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Whither Hungary? An Interested Observer’s Rejoinder to Reflections on the Outcome of the 2018 Elections.   Leave a comment

Reactions from Home & Abroad:

It’s been four months since the Hungarian general election (on the 8th April), so I’ve been interested to discover what Hungarians make of their country’s direction since the Orbán government was returned with two-thirds of the seats in Parliament. I have Hungarian Christian friends in Britain, working in the NHS, with young children, who have decided to return in advance of ‘Brexit’. Whether this is partly because of the ‘return to power’ of Viktor Orbán and his family-friendly policies I have yet to discover. Others, single professionals with different lifestyles, have decided to stay in the West, concerned about what sort of Hungary they would be returning to, defined as an ‘illiberal democracy’ by its Prime Minister. Yet the country has been a net recipient of funding from the European Union, an organisation which is built on ‘liberal values’ through the co-operation of countries which have been proud to describe themselves as ‘liberal democracies’ with pluralist parliamentary systems accommodating parties across the mainstream political spectrum. It’s not a scientific survey, but those who are socially conservative Christians seem unworried by this evolving ‘atmosphere’, whereas those with more ‘liberal’ attitudes seem keen to remain, especially in London, even after Britain leaves the EU.

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Tourists are still welcome of course since they bring with them much-needed additional income.  The MTI and Index.hu reported last month (July) that the Hungarian Parliament building had a record-breaking number of visitors in 2017. Nearly 650,000 people wanted to see the interiors of the famous sight in Budapest. The Parliament had never had so many visitors before. Among them were some left-wing friends from Wales, on a weekend break in the capital, whom I recommended should certainly include this on the brief itinerary. They did and wrote that they were greatly impressed by what they saw. The statistics show that a total of 647,000 people visited the Hungarian Parliament in 2017, up by eleven per cent from the year before. Twenty per cent of these were Hungarians, compared with eighty per cent from abroad. Of this latter number, nearly seventy per cent were from other EU countries. In the first four months of 2018, before the election, 201,000 people visited the building, eighteen per cent more than in the first four months of 2017. Tourists generated a revenue of HUF 1,188,000,000 (circa 3.7 million Euro) just by visiting this most popular tourist attraction in the Hungarian capital.

So, the unsavoury atmosphere reported by the OSCE* observers as prevalent in the country’s election campaign had little effect on foreign tourists. Quite rightly, Hungary has continued to polish its front gates and to proudly display its ‘Hungaricums’ in its shop window. Behind the this magnificent facade, the election slogans have not been so welcoming to ‘the west’. Of course, since very few visitors understand Hungarian, they were unlikely to pick up on the anti-Semitic trope inherent in the orange Fidesz election posters pointing to a ‘Soros Plot’, (térv in Hungarian). The American financier and philanthropist, George Soros (pictured below), not being a politician, is largely unknown outside Hungary though British people of middle age may recall his role in ‘Black Friday’ and the collapse of sterling in the early nineties. Even fewer would be aware of his Jewish-Hungarian origins. The ‘slogan’ has not gone away since the election either, as a proposed law designed to stop international charities and church groups from working with asylum-seekers and migrants has been introduced to Parliament known as the ‘Stop Soros’ Bill. They run the risk of being charged with ‘people smuggling’ and other offences for providing food and water, clothes and even bibles to ‘illegal immigrants’. Of course, all ‘asylum seekers’ from Syria and Iraq are illegal, having left their neighbouring refuge in Turkey, until they have been granted asylum elsewhere. They are not seeking to settle in Hungary, simply to cross it on their onward ‘trek’ to ‘northern Europe’. However, applications can take years to process, during which time the ‘illegals’ of all ages are held in tin boxes at the southern border, in all weather and temperatures, within high steel fences.

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Interestingly, a British friend who visits Hungary for extended periods on a regular basis could pick up on these ‘hate messages’ when he visited during the campaign. What was most noticeable for me was the way that most of my Hungarian friends in the town where I live, a Fidesz stronghold, clammed up during the campaign, and have continued to be unwilling to discuss the outcome of the election. Those who do comment have either ‘swallowed’ the government propaganda on ‘the vagrants’, or are dismissive of all politicians: like my wife, they recall the 1970s and 1980s when it was an unwritten rule that ordinary people did not discuss politics, certainly if they were not members of the Communist Party. Even ‘millennials’, not born until Hungary had emerged from the Kádár years, shared their parents’ view.

John O’Sullivan, the Associate Editor of the Hungarian Review and President of the Danube Institute in Budapest, ran into the large political demonstration of tens of thousands which took place in Kossúth tér, the square outside Parliament on the Saturday after the election. Those invited included supporters of ‘Jobbik’, the former ‘hard’ Right party, now by-passed by Fidesz, as well as the Left Opposition. The demonstration was, however, mainly the Left-wing protest of an election landslide for the Right (or, to broaden the analysis, by the elites against “populism”). In the May edition of the journal, he points out that, largely because of the numbers involved, criticism in the national and international media switched from the election process itself, still questioned in the case of the Brexit vote and Trump’s election, to the nature of the campaign. Here the most authoritative criticism was made in the preliminary report of the OSCE (election monitors, invited by the Hungarian government to observe) which can be read at:

*https://www.osce.org/odihr/elections/hungary/377410?download=true.

The report distinguishes between the conduct of the election itself, which it describes as professional and transparent and the campaign, which it concluded provided limited space for substantive debate. It also claims that media coverage of the campaign was extensive, yet highly polarised and lacking critical analysis. It further criticised the overlap between state and party spending. 

Whatever the merits of the OSCE’s criticism of the popular political discourse, O’Sullivan points out that these arguments were, in turn, overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the Fidesz victory which entrenched the post-2010 political culture in Hungarian society for the foreseeable future. It became clear, he argues, that this new culture and orientation arose more from the pressure on Hungary of international organisations, such as the EU, and from foreign governments, such as the Obama administration in the US, which produced Viktor Orbán’s justification of his policy that Hungary is reasonably entitled to protect its national character as a European and Christian society against mass immigration. That justification ran counter to the prevailing EU orthodoxy that Europe’s future should be rooted in post-nationalism, multiculturalism and official secularism. If Orbán’s policy had been one representing only a minority, O’Sullivan suggests, it would surely have been defeated, but it won the day by a hat-trick of landslides.

The Strange Death of Liberal Democracy?:

These insights are confirmed and fortified by two articles on the election result by Gáspár Gróh and András Lánczi. The latter sees it as a contributory wave in an internationally significant sea-change that is now transforming the broad Western consensus on how we should be governed. Liberal democracy, as it is currently interpreted by global élites, is both splintering between radical progressives and disheartened centrists and running up against popular resistance which generates its own… alternative courses. Lánczi argues:

Anyone who is not committed or enchanted by the latest liberal ideas concerning gender or radical egalitarianism, will be reduced to refurbishing ideas of the discarded past, especially the natural right or natural law theories, and traditions which are seen on the Left as obsolete or untenable. But they are neither obsolete, nor untenable… Epoch-making changes are underway in political thought. The political symbol of Orbán’s political world is the new constitution enacted in 2011. It is based on regained national pride, a re-interpretation of Hungarian history, and a complete system of democratic institutional arrangements based on classical liberalism, while rejecting the goals of modern radical liberalism.

However, as O’Sullivan points out, this contains an inherent conflict and contradiction in the understanding of both Orbán and Lánczi of the developed world outside Hungary, and especially of Western European states. In fact, both of them have misunderstood liberalism in this context as being polarised between a classical form and a modern radical form. The historical development of liberal institutions in Europe, both within and between nations, has been a mostly gradual progression from the classical to the radical over the past century and a half, with the radical form providing renewal during and after periods of rapid social change and war. Hungary’s ‘absorption’ first by the German axis and then by the Soviet Empire during the latter half of this period cut it off from western influences and delayed its transformation from one type of liberalism to the other. In the last decade, the breakdown of the twenty-year transition to liberal democracy has forced it back into traditional regressive forms of nationalism and authoritarianism. In his review of two books on Europe since 1989, Nicholas T. Parsons argues that enabling the countries of Central Europe to develop politically and economically in accordance with their own customs and traditions would have better results than forcing all of them to adapt their quite different societies to the same Euro-style approach of centrally planning a free market. He may have a point, but again his mischaracterization of this as The Hapsburg Option indicates a reactionary view. His view of the ‘Single Market’ as a ‘centrally planned free market’ is a contradiction in terms. It has to be pointed out, as it has been in the ongoing ‘Brexit’ debate, that the strongest advocate of both the creation of the single market and Hungary’s early accession and integration into the EU was Margaret Thatcher, who, although a strong ‘free-marketeer’, was hardly an advocate of central planning in economic matters.

Lánczi is also mistaken in dismissing all those who point to the growing mood of authoritarianism of the past eight years over the past eight years as heirs of the intellectuals of the Communist period… poignantly described by Czeslaw Milos as “captive minds”. Whilst he may not like ‘liberal’ or ‘libertarian’ thinking, he is himself guilty of the same lazy thinking which places all legitimate democratic criticism as Left-Liberal or Leftist. He argues that In a post-Communist country like Hungary many intellectuals are still in a state of “captive mind”. He acknowledges that this may seem ‘Paradoxical’, but does not confront the central conundrum to which I have already referred, that the current antagonism towards Left-Liberalism in Hungary would seem to be the product of the eighty years of authoritarianism, ending in fascist and communist dictatorships which Hungarians endured, through few if any faults of their own. The twenty years of transition to 2010 were hardly enough for Hungary to take its place as a European liberal democracy, in the broadest meaning of that term. Libertarians are, by definition, not ‘captive minds’ but ‘free thinkers’, and the only ‘Method’ they employ is, in Aristotelian terms, their willingness to entertain ideas without necessarily accepting them. If they are not convinced by ideas from within Hungary or from outside, why should they be expected to accept them? The coalition may have won the election, but it would still seem, on the evidence of results themselves, to have a major task before it in winning over large sections of public opinion within Hungarian society, including those who are naturally conservative in social matters. The simple repetition of campaign mantras will not be sufficient to achieve that and ‘libertarianism’ should not be confused with ‘liberalism’ in this respect. 

