Towns called malice – the legacy of Thatcher

Darton blog

I WAS born into a middle class Tory voting household and to my eternal shame joined the Conservative Party at age 16.

I guess my father’s right wing doctrines influenced my own, and as a teenager and college student I followed those politics quite radically.

At 21 years old, against a left wing university backwash, I was Yorkshire vice-chairman of the Federation of Conservatives Students. I was a radical Tory, brushed shoulders with Michael Portillo, shared a whisky with former PM Ted Heath and fought hard in Thatcher’s election victory of 1979.

That remains the eternal shame of my youth.

But life is a great leveller and educator, and chalk face experiences over 38 years changed all that… it changed me as a person, socially, spiritually and politically.

In the year Thatcher was first elected, a more socially aware friend of mine warned: “There will be war in three years!”

How right she was!

In 1982 we were at war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands, ostensibly to liberate islanders loyal to the British Crown, but in reality because we had discovered huge reserves of oil in the South Atlantic a few years earlier.

And with Thatcher’s ratings in the opinion polls falling, there was a nothing like a bit of jingoism and nationalistic war fervour to boost Tory ratings.

But it was what I discovered years later as a newspaper journalist, which cast the Falklands War in a new light.

Not only was our prized battleship cruiser HMS Sheffield sunk while carrying nuclear depth charges, but against all international treaties to keep the South Atlantic nuclear free, Thatcher had deployed a British nuclear-armed submarine into the area.

The orders were clear: if the Argentines sunk another of our flagships, a pre-emptive nuclear strike on Cordoba was to be considered.

Just think for a minute where that might have led in 1982, at the height of the Cold War. Thatcher was prepared to risk a global Armageddon to secure her political ends.

But it was at home, where my opinions of Thatcher and her politics changed me forever.

My real education began in the early 1980s as a secondary school teacher in the South Yorkshire pit village of Darton – the home of Woolley Colliery, where NUM leader Arthur Scargill began his working life.

I lived in the village for four years among miners and their families, and many of my pupils were the sons and daughters of miners. Most of the boys were destined to become miners, and many of the girls would get jobs in businesses dependent on mining.

I played cricket each weekend with miners. My neighbours were miners. I went to football matches at Oakwell with miners. And I bought my first house from a miner.

The sound of the local pit hooter and the rattle of coal trucks woke me early each morning and the coal dust got into my clothes and my life.

But what struck me then, and has stayed with me ever since, was the sense of community and friendship which imbued every aspect of life in that village.

Life was vibrant!

If one of my charges misbehaved at school, I could be sure his or her parents would know about it, and he or she would be disciplined at home.

If I was ever ill in bed, a neighbour would knock at the door and ask if I needed any groceries or would leave a casserole of stew.

If the snow was deep we would all help clear each-others’ drives or pathways.

If anyone had a party in the street, the whole street would be invited, no exceptions. And those parties were real parties with Yorkshire beer, pies, gravy, chips and puddings.

And if my girlfriend had to walk home late at night, I wouldn’t fear for her safety.

It was a time of the greatest friendship and community I have ever known.

I moved away for misled career aspirations in 1983.

One year later, Thatcher’s brutal decision to crush the trade union movement at any cost, laid waste to this community and countless more like them.

They were never to recover.

For those not familiar with this time and place, watch the BBC TV boxed set Our Friends in the North to gain a little perspective.

All that was wonderful was lost forever due to capitalist greed and Thatcher’s need for unbridled power.

We had a nation divided against itself where the rich got richer while the rest fought for the scraps.

A whole street’s belief in Sunday’s roast beef

Gets dashed against the Co-op

To either cut down on beer or the kids new gear

It’s a big decision in a town called malice.

(Paul Weller)

My politics changed fast.

In 1988 I was in hospital in Cardiff undergoing surgery for a lung cancer.

It was a time of personal trauma, but also the making of new friendships.

Many of these friends were former miners from the South Wales valleys. Most were suffering from lung cancer due to a lifetime working among coal dust.

But it was their tales of how Thatcher crushed the miners’ strike that will always stay with me.

Some blamed Scargill for getting some of the NUM tactics wrong, but it was Thatcher they blamed for the decimation of their lives and families.

