At first glance, Stephen Rhodes would seem an unlikely convert to Margaret Thatcher’s entrepreneurial revolution. A short, burly man with a bushy black moustache, Rhodes trained as a mechanic and spent nine years working in the coal mines around the South Yorkshire city of Barnsley. Like thousands of other British miners, Rhodes was thrown out of work in 1985 when the state-owned National Coal Board closed unprofitable pits at the end of a bitter yearlong miners’ strike. But four years later, Rhodes is running his own video production company, employing 21 people in state-of-the-art studios in a modernistic business centre on the northern edge of Barnsley. These days, his only connection with the mines is a half-hour document-
ary on the strike that he recently produced for Yorkshire Television.
Rhodes’s transition from miner to entrepreneur epitomizes the ethos of self-reliance that Thatcher has promoted for the past decade. And it is a sign that Barnsley, like much of the rest of battered northern England, is pulling out of the slump that blighted the region for most of that period and undermined Thatcher’s claim to have revived Britain’s economy. While the south boomed, the north reeled under Conservative government policies that destroyed hundreds of thousands of jobs in such old smokestack industries as steelmaking, shipbuilding and mining. But as Thatcher marks 10 years in power this week, her enterprise culture is putting down roots even in places that were once symbols of the old England of
subsidized industry and big unions.
Barnsley, a solidly working-class city of some 100,000 that is dominated by red-brick row houses, is such a place. As recently as 1984, about 20,000 people worked in a dozen nearby mines. But that year, the Thatcher government began accelerating mine closings. It was the closure of the Cortonwood colliery near Barnsley that provoked the radical National Union of Mineworkers to declare a strike. The South Yorkshire miners were among the most militant in Britain and fought pitched battles with police that left a legacy of bitterness in the region. After the union was defeated a year later in the greatest setback for Britain’s once-powerful labor movement in decades, the coal board closed the unprofitable pits. Only 3,000 mining jobs remain near Barnsley and most of those are still under threat.
Despair: The result was economic devastation. Unemployment soared to 29 per cent, living standards fell, and Barnsley became a byword for northern despair. “The whole country just abandoned us as a derelict community,” says city councillor Keith Borrett. “We had to rebuild completely.” Deserted minehead buildings, symbols of a failed past, were flattened, and the city began to woo outside investors in earnest. In the past 18 months, those efforts have started to show positive results. Several southern companies seeking cheaper land and labor have moved to Barnsley. Construction is soon to start on a $70million shopping centre in the middle of the
city, and some of the old mining sites are slated for alternative uses. Private investors have drawn up a plan for a $750-million leisure, housing and manufacturing centre atop one vacant colliery, and another company plans to turn a landscaped slag heap into a ski slope equipped with artificial snow machines.
Rebirth: Rhodes is playing a modest part in that rebirth, which has cut the city’s unemployment rate to 13 per cent. In 1983, two years before he lost his job in the mine, he bought a video camera for $2,000 and began filming weddings as a sideline. During the miners’ strike, he started to expand the business and opened an office after the mine closed in 1985.
He borrowed $80,000, bought new equipment and began making videos for companies in the Barnsley area.
Now, at the age of 38, he has persuaded investors to lend him $2 million, pays out $33,000 a month in wages—and is producing television commercials, corporate training films and documentaries in England, France and West Germany.
Rhodes exudes self-confidence. “We are looking globally,” he says. “If work has got to be done in Japan, we will go to Japan.” As he tells it, his drive to build his own business was born from a determination never to be manipu-
lated again by governments or big unions. “Everyone’s got the same chance in life,” he maintains in language that Thatcher would heartily endorse. “When one door closes, another opens—and you have got to walk through.”
For some other former miners, however,
the still-tentative revival of Barnsley has not yet touched their lives. In a string of villages in the Dearne Valley, a few miles east of Barnsley, unemployment runs as high as 80 per cent among men who once worked in the now-deserted coal mines. The few companies that have moved into the valley pay low wages, and a sense of hopelessness pervades its bedraggled communities. In the Dearne Enterprise Centre, a community centre in the village of Goldthorpe where former miners gather, a mention of Thatcher’s name invites only contempt. “Ten years of Thatcher? Ten years of misery,” snorts Sid Bryan, who lost his mining job in 1986 after 26 years. “She has taken everything - away.”
Upbeat: In Barnsley itself, the I mood is more upbeat—but much anger at Thatcher herself remains. “It was absolutely inevitable that the pits had to close,” says Borrett, a Labour Party member like all but a handful of his fellow city councillors. “We had to change,” he adds, “but there could have been a way to do it without the heartache and the pain. That’s what the people won’t forgive her for.”
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.