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Britain and the World, 1979-84: A post-imperial postscript.   Leave a comment

Keith Joseph, Margaret Thatcher’s main supporter in her election as Conservative leader and in her early governments, once said that, in the past, Britain’s trouble had been that she had never had a proper capitalist ruling class. In 1979, the first Thatcher government sought consciously to put this right. The task it set itself was daunting – the liberation of British enterprise from a hundred years of reactionary accretions, in order to return the machine to the point along the path where it had stood when it was diverted away. It was helped by the fact that, with the empire gone, very little remained to sustain the older, obstructive, pre-capitalist values any longer, or to cushion Britain against the retribution her industrial shortcomings deserved. This movement promised to mark the real and final end of empire, the Thatcher government’s determination to restore the status quo ante imperium, which meant, in effect, before the 1880s, when imperialism had started to take such a hold on Britain. Thatcher looked back to the Victorian values of Benjamin Disraeli’s day, if not to those of William Gladstone. She itemized these values in January 1983 as honesty, thrift, reliability, hard work and a sense of responsibility. This list strikingly omitted most of the imperial values, like service, loyalty and fair play, though she did, later on, add ‘patriotism’ to them. Nevertheless, the new patriotism of the early 1980s was very different from that of the 1880s, even when it was expressed in a way which seemed to have a ring of Victorian imperialism about it.

Part of the backdrop to the Falklands War was the residual fear of global nuclear war. With hindsight, the Soviet Union of Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko may seem to be a rusted giant, clanking helplessly towards a collapse, but this is not how it seemed prior to 1984. The various phases of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties (START) were underway, but to well-informed and intelligent analysts the Soviet empire still seemed mighty, belligerent and unpredictable. New SS20 missiles were being deployed by the Soviets, targeted at cities and military bases across western Europe. In response, NATO was planning a new generation of American Pershing and Cruise missiles to be sited in Europe, including in Britain. In the late winter of 1979 Soviet troops had begun arriving in Afghanistan, Mikhail Gorbachev was an obscure member of the Politburo working on agricultural planning, and glasnost was a word no one in the West had heard of. Poland’s free trade union movement, Solidarity, was being crushed by a military dictator. Following the invasion of Afghanistan, President Carter had issued an ultimatum: the Soviets must withdraw or the United States would boycott the Moscow Olympic Games due to be held in the summer of 1980. Margaret Thatcher supported the call for a boycott, but the British Olympic Association showed its independence from government and defiantly sent a team, supported by voluntary contributions from students, among others. Two British middle-distance runners, Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett each won gold medals.

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Western politics echoed with arguments over weapons systems, disarmament strategies and the need to stand up to the Soviet threat. Moscow had early and rightly identified Margaret Thatcher as one of its most implacable enemies. She had already been British Prime Minister for eighteen months when Ronald Reagan’s administration took over in Washington. He may have been many things Thatcher was not, but like her, he saw the world in black and white terms, especially in his first term to 1984. She was from a Methodist background, he was from a Presbyterian one, so they both shared a view of the world as a great stage on which good and evil, God and Satan, were pitched against each other in endless conflict. Reagan found a ‘soul mate’ in Thatcher. Already dubbed the ‘Iron Lady’ by the Russians, Thatcher was resolute in her determination to deregulate government and allow the benefits of capitalism to flourish at home and abroad. Although the UK was committed to Europe, Thatcher was also a strong believer in Britain’s “enduring alliance” with the United States. Reagan and Thatcher saw eye-to-eye on many key issues. Their shared detestation of socialism in general and Soviet communism, in particular, underpinned their remarkably close personal relationship which was eventually to help steer the world away from Armageddon.

Of course, in a sense, the Falklands War of 1982 could be seen as an imperial war, fought as it was over a fag-end of Britain’s old empire: but that was an accident. There was no imperial rationale for the war. Britain did not fight the Argentines for profit, for potential South Atlantic oil reserves (as some suggested), or for the security of her sea lanes, or indeed for the material or spiritual good of anyone. She fought them for a principle, to resist aggression and to restore her government’s sovereignty over the islands in the interests of the islanders themselves. The war also served to restore to Britain some of the national pride which many commentators had long suggested was one of the other casualties of the empire’s demise. That was what made an otherwise highly burdensome operation worthwhile if that sense of pride could be translated into what Sir Nicolas Henderson had described three years earlier as a sense of national will. Similarly, Margaret Thatcher believed that if British Leyland could be injected with some of the same ‘Falklands spirit’ then there was no reason why British industry could not reverse its decline. The popular jingoism the affair aroused and encouraged showed that a post-imperial Britain would not necessarily be a post-militaristic one. But it was not an imperial jingoism per se, more one which expressed a national pride and patriotism. It did not indicate in the least that ‘imperialism’ proper was about to be resurrected, even if that were practicable; or that anyone intended that it should be.

However proud Britons were to have defended the Falklands, no one was particularly proud any longer of having them to defend. Most of Britain’s remaining colonial responsibilities were regarded now as burdens it would much rather be without and would have been if it could have got away with scuttling them without loss of honour or face. In her new straitened circumstances, they stretched its defence resources severely, and to the detriment of its main defence commitment, to NATO. They also no longer reflected Britain’s position in the world. When Hong Kong and the Falklands had originally been acquired, they had been integral parts of a larger pattern of commercial penetration and naval ascendancy. They had been key pieces in a jigsaw, making sense in relation to the pieces around them. Now those pieces had gone and most of the surviving ones made little sense in isolation, or they made a different kind of sense from before. If the Falklands was an example of the former, Hong Kong was a good example of the latter, acting as it now did as a kind of ‘cat-flap’ into communist China. The Falklands was the best example of an overseas commitment which, partly because it never had very much value to Britain, now had none at all.

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Diplomatically, the Falklands ‘Crisis’ as it was originally known, was an accident waiting to happen, no less embarrassing for that. At the time, the defence of western Europe and meeting any Soviet threat was the main concern, until that began to abate from 1984 onwards. The British Army was also increasingly involved in counter-insurgency operations in Northern Ireland. Small military detachments helped to guard remaining outposts of the empire such as Belize. But Argentine claims to the Falklands were not taken seriously, and naval vessels were withdrawn from the South Atlantic in 1981. In April 1982, though, Argentina launched a surprise attack on South Georgia and the Falklands and occupied the islands.

001Even if oil had been found off its shores, or South Georgia could have been used as a base from which to exploit Antarctica, Britain was no longer the sort of power which could afford to sustain these kinds of operations at a distance of eight thousand miles. The almost ludicrous measures that had to be put into place in order to supply the Falklands after May 1982 illustrate this: with Ascension Island serving as a mid-way base, and Hercules transport aircraft having to be refuelled twice in the air between there and Port Stanley, in very difficult manoeuvres. All this cost millions, and because Britain could not depend on the South American mainland for more convenient facilities.

But it was not only a question of power. Britain’s material interests had contracted too: especially her commercial ones. For four centuries, Britain’s external trade had used to have a number of distinctive features, two of which were that it far exceeded any other country’s foreign trade and that most of it was carried on outside Europe. However, between 1960 and 1980, Britain’s pattern of trade had shifted enormously, towards Europe and away from the ‘wider world’. In 1960, less than thirty-two per cent of Britain’s exports went to western Europe and thirty-one per cent of imports came from there; by 1980, this figure had rocketed to fifty-seven per cent of exports and fifty-six per cent of imports. In other words, the proportion of Britain’s trade with Europe grew by twenty-five per cent, compared to its trade with the rest of the world. Of course, this ‘shift’ was partly the result of a political ‘shift’ in Britain to follow a more Eurocentric commercial pattern, culminating in the 1975 Referendum on EEC membership.

By 1980 Britain was no longer a worldwide trading nation to anything like the extent it had been before. Moreover, in 1983, a symbolic turning-point was reached when, for the first time in more than two centuries, Britain began importing more manufactured goods than it exported. It followed that it was inappropriate for it still to have substantial political responsibilities outside its own particular corner of the globe. British imperialism, therefore, was totally and irrevocably finished, except as a myth on the right and the left. I remember Channel Four in the UK screening a programme called ‘the Butcher’s Apron’ in 1983 which argued, from a left-wing perspective, that it was still very much alive, and that the Falklands War was clear evidence of this. Likewise, there were, and still are, many nationalists in Scotland and Wales who used the term as a metaphor for the ‘domination’ of England and ‘the British state’ over their countries. Of course, in historical terms, they could only do this because the British Empire was a thing of the past, and the sending of Welsh guardsmen to recover islands in the South Atlantic was an unintended and embarrassing postscript, never to be repeated.

The imperial spirit had dissipated too, despite Mrs Thatcher’s brief attempt to revive it in Falklands jingoism and whatever might be said by supercilious foreign commentators who could not credit the British for having put their imperialist past behind them so soon after Suez and all that and certainly by 1970, when they had abandoned overseas defence commitments ‘east of Suez’. But Britain had indeed left its past behind it, even to the extent of sometimes rather rudely ‘putting its behind in its past’ to emphasise the point. Scattered around the globe were a few little boulders, ‘survivals’ from the imperial past, which were no longer valued by Britain or valuable to her. There were also some unresolved problems, such as Rhodesia, which became Zimbabwe, as an independent territory in 1980. Britain had clearly dissociated itself from its white racist leaders even at the cost of bringing an ‘unreconstructed Marxist’ to power. After that, smaller island colonies in the Caribbean and the Pacific continued to be granted their independence, so that by 1983 the Empire had effectively ceased to exist.

In 1984 Bernard Porter wrote, in the second edition of his book on British imperialism, that it was…

… unlikely that any subsequent edition of this book, if the call for it has not dried up completely, will need to go beyond 1980, because British imperialism itself is unlikely to have a life beyond then. That chapter of history is now at an end.

It was not a very long chapter, as these things go; but it is difficult to see how it could have been. The magnificent show that the British empire made at its apogee should not blind us to its considerable weaknesses all through. Those who believe that qualities like ‘will’ and ‘leadership’ can mould events might not accept this, of course; but there was nothing that anyone could have done in the twentieth century to stave off the empire’s decline. It was just too riddled with contradictions.

The Imperialists themselves were the first to predict the decline; that Britain could not help but be overhauled and overshadowed by the growing Russian and American giants. Britain did not have the will to resist this development and the empire was not, in any case, a fit tool for resistance. While Britain had it, in fact, the Empire was rarely a source of strength to the ‘mother country’, despite the attempts of imperialists to make it so.

A part of the narrative of the Falklands Crisis not revealed at the time was the deep involvement, and embarrassment, of the United States. Mrs Thatcher and President Reagan had already begun to develop their personal special relationship. But the Argentine junta was important to the US for its anti-Communist stance and as a trading partner. Prior to 1982, the United States had supported the Argentine generals, despite their cruel record on human rights, partly because of the support they gave the ‘Contras’ in Nicaragua. Therefore, they began a desperate search for a compromise while Britain began an equally frantic search for allies at the United Nations. In the end, Britain depended on the Americans not just for the Sidewinder missiles underneath its Harrier jets, without which Thatcher herself said the Falklands could not have been retaken, but for intelligence help and – most of the time – diplomatic support too. These were the last years of the Cold War. Britain mattered more in Washington than any South American country. Still, many attempts were made the US intermediary, the Secretary of State, Alexander Haig, to find a compromise. They would continue throughout the fighting. Far more of Thatcher’s time was spent reading, analysing and batting off possible deals than contemplating the military plans. Among those advising a settlement was the new Foreign Secretary, Francis Pym, appointed after Lord Carrington’s resignation. Pym and the Prime Minister were at loggerheads over this and she would punish him in due course. She had furious conversations with Reagan by phone as he tried to persuade her that some outcome short of British sovereignty, probably involving the US, was acceptable.

Thatcher broke down the diplomatic deal-making into undiplomatic irreducibles. Would the Falkland Islanders be allowed full self-determination? Would the Argentine aggression be rewarded? Under pulverizing pressure she refused to budge. She wrote to Ronald Reagan, who had described the Falklands as that little ice-cold bunch of land down there, that if Britain gave way to the various Argentine snares, the fundamental principles for which the free world stands would be shattered. Reagan kept trying, Pym pressed and the Russians harangued, all to no avail. Despite all the logistical problems, a naval task force set sail, and with US intelligence support, the islands were regained after some fierce fighting.

Back in London in the spring of 1984, Margaret Thatcher’s advisers looked into the new, younger members of the Soviet Politburo who had emerged under Konstantin Chernenko, the last of the ‘old guard’. He was old and frail, like his predecessor, Yuri Andropov. The advisors to the Prime Minister wondered with whom she, and they, would be dealing with next, and issued a number of invitations to visit Britain. By chance, the first to accept was Mikhail Gorbachev, who visited Thatcher in London. He arrived with his wife, Raisa, itself remarkable, as Soviet leaders rarely travelled with their wives. By comparison to the old men who had led the Soviet Union for twenty years, the Gorbachevs were young, lively and glamorous. The visit was a great success. After Thatcher and Gorbachev met, the Prime Minister was asked by reporters what she thought of her guest. She replied with a statement that, again with the benefit of hindsight, was to usher in the final stage of the Cold War:

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Sources:

David Killingray (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books.

Bernard Porter (1984), A Short History of British Imperialism, 1850-1983. Harlow: Longman.

Andrew Marr (2008), A History of Modern Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan Pan.

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The Rise of Thatcherism in Britain, 1979-83: Part Two.   Leave a comment

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Above: Denis Healey in combatant mood

Labour’s ‘Civil War’ and the Creation of the SDP:

As a general election loomed, with Labour in visible disarray, Margaret Thatcher moved within a couple of months from being one of the least popular prime ministers ever to being an unassailable national heroine. This was the result of two ‘factors’, the struggle for power within the Labour Party, which (as I wrote about in the first part of this article) began with Callaghan’s decision to step down as its leader in the autumn of 1980, and the Falklands Crisis and War of 1982.

Labour’s Civil War began with constitutional arguments about whether MPs should be able to be sacked by their local constituency parties. It became nasty, personal, occasionally physical, and so disgusted those outside its ranks that the party almost disappeared as an effective organisation. Undoubtedly, there was widespread bitterness on the left of the party about what were considered to be the right-wing policies of the defeated Wilson-Callaghan government, and about the small number of party conference decisions which found their way into Labour’s manifesto at the May 1979 election. In this atmosphere, the left wanted to take power away from right-wing MPs and their leadership and carry out a revolution from below. They believed that if they could control the party manifesto, the leadership election and bring the MPs to heel, they could turn Labour into a radical socialist party which would then destroy Thatcher’s economics at the next general election.

At Labour’s October 1980 Blackpool Conference, the left succeeded in voting through resolutions calling for Britain to withdraw from the European Community, unilateral disarmament, the closing of US bases in Britain, no incomes policy and State control of the whole of British industry, plus the creation of a thousand peers to abolish the House of Lords. Britain would become a kind of North Sea Cuba. The Trotskyite Militant Tendency, which had infiltrated the Labour Party, believed in pushing socialist demands so far that the democratic system would collapse and a full-scale class war would follow. Tony Benn, who thought that their arguments are sensible and they make perfectly good rational points, saw Militant as no more than of a threat than the old Tribune group or the pre-war Independent Labour Party. He thought that the left would bring about a thoroughly decent socialist victory. In fact, thuggish intimidation in many local Labour parties by Militant supporters was driving moderate members away in droves. Many mainstream trade unionists went along with Militant, feeling let down by the Wilson and Callaghan governments. So too did those who were driven by single issues, such as nuclear disarmament.

Shrewd tactics and relentless campaigning enabled a small number of people to control enough local parties and union branches to have a disproportionate effect in Labour conference votes, where the huge, undemocratic block votes of the trades unions no longer backed the leadership. At the 1980 Conference, the left won almost every important vote, utterly undermining Callaghan, who quit as leader two weeks later. Since new leadership election rules would not be in place until a special conference the following January, Labour MPs had one final chance to elect their own leader. Michael Foot, the old radical and intellectual, was persuaded to stand.  Benn would stand no chance against him, especially since he had now allied himself with the Trotskyists who were attacking the MPs. But Foot was a great parliamentarian and was considered to be the only candidate who could beat Denis Healey, by now the villain of the piece for the Labour left.

Healey had already highlighted the fatal flaw in their strategy which was that if they did take over the Labour Party, the country wouldn’t vote for it. Activists, he told them, were different from the vast majority of the British people, for whom politics was something to think about once a year at most. His robust remarks about what would later be called ‘the loony left’ were hardly calculated to maximise his chances, despite his popularity in the country at the time. At any rate, he was eventually beaten by Foot by 139 votes to 129. Many believe that Foot was the man who saved the Labour Party since he was the only leader remotely acceptable to both the old guard and the Bennite insurgents. He took on the job out of a sense of duty, with his old-style platform oratory. He was always an unlikely figure to topple Margaret Thatcher, the ‘Iron Lady’. It was the last blast of romantic intellectual socialism against the free market.

At the special party conference, Labour’s rules were indeed changed to give the unions forty per cent of the votes for future Labour leaders, the activists in the constituencies thirty per cent, and the MPs only thirty per cent. Labour’s struggle now moved to its next and most decisive stage, with the left in an exuberant mood. It was decided that Benn must challenge Healey for the deputy leadership the following year. This would signal an irreversible move. A Foot-Benn Labour Party would be a fundamentally different one from a party in which Healey continued to have a strong voice. Both sides saw it as the final battle and ‘Benn for Deputy’ badges began to appear everywhere. Benn went campaigning around the country with verve and relentless energy. I heard him speak impressively at the Brangwyn Hall in Swansea, though his analysis of the problems in the British economy was far stronger than the solutions he proposed. At public meetings, Healey was booed and heckled and spat at. The intimidation of anyone who would not back Benn was getting worse, though Benn himself was apparently unaware of what was being said and done in his name. Neil Kinnock eventually decided that he would support neither Benn nor Healey, announcing his decision in Tribune. As education spokesman, he had been gradually moving away from the hard left, while continuing to support his neighbouring south Wales and fellow-Bevanite MP and now party leader, Michael Foot. Popular in the party, he was regarded with increasing suspicion by Tony Benn. But this open break with the left’s ‘champion’ shocked many of his friends. At the Brighton conference, Benn was narrowly beaten by Healey, by less than one per cent of the votes. Neil Kinnock and Arthur Scargill clashed angrily on television, and a young Jeremy Corbyn openly called for the mandatory deselection of Tribune MPs who had refused to back Benn.

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This next phase was too much for those who were already planning to break away and form a new party. Roy Jenkins had already mooted the idea before the Bennite revolt, as he contemplated the state of the British party system from his offices in Brussels, where he was President of the European Commission. He argued that the Victorian two-party system was out-dated and that coalition government was not such a bad thing. It was time, he said, to strengthen the ‘radical centre’ and find a way through the economic challenges which accepted the free market but also took unemployment seriously. Although he was in touch with David Steel, the Liberal leader, and was close to Liberal thinking, he judged that only a new party would give British politics the new dimension it needed. He began holding lunches for his old friends on the right of the Labour Party, including Bill Rodgers, still a shadow cabinet member, and Shirley Williams, who had lost her seat but who remained one of the best-liked politicians in the country. At this stage, the public reaction from Labour MPs was discouraging. Williams herself had said that a new centre party would have no roots, no principles, no philosophy and no values. David Owen, the young doctor and former Foreign Secretary, who was now fighting against unilateral nuclear disarmament, said Labour moderates must stay in the party and fight even if it took ten or twenty years.

The Bennite revolt changed many minds, however. After the Wembley conference, at which Owen was booed for his views on defence, he, Jenkins, Williams and Rodgers issued the ‘Limehouse Declaration’, describing Wembley as ‘calamitous’ and calling for a new start in British politics. Two months later, this was formalised as the ‘Social Democratic Party’ (SDP) two months later, in March 1981. In total thirteen Labour MPs defected to it and many more might have done so had not Roy Hattersley and others fought very hard to persuade them not to. Within two weeks, twenty-four thousand messages of support had flooded in and peers, journalists, students, academics and others were keen to join. Public meetings were packed from Scotland to the south coast of England, and media coverage was extensive and positive. In September an electoral pact was agreed with the Liberal Party, and ‘the Alliance’ was formed.

After running the Labour Party close in the Warrington by-election, the SDP won their first seat when Shirley Williams took Crosby from the Conservatives in November, with nearly half the votes cast, followed by Jenkins winning Glasgow Hillhead from the Tories the following year. His victory allowed Jenkins to become the leader of the party in the Commons, but David Owen had always believed that leadership was more rightly his and feared that Jenkins was leading the SDP towards a merger with the Liberals. Owen saw himself still as a socialist, although of a new kind. By the early eighties, the Liberal Party was led by Steel, ‘the boy David’ who was looking for a route back from the Thorpe scandal to the centre ground. The alliance with the SDP provided this, but Owen was not alone in despising the Liberals and the eventual merger between the two parties was bitter and difficult. Nevertheless, the initial upsurge in the SDP’s support shook both the Labour Party and the Conservatives and by the early spring of 1982, the SDP and Liberals could look forward with some confidence to breaking the mould of British politics.

