‘He’s laughing at lives being destroyed’: Backlash grows at Boris Johnson’s joke about mine closures

‘People had to scratch a living for years. Some never worked again. Very funny, isn’t it?’

Colin Drury
South Yorkshire
Saturday 07 August 2021 14:16
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Mike Hawkins still remembers the devastation in Whitehaven, Cumbria, when Haig Colliery was closed in 1986.

His father John was one of almost 200,000 pit workers who were made redundant as mines across the country were mothballed during the 1980s.

“People here had to scratch a living for years,” the 56-year-old councillor and mental health worker said. “Dad was one of the lucky ones because he managed to get work [at Sellafield nuclear power plant] pretty soon after but there were other people who never worked again after that.”

Almost four decades on, the hurt in such mining communities – spread across the North, the Midlands and Wales – remains as raw as it ever was.

Which is exactly why Boris Johnson’s joke about the closures this week has caused such outrage.

Ex-miners, their families and academics – as well as a host of MPs, regional mayors and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer – have all demanded the prime minister apologise after he made light of the misery.

One claimed the former Eton pupil – who joked that the action gave the UK “an early start” on tackling climate change – was “gaslighting an entire generation”. Another said that Mr Johnson was displaying “utter contempt” for those still hurting.

“He talks about levelling up and understanding the north, and then he says something like this and it’s the mask slipping,” said Hawkins, who still lives in Whitehaven today. “It shows he has nothing but contempt for working people.”

He added: “He’s laughing at lives being destroyed. Very funny, isn’t it? Whether you think what happened was right or wrong, you still don’t laugh about that.”

Professor Katy Shaw, author of the 2012 book Mining the Meaning: Cultural Representations of the 1984-5 UK Miners’ Strike, said the gag was an attempt to “abscond responsibility and narcissistically distance” the Tories from the devastation wrought across entire regions by the Margaret Thatcher-led policy of closures.

“Any attempt to reframe what Thatcher’s government did to mining communities – and moreover how and why they did it – is the ultimate example of gaslighting an entire generation,” she said.

The Northumbria University professor, who is herself the daughter of a miner, added: “Joking about it speaks of a profound ignorance of the lived reality of the strike – living on tins and hand-outs. The PM might forget but the north does not.”

In a statement, Alan Mardghum, secretary of the Durham Miners Association, said: “Johnson has again shown utter contempt for the people of former mining communities. The wilful annihilation of the coal industry caused social and economic devastation in our communities that is still felt to this day. It was an ideological assault… It is no joke.”

The wider backlash came after a host of MPs, including at least one Conservative, had already condemned the remarks.

Speaking to the Daily Telegraph, the unnamed Tory said Mr Johnson – who was a member of Oxford University’s elitist Bullingdon Club around the time of the closures – had “spat on” red wall voters.

Three northern Labour mayors also expressed their anger. Dan Jarvis in South Yorkshire, Tracy Brabin in West Yorkshire and Jamie Driscoll mayor of the North of Tyne all called on the prime minister to apologise.

Yet as the fury grew into the weekend, the prime minister appeared in no mood to do so.

A Downing Street spokesperson said on Friday: “The prime minister recognises the huge impact and pain closing coal mines had in communities across the UK. This government has an ambitious plan to tackle the critical issue of climate change, which includes reducing reliance on coal and other non-renewable energy sources.

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