Rebecca Coulson is a freelance classical musician and writer, and the Conservative Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for the City of Durham.
You’re a Conservative PPC in Durham, and you did what? Agreed to an interview with the BBC for a programme on the thirty-year anniversary of the Easington miners’ strike? Are you stupid, or just insensitive?
Neither, I hope. We need to talk about the mines; for too long it’s been an impossible topic for Durham Conservatives to broach properly. And this just stokes existing hatred. Attempted approaches have varied from a cold factual rebuttal comparing Wilson and Thatcher’s statistics, to an inadequate, ‘I wasn’t alive in 1984.’ But it’s time we talked about it properly – together.
It shouldn’t be necessary to say this, but having been born here, it’s my heritage, too. My late grandmother’s family was heavily involved in the mining industry in Stanley, where she grew up. But one shouldn’t need a personal peg to address an issue – otherwise most of us couldn’t have opinions about the human rights travesties of North Korea, and men could never legitimately decry FGM.
What we need is discussion. Discussion, with the aim of reconciliation, in order to work together towards the future, whilst respecting and celebrating our region’s history. We need to banish unhelpful stereotypes. It’s hard to hate someone you respect, even if you fundamentally disagree with them, particularly if you share a teleology.
When I’m out on the streets here, talking with people about politics, it’s evident that times are changing. Localised political allegiances, and familial voting loyalties are waning. Rather, there’s an increasing desire simply to gain supportive representation, and to be given the chance to work hard, and do well for your family. And this makes Conservative policies inherently attractive, particularly in a region still suffering from below-average wages. Our straightforward but effective goals of keeping tax low, freezing fuel duty, improving access to excellent schooling (£350m of education funding has gone to the most disadvantaged North-East children) are working, and appreciated.
But we are still struggling up here, and whilst that’s the case everywhere, the towns which have been the hardest hit, like Easington, do need extra help. We must continue trying to replicate the local regeneration successes of the Teesside Development Corporation, and the Genesis Project in Consett – both highly successful, and both set up in the wake of the miners’ strike.
And we need to highlight recent regional successes. Feeding despondency is societally and fiscally unhelpful – particularly when we’re gradually clawing back economic solvency after the deepest recession since the Second World War. This week’s figures show the North East remaining one of the fastest growing regions in the country. Unemployment has fallen again this quarter, with 10,000 fewer North-Easterners out of work; we now have an employment rate of 70 per cent. Since 2010, the Conservative-led government has taken over 120,000 people out of income tax here, new apprenticeship starts are up by 120 per cent in the City of Durham constituency (and 111 per cent in Easington), and, of course, we’ve shown long-term commitment with last week’s ‘One North’ plans. But it’s a long game, and many haven’t been able to reap the country’s dividends yet.
Whilst the need for tough decisions in tough times reflects the friction of the Thatcher years, we must embrace the people of our region as more than a sum of its past. There’s more to the North East than an industrial history; we have to be careful not to place social and cultural dependency on an industry. North-Easterners aren’t famously kind-hearted and community-minded because of the mines. And yes, the collieries’ unions set up and funded their world-class brass bands, but where these continue to flourish without this subsidy it’s thanks to strong individual commitment and musical ability. Easier access to travel, the advent of the internet, and higher education standards mean that success is finding a job which suits you, rather than being geographically fortunate enough to know that there’ll always be work for you doing what your father did. Helping people to help themselves doesn’t just offer personal opportunity, it offers autonomy.
This reminds me of the Bishop of Jarrow’s inspiring sermon at last month’s Miner’s Gala festival service. The way in which he addressed the danger of blame, and the need for communities to work together when state funding just isn’t available, sounded suspiciously like (almost certainly unintentional) Conservatism. And I didn’t hear any boos.
For the record, I find the Miner’s Gala double-edged. I love its show of community strength, and of course, the bands – particularly the moment when their Ives-esque coexistent cacophonies become immured by Cathedral stone. But, as a child growing up in the centre of the city, I was frightened by the broken beer glasses, the torn copies of Hammer and Sickle, and the few comatose beach-attired drunks who managed, every year, to wreck the holiday atmosphere.
Unsurprisingly, I avoid the most leftist of its politics. I last went to the race-course speeches some years back when my (Labour-diehard) university best friend came up to see them, rather than me. Even he was amused by the level of ire at Tony Blair’s absence, when it was all over the press that he was at a G8 summit that day. But the Gala offers an unparalleled chance to commemorate the North East’s proud energy history.
And we can be at the energy forefront again here; indeed, in many ways, we already are. Most notably, we have Nissan, of course. Nissan, which feeds so much of the North-East jobs market, and is a world-leader in electric car production. Nissan, whose home in the North East, many people forget, was personally lobbied for and secured by Margaret Thatcher – in the same year as the miners’ strike.
And the world-class universities here and in Newcastle are a centre for academic energy study, at a time when stopping our reliance on fossil fuels is essential. Just one example is Durham University’s new government-funded muon-tomography project at Boulby Mine in Teeside. Its research will, hopefully, one day, help to enable the Carbon Capture and Storage dream – the massively expensive, yet massively promising potential solution to many of our environmental concerns. And at Blyth, on the coast, is the National Renewable Energy Centre. We now have both on- and off-shore wind farms in our region; recently wind power has managed to supply up to 10 per cent of the country’s electricity needs.
But, if the economy weren’t becoming more stable, would all of this still be happening? Because change, even necessary change, is expensive. This takes us back to what will undoubtedly be the most important focus in the run-up to next year’s election: fiscal solvency. For only by being allowed to continue this can we afford to focus on energy and the environment, and offer security here in the North East, and throughout our United Kingdom.
In this anniversary year, we must look forward as well as back – together.