Angel of the North, Gateshead. Credit: Stu Forster / Getty

October 18, 2019   5 mins

As Mark Twain once put it, “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes”. This occurred to me when the first Brexit results came in from Sunderland, confirming that Wearside had voted decisively to leave the EU. For in 1951, when there was talk of Britain joining the fledgling European Coal and Steel Community, that path was closed off by the then Foreign Secretary Herbert Morrison with the famous words “no, the Durham miners will never wear it”.

Yet it’s seldom explained why the Durham miners should have been so hostile to the idea of European integration; or, indeed, why the opinion of such a body was seen to be decisive in matters of state. Even though the Labour Government was to fall in October of 1951, the six years of Attleeism had represented the triumph of a distinctively conservative socialism that prevailed in the North East coalfields, and did much to shape Labour’s agenda in the 1940s.

Clement Attlee’s 1945 cabinet included several prominent North East MPs, including the Chancellor, Hugh Dalton (who sat for Bishop Auckland), the martinet Home Secretary James Chuter Ede (MP for South Shields), and Jack Lawson of Chester-le-Street as Secretary of State for War. In fact, Lawson, a former miner, was described by John Bew in his biography of Attlee as the Labour leader’s “personal mentor” and “closest friend in politics”, who gave him invaluable insight into the trade union movement and its northern heartlands.

What made the unions of the Great Northern Coalfield so distinctive was how cautious and non-confrontational they were – in sharp contrast to other areas, notably South Wales and Yorkshire. Much of this was shaped by a history of crushing industrial defeats going back as far as the 1830s – when the army had been deployed in support of strike-breakers – and then by a generation of sober, respectable Methodists who ran the Northumbrian miners’ unions and preferred conciliation and the pursuit of incremental progress, to what they saw as futile clashes between labour and capital. With nationalisation of their industry in 1947 the miners of Durham and Northumberland thought that their patience had been justified, and the grim industrial struggles of the last 100 years had been won.

Full-employment, decent housing and free healthcare created a sort of paradise in the coalfields – what Nye Bevan called working class “serenity”. The miners had the added satisfaction that their jobs were seen as fundamental to Britain’s greatness — as Ernest Bevin said to them at the time: “give me a million tons of coal and I’ll give you a foreign policy”. For even in the depths of austerity, Labour squeezed welfare and NHS budgets to spend 10% of GDP on defence – a huge boon to the shipbuilders and coal-miners.

All this made the North East a stronghold of the pro-NATO “Old Labour Right”, embodied by men like Sam Watson, the all-powerful and fiercely anti-Communist Durham Miners’ Leader in the 1950s, who even invited the American ambassador to the Durham Miners’ Gala (allegedly at the instruction of his CIA handlers). There was simply no way that the miners’ unions would risk jeopardising their hard-won influence over the economic and political direction of the country – and the improved living standards that this had brought – by submitting to the control of a supranational body in Strasbourg.

Indeed, the Attlee government’s socialist agenda has obscured its old-fashioned patriotism, even its nationalism. As David Edgerton has written, after 1945 Labour built “not only a new Jerusalem, but a new Sparta” and British society in the era of the hydrogen bomb, National Service and relentless war movies was militarised to an almost unprecedented degree, and this contributed to a definite “masculinisation of the public sphere”.

This suited the North East of England perfectly, where a deeply patriarchal and macho culture was expressed through heavy industries – chiefly coal, shipbuilding and armaments – and a well-paid Northumbrian Stakhanovism was celebrated in local culture and rewarded with beer in the pubs and working men’s clubs; the ubiquity of these water holes did much to shape the enduring perceptions of places like Newcastle as one of the world’s great party cities.

But the “arsenal economy” of Tyne and Wear was merely the latest manifestation of a centuries-long militarism that had long defined this frontier region; it had found its most recent expression in the record-breaking response of North East England to Kitchener’s call for volunteers in 1914, and by the fact that the formidable 50th (Northumbrian) Division were the most experienced combat unit in the British Army in the Second World War.

Now if the North East’s Brexit vote was as much an expression of discontent with the status quo as it was about attitudes to the EU (although we shouldn’t assume that C2DEs can’t understand complex political questions just as well – or as badly – as the ABC1s), then the changing nature of work itself, especially male work, might be at the heart of it. For despite the death and danger of coal-mining and shipbuilding these were highly skilled professions, and some of the most romantic and rewarding ever undertaken by British working classes.

My grandfather was a miner, and although he’d seen men die underground, and was present when his marra lost an arm, he adored the mental stimulation and the sheer thrill of mining for coal under the North Sea. This was not like making hats, or lace, or jute-sacks or any of the other myriad trades that British towns once specialised in. Nothing could compare to the excitement and satisfaction of winning a new coal-seam or launching a battleship.

But not only that, these trades provided a real sense of masculine purpose, of camaraderie, and even a sense of playing one’s part in a heroic national narrative. As much as the economic decline that followed the decline and death of the pits and shipyards, the North East still hasn’t got over the psychic loss of these industries.

For all that the traditions of Northumbrian Stakhanovism might live on at the production lines at Nissan – where union officials describe the work as “very hard and physically demanding,” for the men (and it is largely men) who spend eight hours on their feet at an unrelenting assembly line – there is a sense that many find this work as alienating as Charlie Chaplin did in Modern Times. As one Sunderland Remain voter pointed out (to those who think the North East should have been more grateful for the status quo): “the truth is that people in Sunderland need more from life than hard-to-come-by work in car plants. [Nissan is] a hard way to earn a living and it leaves many men bitter and disillusioned.”

As true as this is, political solutions seem as elusive as ever. Community life in the pit villages might’ve been incredibly strong – even claustrophobically so – but that world’s reliance on a single male breadwinner and rigidly enforced gender roles was undone by the pincer of economic and social liberalism.

It’s interesting that female perspectives might not be as nostalgic for this lost world as men seem to be, and one of the most clear-eyed takes on all this has come from Bridget Philipson, Labour MP for Houghton and Sunderland, who expressed a certain impatience with “various manifestations of communitarian reinvention, from ‘community organising’ to ‘Blue Labour’ — all variations on the premise ‘that it is possible to deal with cultural and industrial change by wishing it hadn’t happened.'” Well it has happened, and the North East still hasn’t got over it.

Dan Jackson is the author of The Northumbrians: The North East of England and its People. A New History, published by Hurst (2019)

Dan Jackson is the author of the best-selling book The Northumbrians: The North East of England and its People. A New History, published by Hurst (2019)