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

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Above: Denis Healey in combatant mood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Falklands ‘Escapade’:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Simon Weston in 2008

The Falklands Factor and the 1983 Election:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Political and Cultural Landscape of Wales:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Revolution or retro-capitalism?

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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‘Persons Unknown’: The Welsh Language Protests in Bangor, 1976-78   5 comments

English: University College of North Wales, Ba...

Leighton Andrews AM, member of the National As...

Leighton Andrews, former AM, member of the National Assembly for Wales. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The former Education Minister in the Welsh Assembly, Leighton Andrews (left), my fellow student-leader from 1975-1980, has recently published a writ which was served on ‘persons unknown’ occupying the Maths Tower of the then University College of North Wales, Bangor, in November 1976. Although I was personally ‘in occupation’ throughout the four or five nights and days from 25th November, this is the first time, on Leighton’s website, that I’ve had the chance to read this document properly, since it was served to the iron fire escape near the top of the tower on a typically blustery day, and was almost immediately blown off as the College authorities, including the Assistant Registrar, descended.

The last I saw of it was with him in hot pursuit, and I had no idea that it had been retrieved until recently, when Leighton produced it for a talk at the National Eisteddfod. Perhaps it was retrieved and reposted, or delivered to the Student Union building nearby, but no-one inside the occupation accepted it by hand, as to do so, we were all briefed, would be to accept its terms and leave us open to identification and prosecution if we didn’t vacate immediately. We were there because the College had already expelled four officers of the Cymric Society named on its membership card. As long as we remained ‘persons unknown’, they advised us, it would be difficult to enforce the writ, except through forced entry and repossession. We therefore ignored it and there was no contact, physical or otherwise with those serving the writ, or with the document itself.

Univeristy of Wales, Bangor Students' Union as...

Univeristy of Wales, Bangor Students’ Union as seen from Deiniol Road (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have kept a diary from that year and papers from the following two years (speeches and statements). As a historian myself, I think it’s high time I keep my promise and publish what I can recall from these sources and my memory of these events, from a much ‘safer’ distance in time and space. Like Leighton, I was a student at UCNW from 1975-78, moving south to Cardiff to pursue my research interests in the coalfield valleys thereafter, while Leighton stayed on as a sabbatical officer and then researcher in Bangor.

Although having no Welsh family connections myself, I had grown up among Welsh miners and teachers in Coventry and Birmingham, many of whom attended my father’s Baptist Chapel and were often ‘surrogate’ parents to me and my siblings as part of its broad community. Indeed, the presence of the Welsh in these cities was so strong in the sixties and seventies, that my pastor-father organised what were called ‘eisteddfodau’ for the chapels in the West Midlands, and in which I competed ( in English, of course). It therefore seemed a natural choice to study History and Biblical Studies at Bangor, and I immediately felt at home among the Welsh Nonconformists, both Welsh and English-speaking. I quickly came into contact with a wide variety of  them through my involvement in the Christian Union, many of  them theological students living in ‘Bala-Bangor’, their college in Upper Bangor. Some spoke very little English in their everyday lives. Others were from south Wales and, like me, attended Penrallt English Baptist Church, where Rev Roy Jenkins, now a regular contributor to Thought for Today on BBC Radio Four, was then the young pastor.

I also understood the history of the Nonconformists in the Liberal and Labour politics of Britain since, in an ideological sense, my father did indeed know Lloyd George! So it was not by accident that Leighton and I got to know each other through membership of the Young Liberals, then led by Peter Hain, in our first year, becoming active in the students’ union, he as a Council member and I, in my second term, as Undergraduate Representative for the Arts Faculty.  Before arriving in Bangor, I had made contact with the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the Christian Pacifist organisation, and in the late summer of 1976 became closely involved with Welsh Baptist Pacifists and Quakers, helping to establish the Welsh section of the F.o.R. that autumn, following a week-long Conference on Devolution, Nationalism and Pacifism in Iona, with delegates from Scotland and other parts of Wales. My diary also shows that I attended anti-Fascist meetings in Birmingham and was increasingly involved in non-violent direct action campaigns, inspired by the writings of Gandhi, Martin Luther-King  jnr. and John Ferguson. It was in this spirit that,  on returning for my second year in Bangor, I resolved to learn both the Welsh language and, at the same time, more about the culture and politics associated with it.  After some weeks spent in a village on Anglesey, I moved into Neuadd John Morris-Jones, the Welsh-speaking Hall of Residence in Upper Bangor in October, and quickly developed a network of friends among the Welsh learners and student-teachers there, many of whom hailed from south and west Wales.  At the same time, I  became acutely aware of the linguistic and cultural ‘apartheid’ which existed between English and Welsh-speaking students in Bangor, the latter making up only 10% of the student population in a town which was 60% bilingual and a surrounding area which was up to 90% first-language Welsh. I could also detect that there were deep divisions between those from this ‘Fro Cymraeg’ (Welsh-speaking heartland) and Welsh-speakers from other parts of Wales, who, though speaking the language from birth, were often not literate enough to study in it as a medium, unless they had attended bilingual schools in these areas.  ‘Cymraeg Byw’ (Living Welsh) was their Welsh, and this is what I learnt, in the main.

