A TOWN CALLED MALICE?
June 28 2016 was a warm, sunny day in Mansfield. As I made my way through the market place I paused at a second hand book stall to browse. Feeling buoyant with the sun on my neck I made a genial comment to the middle aged couple running the stall.
“What a lovely day. It’s like being abroad.” The response threw me. The woman snapped back: “We don’t need any ‘abroad’ here!” Which was followed by words almost spat at me by her partner: “No, we don’t. We’ve taken our country back!” That vitriolic undercurrent, replete with an unprecedented aversion to what was once regarded as friendly colloquial banter, an element of British ‘character’ had, thanks to the referendum, undermined sociability like a parasite, and in subsequent months, it has burrowed ever deeper.
Mansfield, historically the centre of the ancient Sherwood Forest, can be a bitter town. In the referendum the leavers won with 39,927 votes, giving them a victorious 70.9%, whilst the despised remainers gained just 16,417 votes, a measly 29.1% . The town has a large population of eastern European immigrants. In the town centre there’s a Rumanian mini-market, a larger Polish shop and another specialising in Russian produce. The Poles have always been a feature here since the end of WW2, when many came over to work in the coal industry. My next door neighbours are Poles from that wartime influx, and even though their offspring were born in Mansfield, among themselves they still speak Polish. Across the street is a house rented by a large group of Latvians. All of these immigrants have steady jobs. There is a very small Muslim community representing only 0.5% of the population. In a 2011 Mansfield census on religions 61% claimed to be Christian, with 7,036 people claiming to have no religion. 266 people announced they were Jedi Knights and 4 people said their faith was in Heavy Metal.
Apart from a blip between 1922-23 when Sir Albert Bennett, a Tory masquerading as a Liberal, held a short tenure as MP, since 1918 Mansfield had been staunchly Labour. But in May 2017, thanks to Brexit, the town’s lurch to the right saw the demise of Labour’s Sir Alan Meale MP with the election of 29 year old Tory Brexiteer Ben Bradley, who claims to have been inspired to stand because of ‘David Cameron’s compassion.’ Surprisingly, UKIP, with only 2,654 votes to Bradley’s 23,392 did not make an impression. That ship had already sailed.
Yet the UKIP flavoured animosity which pervades here is just one current facet of a further confrontational bitterness which has its roots in the Miners’ Strike of 1984. There’s always been a lot to be angry about in Mansfield. At one time Nottinghamshire, with 42 collieries and 40,000 miners, was one of the most successful coalfields in Europe. When I moved to Mansfield in March 1987, there were 13 pits in the area. Today there are none. During the strike, this was one area where Arthur Scargill’s rolling thunder hit a brick wall. When the NUM called for a strike Nottinghamshire’s miners demanded a ballot which the union never carried out. Nottinghamshire miners were the breach in the NUM’s wall of national solidarity. Nowhere during the conflict did the term ‘scab’ have more meaning than it did here. Following the strike, a significant part of the Nottinghamshire NUM broke away, led by their own ‘Judas’, Roy Lynk, to form the Union of Democratic Mineworkers (UDM). Spurned by the TUC yet beloved by the victorious Tories, the UDM came to signify the area’s apparent penchant for working class betrayal. The National Archives contain recently released classified files of the UDM’s clandestine meetings with Margaret Thatcher. Roy Lynk even wrote to Thatcher, stating “In 1984 fate threw us together, and I have always comforted myself with the knowledge that the UDM has a friend in the Prime Minister.” For the NUM that was bad enough, yet it appears that the UDM even advised the government on limiting miners’ power, submitting ways to make them work longer hours underground, offering suggestions to weaken the National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirers (NACODS), and in a privatised coal industry, how to minimise the impact of strikes. The UDM even recommended redundancies. Until relatively recently, when Mansfield Town or Nottingham Forest played certain teams, you’d still hear the chant of ‘Scabs! on the terraces. Even two decades after the strike its remaining social scars resulted in a murder in 2004 in nearby Annesley over crossing the picket lines during the dispute.
As for Thatcher’s pet ‘union’, the UDM, in the end it became obvious to the renegades they were due for the same pitiless treatment as the NUM. When Maggie’s naïve correspondent Roy Lynk, appalled at the pit closure plans, staged a week long sit-in down the Silverhill pit, many local miners said that if he hadn’t gone down the shaft they would have thrown him down anyway. For many ex-miners seeking compensation for various injuries, the UDM came across as lethargic in their support. This was hardly surprising when a subsequent chain of events revealed the misappropriation of millions in compensation funds by the union’s rogue solicitors, culminating in the imprisonment in April 2012 of the UDM’s president, Neil Greatrex, for the theft of almost £150,000 from an elderly miners’ charity.