Populists, Realists & Utopians:

Certainly, all European political thinkers and politicians need to concern themselves with the current perceived revolt against ‘liberal democracy’, including that in the name of a rather dim concept of “illiberal democracy” as voiced by Viktor Orbán. The populist ‘revolt’ against ‘liberal democracy’ if that is, indeed, what the political events of the last decade represent, has to be set in the historical context of the development of pluralistic, liberal democracies across Europe and America over the past century and a half. These histories reveal that there is more than one way of developing an independent and inter-dependent nation-state within a variety of supra-national structures. As Lánczi himself suggests, the common element to all of these experiments with liberal democracy is the concept of a ‘social contract’. This contract may or may not be expressed on a solitary piece of parchment or paper, but it has to be continually renewed and refreshed. Lánczi rightly points out that élites fail to respect this mostly unwritten rule at their peril. He claims, with some justification, that…

… Most public intellectuals are… inclined to forget that in order to run a society you need to ensure the majority of votes, and this job is more than endless moralising and playing out the authority of the intellectuals. It is easier to denigrate the succesful politician as “populist” than to work for the active support of the people, and suffer intellectually for the more profound understanding of the conditions of the world.

To that we may add that to be ‘populist’ does not mean being right or wrong, but being in the moment. However, sooner or later, the ‘populist’ politician – whether of the Right, Left or Centre – must also deal with truths which are not simply contemporary or contextual, but timeless and universal, especially if they claim to be Christian Democrats. After all, these are what give us the fundamental notion of a social contract, made up of basic absolute rights and duties. Politicians may be in the moment in responding to popular concerns, but they are not ‘of it’, and they must use their wider experience, wisdom and judgement to create sound public policy. ‘Populist’ should not be an insult or even a negative label for an ‘unprincipled’ form of politics. It might even be a compliment for a less dogmatic approach to governing. But by itself ‘Populism’, like ‘Patriotism’ (to paraphrase Edith Cavell), is not enough. Any teacher will tell you that being popular with students will only go so far in winning their respect and promoting their success. Sometimes the ‘tough love’ approach of stating the unpalatable truth is required. In dealing with the masses, politicians sometimes need to remember this. Majorities are, in any case, made up of minorities who may not all want the same thing, as the difficulty over the ‘Brexit’ vote shows, and – even if they do – the strength of a libertarian democracy is not revealed in its rewarding of the majority, but in the respect it shows to the minority/ minorities. That is how it will form new majorities in the future, by going beyond ‘Populist Majoritarianism’. Otherwise, like the ‘Bolsheviks’ (the ‘Majoritarians’ in Russian) we end up with ‘popular’ dictatorship rather than any recognizable form of democracy.

Another ‘obsession’ which Lánczi seems to possess is the idea that there is an irresolvable dichotomy between the development of the nation-state and transnational organisations as agents of the political community. In practical terms, there are certainly tensions, of which we are only too well aware, but such tensions can also be creative and constructive. Lánczi argues that the nation-state has legally, socially and culturally determined limits or boundaries and that only economic development exists outside these boundaries as an activity to be regulated by supra-national mechanisms. In doing so, he posits both a false dichotomy and an abstract, artificial division of the aspects of governance. In reality, it is impossible to separate the social, cultural and economic dimensions of human activity, whether local or global. He quotes those who argue that if the dominant nation-state system of the day remains the only political framework, the global economic and technological developments would prevail without any political control. In the era of global finance, mass media, mass migration, advancing new technologies and ecological trauma, they argue that we have to create transnational organisations capable of operating on the same scale. The current political system, they say, needs to be supplemented with global financial regulations in order to control economic globalisation, which is still dangerously unregulated. The political infrastructure required to complete globalisation has not even been conceived of, they argue. In particular, Lánczi highlights several of Rana Dasgupta’s references to Viktor Orbán in which the former observes that…

 … similar varieties of populism are erupting in many countries. Several have noted the parallels in style and substance between leaders such as Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Narendra Modi, Viktor Orbán and Recep Tayyip Erdogan … Like Putin or Orbán, Trump imbues citizenship with new martial power, and makes a big show of withholding it from people who want it: what is scarcer, obviously, is more precious.  

Lánczi argues that the dominant view on Orbán’s policy in the ‘world press’ is embedded in a context biased towards the mainstream ‘liberal’ interpretations of politics, that ‘liberal democracy’ is good and that ‘the idea of progress’ should triumph in all debates. He claims that “populism” should be viewed as a political paradigm which presents a new model of democracy which is neither liberal nor demagogic, in which the focus has been removed from the ‘liberal intellectuals’ and ‘expert institutions’ to the people and their concept of ‘leadership’. ‘Populists’ are therefore seen by him as realists, concerned with the actual framework of political developments, common sense judgements and the actual series of events in the past narrative. ‘Liberals’, on the other hand, are ‘utopians’, seeking to convince the electorate about the most desirable outcomes to be achieved in the future.

The ‘Realist View’  begins by pointing out that Fidesz got 650,000 more votes in 2018 than in 2014 and had 336,000 more votes than total votes of the opposition parties. The people voted for Orbán in an undisputable proportion and manner after two terms full of reforms and decisions, all derived from political principles, and amid what Lánczi regards as an often rude and threatening international reception. From this point of view, he asserts, Communism and today’s liberal democracy are easy ideological bedfellows since both allow utopian ideas to occupy the arena of practical politics. Both Communism and liberalism are not just utopian ideologies, but both claim that they know what is to come and therefore what is to be done. This explains how an arch anti-Communist like Viktor Orbán could also become anti-liberal in the sense of the reaction against all forms of modernism. However, this analysis ignores the accepted definitions of both ‘classical’ and ‘radical’ liberalism in western Europe, as they evolved in the practical political contexts of the previous century and a half, for more than half of which Hungary was under the authoritarian rule of varying descriptions. If there is a misunderstanding here between ‘East’ and ‘West’, it is certainly a mutual one.

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In any case, the ‘reality’ is that Orbán’s disagreements with those he identifies as ‘liberals’ in the 1990s, to which Lánczi himself refers in his essay, were far from being ideological in nature. My recollection of the SZDSZ (the ‘Free Democrats’) in 1990-94 was that they were neither ‘classical’ nor ‘radical’ liberals, in British terms neither Gladstonian nor Lloyd Georgian, a remark I made to the late Charles Kennedy MP when I met him in the early nineties on his visit to Hungary as their guest (he later became the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party in Britain). It was Fidesz who, at that time, was seen as the ‘Young Liberal’ party of Hungary. The ‘SZDSZ’ were commonly spoken and written about, in the Hungarian English language press at least, as being ‘Thatcherite’ free-marketeer centrists. In that sense, in western terms, they were economic neo-liberals, but we were careful not to use too many western descriptors for the politics of post-Communist Hungary. It would be more accurate to say that they were in favour of a complete opening up and deregulation of the Hungarian economy at that time, whereas other parties were more concerned to cushion to blows to employment and social benefits which might result from the conversion to capitalism. Their decision to go into coalition with the MSZP (Socialist Party) in 1994, abandoning Fidesz, was born not to ideology but out of the need to manage the economic and social transition at that time. Like the Socialists, they recognised that political and cultural transition would have to wait until after Hungary had joined the EU, which it did in 2004, securing the economic assistance that it needed. But the young Viktor Orbán never forgave them for this ‘betrayal’ of the ‘liberals’, and thus began his journey to the ‘hard right’ and an alliance with the centre-right Christian Democrats.

Aftermath & Analysis – What’s Left for the Left?

Orbán certainly won the 2018 election with evenly distributed votes from every category of society – blue-collar workers, intellectuals, rural workers, and middle-class professionals. He also won among both religious and non-religious voters and across all demographic groups.  But not all of Hungary voted for the victors in the election, and even those who did didn’t all support the fulfilment of the entire Fidesz programme if indeed we can call it such. In fact, Fidesz did not produce election programmes in either the 2014 or 2018 elections. In 2014 Orbán simply sent out a message, We Carry On! In the last election, the main slogan was For Us, Hungary is First! Otherwise, all the Fidesz posters and publicity were simply anti-immigration, re-running the government plebiscite campaign (‘national consultation exercise’) of a few months earlier. Lánczi maintains, rather unconvincingly,  that the lack of an explicit programme or set of promises did not mean that Orbán had no policies to present to the electorate. Apparently, he has central goals which are continually defined and re-defined in his frequent talks about ideas. In his ‘acceptance speech’, the returned PM was able for once to be magnanimous and statesmanlike rather than triumphalist. In an article that otherwise stresses the legitimacy conferred on the new government by the vote, Gáspár Gróh draws a cautionary lesson for both Fidesz and its Prime Minister:

The voter turnout of some seventy per cent suggests that the government enjoys the active support of about one-third of Hungarian society. This shows that humility would not be out of line. In order to secure the survival of the nation and accomplish the momentous tasks it faces, we need even broader co-operation. Indeed, the most complex and most daunting task of the new-old administration lies in figuring out how to convert its overwhelming parliamentary majority into winning the support of society on a similar scale.

Many on the Hungarian Left have perhaps been too quick to denounce their own leaders as more responsible than Fidesz for the landslide result. After all, there was no landslide in Budapest, where Fidesz had done badly even in those middle-class areas where the former MDF (Hungarian Democratic Forum) had predominated in the past. The victory had been largely achieved in the countryside, with its small provincial towns and cities, than among the conservative metropolitan intelligentsia, many of whom had voted for minor parties. The wholesale victory in the countryside was the product of an eight-year project of the party network to take control of the local institutions; town and county halls, schools and churches, through a system of popular patronage and quiet coercion which would have been the envy of Kádár’s cadres. Those who do not declare for Fidesz are not necessarily declared to be against the ruling party, but those who are known to be opposed to it find themselves moved sideways or even demoted. I have watched this happen over the past eight years in the significant provincial town where I live and work, where the opposition has been cowed and the ruling party’s control is now almost absolute, so much so that, as an almost inevitable product of this evolution, in-fighting has broken out in its ranks since the election victory.

