In with the New

Revising our narratives about ex-mining communities is controversial, but alternative stories can point us towards a new radical democratic politics, writes Amber Ward.

Bentley’s nightclub, Kirkcaldy, 1985. Models at a fashion show for Fosters, a menswear store located in Kirkcaldy’s Mercat shopping centre. (Photo credit: Louise Canny.)

The story of Scotland’s former coal communities is well known. Rapid industrialisation in the nineteenth century saw mass migration to coalfield areas in Lanarkshire, Fife, Ayrshire, Clackmannanshire and the Lothians, where mining provided a large number of jobs. In some cases entire villages or towns lived at the behest of a single coal company and the erratic fluctuations of unstable export markets. These hardships were often met by strong union density in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which also generated a variety of local civic institutions and radical socialist cultures. Then following the Second World War, postwar social democracy brought stability and modest affluence to these areas by nationalising the coal industry, and through policies such as full male employment. But from the 1970s onwards, neoliberal restructuring ushered in an era of low wages, unemployment and deprivation in these areas. The defeated miners’ strike of 1984/5 is often depicted as a final blow from which these communities never recovered, drained of the economic base and civic culture around which life once revolved.

But I wonder if another historical narrative about coal communities could also be true, one inspired by Antonio Gramsci, Stuart Hall, bell hooks and Raymond Williams. They tell us that history isn’t just determined by changes in productive labour; capitalism is a much broader, totalising system in which things like work, social norms and culture all collide off each other, always changing each other and the social structures they uphold. Gramsci stressed that popular notions of what constitutes ‘common sense’ – of what is good, right and possible – are just as important as control over production. In liberal democracies, then, emergent political forces win support when they speak to popular ideas that are already there. Hall applied Gramsci’s ideas and saw the evolution of popular consciousness as being only partly determined by shifts in material conditions: Thatcher’s appeal to a popular sense of ‘classlessness’, combined with her appropriation of social democratic rhetoric, were integral to how she won popular support. For both Hall and hooks, class exploitation is just one form of injustice. Other axes of oppression including race, gender, and sexuality, intersect with class oppression, but cannot be reduced to it.

How we think, feel and vote, then, can’t just be pinned down  to our material conditions. The causes of cultural change over time certainly include shifts in productive labour, but many other causes cannot be reduced to economic shifts. These transformations over time are best considered together, overall, as ‘a complex whole’, to quote Raymond Williams, a contemporary of Hall.  Applying these scholars’ insights, I’ll develop an alternative historical narrative about coalfield communities, which can sit alongside popular narratives of economic ruin. I’ll focus on developments in some ex-mining communities in Fife as an example, and on significant changes in Scottish law. But I’ll go on to think about how these changes affected coalfield communities across Scotland, England, Wales, and other types of communities too, and how these shared histories could inform the future of a radical social democratic politics.

Throughout the second half of the twentieth century and beyond, a significant cultural change in Fife’s coal communities was the emergence of popular ideas about self-autonomy. I don’t mean the emergence of a self-serving, hedonistic individualism, and obviously not the whiggish unshackling of an essential human trait. I mean the emergence of a historically specific sweep of norms that saw many individuals and new identifiable groups act with more self-determination than they did before, under decades of war economy and reconstruction. I  don’t mean to say that everyone objectively became more self-autonomous, but rather to suggest that for many people, greater self-autonomy was an idea that came to structure how they thought and behaved in many parts of their lives. I deliberately say self-autonomy here, for the new patterns of change all involved new ways of constructing ‘the self’ – not just as an individual, but also as belonging to a broader range of emergent collective identities. In Fife’s coal communities if not elsewhere too, a popular ideological current of self-autonomy proliferated through many aspects of life.

I’ll start after the war. In 1945, labour markets in Fife’s coal communities were highly stratified along lines of gender, race and other identifying categories. Coal was, of course, a major source of work in these areas, but was sometimes one of several large employers in a community, with other industries typically including textiles, agriculture, railways, metalworks and docks. Areas that are today often conceptualised as former coal communities – like Kirkcaldy, Methil and Leven – were also home to world-famous textile brands in linoleum, carpets and linen that employed large numbers, especially women and other oppressed social groups. This was often lower-paid, precarious work, and women were typically sacked upon getting married.

Young men often found themselves down the pit before they knew where they were; sons would follow their fathers underground automatically, the generations repeating like a machine. Mining itself was generally secure, better paid and rewarding, but it was also hard, dangerous toil where men risked life and limb with every shift. Miners fought for better conditions, and over the years they improved, but the threat of a grisly death was always significant, it was always there.

For those who arrived from abroad, however, many found they were excluded from this wide range of mainstream work by employers and trade unions. These new groups of refugees arrived in the area from the 1940s onwards, having fled fascism, dictatorships, and the violence spurred by British atrocities abroad like the Partition of India in 1947. Many were forced to find refuge in private enterprise.  

Then with the winding-down of coal and textiles from the late 1960s onwards, a wider range of new employers emerged alongside more relaxed ideas about who could and should do different kinds of work. Major new factories like the Distillers Company Limited (now Diageo) that opened in 1973 often employed men and women together, and more women and people from ethnic minority backgrounds embraced a lifetime of work in the sprawling NHS, public sector, and private healthcare sector. Over time, work cultures of duty and exclusion relaxed somewhat to accommodate more notions of preference and choice.

The civil rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s also had a profound influence upon coal communities, heralding greater diversity in how people lived their lives. Abortion was legalised in 1967, and the following year all women regardless of marital status could legally obtain the pill through the NHS. Daughters who grew up as one of eight, twelve, or more chose to have two, three, or four.