The Falklands ‘Escapade’:

One of the many ironies of the Thatcher story is that she was rescued from the political consequences of her monetarism by the blunders of her hated Foreign Policy. In the great economic storms of 1979-81, and on the European budget battle, she had simply charged ahead, ignoring all the flapping around her in pursuit of a single goal. In the South Atlantic, she would do exactly the same and with her good luck, she was vindicated. Militarily, it could so easily have all gone wrong, and the Falklands War could have been a terrible disaster, confirming the Argentinian dictatorship in power in the South Atlantic and ending Margaret Thatcher’s career after just one term as Prime Minister. Of all the gambles in modern British politics, the sending of a task force of ships from the shrunken and underfunded Royal Navy eight thousand miles away to take a group of islands by force was one of the most extreme.

On both sides, the conflict derived from colonial quarrels, dating back to 1833, when the scattering of islands had been declared a British colony. In Buenos Aires, a newly installed ‘junta’ under General Leopoldo Galtieri was heavily dependent on the Argentine navy, itself passionately keen on taking over the islands, known in Argentina as the Malvinas. The following year would see the 150th anniversary of ‘British ownership’ which the Argentines feared would be used to reassert the Falklands’ British future. The junta misread Whitehall’s lack of policy for lack of interest and concluded that an invasion would be easy, popular and impossible to reverse. In March an Argentine ship ‘tested the waters’ by landing on South Georgia, a small dependency south of the Falklands, disembarking scrap-metal dealers. Then on 1 April, the main invasion began, a landing by Argentine troops which had been carefully prepared for by local representatives of the national airline. In three hours it was all over, and the eighty British marines surrendered, having killed five Argentine troops and injured seventeen with no losses of their own. In London, there was mayhem. Thatcher had had a few hours’ warning of what was happening from the Defence Secretary, John Nott. Calling a hurried meeting in her Commons office, Sir John Leach gave her clarity and hope, when her ministers were as confused as she was. He told her he could assemble a task-force of destroyers, frigates and landing craft, led by Britain’s two remaining aircraft carriers. It could be ready to sail within forty-eight hours and the islands could be retaken by force. She told him to go ahead. Soon after, the Foreign Secretary, Peter Carrington, tended his resignation, accepting responsibility for the Foreign Office’s failings.

But Margaret Thatcher was confronted by a moral question which she could not duck, which was that many healthy young men were likely to die or be horribly injured in order to defend the ‘sovereignty’ of the Falkland Islanders. In the end, almost a thousand did die, one for every two islanders and many others were maimed and psychologically wrecked. She argued that the whole structure of national identity and international law were at stake. Michael Foot, who had been bellicose in parliament at first, harking back to the appeasement of fascism in the thirties, urged her to find a diplomatic answer. Later she insisted that she was vividly aware of the blood-price that was waiting and not all consumed by lust for conflict. Thatcher had believed that from the start that to cave in would finish her. The press, like the Conservative Party itself, were seething about the original diplomatic blunders. As it happened, the Argentine junta, even more belligerent, ensured that a serious deal was never properly put. They simply insisted that the British task-force be withdrawn from the entire area and that Argentine representatives should take part in any interim administration and that if talks failed Britain would simply lose sovereignty. The reality, though, was that their political position was even weaker than hers. She established a small war cabinet and the task-force, now up to twenty vessels strong was steadily reinforced. Eventually, it comprised more than a hundred ships and 25,000 men. The world was both transfixed and bemused.

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Above: Royal Marines march towards Port Stanley during the Falklands War.

The Empire struck back, and by the end of the month South Georgia was recaptured and a large number of Argentine prisoners taken: Thatcher urged questioning journalists outside Number Ten simply to ‘rejoice, rejoice!’ Then came one of the most controversial episodes in the short war. A British submarine, The Conqueror, was following the ageing but heavily armed cruiser, the Belgrano. The British task-force was exposed and feared a pincer movement, although the Belgrano was later found to have been outside an exclusion zone announced in London, and streaming away from the fleet. With her military commanders at Chequers, Thatcher authorised the submarine attack. The Belgrano was sunk, with the loss of 321 sailors. The Sun newspaper carried the headline ‘Gotcha!’ Soon afterwards, a British destroyer was hit by an Argentine Exocet missile and later sunk. Forty died.

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On 18 May 1982, the war cabinet agreed that landings on the Falklands should go ahead, despite lack of full air cover and worsening weather. By landing at the unexpected bay of San Carlos in low cloud, British troops got ashore in large numbers. Heavy Argentine air attacks, however, took a serious toll. Two frigates were badly damaged, another was sunk, then another, then a destroyer, then a container ship with vital supplies. Nevertheless, three thousand British troops secured a beach-head and began to fight their way inland. Over the next few weeks, they captured the settlements of Goose Green and Darwin, killing 250 Argentine soldiers and capturing 1,400 for the loss of twenty British lives. Colonel ‘H’ Jones became the first celebrated hero of the conflict when he died leading ‘2 Para’ against heavy Argentine fire. The battle then moved to the tiny capital, Port Stanley, or rather to the circle of hills around it where the Argentine army was dug in. Before the final assault on 8 June, two British landing ships, Sir Tristram and Sir Galahad were hit by missiles and the Welsh Guards suffered dreadful losses, many of the survivors being badly burned. Simon Weston was one of them. Out of his platoon of 30 men, 22 were killed. The Welsh Guards lost a total of 48 men killed and 97 wounded aboard the Sir Galahad. Weston survived with 46% burns, following which his face was barely recognisable. He later became a well-known spokesman and charity-worker for his fellow injured and disabled veterans. He recalled:

My first encounter with a really low point was when they wheeled me into the transit hospital at RAF Lyneham and I passed my mother in the corridor and she said to my gran, “Oh mam, look at that poor boy” and I cried out “Mam, it’s me!” As she recognised my voice her face turned to stone.

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Simon Weston in 2008

The Falklands Factor and the 1983 Election:

The trauma of the Falklands War broke across Britain, nowhere more strongly than in Wales. The impact on Wales was direct, in the disaster to the Welsh Guards at Bluff Cove and in anxieties over the Welsh communities in Patagonia in Argentina. Plaid Cymru was the only mainstream party to totally oppose the war from the beginning, and it evoked a strong response among artists in Wales. Students from the Welsh College and Drama in Cardiff staged a satirical drama on the war which won many plaudits. They portrayed the war as a mere butchery for a meaningless prize. Veteran Labour MP Tam Dalyell hounded the Prime Minister with parliamentary questions as he sought to prove that the sailors on the Belgrano had been killed to keep the war going, not for reasons of military necessity. One of the few memorable moments of the 1983 election campaign came when Mrs Thatcher was challenged on television about the incident by a woman who seemed a match for her. Among the Labour leadership, Denis Healey accused her of glorifying in slaughter and Neil Kinnock got into trouble when, responding to a heckler who said that at least Margaret Thatcher had guts, he replied that it was a pity that other people had had to leave theirs on Goose Green to prove it.  But there had also been those on the left who supported the war, together with Michael Foot, because of their opposition to the Argentine dictatorship, and there is little doubt that it gave a similar impetus to British patriotism across the political spectrum. It also bolstered a more narrow nationalism, jingoism and chauvinism both in the Conservative party and in the media.

For millions, the Falklands War seemed a complete anachronism, a Victorian gunboat war in a nuclear age, but for millions more still it served as a wholly unexpected and almost mythic symbol of rebirth. Margaret Thatcher herself lost no time in telling the whole country what she thought the war meant. It was more than simply a triumph of ‘freedom and democracy’ over Argentinian dictatorship. Speaking at Cheltenham racecourse in early July, she said:

We have ceased to be a nation in retreat. We have instead a newfound confidence, born in the economic battles at home and found true eight thousand miles away … Printing money is no more. Rightly this government has abjured it. Increasingly the nation won’t have it … That too is part of the Falklands factor. … Britain found herself again in the South Atlantic and will not look back from the victory she has won. 

Of course, the Falklands War fitted into Margaret Thatcher’s personal narrative and merged into a wider sense that confrontation was required in public life country’s politics. The Provisional IRA had assassinated Lord Mountbatten on his boat off the coast of Donegal in 1979 and the mainland bombing campaign went on with attacks on the Chelsea barracks, then Hyde Park bombings, when eight people were killed and fifty-three injured. In Northern Ireland itself, from the spring of 1981, a hideous IRA hunger-strike had been going on, leading to the death of Bobby Sands and nine others. Thatcher called Sands a convicted criminal who chose to take his own life. It was a choice, she added, that the PIRA did not allow to any of its victims. She was utterly determined not to flinch and was as rock-hard as the ruthless Irish republican enemies.

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Thatcher was now becoming a vividly divisive figure. On one side were those who felt they, at last, had their Boudicca, a warrior queen for hard times. On the other were those who saw her as a dangerous and bloodthirsty figure, driven by an inhumane worldview. To the cartoonists of the right-wing press, she was the embodiment of Britannia, surrounded by cringing ‘wets’. To others, she was simply mad, with a sharply curved vulture’s beak nose, staring eyes and rivets in her hair. Gender-confusion was rife. France’s President Mitterrand, who in fact had quite a good relationship with her, summed up the paradox better than any British observer when, after meeting her soon after his own election, he told one of his ministers, She has the eyes of Caligula but she has the mouth of Marilyn Monroe.

The Falklands War confirmed and underlined these opposing and paradoxical views of Thatcher. She encouraged the government’s think tank, the Central Policy Review Staff, to come up with a paper about the future of public spending. They came up with a manifesto which could be characterised as ‘Margaret Thatcher unconstrained’. They suggested ending state funding of higher education, extending student loans to replace grants, breaking the link between benefits and the cost of living, and replacing the National Health Service with a system of private health insurance, including charges for doctor’s visits and prescriptions. In effect, this represented the end of Attlee’s Welfare State. Although some of these ideas would become widely discussed much later, at the time the prospectus was regarded as ‘bonkers’ by most of those around her. The PM supported it but ministers who regarded it as, potentially, her worst mistake since coming to power, leaked the CPRS report to the press in order to kill it off. In this they were successful, but the whole episode was an early indication of how Thatcher’s charge-ahead politics could produce disasters as well as triumphs.

The electoral consequences of the Falklands War have been argued about ever since. The government had got inflation down and the economy was at last improving but the overall Conservative record in 1983 was not impressive. The most dramatic de-industrialisation of modern times, with hundreds of recently profitable businesses disappearing forever, had been caused in part by a very high pound boosted by Britain’s new status as an oil producer. Up to this point, unemployment had been seen as a price worth paying in order to control inflation, but the extent of de-manning required by 1983 had been underestimated. Howe’s economic squeeze, involving heavy tax increases and a reduction in public borrowing deflated the economy, reducing demand and employment. In the 1980s, two million manufacturing jobs disappeared, most of them by 1982. Given the shrinking of the country’s industrial base and unemployment at three million, a total tax burden of forty per cent of GDP and public spending at forty-four per cent, there were plenty of targets for competent Opposition politicians to take aim at. In an ordinary election, the state of the economy would have had the governing party in serious trouble, but this was no ordinary election.

After the war, the Conservatives shot into a sudden and dramatic lead in the polls over the two Opposition groupings now ranged against them.  In the 1983 general election, the SDP and the Liberals took nearly a quarter of the popular vote, but the electoral system gave them just twenty-three MPs, only six of them from the SDP, a bitter harvest after the advances made in the by-elections of 1981-2. Labour was beaten into third place in the number of votes cast. This meant that the Conservatives won by a landslide, giving Mrs Thatcher a majority of 144 seats, a Tory buffer which kept them in power until 1997. It would be perverse to deny that the Falklands conflict was crucial, giving Thatcher a story to tell about herself and the country which was simple and vivid and made sense to millions. But there were other factors in play, ones which were present in the political undercurrents of 1981-2 and the divisions within the Labour Party in particular. For one thing, the Labour Party’s Manifesto at the 1983 Election, based on the left-wing Conference decisions of 1980-82, was later considered to be the longest suicide note in history.

The Political and Cultural Landscape of Wales:

In Wales, we had expected that the calamitous effect of the monetarist policies would produce a surge in support for Labour and that the effect of the Falklands factor would not weigh so heavily in the Tories’ favour as elsewhere in Britain. We were wrong. Moreover, we believed that the efforts we had made on the left-wing of the national movement in association with Welsh language activists, libertarian socialist groups, ecological, peace and women’s groups would bring dividends in electoral terms. But, in the Wales of 1983, these remained marginal movements as the country remained, for the most part, locked into the British two-party system. The General Election of 1983 exposed the myth that South Wales, in particular, was still some kind of ‘heartland of Labour’ and continued the trend of 1979 in relocating it within the South of the British political landscape. In Wales as a whole, the Labour vote fell by nearly ten per cent, exceeded only in East Anglia and the South-East of England, and level with London again. The Labour vote in Wales fell by over 178,000, the Tories by 24,000 (1.7 per cent), the great ‘victors’ being the Alliance, whose votes rocketed by over two hundred thousand. This surge did not, however, benefit the third parties in terms of seats, which simply transferred directly from Labour to Conservative.

The Conservatives, with a candidate of Ukranian descent and strong right-wing views, took the Cardiff West seat of George Thomas, the former Speaker, and swept most of Cardiff. They also took the marginal seat of Bridgend and pressed hard throughout the rural west, almost taking Carmarthen. Michael Foot visited the constituency and held a major rally, during which he spoke powerfully but almost fell of the stage. We canvassed hard on the council estates for the Labour MP, Dr Roger Thomas, managing to hold off both the Tories and Plaid Cymru, in what turned out to be Gwynfor Evans’ last election. Nevertheless, the Tories ended up with thirteen seats out of thirty-eight in Wales. Plaid Cymru, disappointed in the valleys, still managed to hold its green line across the north-west, holding Caernarfon and Merioneth and moving into second place, ahead of Labour, on Anglesey. The Alliance more than doubled the former Liberal poll, reaching twenty-three per cent in the popular vote, and coming second in nineteen out of the thirty-eight seats. But it won only two seats. Labour’s defeat seemed to be slithering into rout even though it retained more than half the seats, twenty in all. It held on by the skin of its teeth not only to Carmarthen but also to Wrexham, its former stronghold in the north-east. In the fourteen seats which covered its traditional base in the south, one fell to the Conservatives and six became three-way marginals. The SDP-Liberal Alliance came second in ten and, in the Rhondda won eight thousand votes without even campaigning. The remaining seven constituencies gave Labour over half of their votes. Of the old twenty thousand majority seats, only three remained: Rhondda, Merthyr Tydfil and Blaenau Gwent (Ebbw Vale). As Gwyn Williams commented:

They stand like Aneurin Bevan’s memorial stones on the Pound above Tredegar and they are beginning to look like the Stonehenge of Welsh politics.   

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Two other ‘events’ of cultural significance took place in Wales in 1983. The first demonstrates how the question of culture in Wales had become caught up with the arguments over language. The language became a badge, the possession of which by learners is a sign of good faith: I was one of them, though I never learnt how to write in Welsh. In 1979, however, I had managed, with the help of friends, to write a speech in ‘Cymraeg Byw’ (Colloquial Welsh) as ‘Cadeirydd’ (‘Chair’) of UCMC (NUS Wales), which I delivered at the National Eisteddfod in Caernarfon. I argued for English- speaking and Welsh-speaking students to come back together throughout Wales in order to defend the country, the University and their colleges, paid for by the ‘pennies’ of miners and quarrymen, from the cut-backs in education which the Tories were bringing in. I was not successful in persuading the Welsh-speaking students from Bangor, who had formed their own separate union in 1977, to form a federal union, like the one which existed in Aberystwyth. But what chance did we have when, four years later, the renowned poet R S Thomas, himself a learner of the language, fulminated at the Eisteddfod that the Welshman/ woman who did not try to speak Welsh was, in terms of Wales, an ‘un-person’. His fundamentalism as Dai Smith called it, demanded that reality, the chaos of uncertainty, be fenced in. R S Thomas, for all the brilliant wonder of his own poetry in English, had:

… turned Wales into ‘an analogy for most people’s experience of living in the twentieth century … a special, spare grammar and vocabulary in which certain statements can be made in no other language’. 

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Thomas’ conversion to Welsh language fundamentalism had come rather late in life. In the sixties and seventies, he had remarked that he was rather tired of the themes about nationalism and the decay of the rural structure of Wales and that whereas he used to propagandise on behalf of Welsh Country Life and … the Welsh identity, he felt that he’d wrung that dishcloth dry. In May 1983, the Western Mail had welcomed the poet to Cardiff on the occasion of his seventieth birthday to Cardiff, describing him as a man whose genius found expression in the search for the ancient simplicities of rural Wales. R Gerallt Jones, introducing an evening of celebration at the Sherman Theatre in the capital some days later, acclaimed Thomas as the poet who has expressed the national identity of the Welshman. As Tony Bianchi showed in 1986, Thomas’ work has been used  – within the context of a wide range of prescriptive notions concerning the “Welsh heritage” – to condemn most of the Welsh to a marginal existence in which they are permitted only a vicarious identity. That’s what makes R S Thomas’ statement at the 1983 National Eisteddfod so surprising and intriguing.

The second cultural ‘event’ was the publication of an impressionistic but learned survey of Welsh history by the distinguished Welsh novelist Emyr Humphrys. The Taliesin Tradition took as its theme the survival of a continuous Welsh tradition in the face of all contrary odds. He ascribed this to a ‘poetic tradition’ which had invested the native language with the power and authority to sustain ‘national being’. In order to explain the unfolding of Welsh history, however, he welcomes the blurring of history and myth:

The manufacture and proliferation of myth must always be a major creative activity among a people with unnaturally high expectations reduced by historic necessity … In Wales history and myth have always mingled and both have been of equal importance in the struggle for survival. 

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For ‘organic nationalists’, like R S Thomas and Emyr Humphrys, history must not only mingle with myth but also have its disciplines submitted to the needs of the nation. Dai Smith pointed out that while this provided for acceptable politics for some, it is not good history. The verbal dexterity which it requires, Dai Smith claimed, obscures the reality of Welsh life, by emphasising the myths of ‘the murder of the Welsh language’, and the ‘kowtowing to ‘Britishness’ at the expense of ‘Welshness’. On this theme, Gwyn Williams (below) wrote:

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Ahead, a country which largely lives by the British state, whose input into it is ten per cent of its gross product, faces a major reconstruction of its public sector … a country whose young people are being dumped like in town and country faces the prospect of a large and growing population which will be considered redundant in a state which is already considering a major reduction in the financial burden of welfare.

Small wonder that some, looking ahead, see nothing but a nightmare vision of a depersonalised Wales which has shrivelled up to a Costa Bureaucratica  in the south and a Costa Geriatrica in the north; in between, sheep, holiday homes burning merrily away and fifty folk museums where there used to be communities.

… What seems to be clear is that a majority of the inhabitants of Wales are choosing a British identity which seems to require the elimination of a Welsh one.

As it happened, Dai Smith was right. The idea that ‘Britishness’ and ‘Welshness’ were mutually exclusive was indeed a myth, and both were able to survive as dual identities into the later eighties and beyond.

Ghost Town – The Case of Coventry, 1979-83:

By the late 1970s, the British motor industry had reached an historic crossroads. Entry into the EEC had coincided with an unusually weak range of British products. Models were either outdated or bedevilled by quality and reliability problems. European manufacturers soon captured nearly forty per cent of the home market. The choice facing British manufacturers was varied. Those companies owned by American parents integrated their UK operations with their European counterparts. Ford and General Motors are two successful examples of this strategy. Unfortunately for Coventry, the Chrysler Corporation was experiencing problems in many parts of their ’empire’ and did not possess the resources necessary for the establishment of a high-volume European operation. British-owned Leyland faced a more complex situation. The company produced both high-volume and specialist products. The Cowley and Longbridge plants which produced high-volume products badly needed investment to keep up with the European companies and the American subsidiaries. The specialist producers, Jaguar, Rover and Triumph, also required a large injection of capital in order to meet the growing competition from such companies as Audi, BMW, Alfa Romeo and the Scandinavian manufacturers. The various schemes devised by Ryder and the National Enterprise Board underlined Leyland’s commitment to the large and medium volume plants. The announcement of the collaborative agreement with Honda in 1979 to produce a new Japanese designed quality saloon at Canley was seen by many as an end to uncertainty over Leyland’s long-term commitment to Coventry.