Following the election, there were two further demonstrations in Budapest, all three having the aim of getting the elections annulled, gradually shrinking in size. Then the disgruntled intellectuals put their placards away for another four years. Opposition politicians have now, generally, backed away from challenging the result and started the painful process of internal blood-letting, demanding that their own parties look critically at themselves and why they lost. Meanwhile, oblivious to all that, the tourists continue to flock in and with the added support of EU loans, and the re-building is continuing, both in the capital and the countryside. The false boom continues, with no sign of bust in sight as long as Fidesz and Viktor Orbán can stay on the ‘right’ side of the Conservatives and Christian Democrats in the rest of Europe who subsdise their project of constructing illiberal Hungary.

As Gróh points out, however, we have become, sadly, inured to American-style negative campaigning, and increasingly accept that, in the populist era we live in, campaigns do not cease when the elections are over. Almost inevitably, a new one begins just as the previous one has ended. In Hungary, this is not quite the norm, but we are now ‘looking forward’ to two other rounds of elections within the space of just a year: one being for the EU Parliament, and the other in local elections, both of which extend the franchise to other EU nationals living here. Any appeasement by Fidesz will not, therefore, last long. Gróh suggests that it would be vain to expect the sentiments to subside or to hope for an impending period of calm, peaceful governance and an attendant constructive political rivalry focused on real substantial issues. ‘Campaign psychosis’  will continue to define the public discourse in Hungary for the foreseeable future. Fidesz will continue to retain its clinch on the majority of the middle classes with nationalist leanings and of regressive persuasions, as well as win over voters from other camps.

Gróh suggests that, despite their self-flagellation, there was little the opposition parties could do to shore up a united front in order to oust the government. In doing so, they would have been risking winning votes from conservative-minded citizens from the Right by offering them right-wing policies with which other centre-left parties could not agree. This would likely have produced an even more serious haemorrhaging of votes to the centre-right parties. This was particularly the case with the centre-left LMP’s strategy. In any case, the re-election of the ruling Fidesz-led coalition could easily be predicted from the fact that the Hungarian Forint exchange rate had shown no appreciable fluctuation as election day neared. International markets, always sensitive to major political changes, was clearly banking on the ‘devil’ they knew being returned to power. Nevertheless, Gróh maintains that the opposition parties were prevented from winning by their own incompetence, as the leaders like Ferenc Gyúrcsány, the former Prime Minister (pictured on the right, below), have been ready to admit. Altogether, the centre-left opposition parties garnered 320,000 fewer votes in 2018 than in 2014.

A partial agreement between MSZP and DK – Hungarian Spectrum

The reasons for this sharp decline are complicated, but Lánczi suggests that it is because both the post-Communist left and the liberals have always looked to the West to borrow ideas indiscriminately from and implement them on home soil. He claims that the merging of liberal and ‘leftist’ ideologies has resulted in an emaciated content of leftism based on the amelioration of the free market and “capitalism” through redistributive policies. Yet, these have always been the policies of the centre-left in Hungary since the 1990s, as the Communist period, for all its faults, had already provided a universal, comprehensive if basic, health, social welfare and education system from ages three to eighteen. There was little left for social democrats and liberals to achieve. However, gender egalitarianism can hardly be dismissed as the latest liberal idea to be imported from the West. Surely it is a matter of universal ‘Common Sense’ that fifty per cent of the population of any country should enjoy equal rights with its other half? A century-long campaign for female emancipation, equal rights and equal pay is hardly a leftist fad. It is a political priority for all mainstream parties across Europe, in government or in opposition, if no longer in the US. If by gender Gróh is referring to more recent demands for transgender rights he may have a point, but the assertion of these has met resistance from feminists, liberal or otherwise, on the grounds that it threatens hard-won women’s rights to female-only spaces in society.

Gróh is probably more justified in his assertion that Conservative ideas have become more attractive in Europe recently, partly because much of the agenda of the left has been fulfilled in many of its liberal democracies, and partly because social conservatism, as distinct from political ‘Conservatism’ is a resurgent though not dominant force in many of them. Orbán’s Conservatism, based on regained national pride and a re-interpretation of Hungarian history (which has sometimes ignored, distorted or falsified the facts, however), is not so different from changes underway in politics elsewhere, though these can hardly be described, yet, as epoch-making. Whether the legitimate concerns, both within Hungary itself and in the EU, about his apparent unwillingness to maintain a complete system of democratic institutional arrangements based on classical liberalism, will now evaporate remains to be seen and will largely depend on whether he now abandons his efforts to restrict the freedom and pluralism of the press and media and demonstrates his commitment to the independence of the judiciary.

Migration, the EU & Economic Policy:

Orbán Viktor miniszterelnök távozik az Európai Unió csúcsértekezletének végén, a 2015. október 16-ra virradó éjjel(MTI/EPA/Laurent Dubrule)

The key to the success of the Fidesz-Christian Democrat (KDNP) coalition had little to do with their performance in government, but much to do with its ability to campaign effectively. Consequently, their main campaign message was not about their achievements over the previous two consecutive terms, but on a platform built on their handling of the single issue of mass migration, and their handling of it during and after the summer of 2016, when large numbers of Syrian asylum seekers and migrants from Afghanistan and Pakistan crossed Hungary and Austria en route to Germany and Northern Europe. In reality, this had been an issue of transit, which was temporarily resolved by Angela Merkel and the German government when it opened its borders to those crossing Hungary on their ‘Great Trek’ across the Balkans. Most of these ‘migrants’ had been in refugee camps in Turkey, Syria’s neighbour, having fled from the war across the border. Many of them were professional people and students in the process of gaining qualifications. When the war showed no signs of being brought to an end after three years, and with the advent of the Islamist Caliphate in northern Syria and Iraq, they gave up hope of returning home, determining instead to pursue their aspirations in western Europe. In doing so, they were following a natural impulse to secure human rights that those in Europe take for granted. In reality, very few had any intention of settling in Hungary, and to this date there are only a small number of them in the Hungarian capital, running successful businesses and services.

Nevertheless, the experience of the ‘Great Trek’, with its bottle-necks at the railway stations in Budapest, haunted the Hungarian imagination, with its folk-memory of the Ottoman occupation of centuries before, and led to the building of a ‘steel curtain’ along Hungary’s thousand-kilometre Balkan borders and its claim to be protecting ‘Christian Europe’ from ‘marauding Muslims’. Of course, much of this argument was ‘fake’, drawing on the Islamophobia which has been on the increase since 9/11, and some would argue since the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the ongoing wars with the Taliban in Afghanistan since then. As Hungary has no recent experience of interaction with Islamic cultures itself, references were made to isolated incidents of loss of control in German cities, to the social and cultural problems of integrating so many migrants, the situation at Calais and the Islamist terror attacks in Brussels, Barcelona, Paris, London and Manchester. The coalition parties in Hungary simply used the more recent tidal wave of Islamophobia hitting Europe to retain the upper hand they had gained on the issue of migration in 2016. This in itself was enough to lock in the coalition’s victory for the third time running, and since the election there has been no let-up in this anti-Muslim rhetoric and propaganda at every level, and especially in the government-controlled press and media.

In the election, no reference to the government’s record on the economy was required since the influx of EU funds had disguised its shortcomings to control inflation and improve wages and living standards among ordinary Hungarians. Had the election been fought on this record, Gróh comments, it would hardly have sufficed for the kind of sweeping victory we have seen. The Fidesz-KDNP coalition pulled of its ‘hat-trick’ with unprecedented mass backing on the ‘fake’ issue of migration, though with almost a third of voters staying at home.

The latter-day exodus to Europe in recent years is a historic challenge far too momentous to be considered as a mere campaign theme. The phenomenon has increasingly come to shape the outcome of elections across Europe, most recently in Italy. Gróh believes that this will continue, with implications for peace and prosperity in Europe. The corollary global issues of environmental damage, overconsumption and the impending demographic collapse of native populations are provoking the most general intellectual crisis in Europe since the seventeenth century. These emerging global issues emerging in recent years have now manifested themselves in more than just the influx of the masses from the destitute and war-torn continents in search of a better life. Nevertheless, they are ‘external’ to national elections since the problems they create can neither be solved nor even contained at a purely national level. They are beyond the control of national governments, which are only capable of mitigating the effects on their populations.

Although its seemingly tough stance on immigration policy was a clear vote-winner, in reality, the coalition government has little control over this issue independent from the other twenty-seven EU member states, acting in concert. It remains to be seen whether, and for how long, Hungary can continue to ignore its obligations as a member state to accept its quota of asylum seekers without jeopardising its central funding from the EU, or whether it can engineer an alternative, less humane strategy with other central European states and the recently elected Eurosceptic government in Italy. Viktor Orbán is making overtures to former Yugoslav and Balkan states, but many of these are not yet integrated into the EU, and are unlikely to be accepted any time soon. They are also suspicious of Orbán’s long-stated goal of reasserting Hungary’s influence in countries which were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire a century ago, and still have significant though dwindling, ethnic Hungarian populations. This remains a major ‘plank’ of the nationalist government’s foreign policy.

Nevertheless, the re-election of Hungary’s incumbent government bodes well for bolstering the leverage of the revived Central European co-operation of the ‘Vísegrád’ countries as a means of seeking answers to strategic regional questions rather than simply as a means of ‘Saying No to Brussels’, another of the campaign slogans. The consolidation of central Europe as a distinct region within the EU should be welcomed by the western European states as it has far-reaching consequences for the European continent as a whole. As Gróh comments, however, the psychology of campaigns will continue to override the otherwise desirable limits of sober public affairs and responsibility. Meanwhile, Hungary still has its own internal problems to confront, some of which may have a European dimension or context, but most of which are distinctly within the control of the government. It is not enough that the Orbán governments had to cope with the economic problems it inherited in 2010, including the spiralling triple debt traps at personal, corporate and national levels, the passivity of overall society, the unjust distribution of tax and national insurance, and corporate and structural forms of corruption. Voters tend only to be really irritated by individual instances of corruption, even though these are dwarfed by entrenched corruption on a structural level, even now. The institutionalised corruption of the 1990s has now fallen into oblivion, and the danger for the current ‘régime’ is that, in continuing to utilise the campaigning tactic of blaming past administrations for the loss of billions of forint to the national treasury, it will increasingly draw the spotlight onto individual ‘oligarchs’ among its own associates and their corporate relations.

