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A Community of Strength: the Compelling History Behind Sting's Hometown

Shipbuilding, Protest & the Power of Community Action in Working Class, 20th-Century England

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The cast of 'The Last Ship.'

Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

The Last Ship—onstage at the Ahmanson January 14 – Febuary 16, 2020, is set in Sting’s hometown of Wallsend, Tyne and Wear: a town in North East England with a rich history of not only shipbuilding, but community action. The show is set in 1986; strikes and unrest have roiled British industry for some time, and, under the leadership of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the shipbuilding industry that has been the lifeblood of the region is about to be privatized, threatening the livelihood of the community. Here, two historians based in North East England, at Newcastle University—Dr. Martin Farr, Senior Lecturer in Modern and Contemporary British History, and Dr. Matt Perry, Reader in Labour History and author of ‘Red Ellen’ Wilkinson: Her Ideas, Movements and World—have offered deeper historical background into the political climate that preceded the events of The Last Ship and how the demise of a company town can devastate a community.

Martin Farr on the Ridley Plan

One of the reasons the Conservative Government elected in Britain in 1979 under Margaret Thatcher was so significant was that it was as much, if not more than, the Labour Government elected in 1945 under Clement Attlee, the 20th-century British government that had the clearest sense of what it wanted to do. Which was, in essence, to fragment the legacy of the 1945 government. The Conservative Government elected in 1970 under Edward Heath also had a clear sense of what it wanted to achieve, which was similar, but it bawked at the opposition it provoked. The Heath government’s change of heart became known as the “U-turn,” and the memory of that betrayal became as intense for some conservatives as that of Ramsay MacDonald in 1931 was for many socialists. The humiliation of the Heath government was one of the animating forces behind the determination of the Thatcher government not to repeat it once in office.

The Ridley Plan

The Ridley Plan was a part of the Conservatives’ preparation for power. Its author, Nicholas Ridley (second son of the third Viscount Ridley, who helped establish the University of Newcastle in 1963), was perhaps the most Thatcherite of all of Thatcher’s ministers. He resigned from the Heath government in 1972 over what he saw as its betrayal, and formed the Selsdon Group the following year “to influence the Conservative Party so that it embraces economic and social policies which extend the boundaries of personal choice.”

The Selsdon Group espoused free-market policies, privatization of nationalized industries, and cuts in taxation and government spending. Only in private provision of health care and education vouchers did it want to go further than Thatcher was to deem practicable. Nevertheless, Thatcher’s government was, as Ridley entitled his memoirs, My Style of Government. In 1977, with a minority Labour Government in office, a general election could take place at any time. A manifesto needed to be prepared, and as part of that, “we must take every precaution possible to strengthen our defenses against all-out attack.”

Keith Joseph, commonly regarded as the principal architect of Thatcherism, commissioned the Nationalized Industries Policy Group Report. In 28 pages, the report diagnosed the essential problem of nationalized industries, and, indeed, the state-supported public sector: “immunity from bankruptcy.” The threat of failure incentivized the private sector; it followed that publicly run services were incapable of efficiency.

There were five stages to what became known as the Ridley Plan. The first was to allow for government to pay a higher wage to public sector workers than the going rate: “if the policy can survive intact by paying higher than average wage claim it would be a victory.” The second was that “a victory on ground of our choosing would discourage an attack on more vulnerable ground.” This suggested “non-vulnerable” industries to be targeted included British Rail, British Leyland, or British Steel.

Denationalization of such industries, or, as the report put it, their “return to the private sector,” was the strategy. On page 24, in a “Confidential Annex,” was the tactic called “Countering the Political Threat.” In this section, Ridley said, “We must be prepared for these stratagems to fail, and we must take every precaution possible to strengthen our defenses against all-out attack in a highly vulnerable industry… the most likely area is coal.”

The report predicted that the trigger would be “redundancies or closures.” The miners’ strike of 1972, and in particular the Battle of Saltley Gate coke works (“the miners’ Agincourt”) was instructive: the next battle should only commence with the maximum quantity of coal stockpiled, with plans in place for coal imports and the employment of non-unionized haulage drivers. The cutting of state funds for strikers “is clearly vital,” and “the problem of violent picketing” required “a large, mobile squad of police who are prepared and equipped to uphold the law.”

