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

Edel Rodriguez for New Statesman
Show Hide image

Rehearsing for war

From the Middle East to North Korea, Donald Trump is reasserting US military strength and intensifying the rivalry among the great powers.

As Vice-President Mike Pence arrived in South Korea from Washington on Sunday, he announced that the “era of strategic patience”, in which the US sought to monitor and manage the nuclear threat from North Korea without pushing the matter for fear of escalation, was over. “President Trump has made it clear that the patience of the United States and our allies in this region has run out and we want to see change,” Pence declared. The heat under a crisis that had already been bubbling ominously was turned up another notch.

Much has been written in recent years about the stability provided by the post-1945 world order and the dangers of letting it crumble. The conflict in Korea provided the first big test of that order almost 70 years ago, but the difficulty was never really resolved. It remains the proverbial “wicked problem” in international affairs, “frozen” in an obsessively monitored and deeply uneasy stalemate, demarcated by the Demilitarised Zone: a line 160 miles long and roughly two and a half miles wide scored across the middle of the Korean Peninsula, drawn with superpower supervision in 1953. Partition has allowed a strong and ­successful state to flourish in the South while the North has survived in a state of ­arrested development.

The problem has been passed down from generation to generation because attempting to solve the issue risked opening a Pandora’s box. The risks included the unleashing of huge military force, potential world war and a refugee crisis on a scale that could severely destabilise even China. By the 1990s, it was clear that the North Korean regime had fastened upon another strategy for survival as the Cold War passed into history and its sponsors in Beijing and Moscow began to question the value of such an ally: the acquisition of nuclear warheads. Pyongyang has long had the firepower to flatten Seoul in a matter of hours. The mission since has been to develop its missile technology to carry that material as far as possible – certainly to Japan, but ideally also to the west coast of the United States.

The day after Pence’s announcement, the US and South Korea undertook a joint air and army exercise to ensure readiness in the event of an attack from the North. This followed a joint naval war game earlier in the week and the US decision to send a navy group led by the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, which Donald Trump described as an “armada”, to the region. No sooner had the fleet appeared than Japanese sources reported that it had been followed by Chinese and Russian submarines as it entered North Korean waters. Such are the great-power manoeuvres of the 21st century – whether on air, sea or land – in which the world’s most potent military machines shadow the moves of their competitors, and openly rehearse for war.

***

Asia has not had a major inter-state war since the 1970s but it is not immune from the tragedies of power politics that have beset other rapidly developing parts of the world. Across the region, military spending is rising fast as states jostle in anticipation of a changing balance of power.

The purpose of Pence’s Asia-Pacific tour is to offer reassurance to America’s allies in the region, which have been watching the rise of China, in particular, with trepidation. The stark change of tone emanating from the White House – and change of gear – has been noted. After years of steady consistency in US grand strategy, there is a sense of a building crisis and the Americans are being watched in anticipation of their next move more closely than they have been scrutinised in many years.

Before he left South Korea, Pence also visited Panmunjom, where the 1953 armistice was signed at the end of the Korean War, as well as Camp Bonifas, a UN military compound near the Demilitarised Zone, set up to monitor the ceasefire that followed. It is an eerie echo from the past that Pence’s own father served in the war that divided the country. Edward Pence was awarded the Bronze Star on 15 April 1953 for heroic service. The vice-president proudly displays the medal, and a photo of his father receiving it, in his office. He is no doubt aware of the costs of a conflict in which an estimated 36,000 of his countrymen were killed.

Just over a thousand British soldiers also lost their lives in the Korean War after being sent to fight in a joint UN force. But it was far more deadly still for the peoples of the Korean Peninsula, killing more than a million people, including 400,000 troops for the People’s Volunteer Army, among whom was Mao Anying, the eldest son of Chairman Mao, the leader of the Communist Party of China and protector of the North.

History throws up strange parallels. When the Korean War began in 1950 it was understood to be the first serious test of the international system established after the Second World War. It is striking just how many of the same ingredients remain, including the identity of some of the main protagonists. On 25 June 1950, a border conflict between North and South Korea escalated into full-scale war when Kim Il-sung’s Korean People’s Army – backed by China, and with the tacit support of the Soviet Union – invaded the Republic of Korea in the south, claiming that it represented the legitimate government of all Korea. This is a claim that the regime of his grandson Kim Jong-un has not abandoned to this day.

Two days after the invasion, on 27 June, the UN Security Council voted to send a joint force, under General Douglas MacArthur of the US, the former supreme commander of Allied forces in the south-west Pacific area, to protect the sovereignty of the South and repel the invaders. Much more was at stake than the question of territorial integrity or preserving international law. By bringing the Americans into confrontation with the Chinese – and with the Russians seen to be the steering hand in the background – the conflict had all the ingredients for rapid escalation.

From the start, there were concerns that the Americans might overdo the brinkmanship, even under the cautious leadership of Harry Truman. Fears that the self-confident MacArthur would exceed his brief were confirmed when the UN forces pushed back into North Korea in October. In response, the Chinese Communists, who believed that MacArthur had designs on China itself, flooded across the Yalu River in their tens of thousands.

It was in the autumn of 1950 that the danger of another world war, this one involving nuclear weapons, reached its peak. On 28 November, after a grave reverse for the UN forces, MacArthur stated that the advent of 200,000 Chinese had created “an entirely new war”, with much higher stakes than before. Suddenly, the prospect that the US might resort to using an atomic bomb against the North Koreans, or even the Chinese forces, seemed plausible.

While the nuclear scare passed, the war rumbled on towards an ugly stalemate over the next three years. A temporary solution of sorts was found with the 1953 armistice. But there was no resolution to Korea’s frozen war. In a way that no other totalitarian state has managed, the North zipped itself into a hermetically sealed chamber, preserving a three-generation dictatorship that is both comically anachronistic and frighteningly modern in its missile technology.

***

Some of this complicated backstory was explained to Donald Trump by China’s president, Xi Jinping, during his recent visit to the United States. Trump – who had been pressuring China to do more to deal with the North Korean regime – appears to have been receptive to what he heard.

“After listening for ten minutes,” he said, “I realised it’s not so easy.”

This is the first critical test of the “new era in great-power relations” which Xi has been floating for a number of years, but Trump has now decided to put to the test. According to Trump’s most recent tweets, Beijing has continued to work with the US on the North Korea problem. He has welcomed its contribution but insisted that America’s own willingness to deal with the problem does not depend on China. In other words, there is no master plan being played out here, even if – as seems credible – America did hack North Korea’s latest missile launch to make it a damp squib.

The Trump administration is not creating the conditions for a new long game, building a fresh multilateral consensus to contain the North Korean threat. Instead, with a newfound sense of momentum serving as a tail wind, it senses a moment to “solve” one of the longest-running and most treacherous problems in international affairs. It has decided, at the very least, to severely clip the wings of Kim Jong-un’s regime. And in doing so, it has set out to demonstrate that when America speaks, it speaks with effect.

Like much current presidential policy, “the Trump doctrine” is being made on the hoof. Much of the hyperactivity of the past month or so was not scripted but emerged in response to overt challenges – beginning in Damascus and panning to Pyongyang – to the United States and the “red lines” it has laid down in the past. One foundation stone of Trump’s approach to the world is firmly in place, however: the willingness to reassert US military power with swift and decisive effect. The idea that the “America First” slogan implied anything resembling isolationism is crumbling. The growing sense that it does imply unsentimental and unvarnished power politics in the name of the US interest rather than multilateral niceties is closer to the truth.

Under Barack Obama, the US sought to withdraw from those areas in which he felt that the US had overstretched itself under his predecessor. Obama opted for a more rapier-like and cost-effective form of power projection. He drew down from formal military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, while presiding over a huge uptick in drone warfare, cyber capabilities and selective but deadly use of special operations. Much of the full range of US power was submerged in various “secret wars”, and the diplomatic compass was reset to pivot east. This was because, as a legacy of the 9/11 attacks, national security was geared towards the containment of an elusive and amorphous enemy – various offshoots of the global jihad movement – that operated on the periphery of America’s radar.

But the real metrics of great power are those now on display off the coast of North Korea. For all the advances in drone technology, the missiles that cause the gravest threats to humanity are those on the scale that the North Korean regime is attempting to build. Trump’s test was one that a president of the United States would have to face sooner rather than later.

Not since Ronald Reagan has the US been so willing to engage in naked displays of its own military potency in quick succession – and seek to gather diplomatic yields from them as swiftly as possible. The past fortnight brought a missile attack on an airbase manned by the Assad regime – changing the tenor of US-Russian relations overnight – and the dropping of the so-called Moab (“mother of all bombs”) on an Isis affiliate in Afghanistan. The latter was a far cry from the “clear, hold, build” counterinsurgency operations in vogue half a decade ago. But it did fit with a campaign promise by the new president that he would “bomb the shit out of Isis” should the opportunity arise.

Does this fit into a wider pattern or constitute a new approach? The Trump administration is eager to leverage any opening that might have been created. In Seoul, Pence wasted no time in joining the dots: “the world witnessed the strength and resolve of our new president in actions taken in Syria and Afghanistan”. North Korea, he continued, “would do well not to test his resolve, or the strength of the armed forces of the United States in this region”.

It is the generals who have increasingly set the tone for Trump’s foreign policy. During the 2016 election campaign, he promised to give the Pentagon more leeway than it had under Obama to focus on “winning”. The new national security adviser, H R McMaster, and the defence secretary, General James Mattis, are now the steering hands.

Neither man has followed the rather crass and short-sighted fashion for running down diplomacy. Mattis once said that if the state department budget was cut, he would need more ammunition. McMaster is an urbane thinker who knows that the use of force must always be carefully calibrated and is just one tool in a continuum of factors. In this respect, it is a problem that so many jobs in the state department remain unfilled. Now that muscle has been flexed, the experienced negotiators and diplomats should be flooding through the door.

***

The policy of “strategic patience” was based on an understandable calculation. But, in hindsight, it does appear that North Korea has suffered from neglect. Mitchell B Reiss, one of the most experienced diplomats who led efforts on North Korea in the 1990s, notes that, despite unprecedented co-operation between the US and China in recent weeks, including open threats of economic pressure and military action, they were still unable to prevent North Korea from testing ballistic missiles on 16 April. Even though the missiles exploded immediately after lift off, “The failure of Washington and Beijing to stop the test in the first place has important implications for the Trump administration’s future policy options and for stability in north-east Asia.”

In Reiss’s view, it is “highly unlikely that the North can be cajoled, threatened or given incentives to surrender its nuclear weapons”. The uncomfortable truth is that “short of regime change, which could inflame the entire Korean Peninsula in war”, the US cannot halt the North’s nuclear weapons programme. But that does not mean there are no options. Slowing the pace and raising the costs would be “prudent steps”. More, too, could be done, Reiss says, to “interdict imports of sensitive technologies, to sanction Chinese and other nationals who act as purchasing agents for the nuclear and missile programmes, and to punish Chinese banks that help finance these programmes through so-called secondary sanctions”.

In the end, so much comes down to US-China relations. Could this be the basis for a reset and a new accommodation between Beijing and Washington? How much further is China willing to go to use its leverage on the North, which depends on it for energy and food? And how patient will the Trump administration be if its new strategy does not yield tangible results of the sort that are sometimes elusive in the long and often open-ended game of deterrence? 

John Bew is a New Statesman contributing writer and the author of “Realpolitik: a History” (Oxford University Press)

John Bew is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book, Realpolitik: A History, is published by Oxford University Press.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

0800 7318496