Certainly, it took a major effort by the Orbán governments to overcome institutionalised corruption between 2010 and 2018 and to dislodge the labour market and domestic consumption from stagnation, setting the country on a path to growing wages and bringing about a period of prosperity for some of its citizens. Hungary has yet to reach this destination for most of its citizens, however, and without prosperity, none of the problems in the public services can be solved, especially in health and education, because the new tax structure restricts its revenue. The foreign-exchange loans for housing purposes taken out before 2008 have finally been paid off with the help of the financial measures of the last Orbán government. Wages have risen steadily in the private sectors, and the government has begun to address the gap between those sectors and the public services, especially for teachers. Higher wages at home may yet have the ancillary benefit of keeping more of the workforce from seeking better wages in other EU countries, and in persuading those who have already done so to return. Higher earnings and tax incentives at home may enable more citizens to enter the housing market, enabling them to pay the rent or the mortgage without their dwelling becoming their only asset.

Much remains to be done in closing the gap for regions and social groups lagging behind, and in improving demographic trends and family policy, and it is in these areas, as much as in the restoration and retention of Hungary’s unique cultural values, that the next general election will most likely be fought. In other words, on the legacy of the Orbán administration in every area that matters in the life of a modern nation and which is within the control of its national government. All of this may be taken care of by the two-third parliamentary majority of the newly re-elected coalition, which is surely enough for good governance, but will it prefer to continue its shadow-boxing with external issues and policies it has a say in, but no real control over?

Orbán’s Goals – Family, Sovereignty & Community:

Miklós K. Radványi: “Open letter to Viktor Orban, the Prime Minister of Hungary”  – Hungarian Spectrum

So, what are the central goals of the new Órban government? Lánczi has read between the lines of the PM’s speeches to identify three central ‘areas’ from which the star striker will aim to score: ‘Family’, ‘Sovereignty’ and what he calls a meritorious moral system based on a shift to an ethic of individual responsibility. The first two areas are nothing new in Fidesz’s programme. Lánczi admits that the idea of ‘family’ has played a central role in all of Orbán’s governments, affecting economic, financial, social and educational policies. The fundamental political idea was framed in the new Hungarian Fundamental Law (or ‘constitutional amendment’) of 2011:

Hungary shall protect the institution of marriage as the union of a man and a woman established by voluntary decision, and the family as the basis of the survival of the nation.

This places great emphasis on the role of the nation-state in ‘family affairs’ and what many would consider as being ‘private matters’ and questions of individual, universal human rights. In particular, the question of mutual recognition of same-sex marriages and civil partnerships across the member states of the EU under this law has not been addressed either in the Hungarian Parliament or in the General Election. Lánczi agrees that the Law, in general terms, runs counter to developments within the EU, although decisions on social matters are still considered to be the territory of the individual states. Many have eulogised Orbán for his ‘courage’ in this respect, particularly among socially-conservative religious people, but even among these it needs to be questioned whether the institution of Christian marriage needs to be protected and ‘enshrined’ in the law of the land, or whether the state should simply continue to concentrate on the legal requirements and relationships of marriage in the secular sphere. The Law, as currently written, may yet lead to lead to an unnecessary conflict over the rights of EU citizens resident in Hungary to have their legal relationships recognised here, with implications for property and pension rights in particular. Nevertheless, as Lánczi points out, the centrality of the family in the policies of the ruling party has important demographic motivations:

Almost all European countries have been facing the economic, social and cultural consequences of their declining populations. The smaller a nation is, the less likely they are to share the view of bigger nations’ seemingly comfortable solution to the problem: migration.

However, Lánczi then poses another false dichotomy, between the individual and the family as the smallest unit of society. The former leads, he suggests, to the organisation of society into a liberal democracy, whereas the latter leads to the strengthening of the nation-state. Viktor Orbán, he claims, is one of the few European political leaders who can see the correlation between the weakening institution of the family and the growing antipathy against the idea of the nation. But are the western liberal democracies really weakening the institution of marriage and the family by opening it up to a broader interpretation of what a family actually is, or can be, in modern society? Leaving aside religious concerns, at least for a minute, does the exact gender formation of a family really matter in societal and demographic terms? Evidence published to date suggests a negative answer, although we have yet to see the longer-term effects of changes in marriage law on wider society.

There is also a bigger social ‘demographic’ issue which we might refer to, in colloquial terms, as the elephant in the room. It could be argued that an insistence on one ‘traditional’ model of ‘the nuclear family’ might be detrimental to another ‘traditional’ model, still prevalent in Hungary, that of the ‘extended’ family. In placing all the emphasis on nation-state help for 2.4 children, are we not in danger of marginalizing the increasing numbers of elderly people, many of them living alone or in care homes, rather than with younger family members? At the same time, where is the help for those family members who are willing and able to care for their parents at home, in addition to continuing to care for their own children as well as holding down full-time employment? Surely, they need to be encouraged to remain economically active. In Hungary, as elsewhere, and as a member of such a family, I don’t see this support as forthcoming. Perhaps that will be the next step in the government’s family-friendly policies. It is certainly long overdue, and a challenge that needs somehow to be confronted.

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On the question of ‘sovereignty’, a term which also continues to be much in use in the ‘Brexit’ debates, Lánczi has pointed out that this concept has been a central ‘instrument’ of the Orbán governments. Among his early campaign slogans, Orbán used the statement, Small victory, little changes; big victory, big changes! We might balance this with the concept employed in many other European democracies, The bigger the majority, the greater the respect shown to minorities! However, this concept is unlikely to find its way into Orbán’s political vocabulary. On the other hand, the people’s will has to be assessed not only by pure numbers but also, according to his supporters, by the intensity of emotions, expectations and passions expressed.

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Sovereignty, the wielding of power on behalf of the people, needs to meet two criteria: the reasonableness of the political goals and the reliability of the political background. Orbán drew a lesson from his 2002 defeat that it was not enough to have popular goals and policies, but that he must organise the political machinery without which the leader would turn out to be a mere puppet of the civil service, very soon losing control over political developments. In particular, however, the issue of sovereignty which has preoccupied the administration since 2016 has been that of whether the EU or the Hungarian state should have the largest measure of sovereignty in the management of the mass migration across the member states. As mentioned elsewhere in this essay, there seems to be little prospect of a resolution to this issue in the near future.

Until the 2008 economic crisis the moral foundations of liberal democracy, “justice as fairness” and human rights had no viable alternative. Political arguments were supposed to be based on the idea that there were certain inalienable rights which every individual should be able to enjoy. But the monopoly of the modern liberal interpretation of rights is being widely challenged, not least in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. Here, the renewed basis for political discourse involves the resuscitation of the traditional moral ties which are seen as binding Hungarian society together in the face of external threats and challenges. Egalitarian concepts of justice, both post-Communist and liberal, still have a strong grip on society, but it is increasingly questioned whether western individual-based moralities can and will hold the Hungarian nation-state and the European Union together. Lánczi argues that the emphasis has now shifted from one on the rights of the individual in society to the rights of the community. According to him, rights are nothing if there is no community that warrants them. The primary issue is, therefore, the unity of the community in which individuals can trust each other to a reasonable extent. In particular, Lánczi questions whether immigrants should expect to immediately be given the same rights as natives in the communities to which they move.

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Apparently, Orbán believes in the evolution of a system of ‘meritorious moral relationships’ in which individuals are given rights only when they have fulfilled their obligations. In other words, individuals must ‘fit in’ and integrate themselves into the community first before the latter will ‘reward’ them with rights. This effectively turns rights into privileges which must be earned. Rights are no longer absolute or universal, as in the ‘classical liberal’ sense, but  ‘mutual merits’ defined relative to a national or local moral code which is seen as the basis of the harmony between the individual and the community.  In Hungary, this is the basis for the lowering of personal income tax to 15% for all. Those who work more and risk more are rewarded. There is no longer any system of graduated taxation in which the richer pay a higher proportion of their income to support the poorer in the community. In addition, those on social benefits are required to do ‘workfare’, performing tasks for the community in return for those benefits. So the central moral virtues in Hungary are the ‘senses’ of obligation and responsibility, and individual rights are regarded as being dependent on them. This is seen as the secret of an illiberal morality which underpins Viktor Orbán’s illiberal democracy. It is therefore incumbent on newcomers to ‘discover’ this secret since expectations are not always clearly articulated or, indeed, static.

Again, this reveals a fundamental misreading of the first principles of classical liberal democracy, in which there has always been an understanding between individuals and the state of the need to balance rights and responsibilities or obligations, and to earn or merit privileges. However, in European liberal democracies, there has also always been, at least since the seventeenth century, an understanding that there are certain fundamental human rights which are either believed to be God-given or part of the social contract between the state and the individual. In addition, there is the question as to how ‘merits’ are to be valued and rewarded, and who determines what these should be and how they should be awarded, assuming that the concept of “justice as fairness” still applies. Otherwise, society is in danger of being dragged back into moral relativism, or an essentially Medieval morality underpinning a system of feudal patronage in which ‘rights and dues’ are determined and arbitrated by an individual ‘lord’. This renewed social contract between ‘the people’ and Viktor Orbán is therefore founded on a new top-down ‘meritorious’ moral code.

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Wherever Next then… ?

For the time being, at least, ‘Leftists’ and ‘Liberals’ are not popular in Hungary, seen as being in the pay of alien forces. What Lánczi refers to as the intellectually exhausted post-Communist Left and the dogmatic liberals have been marginalised within the new national community. If these principles and processes ring alarm bells for western democrats, Lánczi assures us that Orbán’s political model has managed to see off both leftist and rightist radicalism. His politics, we are told, is about the political centre defined in terms of national history and identity, the Christian context of our way of living, and a view of the good life. This is what provides the stable political background against which the people’s aspirations can be fulfilled by their governers. Perhaps, in time, there may also be a coral growth of more popular centrists, as in France, whether progressive liberals or pro-European social democrats, untainted by past associations. The Centre-Right also shows signs of splitting into Christian conservatives and more radical nationalists, led by ‘Jobbik’, who still attracted one million voters out of 5.6 million. But the reactionary and regressive elements in political life, both local and national, are likely to remain in control for much of the next four years, and perhaps beyond. They are deeply entrenched in Hungarian society, and it will take a seismic shift among younger generations, including those returning from abroad, to supplant them. The next four years will be crucial to Hungary’s survival as an open, pluralistic democracy at the heart of Europe.

