The social structure of the United Kingdom has historically been highly influenced by the concept of social class, which has continued to affect British society today. Despite the definitions of the social class being varied and highly controversial, most include references to wealth, occupation, education and location. One stereotype is that the “working-class” social group describes individuals of low education and limited skill. The socioeconomic term consists primarily of people who are employed in unskilled manual or industrial work such as jobs in ‘raw materials extraction/processing, in assembly and in machine shops of Britain’s major car factories, steel mills, coal mines, foundries and textile mills in the highly industrialised cities and pit towns and villages in the West Midlands, North of England, South Wales and the Scottish Lowlands’ (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_class_in_the_United_Kingdom)
A cultural identity formed around these working-class communities, with reliable jobs for generations of men, and towns and villages sprouting up around mines, mills and collieries. However, since the mid-1970s and early 1980s, industrialisation shattered many of these communities, the consequences of this being a complete deterioration in the quality of life and a reversal in rising living standards for the industrial working class. This was due to Thatcher’s government and her strive to privatise British industries, in particular, the privatisation of steel and mining industries and reducing trade unions power over the government. As a result of the failed nationwide miners’ strike of 1984, around 160,000 people lost their livelihoods where coal mining had been the principal form of employment, with many remaining unemployed for a long time due to governments lack of job creation.
‘Almost one million people were unemployed in 1979, but that rose rapidly in the early 1980s to 3 million and has never since fallen below one million.’ (https://workingclassstudies.wordpress.com/2013/04/23/thatcher-and-the-working-class-why-history-matters/). Most affected by this unemployment were the working class, who lost jobs in coal mines, factories, shipyards and steel mills from the 1980s onwards.
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s abrupt closure of mines and the privatisation of British industries such as coal, coke, and steel caused devastation across large areas of the country, with some places still affected to this day. These industries had provided a steady source of employment, homes for life, and a strong sense of belonging for generations of men. ‘A whole culture and identity had grown around coal mining, and with the loss of the mine, much of the cultural activities and infrastructure that had grown around it, from brass bands to working men’s clubs to NCB-sponsored sports and leisure facilities disappeared along with it’.
It goes without saying that a large amount of our identity as individuals comes from our cultural backgrounds with social class identity being one among multiple sources of our self-image. As well as this, a certain amount of national pride roots from the area where one is brought up, as you share many memories and experiences with your community, whether that comes from sports, traditions, locations or food.
This idea of class identity and the histories and implications that come with it are the main factors that influence my practice. Creativity often develops out of our thoughts, feelings and surroundings as well as family, memories and experiences. Coming from a northern background with the majority of my history containing working-class heritage, I have certain visual representations that come to mind when thinking of the North and working class. My practice is autobiographical with parts of my identity informing my practice, with a lineage of miners and labourers behind me, with the majority of my family tree consists of northern men and women, most recently within Yorkshire, who were part of working-class culture. This has then been collected and documented through objects, memorabilia and stories from family members. Within my current practice, it has been essential to identify imagery that relates to my community, life, family and experiences.
Social class and the politics surrounding class are not new subjects, they have a history, represented throughout many families. However, I am interested in exploring whether as individuals our relation to these class histories can restrict our view of the present, as well as what our cultural identity looks like now and its importance to our identity. Does looking through the lens of working-class political history help or hinder our experiences in the present? This is something I have been aiming to uncover within my practice, looking at myself and family history in conjunction and how they might fit or oppose each other. Symbolism has been important to my practice, taking influence from my perspective of working-class identity, looking at old photographs, old crafts like knitting and working with old collections and film negatives. I then take these symbols of my family’s working-class identity and bring them into the present, connecting them to myself. As well as using the old film negatives to unlock an unseen domestic history, with representations of working-class life often swept under the rug, I find it important to uncover them.