IF you are from Barnsley, people assume that your formative political experiences will be connected entirely with the mining industry.
Plenty of mine were. You can’t grow up in my South Yorkshire home town with both grandfathers and numerous relatives as miners and not be affected by the cataclysmic closure of the pits.
However, for me, the biggest political event of my youth was the steel strike of 1980. In many ways, it has become the forgotten conflict of these torrid political years. The strike was ostensibly called over pay, yet many of the issues it crystallised are still with us and all too apparent in the current challenges facing Scunthorpe, Redcar and several plants elsewhere.
Then, as now, these included over-production, competitive market conditions, remote bosses with limited comprehension of what it feels like to be in the face of the furnace, and communities facing devastation by the decline of their staple industry, not just purely in job losses but the knock-on effects on local shops and businesses.
I was just 13, the same age as my son Jack is now. My dad worked as a weigh-fitter for British Steel at Stocksbridge near Sheffield, installing and maintaining the equipment which calibrated the raw materials to make the product. His own father, a miner all his life, didn’t want his son to follow him down the pit. When dad left school, grandad pushed him towards an apprenticeship at what was then the privately-owned Samuel Fox’s works. Dad never left. He worked there for 43 years until he retired. In the January of 1980 though, he didn’t go to work. He went on strike. And he stayed on strike for more than three months, all through that cold winter and into the spring.
When your dad is on strike for so long, it makes a very big impression on you. And this has stayed with me for more than 30 years. When news of the loss of around 1,000 jobs at the Tata plant in Scunthorpe came on the television, I wiped a tear from my eye. My daughter looked at me in alarm. I told her that this news brought a difficult part of my childhood back.
When your dad is on strike, it also marks you out. I am reminded me of the thoughtful English teacher at my comprehensive school who quietly paid for me to go on a theatre trip to Manchester out of his own pocket because he knew my dad wasn’t working. As I turned up the report, my heart went out to all those children in Scunthorpe who will be wondering whether Christmas will come this year. And it went out too to all the women who will be thinking how on earth they are going to hold it all together when their husbands and partners lose their jobs. It’s not just about the economics, it’s the loss of pride, of cohesion, of a purpose in life.
Then I had to explain it all to my daughter. To her, grandad is comfortable, happy and very rarely angry. He has a good pension and lives in a warm bungalow, content in his retirement with granny.
It takes a massive leap of imagination for Lizzie, who is only 10, to imagine her gentle grandad filthy from head to foot in his overalls, working in perilously hot conditions sometimes for 12 hours a day to bring money home for his family. And it takes an even bigger leap to imagine what it felt like to think that our dad, who went to work before we got up for school, could suddenly lose his job and be at home all day. And that there would be no money. To think that we might lose our modest terrace house too, and end up with… what? My sister and I would sit at the top of the stairs those winter nights and listen to mum and dad talking and tie ourselves into knots of fear.
And then one freezing night, dad’s friend came round to see him. An unfamiliar word came into the conversation – “picket”. Suddenly there was a bustle of activity, a flask being filled, sandwiches packed into a box, and mum wrapped a huge scarf around dad and off he went with his friend to a car waiting outside. I never did find out where they went that first night, but the next time his friend came round I went and sat on the edge of the sofa and listened to what he was saying.
It was as if an explosion went off in my head. Here was a way to fight back. Here was power that had nothing to do with posh-talking people on the telly or that Ian MacGregor, brought in by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to oversee the “restructuring” of the steel industry, and reviled by the workers. Here, in our front room, was politics.
That is why the strike of 1980 shaped me, as it shaped many other daughters and sons of steelworkers. It will shape others today, in Scunthorpe and Redcar and Scotland. Now though, the challenge faced by the steel industry will decide not only individual futures, but that of the UK in general and our place in the future global marketplace.