Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1999


Tim Strangleman, Emma Hollywood, Huw Beynon, Katy Bennett and Ray Hudson (1999) 'Heritage Work: Re-Representing the Work Ethic in the Coalfields'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 4, no. 3, <>

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Received: 8/4/1999      Accepted: 23/9/1999      Published: 30/9/1999


This paper aims to discover how, with the decline and ending of the deep coal mining industry in many parts of the UK its legacy is being re-evaluated by those involved in various aspects of economic and social regeneration. It opens by exploring the way coal mine workers and their communities have been seen within popular and academic accounts, and in particular the way this group has been subject to ideal typification and stereo-typing. The main body of the paper examines the way this legacy is still subject to such interpretation, and that further, the specificity of the coal industry is commodified in a variety of ways. We point out the contradictory nature of this process and argue that it is inevitably damaging to a complex analysis of the deep problems facing former coalfield areas.

Coal Industry; Ideal Types; Industrial/Social Redevelopment; Miners; Occupational Identity; Stereo Types; Work Ethic.

The British mining industry has long held a fascination in popular and academic audiences, with miners and mining communities being the focus of extended attention. In one register miners are seen as ideal typical proletarians, acting as the keystone in the British labour movement. Such positive readings are also echoed in discussions on the strength of communities that grew up within the coalfields (see for example Beynon and Austrin 1994; Dennis et al 1956; Samuel et al 1986). In a more negative aspect miners and these same communities are viewed very differently, as being narrow and parochial as almost representing a different race, set apart from 'civilising forces' (see for example Hudson 1994). At key points during this century this group have been taken as a cipher for union militancy, or for industrial Luddism (see for example MacGregor 1986).

With closure such attention has not disappeared, indeed the reinterpretation and representation of the industry's legacy, its workers, their families and communities continues a pace (see for example Ackers 1996; Howell 1987; Powell 1993; Richards 1996; Warwick and Littlejohn 1992; Winterton and Winterton 1989 amongst others). And among non-academics, such as those involved in various aspects of economic and social regeneration these areas are re-imagined in a variety of ways. At times the former coalfields are viewed as being at the 'epicentre of a high tech future', or as 'rural idylls', as places returning to nature, the landscape reclaiming itself after the ephemeral moment of industrialisation. At other times the industrial past is recast as a heritage site 'a proud past preserved for the future' where visitors enjoy 'a shift in time, a thrilling underground experience!'. But this moment of reinterpretation is not limited to the infrastructure of these areas. The decline of the coal industry has widely been interpreted as representing an opportunity for changing employment practice and work culture and the work ethic, decline therefore becoming an opportunity to rid areas of inflexible traditions and expectations. But again the relationship with the mining past is not straight forward as both positive and negative readings of the industry's legacy are appropriated and commodified for further use. The strategic aim of this paper is to seek to move towards a more nuanced theoretical understanding of these processes and to point out the dangers and contradictions in over simplifying what remain complex problems. The paper analyses of a variety of material within an historical and comparative framework which seeks to understand these development both within their own local and regional economic milieu as well as the wider national political economy.


The paper emerges from an ESRC funded project 'Coal Districts in a Period of Economic Transformation' which over a two year period seeks to understand the impact of change within four former coal mining districts, Easington in Durham, Mansfield in Nottingham, St. Helens in Merseyside and Cynon Valley in South Wales. These areas were chosen for several reasons. Firstly, because they all contained mines that had closed during the 1980s and 1990s. It was thought important to gauge if there had been any significant change in the way closure was handled by various agencies as well as the local community. Secondly, the project aimed to understand the inter-relationship between coal industry decline and the non-coal parts of local and regional economies. Questions were raised as to how a local economy supported an absence of coal work. Thirdly, we were keen to explore the difference that types of local administration made, in particular to chart the advantages of regeneration being led by a unitary authority, as in the case of St. Helens and Rhonnda Cynon Taff, or a district council in the other two. As part of this we also compared and contrasted the way the situation in Wales was affected by the presence of the Welsh Office in Cardiff.

The paper is based on an initial set of semi-structured interviews with over sixty 'key informants' within the four areas including material from district and county councils' economic development units, TECs, social services, training providers, MPs, MEPs, trades unions and uses of a wide range of documentary and written material. The interviews were carried out over a seven month period between January and July 1998. Interviews were recorded and lasted between half an hour and three hours. These recordings were then fully transcribed and analysed by members of the research team.

The aim in this first stage was to produce an account of how regeneration was both envisaged and carried out from 'the top down'. We wanted to know how the problems of the coalfields were identified and how these issues were then dealt with by way of policy initiatives and programmes. We were particularly interested in how local actors involved in regeneration saw their area as 'unique', and how this singularity fitted in with other former coal areas. The second part of the project is an attempt to understand the experience of closure from the point of view of individual miners, their families and their communities. The aim is to produce a rounded account of the process of closure and subsequent attempts at regeneration.

