PETER ROWLEY catches up with the Grimsby students he taught in the ’70s and ’80s to see how deindustrialisation affected their lives
MY BOOK, Class Work, describes the political upheaval, stunning change and an economy on a roller coaster as seen through the eyes of Grimsby school leavers from the 1970s to the present.
Their life experiences share a common thread with so many northern towns coping with the aftershock of deindustrialisation and the loss of a whole way of life.
In their own words they demonstrate the achievements, grit and determination of strong characters overcoming life’s setbacks.
The years 1970-74 and 1979-86 were periods of economic and social upheaval as Tory administrations attempted to confront the intractable problems of British capitalism.
But how did these events effect and resonate on the lives of ordinary people who lived through both periods? I examine the key policies and events of the time and look at their impact on the transition from school to work.
The evidence is gained from my time as a secondary school teacher and later as a lecturer at Grimsby College at the Harold Street school and dozens of interviews with ex-pupils.
The school was based at the heart of Grimsby’s East Marsh district. In the ’70s it was a solid working-class community absolutely dominated by the town’s biggest industry — fishing.
Now, like many areas where the industry that gave the area its meaning and identity have declined, it faces immense problems — in fact, it is now one of the most deprived wards in Britain.
The “long boom” from the end of the second world war to the mid-’60s saw full employment and growth as both political parties adopted Keynesian interventionist policies.
By the early ’70s consensus politics were seen to be unable to really turn Britain around. Ted Heath’s attempt to break with this consensus collapsed when it was opposed at every turn.
A strong confident and unionised working class were not prepared to accept the dismantling of the welfare state.
In retrospect the period 1970-74 was a relatively benign one for school leavers.
Fast forward to the period 1975-1986 and the election of Margaret Thatcher. The Thatcherites argued that the whole drift of society since the ’60s had been for the worse and only drastic action could reverse the decline.
With energy and some ability, they set about ruthlessly promoting the class interests of British capital. This entailed a sustained attack on organised labour and the public sector to provide a springboard for economic recovery and crucially inward investment.
Economics were only part of the transformation programme, social mores needed to be shifted from a collectivist outlook enshrined in socialism where “an injury to one is an injury to all” to a focus on the individual.
Hence, Thatcher’s amazing statement: “There is no such thing as society, only a collection of individuals.”
Why did Thatcher succeed where Heath failed? Thatcher adopted monetarist policies and Britain became a living laboratory to test the durability of the new religion.
Monetarism, the control of the money supply to combat inflation, had great attractions for the Tories. Its brutal logic is that it creates the conditions that precipitate a major slump. They viewed this shock therapy as essential to set the country on a new set of tracks.
“Lame duck” firms should be allowed to go to the wall and labour
“shakeout” was a price worth paying. The public sector was to shrink or be privatised. Unemployment approached four million and at its peak was increasing at 100,000 a month.
The theory was that the economy would emerge phoenix-like with “dead wood” companies eliminated and employers on the front foot when dealing with organised labour. Britain’s long-term decline would be replaced by a dynamic environment of business expansion, growth and wealth creation.
This economic experiment created industrial devastation, dislocation and misery, primarily in the older manufacturing heartlands. It produced inner city riots in Toxteth and Brixton, Handsworth and St Pauls and created mass youth unemployment.
This produced a response with the advent of youth training schemes to combat the problem. Thus, the two periods contrast for school leavers: in the ’70s there was relatively benign employment prospects but little training, in the ’80s there was training but without work.
John Ellis has been a vicar on the East Marsh since 1972 and established the Shalom Youth Club, which has had a massive and positive influence on so many people.
I asked Ellis for his first impressions of the East Marsh and what he thought of the children in the area. “They took some working with. They were tough, tougher than kids now,” he says.
“Their attitudes were forged in the male-orientated and macho fishing culture. There was plenty of work, much of it semi- and unskilled, and unlimited opportunities for casual and black-market activities.”
Ellis’s church provides a soup kitchen three times a week with volunteers providing free hot meals.
“I was looking through some old Church records and there was a soup kitchen on this site in 1881,” he says.
“It records an oxen head being made into stew for the poor. It’s like back to the future.”
Ellis describes himself as a political animal. “Thatcher politicised me. She destroyed this community. People didn’t struggle to pay bills like today. I loathe everything she stands for.”
Of the current Tory administration, he is absolutely scathing.
“They are even worse than Thatcher. The bedroom tax and benefit sanctions mean I deal with people who have had no money for 10 weeks.
“A parishioner looks after her four grandchildren after her daughter died of a drug overdose. She was recently told to find a full-time, 40-hour week job. It’s absolutely outrageous.”
Ellis has hopes for the development of new social housing but concludes: “Drugs are endemic. The area has basically slid off a cliff.”
Jeff Reader, after a lifetime in fishing, recalls his life on the East Marsh.
“I only remember it as a fantastic time to grow up; nobody locked doors, he says.
“When my Dad came home from sea, all of the neighbours got fish. It was the same when their dads docked. There was a culture of sharing and supporting each other.
“My mam died when I was five. My dad was at sea and he was flown in from Iceland at the time. Basically, I was brought up by my elder sister who was 12 and a lady who lived four doors away. She was a good woman who brought me up until I left Harold Street.”
Reader describes the life of a fisherman: “We grafted, in summer we started at 4am and finished 18 hours later at 10 pm. Winter was a 14-hour day — you can’t really fish in the dark. Fishing is the hardest of jobs. You have to condition yourself to take the rough with the smooth.
“I left fishing in 1992. Things in the industry were in a tail spin of decline. The owners were decommissioning boats to secure big government payouts. As usual it was the workers who got nothing.
“There was no redundancy scheme and no union. We were classed as casual labour.”
Rob Rowntree is equally cynical about the effect of government policies on the area.
“My lad is at Primark. He works 32 hours per month. He doesn’t pay tax. That’s how you get the Tory ‘jobs miracle,’ four or five jobs created where really the hours are consistent with one full-time genuine job. This community is being hollowed out, it’s collapsing from within.”
Virtually without exception everyone interviewed described the ’70s East Marsh as a happy and highly integrated community.
They are also united in their view that something has been lost that cannot be replaced and Grimsby today is a diminished place because of it. A community built on physical resilience and the ability to work incredibly hard has vanished.
Improvements in some individual lives and circumstances don’t seem to compensate for this loss of identity: the abolition of the industry that gave the entire community its meaning.
Although a sense of nostalgia dominates many of these interviews there is a consensus that many things of real worth have been forfeited.
We are now at the crossroads. What is required in towns like Grimsby are all the elements of Jeremy Corbyn’s programme.
Investment in the housing stock, green technology to provide labour-intensive career opportunities and the restoration of the welfare state, the NHS and education.
Corbyn’s programme offers hope, hope against a brutal neoliberal ideology which has patently failed the mass of people in society.
Many of those interviewed expressed concerns about the future of their children and grandchildren. Concerned that even if they display the same amount of guts and graft they did, the diminished opportunities on offer mean a life of insecurity and worry.
The next election marks possibly the last chance to fundamentally change things for Grimsby and the East Marsh. It is not merely winning the election, it is about changing the course of history by a permanent transformation in the balance of power and changing a system currently rigged against working people.
nPeter Rowley’s book Class Work is Unite’s December book of the month. Visit mstar.link/PeterRowleyClassWork to by a copy.