WISERD conversation – The Shadow of the Mine

In September I was asked by my friend Ian Rhys Jones at the research Institute WISERD to give a talk at their awayday about the bookThe Shadow of the Mine that I had written with Ray Hudson. The awayday became a virtual one, as a consequence of the virus, and we decided that rather than me speak for 40 minutes it would be more interesting to have a conversation about the book with my old friend Gareth Rees. This was recorded, and  as with the interview for Jacobin it extends some of the issues that we discussed in the book. Some people have found this interesting, the video is below and here’s the link to the event on the WISERD site

Conversation with Jacobin

On one afternoon in early October my friend Ray and I were involved in a long conversation about our new book The Shadow of the Mine with a young woman in Boston, Piper Winkler. She was interviewing us for the radical magazine Jacobin and the conversation on Zoom lasted for three hours. We were very taken by her interest in the history of the British coalminers. We learnt that she and her friends had been very influenced by the film Pride and was keen to talk about the organisation of solidarity which the coalminers seemed to have mastered. The interview was wide ranging and went well beyond the details of the book. Some people found it interesting so here’s the link the the Jacobin article.

The good start

The railway into Kellingley Colliery, ©Alan Murray-Rust (CC BY-SA 2.0)

When Prime Minister Boris Johnson visited  Scotland he was asked to name the date when the UK would be free of fossil fuel.  He provided no answer, instead he talked of the “good start” provided by Mrs Thatcher’s closure of the coal mines, adding to the view that the dramatic closure of the British coal industry was driven by environmental necessity. Anything but as my friend Ray Hudson and I explore in our article in Tribune.  Thatcher’s main concern was the NUM. Our reliance on coal extended well beyond the closure of the mines. Today Britain is far less well prepared for a green future that countries (like Germany) that kept their pits open longer. 

When the last coal mine – Kellingley – closed in 2015 its shipments to the Drax power station were replaced with coal from Russian mines then adding to the half a trillion tonnes of imports made by the UK since 2001. Meanwhile on the coalfields the miners were, to all intents and purposes, pensioned off and their future left in the hands of the market and the beneficence of foreign inward investment. There was no strategic national plan for the coalfields or for a green economy!  Today, Johnson’s description of Britain as the “Saudi Arabia of wind” ignores the 34% of electricity generation that comes from burning gas in power stations.

All this is fanciful. The future may well lie in off-shore wind power but no British company has the expertise that Vestas and Siemens-Gamesa have accumulated over the last decades. In fact, the number of  companies based in the UK involved in off-shore wind  declined  by a third in the years between 2014 and 2019.   If there was indeed an early start it has clearly been wasted.  Johnson’s projection of the UK as a “world leader” in climate change has already been called out as a lie and it is clear that any future    green revolution it’s unlikely to be  driven by technologies ‘built better’ in the UK  on its old industrial regions.

No, Thatcher’s War on the Miners Wasn’t Good for Green PoliticsTribune 24/08/2021

Our book is now published…

Well our new book The Shadow of the Mine: Coal and the End of Industrial Britain is now published and also reviewed here and there:

“A hymn to working-class community and to men and women’s souls” Will Hutton, author of The State We’re In

“Refreshing and necessary … [The Shadow of the Mine] explains in loving, careful detail why working people’s relationship with Labour in former industrial communities … had become complex and ultimately soured.” Laura Pidcock, Red Pepper

“Their brilliant analysis of the decline of British coal mining, and its social and political effects, is required reading for those who would speak for this working class. It is in many ways a study in the lost world of British labourism.” David Edgerton, The Times Literary Supplement

The Shadow of the Mine reminds us why this spirit [of solidarity and collectivism] has lived on in the coalfields, in spite of people feeling a sense of political betrayal going back decades … enlightening.” The Guardian

“Their new book is essential reading for anyone who wants to dig deeper beyond vague generalizations about the “red wall” that have proliferated since December 2019…Beynon and Hudson encourage us to explore the long-term trends that have shaped the bewildering political situation we find ourselves in now” Charlotte Austin, Jacobin

“The Shadow of the Mine, is a moving account of 150 years of coalfield history, focusing on South Wales and Durham. It is not, however, a detached study of the past. By tracing the “deep story” of the marginalisation of Britain’s coalfields, it aims to understand the continuing exclusion of working-class people in deindustrialised areas from political and social life…if the current Labour leader wants to understand the challenges facing him, he would be far better reading The Shadow of the Mine than listening to PR companies telling him to wrap the party in a union jack.” Diarmaid Kelliher, Antipode Online