The themes of this paper emerged in a dialectic way from the interviews mentioned above and background reading into the way coal mining communities had been represented in both academic and popular discourses. These two sources were further supplemented by an analysis of a wide range of publicity material produced by various bodies involved in regeneration. For the purposes of this paper we were particularly drawn to the way work and the work ethic was discussed in this type of literature. Perhaps the most striking parallel between our research findings and the existing literature was the continuity in the way the communities and miners themselves are read dualistically - on the one hand seen as heroic and positive, and on the other regressive and backward.

British Miners and their Communities: From Ideal Type to Stereotype

Peter Ackers wrote in a recent review article 'For over a century the miners have assumed a central place in national class conflicts and political controversy' (Ackers 1996 p.159). In this piece he charts the labour historians' changing relationship with the British miner, from the collier as being in the vanguard of the 'forward march of labour', through the uncertainty for labour during the 1960s and on to a present nostalgic hankering for steam age socialism. In the wake of the industrial collapse of a once large industry he comments:

Today, they [the miners] only inhabit our world as ghosts from a rapidly receding past, so that the near-death of the industry has freed the historian from the uncomfortable but compelling commitment to the day-to-day battle of the living (Ackers 1996 p.160).

The same author goes on to attack the 'romantic historicism' that surrounds labour in the industry and argues that this had led to '...the constitution of a stereotypical coalminer, an ideal-type figure who, in reality, existed barely anywhere' (Ackers p.162). And later argues that such typification ' an offence to historical sensibility' (166). Attention is drawn to the way such typification sees the miner changing, chameleon like, in the 19th century from wild and irreligious characters to devout Methodists by the late Victorian period only to re-emerge in the inter-war period as militant socialists and archetypal proletarians. Ackers concludes that 'The typical miner can exist only outside space and time, and therefore not at all' (167). Thus in a sense analysis of the industry can become objective in a way not possible before. It is precisely absence which allows a more balanced account to emerge. But this move to guard against generalisation coupled with over simplification has a longer genealogy. In David Howell's (1987) review of the literature that emerged in the aftermath of the 1984-85 miners' strike a similar point is made;

One starting point must be an awareness that the historiography of the labour movement and especially perhaps of the miners has been distorted by stereo-types (Howell 1987 p.402).

David Gilbert, in an article that examined the social construction of mining communities, speaks of his primary concern as being '...with the dangers and limitations of regarding miners as "archetypal communitarians"'(Gilbert 1995 p.47). Unlike Ackers however, Gilbert views the subject as one that is potentially more not less open to reinterpretation with contemporary political capital being made by both left and right. As he puts it:

What seems to be taking place at the very time that actual mining settlements are disappearing from the actual landscape of Britain is that their place in the political and cultural landscape is becoming fixed (Gilbert 1995 p.49).

Harrison (1979) made an even earlier intervention in this debate. In his introduction to a collection dedicated to such iconoclasm, he was critical of whiggish histories where: was ordained that the coal miners as the archetypal proletarians and the folk heroes of their class were going to conquer...There is a long standing tradition in which the miner or collier is seen as the original and quintessential proletarian (Harrison 1979 p.2).

Harrison dates such stereotyping from the work of Adam Smith, and, in particular, Smith's comparison between independent craftsmen and the essentially dependent collier. Harrison argues that the working conditions of colliers in certain areas were closer to those of the former, and that some miners certainly claimed, or more precisely aspired to such status. Above all Harrision's collection emphasises the variety within the employment relationship of forms of mining work, from 'Free Miners' in the Forest of Dean to 'degraded Slaves' in parts of the Lanarkshire coalfield. Other authors have noted the way in which this particular occupation is subject to a series of reinterpretations in popular, academic and political discourse. In the inter-war period, especially during the 1930s, the miner takes on a new role. Atkin and Hassard (1994) have discussed the way there was a concerted effort on the part of the Documentary Film Movement to capture on celluloid the heroic qualities of 'dignified labour'. This 'dignity' was associated with the traditional heavy manual work - and mining was seen as centrally important - at a time when newer, less labour intensive industries were a growing feature of the economy. Perhaps less dignified miners appear in the writings of George Orwell (1967) as symbols of degraded workers.

The post-World War Two period represents another reworking this identity with the National Coal Board (NCB) eager to stress the modernity of the industry and those that worked in it (see for example Coal: Technology for Britain's Future of 1976). Ironically perhaps sociologist in the same period focused on the coalfields in search of 'traditional proletarians' in '...backwaters of national industrial and urban development' (Lockwood 1975 p.20). Dave Douglass and Joel Krieger's A Miners Life gives a graphic illustration of the way this tension was played out below ground with the Coal Board stressing the modernity of the pits while for many in the industry conditions had changed little. Douglass talks of the NCB's 'disco-collier' in their representation of the workplace and the workers in publicity used to attract would be employees to the industry:

...a miner, virile and handsomely tousled after a hard day at the pit, smiling vacuously. A little overworked to be sure, but cleansed by his honest labours...The NCB public relations department has even produced a promotional pamphlet for recruitment which features multicoloured day-glow pits and colliers on fast motorcycles with pretty girls in tow (Douglass and Krieger 1983 p.13).

