The legacy of deindustrialisation has shaped the meaning of the urban landscape for young people in the West Midlands

This post by Anton Popov and Martin Price is based on the first full report of the MYPLACE project, whose work we have regularly featured on Sociological Imagination. For more information on the MYPLACE project, visit the project’s website HERE or the project’s blog HERE. You can also follow MYPLACE on twitter

One aspect of the broader MYPLACE project has been to explore the construction and trasmission of collective memory within European societies. In the UK we have addressed these issues through research mainly in Coventry (although some fieldwork was conducted also in Nuneaton) in collaboration with the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum. The aim of our research is to access young people’s memories of a particular period of British history within the context of the contemporary social, cultural and political processes that characterise present day Britain.The period identified for this aspect of the research is the 1970s-80s: a period in British history of radical transformations in the social, political and economic life of the country and one associated in the public mind with Margaret Thatcher. Against the background of economic recession, the Conservative government attempted a restructuring of industry that led to the closure of many factories, plants and collieries. Its individual-centred ideology, neo-liberal in its core, underpinned a raft of policies that aimed to roll back the state and envisaged ‘individuals’ rather than ‘society’ as the target of policy.

cov1Given the selection of Coventry and Nuneaton as the fieldwork locations for the UK, the Herbert is an important access point to both the historical memories of the period in question and to young people who have engaged with these historical narratives through their involvement in the museum’s activities. The fieldwork for this part of the MYPLACE research was carried out from October 2011 until November 2012, and included observations at museum exhibits, as well as focus groups with young people, and expert interviews with museum staff.

In our approach to young people’s memories of the 1970s and 1980s – a period that is identified as a ‘difficult’ or ‘problematic’ period of recent British history – we adopted an understanding of social memory as a dynamic process; as a socially constructed phenomenon, which is an aspect of the present and, therefore, different from history, which is preoccupied with the past.

Both Coventry and Nuneaton underwent substantial economic and socio-demographic changes as a result of de-industrialisation and re-structuring of local economies during the 1970s-80s. Historians of Coventry’s car industry describe the city at this time as ‘a microcosm of de-industrialisation’ when between 1975 and 1982 the fifteen largest firms in the city shed a total of around 55000 jobs. Over the decade up to 1981 Coventry’s population fell while unemployment rose.

The focus on the late 1970s to early 1980s has particular resonance at the current time of economic recession and thus offers great promise for the understanding of generational transmission of historical memory. However, current historical narratives related to this period tend to be structured around few key events – the miners’ strike of 1984, race riots (Bristol, Brixton, Toxteth and Moss Side) in 1981-82, and the Falklands War of 1982, – while other aspects of political activism (such as CND and the Green movement) as well as the growth in popularity of radical right parties like the National Front are less prominent in the public narratives through which this period is represented and historical memories are constructed.

Working-class lives in de-industrialised society are commonly portrayed as being characterised by fragmentation of community relationships, poverty, violence, growing crime and substance abuse, and poor health. At the same time, the industrial past of British cities is often remembered nostalgically, not only by older generations of working class people but by society in general. Nostalgia can tell us more about the present than the past. As people experience living through the socio-economic transformations of post-industrial society they continue to express their present concerns through socio-cultural idioms rooted in the past.

cov2Although the historical narratives of de-industrialisation and ‘urban decline’ are represented in the Herbert they are rather marginal to the main focus of the museum on other aspects of Coventry’s social history. The very approach to history dominant in the museum, focusing on communities and the lives of ‘ordinary people’, is arguably rooted in a left-wing opposition to Thatcherism’s assault on ‘society’.

Young people’s interpretation and internalisations of historical narratives through which the 1970s-80s are represented in the Herbert museum demonstrates that, as for many in the UK, for them that period continues to exert a lasting legacy which might be defined as providing ‘living memories of urban decline’. Memories of de-industrialisation in industrial centres such as Coventry continue to be lived by an increasingly marginalised working-class population. These memories are ‘living memories’ for many in Coventry partly because the closure of the manufacturing industries which provided the majority of work places in Coventry and the surrounding area had started in the late 1970s and continued throughout the 1990s up until the present day, when the future of the last car-manufacturing plant remaining in the city is uncertain. These living memories of de-industrialisation have translated into a feeling of the ‘depressing present’ expressed by many of our participants.

The living memories of deindustrialisation are expressed by young people in their interviews through the discourse of ‘urban decline’ when they focus on the social deprivation epitomised by the ‘council estates’. In their interviews they reproduce the stereotypical and stigmatising view of estate residents as ‘underprivileged’ and lacking ‘respect’ for the ‘community’. At the same time, the ‘community’ is talked about in nostalgic terms of social solidarity and ‘respect’ and ‘security’. In their reflections on the ‘difficult past’ young people express their frustration and dissatisfaction with the present when they talk about lack of future prospects in the de-industrialised towns and cities of West Midlands. Ironically, they sometimes tend to idealise that period, even if they acknowledge that it was ‘difficult’. For example they ascribe more meaning and effectiveness to protest movements from the past than to contemporary online activism or violent clashes that took place during recent student protests and riots in August 2011. These nostalgic memories are a result of memory-work and they represent young people’s concerns with a contemporary society that they describe as unfair, unequal, and restrictive. Our analysis demonstrates how misremembering and forgetting on the part of younger and older generations contributes to the ‘community nostalgia’ narratives.

The living memories of de-industrialisation and urban decline have to be examined, however, in relation to other dominant historical and social discourses. Thus the Coventry Blitz (during WWII) has been mentioned as the ready-made response to the question about events in the local history which might be defined as ‘difficult’ or ‘problematic’. Memories of the Blitz play an important constitutive role for Coventry people as a ‘mnemonic community’ providing them with common ground for the forging of a well-established historical narrative. The discourse of multicultural Britain shaped during the years of the New Labour government has impacted on how young people see urban culture. It also has to be taken into consideration when we analyse how memories of racial tensions in the past (the race riots of the 1980s, for example) and the multicultural environment of contemporary British cities are interpreted by young people.

Last but not least, our research demonstrates the important role which popular culture and family play in what and how young people remember or forget about the period in question. Young people often mention classic British films as a source of information about particular events associated with the 1970s-80s (e.g. the miners’ strike) or music styles from that time (for example, punk, 2-Tone, heavy metal); although they are not always aware of the social context within which they occurred. The older generation of family members are also often mentioned not only as the source of memory narratives but also as influential figures in terms of socialisation in cultural practices (e.g. particular musical preferences) or political culture and social attitudes (socialism, mistrust towards the police, anti-racist or xenophobic ideas). In contrast, our research to date has not identified any significant role for school and college curricula in developing young people’s perceptions of the period of the 1970s and 1980s.

[The research leading to these findings has received funding from the European Union Seventh Framework Programme ([FP7/2007-2013] [FP7/2007-2011]) under Grant Agreement number FP7-266831).]

This post is based on the project’s first report, which can be read in full here. It was originally published on the LSE Politics Blog.

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