Sources:

Gyula Kodolányi & John O’Sullivan (eds.) (May 2018), Hungarian Review, Vol. IX,  No. 3. Articles by Gáspár Gróh and András Lánczi; essay by Nicholas T. Parsons; editorial note by John O’Sullivan.        

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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…)

The Long March of Every Woman: Gender, ‘Community’ & Poverty in British Labour History, 1928-38   2 comments

Chapter One: The Brambles of Poverty in a Distressed Area.

‘Women’s History’ in Britain has too often been viewed through the prism of ‘Great Men’s History’ by emphasising the roles of well-known individuals rather than focusing on the everyday lives of the masses of working-class women and their families. This is sometimes blamed on the lack of sources with which to describe and analyse these lives, but women and women’s experiences and ‘issues’ were by no means overlooked in the social documents of the inter-war period. In fact, given the pace of change in both working-class life in general and the lives of women in particular, which was of particular concern to social investigators, there is a wealth of relatively unused primary source material of both quantitative and qualitative types. At the time, it took almost a decade before their social surveys to break through the fog of denial which emanated from Neville Chamberlain’s Ministry of Health:

Our observations did not disclose any widespread manifestation of impaired health which could be attributed to insufficiency of nourishment. In this view we are confirmed by the opinions of the medical practitioners who have the best opportunities of watching the physical condition of families.

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Although women had won the vote in 1928 on the same basis as men, the struggle of working-class women for better rights and conditions in the home, at work and in society was, in many respects, still in its infancy. Much was expected from the first majority Labour government which came to power at the beginning of 1929 under the leadership of Ramsay MacDonald as Prime Minister. The photograph above, taken by Arthur Lovegrove in Reading in 1929, shows a group of women supporters of The Daily Herald, which became an important campaigning mouthpiece for the Labour movement throughout the years of financial crisis and economic depression which followed in the 1930s. The experience of mass unemployment and widespread poverty in Britain reached into all areas of Britain, including relatively prosperous towns such as Reading, but it was in the older industrial areas of South Wales and the North-East of England where it was most protracted, leaving a lasting legacy of bitterness as well as a determination to fight back by the working-class communities located in these ‘distressed’ areas. But though they were particularly dense and piercing in places, the ‘brambles’ of poverty did not grow evenly throughout the depressed coalfields of Britain in the 1930s.  They did not even grow evenly in the same street, in the same terrace, and neither did they ensnare one individual or family in quite the same way or to the same degree as the next. They grew at different rates in differing places. This diversity of growth has much to do with the nature of the places in which they grew.

It is therefore imperative that historians should move away from the contemporary, stereotypical images left behind by propagandists, investigators and politicians and seek out how working-class communities were defining and redefining themselves during the period. It is necessary to examine the intricate cultural and institutional web of coalfield societies before judgement can be made about the relationships between impoverishment and demoralisation. Considerable evidence has already been advanced that, during the early part of the century, coalfield society developed its own autonomous culture alongside the received one, a culture which rejected values that did not stem from the community’s own sense of economic and social solidarity. This alternative culture reached its zenith during the 1926 lock-out, and, despite the impact of the depression, there was tangible continuity in its institutional life over the succeeding decade.

This alternative culture was allied to a revolutionary counter-culture in other parts of Britain, including London, and increasing involved women. The picture below shows The Women’s Red Army marching through East London to Epping Forest, 1928. This is a rare shot of the LLX, the women’s section of the Labour League of Ex-servicemen. The women and some men, about two hundred in all, had assembled at Gardiner’s Corner in the East End and marched through Mile End, Bow and Stratford, held a rousing meeting at Leytonstone and continued onwards to Epping Forest, closely followed by plainclothes officers of the Special Branch.

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On practising their marching in a forest glade, an urgent message produced the arrival by car of the Commissioner of Police who accused them of performing military movements. Apparently, they succeeded in convincing him that they were only practising their marching in readiness for May Day and the police withdrew, leaving the ‘red army’ to dance on the greensward and make their way back by bus, having been forbidden to march.The uniform was first seen in public on Sunday 11 March 1928 when thirty-five women, led by Mrs J R Campbell, marched into Trafalgar Square for an International Women’s Day meeting and took up a position on the plinth, along with the speakers who included A J Cook, Marjorie Pollitt, Beth Turner and Hanna Ludewig from Germany. The uniform was officially described as a fawn coloured blouse and serviceable short skirt, stockings to match, flat-heeled brown walking shoes, khaki berets, red tie and regulation armbands. An official Communist Party pamphlet described the LLX as having ‘guarded the plinth’ and it would seem that they and the uniformed men drew their inspiration from the Workers’ Guard in Germany where the Red Front Fighters numbered some three hundred thousand.

The picture below shows the Prince of Wales on his extensive tour of the depressed areas in South Wales, Tyneside, Scotland and Lancashire, where he is shown shaking hands with a worker at Middleton. He met families who had been unwaged for years and seemed sincerely and visibly shaken by their plight. He is reported to have said,

Some of the things I see in these gloomy, poverty-stricken areas made me almost ashamed to be an Englishman… isn’t it awful that I can do nothing for them but make them smile?

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Eight years later, after his accession to the throne, he made his noted second tour of South Wales and witnessed the effects of a decade of ‘the slump’ in the Rhondda and Monmouthshire valleys. After being shown the derelict steelworks at Dowlais, that once provided employment for nine thousand, he uttered the words that are remembered to this day as something must be done to find them work, though others have argued that his words were more direct, and specifically aimed at the government ministers who travelled with him, something will be done.The young MP for Ebbw Vale, Aneurin Bevan, was furious at the whole event, however…

To organise an expedition to Wales as if it were an unknown, barbarous and distant land, much in the same way as you might go the Congo was an outrage.

He said that the king was being used to mask persecution and that Ernest Brown, the Minister of Labour who accompanied the king, was the instrument of that persecution. He declined a suggestion that he should meet Edward VIII at Rhymney, saying:

I cannot associate myself with a visit that would appear to support the notion that private charity has made, or could ever make, a contribution of any value to the solution of the problem of South Wales.

In 1938, the authors of a Review of the decade-long Industrial Transference Scheme (1938) suggested that it was ‘the clan spirit’ found in the depressed areas of South Wales and northern England which continued to represent the major source of political opposition to National Government policy towards them. The Review characterised these areas as small, self-contained communities in which most of the residents are known to each other and cited their geographical position as a major factor in the intensification of ‘parochialism’. Coalfield ‘communities’ were defined in negative terms by politicians and government inquirers; they were no longer ‘real’ communities with a proper social leadership provided by a resident, benevolent middle class. Neither did they any longer serve any useful economic purpose, but were infamous for their industrial militancy before the world war, and for the obduracy of the miners’ leaders in 1926.

Many of the national voluntary agencies shared these negative stereotypes of the coalfield communities, although their social investigators managed to produce, both in print and on film, a generally softer image than the official one, showing far greater sensitivity to their plight without wallowing in sentimentality. Nonetheless, some of them set about their task as if they were embarking on an anthropological expedition, to echo Bevan’s condemnation of Edward VIII’s 1936 tour of South Wales. The editor of the journal Fact, prefacing Philip Massey’s Portrait of a Mining Town, asserted the need for an attempt to survey typical corners of Britain as truthfully and penetratingly as if our investigators had been inspecting an African village. He stated that, like African villages, mining communities are isolated and relatively easy to study and went on to make the dubious assertion that they were so cut off from the neighbouring townships like Cardiff and Newport that in the latter a ‘collier’ was regarded as a sort of strange being. 

Many of the philanthropists of the 1930s used this image of isolation to justify their concept of social service ‘settlements’ in the valleys, as a means by which the ‘outlook’ of the communities might be ‘broadened’. They were attempting to infuse their middle-class notions of ‘citizenship’ of a wider community extending beyond the boundaries of the valley. The Pilgrim Trust Annual Report for 1936 described each valley as being a self-contained community with its own traditions accustomed to leading its own life in isolation from its neighbours. Stereotypes such as these had as much to do with the projection of an image for specific ends as with reflecting the reality of coalfield communities, no matter how sympathetic the process and product of the investigations might appear. Thus Hilda Jennings, the author of the 1934 book, Brynmawr: A Study of a Distressed Area wrote in a similar vein,

The small town or village environment is predominant. Mining communities, often separated from each other by a bleak stretch of moor or mountain, and dependent on one industry, naturally have a distinctive character. Local attachments are strong, family connections widespread, and modes of thought remarkably homogenous. There are few if any wealthy or leisured inhabitants, and the children of teacher, shopkeeper, and miner attend the same elementary and county schools. Men, women, and children, are so intimately known to their fellows that their doings are invested with a personal interest which gives warmth, colour and drama to day-to-day events. The influence of public opinion and local tradition is correspondingly strong.

Hilda Jennings’ book consisted of a detailed, ground-breaking survey of the coalfield towns on the northern, Breconshire edge of the south Wales coalfield. This most ‘untypical’ coalfield community had been stranded like a beached Leviathan by the receding tide of the coal industry well before the miners’ six-month lock-out of 1926 and the ‘slump’ of the late 1920s. Her survey was conducted in co-operation with the Coalfields Distress Committee of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and South Wales and Monmouthshire Council of Social Service (SWMCSS). It first led its readers, not into a Miners’ Institute full of unemployed men, but into the bedroom of a terraced collier’s house:

In one of the older streets containing a large proportion of back-to-back houses with very small, airless rooms, little access to sun, and leaking roof and walls oozing with damp as many as seventeen cases (of consumption) were notified from the twenty-nine houses in the street… In one such case one of the two small bedrooms was given up to a dying girl, while the father and mother and six children crowded into the second bedroom and living room (used also as a bedroom). It is not to be wondered at that two other children contracted the disease, and that two out of three infected children died within two years.