Later Douglass talks of the way older images of work are juxtaposed to the new:

The idea was to contrast him [a Victorian collier] with the immaculate conception of a space-age miner before the banks of TV screens, directing the automatic operations of a remote face (Ibid. p.18).

And he goes on to make the point that little had actually changed at the point of production:

Countless times I have seen the miner dressed in his pit gear leading the parade, shorts, vest, kneepads, oil lamp, helmet and boots, an exact copy in fact of what most of us do wear down the pit. The exasperating thing is when he is announced as 'an old-fashioned miner' (Ibid.).

Douglass discusses the way the Coal Board attempted to cast itself as modern and progressive as opposed to some at the coal face:

Reasonably enough, the NCB promotes the image of a clean, streamlined, almost clinical industry in which the men are over burdened by memories of the primitive past (Ibid. p.26).

He goes on to argue that it was important for the men themselves to hold on to their own sense of history and continuity within their workplace against NCB managements' attempts to change working practices at the point of production.

This dualistic reading of mining and the communities that surround it is repeated elsewhere in the sociological literature, illustrated here in Warwick and Littlejohn's account of Featherstone (itself a return to the community that was the subject of the classic Coal is our life (Dennis et al 1956):

The class character of such localities, the local social institutions and their separateness from other not dissimilar places, tend to lead to frequently repeated claims of a dual experience, hardness, ugliness and danger on one side, friendliness, closeness and solidarity on the other...Further while there is clearly felt stigma in and about pit villages, there is also a sense of a shared glory and pride (Warwick and Littlejohn 1992 p.17).

Finally, Raphael Samuel, in his review of Mark Hudson's (1994) Coming Back Brockens, links a discussion of miners with that of their communities. He charts negative and positive readings of occupation, community and interestingly the North vis a vis the South (Samuel 1998). Coal mining here playing an important part in marking the North. Samuel notes the way in Hudson's work the north is cast as the negative other to the south. In seeking to find heroic big hewers of coal mining legend Hudson finds Horden, the village where he spends a year, populated in part by the 'sub-human and the feral'. Samuel points out that the 'North' and its population have at other times been cast more positively, as modish in the 1960s, a byword for the new and progressive, or earlier as being noted for self help, autodidactics and industry. There is, then, in the academic and related literatures a broad dichotomy of views as to the character of coal miners, coal mining and coal mining communities. To some, miners and mining are heroic and progressive, to others backward and regressive. There are similar differences in the ways in which coal mining and mining communities are viewed in contemporary regeneration discourses, and it is to these that we now turn.

Rethinking the Coal Districts after Closure

Given the way the coal industry, its workers and their communities have been subject to being made up, created and recreated historically it is important to trace how this process has continued in the wake of the closure programme of the 1980s and 1990s. Evidence presented here emerges from fieldwork carried out in four former coal mining areas of England and Wales. In the remainder of the paper we explore how the past, present and future is thought of and worked through by key actors in each of the places charged with their regeneration. We do this by briefly discussing the way the industrial futures of the area are seen before focusing more closely on the way the legacy of the past is seen specifically in relation to the workforce.

In each of the areas there is a sense in which the terminal decline of the coal industry, while representing a disaster economically and socially, may also offer a chance for a fresh start. A similar framework is deployed in order to make some sense of the future and the past, with the key phrase here being the need for diversity. There is a long history of 'diversification' as a solution to the problems of mono-industrial coal districts. Typically the limits of this as a solution in the past go unremarked. In this explanation the previous dependence, or over dependence on coal as a source of employment was always one that was vulnerable both to eventual exhaustion, or to the capricious whim of impersonal market forces. Thus the challenge in each of the areas is to rebuild the economy in a diversified way with a mixture of manufacturing and service sector jobs.

Of particular interest here is the way in which the industries that are attracted to each area are promoted as representing the 'new' or as being at the 'cutting edge'. Often the technological, and therefore 'sophisticated', aspects of employment are stressed, with the implication that the coal industry by contrast was irredeemably low tech. As publicity material from the East Durham Development Agency (EDDA) puts it:

Yesterday it was coal. Today it's computer chips and microtechnology. Heavy industry out. High tech manufacturing and service industries in (EDDA undated).
Figure 1

Thus in the case of Easington the link is made between the district and its proximity to other successful examples of alleged high tech foreign investment such as Nissan, Siemens and Samsung. Within the area much is made of the advance nature of businesses that have already settled such as NSK and TRW and their ability to supply 'tomorrows jobs'. In St. Helens economic development literature makes use of companies like Siemens. In South Wales the proximity to the M4 corridor has utility, and in the East Midlands the sophistication of the textiles industry is employed. A district council publication speaks of:

Much of the investment is in leading edge technologies and innovations, which means that a new and sound economic base for the future is already forming (Mansfield District Agenda for Change p11).
Figure 2

Each of the districts attempts to associate itself with the new and the modern in the hope that some of the perceived benefits will 'rub off' on the area, that other businesses will be impressed by its claim to modernity. In addition to the new types of jobs that are heralded, there is also a sense in which the employment itself demands something innovative from the workforce themselves. Again the low tech/hi tech dualism is deployed but there is a reworking of the expectation as to the nature of these jobs. This is employment that will challenge the worker in a variety of ways, flexibility, adaptability and problem solving are juxtaposed to previous forms of employment where these sorts of attributes were either not required or positively discouraged. As a report from the joint North East TECs puts it, 'Many jobs are in flatter organisations requiring flexibility, project management and team work skills' (North East TECs 1998).

History Work

In the absence of the coal mining industry how are the former workers and the communities that grew up around the industry thought of? Does their re-interpretation continue now they are post-coal industrial? And how does an older occupational identity fit with the new demands being made of it? In each of the four areas studied in this project the legacy of the industry was understood in a dualistic way with both positive and negative readings of the past available. A positive take on the former coal industry workforce is most apparent in the literature from, and interviews with local government economic development departments. Perhaps understandably the printed literature, designed as it is to attract inward investment, makes much of positive inheritance left in the wake of closure. In Easington the workforce is described as:

...a large pool of skilled and semi-skilled labour. Historically a strong work ethic runs through the people of this former mining community. They are proud and hard-working, energetic and friendly. In short Easington people are great people to work with (Easington District Council placetobe 1992 p.2) (see also ).

The County Durham Website also speaks of '...a loyal and adaptable workforce and good labour relations' (County Durham Website 1998). Interestingly these positive attributes are spoken of and written about as being almost sui generious in their relationship to community. It is almost as if there is an invisible force that anyone from these places imbibes and absorbs into their very being or self. Elsewhere such rhetoric is echoed, in South Wales for example:

While Rhondda Cynon Taff has been taking great strides forward to meet the challenges of the future, so has its skilled and flexible workforce. Proud of their heavy industrial past, today's workers are equally proud of the way they have adapted to embrace new, diverse industries such as avionics, plastics and food processing...It has also welcomed flexible working patterns, built up excellent labour relations and shown higher than average productivity levels. It is little wonder that the local labour force has impressed so many new investors (Rhondda Cynon Taff undated) (see also ).
Figure 3

Under the banner 'World Class Workforce' North Nottinghamshire TEC, responsible for the Mansfield area, describe their vision as being to produce an 'increasingly adaptable and flexible workforce with skills relevant to the needs of business' (North Nottinghamshire TEC undated). Mansfield business guide, produced by the district council to attract potential inward investors, states:

The spirit of this north Nottinghamshire town comes naturally from its people; gritty and tenacious, renowned for their guts and their appetite for hard work. It is their drive and ability to adapt by learning new skills which have put them in a position to reap the rewards of the 90s and beyond (Mansfield District Council business guide 1998 1.1) (emphasis added) (see also ).

Much is made in the same document of the low wages, or rather the 'competitive rates', the area can boast with an average level of 268.50 in the district as against 306.80 for Nottinghamshire as a whole and 351.70 nationally (Mansfield District Council business guide 1998 3.3). The district council goes on to discuss the nature of the workforce at some length, under the headline 'Productivity and the work ethic' the brochure boasts:

Local people have a natural resilience and adaptability, and if you consider drive and determination important, you will find these resources in abundance within the district. The tradition here is to get on with the job, as borne out by the regional statistics (Mansfield District Council business guide 1998 3.1) (emphasis added).
Figure 4

On the one hand, this is a naturalizing account. On the other hand the council stresses the way the collapse of coal has presented socially created possibilities for other enterprises stating 'The mining industry has also left a legacy of varied trades and professions, from plumbers to planners, from electricians to statisticians' (Ibid. 3.2). Finally, the flexibility within the area and its workforce is highlighted:

A flexible, competitive and efficient labour market is important to achieving growth and job creation. Flexitime, overtime and shift patterns are established working practices within Mansfield (Mansfield District Council Business guide 1998 3.6).

Thus while the industry has collapsed, or completely disappeared there is a sense in which these are still mining areas. The industry has left but the work ethic it inspired and demanded remains. Tradition and heritage take on a positive cadence within such rhetoric, mining seemingly being able to resonate outside the immediate areas themselves. It would seem that such agents both draw on and crucially reproduce the stereotypical miners in their own practice. Here it could be argued that these areas have an edge over their non-mining competitors in that they can trade off an occupational identity that has historically enjoyed a high profile. This theme was taken up by a member of the East Durham Taskforce, a public private partnership in the area:

...whilst the coalfields have gone, the people are there, there's two ways about it...I mean the culture of those people goes back, you know, certainly, a century...there is a very strong work ethic...they are very hard working people...(East Durham Taskforce interview 1998 p.21)

The same interviewee went on to discuss how the district and the county council builds on the reputation of mining workers in their promotion of the area:

What we'd say, we've got it, you know, mining, workers are traditionally, you know, resilient, they've got this quite good reputation. We tend not to have industrial relations problems, you know, to the same extent as some of the other countries and certainly probably other parts of this country. So you would sell it on that basis (East Durham Taskforce interview 1998 p.20) (emphasis added).