The change of government in 1979 soon quashed the cautious optimism that had been present in the local car industry. The Conservative economic strategy of high-interest rates overvalued the pound, particularly in the USA, the major market for Coventry’s specialist cars. Demand for Coventry models declined rapidly and Leyland management embarked upon a new rationalisation plan. The company’s production was to be concentrated into two plants, at Cowley and Longbridge. Triumph production was transferred to Cowley along with the Rover models produced at Solihull. The Courthouse Green engine plant in Coventry was closed and three of the city’s other car-manufacturing concerns – Alvis, Climax and Jaguar – were sold off to private buyers. Only Jaguar survived the recession. In the first three years of the Thatcher government, the number of Leyland employees in Coventry fell from twenty-seven thousand to just eight thousand. One writer described the effects of Conservative policy on manufacturing industry in these years as turning a process of gentle decline into quickening collapse. The city’s top fifteen manufacturing companies shed thirty-one thousand workers between 1979 and 1982. Well-known names at the base of the pyramid of Coventry’s economic life – Herbert’s, Triumph Motors and Renold’s – simply disappeared.

Even in 1979, before the change in government, unemployment in Coventry stood at just five per cent, exactly the same level as in the early seventies. There was a noticeable rise in youth unemployment towards the end of the decade, but this, as we have seen, was part of a national problem caused mainly by demographic factors. Neither was the election of the Tory government seen as a harbinger of hard times to come. Coventry had prospered reasonably well during previous Tory administrations and even enjoyed boom conditions as a result of the policies of Anthony Barber, Heath’s Chancellor of the Exchequer. Heath had ridden to the rescue of Rolls-Royce when it needed government assistance. Unfortunately, the economic brakes were applied too rapidly for the car industry and monetarist policy quickly cut into it. Redundancy lists and closure notices in the local press became as depressingly regular as the obituary column. The biggest surprise, however, was the lack of protest from the local Labour movement. It was as if all the ominous prophecies of the anti-union editorials which had regularly appeared in the Coventry Evening Telegraph during the industrial unrest of the previous decades were finally being fulfilled.

In any case, it was difficult to devise defensive industrial strategies. Michael Edwardes’ new tough industrial relations programme at British Leyland had seen the removal of Derek Robinson,  ‘Red Robbo’, the strongest motor factory union leader from Longbridge. He also demonstrated, at Speke in Liverpool, that he could and would close factories in the face of trade union opposition. Factory occupations, used to such effect by continental trades unionists had, thanks to the Meriden Triumph Motorcycle fiasco, no chance of local success. The opposition to closures was also undoubtedly diminished by redundancy payments which in many cases cushioned families from the still unrealised effects of the recession. Young people, especially school- leavers, were the real victims. Coventry’s much-prized craft apprenticeships all but vanished, with only ninety-five apprentices commencing training in 1981. In 1982, only sixteen per cent of sixteen-year-old school leavers found employment. The early 1980s were barren years for Coventry’s youth. Even the success of the local pop group, The Specials’, brought little relief, though for a brief moment the band’s song Ghost Town was a national success, giving vent to the plight of young people throughout the manufacturing towns of the Midlands and the North of England, not to mention Wales. The sombre comparison in the lyrics of boom time and recession express an experience that was felt more sharply in Coventry than elsewhere.

For the first time in over a century, Coventry became a net exporter of labour, but unemployment levels still remained stubbornly high. The main loss was mainly among the young skilled and technical management sectors, people who the city could ill afford to lose. Little research and development work was taking place in local industry. Talbot’s research department at Whitley including much key personnel, for example, was removed to Paris in 1983. The Conservatives promised in 1979 that a restructuring of the economy would be followed by increased investment and employment opportunities, but by 1983 there were very few signs of that promise being fulfilled. Coventry’s peculiar dependence on manufacturing and its historically weak tertiary sector has meant that the city was, at that time, a poor location for the so-called ‘high tech’ industries. As a local historian concluded at that time:

Coventry in the mid 1980s displays none of the confidence in the future that was so apparent in the immediate post-war years. . The city, which for decades was the natural habitat of the affluent industrial worker is finding it difficult to adjust to a situation where the local authority and university rank among the largest employers. Coventry’s self-image of progressiveness and modernity has all but vanished. The citizens now largely identify themselves and their environment as part of a depressed Britain. 

This was a sad contrast to the vibrant city of full employment in which my mother had grown up in the thirties and forties and where she had met and married my father in the early fifties. By the time I returned there as a teacher, from a former mill town in Lancashire in 1986 which had recovered from its own decline in the sixties and seventies, Coventry was also beginning to recover, but the shiny new comprehensive schools built thirty years before were already beginning to merge and close due to these years of recession, unemployment and outward migration.

Revolution or retro-capitalism?

Thatcher’s government of 1979-83 was not the return of ‘Victorian Val’, a revival of Gladstonian liberalism, nor even of the Palmerstonian gunboat imperialism which it sometimes resembled in its rhetoric. It was more of a reversion to the hard-faced empire of the 1920s when war socialism was energetically dismantled, leaving industries that could survive and profit to do so and those which couldn’t to go to the wall. As in the twenties, resistance to brutal rationalisation through closure or sell-off of uneconomic enterprises, or by wage or job reductions, was eventually to be met by determined opposition in the confrontation of 1984-5 between Thatcher and the NUM, led by Arthur Scargill, a battle comprehensively won by the PM.

The trouble with this ‘retro-capitalism’ masquerading as innovation was that sixty years after the policy had first been implemented, the regions that were the weaker species in this Darwinian competition were not just suffering from influenza, but prostrate with pneumonia. They were now being told to drop dead. These included South Wales, Lancashire, the West Riding, Tyneside and Clydeside. Those regions which had risen to extraordinary prosperity as part of the British imperial enterprise were now, finally, being written off as disposable assets in a sale. What interest would the Welsh and Scots, in particular, have in remaining part of Great Britain plc? They were also now being joined by those same manufacturing areas which had provided respite for millions of migrants from the older industrial areas in the thirties, centres such as Coventry. The euphoria felt by the Conservatives following their unexpected second victory in 1983 disguised the fact that their majority was built at the price of perpetuating a deep rift in Britain’s social geography. Not since Edward I in the thirteenth century had a triumphant England imposed its rule on the other nations of Britain.

Thatcher’s constituency was not, however, to be found among the engineers of ‘Middle England’ or even the Lincolnshire grocers from whom she hailed, who might have voted for Ted Heath’s ‘Third Way’ Tories. It was overwhelmingly to be found among the well-off middle and professional classes in the south of England, in the Home Counties, or the ‘golden circle’ commuter areas. The distressed northern zones of derelict factories, pits, ports and decrepit terraced houses were left to rot and rust. The solution of her governments, in so far as they had one, was to let the employment market and good old Gladstonian principles of ‘bootstrap’ self-help take care of the problem. People living in areas of massive redundancy amidst collapsing industries ought simply to ‘retrain’ for work in the up-and-coming industries of the future or, in Norman Tebbitt’s famous phrase, “get on their bikes” like their grandfathers had done and move to places such as Milton Keynes, Basingstoke or Cambridge where those opportunities were now clustered. But this vision of ex-welders, or even assembly workers, lining up to use computers was not helped by the absence of such publicly funded retraining. And even if it was available, there was no guarantee of a job at the end of it, no apprenticeship system. The whole point of the computer revolution in industry was to save, not to expand labour. The new jobs it created could, and would be taken by the sons and daughters of the industrial workers of the early eighties, but not by those workers themselves.

Finally, the kick-up-the-rear-end effect of the eighties’ Thatcher counter-revolution ran into something that she could do little about; the Coronation Street syndrome. Like the residents of the mythical TV soap opera, millions in the old British industrial economy had a deeply ingrained loyalty to the place where they had grown up, gone to school, got married and had their kids; to their extended family with older generations, to their pub, their parks and hills, to their football or rugby club. In that sense, at least, the post-war social revolution and welfare state had helped to maintain and even develop towns and cities that, for all their ups and downs, their poverty and pain, were real communities. Fewer people were willing to give up on these places than had been the case fifty years earlier, and certainly not on cities like Liverpool, Leeds, Nottingham, Derby and Coventry. But not everything the Thatcher government did was out of tune with social ‘harmony’. The sale of council-houses created an owner-occupier class which corresponded to the long passion of the British to be kings and queens of their own little castles. Nationalised industries were failing to take advantage of enterprise and innovation. But many of these more popular reforms were to come after her confrontation with the miners and especially in her third term.

Sources:

Gwyn A Williams (1985), When Was Wales? A History of the Welsh. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Dai Smith (1984), Wales! Wales?  Hemel Hempstead: George Allen & Unwin.

Bill Lancaster & Tony Mason (1984), Life & Labour in a Twentieth Century City: The Experience of Coventry. Coventry: University of Warwick Cryfield Press.

Simon Schama (2002), A History of Britain III, 1776-2000: The Fate of Empire.  London: BBC Worldwide.

Andrew Marr (2008), A History of Modern Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Posted September 26, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in Affluence, Britain, British history, Cartoons, Castles, Coalfields, Colonisation, Conquest, Conservative Party, Coventry, decolonisation, democracy, Demography, devolution, Empire, Europe, European Economic Community, Factories, Falklands, History, Immigration, Imperialism, Labour Party, manufacturing, Marxism, Methodism, Midlands, Migration, Militancy, monetarism, Monuments, Mythology, Narrative, National Health Service (NHS), nationalisation, nationalism, Nationality, Nonconformist Chapels, Population, Revolution, south Wales, terrorism, Thatcherism, Trade Unionism, Unemployment, Victorian, Wales, Welfare State, Welsh language, West Midlands, World War Two

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The Rise of Thatcherism in Britain, 1979-83: Part One.   Leave a comment

Margaret’s Marvellous Medicine:

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Ten years ago, nearly thirty years after Mrs Thatcher’s first general election as Tory leader, Andrew Marr wrote:

Margaret Thatcher … was shrewd, manipulative and bold, verging on the reckless. She was also extremely lucky. Had Labour not been busy disembowelling itself and had a corrupt, desperate dictatorship in South America not taken a nationalistic gamble with some island sheep-farmers, her government would probably have been destroyed after a single term. Had the majority in her cabinet who disagreed with her about the economy  been prepared to say boo to a goose, she might have been forced out even before that. In either case, her principles, ‘Thatcherism’, would be a half-forgotten doctrine, mumbled about by historians instead of being the single most potent medicine ever spooned down the gagging post-war British.

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The one economic medicine so bitter that no minister in the seventies had thought of trying it – mass unemployment – was soon uncorked and poured onto the spoon. Inflation, not unemployment, was seen as public enemy number one, and harsh measures seemed justified. Indeed, as wage-rises were seen as the as the main source of inflation, heavy unemployment, it was sometimes argued, would weaken trade unions and was a price worth paying. An economic squeeze was introduced, involving heavy tax increases and a reduction in public borrowing to deflate the economy, thus reducing demand and employment. In the 1980s, two million manufacturing jobs disappeared. The socially corrosive effects of mass unemployment were manifested nationwide in the inner-city rioting which broke out in 1981. The post-war consensus was well and truly broken. After his defeat in the General Election of 1979, James Callaghan stumbled on as Labour leader until October 1980 after which Denis Healey fought a desperate rearguard action against the left, as his party did its best to commit suicide in public. What exactly was ‘the left’ and how was it composed?

Labour’s ‘Disembowelment’:

By the late 1970s, the Communist Party of Great Britain had almost collapsed. What was left of it had become ‘Eurocommunist’, like the parties in France and elsewhere had become following the crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968. The world’s first elected Marxist leader, Salvador Allende had been deposed in a coup in 1973 and thousands of his supporters became refugees in Britain. Where I lived in 1979-80, Swansea, there was a community of about fifty families, many of them studying at the University. For many of them, Castro’s Cuba was still a beacon of hope, and there were other Marxist movements in Nicaragua and El Salvador which re-focused the outlook of the ‘broad left’ in Britain. But there was widespread disillusionment with the Soviet system to which the CPGB had previously pledged its undying and largely uncritical obedience. The final nails in the coffin were driven in by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in late 1979, and the crushing of ‘Solidarity’ in Poland the following year. Further to the left were a bewildering number of Trotskyist and Maoist groups, all hostile to the Soviet Union, all claiming to be the true party of Lenin, all denouncing one another over ideological and tactical detail. They tended to be dour and puritanical, though the Socialist Workers’ Party attracted a significant among students following through their setting up of the Anti-Nazi League.

The Militant Tendency had descended from earlier groups which had first organised in Britain in the forties. ‘Militant’ caused a huge convulsion in the Labour Party from the early to mid-eighties. Harold Wilson was the first Labour leader to complain a lot about ‘Trots’ trying to take the party over, but in the seventies, he was largely ignored and Militant was allowed to build up strong local bases, particularly in Liverpool, but also in other traditional Labour strongholds in the Midlands which had been very much in ‘the mainstream’ of the Party, like Coventry, where it had taken control of the City Council as early as 1937, and had continually returned high-profile MPs such as Richard Crossman and Maurice Edelman after 1945. The SWP, supporting strikes and campaigning against racism and other ‘single issues’, sold their distinctive newspaper on the streets and their clenched fist logo and dramatic slogans appear in the background to countless industrial and political marches, pickets and marches. In South Wales in 1980, they organised ‘the people’s march for jobs’, a 1930s-style ‘hunger march’. By this time, mass unemployment had already arrived in Britain, especially among young people who had just left school and, as ever, the SWP seized their opportunity. Beyond Militant and the SWP, other far-left groups inside and outside the Labour Party would achieve brief notoriety because they were supported by a famous actress, such as Vanessa Redgrave of the Revolutionary Workers’ Party, or through influence in a local party or borough. Eventually, the ‘loony left’ would come to the boil, enjoying enough support, particularly in London, to shred Labour’s credibility.

In the late seventies and early eighties, however, the influence of ‘hard left’ socialists within the party was far more significant than those working for secretive Marxist parties. Like those on the right, including Callaghan by 1979, they believed the old consensus politics was failing. Some of their thinking was also shared by the Tory right – they were hostile to the European Community, opposed to Welsh and Scottish nationalism, and hostile to the Anglo-American alliance. But that was where the similarities ended. The Labour left wanted to deal with world economic chaos by pulling up the drawbridge, imposing strict controls on what was imported and taking control of major industries, as well as of ‘the City’. The left thought that ‘Planning’ was too weak, and therefore that it should be dramatically expanded. Any extreme political view tends to develop a conspiracy theory. The Labour left believed that Wilson, Callaghan and Healey had been captured by international capitalism. So the ‘siege economy’ and the Alternative Economic Strategy became the main shibboleths of the left, and Tony Benn became the leader of Labour’s peasants’ revolt. He was on the side of strikers who had brought much of the country to a halt in 1979 and Arthur Scargill, elected leader of the NUM soon after, told Benn that he could be the next Labour leader himself.

But within five years, both the NUM and their fellow unions would lose almost half their membership and any political influence they had briefly enjoyed. The ‘high-water’ mark for the left was reached when Benn himself came within a hair’s breadth of winning the deputy leadership against Denis Healey, during the middle of a vicious and deeply damaging Labour civil war. These were the turbulent years of ‘Bennism’ within the party, long before he became a kind of revered national grandfather with a white beard to go with his pipe. During his bid to become deputy, I heard him speak to a packed and transfixed audience at the Brangwyn Hall in Swansea in 1980, careful and convincing in his critique of NATO, nuclear weapons and market capitalism, if not in his advocacy of the Alternative Economic Strategy. In the NUS, David Aaronovitch spoke in favour of the AES in a debate in Blackpool on the economy which he admitted afterwards had disappointed him for its lack of new thinking. Speaking to the NUS Wales Conference a few weeks later on the same issue, I adapted a headline from The Guardian:

When England catches a cold, Wales gets influenza: When England gets influenza, Wales develops pneumonia.

Wales: A View from the Abyss:

In 1979-80, Wales was in need of a stronger and better alternative medicine than could be provided by old-fashioned Keynesianism.

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Above: The UCMC (NUS Wales) Executive at the Autumn 1979 Conference

in Llandrindod Wells (the author is in the centre right).

In April 1979, just before the general election, I was elected ‘Cadeirydd’ (‘Chairholder’) of the National Union of Students in Wales (UCMC), working full-time from an office in Swansea. A month later, I began to wish I had declined the nomination, as an abyss seemed to open up below me. In the General Election, Wales located itself firmly within The South of Britain. At a time of heavy swings towards the Conservatives elsewhere, the heaviest swing of all, outside London, was in Wales. The Tory tide swept irresistibly through rural west Wales in particular. It was the real force which unseated the veteran Plaid Cymru President, Gwynfor Evans, in Carmarthen, to Labour’s benefit. The Tories took Brecon and Radnor, Montgomery and Anglesey, the last with a swing of twelve per cent. Apart from the three-way marginal of Carmarthen, Labour was driven back into the valleys of south Wales, though even there its massive majorities were significantly eaten into. Nevertheless, Labour remained by far the biggest party in Wales, with twenty-one seats out of thirty-six and forty-seven per cent of the votes. But the Conservatives, with eleven seats and thirty-two per cent, had reached a high point they had last held fifty years before. They swept through non-industrial Wales, obliterating political landmarks which had been familiar for generations. For Labour, there was a whiff of 1931 in the air and the elimination of Welsh peculiarities strongly suggested an integration into Britain more total than anything yet experienced.

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One paradoxical effect of this abrupt reversal of two hundred years of history was the isolation of the Welsh intelligentsia from its people. In this generation, in sharp contrast to the last, creative writers in Welsh and in English started to draw together. Professor Gwyn Williams (above), my mentor at University College Cardiff, was one of those who articulated English-speaking Wales within national and international contexts, and his work was lauded equally widely. As younger Welsh writers began to move out of the kind of universe which the work of the Saunders Lewis school of Welsh-language writers, younger writers in English (‘sons of the miners’) started to adopt a more firmly nationalist position. In general, the younger Anglo-Welsh poets avoided the sort of polemic which assumed a Welsh national identity. As Tony Curtis wrote in 1986, there was no unquestionable Wales, rather they must work from the immediate context, the known. Emyr Humphries wrote of:

… the sense of disorientation prevailing among the majority who have been deprived of the language and the opportunity of inheriting the history and traditions that go with it.

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John Ormond’s My Grandfather and his Apple-tree is the most successful of “character” poems. In concentrating on the life of one man the poet summarised the whole broad sweep of social change in South Wales from a predominantly rural economy to the accelerating expansion of industrial communities in the coal valleys that created a “Klondike” in Wales. John Ormond’s poem works effectively at several levels: as an historical poem; as a family remembrance it is an allegorical treatment of the life of a man as a social, economic and religious animal; the whole is a brilliantly sustained metaphor with a strong narrative structure. Ormond’s reputation by the time he was in his fifties in 1979 was notable, as was his influence on younger poets. One of these, Gillian Clarke, had first published in 1970, and by 1979 was established as a leading Welsh poet following the publication of her first full-length collection, The Sundial, which became the most successful book of poetry from a Welsh publisher. Living in suburban Cardiff, she was spiritually inhabiting a more rural, Welsh-speaking world to the west. In the seventies, the concern for voicing Welsh issues and proclaiming a specific Welsh identity provided a receptive ground for Gillian Clarke’s growth as a writer. In addition to poetry, major efforts went into drama and a whole range of arts; twin academies and a writers’ association came into being, and the Welsh Arts Council became more active. One of these miners’ sons, Dai Smith was critical of what he called …

… the production of Wales that was proceeding apace in the Cymricising suburbs of Cardiff, in academic and journalistic circles on the subsidised pages of a Welsh-language press and on the air-waves had no real need to take account of those who did not fit into the picture.

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The votes of 1979 dramatically registered the end of the epoch of the ‘old’ Welsh intelligentsia. While the ideologies of technical, managerial and administrative leaders remained opaque and without any specific Welsh identity, the most visible and creative elders of educated opinion among the Welsh had been rejected by their people. The task of transmitting a fresh, iconoclastic reappraisal of Wales to the Welsh fell to historians like Gwyn A. Williams, Dai Smith, Kenneth O. Morgan and D. Hywel Davies, among others. I was fortunate enough to be an apprentice in this task, though more concerned, like my fellow-researcher William D. Jones, with the history of the Welsh outside Wales and their images of the home country. As Tony Curtis observed:

Wales is not what we assumed it to be . Simplistic assumptions of “national pride”, a self-regarding “national” identity, are not to be allowed to go unquestioned… In the contemporary context writers face a harder task than even those raised by the ferment of the language campaign and the Devolution Vote, issues which served to focus much recent writing and to justify its polemic.

Almost Immediately Wales was fully exposed to the Conservative crusade and the radically restructuring of an increasingly multinational capitalism in Britain. The Welsh working population reached a peak in 1979, when 1,002,000 people were at work, fifty-five per cent of them in the service sector and forty-two per cent of them women in the core industries. The run-down of the coal industry continued and was followed by a sharp reduction in steel. Between June 1980 and June 1982, the official working population fell by no fewer than 106,000. The most catastrophic losses were in steel which lost half its workers and plummeted to 38,000. Public administration, however, lost fewer, around three thousand, while a whole range of services in insurance, banking, entertainment and educational and medical services actually gained over four thousand workers. In consequence, more men than women lost jobs at first, particularly in 1980-81, though much women’s work was part-time. During 1982 unemployment was heavier among women, but the overall result, in terms of number, was by June 1983 to increase the proportion of women at work within the central areas of the economy to forty-five per cent. By that time, the official working population of Wales had fallen to 882,000, its lowest level in the century. There was a high level of unemployment and particularly serious was the wasting of a whole generation of young people.