This tragic tale needs no literary embellishment and is a narrative which is typical not just of the older mining towns at the heads of the valleys, with their high rates of home-ownership among once-prosperous workers, but across the steam-coal valleys from Nantyglo in Monmouthshire to Neath and the Swansea Valleys. The ‘Brynmawr Experiment’ was started by Quakers but was not run by them. To understand the problems of Brynmawr Peter Scott, with others, decided to have a comprehensive social survey undertaken.  Scott had served since 1926 the Society of Friends as Field Officer for the Society’s relief work in South Wales. In November 1926, Horace Fleming reported to the Society’s Coalfields Distress Committee on the possibilities which the work in the Rhondda had opened up:

It seems clear that the spirit expressed in and being kept vigorous by the mens’ and womens’ groups, is the living root on which an educational movement may be grafted… Being cul-de-sacs, the mental ventilation of the valleys is poor, with the result that the inhabitants are much more self-centred than non-valley dwellers. This movement (the National Council of Labour Colleges) with its condemnation of existing economic conditions and its doctrine of class war, has spread with remarkable rapidity throughout South Wales… To a people who, for generations, have been dependent on the spoken word, the clergy’s failure has meant the demagogue’s gain.  Nor is this surprising, when it is remembered that the only advocacy, with rare exceptions, of a new world heard in these valleys, was that of the Marxist, even though his new world was only to be entered through war… the present defeat is being traced to the theories of the extremists…

Fleming added that this tide of criticism was beginning to undermine the NCLC and that the Quakers could grasp the opportunity to address the educational needs of adults who were conscious of the failings both of the chapels and the communists. There was, he felt, a desire for a more constructive approach than that offered by the NCLC. The strategy proposed was that ‘a fluid movement’ should be built upon the foundations of the existing groups. Such a movement would not be dependent on bricks and mortar but would flow into the Miners’ Institutes and the chapels. A more sympathetic organisation could follow later, but the immediate priority was to provide a fellowship wider than sect, party or class.

The Quakers who settled in Brynmawr eighteen months later had similar concerns. In the summer of 1928, Peter and Lilian Scott, together with a number of other single male and female ‘Friends’ had gone to the Welsh coalfields due to their concern for the unemployed. They had held Quaker meetings for worship standing in groups in the marketplaces and street corners in the towns and villages they visited, starting in Abertillery, trying to give spiritual comfort and fellowship to the people among whom they lodged, the local unemployed, by first getting to know them and their problems. One of the Quaker women remembered the puzzled reaction of local people to their meetings, which appeared to be so different to their own nonconformist religious services, dominated by male preachers, deacons and hymn-singing:

These open air meetings were held under conditions very different from today. There was little wheeled traffic: the few bicycles and carts made very little noise and motor-cars were rarely seen. In every street, but particularly in market squares and on street corners, there were men in typical ‘miners’ squat’, unemployed and with no money for recreation, just talking, or silent.

During the morning the group of Friends would decide where to hold their meetings and would go to perhaps two places to advertise them, one for the afternoon and one for the evening. Advertising was done mainly by chalking the on pavements, with an occasional handbill in some prominent place.

At the time agreed, the group of Friends, usually six or eight,… would gather standing in silence. The men around would watch, unmoving, until someone spoke. Then by ones and twos the men would get up and gather round to hear what we said, and if held by the speaker would move in closer until there was quite a crowd.

The messages given were mainly concerned with the presence of that of God in each of us, of the love of God for us all, and with the love we should bear to one another in all circumstances. These meetings might be illustrated by a gospel reading, a prayer, a story of early Friends, a personal experience: all the things one might expect in any Quaker meeting… at the end of the meeting men would come to one or another to ask questions – why were we doing this and who were we anyway?

Occasionally there was a hostile reaction. On one such occasion the men crowded around threateningly, interrupting the meeting. ‘Who were we to come talking like this? What did we know of unemployment and the conditions under which they were living, why didn’t we do something for them?     

At Brynmawr, the Quakers faced a challenge from trade union leaders and other local people who also told them, You say you want to help us: prove you mean what you say; stay here and do something for us. So that is what they did. Peter went back to Friends’ House in London and said food and clothes were vital, so Joan Fry from the Coalfields Distress Committee went to Brynmawr and later addressed a public meeting at Golders Green. Brynmawr was a good place to start for a project which, from the start, was concerned with the unemployment ‘black-spots’, by contrast with the earlier ‘settlements’ in the Rhondda. The coal seams were nearer the surface on these northern ridges, and the coal on this higher ground had been mined in ‘levels’ for a century and a half so that they were practically worked out. The deeper, more modern mines further down the valleys were still working, albeit on ‘short-time’ and to keep the pits from flooding. However, they had enough labour in the colliery villages close by, so the heads-of-the-valleys towns had higher levels of long-term unemployment. Those in work were mostly bank clerks, ministers of religion, policemen, shopkeepers and teachers.

Peter Scott was a utopian visionary and his experiment, from the start, was of a different nature to that of the Maes-yr-Haf settlement. He was more interested in the social and economic reconstruction of the town than in the concept of an educational settlement. Nevertheless, both projects were species of the same desire, one which they shared with the liberal-Cymricists, of promoting unifying spiritual values above the interests of the working classes. Both experiments opened up important channels of communication into a crisis-ridden society. The Baldwin Government and its civil servants viewed the approach of the winter of 1928-9 with some trepidation. The Mansion House Fund had begun to deal with the immediate need for relief as well as aiding the work of the newly established Industrial Transference Board. However, they also began to realise that longer-term measures were required to deal with the problems of ‘demoralisation’ and their perceptions of the real threat of social disorder. To the middle-class social workers, many of them Quakers or Oxford graduates, ‘demoralisation’ meant not just the psychological effects of impoverishment, but also the extent to which the workless in these communities would espouse ‘desperate remedies’ in response to their condition, and uphold loyalty to ‘class’ above that to a broader ‘community’ and sense of ‘citizenship’.

Later in 1928, Peter and Lilian made their home in Brynmawr, where they were joined by a few others moved by a similar compassion to share in the life of a suffering community.  Disillusioned as so many were at that period with the existing social and economic order and inspired by a Utopian vision, the Scotts concluded that it was just in those areas where the breakdown of the old order was most complete that there lay the greatest opportunity for the creation of a better one. Margaret Wates arrived in Brynmawr from London at the beginning of December 1928, having joined the Society of Friends at the beginning of the year. She was full of youthful enthusiasm and idealistic socialism.

She was put in charge of the Relief & Service Centre as relief was reluctantly regarded by both government and the social service agencies as an unfortunate necessity in the winter of 1928-29. She was supported by local women, most of whom were twice her age. An empty shop in the main street, Beaufort Street, was adapted for the purpose, to which second-hand clothing came pouring in. She recalled that all her local helpers were neatly dressed, not just Mrs Price, the local policeman’s wife, who was regarded as comfortably off, but also the wives of the unemployed miners.  It seemed to her that the Welsh women were more tastefully and neatly dressed than their English counterparts. They would also clean, brush and put away their husbands’ Sunday clothes on Mondays so that they were ready to be worn the following Sunday. Their working clothes also looked cleaner, now they no longer had to go underground. In these ways, married couples were able to keep up a veneer of respectability and to cover up their poverty. She discovered later that they stitched paper together to make extra bedding for themselves.

Margaret was also responsible for placing girls in service, almost the only work available for women at the time. A few men and boys were also placed through Worthing Friends (the town was twinned with Brynmawr through the Mansion House Fund), and other Quakers helped to find employment in other areas, but most of these returned to Brynmawr in the end. Margaret was particularly involved in the work with women, helping organise them into self-help sewing groups in neighbouring places. It was easier for the outside volunteer workers to get hold of premises and get people to work together, as they were trusted not to have an “axe to grind”. They had gifts of material and sewing machines to help these groups establish themselves. She ran a playgroup once a week for the families of the poorest children in the district, who lived in shacks on the hillside. The idea came to her on one of her evening walks “up the mountain” and saw the pathetic settlements, made of bits and pieces. She talked to the women, who struggled to look after their children in sickness, but discovered that they were, in some ways, better off than the unemployed miners with homes to maintain that they couldn’t afford to keep or sell, or rents that they couldn’t afford. The “tent dwellers” at least had a home of their own, however primitive, each with a little fire.

Margaret Wates had a secretary, Marion Richards, who was younger than her, who called her by her Christian name, which was unusual in professional relations at that time but was the kind of relationship that the Quakers wanted to encourage. The local people were very loyal to the local chapels otherwise and showed little interest in meetings for worship or Quaker business methods. Marion Richards was the youngest of a large family whose men were colliers, her father unemployed. They were heavily involved in local politics and she later became a County Councillor. She helped Hilda Jennings with the Survey. Jennings was an Oxford graduate and a well-qualified and tactful social worker as well as an experienced leader of local committees. Although not a Quaker herself, she shared Peter Scott’s outlook on many things, and he gave her a free hand with her work. The book, published in 1934, was subtitled A Study of a Distressed Area and was said to be a classic of its kind. She later became the admired, loved and respected Warden of Bristol University Settlement, where she worked for twenty years.

The survey was different from the other social surveys done by trained social workers, as it was done by local people themselves. All sections of the Brynmawr community took part in this self-study, in order to understand the long-term effects of unemployment on many aspects of the town. There were two hundred volunteers involved in the Survey Committee which became ‘the Community House’, work starting in the attic. It was divided into eight sub-committees dealing with Commerce, Education, Health and Housing, Industry, Municipal Services, Population and Transport. These were led by people with a professional interest in a special area, chosen not elected. However, the Trade Unions and the Labour Party refused to co-operate with the survey, as they felt their dignity and authority had been undermined; they considered themselves to be the truly representative body since they had been elected. Two models of democracy were in open conflict, and it was a conflict which could not be resolved easily. This was, however, more of a loss to both the Urban District Council and the Miners’ Federation than to the survey itself.

Hilda Jennings insisted on using Quaker business methods, refusing to take votes on difficult issues, although this inevitably slowed down the processes of investigation and the overall progress of the survey. She was undaunted in her belief also in the educational value of conducting the survey by these means, helping to develop open-mindedness and raising people above sectional interests, since pooling experience enriched the common life. The community should raise itself to a higher level because it aimed to give the fullest life to everyone. It could and it wished to work with the elected bodies: this would benefit all, and help to create a more inclusive and harmonious society.