Interestingly, the issue of poor industrial relations often emerges in grey literature (1) and in the interviews carried out. While one might assume that there would be a wish to gloss over, or ignore this history it seems to be positively harnessed again as affirmation that a negative has been transcended. This frankness about the past can at time be startling with a publication from Easington stating ' the mid-1970s Britain was a legend for abysmal industrial relations, strike-happy unions, demarcation disputes and British Leyland workers sleeping on the job' (place to be p.4). This would seem to echo Hay's point about the way the 1970s, and in particular the Winter of Discontent, are used ideologically both as an interpretation of past failure and present success (See Hay 1996).

Similarly, in Mansfield we have an echoing of the positive aspects of coal mining, the following quote is from the head of a public/private partnership involved in economic regeneration in the district:

And the people are little short of miraculous, in terms of, you know, their approach to life, and their determination. I mean, they're by no means a bowed people. I don't know how they compared specifically with other people, but I, as an outsider, have been very impressed by the approach of individuals. More impressed by the approach by individuals than by their agents, such as, local authorities and what have you. I see these squabbling hierarchies, the actual people are genuinely nuggets! And that is traded upon, in that they are presented to the potential inward investors as one of the strengths of the area. The actual people are used to team working, in very bad conditions, awkward hours, and you know, they are very co-operative. So the workforces, is low skilled, low educated but good (Mansfield 2010 interview 1998 p.18) (emphasis added).

This latter point is particularly important in re-stressing the essential character of the potential employees. This is a set of individuals who have few skills and little in the way of education and yet they are 'good'. This sort of account is replicated by the Training and Enterprise Council in the area, a respondent from the organisation was asked if employers were keen to take on former miners:

Generally yes, they have got a pretty good reputation...the kind of attributes that they've got they are pretty flexible, they work really well in teams, and they have been used to a fair amount of change the last 20 to 30 years. They are in pretty good demand, once you get hold of the terms and conditions issue they are problematic. As I say a lot of miners would have taken anything just to get a step on the labour market. (North Nottinghamshire TEC interview 1998 p.3).

And in the local district council the view is replicated:

...well, traditionally, you had workforce here that's, worked on, sort of, on a shift basis, had to work under hard conditions etc so, we sell the workforce as hard working, er, you know, can sort of, work any patterns really, in that sort of sense, so that that's how we sell the sort of workforce in that sort of sense (Mansfield District Council, Economic Development unit interview 1998 p.25)

In St. Helens a borough economic development officer mixed a discussion of the mining industry with examples from other large paternalistic employers in the area, the town having not only been an important part of the Lancashire coalfield but also home to the glass manufacturers Pilkingtons and the drugs company Beechams. Interestingly, in light of the criticism made elsewhere - see above and below - there is after all a positiveaspect to paternalistic employment patterns:

But the legacy those big companies left here, which was the work ethic, if you wish, the discipline and indeed the fact that most of them were going on a continuous shift basis and imposed that discipline as well, and people are still very interested that they had that kind of employee, an employee who is willing to be flexible is there. That has been a big help to us. Indeed I remember when that was coming through when we had the redundant miners, that certainly, if you were an underground skilled tradesman, electrician or whatever, people were beating a path to your door for those guys, because the pick was just like gold. They didn't stay unemployed for more than a day, as far as I remember (St. Helens Economic Development unit interview 1998 p.20) (emphasis original).

Here the presence of a number of big employers creates an industrial district wherein both specific sector skills are created and reproduced but there is also a work ethic ingrained over several generations. Specifically with regard to the mining industry it is important to note here that it is the skilled workers that are being used as examples of success, little seems to be said or known about what happened to the unskilled. The same interviewee stressed the way the Borough distinguished itself, in terms of a work ethic, from Liverpool:

I certainly do! The whole thing, the discipline, the ethic. When I first came, what did they used to call it? 'A fair day's work, for a fair day's pay!'. But it is still there. In the '70's anyway, there was a problem we had to counter here, which was 'oh! you're part of Merseyside'. Both at the County level and eventually District level, you would say to prospect investors, as you brought them in, as you crossed the M57, you'd say 'this is where the culture changes. This is the cultural dividing all right! This is where the accent changes. Listen, watch...' Once you said that, they would in fact see it, and it is true. It is entirely different (St. Helens Economic Development unit interview 1998 p.21).