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The entire Welsh working population was beginning to take on the character of an informal, casual, unstructured labour force, an intimation of what was going to become a general experience in Britain to come. In the mid-1980s, Dai Smith commented that,

The crisis that would in the 1980s affect the vast majority of Welsh people was an economic, social and political crisis. … The ‘Condition of Wales Question’ is not for most of the Welsh about Welshness at all, it is about unemployment and jobs, about bad architecture, about bureaucracy and political participation, about dead-ends and opportunities. But nothing in Wales is subsidized more than ‘culture’. 

The Wales TUC was weakened and losing both numbers and funds, seemingly incapable of responding to the crisis. In reality, its autonomy was strictly limited in any case. Out of an income of thirty-three thousand pounds in 1980, nearly twenty thousand was a grant from the British TUC. In that year, its affiliated membership totalled over 580,000, nearly sixty per cent of the working population. But the response to the evident transformation of the working population varied among the unions, with NUPE being the most rapid and adaptable. Overall, the organised workers’ movement seemed encased in a perception of a ‘working class’ which had become a myth. The People’s March for Jobs and other demonstrations were not as significant in Wales as elsewhere in Britain, despite being led by veteran miners’ leader, Will Paynter, for part of the way through south Wales. But in 1982, the South Wales NUM did force a dramatic U-turn from the Thatcher government over proposed regional pit closures. We celebrated, but also asked the question, Have the Miners Really Won? Another former miners’ leader, Dai Francis, had his doubts, which later turned out to be justified. Thatcher would be ready next time.

The student movement was in much the same position as the trade unions, though in 1980 NUS Wales succeeded in prizing greater resources out of NUS UK by its university unions paying directly into a Welsh affiliation fund, rather than sending the money direct to London. By the end of my year in office in August 1980, it had also established a more federal constitution, which helped to win back support from a number of disillusioned and disgruntled Welsh-speaking students in the North and West. The University of Wales had also accepted our proposal for a central board to coordinate the development of Welsh-medium teaching throughout all the university colleges, rather than simply concentrating it in Aberystwyth and Bangor. In other areas, we won support from HRH the Prince of Wales, as Chancellor of the University, for our concerns about the government’s introduction of full-cost fees for overseas students and confronted the Welsh Rugby Union over its support for the unofficial tour of the South African Barbarians. This South Wales Campaign Against Racism in Sport introduced Peter Hain to Wales.

UCMC also campaigned successfully to prevent the Labour-controlled local authorities from imposing projected cuts on part-time students. The rise of the Left within the Labour Party was matched by a leftward shift in Plaid Cymru, which wrote a socialist state into its programme for Wales and a ‘broad left’ was formed with the Welsh Labour left and former Communist Party members. In the student movement, a distinctively Welsh socialist group emerged out of the remnants of the old Broad Left, which had been replaced by the Left Alliance within NUS UK, now including the Union of Liberal Students. Socialist students in Wales decided that a better strategy to manufacturing alliances was to reclaim the university unions and develop unions in other colleges through socialist education and organisation at a more grass-roots level.

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There seemed to be a limited response from a population readily accepting the values and arguments of ‘Thatcherism’ as they developed. The most radical political action went into the multiplying women’s groups, ecological movements and above all CND which acquired much more weight and spirit in the valleys and into west Wales than any other political body.  On 23rd February 1982, all the Welsh local authorities came together to declare Wales a Nuclear Free Zone, refusing to distribute the government’s infamous Protect and Survive pamphlets. The historian and lifelong CND campaigner, E. P. Thompson came to Carmarthen later in the year to address a mass rally. The protest camp at Greenham Common missile base was started by a march of women from Cardiff.

The turmoil continued around the language issue. The census of 1981 revealed that the proportion of Welsh-speakers had slipped back to 18.9 per cent, but that the decline in the use of the language overall had slowed dramatically over the decade and seemed to be coming to a halt. There were marginal increases in the numbers of Welsh-speakers in the most English-speaking areas such as Gwent and Glamorgan, probably due to the migration of Welsh-speakers to fill new jobs in the media in the capital and the increase in the number of Welsh learners in those counties, particularly among students in the arts and young journalists. As one of the enumerators, I found people who declared themselves as Welsh-speakers in some of the most unlikely districts of Cardiff.  Most serious, however, was the continued decline in the heartlands of the language, notably in south-west Wales, where the fall was six per cent. But the retrenchment in Welsh-speaking was noticeable in Ceredigion (Cardiganshire) and parts of Gwynedd and there were signs that the crusading of the past decade had begun to take effect among young people in these heartlands, especially where Welsh-medium or ‘bilingual’ schools had been set up.

Overall, out of a population of 2,790,00, around 550,000 were Welsh-speakers. In the west and north-west, particular districts, villages and even individual pubs created a linguistic map almost as tribally complicated as a cultural map of Northern Ireland. The continuing threat to the heartlands, y Fro Gymraeg, had led to the creation of a new cultural nationalist group, Adfer (‘Restore’), by the mid-seventies, whose intellectual supporters had been dedicated to the creation of a Welsh Gaeltacht, an ethnically pure economy and society on the basis of Welsh self-sufficiency. In Bangor, led by theology students, they had succeeded in creating a breakaway, Undeb Cymraeg (UCMB), a Welsh-speaking student union in 1977. The movement tended to see only the native Welsh-speaking Cymry as truly Welsh. The remainder, the vast majority throughout Wales, were described as Cymreig (‘culturally Welsh’) or at ‘best’, Cymry di-Gymraeg (‘non-Welsh-speaking Welsh’), the other face of the coin to the anti-Welsh-language British chauvinism which was prevalent in many Labour areas in the south, not least on the Left. Between the two groups of chauvinists, the proposal for a national assembly was easily defeated in the referendum of 1978, exposing Wales to economic pneumonia and the onset of Thatcherism, until its narrow reversal in the referendum of 1998.

In the early eighties, the divisions over the language were clear for all to see and were exacerbated by a major campaign of arson against holiday homes in northern and western Wales. In a major police action, Operation Tán (Fire) produced a chorus of complaint about violations of civil-rights, telephone-tapping, and the use of provocateurs. The NUS office phones were by now so routinely tapped that we could almost talk directly to Special Branch. On one occasion they contacted us directly to gather information about the beating up of Iraqi dissidents on the streets of South Wales by Saddam Hussein’s Baathist henchmen, the only students wearing suits and carrying rolled umbrellas! In the winter of 1980, driving out of Snowdonia following a meeting in Bangor, together with other members of the National Executive of NUS Wales, the North Wales Police stopped and searched the union’s fleet-hire hatch-back for flammable materials. They didn’t book us for speeding but joked about how wealthy Welsh students must be to be driving around in a brand-new car. They had obviously spotted the familiar dragons’ tongue Cymdeithas yr Iaith (Welsh Language Society) sticker in the back window.

Later in the year, John Jenkins, one of the bombers behind the botched attempt to blow a hole in the walls of Caernarfon Castle, in which two bombers accidentally blew themselves up and a little child was badly mutilated, before the 1969 Investiture of the Prince of Wales, was released from jail. Whilst there, where he had studied for an Open University degree. Having been initially accepted to study for a postgraduate diploma in social work, he was then rejected by University College Swansea without explanation. As our campaign to get the University to admit Jenkins gathered pace and hit the headlines, both in Welsh and English, both inside and outside Wales, we received a telephone message from ‘friends’ in high places in the university that Jenkins was still, somehow, a threat. That ‘somehow’ was never explained.

Our protests at the University of Wales Court meeting, held at Swansea, went ahead, but all the student representatives, ex-officio sabbatical officers of the constituent college unions, were forced to withdraw when the Jenkins case came up. As an NUS employee, I was initially allowed to stay in the meeting until the registrar of my own university college, Cardiff, pointed out that I was still registered as a student there. I was asked to withdraw, which meant we were prevented from reading our statement on the case, or even from having it read on our behalf by another Court member following my withdrawal. I, therefore, refused to leave, and the case was not discussed. Jenkins was not admitted, and we never found out what ‘good reason’ the college had for rejecting his application.  Soon after I received a message from my own university college, Cardiff, that I would not be allowed to extend my sabbatical at the Swansea NUS HQ for a further year and remain as a registered student, which would mean I had to leave the university permanently. I dutifully obeyed and returned to my PhD research in Cardiff in September 1980. Julie Barton was elected to replace me, becoming the first woman President of a more autonomous UCMC (NUS Wales), holding the post until 1982.

By then, the growth of the academic study of modern Welsh history became a major intellectual force which helped to bridge some of these divisions. The journal Llafur (Labour), the organ of the Welsh Labour History Society, of which I was a member, successfully married academics and workers. I returned to Swansea in the autumn of 1980, to do some research into the history of the mining valleys in the 1930s at the South Wales Miners’ Library, set up by the South Wales NUM in co-operation with University College Swansea, managed by Hywel Francis, son of the former miners’ leader.  It had rescued what was left of the magnificent miners’ institute libraries and created a centre for adult education, active research and a memorial to the fallen of the Spanish Civil War, many of those who joined the International Brigade having been South Wales miners. Soon after, however, the University College was forced into making financial cuts and proposed to lop off the Miners’ Library. In an effort to save it, the miners themselves became the major protagonists.

By 1982, Wales had its own Welsh-medium fourth television channel, a Welsh-medium teaching Board within the still federal University of Wales, and a quasi-official, ubiquitous bilingualism in public life. ‘Superted’ had been launched into orbit from S4C’s new offices in Canton, Cardiff. However, the task still remained of voicing the concerns of the eighty per cent who were outside the ‘orbit’ of the language and who, for a complexity of reasons, had turned their backs on the chance of Devolution, but still felt a deep sense of being “Welsh”.

The Grocer’s Daughter:

Looking back from over thirty-five years later, the epic events of 1979-83 seem to have a clear pattern. Powerful ideas challenged the post-war consensus and, following a nail-biting struggle, defeated its adherents. But from the perspective of those who lived through these events, especially in traditionally ‘left-wing’ areas of Britain, there was remotely inevitable about this ‘victory’. As student leaders, for example, we really thought that we could defeat the Tories on the issue of full-cost fees for overseas students. Even HRH the Prince of Wales, following our Lampeter meeting with him in 1980, expressed his concerns in one of his now famous hand-written missives to the government about the likely effects of these being introduced on Britain’s relations with the Commonwealth and on Britain’s new technical universities, which were dependent on the recruitment of overseas students. Almost the entire University Sector in Britain and its overseas offshoots, was publicly against the government on this, though many vice-chancellors were secretly rubbing its hands with the prospect of attracting more oil-rich Saudis and Baathists from Iraq and Syria, rather than poor South American, African and Middle-Eastern ‘refugees’.

It was also unclear what sort of Britain Margaret Roberts, the grocer’s daughter and devout Lincolnshire Christian, hoped to create. She did not believe in privatising industries or defeating inflation merely for economic reasons. She wanted to remoralize society, creating a nation whose ‘Victorian Values’ were expressed through secure marriages, like her own, self-help and thrift, moderation in all things, good neighbourliness and hard work. Though much attacked by church leaders like her arch nemesis, David Jenkins, the Bishop of Durham, she talked of God and morality incessantly from the moment she apparently quoted Francis of Assisi at the door of Number Ten on the morning following her May 1979 Election victory. In fact, it was a Victorian re-working of the well-known prayer. Later, it was endlessly used to show what a hypocrite she was. But for the people she had determined to govern on behalf of, the inflation-ravaged middle-classes who had despaired of Britain’s future, believing that the unions could never be tamed by the State, she brought both faith and hope. She claimed that she was in politics because of the conflict between good and evil. Yet Thatcherism heralded an age of unparalleled consumption, credit, show-off wealth, quick bucks and sexual libertinism. The Thatcher years did not bring harmony to the lives of most of the Queen’s subjects, but further social and economic division. When politicians determine to free people, they can never be sure what they are freeing them for. In reality, the lady in Lincoln green turned out to be the antithetical mirror image of its legendary hero, like the Robin Hood character in Monty Python and the Holy Grail:

Steals from the poor, gives to the rich,

Silly bitch!

Perhaps, as a Wesleyan, she had too generous a view of human nature, especially (and ironically) contrasted with her Calvinistic Baptist predecessor, who believed that people are essentially selfish and need to be moderated and regulated by the state for the common good to prevail. John Wesley’s famous mantra was: Work all you can, earn all you can, give all you can. Unfortunately, it took most of her period in power for her and the country to realise her theological error, that the sin of omission lay in respect of the third part of this triplet, and by that time much of Britain’s wealth and many of its assets had been stripped and shipped abroad. For the first four years of her leadership, the Tories were continuing to talk about a wages policy and the importance of consulting with the trade unions, perhaps on the German model. There was also talk of the need to control the money supply and offer council tenants the right to buy their homes. But other privatization measures barely featured. As to unemployment, Mrs Thatcher herself had been vigorously attacking the Callaghan government for its failure to tackle the dole queues. One of the Tories’ most successful election posters had portrayed an ever-lengthening queue with the slogan Labour isn’t working. I remember seeing it on an Easter visit home, dominating Chamberlain Square in Birmingham. With unemployment still around a million, the message she was giving out while still in opposition was:

We would have been drummed out of office if we’d had this level of unemployment.

If the British public had studied their new Prime Minister a little more closely they would have noticed a more abrasive edge to her personality, especially when she talked of the failure of the three previous administrations, including that of Ted Heath, to control the trade unions. She would point aggressively across the House of Commons and declare, Never forget how near this country came to government by picket. She had also received the nickname, The Iron Lady as an insult from the Soviet leadership for her rabidly anti-communist speech in 1977. It was only much later that it became a badge of honour for her. Moreover, the cabinet full of Tory squires and former Heath supporters hardly looked like a revolutionary cabal. Denis Healy memorably compared being attacked by the Chancellor, Geoffrey Howe, to being savaged by a dead sheep. But Mrs Thatcher herself was a far more determined woman than most people realised. The single most important influence throughout her life seems to have come from her father, Alderman Alfred Roberts, a self-made, austere Methodist and hard-working owner of a grocer’s shop on the main road north at Grantham. Although he stood for the council as an independent, Roberts was of Tory instincts. He became mayor in 1945 and chaired local charities, the Workers’ Educational Association, and acted as a director of a local bank. He was independent-minded and taught his daughter to speak her mind and to argue. In this, he was extremely successful, since her governments effectively devastated everything he had stood for in terms of local politics.

Unlike Wilson, who used his Yorkshire accent as a badge of identity, she lost her Lincolnshire ‘burr’ somewhere on her way down the A1. As her biographer, Hugo Young put it, she was born a northerner but became a southerner, the quintessence of a Home Counties politician. She was elected for the well-off middle-class seat of Finchley in 1959, her politics having been formed by the experience of post-war Labour austerity. Seen from above, the socialist experiment in planning and ‘fair shares for all’ might have looked noble, she concluded, but from below it was a maze of deprivation, shortage and envy. She later reflected that…

No one who lived through austerity, who can remember snoek, spam and utility clothing, could mistake the petty jealousies, minor tyrannies, ill-neighbourliness and sheer sourness of those years for idealism and equality.

During the 1979 election, using all the skills of her new image-makers and advertising agency, and with a shrewd understanding of the importance of television, she was still trailing Callaghan in the personal popularity stakes by a full nineteen points. It was Labour’s unpopularity with the electorate which cost the party power, not Margaret Thatcher’s allure. Yet without her, the Tory government of 1979-83 would have been entirely different. Without her confrontational style and determination not to be beaten, Britain would have been stuck with a pay policy and high public spending. The crucial issue for her on being elected was to get a grip of inflation. To the Thatcherites, this meant monetarism, the basic proposition of which was that inflation is directly related to the amount of money in the economy. Where the Thatcherite monetarists diverged from Keynesian economics was in the argument that the paramount role of government in economic management was to control the money supply, which could be scientifically measured and calibrated. The other issues, unemployment and productivity included, would eventually resolve themselves. All the government needed to do was to hold firm to the principle, get the money supply down, and it would succeed.

The Thatcher government, in reality, could have restricted the money supply by raising taxes, but it was committed to cutting most taxes. Almost immediately, Howe cut the basic rate of income tax from thirty-three to thirty per cent and the top rate from eighty-three to sixty per cent. Spending cuts were agreed too, but to make up the difference a huge rise in value-added tax (VAT), doubling to fifteen per cent, was brought in. Money was being redistributed from the masses, paying more for food, clothes and other essential items, to higher rate taxpayers. In industrial policy, one of the ‘moderates’, Jim Prior, made good on the manifesto promise and unveiled a trade union reform bill designed to end closed shops, providing public funds for strike ballots and outlawing secondary picketing of the kind which had been widely seen during ‘the winter of discontent’. These measures would have been radical under any other government, but Thatcher complained that they did not go far enough. She wanted an end to all secondary action. She castigated him as a ‘false squire’, one of a class of Tories who…

have all the outward show of a John Bull – ruddy face, white hair, bluff manner – but inwardly they are political calculators who see the task of Conservatives as retreating gracefully before the Left’s inevitable advance.

In frustration, Thatcher suddenly announced that strikers would in future be assumed to be getting union strike pay and so would not qualify for social security. The battle lines were being clearly drawn.

Howe’s second budget in 1980 set out a Medium-Term Financial Strategy (MTFS) which contained detailed predictions about the growth of the money supply. But with inflation raging, a recession biting and credit restrictions loosened, it was impossible to enforce. The money supply was supposed to be growing at around eight per cent, but it actually grew at a rate of nineteen per cent. The monetarists were beginning to look foolish. Strike-ravaged, unproductive British Leyland came begging for yet more money but instead of closing it down or selling it off, Thatcher gave way, just as Heath had done when Rolls-Royce had tested his resolve not to give bail-outs. But whereas the latter had eventually thrived again, BL died. There was also a steel strike and though the government talked tough and stood firm, the eventual settlement was high and the unions were certainly not humiliated. By the second half of the year, unemployment was up by more than 800,000 and hundreds of manufacturing businesses were going bust, throttled by the rising exchange rate. Industrialists, who had looked to the Tories with great hope, now began to despair once more. Prices were up by twenty-two per cent in a year and wages by a fifth. At the Tory Conference of 1980, the dissidents within the cabinet and the Tory ‘left’ in Parliament who called for a ‘U-turn’ on the economy were dismissed by Thatcher in a phrase coined by the playwright Ronald Millar:

You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning!

The word ‘wet’ was a public schoolboy term of abuse describing a fellow pupil who was ‘soppy’ or weak. It was now being applied by monetarist Tories to their Heathite opponents. In the great Thatcher cabinet battles of the eighties, it was appropriated to refer particularly to the senior ministers who did not agree with her – Jim Prior, Francis Pym, Sir Ian Gilmour, Mark Carlisle, Norman St John Stevas, Peter Walker, Christopher Soames and (later) Michael Heseltine. Most of them were ‘wet’ in another sense – despite being in the majority, they were never prepared to act together to face her down, or even to resign individually on points of principle. The great confrontation would have come in 1981, with unemployment headed towards three million, new bankruptcies reported every day and the biggest collapse in manufacturing production in a single year since 1921. Howe planned to take another four billion out of the economy through a combination of swingeing cuts and rises in taxes. Thatcher told Alan Walters, her new economic adviser, that they may get rid of me for this but that it would be worth it for doing the right thing. On the streets, rioting seemed to be confirming all the worst fears of those who had predicted that monetarism would tear the country apart. But in ringing terms, Thatcher told the Tory Party faithful to stay calm and strong:

This is the road I am resolved to follow. This is the path I must go. I ask all who have spirit – the bold, the steadfast and the young at heart – to stand and join with me.

In April 1981, riots broke out in Brixton. Shops were burned and looted, streets barricaded and more than two hundred people, most of them police, were injured. Mrs Thatcher’s response was to pity the shopkeepers. Lord Scaman was asked to hold a public inquiry; but in the first week of July, trouble began again, this time in the heavily Asian west London suburb of Southall, with petrol-bombs, arson attacks and widespread pelting of the police. Then Toxteth in Liverpool erupted and the rioting there continued for two weeks. Black youths, then whites, petrol-bombed the police, waved guns and burned both cars and buildings. The police responded with CS gas, the first time it had been used on the streets of mainland Britain, and with baton charges. As in London, hundreds were injured and one man was killed. Toxteth was followed by outbreaks of looting and arson in Manchester’s Moss Side. With unemployment reaching sixty per cent among young blacks, and both Liverpool and Manchester having suffered badly from recent factory closures, many saw this a clearly linked to Thatcherite economics, what Denis Healey, now in opposition, was now calling ‘sado-monetarism’. Michael Heseltine went to Liverpool and came back calling for government money to bring in private investment, job creation schemes and a minister for Liverpool. He stuck with Liverpool for a year, helping to bring renovation projects and a morale-boosting garden festival which was attended by three million people. Thatcher herself drew very different conclusions from her visit to Liverpool:

I had been told that some of the young people involved got into trouble through boredom and not having enough to do. But you only had to look at the grounds of these houses with the grass untended, some of it almost waist-high, and the litter, to see this was a false analysis. They had plenty of constructive things to do if they wanted. Instead, I asked myself how people could live in such circumstances without trying to clear up the mess.

