As 'Brassed Off' is revived at the Royal Albert Hall, how has the North moved so far from its Labour roots?

Of the 10 cities in England with the lowest employment rates, eight of them are in the North. The Office for National Statistics revealed London’s growth had been almost twice that of Manchester over five years

James Moore
Wednesday 10 May 2017 15:58 BST
The Royal Albert Hall showcased the 1996 film 'Brassed Off'
The Royal Albert Hall showcased the 1996 film 'Brassed Off'

“There are a lot of people who are still brassed off, despite our ‘strong and stable government’.”

So said a laconic Brassed Off director Mark Herman before the premier of Brassed Off Live, with the film's score performed by the Grimethorpe Colliery Band while the film was screened at the Royal Albert Hall.

The Hall’s management can’t have imagined the event would take place in the middle of an election campaignTheresa May promised there wouldn’t be one after all – but the fact it did only added to the resonance of what was always going to be an emotional night.

Theresa May's cynicism looks set to pay off with a Tory landslide. The film, of course, was originally released just a year before another landslide, a Labour one. It swept away the Conservative government that was to blame for the pit closure programme, enacted a decade after the year-long strike staged by the National Union of Mineworkers, that serves as the movie's backdrop.

After the Grimley (a thinly disguised Grimethorpe) Colliery Band wins a national competition at the Hall (fun fact, the interior shots were actually filmed in Birmingham) its ailing conductor and driving force Danny, played by the late Pete Postlethwaite, gives a speech. In it he angrily laments the plight of his band members “ordinary common-or-garden honest, decent human beings, and not one of them with an ounce of bloody hope left” while attacking “this bloody (Conservative) government” that “has systematically destroyed an entire industry”.

Loud applause followed, from an audience in which, while it contained many of the venue's regular upscale patrons, many northern accents could be heard.

But it wasn’t just one industry. The deindustrialisation of the north that bloody Tory government presided over affected multiple industries.

A year after the release of Brassed Off there was another film, The Full Monty, that covered a similar theme, this time focusing on events in Sheffield, the city of my birth, in the wake of the decline of a steel industry that employed my grandfather, and other relatives from my father’s side of the family.

General Election polls and projections: May 10

With a lighter touch, covering a group of unemployed men who turn to stripping, it became an international hit and even got an Oscar nod.

Both films skillfully deploy humour to make their points, although the comedy in Brassed Off is often as black as Grimethorpe's coal dust. The latter might well be the better movie. Both remain relevant, and especially now.

Some disruption of the North's traditional employers was inevitable, and I’m not about to pretend that the governments before the Thatcher administrations got everything right. Clearly they didn’t. Far from it.

It is also true that there have been manufacturing success stories (usually foreign owned, which speaks to the quality of British management).

But the path this country, which has a terrible record when it comes to business investment, took overall was not pre-ordained. Others (Germany notably) have proved it is possible to make things in a modern economy.

With its laissez-faire economics and love of the City, Britain forsook investment and chose selling off, shutting down and shipping overseas. And it treated those caught up in the whirlwind with a callousness that beggars belief.

The aforementioned Labour government did some progressive things when it took over from the Thatcherite wreckers. It enacted the minimum wage. It gave workers the power to call union recognition ballots. It invested in public services.

But in economic policy it didn’t deviate significantly from what had gone before it. They used to say the left won the social argument, while the right won the economic argument.

The places depicted in Brassed Off and the Full Monty were the victims of that. They were treated with something like benign neglect after the storm finally abated.

Amid the house-price boom in the run-up to the financial crisis, we all saw the stories about those streets where the houses were on sale for just £1, that appeared sometimes only days after some garage or broom cupboard in Kensington and Chelsea had gone for half a million or more.

New employers have since found their way north of the Watford Gap services. But they are most often totems of the service industry; warehouses, fulfilment centres, call centres, that have no unions and treat their employees as drones.

Unions don’t exist, and staff are often employed not by the companies that own them, but through sinister agencies. Sports Direct became a cause célèbre as a result of that. But it’s hardly alone.

This is what has replaced the pits, and the steel mills I used to see from my grandparents’ home on our visits, the factories and the foundries. No wonder people are brassed off.

Meanwhile, the gap between North and South just keeps widening.

Just last year Sir Michael Wilshaw, England’s chief inspector of schools, said there were more than twice as many secondary schools judged “inadequate” in the North and Midlands (98 schools or six per cent) compared with 44 in the South and East (three per cent).

He lamented that the “people of Manchester and Liverpool and the North of England are not being treated fairly… their children have less of a chance of educational success than children south of the Wash”.

Of the 10 cities in England with the lowest employment rates, eight of them are in the North. A couple of years ago the Office for National Statistics revealed London’s growth had been almost twice that of Manchester over five years.

You can find more of this wherever you look, part of the legacy of the events depicted in Brassed Off.

There are those who lived through the Conservatives' economic vandalism, and who spit at the mere mention of the word “Tory” as a result.

And yet, places like Grimethorpe were among the most enthusiastic backers for what is a Tory project: Brexit. It was conceived, and enthusiastically promulgated, by the heirs of those who gutted the North, the true believers of the party’s Thatcherite wing that want to turn Britain into a damp version of Singapore, without workers’ rights or state services such as the NHS.

Perhaps that shouldn’t be so surprising. Presented with the opportunity to bite back via the EU referendum, the brassed off North took it.

Confronted with a campaign led largely by posh, self-satisfied, and successful southerners – because that’s the way David Cameron wanted it – its voters rebelled.

The other side was little different, if truth be told. But it had it easier: tell people who are pissed off that you hear what they're saying and that you can make it better. Make it look as if you are the ones who will address grievances that have long been ignored.

It remains to be seen if that will actually happen. Most of the concerns, and most of the problems left untreated, that were raised during the referendum were created not by Brussels but by Westminster.

I disagree with the North's decision passionately. It was the wrong thing to do, and its people may end up as the primary victims of it, from villages like Grimethorpe to cities such as Sheffield.

But I can understand the unhappiness, and insecurity, and indeed the anger that contributed to it.

Which brings us back to that election, and the thumping victory Theresa May is likely to enjoy.

The Yorkshire Post recently visited Grimethorpe as part of its coverage. It found that, with memories of the events depicted in Brassed Off fading, a younger generation is apparently becoming more receptive to the blandishments of Theresa May than are its elders, who wouldn’t dream of putting an X against the name of a Conservative candidate however much they might dislike Jeremy Corbyn.

If that is true then it should serve as an urgent wake up call for the Labour Party, and the left in general. If, that is, the impending landslide isn't enough.

The performance of the Grimethorpe Colliery Band at the Royal Albert Hall was superb, the film as thought-provoking, and deeply moving as ever. Tears flowed freely.

I have a horrible feeling that there will be more of them, and that more films like Brassed Off will be produced in the light of what we could see over the next five to ten years.

May, with her “strong and stable Government” and “country that works for everyone” rhetoric, as is so often the case with Tory politicians, belies the reality of the dark path down which she is leading us.

She scares me far more than Jeremy Corbyn ever could, even with his dodgy friends and his silly hats.

It isn’t too late to stop it, or at least to put a dent in her ambitions. But time is running short.

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