So we have here a set of accounts that is generally positive about the legacy of the deep coal mining industry. The demise of the industry has left an inheritance of a strong work ethic, deeply embedded not only in former miners, but their families and the wider communities. Indeed, it is often implied that such features are 'natural' in their place. Such a work ethic seems singularly apposite for the modern world of work with its need for flexibility of function, variable shift patterns, team working and general adaptability. One way to understand this development is to view it as a process of objectification wherein the potential workforce in an area take on a set of desired and largely positive characteristics. In stereotyping communities and individuals in this way local government, as well as a raft of agencies involved in the regeneration of the coalfields, seek to package and sell these attributes to would-be investors. Thus there is a process of commodification occurring in which the workforce alongside the structural features of the former coalfields become a set of solutions for business. On the one hand they offer vast labour exchanges with multi-talented potential employees and, on the other, they offer vast tracts of land ready and waiting for development. But this largely positive interpretation can be juxtaposed to a more negative reading, sometimes from the same agencies and actors.

A Negative Inheritance?

In this alternative reading the past now becomes a fetter on future possibilities and trajectories. Here coal mining, the communities and the culture they contained are all seen as unwanted contingencies. In one sense it is possible to see the decline of the industry as a welcome 'creative destruction' of past contingency. In this reading the coal industry is cast as 'old' and of creating a culture of dependency, lacking innovation and flexibility. Once again the coal industry is portrayed, as it was in the inter-war period, as old fashioned in comparison to other sectors of the economy in the 'nanosecond nineties' (Peters 1992). The historic legacy with regard to the ex-miners, their families and communities now becomes an attribute in need of modification rather than commodification. Communities, therefore, are deemed to have the wrong sort of culture, in this sense culture becomes a drag in Strathern's phrase (see Munro 1998). But this negative view of the past can be seen as 'useful' in several ways. Firstly, there is the sense in which the problems associated with the past can themselves be commodified as part of the process of winning extra funding for areas from a range of European and central government initiatives as well as some National Lottery and private sector resources (see for example DETR 1998). Secondly, the failure of the past can be harnessed to argue for the need for radical change in expectations with regard to a whole range of life style issues, but especially here towards the world of work. Often the critique of the past offered by those attempting regeneration in the coalfield area is couched in a culturalist analysis. A respondent from the Coal Industry Social Welfare Organisation (CISWO) in the North West noted the way the culture of the area was deeply entrenched in the St. Helens area:

People have been mining coal in the same sites, where my pit was they had been mining coal there since the 16th century, so the geographically the miners have always been where the coal is so everybody who has lived there has always been part of the mining culture and tradition, not for a few decades but hundreds of years and that has to have an effect on the socialisation on the people who live there. And considering the pits didn't shut, started to shut until on a large scale in the last decade we are only ten years down the line. That social process is still having an impact and effect on the community... (CISWO North West interview 1998 p.12)

A member of St. Helens Borough economic development team discussed the coal mining past in the area:

Without a doubt, without a doubt! Yes. It goes back 450 years. So I think it has left, not just the physical mark, it's in the psyche all right. (St. Helens Economic Development unit interview 1998 p.23)

This legacy is often interpreted as having prevented the emergence within the former coalfield regions of a dynamic entrepreneurial culture which it is imagined exists almost universally elsewhere in the UK. Ideologically there is a coupling occurring here between the market and modernity. The past can be seen as inherently old fashioned because it was not fully part of a market system. Again Munro (1998) talks about the way the market is presented as the future, anything that falls outside it is seen as incomplete. This perception was illustrated in an interview in St. Helens where it was noted:

...there hasn't been a great block of enterprise culture, now whether that is changing and the reason that we have said there hasn't been a great, sort of, enterprise culture. Now whether that is changing and the reason we have said that there is not a lot of people being, sort of, gone in and starting their own business...traditionally there has been a reliance on, you know, four major companies, in the Borough and everybody worked for Pilkingtons, aunties, uncles, nephews, nieces and whole families, again, we saw that with SmithKline Beecham, whole generations in there... (St. Helens Economic Development unit interview 1998 p.23).

Note the way absence of enterprise, dependency, reliance and tradition are coupled in a negative sense. In Mansfield the military metaphor is employed to explore the issue of dependency:

Er, partly history. A number of elements of history. The local authority in the, at the height of the coal mining area, I mean it became, almost, an off shoot of British Coal. If you go into a coal village, it's a bit like belonging to the Military. You know, you're living in your own camp, everything is provided for, by the Coal Board, your entertainment is provided, your house is provided, your health is provided, your sport is provided, it's almost, in a coal mining community, like being signed up to the Military. 'The Military will provide'. The Coal Board, provide everything you need, including good salary and a car. And the local authority represented that, you know, it was propped up and sustained by coal miners, by shop stewards, by Coal Board money, you know, if ever they wanted to do something, they'd go to the Coal Board and say 'we'd like a new thingy here'(Mansfield 2010 interview 1998 p.10).

