Personal stories or history?
When I teach issues that touch on deindustrialisation I am actually speaking from personal experience. I was born in 1982, just a the UK was in the major recession of the early 1980s and as the industrial regions of the UK descended into full-on deindustrialisation. The trouble is, I look around the classroom and see predominantly young people looking back at me and presume you must know the same. I’ve come to realise from the blank looks staring back at me that you’re all a lot younger than I think (some of you won’t have been born when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister) and that a lot of you are not from the UK. Those of you who are younger will have really just known about our current recession and economic difficulties since 2008. Those of you from outside the UK might not have a clue what I’m talking about at all.
To give an idea of the extent of the change, in my own doctoral research, an officer from a local authority in the west of Scotland described the deindustrialisation as a “psychic shock”. In my own home town I watched very large mills, such as Listers Mill up the road from my house in the city of Bradford, empty out and eventually close. This was also as much about economic restructuring. Bradford was known for its woollen industry. Predominantly it made worsted, a very fine cloth used for suits. In 1994 the Bradford woollen industry produced more miles of cloth than it had ever done in its history, but this was at a small number of very large mills with electric machinery employing very few people.
There is a club in the centre of Bradford called the 1 in 12. It was so named because that was the unemployment rate in the city when it was opened in the mid-1980s. In 1984 the UKs unemployment rate reached its highest ever recorded level of 12%. It’s easy now to think this isn’t that bad. Even during the long boom from 1994 – 2007, unemployment was 4%. But the unemployment of the 1980s was set against a context where from 1945 to 1976 governments had focused on reducing unemployment. If unemployment started nudging towards one million people then the government would intervene to keep the economy going. The memories of the Great Depression of the 1920s and 1930s haunted the political and social memory. The 1980s changed this.
The whole identity of places was also closely tied to the industries that declined, both in employment and output. Bradford was known as “Worstedopolis”, Sheffield made steel, Manchester was cotton, Glasgow shipbuilding, Dundee the three Js of jam, jute and journalism. As these industries declined, so did the identity and raison d’etre of the towns and cities.
This was evoked in popular culture. One of the most striking portrayals was Yozzer Hughe’s, an unemployed Liverpudlian dockworker in the TV drama Boys from the Black Stuff, with his now famous catchphrase “gizza job”.
The 1996 film Brassed Off and the 1997 film The Full Monty both evoked the destitution and emotional destruction wrought by these processes of deindustrialisation particularly on male working class identity.