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The problem, she claimed, was lack of initiative and self-reliance created by years of dependency on the State, and compounded by the media. It was nothing whatsoever to do with monetarist policies. Her views remained unaltered as she then went on into full-scale battle with ‘the wets’. Howe planned another tight Budget for 1982, and, for the first time, there was something approximating a full-scale cabinet revolt. Heseltine warned of despair and electoral meltdown. Even monetarist true believers seemed to be deserting. Thatcher herself called it one of the bitterest arguments in a cabinet in her time. Drawing the meeting to a close, she decided to counter-attack. Four ministers were sacked, and Jim Prior was sent to Northern Ireland. She intervened to stop other ministers settling with public sector workers, even when it would have been cheaper to do so. She had kept the trade union leaders locked out. Len Murray (above), the impeccably moderate TUC chairman who had spent half the Wilson and Callaghan years sitting around the table with them, was allowed into Downing Street just three times in Mrs Thatcher’s first five years.

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In the summer of 1981, most of ‘England and Wales’ allowed itself to be distracted by the dramatic reversal in their Cricket team’s fortunes in the Home ‘Ashes’ series against Australia. A belligerent Ian Botham helped them to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat at Headingley, and we all began picking up bats and balls again. In 1982, I enjoyed a brief interlude as ‘the Ian Botham of Grangetown’ in my pub team, more for my inconsistency as an all-rounder, though I did get to make match-winning contributions on the practice pitches at Sophia Gardens.

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Above: In an interview with BBC correspondent, John Simpson

The best evidence of Mrs Thatcher’s belligerent style to date had been the struggle with the other European leaders to reclaim roughly a billion pounds a year of net British payments to the Community. In ‘Thatcher speak’, getting our money back involved an undiplomatic brawl that went on from Dublin to Luxembourg to Brussels. She would not shut up, or back down. Diplomats from all sides suggested interesting side-deals, trade-offs, honourable compromises, but she brushed them all aside. Ultimately, she got three-quarters of what she had first demanded, but, astonishingly, she then said ‘no’. It was only when all her entire cabinet were in favour of the settlement that she grudgingly agreed. The press and the country were beginning to notice her tenacity. Her ‘Bothamesque’ innings in Brussels was to come back to haunt her when she was ‘savaged’ by Geoffrey Howe’s cricketing metaphors in 1990, but until then, the civil war within the Labour Party had helped protect her from the electoral consequences of her shift from the centre-ground. The Tories might be hated, but Labour was unelectable.

(to be continued…)

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The Long March of Every Woman: Gender, ‘Community’ & Poverty in British Labour History, 1928-38; III.   Leave a comment

Chapter Three: Patterns of Poverty & Kinship Networks.

The predominance of ‘King Coal’ in the valleys of South Wales was revealed in the occupational statistics of the 1921 Census, showing that more than seventy-five percent of the total occupied male occupation in the Garw Valley was engaged in mining, with only five percent engaged in commerce, finance or the professions. An equally important statistic was that only twelve percent of the female population, aged twelve and over, was ‘occupied’ outside the home, with thirty-nine percent of this number engaged in personal service and thirty-seven percent in commerce, finance and the professions. In addition, besides the eight clergymen in Pontycymmer in 1926, there were only three other ‘private residents’. Outside the home, the world of waged work was overwhelmingly male and working class, even more so than in the towns at the heads of the valleys.

By 1931, there was no evidence to suggest that unemployment had prompted a shift in employment patterns in the Garw. According to the industry tables, which excluded the unemployed, more than four-fifths in the Ogmore and Garw Urban District were to be found in mining. There was an increase in the proportion of both male and female workers in commerce, finance and the professions, but only thirty percent of women were to be found in this category; there was still more than thirty-six percent in personal service. These ‘dead-end’ valleys were so dependent upon coal-mining that the ‘knock-on’ effect which unemployment in that industry had upon other industries and trade within them, had nothing to counteract it. Merthyr and Brynmawr, by comparison, could at least offer themselves as shopping, distributive and entertainment centres to a large number of people within a wide radius.

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A Section of the 1921 Edition of the Ordnance Survey Map showing the Garw Valley from Blaengarw to Pontycymmer.

In June 1937, it was reported that the coal industry had been in recovery since January, with each of the three collieries in Blaengarw working at full pressure… with bright prospects of regular employment. In these six months, many new hands had been taken on, resulting in a steady decline in the numbers signing on at the local exchange. Later that year, the new oil-from-coal plant at Wentarw and the beginning of full production at the Bridgend shell-filling factory relieved the unemployment situation still further. The first of these provided work for between two and three thousand workers; the second went on to become the largest ammunition filling factory in Britain, employing 34,000 workers at its wartime peak. It also altered the gender balance in employment, as the majority of these new workers were women and girls drawn from a wide radius around Bridgend and from as far afield as Aberdare. A third means of relief was the establishment of a trading estate at Port Talbot, which also recruited many female workers. By August 1939 there were just twelve percent registered unemployed at the Pontycymmer exchange in the Garw and the insured population had risen dramatically, by fifty-five percent between July 1937 and July 1938, almost regaining its 1926 level. Besides the recovery in the coal industry, a significant part of the increase must have been to the numbers of young women who entered employment for the first time to work in Bridgend.

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Therefore, the coal villages of the Garw Valley, for so long so overwhelmingly dominated by male employment, were undergoing a process of major transformation, which was further accelerated by the advent of war. The Garw valley undoubtedly enjoyed a significant share of these new industries from 1937 onwards, with the economic focus of the valleys as a whole shifting from top to bottom. However, both the establishment of the new industries and the recovery of the collieries still left a residual problem of unemployment among older men throughout the valleys, not just in the communities at the valley heads. In many mining families, like the Allports in Pant-y-gog in the Garw, the wives had also been shop-keepers, taking as much as a hundred pounds a day in the prosperous early twenties. By 1927 this prosperity had turned into a struggle for survival. The children recalled how…

… the shop kept going but people got poorer and unemployment crept in… The amount of money coming into the shops got less and less and we were practically giving the stuff away, making no profit. The windows became empty and the bottles of sweets went. Eventually we stopped taking any stock… the trade in the shop had gone; there was insufficient to live on. The shop was only rented and we gave it up. I think mother had something for the goodwill, not very much because the trade had gone.

Thus, the effects of widespread unemployment and impoverishment were often felt most acutely by shopkeepers in terms of a comparative fall in the standard of living and this was precisely the group which were least able either to ask for or to find support within mining communities. Despite their involvement in institutional activities, especially in chapel life, there would inevitably be a certain ‘distance’ between them and mining families, even members of the shopkeepers’ family worked as miners.

These points are exemplified, in pathetic detail, by events of July 1928 concerning one shop-keeping family in the valley. The Glamorgan Gazette reported how one Saturday morning, Blaengarw was plunged into gloom and overwhelmed by poignant sorrow when the bodies of a married shop-keeping couple, who had carried on a grocery business in Nanthir Road, Blaengarw for many years and were faithful adherents of Tabernacle C M Church. The tragedy became the sole topic of conversation and when the bodies were brought home on Saturday afternoon an immense crowd had collected, women shedding tears at the pitiable sight they witnessed. The couple had commenced on the bottom rung of the ladder and had worked their way up to being ‘comfortably off’ before the strike of 1921. However, since that date, they had given all of their surpluses away in goods to local people and were threatened with bankruptcy. They were both in their mid-forties and had a fourteen-year-old son. The woman was the daughter of a former under-manager at the Ocean Colliery and her brother was a teacher in the Garw. Her husband wrote the following messages for their niece, their son, and the chapel:

Goodbye, Gwyneth fach; always serve God well… Oh! How hard it is to leave you behind, Ewryd annwyl… but we can’t bear the strain any longer…

Christian friends… we have been unable to do our part for a long time owing to financial troubles… Haven’t done anyone wilfully down, but all is against us.

The funeral was reported a representative of every trade and profession in the district. The suicide was seen as a marker of the loss of power and status endured by the community as a whole since it stemmed from the couple’s sense of isolation, demoralisation, and loss of respectability. As the depression progressed, their case was followed by others.

Housing conditions in the valley varied a great deal. Houses in Pant-y-gog, lower down the valley, were comfortable and spacious, with a parlour, living room, kitchen and three bedrooms. Those renting terraced cottages from the colliery companies frequently had three adults and eight children living in fur rooms.  One house in Nanthir Road, Blaengarw not only ad an outside toilet but an outside water supply and pantry as well, no modernisation anywhere. Many of the houses were erected in the 1880s before housing bylaws were introduced to the Garw Valley, and the degree of control exercised over housing stock by the coal companies was far greater than in the heads of the valleys’ towns. In 1926 the Ogmore and Garw UDC had discussed the acute housing shortage within the District, and the following year it heard how a terrace in Pontycymmer was plagued with dampness, extensive dilapidation and cracked external walls which were leaning dangerously towards the road. The report went on:

Movement of the houses is occuring almost daily, as evidenced by falls of plaster from bedroom ceilings. The houses are a source of danger to the inhabitants.

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Porth, in the Rhondda, also suffered continually from ‘subsidence’ because deep pits found their own levels, downwards. According to Gwyn Thomas, who grew up there in the 1920s, these land-slips not only brought houses down, quite literally, but they had a further impact on a community already coming to terms with economic instability:

…the valley seemed like a living gloss on the holy texts. We saw clear signs of God’s wrath in the antics of the sub-soil. When the foundations beneath a house slipped ans set the rooms awry we could not be convinced that the tenants had not been up to something… A whole culture of instability flourished. Constant oratorios were warned that our game of insolence with God had been lost and the final bill would be delivered shortly… it was the malaise underfoot that underscored most of the images that we were to carry through life begetting jokes of exasperating stamina, and giving to us all a sense of absurdity that was far and away the fittest thing about us… These elements in our private myth, under pressure of a wider awareness, created their own kind of psychological subsidence.

Despite the worsening conditions of the housing stock, many families were also threatened with eviction. Much of the housing was privately-owned, and evictions for non-payment were a regular occurrence.  In Council-owned property, rent arrears had reached such crisis proportions by May 1931 that the Ogmore and Garw UDC decided to reduce rent by two shillings per week. Many houses were said to be in a dilapidated condition for want of tenants, so it was hoped that, by reducing rents, the UDC would get these occupied again. The collection of rates was also a difficult issue for the local council. As early as 1928, The Glamorgan Gazette commented that large numbers of people in the district who paid their rates willingly in times of prosperity were finding it impossible to do so under the new conditions of poverty. Arrears were mounting alarmingly and it was therefore with the greatest reluctance that the UDC had decided to summon a number of defaulters. In total 144 people were prosecuted and despite the pathos surrounding their undoubtedly bad circumstances, the magistrates were compelled to make orders. This process kept them occupied for several hours, under circumstances which would have taxed the well-known ingenuity and wisdom of Solomon. Most of those who attended were women, most of them having pathetic stories to tell. 

Besides these fixed outgoings for rent and rates, many residents in the valley also made regular contributions to their own health care, and appear to have continued to do so in spite of the impact of the depression on their incomes. There was a widespread feeling in the valleys that the National Health Insurance Scheme provided inadequate cover in times of sickness. Medical Aid Societies and hospital contributory schemes continued to be popular throughout the coalfield. In the Garw there were 3,519 insured contributors to the Garw Valley Medical Society, with a further 2,800 dependents standing to benefit from this. This form of ‘self-help’ was one of the major strengths of the valley, running through an institutional life which some disparaged as the multiplicity of small clubs and benefit societies. Perhaps due to being ‘hemmed in’ geographically, the community felt the need to provide for itself in terms of a complete range of social services, facilities for cultural activities and entertainment as well as forums for discussion, debate and education.

The Pontycymmer Industrial Co-operative Society was perhaps the best example of this. In May 1927 its members totalled 3,444 members with a further 1,400 dependants, and a modest shop in Pontycymmer had developed into extensive central premises with offices, a bakery, a garage and stables. Although its sales within the valley were considerable, they comprised only a third of its total sales of 63,465 pounds throughout the District and beyond. A dividend of a shilling in the pound was paid to members, amounting to 2,694 pounds in total. Having survived the six-month coal stoppage, the Pontycymmer Co-op Society was in good shape to face the depression years and must have enabled many housewives to survive them.

To many working-class women throughout Britain during the thirties, the ‘divi’ was as important as payday and the declaration of the amount to be paid as a dividend on purchases was awaited with desperate anticipation. The dividend on purchases had been a wise element in the pioneers’ scheme of co-operation, for it was popular with the poor, according to their ideas on justice and equity that those who had been most loyal in shopping at the Co-operative should be better regarded and rewarded as consumers. Despite the depression years the Co-ops flourished, having a close knowledge of the requirements of working-class families and the prices they could afford to pay. The cash dividend would be paid twice a year, varying from Society to Society but often paying two shillings in the pound. To a housewife who had traded steadily during the year, the money could bring an additional week’s wages, arriving in time to buy new boots for the children or provide a few luxuries for Christmas.

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Deep loyalty was bred during the inter-war years between working-class families and the Co-operatives, the movement frequently lending support to trade unions at times of distress, as well as to the Labour Party and its MPs. Free boot repairs for hunger marchers, free bread for strikers’ children, extended credit in the form of food vouchers, interest-free loans to unions during prolonged strikes and constant support for the Labour cause through the Co-operative paper, Reynolds News, could not be matched by the Home and Colonial Stores and The Daily Mail, supporting the Conservative Party. The photograph above shows the ‘divi’ at the Co-operative Union in Manchester in the thirties.

Although most ‘respectable’ women in coalfield communities would never go into a pub, and children were not allowed to visit houses where a woman was known to drink, there was a ‘rough’ or ‘common’ sub-culture in public houses and clubs, which does not seem to have suffered unduly from the depression. Judging from the fairly frequent reports of drunkenness in the local press, there were a large number of people in the valley with enough surplus money to be able to buy alcohol on a regular basis. Thomas Baker Williams, the Licensee of the Royal Hotel in Pontycymmer, was summoned for permitting drunkenness on his premises on more than one occasion. At his appearance in Court in June 1928, evidence was given of a night on which the Bridgend Road was, by ten O’clock, crowded with men and women many of whom were drunk and the men were shouting and quarrelling. Two women had started to fight in the jug and bottle department and had used the most filthy language. In all, there were some 250 people on the scene, many of them under the influence of drink. Williams defended himself in somewhat comical style by saying that the cause of the trouble was the fact that he sold the best beer and thereby drew the biggest crowd.

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The Rhondda writer Gwyn Thomas’ 1979 lecture told of how drunkenness in Porth was of a savage intensity, especially on a Saturday night when his family’s street that ran a thousand feet up the hillside filled with a roaring rout of inebriates from the five or six local pubs. There was such frequent and fierce fighting that it was a wonder that murder was not more often done, probably due to the difficulty of placing a good punch on the sloping ground. Thomas recalled a particularly devout and zealous chapel-going neighbour who lay in wait in her little front garden that overlooked the swaying tide of reprobates:

She swung a brass-bound Bible at any heads that came near and if she brained a drunkard or two her week was made. Repairs to her Bible were done free by a pious locksmith. The desperate infantilism of the drunks was easy to understand because the contract with reality was never more bleakly reaffirmed on the Sabbath than between those hills… The anguish of intelligent, overburdened men with hangovers must have been considerable as the marvellous valley acoustic brought home to them the rub of folly in a double-dealing and wholly inadequate world. The plight of women in that time of dark philogenetic romps and squalors is something from which I still turn my mind.

The choice was clear for women: if you went to the pub, to the ‘snug’ at least, you couldn’t go to the chapel. Nevertheless, much of the social life of the valley continued to revolve around the chapels, despite the financial and other difficulties which beset them. Each of the seventeen places of worship in the valley supported choirs, each with a reputation, and the Tabernacle Welsh Congregational Church Choral Society consisted of over a hundred voices and performed before crowded audiences. Choral festivals, Eisteddfodau and Gymanfa Ganu (Community Singing events) continued to attract huge congregations throughout the thirties. Thus, although many chapels felt at first hand the full impact of the impoverishment of a large number of its members, they were certainly not abandoned by them and left to stagnate in a process of terminal decline. Nor, in turn, did the chapels abandon their unemployed members. In fact, The Gazette reported that the chapels were continually vying with each other in efforts for the alleviation of the widespread distress. 

It was the musical tradition established in the chapels which laid the basis for the Garw’s claim to be one of the most musical valleys in South Wales.  Its musical organisations included the Garw Operatic Society, the Garw Male Voice Society, which enjoyed success at the National Eisteddfod, Garw Ladies’ Choir, the Blaengarw Kit Kat Operatic Society and the Pontycymmer Choral Society. Some of these societies had more than two hundred members and the Male Voice Society had a membership of twice that in 1926. Both Blaengarw and Pontycymmer had orchestral societies and silver bands. The valley also produced individual vocalists of considerable ability, including Jennie Ellis who won ‘the National’ six times. In addition, the valley had a strong amateur dramatic tradition which was enhanced by the writer Jack Jones during his brief sojourn in the valley. Perhaps partly due to his departure, these societies declined after 1931, and some of the orchestras also merged, probably due to the extent of migration from the valley.

From 1928, the predominance of the Labour Party in local politics was strengthened through the active participation of women, who formed themselves into a Women’s Labour Section. Although still in its infancy in 1928, it had over a hundred members. It was pre-dated by a Women’s Section of the ILP, one of whose leading members was Mrs Sarah Jones of Pontycymmer, a pioneer of the ILP and the Suffragette movement, the Chairman of the Party in the valley and a member of the English Congregational Church. The level of political organisation of women in the valley was undoubtedly an important resource for the community, particularly during the 1929 dispute, but also throughout the thirties.

Elsewhere in depressed Britain, Salford in Manchester was aided by the women of Chichester, as a fund had been inaugurated by their Bishop in 1933. The ‘Five Silent Ladies of Sussex’ as they were known, lived in Salford for three months, collecting data. Shortly afterwards, two men’s centres and a woman’s centre were opened. Called “The Challenge”, the women’s centre did not succeed as a centre for single unemployed women, but when it invited married women to join, it was swamped with women and children. They had to cope with the problem of distributing second-hand clothing fairly.  Garments were altered by women who had been mill hands since the age of fourteen but had not learnt to sew. An instructor taught them on two afternoons per week, and the women earned their garments by the number of hours they worked at alterations, as well making bedding. The centre opened a ‘shop’ to organise the distribution of the garments, and Christmas parcels.

Tyneside had about seventy thousand unemployed in 1936. It also had some of the worse housing conditions in Britain, far worse than those in most areas of South Wales, including an incidence of overcrowding which was three-time the national average. It also had an even lower standard of living among the unemployed, but the conditions were more accepted by the local people, since mass unemployment had not been so long-term, resulting mainly from the closure of the shipyards, which did not occur until the 1930s. Social surveys proved scientifically the extent of the social murder in the towns. In 1932, the local branch of the National Council of Women launched a Tyneside Housing Crusade Week in order to present the facts about housing, the cost to the community of bad housing, to stimulate building, relieve unemployment and to demonstrate modern possibilities of living efficiently. Ten Local Authorities out of seventeen took part.

The General Election of 1931 was one of misery for the Labour Party as they fought the most divisive contest in the history of the movement, before or since. Pledged to solve the problem of unemployment, in 1929 the newly-appointed Minister for Unemployment, J H Thomas, had boasted, I have the cure, as he hob-nobbed with bankers and watched the number of registered unemployed soar from 1,163,000 on taking office to 2,500,000 within eighteen months. Wal Hannington, the Communist leader of the workless, remarked sarcastically that as Minister for the Unemployed, J H Thomas is a howling success. The government ignored the arguments of the TUC that cutting expenditure and wages would only cause further unemployment, and accepted the advice of the May Committee to cut expenditure by ninety-six million, two-thirds of which would come from cuts in unemployment maintenance. Ernest Bevin and Walter Citrine led a delegation to the Cabinet Committee and declared total hostility to the cuts. McDonald formed his National Government with the Conservatives and Liberals and the fight was a straight fight between the Labour Party and the other parties in office led by McDonald. Labour representation in the house was cut from 289 to 46. Ernie Bevin, pictured on the left in the photo below, contested the supposedly safe seat of Gateshead (Labour majority 16,700) and lost to the National Liberal, by 12,938 votes.

