The mining valleys remember Thatcher using hardship as a political tool
The Thatcherite creed was one of individualism, not the common good, writes Torfaen MP Nick Thomas-Symonds
The Afon Lwyd or “grey river” defines my constituency of Torfaen, the easternmost of the south Wales mining valleys. Indeed, the very name of the parliamentary seat comes from the river, since Torfaen (“rockbreaker”) was its original pre-industrial name. The geography shaped the society: the towns of Blaenavon and Pontypool together with Cwmbran, which was designated a new town in 1949, are packed in a deep, narrow channel cut into the hills by the fast-flowing waterway.
These tightly-knit communities were brought together by the industrial revolution, as people were drawn to the area to find work in iron production and coal mining. Indeed, Torfaen’s mining heritage finds expression in its recent MPs.
My predecessor, Paul Murphy, who held the seat from 1987 to 2015, was a miner’s son. I am a miner’s grandson. Indeed, going back a generation further, my great-grandfather worked at Torfaen’s Big Pit, now the National Coal Museum, for 53 years. We are not unusual in the valley: thousands of families have similar ancestral links to the coal mines.
Collieries gave rise to an enduring valleys culture, from great choirs and world-class rugby teams to an enduring sense of the collective. By defining herself in opposition to this, Margaret Thatcher will always be remembered as the prime minister who, shamefully, used economic hardship as a political tool.
Rather than operate an economic policy that sought to keep unemployment low and manage a transition from older industries to new, she openly sought confrontation.
In her memoir The Downing Street Years, Thatcher did not even bother to hide her animosity to the miners, declaring: “By the 1970s the coal mining industry had come to symbolise everything that was wrong with Britain.” For mining families like mine, her treatment of our communities symbolised everything that was wrong with Margaret Thatcher.
The year-long national miners’ strike that shaped her period in office was triggered on 1 March 1984 when the National Coal Board announced the closure of Cortonwood Colliery in Yorkshire. South Wales was a stronghold of the strike, with miners seeking to preserve jobs and livelihoods for local communities, rather than allow the government to run down the whole industry by closing so-called “uneconomic pits”. Families supported each other during these most difficult of times, giving up their income to fight for the future. Thatcher’s response was incendiary. She declared miners the “enemy within” and it was clear her aim was no less than to smash the power of the National Union of Mineworkers at all costs.
The eastern valley’s last working deep pit, Blaenserchan, closed in August 1985, a few months after the strike ended. For a few short years, miners could enter the same underground complex from Six Bells, a colliery in the next valley, but that too was shut in 1988.
Thatcher’s policies had entirely predictable effects. In January 1989, unemployment stood at over 2 million. The local economy suffered. Empty shop fronts came to dominate the main street of my home town of Blaenavon when I was growing up in the late 80s and early 90s.
The reality is that all this could have been avoided. Thatcher could have made different choices. Michael Foot, Labour leader 1980-83, and MP for Torfaen’s neighbouring constituency of Blaenau Gwent, told the House of Commons in a debate on 27 February 1992: “If one hacks away at old industries before one has a proper plan for putting in new ones, one will undermine and destroy our communities and return to the horrors of the 1930s.” But the Thatcherite creed was one of individualism, not the common good. As she put it: “… there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.”
There are also communities – that Thatcher could not even recognise this will always stain her government’s legacy.
Nick Thomas-Symonds is Labour MP for Torfaen, shadow solicitor general and shadow minister for security
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