, and then keep on eating. We love our heritage in Virginia. We read about it, celebrate it, live it every day. But heritage isn’t a static thing, fixed in time, and the walls between myth and history are thin. In fact, perhaps knowing about your heritage is the ultimate form of privilege. I doubt that either the descendants of slaves I went to high school  with, or the “redneck” (so-called because they got sunburned by working in the fields - “redneck” is a class slur) descendants of the illiterate sharecroppers of rural Maryland, do. 

What happened this weekend to Charlottesville could happen to any town as long as we those who are deprived of their history and who don’t feel at home in their hometown. But the Charlottesville I remember, and the one it is now, proves that you can go from war and conflict and institutionalised racism to one where people of all races and identities can coexist, for the most part, peacefully and happily. We can, if we try, honor Jefferson for his achievements without forgetting the slaves his beautiful buildings were built by. A “Memorial to Enslaved Laborers” is being built on the campus he founded.

For the first time, every one of my old friends is thinking about racism, white privilege, the origins of violence, and what we can do about it. We can honor Jefferson and General Lee’s memory best by trying to learn from their mistakes. Maybe, if it seems like we are able to solve these problems, I’ll have a child myself. I hope she goes to Venable Elementary School, and I’ll take her to Emancipation Park afterwards.

This article first appeared in the 01 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The Dave Ultimatum