The idealism applied to the means by which the survey was conducted is evident in the ends, the text of the survey. The evidence it presents is both quantitative and qualitative, especially when dealing with family life. Although other surveys of the unemployed contain moving references to the lives of women, they tend to regard their roles as secondary, or adjunctive, to those of both employed and unemployed men. In the Brynmawr Survey, full details are given of how the mothers in these families were the first to suffer privation, and so became dispirited, debilitated and apathetic. The school children had free school meals and free milk provided for them, and there was milk given at the infant welfare clinics. But family relationships were strained. The diet was poor, even when the miner was working, and for those unemployed, it mostly consisted of tea, bread and margarine, with some meat and vegetables on Sundays. Men’s health suffered as a result, making them unemployable and destroying their self-respect, so that women would increasingly ‘go without’ in order to maintain these factors in their husbands in particular, but also in their adult sons, if they still lived at home and were unemployed, as was most likely the case in Brynmawr.

It was difficult for miners of any age to settle in other forms of work elsewhere, as they could only become labourers and unskilled factory workers. They were very proud of the crafts of the collier, timberman, fireman, haulier, etc. They were also proud of their dangerous and manly occupation. They resented having to take work as labourers, road-menders and gardeners, even though such work often required great physical strength, if not the same level of skill as that of a collier. Some work was available in the English coalfields after the General Strike, and some Welsh colliers were prepared to uproot their entire family in order to take it, but from the end of 1929, the trade depression took away much of this demand in, for example, the industrial towns of the English Midlands which had been expanding in the 1920s. When relative prosperity returned to these areas in 1934, most of the available jobs were in unskilled engineering, especially in the automotive industries. Some families moved to cities like Oxford, Coventry and Birmingham, but most of those who continued to leave the coalfields were single men, or at least childless. For the older family men, it was often too late.

The Welsh collier also had very strong roots in his locality and in his loyalty to his family and the wider human relationships within solidly working-class communities. Jennings’ Survey revealed this to be nowhere more the case than in Brynmawr. In addition, the climate at the top of the valley meant that the houses were continually damp. The houses were also older than in many colliery villages further down the valleys. Many were over a hundred years old and in a deplorable condition, unable to give protection from the frequent heavy rains and gales. Walls oozed with damp so that rheumatism, influenza and bronchitis were common complaints. There were 93 back-to-back houses of which there were seventeen cases of tuberculosis in 29 houses. Some unemployed families took lodgers in order to boost family income, but, as most houses had only two bedrooms, this created overcrowding, despite there being a large number of empty houses in the town which their owners couldn’t afford to sell or let.

One Brynmawr volunteer remembered visiting a house near the town centre with the living room, as was traditional, opening directly off the street: it had a tea-chest as a table and some boxes to sit on and was miserable-looking beyond belief. Many of these houses had shared yards and toilets, and rarely had gardens, so their occupants were unable to improve their diet by growing fresh food unless they had access to an allotment. Yet family pride meant that with local traditions of polished brass hangers and black leading inside and colour washing outside, plus the need to keep the fire burning day and night, mainly using coal dust, these homes seemed more weathertight and snug than they were in reality.

Moreover, as there were no collieries in Brynmawr, just the ‘levels’ cut into the hillsides, this meant that there were no colliery companies and therefore no company houses available for miners to rent, or as “tied houses” in Brynmawr. There was a Council-run housing estate as well as some more modern, bigger hoses that miners had built for themselves in more prosperous times. If a family owned or expected to inherit a house, they would, therefore, be far less willing to move away to find work. Some unemployed house owners had to mortgage their houses before they could claim poor relief, later known as Unemployment Assistance, which was all that the long-term unemployed could claim after using up the insured benefits they were entitled to. The Council tenants who were unemployed had also been allowed to accumulate very large rent arrears. Since these could not be collected, the Urban District Council, already deeply in debt due to the local poor rate system, could not afford to repair these houses, thus adding to the general dilapidation and deterioration of the housing stock.

By 1928, as Margaret Wates recalled, there were already youths of eighteen who had never worked, having left school four years earlier. They went about in groups up the mountain, or out in the streets after dark, as they did not want to be seen in their shabby clothes. She knew a mother and daughter who shared one pair of shoes so they could not go out together. One family of ten members had two cups between them, so the children were always late for school! When savings were exhausted there was nothing left for sickness or replacements, or even to do repairs.

The Brynmawr experiment, under the dynamic leadership of Peter Scott, maintained a certain independence in its operation. Scott insisted that anything done must spring from the community and not be imposed from the outside. His determination that the work should not be controlled by any outside committee led him into direct conflict with the Friends’ Coalfield Distress Committee to the extent that,  at the end of 1929, he severed his connection with the official Quaker undertakings in the area, thereafter working independently with a group of volunteers. In December, a general town’s meeting was called, chaired by the local MP, with two thousand people in the hall. The rather emotional approach taken by Scott’s group alienated the hard-headed trades unionists, but it was successful in rallying several hundred people of different backgrounds to volunteer to community service over a period of three years, including hard manual work. Significant opposition to this was raised by some unemployed on the basis that the only commodity they had for sale was their labour. They did not want to surrender this right and ruin their chances of future employment, or of losing their dole if they did voluntary work.

A compromise was agreed that the unemployed miners would always be deemed available for, and thereby genuinely seeking work as far as the employment exchanges were concerned. Nevertheless, the Labour Party and the Miners’ Federation continued to shun the scheme. They insisted that all labour should be paid for at trade union rates. They were also suspicious of a group of English Quakers with middle-class backgrounds interfering in the town, even if they supplied help that was desperately needed. Thus, the claim that the work at Brynmawr sprang from the community was not borne out by reality. The cautious welcome which Brynmawr had initially given to the Scotts’ activities soon waned and his group’s relationship with the local community deteriorated. The newcomers were never fully integrated into the town’s civic life and, as a result, the Quakers became known, disparagingly, as ‘the BQs’ – ‘the Bloody Quakers’! 

Soon after the big meeting, and despite the ostracism of voluntary workers, their wives and children, a small group of local men started work on a piece of land near the railway station, converting it into a garden, and planting trees on a nearby ‘tip’. The men slept in the two large empty rooms above a shop, while the women shared another large building. They had meals on site – the food was plain, plentiful and cheap. Local women helped with the cooking as well as with the laundry, mending, cleaning and first aid, in addition to doing colour washing and gardening. There were also men’s and women’s clubs. By 1936 these were ‘vigorous’ and would have expanded had they had more accommodation. The men repaired furniture, tapped boots, made bows and arrows for an archery range, and wove scarves. The men did not make much use of the boot repairing and carpentry facilities, but the women’s club had seventy-five members and joined the Federation of Women’s Institutes and the Townswomen’s Guild. Needlework and foreign language courses were started in 1931. The women made leather gloves and other useful and ornamental things. There was also a demand for cookery classes, including food values. The keep-fit classes were crowded out.

In January 1934 some of the group around the Scotts formed themselves into ‘An Order of friends’, choosing to dedicate themselves to the new community of their vision, as expressed in Jennings’ book, published the same year. Thereafter all the Scotts’ undertakings were carried on in the name of ‘An Order’, though in fact its members never had more than a nominal responsibility for its administration. The most successful efforts made were in the two new industries of furniture and bootmaking. These conformed to the accepted pattern of industrial life and were more readily tolerated by local people on that account. Subsistence Production, the largest, most costly and most visionary of Scott’s undertakings, diverged too far from the current industrial mores to be readily accepted. The theory which lay behind it stemmed from J W Scott (no relation to Peter), a Professor of Philosophy at University College Cardiff, who in the 1920s had worked out an elaborate theory for producing and distributing goods as far as possible free from the constraints of the monetary system. He had envisaged groups of men, each working at his own trade without wages, producing goods for exchange within the group.

The Welsh tradition of spontaneous community singing, Gymanfa Ganu, was also revived. Brynmawr and the heads-of-the-valleys towns were usually more culturally, if not linguistically Welsh, than the anglicised colliery towns further down the valleys where many English ‘immigrants’ had settled. There ‘Welshness’ was based on the surviving Welsh-medium chapels founded by the earlier Welsh immigrants. Margaret Wates remembered one old lady who gave Welsh lessons to the English volunteers at the Centre using her Welsh Bible. For many of the older women, their lives outside the home, when time allowed, continued to revolve around the chapels, whether services and activities were in Welsh or English. Many men had long-since abandoned the chapels in favour of the Workmen’s Institutes, built earlier in the century. Since membership of these was based mainly on colliery employment, the institutes had been built in colliery villages, rather than in the heads-of-the-valley towns. Their activities were almost exclusively male until well into the 1930s, and in this respect, they were slow to adapt to the impact of mass unemployment on the social lives of men and women. On the other side of the northern outcrop, Resolven Institute near Neath was one of the first to allow women access to certain ‘new’ activities, as one local woman recalled:

 In Resolven now there was a reading room, you see. There was a lot of debating. You could say that the Reading Room was the House of Commons of the village. And I remember the first wireless coming. It came to the Reading Room. And women were allowed to listen to the wireless for the first time. It was a very important evening!

The new clubs were, therefore, had a more immediate practical purpose for women than for their unemployed men, since the latter were able to maintain their access to the local Miners’ Institutes through continuing to pay their subscriptions to the Miners’ Federation, which set up Unemployed ‘Lodges’ in parallel to those for miners still in work. Women were also more receptive to the new cooperative ideas than men, however. Nearly all the men over forty-five in Brynmawr had been unemployed since 1921. They were more regular volunteer workers than the younger men but regarded the Subsistence Production Society (SPS) as second best. Faith in Socialism as a Utopian form of Christianity, if not Marxist Communism, was almost universal. They had a strong family life and were resigned to lower standards of living, but they were opposed to the means test, and to irregular working hours and differentials in wages. Their outlook was set in the industrial unionism of the pre-1914 years, and these traditions were fiercely maintained among them. They distrusted “An Order of Friends” and the SPS, which they regarded as they did any other large industrial undertaking, as fundamentally capitalist and therefore automatically opposed to the interests of labour. At the same time, it was not quite real, but a pastime, so they were not prepared to work so intensively on it. The principles behind the scheme were either not understood or not trusted by many of the older men. To those behind the SPS, they meant benefiting people according to their needs.

