To say that society is shaped by the relations underpinning the way that economic activity is organized is not a new idea. It is most famously associated with Karl Marx, but you don’t have to be a Marxist to recognise that culture, customs and civic life are all to some degree influenced by economic forces.
Britain’s economy, like other advanced countries, has undergone immense change in recent decades. An economic model that was once highly dependent on manufacturing and mining in the North, Midlands, Scotland and Wales, has given way to one which has prioritised London’s status as a global hub for financial services, while leaving other regions to suffer from industrial decline.
From the 1840s to the 1960s, manufacturing employed roughly 40% of workers. Now it employs only 8%. Between 2005 and 2010 alone, 600,000 manufacturing jobs disappeared. Secure, unionised jobs have been replaced with low skilled, insecure service-orientated roles. Globalisation has swept away entire industries, while advances in computer processing and networked communication has transformed the nature of work. The impact across society has been enormous.
Few places embody these changes more dramatically than Shirebrook, the small town in the Bolsover district of north-east Derbyshire, on the border with Nottinghamshire. A key mining area for over a century, the closure of Shirebrook Colliery in 1993 left a gaping hole economic and social fabric of the community. Today the site of the colliery is still home to the town’s major employer. But the employer is no longer British Coal – it is Sports Direct.
The firm’s national distribution centre was established there in 2005 and employs around 5,000 people. Most are employed on zero-hour contracts, and last year a parliamentary committee said working conditions at the warehouse resembled ‘Victorian workhouse’. A significant number of the workers were recruited from eastern Europe. The council estimates that up to 1,500 people migrant workers arrived in Shirebrook within just a few years.
Such rapid changes have been a source of tension in the community. In last year’s EU referendum, Bolsover returned one of the highest Leave votes, at 70.3%.
For civil society, the challenge is how to adapt in such a fast changing world. Many of the traditional pillars of civil society, such as trade unions and charities, emerged in the context of an economy which no longer exists.
I visited Shirebrook, as part of Civil Society Futures to speak to people about how civil society is responding to these changes. In the village hall I spoke to Ian, a volunteer with the trade union Unite who teaches English to Eastern European migrant workers. He explained that breaking down language barriers is an important way to build cohesion in the workplace and in the community: “We are helping people become members of our community – regardless of where they come from.”
Unite has also pioneered a number of innovative approaches to draw attention to Sports Direct and help affected workers. In 2015, it launched a confidential advice and support line as part of a campaign to confront abusive work practices, and this was followed by a national campaign year in 30 cities, collecting 20,000 signatures on a petition. In 2016 the union won a £1 million back-payment for workers who had been paid less than the minimum wage.
Recent migrants are also contributing to a flourishing of new initiatives designed to build community cohesion. On the main square, I spoke to Natalia, who runs the Two Flags restaurant and café. She explained that she started the café to break down some of the barriers that existed between different cultures in the area: “It’s very important to bring people together from different cultures. My hope is that people will come to (the) café and talk to each other, try new food, and learn from each other.” As well as running the café Natalia also volunteers with the local police and provides translation services for people new to the area.
Change, of course, is nothing new. A cursory review of the history of Shirebrook shows that it has always been a place of change and upheaval. In 1891 the town only had a population of 567, but by 1901 this had increased tenfold to over 6,200 following the opening of the colliery 1896.
People moved to Shirebrook from across the UK and further afield at a scale even bigger than the immigration seen in the last decade. A contemporary account recorded by the Durham Miners’ Museum describes an issue familiar in the town today: “unfortunately the houses were not being built fast enough to satisfy the tremendous growth in population which Shirebrook was experiencing. Some people had to live in tents and huts which were erected in nearby fields. This in turn led to health and hygiene difficulties.”
In that context, a new community came together. In 1898, there was a major strike. Miners were joined by “enginemen and firemen” and shut the pit down, demanding better safety conditions. The mine’s owners tried to bring workers in from Glasgow and South Wales to break the strike, but both accepted train fairs home when they found a picket line. Gradually, conditions improved. The Shirebrook model village – social housing built by the colliery – provided homes for the new miners.
In other words, the advent of coal mining itself led to the emergence of new forms of civic society such as trade unions, social clubs, and sports teams – many of which still have a strong presence in the area.
As the example of Shirebrook illustrates, economic change is nothing new. The challenge for civil society is to understand it, to grasp it and to shape it. Looking ahead to the future, this means thinking about the challenges and opportunities posed by climate change, artificial intelligence, automation and an aging population, to name just a few. And let’s not forget about Brexit.
But civil society doesn’t need to be a passive bystander. It can either shape the economy, or be shaped by it. The future of the country hangs in the balance – why should it be left to the state and the market? Civil society can surely lead the way.