Moving on from the miners’ strikeMarch 10, 2009 at 10:53 pm | Posted in British Politics, Working Class Britain | 2 Comments
It’s about midday on a glum, sunless Saturday. On Cheapside, there’s the usual obstacle course of street traders, buskers and charity fundraisers: a BNP stand stocked with parka-clad pampleteers and studied scowls, a bunch of trade unionists pushing anti-fascist leaflets into the palms of passers-by, and a group of pan pipe players whistling – of all things – the tune to My Heart Will Go On. Turn left onto Mayday Green, and among the pound shops, charity shops and pasty-picking pigeons, there’s a boarded-up store front carrying a proud advertisement from the council: Barnsley is Changing.
In a sense, they’re absolutely right. In search of the regeneration money which breathed new life into Sheffield & Leeds, six years ago, we had visions of being transformed into a Tuscan hill village, complete with a huge ‘halo of light’ which would be seen for miles around. It was designed by the renowned Will Alsop, who promised that “if we could just make this town beautiful, people will come.” He never got his town halo, but he did leave us with one delicious legacy; about two years later, someone opened a sandwich shop called ‘Tuscany’s ‘.
Throughout a week where the media has reminisced about the miners’ strike, I’ve been reminded of a line from The Grapes of Wrath: “How can we live without our lives? How will we know it’s us without our past? No. Leave it. Burn it.” I’m in no mood to refight the events of 25 years ago; the consequences of the strike and the pit closures which followed will be evident to anyone who’s ever lived here or spent time in communities once known for their mines. But for anyone who isn’t aware of what the closures wrought and doesn’t care to find out, just know this: those social ills which fill our newspapers and make the right’s moralisers fume were exacerbated – if not necessarily created – by decisions made by the party of ‘Broken Britain’ . They’d do well to acknowledge it one day.
The town needs to leave its proud but blighted past behind, but what’s made the act of forgetting much harder is the fact that 25 years later – 12 of which have been under a Labour government – it’s never really enjoyed a second act. Sure, some investment has come our way, and with it new jobs and residents; the same Cortonwood which so many families starved to keep open is now better known for its retail park, and in the Dearne Valley there are call centres where there used to be coalfields. There’s a new bus station, a refurbished civic hall and the council is slowly replacing some of the most decrepit social housing with homes fit for families to live in.
But many of the jobs which vanished in the ’80s and ’90s haven’t been replaced, unemployment has become generational, schools still struggle to equip their kids for an uncertain future and this new recession is hitting the town particularly hard . What’s more, these facts are certainly not unique to Barnsley.
I always worry when writing one of these posts that I’m casting my hometown as some barren hinterland where life is grim and intolerable. The reality is anything but. We still have farm shops and frappuccinos; art galleries; museums; some decent restaurants. You could live a long and contented life in this place – I have, for the most part. But what I am saying is that it’s been 25 years, the social and economic consequences of the miners’ defeat are still being felt, and it’s hard to move on until they’re addressed.
Lastly, y’know that vaunted, long-delayed regeneration scheme I wrote about at the top of this piece? It’s been credit crunched . Some places never get a break.