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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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood