Global Outpost

Cover for Global Outpost - discussion document

Going through my files and boxes of papers from the early 80s, I came across a document called “Global Outpost; The Working Class Experience of Big Business in the NE of England 1964-1978”. I wrote it with Terry Austrin in 1980 and it was based on interviews and discussions with workers and shop stewards in various branch plants of multi-national corporations operating on the old Durham coalfield. It was part of a broader research project looking at the transformations in working class life that had accompanied the closures of the coal mines in the 1960s. We had produced it as a Discussion Document, which was deliberately descriptive, using several accounts of changes in work and labour relations as an introduction to conversations about possible future strategy and tactics. We involved the regional office of the General and Municipal Workers Union, and they took 100 copies, devoted the front page of their newspaper to it and helped us set up further meetings with other shop stewards and union officials The shop stewards committee at Vickers Elswick plant took another 50 copies and there were scores of requests from other committees, local libraries and individuals, mainly in the North East but also nationally. I have written about this in “Engaging Labour” and how the paper took on a Samizdat quality being passed around and talked about.

So, what happened to it? Well through the other meetings and interviews we collected more information on how different corporations operated, each raising questions about the prospects and limitations of trade union organisation across a region with an economy dominated by branch plants – a global outpost. This would have allowed us to extend the document and the series editor at Fontana was very keen for it to be commissioned as a book and for it to be brought out quickly. Fontana had published “Strike at Pilkington’s” and Richard Hyman ‘s book “Strike” along with other well-known collections on work and labour, so, we were pleased. However for reasons I can’t recall, the company  took a distinct change of direction, moving away from any interest in the book and the deal fell through, leaving us disappointed.

At that time, I was in close contact with Henry Friedman, the ex-convenor at Ford’s River Plant at Dagenham who had been centrally involved in the sewing machinist strike there. Wheelchair bound, Henry was, and saw himself as, a labour strategist, and when I visited him in Bures in Suffolk, we talked about prospects for developing trade union combine committees. I had sent him a copy of “Global Outpost” and while he felt that in letting activists tell their own story we had produced an extremely valuable document, he wrote that there was a danger that “an unremitting recital of misfortune” could engender a “mood of gloom and defeatism”. In his view what was needed at that time was “a fighting spirit and recognition that at some point it is necessary to take a stand regardless – “their Waterloo or ours’”.

At that time, it seemed that only the miners could make such a stand and in 1981 they were on strike. From then on, they became the centre of our attention pushing “Global Outpost” into the background. Now, as an historical document, it may be worth a read. Terry and I went on to publish “Masters and Servants”, based on another discussion document and the first of two books we had planned on the miners of Durham. We were working on the second until five years ago when, tragically Terry’s died.

So there is the story of Global Outpost as I remember it. I do hope you enjoy reading the scan:

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.

Coalfield landscapes (from The Shadow of the Mine)

There is an insert of glossy black photographs in the middle of our new book, The Shadow of the Mine. They illustrate thew story of the book: the overwhelming presence of mining, the strike to save to industry and the community response, the closures, the changing landscapes of decline sitting alongside the promises of new industry and a better way of life. The selection ends with the response from within – collective ownership of the mine at Tower and the continuation of the annual Big Meeting in Durham. We have brought them together here along with a couple of additions of our own:

Coalfield landscapes

Thanks to Kjell-Åke Andersson, Paul Reas and Keith Pattison

BBC Radio 4 Thinking Allowed – Coalmining & Luddism: What do we mean by progress?

A couple of weeks ago I was invited to talk with Laurie Taylor on his programme “Thinking Allowed” about our new book:  “The Shadow of the Mine: Coal and the End of Industrial Britain”.  Subsequently I  had lots of messages from old  friends pleased to know  that I was still alive and kicking! The interview concentrated on a time in this country when there were miners, and focused on the long story of  the mining districts of south Wales and Durham. It was this time that my old friends were pleased to be reminded of. If you are interested too it is available on the BBC website.