I learned how she used MI5 and the Met Police, and every dirty trick imaginable, to tarnish the personal reputations of the striking miners, even down to the conspiratorial murder of a taxi driver.

When I had fully recovered from the cancer in the mid-1990s, I travelled back to my old village near Barnsley to see how things had changed.

What met me was post-apocalyptic.

All vestiges of coal mining had gone, the shops had steel shutters on their windows, litter blew around the main street and pale youths gathered on corners with eyes that seemed devoid of hope.

The ghost of a steam train – echoes down my track

It’s at the moment bound for nowhere –

Just going round and round

Playground kids and creaking swings –

Lost laughter in the breeze

I could go on for hours and I probably will –

But I’d sooner put some joy back

In this town called malice.

(Paul Weller)

But time passes, and surely with two decades of government promises of better lives and Tony Blair’s “Things Can Only Get Better”, that despair I witnessed in 1997, must have changed.

So last weekend I returned to Darton once again, for the first time in 20 years.

In the distance the old pit heads have been replaced by rolling grassland, trees and green parkland.

To a passer-by it is picturesque… but this is nature’s illusion to mask the reality.

On the main A637 a small single business park is all that has replaced a mining industry that employed thousands in Barnsley alone.

And as I strolled round the decaying remains of the village and community I once loved, everywhere I looked brought tears to my eyes.

Long gone was Steve White the butchers, Broadheads the ironmongers, Henrietta’s dress shop, the local newsagents, the greengrocer and the launderette – a community meeting place for the miners’ wives.

Below uncleaned windows and blackened limestone walls they have been replaced with a Chinese takeaway, a tanning studio, an exotic pet store, a charity shop and boarded-up facades.

Cars and buses pass by quickly, rarely stopping on their way to somewhere else.

Only the elderly trundle along the pavement, past shops where there is nothing left to buy; walking small dogs and faces waxing grey and etched in lines of worry.

It reminded me of scenes I also witnessed in Northumberland (where my paternal grandfather and great grandfather were both miners) where three generations of families have been unemployed since 1984.

Their former pit communities have crumbled into decay, with all manner of social problems: derelict housing, rotting schools, drug dependency, street crime, high rates of teenage suicide and homelessness.

The villages remain, with three buses a day to their nearest towns and any chance of a better life, the lasting memory to Thatcher.

Thatcher’s true legacy lies in the coal dust of the communities she destroyed and the lasting fear of nuclear war.

And 38 years of Tory government (including Tony Blair’s New Labour Toryism) has ensured that the decay and legacy continues.

But the reality is there is an alternative.

That is the terrifying truth that the media, government and big business work so hard to conceal.

It the past two years, Jeremy Corbyn has woken us all to that truth and shown that alternative way forward… for the many and not the few.

  • No more forgotten communities
  • No more decay
  • No more unemployment
  • No more homelessness
  • No more scapegoating the poor
  • No more rough sleepers
  • No more fear of war

We can change the future for everyone on 8 June.

This is a journey we can all go on together, all of us. We can include everyone and fear no one.

I am voting Labour.

 

Revolution 2017

HOPE BLOG

The time has come

We can take the flak

It belongs to us all

We’ve got to take it back

No more voting for the Eton elite

No more bowing at their polished feet

 

Poverty is a putrid cancer

Sectarianism is obscene

Take home your nukes

They are really not our scene

No more voting for the Eton elite

No more bowing at their polished feet

 

Can you hear it?

Can you smell?

Can you sense it?

Revolution is in the air.

 

It’s time to end the status quo

It’s time to grab the crown

Call an end to the upper chamber

Those in the Lords just look down

No more voting for the Eton elite

No more bowing at their polished feet

 

Take the power from the rich

Give that power to the poor

Don’t give shelter to the bankers

We don’t need them anymore

No more voting for the Eton elite

No more bowing at their polished feet

 

Can you hear it?

Can you smell?

Can you sense it?

Revolution is in the air.

 

Shelter for the homeless

And feed the hungry too

Education will unlock the door

We are many and you are few

No more voting for the Eton elite

No more bowing at their polished feet

 

Time to move as one nation

Time to speak with one voice

We the people demand justice

We now have a real choice

No more voting for the Eton elite

No more bowing at their polished feet

 

Can you hear it?

Can you smell?

Can you sense it?

Revolution is in the air.