With the 30th anniversary of the miners’ strike upon us, our town is seeing many events commemorating that historic struggle. But it is also an opportunity to reflect on what we have learnt from those battles, what it means for our town today and what impact it will have on future generations.
For many people in Barnsley, Margaret Thatcher’s government tried to destroy their livelihood, their community and sometimes even their families. Mining defined our town: communities were built around the pits; jobs were linked to wider coal industry, relationships forged amidst the toil.
When the Conservative government set out to close the pits down, they faced a battle for the heart and soul of our communities. It politicised people in a way they would not have previously imagined possible. This is particularly evident in the stories from the Women Against Pit Closured group – as highlighted in the current exhibition in the Experience Barnsley museum. For many of these women, the strike took them on a life-changing journey, often involving both personal and political education.
For some people, it forever changed their view of key state institutions, such as the police and government. It showed a generation of people how those running the country can have a direct impact on their lives.
Recently I spoke at an event in Barnsley College celebrating the success of the Barnsley Apprenticeship Pledge – which is helping develop career opportunities for our young people, now that the coal industry has disappeared. It is essential that we develop the Pledge, as well as encourage businesses to invest in our town and young people.
But we also have to ensure that the next generation understand our past battles, so they are prepared for what they may face in the future.
If the Tories win an outright majority in the general election next year, I fear we will face a government more destructive than Thatcher’s. I fear that their attacks on the poor, the vulnerable, those least able to fight back, will continue and gain momentum at a frightening pace.
What could our children be facing as they grow up? Private companies squeezing profits out of schools? A fragmented NHS where you have to pay for treatment? The removal of the welfare state’s safety net for the elderly, for disabled people, for those going through difficult times? The destruction of trade unions and employment rights? An even more distinct dividing line between the rich and the poor, the north and the south?
Whilst many may are cynical about politics and politicians, we cannot ignore that whoever runs our country has a huge impact on our daily lives. They set the big budgets; they decide if public service workers get pay rises; they choose which industries will get investment and support.
We must ensure that our young people understand this, that they learn from our past battles and realise how politics affects them.
But most of all, we can teach them that our biggest asset is our collective strength. Rooted in our communities, it is our key tool when defending our people from attack.
Thatcher didn’t believe there was such a thing as society. Barnsley proved her wrong. We must ensure the next generation understand that.
This article was first published in the Barnsley Independent on 19 March 2014.