Other existing patriarchal structures waned slightly into the 1970s. It was a decade when smoky new nightclubs popped up across Fife’s coal communities, serving alcohol to young women and men alike. It marked a significant shift away from the more traditional moral codes associated with ‘the dancing’, often hosted in community centres and church halls, and from the miners’ welfare clubs open only to male members who could, on certain days, bring along their wives. In the 1980s and 1990s, renowned nightclubs like Bentley’s and Jackie O’s in Kirkcaldy regularly drew in busloads of revellers from across the UK. In the final decades of the twentieth century, social life grew decoupled from institutions tied to workplaces. Social mores relaxed as choice grew in how to spend free time. 

New social identities also emerged as industry wound down. In 1975 women were given the right to open a bank account in their own name, meaning they could access many essential services outside of marriage. In 1981 male homosexuality was partially decriminalised, although schoolteachers were banned from discussing the topic under Section 28, in 1988. In the same year, the first Central Mosque in Fife opened in Kirkcaldy, where it served Muslims from a range of nearby coal communities who had been settled there for over a decade. In 2000, Section 28 was repealed. The period of deindustrialisation was accompanied by a crystallisation of new identities, and an emergence of greater choices in how to live.

Buying and spending were also transformed. Starting in larger coalfield towns in the 1970s, the arrival of new conglomerates like supermarkets brought a wider range of consumer choice and lower prices. Extended shop opening hours freed up married women to re-enter the workplace if they liked. In the 70s and 80s, devoted shoppers could regularly be found queuing for hours outside the Wonder Store, a local department store in Methil, eager to secure bargains in homewares, clothes and other goods.

More choice also emerged in housing. After 1945, the local authority provided good, secure council housing for nuclear families, enabling strong communities to flourish. But the same authority also, from the outset, oversaw pockets of inescapable deprivation in some estates that were often home to those from marginalised groups. For some in Fife’s coal communities, the arrival of credit in the 1980s offered more choice in the matter, enabling some to buy a former council house or another home elsewhere. Homeownership boomed in areas where there had previously been next to none, as a strong popular stigma and feelings of apprehension towards borrowing also ebbed away, especially as a younger generation grew into adulthood.

In addition to mortgages, banks made other credit products such as overdrafts, hire purchase and, in 1987, the first credit card, available to their working-class customers. Through credit, many in Fife’s coal communities gained new access to a wide range of new products – like homes, cars, foreign holidays and household goods – and the different lifestyles these opened up.

The cultural emergence of self-autonomy in Fife’s coal communities is an important part of their recent past, and similar patterns of change occurred in other coal communities across Scotland, England and Wales. It means that whilst in the 1970s and 1980s, these areas were undoubtedly the victims of individualistic ideas, they were also saturated by them (with many good outcomes, if you ask me), and that these two things can be true at the same time. And so whilst the erasure of coal transformed these communities, other changes, in every aspect of life, were just as profound. It’s by expanding our view of who and what makes a ‘coal community’ that this point naturally falls into view.

I say this without ever once meaning to diminish or detract from the harsh deprivation endured in coalfield communities, but rather to make the case for approaching the history of these areas – and of capitalism itself – with an eye to the complex, multifaceted nature of change. To move away from flat media stereotypes of the ‘left behind’. I think that an important part of bringing justice to former coal communities involves addressing the ways in which they’ve gone through many of the same cultural changes as, well, everywhere else.

And they vote like everyone else too. Or certainly like large numbers of others whose material circumstances couldn’t be further from theirs. Former coalfield areas in Scotland turned, like the rest of the nation, increasingly away from Labour and towards the SNP in Scottish and general elections between 2007 and 2017, with the party still holding significant support in these areas in 2019 and 2021. In England and Wales, the success of Vote Leave in 2016 and of the Tories to ‘get Brexit done’ in 2019 were owing as much to large sects of the middle class as to anyone in the so-called ‘red wall’. These were all also of course profoundly different campaigns in terms of political position and rhetorical style, with the SNP managing to shroud its policies under a thin social democratic veneer up until not that long ago. But these significant differences aside, I think one of the reasons these campaigns all managed to galvanise such broad coalitions of support, from Kirkcaldy to Kelvinside, is because they tapped into a real, meaningful logic that’s been driving how life has changed for decades – and this is where self-autonomy comes back in. They all said things would be improved by breaking free, taking the reins, seizing control.

I don’t mean to over-simplify or patronise; I think it’s brilliant, because it means that there’s huge popular appetite for something that the liberal centre and right inherently cannot, and did not, provide, which is deep, fundamental change. And the ability to make our own choices, to have greater autonomy and to be more free, are things that are universally valued, treasured and understood for so many of us, from so many different walks of life. On the grand scheme of things, our visions of hope reveal more in common than thing that keep us apart. There’s a shared desire for overhaul; to break free from old constraints so that we might live more as we please; to move forward, towards something new.

I wonder if these ideas could be avenues for thinking about what a new coalition-building, radical social democratic politics might involve. I’m thinking of a politics of mass nationalisation, intervention and redistribution that’s not primarily modelled on the twentieth century – that’s not a ‘revival’ of something old – but which is based on fundamentally new ideas about what the state does and who it is for. As the cultural history of coal communities outlined above shows, state intervention alone is not a lever you pull from which basic ‘equality’ will automatically flow. History shows it can even be the other way around. I’m thinking of a politics which proves that lessons have been learned by meeting people where they are, here and now, and that expands the logics along which we construct things like happiness, intimacy and fairness.

Amber Ward is a PhD student at the University of St Andrews.