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At Gateshead, Rev. Maldwyn Edwards, Methodist Minister ran a centre for the unemployed connected to his church, the Central Hall, which he based on a questionnaire completed by its members. This meant that his knowledge and understanding of their problems was outstanding. He later wrote a book which was never published, but it gives an evocative insight into conditions among local families in the 1930s. In 1932, he recorded, there were three and a half thousand families living in one room and nearly thirty percent of the population lived in officially overcrowded housing. In spite of this, most houses were clean, with curtains at the windows which showed a desire for colour and beauty, but these could not hide the grim if silent battles going on inside:

The families had a constant struggle against sickness and poverty, so hope died and they became apathetic. Rats were a real problem in some areas, and the mortality from epidemics in some parts of the town was twice that of other parts.

The diet was inadequate, but most housewives baked their own bread: fresh milk and butter were rare. Breakfast was tea, bread and margarine with a little fried bacon once a week. Dinner on Saturday night might be a hot joint, stew or pot pie, then Monday cold meat, then the rest of the week peas pudding, leek pudding, occasionally fish and chips, or tripe, or just bread and margarine, always with plenty of tea… 

Clothes and household necessities could not be bought outright, so the only thing to do was to get on an agent’s list, so everything was more expensive to the very poor. In 1933 there were thirty-seven children without shoes and stockings, and 138 children with unsatisfactory footwear, so the children least nourished and therefore least fortified against the weather were worst clad.  Secondhand clothing was not easy to come by, but the Personal Service League had a huge emporium for distribution… Some insurance was organised by slate clubs which met in pubs rent-free, but there were also Brotherhood Thrift Clubs and Friendly Societies which had many members and were on a sounder basis…

But many of the unemployed did not belong to a friendly society, but went to the doctor when illness occurred and paid him weekly afterwards. Then there were dispensary letters given to contributors to hospital funds and distributed. But the amount given was half that collected: these were most wasteful of money, time and energy. The Nursing Association of Gateshead supplied a good and cheap service: the householder paid a penny a week which ensured visits from a nurse in time of need.

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It was his first-hand experience of the failure of the friendly societies to organise health insurance schemes which convinced Aneurin Bevan, as a young MP in Ebbw Vale, that there must be a free national health service funded by taxation.

There was a ‘penny in the slot’ gas meter in most homes in Gateshead: most cooking was done over the fire, however, as there were few cookers and practically no electricity installed. Families with pit connections were extravagant with coal, but people who lived in dark and damp houses needed extra heat and light. Sudden illnesses, deaths and emergencies created further expenses which could not be met; debts might mean court proceedings and belongings seized:

A desperate situation might result in a “moonlight flit”. These things were not always the result of improvidence: those who needed a doctor most could not afford to have one. The poor have a monotonous routine: they cannot have a holiday: they pay more for what they need.

The men at Edwards’ Centre were not ‘typical’ as they all belonged to a club in which drinking and gambling were not allowed, but, as the minister himself pointed out, there was no such thing as a typical unemployed man anyway. In general, there was a large amount of street betting, also an interest in boxing, football and dogs, with an alarming growth in the football ‘Pools’. The men at the centre spent an average of threepence ha’penny per head on amusements plus about a shilling per week on tobacco. They may have had a day in the country or at the seaside once or twice a year. There were daily papers provided at the Centre and there were fellowship rambles, cycle rides, services, Brotherhood meetings, young men’s classes, billiards and a mission reading room. But most men could only make use of the club after they had been out looking for work in order to earn their unemployment benefit or allowance. One of the men had been out of work for fifteen years, ever since his demobilisation. ‘Genuinely Seeking Work’ for up to twelve hours a day took its toll on bicycles as well as boots, which restricted the number of bikes available for pleasurable community rides. Often father and son had to share one bicycle in two daily shifts.

Nevertheless, the Centre helped to improve the quality of life in the family, if not the standard of living. One man said that since going to the centre he did not nag his wife and children so much. Another said that walking in the sunshine built him up to face the winter:

Being unemployed is a nightmare, but somehow I thrust away the worried feeling I used to endure, but I lack concentration as work is always at the back of my mind.

Several men gave regular times to help to help their wives, have family walks, and visit their parents. A few visited the Training Centre to do cobbling on a regular basis. One man had done extra-mural university courses, but he too found it difficult to persevere due to…

… the haunting sense of insecurity and the continual worry of not being able to balance the family budget; in times of stress he could not concentrate on subjects of only academic interest, saying, “The stomach does not give the soul a chance!” Unemployment is not leisure: the latter implies peace of mind, a quiet place to retreat, so education for leisure cannot help the unemployed very much if men have acute financial, family and work problems.

Rev. Maldwyn Edwards wrote that the gap between the real needs of people and their actual purchasing power had to be understood: Production does not reach saturation point until every man, woman and child have sufficient for their needs, so it is purchasing power that is needed. People needed goods but could not buy them. He also pointed out that there was important work to be done amongst the wives and children of the unemployed, who often needed more help and support than the men. There were women’s institutes and ‘sisterhoods’ in most towns and villages in the country, but the problems of juveniles, both male and female, needed more thought, especially those of school-leavers, who did not all take advantage of scouts, guides and similar organisations. Mr Edwards thought that no club was better than a church club wisely conducted, since, at the very least, it could offer housing and heating. Some in his congregation thought that the men would not respect the rooms, but Edwards found this to be false and argued that a church should open its doors to the community and make its premises useful to club members who in return may develop an interest in the church.

Men in particular thought that the church was an ally of the ruling classes and dope for the workers. And yes, it was possible to keep talking about the Christian ideal of service without ever doing anything: man cannot live without bread, but he does not live by bread alone. The church’s role was to restore self-respect by showing that each of us is known to God and each of us has an individual destiny to fulfil. But there was no credal test for the membership of the club and the only activity the members of the club were obliged to attend, but which was not compulsory, was the weekly brotherhood meeting every Tuesday afternoon, lasting for ninety minutes and consisting of popular hymns, solos and a devotional address. Naturally, no drinking or gambling was allowed, and card games, whist drives and dancing were forbidden. These prohibitions meant that some men would not associate with the Methodist club, but it was still the largest Centre on the whole of Tyneside. Edwards argued that many other churches could have run an unemployed centre without great extra cost, since the church premises had to be moderately heated anyway, ready for church use. For Edwards, however, the imperative for the church’s involvement lay in the psychological and spiritual effects of unemployment on men and their families:

No one is quicker than the unemployed man himself to feel the loss of his old status, so those who try to help must be careful not to increase his sense of inferiority… The overstrained unemployed man may break out in his family circle, later he may attend classes in economics to try to understand his position, but he feels puny and unavailing… especially if he is over fifty years… it is very difficult to persuade men to cobble shoes, to undertake carpentry, to use the workshop, to continue to attend keep fit classes, because they have lost their initiative and perseverance. The many clubs and centres only touch the fringe of the problem: most unemployed remain behind the curtains of their own rooms in loneliness and bitterness. The black-coated workers are probably in the worst position as they do not come to the Centre or mix with others. There is the fruitless search for work and looking at advertisement files for the thousandth time. It was a particularly galling situation when a son or daughter’s wages were virtually supporting the family. It was hard for the young people but most humiliating for the parents. Employment gives direction to a man – a life without direction is like driftwood upon the sea.

In the midst of mass unemployment, trade depression and crippling poverty, private landlords continued to exact a terrible tribute from the working classes. The conditions in which the vast majority of industrial and agricultural workers lived were appalling, crammed into dilapidated houses that were breeding grounds of pestilence. The slums of Liverpool, Glasgow, Manchester and London ranked with the worst in the world and the landlords had first call on the wages of the workers, exacting an average of twenty percent of their income, always enforcible by the power of eviction. In the London Boroughs of St Pancras, Holborn, Finsbury, Shoreditch, Bethnal Green, Poplar, Bermondsey and Southwark, four hundred thousand were living more than two to a room. In Shoreditch alone, a hundred thousand people were packed into one square mile. Workers lived in nineteenth-century tenements, like the one shown below, sharing lavatories and taps. Baths in working-class houses were virtually unknown. Others continued to live in basement flats, in a world of perpetual twilight while those fortunate enough to live in a terraced house invariably took in lodgers to meet the rent or shared the house with married sons or daughters.

In 1930, the medical officer of Hammersmith told of a man with a wife and four children living in three rooms, his income forty-five shillings a week, his rent one pound. In St Pancras, where wages were nearer fifty shillings per week, the average rent was eighteen shillings and sixpence. These did not represent the worst instances, neither were they isolated examples, since the stories could be repeated in thousands of homes throughout the land. Poverty, overcrowding and slum conditions existed not only in the ‘depressed areas’ but also, in pockets, throughout the towns and cities, including those in London, the south-East and the Midlands of England. Back-to-back houses with narrow allies between, where a dozen families shared a single communal tap like that depicted in the photograph below of Long Bank, Sunderland, were common in the north of England where overcrowding was endemic. The effects of bad housing and chronic overcrowding of the working classes were accurately reflected in the disparity between the figures for infant mortality and disease for the lower paid against those of the better paid. Tuberculosis, rickets, scarlet fever and diphtheria proliferated among the poor, rotten housing combining with undernourishment to take a wicked toll on the health of working-class children.

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In 1931, the Newport School Medical Officer found that boys at the age of fourteen at the High School were two inches taller and five pounds heavier than their contemporaries at the elementary school while the girls at the municipal secondary school were four inches higher and twenty-one pounds heavier than girls at the elementary schools. In May 1937, the South Wales Report of the Labour Party’s Commission of Enquiry into the Distressed Areas argued that,

Special and immediate attention must be paid to nutrition. All children at school, and all juveniles and young persons receiving education or industrial training under public authorities, should receive a ration of milk and at least one good meal per day, all the year round, free of charge.

Under the maternity and child welfare services, similar provision should be made for children under five, and free milk and food should be available for expectant and nusing mothers wherever needed.                                                                           

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The Commission consisted of Hugh Dalton, MP, George Dallas, JP and Barbara Ayrton Gould, JP., as well as George Hall (MP for Aberdare) and Arthur Jenkins (MP for Pontypool), members in respect of South Wales. Written and/or oral evidence was received from Women’s Sections and Women’s Organisations from all over South Wales. The Commission also issued reports on West Cumberland, Durham and the North-East Coast, Mid-Scotland and Lancashire. A final report dealt with the problem of the Depressed Areas as a whole.

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In earlier surveys of poverty, Booth and Rowntree had developed their own definitions of poverty, but in 1933 the British Medical Association had appointed a committee to determine the minimum weekly expenditure on food which must be incurred by families of a varying size if health and working capacity are to be maintained. In the years before the war (1937-39) this minimum diet cost roughly 7s 6d per week for an adult man, with a lesser cost for women and children. In Bristol, the average cost per man in 1937 was 7s 4d, per woman 14-65, 6s 3d, and for an unemployed man or woman, it was 4s 5d. The cost per child aged 10-13 was 6s 3d, aged 5-9 4s 7d, and aged 0-4, 3s 8d. Thus, for a family made up of a man of forty with a wife who was at home looking after three children aged twelve, eight and four, the cost of the minimum diet necessary to maintain the family in health was 28s 1d. If the family spent less than this on food its health would suffer.

It was from these figures that most investigators in the second half of the thirties built their definitions of poverty. Broadly, they decided that where a family, after paying for rent, the barest minimum for clothes, fuel, lighting and cleaning, had not enough money left to buy this minimum diet, then the family was in poverty. If in the example given already, the man had been earned fifty shillings a week and paid ten shillings for rent, 16s for clothes and 5s 3d for fuel, lighting and cleaning, there would have been available 28s 9d to feed his family of five, they would have been considered to be above the “poverty line”.  Each of the main surveys modified this method of definition slightly; fundamentally, however, they all used it. When applied to a 1928 Survey of London, it was found that nearly ten percent of all working-class families in the city had to live on less than the BMA minimum. The fundamental and persisting causes of this poverty were found to be old age, the absence of a male earner and largeness of family. In addition, thirteen percent of the children and twenty-two percent of all those over sixty-four years of age in London’s working-class families were in poverty.

In any particular week, however, the numbers of those chronically impoverished would be substantially augmented by those falling temporarily below the minimum income line as a result of unemployment or illness. In any selected week of the generally prosperous year of 1928 almost ten percent of London’s working-class was in poverty, and of these thirty-seven percent were children under fourteen, and thirteen percent were over sixty-four; twenty-eight percent were wage-earners, aged fourteen to sixty-five, mostly unemployed. Practically all the balance of twenty-two percent were the women dependents of the unemployed. The relative importance of the causes of poverty found in the investigation week (out of ten) was unemployment, six, illness or absence of a male earner, three, full employment but on earnings insufficient for the size of the family, two, and old age, one.

In York in 1936, thirty-one percent of York’s working men failed to reach the meagre standard set by Seebohm Rowntree, which was below the BMA standard. The wages of adult males in the city were not, however, abnormally low compared to the rest of the country, but they were too low in relation to the numbers of mouths to be fed. What was judged adequate to remove adequate to remove poverty at most periods of the working man’s life was substantially inadequate when between the ages of thirty and forty-five, he added two or three children to his household. The average family in poverty because of inadequate wages had two dependent children. Children’s allowances at a flat rate of five shillings for every child would have lifted practically the whole of this group over the poverty threshold and wiped out nearly three-quarters of the city’s poverty. Without such an allowance in the 1930s, long years of poverty was the price a low-wage family had to pay for containing three or four children. In addition, nearly fifteen percent of all poverty in the city was caused in families where the elder members were “too old to work”. Their available income was only sufficient to provide seventy percent of the minimum diet. Two-thirds of the people in these households were aged sixty-five or over, and the bulk of their income came from state pensions and Public Assistance. Half of all the old age pensioners in York were, at the time of the survey, living in poverty.

Similar surveys were also carried out on Merseyside (1929), in Southampton (1931), Bristol (1937), and Birmingham (1939). Using the BMA’s London minimum standard, found that up to twenty percent of all working-class families in these centres were living in poverty in the week of the investigation. None of these centres was in the depressed or ‘Special Areas’ and some, like Bristol, were centres of new engineering industries. Summarising the findings of these six surveys, including London and York, the Fabian Society drew the following conclusions on the pattern of poverty in Britain between the wars,  as part of a study published in 1945:

1. In the decade before 1939, even during periods of trade boom, at least fifteen to twenty percent of all working-class people were unable, in spite of all the help of our inter-war social insurance schemes, to afford a diet that would save them from ill-health; but this figure is arrived at only if  we assume that the bottom half of the working-class is sufficiently austere to spend absolutely nothing on the comforts and pleasures of life. If we drop this unreal assumption, then it is certain that more than twenty percent were, in fact, not obtaining the minimum diet.

2. Approximately one-third of this poverty was due to the fact that unemployment benefits were inadequate; approximately another third was due to the fact that the ordinary worker’s earnings, even when he was in full and regular work, were often insufficient to feed, clothe and house more than two or three people. About half the remaining poverty was due to the fact that many working-class people, once they had passed the age of sixty-five, had little to live on except an inadequate old age pension.

3. Probably not less than twenty-five percent of working-class children were born into families that could not afford the BMA minimum diet. As they and their brothers and sisters grew up and started work the family’s hardships diminished… Often, however, this was only an interlude of comparative prosperity for the working-class man; with old age… he was left with declining earning capacity to face a degree of poverty even grimmer than that in which his grandchildren were starting life.

4. The evidence collected from half-a-dozen great cities in the ten years before the war shows that the way out of this dreary cycle is not, for the most part, in the hands of the individual worker.

Richard Titmuss’ studies in Poverty and Population, published in 1938, also looked back over the previous decade in an attempt to survey the extent, character and causes of social waste and relate the findings to the problem of an ageing and diminishing population. These studies had to be quarried from hard factual bedrock in order to break through governmental apathy and ineptitude. Titmuss set out to analyse two factors which were of great significance:

(1) that those regions suffering from economic under-privilege and most exposed to malnutrition-inducing conditions contain by far a higher proportion of our children; and…

(2) that it is only higher fertility in these regions that has prevented an earlier and probably calamitous fall in the size of the population.

He produced statistics showing that in 1936 over ten percent of deaths in south Wales occurred in children under four, compared with 8.5% in the south East of England. Infant mortality was sixty-three per thousand deaths in south Wales, compared with just forty-seven in south-east England. He calculated that five thousand excess deaths occurred among infants under one in the North of England and Wales during 1936, amounting to approximately excess deaths in the five years since the slump of 1931. Deaths from measles were twice as high in Wales as in England and Wales as a whole, implying a widespread prevalence of rickets… malnutrition and poverty. In the period 1931-35, whilst south-east England showed a considerable improvement in the number of infant deaths, South Wales showed a continuing deterioration.

Similarly, maternal mortality rates in south Wales were well over twice those in south-east England and Titmuss felt able to state that if the maternal mortality rates in the North of England and in south Wales had been the same as those for Greater London, the lives of nearly six hundred mothers would have been saved in those regions. Female deaths from tuberculosis in the 15-35 age range in south Wales were seventy percent above the average for England and Wales as a whole. From this series of statistics, Titmuss went on to calculate that the number of avoidable, premature deaths among women in the North of England and Wales in 1936, a year of relative prosperity, was 54,000 and that the number over the previous ten years was probably of the order of half a million.

These high levels of infant, child and maternal mortality can only be fully understood when it is realised that forty percent of the total child population in England and Wales was concentrated in northern England and Wales at this time, compared with thirty-eight percent in south-east England. H W Singer’s 1937 unpublished study for the Pilgrim Trust, Unemployment and Health is helpful in separating out the economic and social causes of mortality. It isolates the effect of the general trade depression of 1929-34 from the long-term factors related to climate, housing and the quality of social services in the different regions. Correlating the unemployment statistics for these five years with a range of health indices for seventy-seven boroughs throughout England and Wales, Singer identified a rise of twenty percent in infant and maternal mortality resulting from rising unemployment and poverty during this period.

None of the data examined by Singer failed to exhibit some sort of correlation with unemployment, and it was certainly the view of those who visited south Wales that, anecdotally, there was a direct qualitative correlation between the economic distress of the population and their health. They reported that levels of health and welfare provision in south Wales were greatly inferior to those in other regions though varying considerably within the Region itself. In his 1937 Portrait of a Mining Town, Philip Massey pointed out that the majority of the unemployed in Blaina and Nantyglo, a coalfield community with one of the highest recorded unemployment levels throughout the thirties, could be described as having a diet which was inadequate for perfect health in all the constituents considered by Sir John Orr’s standard, set out in his 1936 report, Food, Health, and Income. Those families whose weekly expenditure on food was five to seven shillings per head would have a diet which was adequate only in total proteins and total fat. Those families with members in work were able to afford total expenditure of up to nine shillings per head on food, providing a diet adequate in energy value, protein and fat, but below standard in minerals and vitamins. 

Massey also confirmed the view of Titmuss, Singer and others that it was the women in these coalfield communities who suffered most in terms of health in a variety of ways. Whilst the men seemed to look their age, except for those obviously suffering from industrial diseases, the women generally looked older than they were due to the hour by hour strain of making do and the lack of holidays or any opportunity to leave the home apart from the weekly shopping or the occasional visit to the cinema. Women were often reluctant to enter a hospital, in cases of childbirth and illness, as they thought that the household would get into a muddle in their absence. Massey also noted that there was no birth control clinic in the district and that many women, fearful of having to rear more children on the dole, would undermine their health by the use of aperients. Even in those households with men in work in the mines, the reliance of the mine owners on the shift system to keep the pits open took its toll on the women in those homes, as a Durham miner, Monty Lowther, later recalled for the BBC:

We lived in a colliery house, and me mother, she was such a conscientious woman she would never go to bed except on a Saturday, because you had me father in one shift, our Jimmy in another shift, me in another shift and Tommy in another.

And it sometimes meant the clock round, one coming in and one going out, and she was so conscientious that if there was an hour or two hours to spare between one and the other, she would just sit in the rocking chair in front of the fire, and I’ve known for months on end the only time me mother got to bed was a Saturday night when there was no work at the pit.

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This account is very similar to the personal recollection of Alice Pattison, the daughter of a miner from Horden in Durham who, in turn, found the photos above and below a mirror of her own memories of life in a miner’s cottage during the late twenties and thirties. Her grandmother had five boys, ‘all in the pit’, and because they worked on different shifts, she was tied to a treadmill of endless toil to feed and care for her sons.

Working between the fore-shift (5 a.m. to 1 p.m.), the back-shift (1 p.m. to 9 p.m.) and the night shift (9 p.m. to 5 a.m.), her grandmother also slept at intervals in a rocking-chair by the fire. As each shift ended she had to boil water in the copper pan on the range, or in a bucket on the hob, in readiness to fill the tin bath in front of the fire. She would carry the hot water in an enamel bowl to the bath where the men would kneel beside it, washing away the coal dust from their top half first, all but their backs. They believed that the coal dust strengthened their backs, protecting them from the rock above the narrow seams.