The same interviewee drew out the perceived problems that this situation created: an area like Mansfield, particularly, you'd find this sort of very introspective world, that was totally self-sustaining...So you've got a lot of culture, in looking culture, that you start with, which doesn't break down very readily, it doesn't break down. (Mansfield 2010 interview 1998 p.10)

Note the way 'self-sustaining' becomes a negative in the context of a coal mining past rather than in a entrepreneurial setting. This attitude is reflected at the local district council level, once again the dependency on coal extraction has major implications:

Well, obviously, with mining industry there was a lot of dependency culture...generations were coming from mining industry, and quite often once they were in, they felt there was a job for them for life. You know. And it was available at leaving school, so this dependency culture that's been built up, for everything...there is both a cultural change that is required and also, kind of, sort of, new expectations, to a certain extent, in terms of making sure that people can then link back into labour market really. So I would say that for a mining era, created dependency culture really. And now because of the changing, you know, the changing global market etc and new employment conditions, people are having to adjust to that really (Mansfield District Council, Economic Development unit interview 1998 p.9).

And he went on talk about the 'parochial' nature of the communities and the way this prevented people from travelling to employment outside their immediate location. This phrase was often to crop up in conversations during our fieldwork. The interviewee at North Nottingham TEC made a comparison between the Mansfield area and the wider issue of coalfield insularity:

School- college-HE low achievement. The characteristics are always the same in coalfield communities, I could see exactly the same when I was in Barnsley and Doncaster. Presumably it was some sort of security that protected them from needing to change. In other words these are the industries that are sustainers they're there, they're going to be there we don't need to do anything else and they provide us with a pretty well reasonable standard of living, certainly compared to the rest of the industry locally. So perhaps its some sort of insularity that comes out of coalfield communities. What ever it is it's the same, my experience says its the same as other coalfield communities, the attitudes are the same. Lack of aspiration and therefore expectation. (North Nottinghamshire TEC interview 1998 p.4)

An interviewee from a local further education college also located the discussion about lack of willingness on the part of men to get involved in higher education within a cultural framework:

I suppose a number of reasons, its cultural I think partly...I mean traditionally people I suppose knew that they were leaving school and they would get a job down the pit. And although that hasn't happened for a number of years it's difficult to get out of that culture isn't it? (North Notts. College interview 1998 p.3).

And this problem is echoed elsewhere. In the case of South Wales the local MEP spoke in terms of a dependency culture deeply ingrained in the area:

Well inevitably I think there is a dependency culture there, if you like. The inactivity levels are very very high in all of these communities (MEP interview 1998 p.8).

He spoke of the way the election of the new government in 1997 had led to a greater demand on the part of his constituents for jobs to be brought to the Valleys rather than them move to where some were being created along the M4 corridor. He argued that there had to be a re-emergence of self-reliance in the Valleys but that that would require a 'big cultural change'. The same interviewee saw this situation as being induced by the coal industry:

Well it has grown up because of the nature of the coal industry. It leads essentially one industry one class societies, people worked in the coal industry and that was it. There was relatively full employment most of the time and if you didn't work in the industry you became a teacher or a preacher or maybe a shopkeeper. Sometimes you would leave the valleys sometimes you would stay there. But the idea of someone working outside of the public sector, it was unheard of. An antipathy towards capitalism, you know 'the world is not about making profits is it?' So I mean there is actually a cultural change require (MEP interview 1998 p.11).

In this negative reading of the past the legacy of the coal industry becomes problematic. Interestingly such interpretations are articulated through the discourse of 'culture'. Such a development in itself could be seen to owe it genealogy to the growth in recent years of culturalist critiques of organisations, and in particular the idea that corporate success can be ensured by companies' having 'the right sort of culture' (Champy 1995; Deal and Kennedy 1988; Peters and Waterman 1982). Here the central role of management becomes the nurturing, or more precisely the creation of the kind of organisational culture that will ensure the successful survival of the company in the new, changed environment of the global market and flexible economy. Underpinning such a view are essentially unitaristic conceptualisations of both cultures and organisations. Susan Wright (1994) has written:

Culture has turned from being something an organisation is into something an organisation has, and from being a process embedded in context to an objectified tool of management control (Wright 1994 p.4) (emphasis original).

Earlier Lynn-Meek (1988) attacked what she believed was the misappropriation of sociological and anthropological understandings of culture by management theorists. She particularly objected to the way such groups adopted and then adapted structuralist functionalist notions of culture. The attraction for those studying organisations in such a way was the fact that a functionalist framework allowed a dualistic labelling of any group healthy/functional and non healthy/dysfunctional. Importantly it is management here which becomes the arbiters of what counts as either 'right' or 'wrong' within such a cultural landscape. While this kind of approach to culture within private sector organisations has been immensely popular it has also been adopted by a range of public sector organisations (see Pollitt 1993). The logic of the argument, over how to tackle this question seems to have been taken furthest in the Manton area with the hiring of a North American 'culture change consultant'. As a member of staff from North Notts College explained: essence it's an evangelical approach to changing attitudes in local communities, it appears to have some success so watch this space. With a view to having 12-15 people who act as facilitators, mentors or promoters or what ever in the area so that they will help to change the culture of the area (North Notts. College interview 1998 p.3).

