Student Work

An English Town's Pilgrimage to Brexit

An English Town's Pilgrimage to Brexit: Coal Mining, New Labour, and White Working-Class Decay

Thesis by Francesca Edwards '18

Abstract: In recent elections, the (white) working class has become an explanatory spectre. They have come under scrutiny as the author of the present political moment, such as Britain’s exit from the European Union and Donald Trump’s presidential victory. My thesis seeks to understand how the working class has gone from flexing their electoral strength in the 1970s, to this apparently hard shift to the right of the political spectrum. My thesis focuses on Rotherham, a town in Northeast England that was once an epicentre of industry, specifically with regards to coal mining. Using archival materials authored by the Rotherham working class, I seek to elucidate the 1984-85 miners’ strike; the effects of the coal mining pit-closure programme on Rotherham residents; New Labour’s eradication of class as a point of orientation in understanding cultural and economic standing in British society, and the rise of UKIP in the region, culminating in Rotherham residents’ overwhelming decision to vote Leave in the Brexit referendum. Today, the coal industry is memorialised as the image of working-class solidarity and security in the region. As commemoratives of the industry are erected, such as the ‘Yorkshire Man of Steel’, the loss of the coal mining industry is mourned in pubs, homes, and on Rotherham streets. The loss of an imagined future befell in the 1990s; a future that guaranteed economic and cultural security for residents and their children. A critique is offered on using the illusory ‘white working class’ as a scapegoat for confronting underlying public opinion—which has remained consistently pervasive for the last 30 years—in key areas of national politics.