Such bitterness has gestated down the years, morphing into a new target of disdain: Europe. Those ex-pitmen who have followed the demise of their industry will complain bitterly at the fact that the UK imported17.9 million tons of coal in 2016, a lot coming from Poland. Over 90 per cent of UK steam coal imports came from just three countries Russia, Colombia and the USA. To say foreigners are unpopular in Mansfield is an understatement. As one taxi driver commented to me recently, “Shopping in Tesco on a Friday night is like being in downtown Bratislava”. Following Labour’s defeat at the General Election, the editor of the town’s popular weekly newspaper, the Chad (Chesterfield Advertiser) Andy Done-Johnson, expressed his concerns in an editorial in July that post-Brexit Mansfield could possibly end up being regarded as ‘the most bigoted town in England’. He based his anxiety on the fact that Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn had called on Theresa May to give her MPs a free vote in legislation which would benefit the lives of transgender people. However, a counterintuitive sarcastic response by Professor Steven Fielding of Nottingham University’s politics department, “That’ll win back Mansfield” laid bare the growing liberal disdain for the town.
Mansfield’s defection to the Tories came about for two reasons. One was the somewhat lacklustre campaign by Labour’s Sir Alan Meale. It is well known that during his 30 year hold on the seat, Meale spent a lot of time commuting between Westminster and Brussels. Having always won comfortably in elections since 1987 Meale probably thought his 2017 victory was a given. This did not go down well with the Mansfield electorate as they digested a daily anti-immigrant UKIP diet of news from the ‘evil’ EU against which they had voted in such numbers to leave. With the perceived EU fence-sitting by Corbyn’s Labour, Mansfield voters rallied behind what they regarded as Theresa May’s more robust ‘Brexit at any cost’ campaign.
Mansfield’s District Council, with an elected Executive Mayor, is also the brunt of much dissatisfied grumbling. At one time, standing as a Tory in this town was political suicide, so right-thinking candidates for council election found an alternative niche between Labour and Tory – they called it The Independent Forum. This business-based challenge overturned decades of Labour rule. Yet the current Mayor, Councillor Kate Allsop, has been challenged by the only real Conservative on Mansfield District Council, Councillor Stephen Harvey. He is angry at the council’s £24 million pound investment in property, which stretches from Glasgow and Edinburgh to London. This includes a Travelodge in Doncaster, brought for £5 million in June 2015, and another in Edinburgh for £7.98m, the Glasgow Volkswagen Van Centre, £2.98m as well as other multi-million pound properties out of the area, including a 2017 London residential investment of £6.23m. Despite concerns about a country with Human Rights issues, Mansfield has also put £7m into the biggest bank in the United Arab Emirates, First Abu Dhabi Bank. However, local leisure centres, such as the one at Warsop, are to close due to lack of investment. Defending these investments, councillors will remind grumblers that money from central government for the council has dropped from £10.3 million in 2011 to £5.4 million today, and that by 2020 there will be no money at all for local councils from Westminster. Thus councillors face a learning curve as property investors and trainee venture capitalists hoping for a sizeable return.
How ‘taking our country back’ will pan out in Mansfield after the drawbridge is raised in 2019 remains to be seen. It is easy to see why the hated, mythical ‘Liberal Metropolitan Elite’ would regard the town’s 40,000 over amplified Euro sceptics as some mass movement of bigotry. Yet every township has its redeeming cultural factors, past and present. Alternative comedians such as Andy Parsons and Rich Hall both sold out at the town’s Palace Theatre. Mansfield produced one of the world’s greatest classical pianists, John Ogdon – and even Alvin Stardust was a Mansfield lad. We have our own Olympic Gold Medallist swimming star, Rebecca Adlington, and an internationally famous girls’ choir, Cantamus. There’s the constantly good humoured and entertaining battle between Mansfield and Yorkshire to keep Robin Hood as our local hero, and this also is the home of Robert Dodsley (1704 –1764) playwright, bookseller, poet, and miscellaneous writer. His premises still stand next door to the Brown Cow pub on Ratcliffe Gate. Few people realise that Mansfield is the birthplace of the Quaker religion. George Fox, the founder of the Quaker Movement, lived as a shoemaker in Mansfield and began to establish the religion in 1647. The site of Mansfield’s award-winning new bus station is located on the site of where the Old Quaker Meeting House and burial ground once stood.
In the final analysis, it’s too early and perhaps unfair to label this bustling East Midlands town as bigoted. Yet the next time the sun shines and I’m browsing at the book stall on the market, I shall keep my mouth shut. As the lady said; “We don’t need any ‘abroad’ here…”
BSA: Racial Prejudice by Region https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2014/may/27/-sp-racism-on-rise-in-britain
Coal statistics http://www.coalimp.org.uk