About the book

The Shadow of the Mine: Coal and the End of Industrial Britain, London, Verso, 2021, 402pp. ISBN -13:978-1-83976-156-0

This historical study of the coal industry tells of King Coal in its heyday and how communities of mining families created a unique and powerful social and political presence in areas like South Wales and Durham. In 1984 miners here were involved in a yearlong strike to save jobs  and to save coal mining. After the defeat the industry went into precipitous decline and this book outlines the social and political consequences that followed: often told in the words of the people themselves.

FORD Closes engine plant at Bridgend

Today – 25 September 2020 – Ford will close the engine plant that it opened in Bridgend in 1980. At that time, it was seen as a major development for the local economy and the prospect of South Wales emerging as a major producer of automobile parts.  Standing alongside Ford’s axle plant at Jersey Marine and its spark plug operation in Treforest it suggested the prospect of a growing concentration of employment in that sector, The presence of Borg Warner’s transmission plant at Kenfig Hill and Girling’s brake production facility at Cwmbran all added to thus optimism. It seemed that a happy accommodation had been reached between the investment decisions of large transnational corporations and the aspiration of the (not yet devolved) Welsh economic development strategists.   The opening of the engine plant was also hailed as a major success for the “speed and effectiveness” of the old Welsh Development Agency with the £180 million investment flying at its masthead. It was, said the newspaper headlines “A Triumph for Wales” So where did it all go wrong? Or how did it happen at all?

The decision to locate the engine plant at Bridgend had been taken three years earlier in 1977 and then after a lot of planning by Ford and a lot of manoeuvring on the European chess board. Ford had decided to bring out a Mark III version of the Escort which would be a complete rebuild and different in many ways from the classic Mark I which I had seen first roll off the assembly line in the Halewood plant in 1966.  That was at the time when the company was creating Ford Europe. Ten years later much had changed with the company then talking of global production and of making a “world car”. The mark III was to be this car with the same model being built in identical plants around the world where it would also be sold and driven. In Europe Ford needed a secure location for a plant that would produce almost 700,000 engines a year for this new car. Just how it ended up at Bridgend was an interesting and revealing story which I wrote about in the second edition of my book Working for Ford.

In 1977 Prime Minister James Callaghan was recovering from the shock of the previous year’s financial crisis and the draconian intervention of the IMF. In this weakened state he met with Henry Ford in Downing Street and told him: “Henry we are turning this country around. And you, if you choose, can help us do it”.  This must have been music to Henry’s ears given that UK wages were significantly lower than German ones, while car prices were significantly higher with Ford’s outselling all other makes at a time when British Leyland was in terminal crisis. 

By that time too Ford had scoured Europe and put together a number of possible sites for its new plant. Each one had been analyzed in what the company (with a glance at history and the macabre) called its “Doomsday Books”. In these books, issues like geographic location, the state of the labour market and trade unionism would be weighed along with the inducements on offer, though a series of 92 questions.  In the end it would be the finance that would settle it, and Ford was renowned for its capacity to play hard ball in such negotiations. Having been given the green light in Downing Street it decided to press its advantage.

In South Wales at that time there were Special Development Areas that provided inward investors with a 22.5% grant – Miskin was one and was thought of by the WDA as a suitable site for the new plant. Ford however had chosen Bridgend because of its proximity to the interchange on the new M4; but Bridgend was not a Special Development Area. So in the October, Ford issued an ultimatum to the government in London given it 24 hours to change the designation of Bridgend.  This produced one of the more farcical moment of the Callaghan government. Alan Varley the Secretary of State for Industry was not available  to sign the relevant  papers so they had to be taken across London to Tower Bridge where  the junior minister Alan Williams was on a visit to the Port of London Authority in order for Ford to get its extra two and a half percent.

When the sums were all added up, and finally made public, the £180 million investment looked rather different. In addition to the £40 million under the regional grants scheme Ford also receive £75 million for assisting job creation. A total of £115 million is state support to which Ford added £65 million.  It was a good deal for Ford.

Now as the global strategy tilts it’s off somewhere else; it has another engine plant in Mexico with spare capacity. However it  leaves  behind more workers without jobs, and  a shattered  industrial strategy that raises serious  questions about the future.