Ewan Gibbs’ book Coal Country claims to be the first full length study of deindustrialisation in the Scottish coalfields. But its scope is actually much broader and much more ambitious in its treatment of an age of massive social upheaval. Johnny Rodger reviews and appreciates that ambition.
I was the first in a direct line of men for at least four generations of my family not to go down the pit. Growing up in a mining family, but not actually getting any black-ingrained calluses on my palms or coal dust in my lungs, brought with it what seemed then like a bizarre range of paradoxes. Having that family history of hewing the black stuff was something you were expected to be proud of (tales of hardship, of crawling half a mile along a three-foot high tunnel (unpaid!) to get to the coalface, of a great-great-uncle who died in a collapse, of suffering white knuckle from habitually driving a coal-cutting machine in Kingshill, of my mother retailing how when they went to a dance and my father started to sweat, coal dust would come out his pores and make his face all black again…), but you were to be kept away from that life of dirt, danger and difficulty yourself for something better. Mining people were the friendliest, most down to earth people, in the lowest, filthiest and most difficult and dangerous of jobs, but they also had some kind of ‘aristocracy of the working class’ conceit about themselves. They conceived of themselves as more intellectual, more politically and socially conscious and active, and as tougher and physically stronger than any other workers. It was a world of autodidactic macho-men -in my grandmother’s house all the men were served their food at the table in one sitting, then they left and after them all the women ate together. Yet everyone knew that my grandmother was the head of the family: a tiny woman of Irish parents, fiercely intellectual, critically aware and politically active, she was the powerhouse who made all the big decisions and who had connections not just across the village, the county and Scotland, but across the world.
How was I – or anyone else who saw it – to make sense of this modest, dirty, parochial life with claims to a big, pure, cosmopolitan vision for humanity? The obvious route was always through Marx and the dialectic, of course, and none of that was too high-falutin for the miners. Yet since the defeat in the strike of 1984/5, and the death of the industry under the final blows of Thatcherism as the neo-liberal hegemony bedded in for the long haul, it’s probably been easier for most folk who were in contact with that spirit just to see it as a thing of the past.
That’s one of the reasons why I found Ewan Gibbs’ book Coal Country: The Meaning and Memory of Deindustrialisation in Postwar Scotland so personally rewarding – it puts those gender, familial and community behaviours and traits in a coherent historical and cultural context. The book is, of course, written for a much broader readership than simply those who have a personal connection with the industry and need to do some grieving over its passing. In fact, the clue to this work’s real significance is in its subtitle which makes it clear that the recent history of the coal industry is a powerful paradigm for exposing and understanding the realities of mid and late 20th century social history in terms of the postwar social democratic consensus and planning for the mixed economy. What exactly was that consensus, and how did the politics and economics of it work out? What were its aims and how and why was it rolled over by neo-liberalism and the privatising sprit -and with what effects?
That’s a lot of serious questions to answer, and Gibbs deftly addresses them through focus on the ‘moral economy’ perspective of the workings of the polity, as notably proposed and developed in the writings of E.P. Thompson, another leftist historian of working class life. The ‘moral economy’ here would basically be defined as a consensus on the distinct norms, obligations and responsibilities distributed among the numerous parties involved in the industry at differing levels. Those parties in the coal industry in postwar Britain would include the British Government, the National Coal Board (NCB), which administered and managed the nationalized coal industry, the Unions, the miners, the communities of miners and their families, political parties and so on. Each of these parties , as Gibbs shows, brought their own understandings, histories and responsibilities to the table in that consensus: the Government with its commitment to planning for full employment and economic stability, the miners with their decent application of their special skills to the job of production of the commodity, the Unions with their care and expertise in the field and representative and negotiating skills in acting as a governor on Governmental power, and the communities with their welfare back-up and long communal memories of the struggle for better conditions and fair pay. (Legendary in my family, for example, was that my grandparents had to delay their wedding because of the hardships imposed by the General Strike of 1926) All of the parties were conscious of the central role their product and their work played in powering the country -electricity, railways, steelworks- in the industrial era.
Gibbs highlights that the paradigmatic value of the coal mining story is not just because of its consciously pivotal role in the economy, but because right from the very outset of the period (1947), this newly nationalised industry was involved in rationalisation, in shutting down pits and making men redundant. -That is to say that the ‘moral economy’ was invoked from the beginning via the operation of protocols to protect jobs and communities through agreements by the NCB with unions on how closure should be managed, how jobs were to be transferred to other pits within accepted and defined travelling distances and so on.
There is an interesting discussion here on the extent to which these protocols were successful, or even fully respected by the NCB. Gibbs sums it up as ‘broadly a failure’ (p. 65) Indeed later miners leaders, from the 60s onwards, (who had not suffered at the hands of unscrupulous private mine owners pre WWII) were much more ‘ambivalent’ vis-à-vis the value of nationalisation as a centralised state-managed sector.
In the 80s that paradigm status of the coal industry for ‘deindustrialisation’ was ramped to the max by the Thatcherites themselves, when they made defeat of the miners their cause célèbre. Gibbs’ bald statement of that showdown is that ‘During the 1980s, NCB management abandoned moral economy obligations’. This meant that any long-term established consensus on employment, control, production and protection of communities was suddenly, unceremoniously, unilaterally and crudely dropped by Thatcher’s NCB henchman Ian McGregor. – Their thinking itself was economic in its ideological formulation: Why should a privatised power industry negotiate with autonomous (and militant) workers for their fuel when they can import cheaper on the international market in a purely financial exchange?
If it was that sudden removal of the social democratic moral mask from the 80s face of the British State in its dealings with the coal industry that makes the latter the example par excellence of deindustrialisation, then Gibbs’ detailed research of the power politics of that ‘moral economy’, his unpacking of the gendered understanding of class identity in the culture, and unravelling of the nexus of class, nation and masculinity (as so forcefully present in the personality of the communist leader of the Scottish miners union , Mick McGahey, himself…) have a revelatory strength to them.
Having said so, it would perhaps be churlish and petty to point to persistent spelling mistakes in place names – e.g. Lesmehagow and Feriegair – in a book which otherwise – and rightly so – prides itself on researched parochial detail. A more serious point would be that in the ‘snowballing’ (Gibbs) technique the author admits to using to find interviewees, he seems to lean heavily on the activist community (even if their analyses seem accurate) rather than a wider and genuine (whatever that might mean in the context) representation of ornery working class folk, for opinion and information on the effects of deindustrialisation. That ‘cosiness’ might be admissible in a piece of well-made and informative public propaganda like Ken Loach’s recent film Spirit of 45 (which I nonetheless heartily endorse, as dealing largely with the same broad history and recommend for viewing in companionship with this book), but leaves us expecting something more in terms of a working out of the argument in an academic and scholarly work.
Gibbs’ work certainly performs something of a political catharsis -affording us a political, historical and cultural context for much of the undoubted human suffering that took place in that era of massive social upheaval at the end of the twentieth century, and thus releasing us from it to look again to a future of working class communities -whatever that might be.. And again, to finish on a personal note, and in that spirit of helplessly paradoxical continuity, I have to admit that I passed on the weight of that murky tradition to my daughter in 2016, when she made her final P7 project at school on the topic of her family of miners. She took my uncle’s old pit helmet, lamp and belt into class for a show-and-tell, and wrote up an interview she did with her papa (my father) on what it was like to work underground. Of course, being just a miner’s granddaughter, she won the class project prize.
Ewan Gibbs: Coal Country: The Meaning and Memory of Deindustrialisation in Postwar Scotland, University of London Press, 2021.