Was it ‘automatic’ that deindustrialisation in northern English towns would lead to support for the populist politics which have brought us to Brexit? Suggestions on how cultural memories from Lancashire’s cotton mills mutated into nativist outlooks.
The recent growth of far-right politics and nativist populism in England is often seen as a response to the ‘austerity’ policies which shaped the last decade. The Cameron-Clegg coalition introduced these to make use of opportunities generated by the 2008 banking crisis. UKIP’s rising influence over the next few years pushed Cameron into calling the Brexit referendum, and tempted some ‘mainstream’ politicians to adopt arguments and registers which had previously been restricted to the fringes.
There is, however, a problem with this simple explanation, and with the more general practice of emphasising the immediate precipitating factors behind political developments. Broader preconditions have always been put in place, and these are crucial in understanding ‘unexpected’ events.
The Eurosceptic views currently dominant in English politics (and thus in the decreasingly ‘United Kingdom’) have been building for over twenty years. UKIP had its first significant successes in 2004. Before this, anti-EU themes had been promoted by a minority of Conservatives, dismissed then as mavericks, or ‘bastards’.
Together with opposition to immigration, antipathy to the EU was also expressed in even ruder tones through the significant if geographically uneven support for the British National Party (which emerged from the 1970s National Front). The BNP showed that racist and xenophobic arguments, bluntly expressed, could lead to some electoral success. Their ‘breaking the rules’ helped lay the ground for Farage’s later campaigning.
The BNP’s profile rose at a time of overall economic growth, but most of its councillors were elected in former industrial towns in the north west, Yorkshire and the midlands—areas which were not ‘turned around’ by New Labour’s policies. These short-lived but significant successes for an ‘extremist’ party with fascist roots were often put down to the deprivation and deindustrialisation which began under Thatcher.
The decline of manufacturing and ‘traditional’ industries may well have been an important backdrop to political developments in towns like Burnley, which suffered serious racialised rioting in 2001, and where the BNP won its first clutch of seats in 2002. But arguing that far-right successes were ‘inevitable’ in these circumstances is to accept as an explanation what has to be explained.
During my ISRF research project, I considered how the ‘heritage of past cultural values’, which ‘leaves an enduring imprint’, could combine with economic and social problems resulting from deindustrialisation to generate a degree of far-right support in the particular location of Burnley. In thinking about this, Raymond Williams’ concept of ‘structures of feeling’ proved suggestive of how certain outlooks had sedimented, combined and fermented over many decades.
I noticed that certain perspectives which had developed amongst workers in the cotton industry still shaped the way people saw and argued over issues—even though it was often the children of former textile ‘hands’ who were now expressing these. ‘Common sense’ picked up in the long-closed mills had somehow been transmitted generationally: sectionalist and divisive attitudes, formed in the days when mill workers focussed on the minutiae of demarcation lines and small differentials in pay between them (these gave status to their particular—and gendered—roles); a passive-aggressive character to trade unions’ reactive disputes with management, rather than any long-term strategic approach (there were exceptions to this pattern amongst skilled and assertive engineers); and a general culture of low ambition, expressed in ‘jokes’ and put-downs which people used to stop each other ‘getting above themselves’, combined with a disdain for formal education going back to when children getting ‘on the job’ experience under the looms was thought more useful than half-days learning by rote in the Victorian schoolroom.
The town’s manufacturing workers had been justifiably proud of their role in producing tangible goods. Textiles positioned Burnley within a nationally understood division of labour, in which ‘almost every town and city [was] identified with the making of some useful or necessary article of daily life, and places were synonymous with household artefacts: Sheffield meant cutlery and steel, Stoke-on-Trent teacups’, and so on. After the Second World War, Burnley complemented its mill town identity with a new reputation for light engineering and manufacturing in aerospace and automotive supply-lines.
But, from the 1950s, the cotton industry’s terminal decline was apparent. Trade unions joined industrialists in calling for government action to restrict other countries’ exports to former British colonies. Protectionist Tory MPs ran a ‘great textile campaign’, aiming to block imports so that at least the home market could be retained (some east Lancashire Conservative Associations considered disaffiliating from the national party to set up a new right-wing party to push ‘the cotton interest’). ‘Buy British’ was the rallying cry.
Though limited curbs on cotton imports were introduced (until superseded by rules consequential on Britain’s membership of ‘Europe’) the ‘great campaign’ was unsuccessful. Redundancies and short-time working followed, and manufacturers moved some production overseas, where wages were even cheaper. At a time of full employment in Britain, younger workers quickly found new jobs—and were pleased to move into better-paid and more modern sectors. In the mills that remained, trade unions accepted a belated mechanisation drive, and the shift work pattern which employers introduced to quickly recoup their investment. For a moment, there were unwanted jobs (particularly on night shifts) within an industry which was beginning to disappear: this was the economic ‘pull factor’ which drew the pioneer immigrants from Pakistan to Burnley during the 1960s.
