‘You Can Get Rid of the Mines, But You Can’t Get Rid of the Miners’: Industrial Legacy and Contemporary Identity in Durham

Durham’s coal mines closed throughout the 1980s, despite dissent from local communities and mining unions. This was not an anomaly – under Conservative rule, mines were shut throughout the nation, yet these were largely concentrated in the North. As a result, a significant regional divide in unemployment, poverty, and general desolation was created. And yet, although the mines are most certainly shut, the culture and the identity of the miners, and of a mining region lives on. In Durham, mining is deeply tied up in local identity, and a celebration of this shared history occurs every year through the Miners’ Gala. This consists of a loud and proud parade through the city, in which each mining village sends a colliery band, and banners. Upon finishing the city parade, all the mining lodges meet on the cricket field for a large party for all ages. Despite the closure of the mines, the economic hardship and proud history continues to be entwined with present day understandings and contemporary identity; a common phrase heard at the gala is ‘You can get rid of the mines, but you can’t get rid of the miners’. 

The 135th Durham Miners’ Gala, 2019. (Credit: The Northern Echo)

The first Durham Miners’ Gala was organised by the Durham Miners’ Association in 1871 and was held on the outskirts of the city in Wharton Park. Despite the demise of the mining industry, the gala has survived, and continues to be integral to local identity. The gala is no longer an example of political mass assembly, but as Jack Lawson, a Durham miner, later Labour MP and minister in the Atlee government, said of the gala, it was less political demonstration, and more “the spontaneous expression of their [the miners’] communal life”. The gala is an example of intangible cultural heritage, and an identity which occurs in a specific place. Some have dubbed occasions like the gala as simply reminiscence – journalist James Bloodworth, who visited in 2016, saw the Durham Miners’ Gala as a “carnival of nostalgia”, and “something like a historical re-enactment society”. However, it is much, much more. It is a living history, a continued solidarity with the working class and the loss of jobs caused by a deep deindustrialisation which continues today in the loss, if not disappearance, of heavy manufacturing industries such as ship building. 

Labour’s Green New Deal appears to draw upon this history and empathise with the loss of industry and employment in the North. The deal sets out to rebuild industry, jobs, and pride in the towns, with more “rewarding, well-paid jobs, lower energy bills”, and “whole new industries to revive parts of our country that have been neglected for too long”. As the Industrial Revolution brought jobs and pride to the North, the ‘Green Industrial Revolution’, hopes to provide funding to restore this. Furthermore, the Labour Party recognises that for some ‘industrial transition’ has become a “byword for devastation”, and blames successive Conservative governments for this continued ignorance of whole industries and communities. The Green Industrial Revolution manifesto states that, “Tories wasted a decade serving the interests of big polluters”, echoing the sentiment of many speakers at the Durham Miners’ Gala. For example, in 2017, one speaker exclaimed that they should draw upon the lesson of the 1984-5 strikes today: that if “on the verge of achieving real change to working class people, the establishment will try to crush you”. Labour’s plans for a Green New Deal show not only the impact of economics on identity, but also, highlights the scars of neglect at the hands of a Tory government.

James Bloodworth also exclaimed in his somewhat scathing review of the Durham Miners’ Gala, that “when the past becomes an obsession, it can act as a dead weight on meaningful action in the present”. Is Labour’s Green New Deal an example of being too preoccupied with the past? Or should we be looking to it? Is an eye to the past not necessarily a bad thing, as Bloodworth states, but instead a chance to rectify past mistakes? 

Emily Glynn


Bibliography

Bloodworth, James, ‘Labour is becoming a historical re-enactment society’, International Business Times, 11 July 2017, https://www.ibtimes.co.uk/jeremy-corbyns-labour-tribute-act-socialism-trade-unions-back-nostalgic-leader-1570061 

Lawson, Jack, Peter Lee, (1949: London)

Labour Party ‘A Green Industrial Revolution’ Manifesto 2020

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