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While her father bathed, Alice would ‘dash’ his pit clothes, banging them against the yard wall to remove the loose dust and then hang them to dry. In some cottages, there was a brass rail fitted above the fire as shown in the second picture. Sometimes there were families of eight or nine working in the colliery, albeit in separate shifts. Usually, the Dad bathed first, then the eldest son down the line to the youngest. Sometimes the children in the household had to go out into the street while their fathers and brothers bathed.

On Thursday nights, Alice’s mother would let the fire die out to clear all the dead ash and clean the range. The range would be blackleaded, the firebricks whitened and the back of chimney polished with blacklead as high as the arm would reach. The brass fender would be shone, the poker polished and ashpan burnished and for a few hours, the altar of family life would be as she loved it to be, spotless. All the cooking would be done on the fire and in the ovens on the range, with working-class ingenuity stretching the meagre pay to provide appetising and nourishing food. ‘Panackelty’ was a favourite dish made of layers of potato, onion and corned beef covered with ‘Oxo’ gravy. Other dishes would be leeks fried with bacon, a thick broth made from soaked peas, bacon and stock and thick stew with barley and dumplings.

The life of a miner was hard, but the life of a miner’s wife was no less so, if devoid of danger. The daily round of unremitting housework, childbearing and caring for the men, husband and sons, on wages that at the best of times were never enough to provide for more than a life of subsistence, took a heavy physical toll. Alice Pattinson recalled that her grandmother, having reached the ‘grand old-age’ of fifty-four, told her one day that she was tired out and would go and lie down for a little while. Within the hour, she was dead. No illness was recorded on the death certificate. The doctor said she was simply worn out.

It was especially hard for the mother where men were working in wet places. These were not only found in the older steam coal areas. My own grandmother, who also worked as a ribbon weaver, recalled my grandfather returning from work at Newdigate Colliery near Coventry covered with boils all over his body. His moleskin trousers were so caked with sweat, dust and mud that they stood by themselves in front of the fire without need of a chair to support them. As the working clothes dried, the muck from the colliery would dry and drop off all around the house on the old stone floors, which made it very difficult for the housewife to sweep it outside, especially on wet days. Of course, detergents were unknown in those days, so that most of the dirt had to be removed by vigorous use of a dolly tub and a rubbing board (see photo below). One Rhondda miner’s wife, born in 1895, commented:

Strong soap, you know, and soda. Any amount of soda to boil them, init? There was no other washing powders like they’ve got today… Handful of soda until your hands – there’s no wonder we haven’t got nice hands, init?

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One woman from Dowlais, near Merthyr, born in 1896, estimated the value of washing the miners’ clothes at two pounds per week. A miner from the same village, born 1893,  recalled:

Women used to cry when you brought working trousers home to them, because with the sweat and everything, they’d get as hard as iron. They had to patch them, didn’t they? You’d see great lumps of soap by the side of them – they’d push the needle into the soap first. And they had to have a strong needle to do the job as well.   

The girls in a family went to work as maids, unless there were a number of them in a family, in which case the eldest daughter had to stay at home, to help the mother. Some might also go out washing or sewing. If there was a seamstress in the village, the daughter would sleep over at the customer’s house, sewing only for that family for three days, but providing their own machines, carrying them from house to house. Some women ran parlour shops, using their front rooms to sell produce like meats which she had cooked herself:

My father’s health broke down, d’you see, and she just had to do something, you know. And that’s the way she kept going. Talk about smells, they were gorgeous, because she cooked everything. She sold all kinds of sweets – like a kind of tuck shop, you know. She also sold butter and biscuits and cooked meats. But the most of the cooking was done by herself. I think it maybe broke my mother’s heart to give up her sitting room, but I mean, she coped. Because we didn’t get unemployment or sick pay in those years, you see.

The combination of poverty, poor housing and overcrowding experienced by a large proportion of South Wales’ population took its disproportionate toll upon the health of its women. In Merthyr in the late 1930s the number of women suffering from tuberculosis was nearly two-and-a-half-times the standardised average for England and Wales; among men, it was one and a half. One infant in every five died before the age of five, and malnutrition, rickets, diphtheria and pneumonia were widespread among schoolchildren. While the provision of basic welfare services may have mitigated the effects of poverty on the health of children, they were almost non-existent as far as the adult population was concerned, because they were often under such great financial pressure themselves. In 1928 a small deputation led by George Hall, MP pressed the case of Blaina Hospital to the Ministry of Health. The hospital’s income was dependent upon weekly contributions from the miners so that the disastrous effect of the closure of all the mines in the district had suddenly deprived it of all its funds. Its account was already overdrawn by two thousand pounds and whilst income for the forthcoming year was estimated at 2,500 pounds, costs were expected to rise to four thousand.

The fact that South Wales maintained a low crude death rate throughout the inter-war period enabled it to end the period with an age-structure roughly comparable to that of England and Wales as a whole should not blind us to the overall loss of population from south Wales by avoidable deaths and migration which may have involved as many as a million people over the period 1920-40 as a whole. The problems created by this loss were further compounded by the fact that the bulk of those who moved away was in the age group which would produce the next generation, and that those who left also left behind an increasing proportion in the population of those who were economically inactive.

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The only choice that the individual worker had was whether to remain in their home area or to move away to more prosperous towns in the Midlands and South-East of England. For the most part, the migrants were young and adaptable individuals in pursuit of economic opportunity. Those who passed their years in these parts of Britain had seen not only a constant growth in total numbers, due largely to migration but also an appreciable increase in the number of young people getting their first jobs and starting married life. In Wales, where with the dereliction of that accompanied unbroken depression not only did total numbers decline but, between 1921 and 1938, those under twenty-five years of age fell by twenty-five percent, only the ranks of the aged expanded. Gwyn Thomas described the impact on his Rhondda in graphic terms:

A half the valley’s population drifted away. It was a Black Death on wheels conducted with far less anguish… The great mass moved south to Cardiff and east to the Midlands and London, and the permanent guard on all the trains operating the great dispersal bore the name of Thomas Malthus, who warned the migrants about humanity’s way of concentrating huge battalions in tasks seemingly secure for eternity, then suddenly changing the scenery and telling the extras that they are in the wong picture.

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The next chapter will be examining the two important factors in the migration which took place from South Wales. In the first place, the majority of people who chose to go did so without assistance from the Government, despite the offer of payment of rail fares, removal expenses, initial accommodation and, in the case of juveniles, wage subsidy. Secondly, the migration which took place on a voluntary basis was not so much a ‘dispersal’ as Gwyn Thomas suggested, as an ‘exodus’. In some cases, it was organised through kinship and communal networks which extended far beyond normal family ties.

For instance, a 1937 Survey of Oxford found that 150 or one in six of the 1,200 ‘foreign’ employment exchange books in Oxford which came from Wales were from the Pontycymmer employment exchange, whereas considerably larger communities such as Bargoed and Ferndale sent only sixty-nine and sixty-six migrants respectively. The flow from the Garw Valley to Oxford appears to have started during the coal stoppage of 1926 when a few young men made the journey on foot and set up an informal kinship, institutional and communal ‘network’ so that in the period to 1930 to 1936, 270 out of 1,841 people whose employment whose unemployment books were transferred to other exchanges (15%) went to Oxford (Cowley) and it was estimated by local observers that in the previous four-year period, 1926-30, the proportion was as high as 25%.

This tendency towards ‘collective’ migration was noticeable only in the case of South Wales among the depressed areas. There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that Welsh women were at least as instrumental in the organisation of migration streams from the valleys as their militant menfolk. In this way, it can be seen that migration cannot be characterised as a desperate rush for the lifeboats. In its organisation on a network and largely voluntary basis, as an alternative to the official Transference Scheme, it became a form of coalfield resistance and a uniquely autonomous ‘institution on wheels’.

( to be continued…)

 

 

The Long March of Every Woman: Gender, ‘Community’ & Poverty in British Labour History, 1928-38; II.   Leave a comment

Chapter Two: Class, the ‘Celtic Complex’ & the ‘Black Dog of Capitalism’.

 

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It is possible to detect from Hilda Jennings’ 1934 book and other publications on the Brynmawr ‘voluntary’ venture, that its dominating ‘outside’ participants were strongly motivated by a specific definition of ‘Community’ which was different, but just as alien to the coalfield ‘communities’, as that which was prevalent in official government and ‘social service’ circles. None of these was a definition or set of ideas which was readily shared by ordinary residents of the town, who might be forgiven for thinking that an attempt was being made to elevate ‘community’ over ‘class’.

She asserted that the cosmopolitan nature of the people of Brynmawr and its long history of industrial and political revolt were factors that acted against the building up of a sense of community. She wrote that it was despite this militant history, rather than because of it, that Brynmawr had maintained its cohesion as a community, exerting power over individuals through their attachments to various institutions. Furthermore, her writing-up of the Survey’s findings was clouded throughout by an overbearing concept of ‘community’, which placed its accent firmly on the importance of continuity with a pre-industrial past:

… the life of Brynmawr is still shaped by the dynamic forces of nature, race, common traditions and common history… Probably no force which has influenced its past can safely be ignored in the consideration of its future… We cannot ‘pluck out the heart of the mystery’ of Brynmawr, but it is well that we should study its history if we wish to plan a future for it instead of drifting down the stream of declining prosperity and disillusionment.

She went on to stress that these traditions were underlaid by the retention of a ‘rural-urban complex’, a pride of craftsmanship and an affinity for the common culture of the Welsh countryside which had transferred itself into the urban context. Much of the Survey, in common with other writing on the town by those who were attracted to it in these years, is coloured by eulogy for the rural heritage of the Welsh people. J Kitchener Davies, reporting on the 1932 Plaid Cymru Summer School held in Brynmawr (thus enabling the people of the town, so he claimed, to live in Wales again for a week), held it up as a model community, in stark contrast to its more urban neighbours:

Bryn Mawr … suffers from the advertisement of its poverty which had made us expect distress writ larger over it than over any other mining community. This is not so… (it) has a background of lovely open country, easily accessible, and this, I imagined, reflected in the faces of the people, made a contrast with those of more hemmed-in communities . The objectiveness of an open plateau turns men’s minds from their subjective brooding. 

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For nationalist visitors like Kitchener Davies, Brynmawr represented a model ex-coalfield community worthy of being reclaimed for their ‘new Wales’, confirming the suspicions of many of the ‘militant generation’ that they were seeking to elevate both ‘community’ and ‘nation’ over ‘class’. That such suspicions were well-founded is evident from the Walter Dowding’s pamphlet, Wales-Know Thyself!, published during the war by Foyle’s Welsh Press and dedicated to Saunders Lewis, the leader of the Welsh Nationalist Party, as well as to Peter Scott and ‘the Group’ in Brynmawr. The author, who had taken part in the Brynmawr experiment as a volunteer, proposed that a ‘free’, post-war Wales would need to be based on small communities and that since the word ‘community’ or ‘commune’ was not synonymous with the word ‘town’, Cardiff, Swansea and Newport would, therefore, need to be broken down into ‘natural, sizeable units’. Dowding also advocated the redefinition of coalfield communities and their transformation into new, re-cymricised, re-sanctified, classless communities. He may have disagreed with the party leadership’s anti-communist, pro-fascist international policies, but in ‘domestic’ matters, his pamphlet echoes Saunders Lewis’ Ten Points of Policy, a personal declaration for consideration as the principles of the Nationalist Party’s social and industrial policy, providing, as far as Lewis was concerned, its ‘social catechism’. In them, Lewis called for wholesale de-industrialisation of South Wales:

… industrial capitalism and economic competition free from the control of government (i.e. free trade) are a great evil and are completely contrary to the philosophy of cooperative nationalism… Agriculture should be the chief industry of Wales and the basis of its civilisation. For the sake of the moral health of Wales and for the moral and physical welfare of its population, South Wales must be de-industrialised.  

These were quite clearly extreme nationalist views, compared with the liberal-nationalism outlook of the left-over leadership of the old liberal and nonconformist Wales, who had now found a new role for themselves as mediators between the Conservative government in Whitehall and the trades unionists and municipal socialists in south Wales, as the depression deepened. They were comprised of Welsh professionals, clerics, administrators and academics who, although small in number were, by the nature and value of the positions they held, influential in the political life of both Wales and Britain as a whole. Their image of the coalfield, past and present, was one of a society in which industry had distorted nationality and brought an incursion of alien people bringing with them an alien culture.

These people had never, it was claimed, shared in the inheritance of Welsh culture. Such alien accretions to the population had gradually stultified the natural development of native culture, as though the industrial invader, having no culture of his own, would brook no other either. This was a view expressed by delegates to the Welsh School of Social Service which met at Llandrindod Wells in 1934 and was one which was repeated at several public forums both before and after. Contemporary novelists also saw industrialisation, together with immigration, as being the root of all evil as far as the continuity of older Welsh traditions. The popularity of Richard Llewellyn’s novel, How Green Was My Valley, made into a Hollywood film in 1941, was perhaps an indication of the widespread acceptance of this explanation of the region’s fall from grace. The nation had moulded itself to the will, and abandoned to the needs of industry. The Coal industry had dominated South Wales, bent it to its will and made it hideous. Worst of all, for these ‘liberal-cymricists’, it had strangled our language and scorned our culture. 

The view of those at the Ministry of Health was that whereas the Welsh-speaking miners of the western anthracite district of the coalfield had clung to the manners and customs characteristic of the ‘Cymric’ race. They had remained largely uninfluenced by immigration, except that of people from the Welsh-speaking areas. The Eastern sector, however, had been invaded by a more or less alien population which partly accounted for the acceptance by South Wales miners of economic and social theories and policies which would appear to cut across Welsh tradition.  The events of 1926 were a case in point: The liberal-Cymricists expressed their belief, within official services, that the old Welsh Collier was a home-loving and God-fearing man who was only inflamed when an outside man came in, like Mr A J Cook, who was not Welsh. Cook was seen as representative of an undesirable element… which we have never got rid of. In a similar vein, the people of Rhymney were contrasted with those of Blaina by the General Inspector to the Welsh Board of Health:

In this and other districts where the native Welsh culture most strongly persists and the influences of the Methodist revival… are still felt, there is a noticeable difference in the character and outlook of the people as compared with the districts where the industrial revolution submerged the populace and introduced an economic doctrine and a philosophy of life both of which are strange and unsatisfying, though socially disturbing, to the Celtic Complex.

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These commentators may have differed in the degree of their dislike of industrialisation, but all were agreed in their projection of an image of a coal polluted by immigration. For them, the militancy of the coalfield was not the product of closely-knit communities, valuing their mutual solidarity, but of the openness of the coalfield to people and influences from far and wide. The ‘Celtic Complex’ – the love of home, of chapels, of language, of eisteddfodau, of music and singing; the cultural emblems of nonconformist Wales had been crumbling in the face of an anglicising, alien onslaught. An expatriate Welsh minister of religion, writing a tour guide to Wales in 1930, described the coalfield communities as outposts… of hell itself, with their inhabitants, almost to a man, supporters of the left wing of the Labour Party. Nevertheless, he was pleased to find an Eisteddfod taking place in the Rhondda and the rendering of Welsh hymn-tunes – and all this despite the considerable admixture of aliens. However, as far as he was concerned, the South Wales miners could not compete with their Flintshire brethren:

The colliers here are more purely Welsh than they are in the southern mining districts. Most of them speak Welsh, their politics are a milder shade of red, and they hold much more tightly to the ancient cultural and religious standards of the nation. 

Merthyr, in particular, was singled out for condemnation by ministers of religion and literary travellers from rural Wales for whom it encapsulated their sense of  ‘hemmed-in’ South Wales. Rev. W Watkin Davies had described it, after a brief visit in the 1920s as a hideous place, dirty and noisy, and typical of all that is worst in the South Wales Coalfield. P. B. Mais, a non-Welsh traveller along the Highways and Byways of the Welsh Marches a decade later, went into culture-shock as he came down from the Brecon Beacons to discover the town, with these unbelievably narrow, wedged rows and rows of miners’ houses huddled in a land where there was so much room that you get lost on the moors if you leave the town in any direction but downward. He went on to describe…

… ill-nourished children playing in the over-heated, crowded streets, or in the filfthy, offal-laden, tin-strewn streams at the backs of the houses with little strips  of backyards that make Limehouse backyards look like the Garden of Eden.

Mais could not believe that Merthyr people could be ‘content’ to live in such conditions, given their heritage:

Are they not sprung from hillsmen, farmers, men and women who regard air and space to breathe as essentials of life? Why, then, do these people go on living here? All of these South Wales mining villages want wiping out of existence, so that the men and women can start again in surroundings that are civilised, and not so ugly as to make one shiver even in memory.

It is significant that Welsh ministers of religion were continuing to express this image of a coalfield defiled by immigration a decade later, a decade which had seen ‘their’ communities suffering from large-scale unemployment, emigration and de-industrialisation. Rev. J Selwyn Roberts of Pontypridd wrote that,

…it is clear that for the last two generations there have been alien factors at work which have almost completely overcome the traditional conscience and spirit of the Welsh people.

According to Rev. Watkin Davies, a decade on from his original pronouncements, the coalfield was a grimy, foreign country made up of things and people which in no true sense belong to Wales. John Rowland, of the Welsh Board of Health, continued to present his ‘liberal-cymricist’ image of the impoverishment and demoralisation within the Borough of Merthyr as minatory to the ‘Celtic Complex’ of the ‘old Welsh stock’:

The prevailing impression after all my dealings with Merthyr Tydfil is of the real poverty that exists. This poverty is visible everywhere, derelict shops, execrable roads and deplorable housing conditions. Merthyr is inhabited by many worthy persons of old Welsh stock, hard-working and religious… It is very hard to see such people gradually losing their faith in the old established order and turning to look for desperate remedies.

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Yet, for the government bureaucrats who viewed the community from the outside, Merthyr was a Borough which in the early months of 1939 still had forty percent of its working population idle and was costing central government a pound per family per week, and so could no longer be said to be viable, let alone on the road to recovery. Some went so far as to suggest that the whole town should be abandoned, and its population transported wholesale to the coast. The reaction of the Merthyr Express, stating that such a proposal was ‘fantastic’ reflected the gulf which had opened up between the liberal-cymricists and the representatives of the coalfield communities themselves. It was highlighted by their ‘arch-druid’ Tom Jones’ ironic suggestion, that the entire population of South Wales should be transferred out of the region so that the valleys could be flooded, used as an industrial museum or could serve as an ideal location for bombing practice.

The third group of investigators, Marxist propagandists, themselves regarded as aliens by the liberal-cymricists, projected an image of south Wales which was shaped by a belief in a class struggle in which they saw the colliers as the vanguard.  For writers like Allen Hutt, whose books were published as propaganda for the times, the South Wales miners were the cream of the working class… the most advanced, most militant, most conscious workers. His neat definition of the Welsh working class led him to an even neater explanation of why they did not rise up against their suffering:

One of the obstacles confronting the revolt of the workers in South Wales is precisely that degradation of which Marx spoke of as an accompaniment of the growth of impoverishment under monopoly. 

In this way, the preconceptions of the these ‘propagandists’ often led to an idealisation of coalfield people in which individuality was frequently subsumed into an image of ‘the masses’ which could be made to fit their ideology. The tendency is also apparent in the historiography of the period, particularly that written in the following four decades, which tended to eulogise the miners and their leaders. Some, however, like Fenner Brockway, chose to focus on Merthyr for a chapter of Hungry England (1932), which naturally painted the bleakest possible portrait of the poverty and ill-health among the Borough’s people.

