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Nothing Left but Smoke and Mirrors: Deindustrialisation and the Remaking of British Communities, 1957-1992


In the late 1950s, the United Kingdom remained a heavily industrialised country, with nearly 40 per cent of its workforce employed in manufacturing. Today, that figure is well below 10 per cent. Industries that were at the centre of Britain’s rise to world power in the 19th century, including textiles, shipbuilding, and steelmaking, have disappeared entirely or been reduced to a tiny fraction of their former size. Although deindustrialisation is a global phenomenon, and one which is ongoing, the deindustrialisation of Britain was the most rapid and sustained of any country in the global north. It has had profound and lasting effects on the lives of individuals, families, and communities. Using material from archives across the UK, including government documents, the files of local organisations, and community oral history projects, this dissertation is a comprehensive study of deindustrialisation and its impacts on mid-to-late 20th century Britain.

This dissertation broadens the temporal frame of study away from a narrow focus on the 1980s, arguing that deindustrialisation’s effects were felt much earlier than the election of Margaret Thatcher and demonstrating the complex bi-directional relationship between industrial decline and the rise of Thatcherite policies. Critically, I argue that deindustrialisation was fundamentally connected to the end of empire, and that it both intersected with pre-existed inequalities in postwar British society and demonstrated the hollowness of the promises of the postwar welfare state. Deindustrialisation impacted women and Commonwealth citizens as much or more as it did white male Britons. I also explore the significant yet understudied role of local organisations, including neighbourhood associations, clubs and support groups, in responding to the effects of deindustrialisation and also to the subsequent abandonment of government. I argue that these organisations often represented a transformation in local political assumptions and helped spur a painful process of adaptation to the post-industrial reality.

In order to capture the diversity of impacts and responses to deindustrialisation, this dissertation is structured around four interconnected case studies drawn from across the UK: Oldham, Belfast, Coventry, and Motherwell. This approach allows for the comparison of deindustrialisation’s impact in the different nations of the UK, in fragmented and centralised industries, in male and female dominated sectors, and in both multi-racial and primarily white communities. However, the case studies also demonstrate the commonalities and connections across the entire UK, as deindustrialisation remade communities and left behind complex physical and emotional legacies.

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