Du Gay and Salaman (1992) argue that culture, in this unitarist sense, is a device that has been deployed rhetorically in a wide variety of organisational settings, and that at times this is both inappropriate and damaging. Du Gay (1996) has also highlighted the way in which the 'enterprising subject' is taken as a role model not only for modern worker but also as one that should be aspired to in extra workplace situations. To be a good worker or person is therefore linked to ones ability to be enterprising. Only the enterprising are fully human. The important point to make here for our purpose is that such a 'cultural turn' inevitably involves the simplification of complex structures and processes. In essence then it could be argued that this is what is occurring in both positive and negative accounts seen above. Here at times the former coal mining identity and culture can be seen as valuable, one that can be celebrated, commodified and 'sold' to inward investors. At other times the same culture can be labelled as old fashioned, backward looking, inflexible and unsuited to the fluid dynamic labour market of the late twentieth century. It is a short step to argue that the culture needs to change if the lot of the former coal communities is to improve.


We began this paper by examining the way in which the British coal miners and their communities have been viewed in academic and other areas. It was argued that over the years this occupational group has been a significant object of attention, registered in both positive and negative ways at different times, or even simultaneously. An important feature of such presentation was the way it inevitably led to a stereotyping with the miners and their communities possessing undifferentiated qualities and attributes. In academic discourse a series of reviewers have pointed out the way in which the same occupational group serves a variety of purposes from the typical proletarian, through heroic worker and industrial militant and back to traditional proletarian. Belatedly these characterisations have been challenged by scholars working from within a labour history tradition who have argued for a broader and greater differentiation in the way such identities are understood and written about (Ackers 1996; Harrison 1979; Howell 1987). Ackers, writing most recently, suggests that with the decline in the deep mining industry it may be possible to move away from the more ideological manifestations of this trend and that a greater historical purchase on the subject may be obtained.

In the main body of the paper we turned our attention to the current attempts to regenerate four former coalfield areas in the UK. We examined the way in which a variety of strategies have been adopted in the process of regeneration and highlighted the way in each area the decline of the traditional industry has been represented as offering a potential chance to make a step change to a diversified high tech future. As part of this process of reinventing the coalfields we examined the way the ex-miners and their communities are portrayed in the discourse of regeneration. Here again we found a continuation of both positive and negative readings of the past. Positively such actors were seen as grouped into pools of talented, flexible, autonomous, adaptable, hard working, honest and friendly people still imbued with a traditional work ethic that seems almost to have been invented for the demands of employers in the late twentieth century. To this end we saw the way in which, in each of the areas studied, the potential workforce, alongside the place, was packaged for external consumption to potential inward investors. Economic development bodies could draw on the image of these places as former mining areas, which they obviously believed struck a cord with those looking to invest. Finally, we examined how at other times the previous occupational identities are viewed as fetters on progress. Here the culture that the industry bred, and continues to breed, was seen as highly problematic, something that needed to be broken down.

It would seem then that in the wake of closure the mining industry continues to be subject to stereotyping, with wildly different interpretations with regard to the past, present and future available. We would suggest that this process has to be understood within a wider framework of high levels of unemployment and greater competition from inward investment on the one hand, coupled with the necessity to portray areas as being in great need on the other. Thus there is no necessary contradiction between talking up place and workforce in one glossy brochure, while in another negative indices are flourished. The danger here is that in seeking to simplify what are incredibly complex social processes possible solutions to some of the more intractable problems of the coal fields may be lost from view. Just as stereotyping within labour history is an offence to historical sensibility it is equally problematic in the context of current attempts to devise economic and social policy. As Gilbert has put it:

The history of the mining people and their settlements is both too important to be left to uncritical mythologising, and too complicated to give unambiguous support to the new political languages of community (Gilbert 1995 47).

To give suggestive examples of the dangers of such a process it could be argued that the portrayal of the mining industry as inherently backward and low skilled while the jobs and industries that are brought in are the mirror image is deeply flawed. Many of the jobs that have been created in the four areas require few skills and are attracted to former mining areas by the low cost, and ready availability of labour. It could be argued that coal mining areas are not really in competition for high-tech/high wage jobs but rather are engaged in damaging competition with each other, a situation Peck and Tickell (1994) have referred to as being akin to 'hostile brothers'. In many ways, despite claims as to these being embedded performance plants, there are marked similarities to the "classic" branch plants, the global outposts of the 1960s. The announced closures of both Fujitsu and Siemens came as a sharp reminder of this. Secondly, there has been a great emphasis on diversification. However, in moving away from the coal industry these same areas may well be swapping one form of dependence for another and that these new sets of industries may well be more unstable and unreliable as a source of long term sustainable employment.

NOTES (1) By grey literature we mean those publications that produced by a range of public and private sector bodies that cannot be referenced adequately in the normal academic way.


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