The report was leaked, a row ensued, and the report was disavowed; however, the intent was known. The Ridley Plan became demonized on the left, as an order of battle for war against the forces of labor. Indeed, the plan could not have been more prescient. Ridley had predicted “there is no doubt that at some time the enemies of the next Tory Government will try to destroy this policy.” He expected the challenge to come six to 10 months after the election. As with much else in the plan, that also proved to be correct, except that the election the challenge followed was not that of 1979, but of 1983, when the government was re-elected with a parliamentary majority not seen since 1945. As it concluded, eight years earlier, implementation of the Ridley Plan “should enable us to hold the fort until the long term strategy of fragmentation can begin to work.” Right after coal, shipbuilding—which was central to the region from which the Ridleys originated—was next on the list of industries where “the scope for fragmentation ... is greatest.”

Matt Perry on Red Ellen and The Town That Was Murdered

In 1936, the Member of Parliament representing Jarrow (across the River Tyne from Wallsend) was Ellen Wilkinson, known as Red Ellen due to her hair color and politics. She fought for the vote for women, led equal pay strikes during the Great War, testified to Black and Tan violence in the Irish War of Independence, met Lenin and Trotsky in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, visited Gandhi in jail during the civil disobedience movement, exposed Hitler’s plans to march into the Rhineland, and visited Spain during the Civil War.

She also wrote a devastating account of the closure of a shipyard called The Town That Was Murdered, published just before the outbreak of World War II. She applied her training as a historian to produce a brilliant polemic against unemployment and poverty under capitalism. It was the I, Daniel Blake of its day. In her view, the text was neither a guidebook nor a complete history of the town, but a “biography with a thesis” or a “life history of Jarrow.” She viewed Jarrow with its strike movements and its martyrs as “an illustrated footnote to British working-class history,” recalling the 1832 and 1844 strikes to unionize the Durham coalfield and the agitation for a nine-hour day from 1866–1872 in shipbuilding and engineering.

Her book charted Jarrow’s half century as a company town. Skilled workers from the Midlands and Irish laborers arrived during the good times of expansion, but capitalist growth was chaotic and interrupted by “bad times.” During these, unemployment and hardship grew, families crowded together under the same roof, and malnourishment increased. Ill health and epidemics of infectious diseases followed. Wilkinson presented a picture of a company able to exert local political control, pulling the strings of the local council.

This influence was used to resist the increases in the rates necessary to improve health and education. The price was a “heavy toll of human sacrifice” with above average death rates worsened by the absence of an isolated hospital for infectious disease and inadequate sanitation in the town. Diarrhea killed large numbers of children due to old-fashioned toilets. Wilkinson then explained the closure of the yard. The industry set up the National Shipbuilders Security Ltd (NSS) to restore profits by cutting shipbuilding capacity. The NSS’s decision to close Palmers Shipbuilding and Iron Company Limited included a 40-year moratorium on shipbuilding at the yard.

Wilkinson then recounted the cruel drama of the denial of a modern steelworks for Jarrow, blocked by the steel industry and the banks. In a case that she rehearsed in public meetings the length of the Jarrow Crusade, big business in the shape of the organizations of steel and shipbuilding employers had conspired to “murder” Jarrow. This motif was deployed with the receivership of Palmers and its acquisition by the NSS: “And so, in a dull court-room in London on the last day of June 1933, the fate of Jarrow was decided… An unknown company, its real backers hidden, cut Jarrow’s lifeline.” She carefully spelled out Jarrow’s social conditions: the inadequate relief, the difficulties for the council to raise money from the local rates, the exceptionally high maternal and infant mortality and slum housing. Connecting Jarrow’s story to the case for socialism, she concluded that, though profiteers might ravage a town and move on elsewhere, the workers have a stronger attachment to place: They were crowded into hovels, their children starved and died, and on their sacrifice, great capital has been accumulated.

Some might say that all this is no longer relevant today, that those who look to an industrial past are indulging in nostalgia. Yet, today’s “gig economy” operated at the gates of shipyards and the docks every morning in the 1930s. In food bank Britain, inequalities in health and wealth are comparable to those of then. The danger is that those hostile to the rights of working people—the Trumps, Le Pens, and UKIPs—capitalize on the pain of deindustrialization. Within six years of writing The Town That Was Murdered, Wilkinson became Minister of Education in the 1945 Labour Government that introduced the welfare state and promised that there would be no return to the 1930s.

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