From the mid-1990s and into the early 2000s, ‘memories’ from the moments sketched above were recovered by right-wing independent councillors and then by the BNP, and rearticulated into racialised narratives about what had happened to Burnley: sectionalised jealousies over whether another poor person was getting more than you, or might want what you had; the sense that politicians ‘down London’ aren’t listening; nationalism as a way of making a claim to useful work; and the association of immigrants with industrial decline, the ‘newcomers’ resented for their positive economic contribution, whilst they themselves felt ‘wanted but not welcomed’.
Such themes could resonate with a significant minority of white voters because they felt familiar, as much a part of the town’s fabric as the empty mills in the area still called ‘the Weavers’ Triangle’. The issues sketched above suggest how modulations from deindustrialisation to right-wing politics are not automatic or inevitable, a reflex reaction, but involve the use of specific historical resources. These are selected and woven together by political actors who construct particular viewpoints, identities and projects. Once formed and incubated at the local level in towns like Burnley and Stoke-on-Trent, these were available to be taken up and promoted more generally, in somewhat more palatable forms, by better-resourced and more broadly-based forces—first Farage’s vehicles, and then the Conservatives’ pro-Brexit wing.
Is it possible to move beyond mere ‘suggestion’ to identify the specific processes by which particular ‘structures of feeling’ condensed so as to shape Burnley’s controversial politics in the early 2000s?
Scholars who have considered how collective values and understandings are communicated across the generations often highlight the role of vehicles for carrying social memory which have a continuous character. For Jan Assmann, ‘cultural memory’ involves the transmission of meanings which are attributed to disembodied and materialised symbolic forms that ‘are stable and situation transcendent’. Assmann distinguishes this process from ‘communicative memory’, which happens through individuals sharing recollections with their contemporaries: amongst other things, such recollections form ‘the object of oral history’.
Paul Connerton’s exploration of ‘how societies remember’ highlights the interplay between peoples’ subjectivities and the materialised forms to which historical meanings and forms of identification attach, whether or not they were produced for this purpose (such as statues) or were built with simple functional intent (such as cotton mills and weavers’ cottages). For Connerton, our ‘images of social spaces’ are important anchors for constructing meaning and identity. ‘Because of their relative stability’, these spaces ‘give us the illusion of not changing and of rediscovering the past in the present. We conserve our recollections by referring them to the material milieu that surrounds us’.
Deindustrialisation disrupted Burnley’s continuities. It broke the transitions that people had come to expect for themselves and their children during the long third quarter of the twentieth century: from school to work; from living with parents to setting up a new family home; from relative hardship to modest and honestly-earned comfort. This rupture did not happen all at once, in a single moment of shock. During deindustrialisation’s long and toxic ‘half-life’, the memories generated by now-gone working lives get mutated and morphed. Stories of how the bosses tried to get one over on you cannot resource any solidarity or shared alertness between workers in the factory or the mine: you are not there. Instead, they confirm a lingering sense of betrayal, and sullen resentment of the authorities.
Though the ‘material milieu’ of old mills and Victorian terraced houses stayed in place, they shifted in terms of their meanings. The 1990s saw the narratives which they had helped constitute become unstable. Old mill buildings are no longer ‘satanic’ because of the hard work and long days they require of you. Their dereliction tells you that you are no longer needed.
The immigrants (or rather, now, their children and grandchildren, born in this town as much as you were), are somehow reminders of the empire that ‘we’ once had, and ‘they’ were somehow part of. In a political culture which has not yet begun to recognise and process how Britain’s place in the world has changed, post-imperial melancholy blocks the chance to build good relations on the basis of open exploration of our diverse but linked ‘memories’. Instead, racialised notions of difference offer the means to construct sectional political identities. Even if these are shaped by loss and disappointment, at least they give something to hold onto…
 Paul Routledge & Simon Hoggart, ‘Major hits out at Cabinet’, The Guardian, 25 July 1993.
 Pippa Norris & Ronald Inglehart, Cultural Backlash: Trump, Brexit and Authoritarian Populism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), 42.
 Williams developed the concept in a number of works, including A Preface to Film (1954), The Long Revolution (1961), and Marxism and Literature (1977).
 Jeremy Seabrook, The Song of the Shirt: The High Price of Cheap Garments, from Blackburn to Bangladesh (London: Hurst and Company, 2015), 256.
 Jan Assmann, ‘Memory and Culture’ in Dmitri Nikulin (ed.), Memory: A History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 331.
 Ibid., 334.
 Paul Connerton, How Societies Remember (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 37.
 Sherry Lee Linkon, The Half-Life of Deindustrialisation: Working-class Writing about Deindustrialisation (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2018).
 Paul Gilroy, After Empire: Melancholia or Convivial Culture? (London: Routledge, 2004).
ISRF Independent Scholar Fellow, 2019–20
Mike Makin-Waite is the author of Communism and Democracy (Lawrence and Wishart, 2017). In 2021, he also published the book ‘On Burnley Road: Class, Race and Politics in a Northern English Town’, which was supported by ISRF.