On Wednesday 22nd October 2014 Professor Simon Gunn, Professor of Urban History at the Centre for Urban History, a research centre within the University of Leicester’s School of History, and author of books including: History and cultural theory (2006) and The public culture of the Victorian middle class: ritual and authority and the English industrial city, 1840-1914 (2000), visited the University of Leicester School of Museum Studies Research Seminar Series to speak on the topic of ‘The Strange Death of Industrial England’.
Simon Gunn began the seminar by outlining his aim to explore the place of de-industrialisation in the history of late twentieth century Britain. Simon argued that the process of industrial decline has suffered from limited visibility in the history or historiography of later twentieth century Britain. Simon wished to address how we might change this situation, and how we might go about studying industrial decline and how that itself might change the ways we think about the England and the Britain of the contemporary period.
Simon discussed the changes seen in Britain between the 1960s and 1980s, within a generation, with this industrial nation, in which manufacturing and coalmining were to seen to form a vital part of the economy, moving towards being a post-industrial nation, economically dominated by the service sector, with manufacturing and mining now a minor or marginal element. Simon suggested that if it is possible to conceive of the death of industrial England it occurred within these years.
Simon explained his decision to title the seminar ‘The Strange Death of Industrial England’, referencing George Dangerfield’s book exploring the decline in the influence of the British Liberal Party in the years before the First World War, suggesting that the death of industrial England might be seen as strange for two reasons; firstly, Simon highlighted the speed with which the process of de-industrialisation took place and secondly, Simon emphasised how the process of industrial collapse is so little remarked upon in the historical writing of the period.
Drawing upon statistics relating to UK cotton and coal output and exports, and car industry figures, Simon highlighted the decline in output and exports in these industries over the course of the twentieth century. Simon discussed how some five million jobs were lost in manufacturing between the 1960s and the 1990s. Simon posited that, while elements of manufacturing might have survived, and even revived, from the 1990s, the world’s first industrial nation could no longer pretend to be an industrial country by the last quarter of the twentieth century.
Regarding the debates which have occurred centring upon the causes of industrial decline, Simon briefly mentioned some of the factors cited, from lack of investment in industrial infrastructure and technology, to the failings of liberal education and the lack of an enterprise culture. Simon highlighted how debate was particular fraught and politicised in the 1980s among critics and historians such as Patrick Wright and Robert Hewison, whilst noting that fears about decline have been a repeated feature of elite thinking in Britain from at least the 1880s. However, whilst noting how the 1964 general election was the first in which modernisation of the economy and society became a major theme, Simon argued that no government of left or right, nor business or trade union, envisaged the near total collapse of Britain’s industrial structure in the two decades after 1970. Simon queried why such an understanding of the changes to come might have been so slow to develop, drawing upon appropriate geography, a term developed by David Matless, related to the work of planners such as Patrick Abercrombie, as perhaps forming a part of any such explanation. Simon suggested that the logic of appropriate geography helped to reinforce a particular idea of the manufacturing north as a fact of nature, a permanent fixture in the nation and the national identity.
Simon argued that the industrial urban way of life described by JB Priestley in his 1934 work English Journey, wasn’t necessarily recognised as being in terminal decline until the 1980s. Simon suggested that fragments of this landscape and culture may have survived de-industrialisation, however, referencing Robert Colls’ work, he argued that commentators seem agreed that the collective way of life based upon this industrial urban society did not survive. Simon argued that it can be all too easy for nostalgia about the passing of this industrial world to set in, in particular as this world can be presented as the obverse of the uncertain individualist present. Simon emphasised how the term de-industrialisation itself looks backward rather than forward without addressing what might replace the industry. Simon reiterated his view that de-industrialisation is a subject that we need to understand historically.
Simon acknowledged that one of the reasons behind the difficulty in developing this historical understanding of the de-industrialisation process is not only the nostalgia this process invokes, but also the political heat still evoked in relation to this issue. Simon suggested that what has been left out of politicised debates around the process of de-industrialisation are the ways in which de-industrialisation was registered socially and culturally across Britain within and beyond the communities concerned as well as a consideration of the deeper processes of historical change that de-industrialisation brought in its wake. Simon also emphasised the need to think about the way in which de-industrialisation often intersected with other major shifts occurring in the period, such as in relation to the decades of migration and settlement occurring during this period and in relation to shifts in thought, such as in relation to the origins of neoliberal thought and practices from the 1960s.
Simon proposed that it is in opening up the 1970s and 1980s to historical view that we see a complex of processes, often wrongly seen as separate from one another, to be deeply interwoven with one another, constituting a rupture with the past. Simon argued the need to understand this rupture due to the ongoing effects in the contemporary period.
This was a fascinating seminar providing much food for thought for those taking part from a variety of disciplines.
Text by Sarah Hughes