In a week dominated by the death of Margaret Thatcher and ongoing contestation over her memory and legacy, it seems fitting to receive my copy of a new book on The Invention of Industrial Pasts edited by Peter Itzen and Christian Müller. The themes of deindustrialisation, memory and heritage (in Germany as well as the UK) echo through its chapters.
My own focuses on the politics of ‘Remembering the Industrial Past in Modern Britain’ and the way that has changed since the 1980s, largely in response both to Thatcher’s own use of heritage and to the legacy of her period in office. In the late 1970s and 1980s, the industrial past was a source of active contestation, centering on critiques of the ‘heritage industry’, which was seen by many on the left to be playing into Thatcherite narratives by celebrating the capitalist values of the industrial revolution at the same time as framing large-scale manufacturing as inherently ‘of the past’. Industrial heritage projects were criticised for deriving a commercial benefit from a sanitised version of working-class history.
Since the 1980s and the conflicts which took place over the industrial present (and future) in that decade, industrial heritage projects have tended to play something of a cathartic role – reasserting local and regional pride in the wake of deindustrialisation and using history and memory as a way of coming to terms with the traumas of the recent past. This has been particularly important in former mining communities, which have undertaken oral history, local heritage and banner-making projects and also larger events such as Jeremy Deller’s re-enactment of the Battle of Orgreave and the BBC/AHRC Open Archive Project. Where this differs from older forms of labour movement heritage is that it is about using the past to create a liveable present, rather than paying tribute to the past for its own sake. It is about inspiration, rather than obligation.
I haven’t yet processed the outpourings of this week – the intertwining of national history, personal reminiscence and political nostalgia (both for and against Thatcher) that has taken place. Remembering that history and heritage were a deep source of contestation both during her governments and in the wake of them is perhaps a good place to start.