Historians tended to draw on the sources provided by the contemporary ‘propagandists’ and therefore projected an image of the 1930s coalfield communities as hotbeds of militancy, restrained by the demoralisation resultant from mass unemployment. More recently, over the past four decades, historians have demonstrated how such imagery tended to dominate much of the contemporary fiction, newsreel footage and photography of ‘The Thirties’. These preconceptions of coalfield societies served to create and perpetuate what may be termed, the myth of ‘The Unemployed Man’. This image of ‘the unemployed’ as a uniform group within British society, by definition excluding women either as factory workers or colliery housewives, was one which served the purposes of those who saw the causes of unemployment as correspondingly straightforward in economic terms. Thus, John Gollan began a chapter of on unemployment in his 1937 book, Youth in British Industry: A Survey of Labour Conditions Today with the following classical Marxist statement:

What is unemployment? We would be fools if we thought that unemployment depended merely on the state of trade. Undoubtedly this factor affects the amount of unemployment but it does not explain why, for instance, unemployment is absolutely essential for capitalist industry, while under socialism in the USSR it has been abolished completely. Modern capitalist production has established an industrial reserve army is essential in order that capital may have a surplus of producers which it can draw upon when needed. Unemployment is the black dog of capitalism…

In his book, Unemployment and the Unemployed (1940), H W Singer was scathing in his criticism of such generalisations both about unemployment and the unemployed. He argued that there was no such thing as the ‘unemployed man’, but only ‘unemployed men’, that there was no uniformity but an intense variety. He listed sixteen independent causes of unemployment and pointed out that since work enforced a common routine on the people who took part in it, it was reasonable to expect that when people became unemployed their suppressed individuality would again assert itself. Poverty, the dole queue and the Means Test might all restrict diversity, but that didn’t mean that the unemployed could be described as…

… a uniform mass of caps, grey faces, hands-in-pockets, street-cornermen with empty stomachs and on the verge of suicide, and only sustained by the hope of winning the pools…  

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Singer divided his ‘reserve army’ into two camps, the ‘stage army’ and the ‘standing army’, or the ‘short-term’ (under three months) and ‘long-term’ unemployed. The short-term unemployed could include those, like B L Coombes, who were ‘temporarily-stopped’ for two or three days per week from their colliery, so that they were paid for three shifts and could claim dole for the rest of the week. But if they were called to work a fourth shift, they would then lose their dole money for the rest of the week:

All that spring and summer I was working, but was not a penny better off than if I had been on the dole; while the men with big families and who had a shilling a day plus bus fare to pay were losing money every week by working…

Many miners would avoid losing dole in this way by ensuring that they were not at home when the colliery officials sent for them. For the twenty thousand or so unemployed miners over fifty in South Wales who were unlikely to work in the pits again, there was a three-fold ongoing problem. First, they had lost their sense of purpose as skilled, active workers and bread-winners for their families; relationships with younger, working members of the family became more difficult, particularly if these members were working away from home and thirdly, they found it impossible to make any kind of provision which would enable them to keep up the home’s standard of living when they reached the old age pension age.

Apart from these variations in income from week to week and even day to day, which made household budgeting (usually done by the women) impossible, the drop from full-time working to full-time unemployment had a dramatic impact on both family standards of living and general wellbeing. A skilled collier may well, in the prosperous early twenties, have brought home a wage of up to eight pounds per week, and when three or more sons were working on full shifts, the economic standard of the family would have been greater than that of an ordinary middle-class family such as that of a shopkeeper, policeman or small businessman. The maintenance system, however, led to an immediate drop in income per head of at least a pound per week, even starting from the more precarious wage levels which existed in working collieries by 1928-29. H W Singer commented:

It is just the extent of this drop… which will largely determine an unemployed man’s attitude to unemployment and work, whether he compromises with this present state and tries to settle down somehow, or whether he will frantically refuse to accept and submit… It is, therefore, the skilled men… that are feeling the edge of their condition of unemployment most keenly, because it is these people that are in fact being penalised by the existing system of ‘welfare’.

The effect on mental health was also felt by the miners’ wives. James Hanley was one of few writers who let the unemployed speak for themselves in his 1937 book, Grey Children: A Study in Humbug, reported his interview with one of them, John Williams:

My missus is in a mental home. We had a nice little lad, and were doing not so bad until I lost my job, and that and one thing and another, well, I suppose it got in her way.

Significantly, Hanley entitled one of his chapter’s ‘Many Voices’. Despite the common experiences involved in unemployment, many stemming from bureaucratic procedures, including the hated ‘Mean’s Test’, there were varied voices among the unemployed and their families. The myth of ‘the unemployed man’ not only excludes the experience of women in what might more accurately be defined as ‘the unwaged family’, but it is also an unreal image of uniform processes of impoverishment and demoralisation throughout coalfield society in the 1930s. Nevertheless, it is important to identify the factors which tended towards uniformity. Firstly, there was what Singer called the common pattern of poverty, the reality that since most forms of association cost money, the freedom of association of unemployed people was severely restricted in this way. Unwaged families could easily become cut off from institutions which required expenditure incompatible with unemployment. Attendance at chapel might stop, for example, because of the lack of a good suit. Secondly, the physical routine of standing in the dole-queue provided the forum for the formulation of opinion between the unemployed, much as the shared experience of the coalface did for the employed:

… One will usually find that this occasion is a sort of social meting, that people hang about the Exchange or the street near… for some time after, or they even go to the Exchange outside their own hours to meet the other people waiting there. It is there that information about prospective jobs is exchanged, or that politics, pools or the last fire or ‘whatnot’ are discussed.         

The ‘institution’ of the dole queue was particularly important to the long-term unemployed as they began to lose contact with the institutions which were based around work, such as the Miners’ Federation Lodge. For many of the long-term unemployed, the dole queue was a reminder that their condition was not ‘a special personal handicap’. It is in this sense that the examination of both individual and collective experiences of unemployment within coalfield communities is essential for social historians.

It was this combination of idealism and practical community cohesion which helped transform Jennings’ survey into a model for similar joint local-national ventures elsewhere, but it perhaps also significant that many of the key figures in other distressed places were also determined women sharing her values. In June 1926 Emma Noble had first gone to the Rhondda Valley, during the Coal Lock-Out, and contacted the local distress committee to investigate the need for outside assistance. She reported the deep need for material help and loving sympathy in the Rhondda to Friends in Oxford and London who had expressed concern for the miners. Funds were raised for leather for boot repairing, and clothing was collected, so Emma returned to the Rhondda, living in a miner’s cottage where Joyce Bater later joined her, and they did relief work based at Tonypandy until just before Christmas. The relief work closed down, as the government and social service agencies sought to encourage migration from the coalfield as the solution to its problems, and “relief” was seen as immediately necessary, but also “harmful” to the longer-term ‘Malthusian’ objective of transferring the “surplus population”.

Nevertheless, the Maes-yr-Haf settlement was opened in 1927 as an experiment backed by the Coalfields Distress Committee comprising Joan Fry, Peter Scott and others. They helped to inspire the nationwide publicity for the Lord Mayor of London’s Mansion Hose Fund in 1928, which had drawn a generous response from the British public, following an appeal by Edward, Prince of Wales. By March 1928, Friend’s “Meeting for Sufferings” was asked to make a wider appeal for financial support and to recruit volunteers for personal service, since Emma Noble had reported from the Rhondda that further relief was now essential. It was decided to send representatives to the government, as the Minister of Health, Neville Chamberlain, was known to be having a change of heart.

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Emma and William Noble were appointed to become Wardens of the Maes-yr-Haf settlement by Dr A D Lindsay, renowned Master of Balliol College, who became Chairman of the Coalfields Distress Committee at that time. A great number of activities developed at the centre, and eight other settlements were established throughout south Wales over the next decade or so, led by people who had worked with the Nobles or had been influenced by them. Emma and William had similar backgrounds, both under the strong Methodist influence of their schools, which they both left at twelve. Later, they both became members of the Workers’ Education Association, where they met. In 1908 they married in the Methodist chapel in Weymouth and had a son and daughter before attending Ruskin College from 1921. There they came into contact with Oxford Quakers and became members of the Labour Party. Emma became an Alderman and William a JP and Trade Union official. They became Quakers in Swindon but left for South Wales with the support of their Meeting and their MP.

Under their guidance, Maes-yr-Haf became a centre for friendship, counselling and practical help. With their knowledge of local government and the poor-law, they were soon able to assist the unemployed in practical ways, but the Nobles were also determined to make education a priority. By the mid-thirties they had established fifty-two unemployed clubs in the Rhondda with a membership of nine thousand men, women and juveniles. The courses taught ranged from philosophy to country dancing, and they were supported by the University of Wales, the National Council of Music for Wales, the WEA, the National Council of Social Service (NCSS) and the Carnegie Trust. A few of the unemployed were able to advance to full.time residential courses at Coleg Harlech, Fircroft College in Birmingham, and Ruskin College. One of the unemployed men who attended the clubs went on to Fircroft and later became Lord Mayor of Birmingham. Lord Lindsay said of them:

These unemployed clubs came out of Maes-yr-Haf and spread all over England and even migrated to America.

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Above: The well-known photograph of Mrs George, Pontypool, washing with a doll-tub, about 1900. Photographs of domestic work are rare, but oral evidence reveals that little changed in washing methods, even when unemployment meant fewer shirts in the tub.

They began in the Rhondda Valleys and then the Welsh Council of Social Service helped them to spread to all the other valleys and area officers helped to make sure the unemployed had a meeting place for the courses. Women, in particular, had had little hope of employment or of improving themselves before, since all their time and effort was taken up with the traditional, daunting task of looking after men and their clothes, as described below. Now, with at least some of their men no longer coming home covered in coal-grime, women’s clubs and sewing groups were formed up and down the valleys to unpick, alter and make children’s garments, which were then distributed through the schools. Women were not used to independence but soon enjoyed providing their own entertainment, organising concerts, drama, dances and discussions, often exchanging ideas on the best uses for their very limited resources. Thus, the guiding principle of the settlements and clubs was ‘self-help’ and women were beginning to find a new role for themselves outside the home, organising with other women.

As the settlement did not wish to be associated with relief, ‘jumble sales’ were organised, which enabled the new material to be bought wholesale so that clothes could be made and sold for the cost of the material. A concession was made for baby clothes which were kept in a box in the hall and given away when needed. Altogether, thirty-five women’s clubs were formed, some with a membership of over a hundred. Maes-yr-Haf again supplied new materials at wholesale prices as well as providing the instructors in many and various handicrafts including needlework, leather glove making, and quilting, covering old pieces of blanket with new material, and renovating the members’ old garments. Belts were made from scraps of cellophane, which the women were taught to fold and weave into a belt, they looked like mother of pearl, and were very popular. By the late 1930s, not much clothing was sent to the Settlement, but jumble sales still made it available cheaply to members at small prices.

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In 1929 girls clubs were started. In 1932, they asked, why can’t girls have a holiday? So a holiday camp was arranged for them at which the girls enjoyed team games, physical culture handwork and inter-club competitions. A hand-loom was given to the Settlement so Emma and two others went to the movement’s centre at Haslemere for ten days’ training in weaving: they were then able to instruct others, so a small weaving industry was started. Wool embroidery also became popular, rugs being made for sale, favouring Welsh and Celtic traditional designs. Leatherwork was done, rush stools were made along with pottery, which was readily saleable: exhibitions took place on both sides of the Atlantic and some samples went on permanent exhibition in the National Museum of Wales. All these activities needed more space, so a two-storey annexe was built by voluntary labour.

In 1930, with the effects of the general economic recession spreading to the whole of the British Isles, the opportunities for large-scale family migration from the coalfields came to a rather abrupt, if temporary halt. At the very least, it became apparent that men over forty-five would struggle to find work in new industries and places once the economic recovery set in, which wasn’t to be for another four years in many of the more prosperous areas of the country. In these circumstances, the Settlement’s work among older men and women became more important, as their more independent children continued to leave the valleys in large numbers, leaving their parents ‘stranded’ in long-term unemployment and relative poverty. Maes-yr-Haf helped many thousands of people to escape from spiritual isolation, at least. Through the clubs and range of activities it offered, new interests and enthusiasms developed.

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In 1931 Emma Noble started a Nursing Association, so two Queen’s Nurses were appointed to the district. The following year, the Settlement acquired a disused malt-house, twenty-two miles away, by the sea. Unemployment led not only to material impoverishment but also to spiritual deprivation and a “shut-in” syndrome. One woman from Llwynypia in the Rhondda recalled how her mother only ever left the town on one occasion each year:

We had a good clean home, you know, a good mother, and I mean a careful mother… And the only outing we used to go on was with the Sunday School. We’d go to Porthcawl. We’d walk to Pen-y-graig station, I’d have a couple of coppers, and that’s all we had to be satisfied. Take our own food, init? And that’s all my mother ever went, love ‘er. 

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Above: Woman carrying a baby “Welsh fashion”, Rhondda 1930.

As a remedy, the Malthouse provided thousands of men, women and children with breaks by the sea, with regular meals, good food, cheerful company and, above all, healthy rest. An interesting observation on gender relations was that men, notorious for riots, rebellions and disputes throughout the period, never failed to uphold democratic discipline, collective action, common sense and co-operative goodwill in the clubs and camps. In five summers, there was not a single expulsion. They did their camp duties with good humour, and when asked, reported that the three hours per day of these were the most enjoyable part of the day for them. This was a revealing comment coming from men who, traditionally, had been used to a division of domestic duties in which they relied heavily on their wives. There were also separate camps held for juveniles, helping the next generation of men and women to adapt to these important social changes in the nature and divisions of labour between the sexes.

Emma and William Noble understood trade unionism and working conditions as well, so they were able to work closely with organised labour, emphasising the importance of democratic organisation in all work undertaken with the unemployed, whenever they were called upon to give evidence to the numerous commissions and social service surveys which took place among them. Nonetheless, as in Brynmawr, there was much local criticism of the voluntary schemes and unemployed clubs, particularly from the unemployed men themselves, though this was often glossed or scripted by those with their own sympathies to external agencies. Although the film Today We Live (1937) was commissioned by the NCSS and produced by the Strand Film Company, it was made by a documentary unit led by Paul Rotha. Its directors were Ralph Bond, John Grierson and Donald Alexander, all of whom were determined to give the local critics of unemployed clubs a voice.

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Significantly, there were few women involved in the outside scenes which were shot in Pentre, and certainly no main character. When the character Glyn Lewis, played by a real unemployed miner, hears that they have to contribute fifteen pounds of their own to the scheme to build a new unemployed club hut, he grabs his cap and leaves the room in disgust (see the picture and caption below). The scene was supposed to take place in ‘Big John’s’ living room, but it had to be filmed in the Marylebone film studio in London and Les Adlam, playing Big John, was introduced to a ‘girl’ from Lancashire, who was supposed to be his wife. Obviously, she wasn’t expected to say much, if anything, on film, let alone voice a feminine opinion, but Adlam found the actress very nice, a homely sort of person.

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The support given to the Riverside Club by the Quaker centre at Maes-yr-Haf was not mentioned in the film, undoubtedly because it would distract attention from the role of its sponsor, the NCSS. However, Glyn Lewis commented, realistically if critically, on the practical significance of its role:

When we were unemployed and formed our club in the stable, the garage, Maes-yr-Haf used to give us cheap cocoa, a bag. We used to have cocoa and sell it. Maes-yr-Haf then developed coming in there, coming back and forth. They had lectures: Jack Jones, the Rhondda Roundabout, started lecturing in the Riverside… They bought us carpenter tools and things like that. You know, the social side of it. Mr Noble was the head of Maes-yr-Haf and he had his lieutenants of course to see how everything went. They were very good indeed., but that wasn’t our problem. It was no money and nothing much around.

Les Adlam agreed with the policy that was adopted concerning the film, that…

… they were trying to expose the Government paying money to build these huts and not create jobs. I think the club did a good thing. It took us off the streets and filled idle hands with the arts and crafts centre and the social activities that it was performing. Otherwise we’d spend our time going on the mountains or standing on street corners… You couldn’t go in the pubs, you had no money. You couldn’t even go to pictures. we had nothing.

Glyn Lewis was even more emphatic about what was really needed:

The film was saying to tell you that the Government, the National Council of Social Service, was doing something for you. Well, there was a club in this district, there was one in Treorchy, there was one in Cwmparc, there was one in Treherbert. They’d spread them all around, so as to keep you quiet, not to cause rampage. But the point was the living of the people, people with families and no work and not much money. That was the problem of the unemployed. They didn’t want a club – it was all right for them, but it wasn’t the real thing – work was what we wanted! 

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In his ‘Swarthmore Lecture’ on Unemployment and Plenty, delivered on the evening preceding the assembly of the Friends’ Yearly Meeting at Friends House in London on 24th May, 1933,  Shipley N Brayshaw spoke on the role of what he called ‘Palliatives’, referring specifically to the Quaker work in the Occupational Centres of the Rhondda, mindful of the criticism which had been directed at this work from both within and outside the coalfield. He dealt directly with these, fully accepting the limitations of the Quaker relief work:

Our Society is taking at least its full share in seeking to alleviate the hardship caused by unemployment, but no one recognizes more clearly than Friends themselves the insignificance of such work in relation to the main problem of dealing with the fundamental causes of the evil. Palliatives, have their place so long as they are not linked with an attitude which accepts the existence of unemployment. In addition to many small contributions, such as lending their premises fitted up with wireless and other amenities, Friends have been prime movers in the work of Occupational Centres which, started in the Rhondda, have spread throughout the country and which are helping to arrest the moral disintegration of enforced idleness and poverty. Allotment cultivation has been developed through the past four or five years to such an extent that it has received government recognition and help and has become national in character. This work while bringing to impoverished homes a regular supply of fresh vegetables, not otherwise obtainable, has been of incalculable benefit in finding healthy interest and useful creative labour for more than a hundred thousand unemployed men.

We are thankful for all such work; but when a Prime Minister eulogizes it, and allocates to it an important place in relation to the major question, we ask to be saved from our friends. These efforts make no real contribution to striking at the roots of the evil; yet we do not know but what the knowledge and experience gained may prove to be of unexpected worth… those who are most anxious to conduct present-day business aright may also be the ones most keenly aware of their inability, by such efforts, to solve the troubles of the community…

If all the employers in the country had the maximum both of business ability and of benevolence they could not, under capitalism as it exists today, set everyone to work and distribute the available goods… 

Whatever the acknowledged limitations of the Quaker work in the Rhondda, the gender division among the workers at Maes-yr-Haf reflected the Nobles’ own partnership of equals. In addition to their son, Mac Noble, who later became the committee chairman, and Rowntree Gillett, its treasurer throughout, there were five male and five female full-time craft-workers/ instructors. This balance between the sexes among the ‘settlers’ was also found in Merthyr Tydfil where John Dennithorne was ‘appointed’ by Friends’ House in London to work alongside Margaret Gardener. Dennithorne was a  local Quaker and gifted orator, and in Dowlais, who had started the Dowlais unemployed club in 1928. It became a full settlement in 1935, when Margaret Carslake was the mainstay of the settlement, often visiting the Brynmawr group. The Merthyr settlement was founded in 1930, placed under the wardenship of Oxford graduate, Gwilym Jones. The Risca Educational Settlement (established in 1931) was associated with Maes-yr-Haf and organised by Mary Dawson. At Pontypool and Bargoed married couples were in charge. The Thomases at Bargoed were Friends from Yorkshire who had worked at Maes-yr-Haf and followed the lead of Emma and William Noble in establishing an educational settlement, with women’s clubs formed up and down the Rhymney Valley, specialising in sewing groups and belt-making. In May 1929, the Glamorgan Gazette reported that, in the Garw Valley, the local company known as the “Society of Friends” were doing splendid work towards the alleviation of distress among the unemployed. Clearly, by the 1930s, the social service movement had obtained a substantial footing throughout a wide area of the coalfield and was well-co-ordinated by the Joint Committee and from Maes-yr-Haf. 

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Above: Unemployed miners getting coal, Tredegar patches, late 1920s.

Like the Nobles, many of the wardens had a background in the Labour and trade union movement, and so fitted well into the local community. Jim Thomas helped to organise the Rhymney Outcrop Scheme in 1933-34, enabling the unemployed to get supplies of free coal without falling foul of the local police by picking coal from tips and levels. By 1936-37 the first level had yielded fifteen thousand tons of coal, which had been supplied to about 450 unemployed families for 2d or 3d per week, plus voluntary labour. The group of men in charge worked long hours and had many disappointments, but enjoyed the struggle, as Jim Thomas himself reported:

Miners like mining much better than gardening because it is their trade, and they rejoice in the freedom to do the work as real craftsmen should. In no mine, however well-managed, has better workmanship in road making and timbering been accomplished … the committee explained difficulties to the rest of the men. The committee had no misconceptions about human nature … men at work can be difficult to control … in voluntary schemes they can be more difficult than ever. With some men a great deal of firmness has been necessary, but with the majority there has been willingness to do even more than their share.

The other voluntary workers at Bargoed included two single men and single women. In terms of employment and class composition, the colliery towns and villages were more truly one-industry communities than Merthyr or Brynmawr.

Some historians have suggested that social service movement was not well enough funded to imply that the government saw it as a major barrier to revolution. This opinion is, however, based on the level of direct government funding which occurred after 1932 and do not take into account the level of funding that which civil servants were able to facilitate and direct from private and charitable funds. The funds from the Carnegie Trust were small but significant, and large amounts were committed by the Society of Friends in the early period. However, it was the establishment of the Pilgrim Trust and the Nuffield Trust which helped to transform the situation. The duty of the Pilgrim trustees was to apply their resources at key points of the present distress, … to prevent many places where moral and intellectual leadership is absent, from sinking into despair. The impact of these fresh funds on the settlement work was immediate. In Dowlais John Dennithorne was able to receive a proper wage, two full-time female assistants could be engaged, more social and classroom accommodation was secured and materials and equipment bought in order to extend the work being done. The Trust’s grants to South Wales were essential in enabling both Dennithorne and Scott to develop their plans for Merthyr and Brynmawr.

(to be continued…)

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