40 years on... Lord Barry recalls a battle for the soul of a community

Reporter:

Rob Bellis

IN 1971, shortly after he was elected as representative of the old constituency of East Flint, a young MP named Barry Jones convened a meeting at the famous red-brick offices of Shotton Steelworks.

The meeting was intended to kickstart a campaign for investment in the plant with the aim of expansion. But it was not to be.

Less than 12 months later and the MP, known for his passion, drive and his love for the community where he grew up and has lived his whole life, would be engaged in a very different campaign, a fight to stop the closure of the heavy end steel production at the site.

Over the past year, Baron Jones of Deeside, or Lord Barry, as we now know him, has been looking through recently released Cabinet papers from the time, recalling the drama of the crisis and the challenge faced.

The statesman of Shotton is now 73 but as he looks out over the Dee towards the now disused building where that meeting of hope was held almost 40 years ago, that same fire and steely determination are still evident in his stance and gaze.

But there is also a sadness. Partly at the decline of a once great industry, but more so a sadness for the plight of so many people who lost so much when production ceased in 1980, and for those he campaigned alongside whose health suffered, some of whom, he believes, even died because of the strain of the fight.

“In 1971 you had the occupation by the workforce of the upper Clyde shipyard,” Lord Barry recalled. “In ‘72 there was the bankruptcy of Rolls Royce and in ‘73 the OPEC nations increased the price of oil four-fold.

“By 1975 there was 27 per cent inflation. Then the smoke stacks started to fall, there was the growth of militancy and struggles.

“There were approximately 17 trade unions on site in Shotton which wasn’t unusual.

“These trade unionists were all campaigning with these pressures. I thought the county council, district and parish councils were wonderful in the support they gave. The Works Action Committee were a magnificent team. But they made their sacrifice in terms of their health.”

Lord Barry pointed to a photograph of himself and the late Arthur Davies of Garden City, a Shotton boilerman and ‘a stalwart of the Works Action Committee’.

The photograph was taken shortly before a march in London, both men sharing a look of anxiety at a time of huge tension. Mr Davies would later be taken gravely ill following a deputation to the English capital.

“It took its toll on everyone,” Lord Barry explained. “We had a big march from Garden City to Wepre Park in ‘76, a communal march and I think we addressed about 4,000 people.

“It was a cold day and shortly afterwards, Janet (Lady Janet, Lord Barry’s wife of more than 50 years) was taken ill and spent a month in Liverpool Royal Infirmary.

“I was a junior minister at the time and I would travel from London to Liverpool with two red boxes (for ministerial documents) – one for the way up, one for the way down – to see my wife in hospital. Then I fell ill and was admitted to Westminster hospital with a suspected tubercular kidney.

“This was just at the moment when everybody wanted to close Shotton Steelworks. It was a real problem – there was your wife just leaving hospital in Liverpool and you’re going into hospital in London.

“But nobody knew I was there – you daren’t be ill or if you were you daren’t let people know you were ill.”

Lord Barry had not just politics, but steel in his blood. The political came from his father who, on his return from fighting in the Second World War, had become an employee of the Labour movement.

Following the release of the steel white paper in 1972, proposing to eliminate the steel making capacity at Shotton, Barry Jones MP led a Shotton deputation to Downing Street where they were afforded a full hour and a half audience with Prime Minister Edward Heath.

After the meeting, the PM congratulated the Shotton team on their excellent presentation and, addressing the MP, asked:“And how is your father?” – they had been political opponents when Heath was elected to the Commons in 1950.

The legacy of steel came also from his father, who had worked at Shotton before the war, and from his grandfather who had earned his wage at the Summers works.

Lord Barry himself held a job at the steelworks for a time before moving into a career in teaching.

The implications of the white paper were staggering for Deeside and from the moment it had emerged, the fight had begun.

“We had to fight,” Lord Barry said, clenching a determined fist. “For me, it was action stations. With more than 12,000 people in your constituency employed in a steelworks you could not turn away from that challenge, and challenge it was.

Inevitably we were in competition with other areas for survival (a number of other British Steel Corporation sites were threatened). It’s the facts of life and they are often cruel.”

The fight rolled on for almost 10 years, during which time the East Flint MP met with some of the most prominent political figures of the age.

These included Denis Healey and Eric Varley, who years later would be Barry’s sponsors into the House of Lords, and Lord Frank Beswick, Minister of State for Industry whose focus was steel.

The crusading MP for East Flint met with Prime Minister Harold Wilson who he credits with holding off the closure during his term in office.

“He was a very kindly man,” Lord Barry mused. “He lived at Heswall where his father was leading the FE college on the Wirral. As a boy Harold was living in sight of the smoke stacks and blast furnaces. He was a member of the Scouts and his group would sometimes cycle to Moel Famau. His route would go through Queensferry, close to my home and past the works.

“I’m convinced that fired Harold’s interest in the future of Shotton Steel.”

But despite the best efforts of the Works Action Committee, the determined parliamentarian, the trade unionists and those who campaigned to keep steel production at Shotton, it seemed that the writing had been on the wall for the site since the early 70s, a demise compounded by the events of the decade.

But while Lord Barry speaks with great sadness about the redundancies and their consequences he is not bitter.

“You couldn’t have left it as it was if you were the government,” he admitted. “The bottom line was that the steel corporation was £1.5 billion in the red in 1975 and there was a need for action. I was very committed to ensuring that my community didn’t get hurt.

“The consequences of the closure were horrendous. The scale of unemployment was very scarring and I believe there have been long lasting effects. We had the most horrendous unemployment figures on some streets, estates and in some townships. There was as much as 20 per cent male unemployment and even higher in some localities.

“In our schools, the teaching force was presented with huge challenges because the troubles of the household could manifest themselves in the classroom. The social consequences were severe, it wasn’t just the loss of jobs and the economic impact, it was the social impact.”

The loss of steel production at Shotton was a huge blow for Deeside but, incredibly, glimmers of hope did emerge. The team and community effort throughout the campaign to save the steelworks and the supreme efforts made to secure future employment in the area are factors Lord Barry emphasises repeatedly.

He speaks with great pride that he was able to play a part in the formation of the Welsh Development Agency which secured the site of the Deeside Industrial Estate, Flintshire’s largest hub of employment, and that he saw the development of the vital A55 expressway.

“You look back with hindsight,” he concluded. “In 1970, when I arrived in Westminster, in Flintshire we had a marvellous coalmine at Point of Ayr, the rayon industry at Flint and Greenfield, one of the world’s foremost steelworks and the aerospace industry.

“We had farming, quarrying and brickmaking but we were largely dependent on three great industries. It was cyclical, vulnerable and subject to change in technology.

“Hindsight shows that we have a much more varied economy now. We have the great Deeside Industrial Park which it’s said produces 5,000 jobs across the board. I can recall 12 collieries across North East Wales, there’s not one now. They remodelled their economy with the great Redwither estate. In both cases the local authority took a very big role and, I think, that gave it its great name.

“Steel workers have to work together in teams and one of the main reasons that new industry was prepared to come here was that we had a great reputation as a workforce and for team support. That was the building block of the Deeside community in the early 20th century when Mr Summers planted his golden feet on the banks of the Dee and turned Shotton into the jewel in the crown of the steel industry.”

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