Greed is good? That was one of the mantras of the 1980s when, under Margaret Thatcher’s government in the UK, British industry began a period of sustained, managed decline. The Pensive Federation’s ambitious new show for this year’s Significant Other Festival is set on a factory floor in 1988. What impact did factory closures have on the communities built up around them?
To put the premise of their forthcoming show Significant Other, Inc in context, the Pensive Federation team spoke to Andrew Curtis, a former shop steward who writes plays sporadically and occasionally reviews. Andy researches the charity sector and communities, specialising in volunteering and voluntary action. Here’s a summary extract from that discussion.
The move to individualisation started in the 1960s but was seized upon by the three Margaret Thatcher governments and continued by New Labour with a devastating effect on the industrial heartlands of Britain. Factories had been at the heart of communities for decades, sometimes over a century and employee loyalty was absolute.
Factories had been at the heart of communities for decades, sometimes over a century and employee loyalty was absolute.
When the last British match factory closed in Liverpool in the mid-1990s, the workforce held a valedictory march carrying banners bearing the company’s name. Why? Hadn’t the factory laid off all its workers? But this affected generations. Whole families had worked there, often simultaneously.
In the days before the welfare state, benevolent companies contributed to the education, health and welfare of their workforce. Famous examples included Cadbury and Rowntree, who also built housing for their workers. Unilever still mowed the lawns of employees’ homes well into the 1990s. These companies’ factories, therefore, played a vital role in community life and identity, as well as their economic contribution to an area. Wiping these from the landscape was catastrophic with direct ramifications still felt today.
Where industry was once prevalent, in the North and Midlands as well as parts of Scotland and Wales, there are now pockets of deprivation and low-paid precarious employment in what were once Labour heartlands. These are also regions that were more likely to vote Leave in the 2016 EU referendum. What became known as the ‘left behind’ communities had a decisive impact on the Brexit vote further – and transatlantically, the equivalent in the Rust Belt of the US helped get Donald Trump elected in the US.
There are now pockets of deprivation and low-paid precarious employment in what were once Labour heartlands.
In the UK, Thatcher played a key role in the destruction of industry, just as globalisation became a factor beyond our shores. Economic reforms were brutal. Riots in Brixton and Toxteth followed. These were the Ghost Town years. Some areas have regenerated, but many have never really recovered from the loss of industry.
Of course, there’s a danger of being unrealistically nostalgic: life in the villages and towns that grew up around mines, factories and docks was deeply patriarchal with prejudices against minorities part of the daily landscape. However, there’s no denying that communities had their economic heart ripped out and often, with it, their pride and identity.
What happens to people when they are undervalued as individuals and as a nation? That’s a question at the heart of this year’s Significant Other Festival. A fuller version of this article – including fascinating details of shocking secret Thatcher government plans for Liverpool – is available in the programme at performances of Significant Other, Inc.