Boris Johnson, eh? What’s he like! During his recent visit to Scotland, he gallantly binned off Nicola Sturgeon and pushed back on the prospect of a Scottish referendum. Our prime minister also made light of the decimation of former mining communities with his comment: “Look what we’ve done already. We’ve transitioned away from coal in my lifetime. Thanks to Margaret Thatcher, who closed so many coal mines across the country, we had a big early start and we’re now moving rapidly away from coal altogether.” What a card!
Unsurprisingly, Johnson’s comments were met with criticism. While Sturgeon denounced them as “crass and deeply insensitive”, Labour’s shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy branded the comments “shameful” and called for an apology. None seemed forthcoming. The prime minister’s mess-cleaner – I mean “spokesperson” – said that Johnson recognises the “huge impact and pain” of the coalmine closures – but there wasn’t a sorry in sight.
I was born and raised in Mexborough, a former mining community in Doncaster, South Yorkshire, which was all but obliterated by the closure of the pits. The town has never recovered. According to the government Indices of Multiple Deprivation (IMD), the official measure of relative living conditions, Mexborough has some of the worst levels of deprivation of any ex-mining area in the country. There are high levels of crime, unemployment, substance abuse, and a general sense of exhaustion in the streets lined by abandoned shops and boarded up houses.
It might sound like a godforsaken, desolate place. But it’s not. Mexborough’s economy may have gone to the wall but its people haven’t. In my experience, the inhabitants are funny, friendly and refreshingly blunt. It takes energy and grit to maintain a sense of humour when your living conditions are in a permanent state of decline.
Is it any wonder that Johnson makes light of the cause of such widespread deprivation, though? The Conservatives excel in trivialising poverty. To listen to their Sunday evening telly-esque tales of working-class success, it almost sounds as if the kinds of inescapable poverty that have become rife in post-industrial towns like Doncaster and Rotherham are difficulties to be transcended by the individual – if you’re strong enough, clever enough, determined enough, entrepreneurial enough.
Want to get out of poverty? Work harder. Got a substance abuse problem? Just pull yourself together. Living with a violent partner? Get a backbone and leave.
The answers can seem so easy and yet the experiences of thousands of people living in deprived areas tell a different tale. Sanitised stories of working-class folk overcoming adversity – leaving poverty with two bob in their pocket and a change of underpants – tend to lionise the individual and celebrate their superior strength, intelligence and determination. At the same time, they conveniently dismiss the role of structural issues in shaping lives, such as the decimation of industry without comparable employment. These stories of rising above and beyond difficult life experiences compound the familiar conceit that we are what we make ourselves: anyone can become anything – no matter where they come from – with the right attitude and plenty of elbow grease.
But we’re being sold a dummy.
Success is not solely attributable to our determination to transcend the limitations of our circumstances. We are enduringly shaped by where we’re from, not just because of variations in wealth and social connections, but because this is where we acquire our voice and, more importantly, where we learn whether our voices are worth listening to.
Johnson’s comments during his visit to Scotland told the people of Mexborough, and the inhabitants of poverty-stricken former mining communities across the country, that he thinks our voices are worth less than a shot at getting a cheap laugh.
Johnson may have intended his comment as one of his signature japes but it belies his contempt for the many thousands still suffering the legacy of Thatcher’s cruel closures.
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