The next time the Prime Minister comes to Scotland – and it’s going to be a while, let’s be honest – he should come to the place where I live. If he did, I would show him the empty buildings. I would show him where the shops and businesses used to be. I would take him to the place where 13 men were killed. And I would introduce him to the neighbours of mine who still remember what the community used to be like. Perhaps then, the Prime Minister wouldn’t find it all quite so funny.
You probably know what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the comments Boris Johnson made while visiting a windfarm off the Aberdeenshire coast. Speaking to journalists about climate change and the need to move away from fossil fuels, he referred to the closure of mines in the 1980s. “Thanks to Margaret Thatcher, who closed so many coal mines across the country,” said Mr Johnson, “we had a big early start and we’re now moving rapidly away from coal altogether.” He is then reported to have chuckled and added “I thought that would get you going.”
The comments did not go down well, to say the least, particularly in former coal communities like Cumnock where a couple of days ago, the local councillor, and former miner, Jim McMahon gave his reaction. The Prime Minister, said Mr McMahon, had no sensitivity at all for mining communities and the impact of the closures. Mr McMahon also spoke about the effects on New Cumnock, where I live. “We’re still feeling it 35 years on,” he said, “as far the population goes: 9000 people down to two and a half.”
All of that is true – thousands of people have moved away – and it’s left behind ghosts of places that used to be: shops, hotels, pubs, all gone. In parts of the village, there is also deep and lasting poverty, a long-term effect of being detached from the only real big source of employment. And there’s a collective memory in the community of how things used to be: good and bad. I remember one ex-miner telling me how easy it was to land a job in the heyday of coal, but I also remember him telling me about having to work all day in a shaft that was only 2ft high.
I remember, too, what Andrew McDickens told me. Mr McDickens used to work in the Knockshinnoch mine near New Cumnock and in 1950, with 115 other men, was trapped underground after tons of mud collapsed in on them. Mr McDickens, who’s in his 90s now, described to me the three dark days they spent down there, how they sang The Old Rugged Cross to keep their spirits up, how they lay on the ground as the oxygen ran out, and how they dug through stone and rock to try to escape. They were eventually taken out through a disused shaft and, although 13 men died, it was the greatest rescue in mining history.
All of this – this tough and rugged history – makes New Cumnock and communities like it remarkable and complicated places and Prime Ministers (particularly Tory ones) should get into the politics of them only with the greatest of caution. Having said that, crass though Mr Johnson’s comments were, he’s not the only one who has insulted communities like New Cumnock, by misunderstanding them or by doing nothing to help. And the signs of recovery that exist in the village today have absolutely nothing to do with the governments that followed – SNP or Labour. Do not let them take the credit.
But first, a bit of context on Mr Johnson’s remarks. He seemed to be suggesting – jokingly or non-jokingly who knows – that the mine closures could have been motivated by the environment and, quite rightly, Nicola Sturgeon rejected this and said the closures by Mrs Thatcher had “zero to do with any concern she had for the planet”. On the other hand, it wouldn’t be fair to portray Mrs Thatcher as some kind of early climate-change denier. In fact, she said in a speech once that it was possible that, with the use of fossil fuels, we had “unwittingly begun a massive experiment with the system of the planet itself”. As a former scientist, she also insisted environmental policy should be led by science and this was in 1988 when the media was so uninterested in her speech the TV companies didn’t even bother to send a film crew.
The anger at the Tories’ treatment of the mines also needs the context of what happened next. One of the great failures of Thatcher’s government was the lack of any kind of recovery plan for the communities affected by the closures, but it’s a failure compounded by the inertia of the governments that followed. What did Labour do for the mining communities? Sod all. What has the SNP done? Sod all. Colin Smyth, the Labour MSP, said Boris Johnson should “start to repair some of the damage caused all those years ago” but the obvious question is why the Labour governments didn’t do so when they were in power from the 90s onwards.
The truth is that the recovery in New Cumnock, although it could have been encouraged and supported by government, has actually come from private business, philanthropy, and – much to the irritation of republicans – royal patronage. A few years ago, the local town hall was refurbished and renovated and I was there for the grand re-opening. It was a great day and Prince Charles, who performed the ceremony, told us that it was always his ambition, when he saved Dumfries House nearby, to do as much as possible for the communities surrounding the estate, such as New Cumnock. And he has: as well as the town hall, our village square and open-air pool have been totally refurbished and look wonderful.
On the day the town hall reopened, I also spoke to the businessman and philanthropist Sir Tom Hunter, who grew up in New Cumnock. He helped to fund the restoration of the hall and he’s had some interesting things to say about how to help struggling communities. The answer, he says, isn’t dependency but education and enterprise and that has been the focus at Dumfries House. Charles’s estate is now a massive employer in the area but it also encourages young people who aren’t in college or a job to learn new skills, in building, catering and other areas. These are the shoots that will grow and flourish in the community.
All of this could have been encouraged by previous governments but wasn’t and the recovery we’re seeing now has nothing to do with the Tories, or Labour, or the SNP. That may be why – even though the anger over Thatcher is still red and raw – the politics of former mining communities is complicated and is no longer simply about Labour versus the Tories. There is deep disappointment that government after government, and council after council, did nothing for towns and villages like New Cumnock. But there is also some hope, at last, that the answers are being found elsewhere.
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