The women, by contrast, wanted the cheap milk and other necessities provided by the SPS. The opposition of the men lessened as time went on, but few were interested in creating a new order of society through the schemes, as Jennings and the Quakers advocated. Other groups, not just the Communists, the trades unions and the Labour Party were opposed to the SPS, but even the Co-ops and the and the shopkeepers, who were also fearful of the involvement of government. A Viennese psychologist, Dr Marie Jahoda, concluded (after a four-month local sojourn and study of the Cwmavon Scheme in 1937/38) that while the SPS was ‘a valiant experiment’ and ‘a heroic attempt to tackle a problem at the right point’, it was doomed to failure because the leaders’ eyes were blinded by their glorious mirage of the future to the extent that they were unable to see the numerous pitfalls of interference from outside the normal development of the community.

Marie Jahoda noted that the scheme could never surpass the limits of charity. In the absence of a sufficient number of idealists from other social classes who would resign voluntarily the advantages offered to them by their privileged position, it was necessary to employ technical staff at normal rates of pay. As long as this remained the case it was not possible, she argued, for the organisers to preach the necessary idealism and to create a common ‘ideology’ within the scheme while maintaining a standard of living high above that of the members. Without this community of interest there was no chance of making the experiment fully successful; without paternalistic supervision, there was no chance of making it work at all. Nevertheless, she concluded, the SPS was small enough to be understood in its general operation by every member and big enough to provide an insight into various social processes and a comparison with normal social life:

The colliery system with its problem of export trade and finance, extending over the whole world, is far too complicated to allow the average miner to understand its working; the family unit or a handicraft job is too small for the same purpose in the modern world. The amount of collective social experience represented by the membership of the SPS is one of the main positive effects.

This was no doubt why Dai Payton of Nantyglo, an unemployed miner, and his wife Phoebe, who had a fine family of eight children themselves, remained sympathetic contributors to the Brynmawr schemes. Margaret Wates came to know the family well during and after her brief sojourn in Brynmawr and the Eastern Valley:

They lived in a company room at Nantyglo with one bedroom and one living room, no ‘parlour’. This one-up-one-down had a spiral staircase joining the two rooms, which was dangerous for their small children. They had a ‘longish’ yard in front of the house with a gate to the main road through a low front wall. Next to this was the coal-shed and toilet!

Just inside the front door was flimsy wooden partition with a shallow stone sink beside it. They had a blackleaded oven which went under the stone stairs and was also used for drying the wood. The fire was kept going with a few lumps of coal to the front and dust to the back, carefully flattened, where the teapot could be kept warm. The fire irons were kept polished. I think there was a good-size table, a few upright chairs and boxes.

I visited Phoebe when she was ill, and found there were two double beds and an upright wooden chair… there was a cheap curtain between the beds, but it was very Spartan. Phoebe’s parents lived at the back of them, so some of the children slept in their house…

… every morning they had toast and margarine, and tea with condensed milk: on Easter Sunday they had half an egg each and fresh milk, which wasn’t bottled, but scooped out of the milkman’s churn on wheels. For tea on Sundays they had rice pudding. On Friday they had four faggots and sixpence worth of peas for dinner – “it was delicious”. On Sundays some of them had dandelion pop or nettle pop, a sort of home-made wine. The family never went hungry.

The children had school dinners, after the forms had been filled in about earnings, etc.: these were called “feedings”, and they had a half-pint of bottled milk a day at school. The school attendance officer… would call at the house if a child had been away from school for only two days.

Dai always gave his wife his unopened pay packet. She would buy his tobacco, pay his bus fare and his union subscription, and might give him tuppence to go into the welfare ground to watch a match. She would be responsible for paying the doctor when necessary…

Dai and Phoebe had been given a striking clock as a wedding present, which must have been the only thing of any value they possessed.

There was a traditional “Grace”… before meals, that was sung to a Welsh tune… remembered in 1930:

O Lord have mercy upon us

And keep us all alive;

There’s round the table nine of us

And food enough for five. 

Dai and Phoebe were exceptionally strong people, working so hard to ensure that their family survived under such difficult conditions. Despite all their best efforts, one of the children did not survive, however, a little sister who died at the age of four. Phoebe seems, in some ways, to correspond to the image of the ‘Welsh Mam’ that recent historians have become somewhat obsessed with, based on Richard Llewellyn’s 1939 novel, How Green Was My Valley:

As soon as the whistle went they (the women) put chairs outside their front doors ans sat here waiting till the men came up the Hill and home. Then as the men came up to their front doors they threw their wages, sovereign by sovereign, into the shining laps, fathers first and sons or lodgers in a line behind. My mother often had forty of them, with my father and five brothers working.

This image is not exclusive to the south Wales valleys, however. It was a regular practice in mining families throughout Britain for the woman to collect the wages of the men, before they were given back their beer and tobacco money. At Binley, near Coventry, if the men went to the pub on the way home, the children in the house would be sent out to intercept them and bring home the sovereigns. This practice continued into the 1940s. Neither did women scrub their husbands’ backs, which were generally left coal-black in order to harden against conditions underground. What perhaps typified the ‘Welsh Mam’ as compared with miners’ wives in other coalfields was that they never worked outside the home, except as shopkeepers, whereas in Coventry many women did shifts in textile factories, working around their husbands’ shifts and depending on whether sons were also miners. In Coventry, they usually became car-workers and engineers in the 1930s.

The ‘Mam’ was, of course, primarily a wife and a mother, clean and pious, and had the responsibility in and for the home. She was certainly as prevalent in other depressed areas where industrial work outside the home was essentially the province of men. By the end of the thirties, this pattern was beginning to change among the younger generations, especially at the southern end of the valleys, but in the heads-of-the-valleys, it remained the same throughout the thirties.  Here, it was women like Phoebe Payton of Nantyglo who continued to scrimp and go without.

As Gwyn A Williams and Dierdre Beddoe have pointed out, although aspects of the portrait of the ‘Welsh Mam’ were dominant in coalfield communities into the inter-war period, the image was essentially a nineteenth-century creation. In Wales, there was nothing really comparable to the industrial out-work done in domestic settings across the West Midlands of England by weavers, chain and nail-makers. Moreover, the British middle-classes were alarmed by the Chartist demonstrations and uprisings of 1831-51 into thinking that there might be a revolution, similar to those which had happened in France, in Britain. One of the chief ways that the middle-class sought to bring about stability was through the strengthening of the idea and role of the family. They advocated a bourgeois view of the family: male breadwinner, dependent ‘domesticated’ wife and dependent children. It was this version of the family that the middle class wished to impose upon the working classes and which working-class families came to aspire to: the dependent wife was to become the symbol of working-class male success. This message about the woman’s role was essentially domestic was trumpeted from the pulpit and reinforced by religious tracts, poems, magazines, paintings, prints and manuals of behaviour for women.

One of the myths which emerged from this stereotypical image which mining women aspired to conform to was that women and men had equal power and that, with the onset of male unemployment, women became the dominant power in unwaged households. The handing over of the sovereigns to the wife is often cited as evidence for this, but this act also involved the passing over of the burden of managing the household. Women’s authority was entirely limited to the private, domestic sphere. Not until the end of 1928 were working-class women able to exercise the vote in parliamentary elections on the same basis as men, but even then very few had access to the public sphere of politics. Besides this, they still had no control over their bodies and its reproductive functions. Miners were oppressed by coal-owners and poverty. Their wives were doubly oppressed by poverty and patriarchy. As one woman said, we were slaves because they were slaves to the coal-owners.

Of course, this does not mean that all miners treated their wives badly, either physically or psychologically, whether in work or out of it. Neither did they consciously ‘enslave’ them. If anything, there is a sense in the evidence that unemployment often brought about a more equal relationship between husband and wife. On the other hand, the poverty it brought often placed great strains on the household, and men, by their own admission, sometimes took out their frustrations and loss of personal pride on their wives.  Dai Payton worked at the level at Coalbrooke Vale for the SPS. A Brynmawr resident had transferred the lease of the level, a mile from Brynmawr, which supplied work for forty older men for eighteen months. After twelve months the management was handed over to the men, but in 1931 the Miners’ Federation called a strike, so the co-operative was also asked to join the strike, although they were both workers and owners. If they had agreed, they might have ruined the small enterprise, since they had not yet established if the plans of the old workings there had been correct. When they refused, they were called “blacklegs” and “traitors”, showing how difficult it was for co-operative ventures and trades unions to work together. The unemployed miners overcame all the technical difficulties, but the coal seam did not yield as much as was expected, though the group struggled on with courage and patience. By 1934, Dai Payton, together with a ‘butty’, made a success of it for a time, until nature forced them to retire. The unemployed were forced accustomed to going up “the mountain” to get a sack of coal, which they would bring back long distances on their backs. Working cooperatively decreased unnecessary physical strain, enabling the group to achieve a more rational way of working as well as running a successful if small, industrial enterprise for some years.

The Brynmawr Experiment was an attempt, unique in Britain, to encourage a whole community afflicted by desperate levels of unemployment, averaging 75% throughout the period 1928-38, to fight back on a number of fronts, tapping an entire range of resources, from the enterprise of volunteers to social service agencies and central government. The national network provided by the Society of Friends was crucial to the work as it supplied management and technical skills and money to get things done. But a community that has suffered such levels of long-term unemployment needs even more than a revivalist inspiration to overcome its paralysing effects. Immediately, it needed relief work, as an absolute necessity. In the medium-term, reconstruction projects were put in place, including a swimming pool, a park and a nursery school. Then the industrial decline had to be offset by starting small co-operative enterprises in boot and furniture making, which by the end of the period were achieving considerable success.

Another enterprise was stocking-making, in which a dozen women worked under a trained forewoman, making long, thick miners’ stockings, but mass production and keen competition proved too much for the group. They produced fine quality socks for a time but had to close down in the end. A further group of about a dozen women and girls made Welsh quilts of silk material, padded with lambswool, to traditional Welsh designs. They also made tea-cosies and other products to order. They worked in a big room above an empty shop for a period of a couple of years. As these ventures received no government support for five years, they had to be funded over this period by grants from private individuals and charitable organisations. The aim was not to replace the volume of jobs lost in the coal industry, but, in the words of Hilda Jennings, to…

… build up a new and better community in which the human spirit will be released from bitterness and divisions, and find outlets for creative energies in craftsmanship and right human relationships.

(to be continued)

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