Seven years later, although fairly fluent, I had to find my first post in England, since I, too, was not literate enough to use it as a medium of education. These were often referred to, somewhat condescendingly, as ‘Myfyrwyr Cymreig’, Welsh in culture but not in academic language, being slightly above the lower tier of  ‘Cymru-di-Cymraeg’, the anglicised and monoglot English-speakers. It was largely from these ‘second and third class’ Welsh-speakers that the teachers of  ‘Cymraeg Byw’ were drawn, many of them having learnt it themselves. Naturally, this group of committed Welsh Learners and Language Activists, although committed to direct action in defacing property,  mostly English-only official signs, were also keen, through the students’ union, to teach the language to anyone, for any purpose, and were therefore more willing to elicit a more sympathetic view of Welsh culture among the English and international student population. Elen Rhys-Tyler was typical of this group, and was the Chair, or ‘Cadeirydd’ of the Welsh Learners’ Society.

It was also about this time that I first met Ann Beynon, a first-language Welsh-speaker, who had been the Student Union President in 1974-75, the year before I arrived in Bangor. By the time I met her, she was a postgraduate student in the Department of Welsh Language and Literature. She told me that two years earlier, in November 1973, students in both Aberystwyth and Bangor had gone on strike over the seemingly uncontrolled expansion of both University Colleges. In spite of this, and the Student Union’s opposition to its plans, the Bangor College planned to grow to 3,500 places by 1980/81, to include 150 places resulting from the amalgamation with the teacher-training college, St. Mary’s, on the opposite hillside of the town, representing an increase of at least 10%. Most of these new students were to be added in departments which traditionally drew their intake from ‘over the border’ and further afield, thus adding to the anglicising influence of the College on the town and surrounding area. This was exacerbated by the College authorities’ continuing refusal to implement a full bilingual policy for documents and signs throughout its administration and buildings, a policy which had already fully implemented by the Student Union under Anne Beynon’s leadership. The parallel campaign for Welsh language rights had already led to the setting up of an autonomous union of Welsh-speaking students in Aberystwyth, within an ‘Urdd’ or ‘Guild’ of students.

Percentages of Welsh speakers in the principal...

Percentages of Welsh speakers in the principal areas of Wales. Based on the GFDL Image:WalesNumbered.png. (Notice that no principal area falls within the 37,5-50% range!) Based on 2001 census data. QuartierLatin1968 02:30, 6 September 2005 (UTC) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By the autumn of 1976, however, the Welsh-speaking students in Bangor had become alienated by the College’s intransigence over the bilingual policy and through the growth of a hard-line element of nationalists in a group called ‘Adfer’ (‘Reinstate’) which had broken away from the Welsh Nationalist Party’s support for an independent, bilingual Wales, and were advocating language and immigration controls for Gwynedd (the three ‘shires’ of Caernarfon, Anglesey & Merioneth). This group, led mainly by Theology students from ‘Bala-Bangor’, were becoming increasingly influential in the ‘Cymric Society’, which although operating with a grant from the Student Union, was becoming increasingly separated in practice, based on the Welsh Halls of Residence.

Following an initial declaration of intent, the Society launched a campaign of direct action against the College, without reference to the Student Union, and despite the urging of restraint and patience by members of the Welsh Learners’ Society.

In a coordinated night-time action, slogans were daubed throughout the College’s buildings, including a large slogan proclaiming ‘Justice for the Language’ on the long wall of the main upper college, overlooking the town. Monolingual English signs and notices were torn down.  The following day the College authorities met in a secret, emergency session, and immediately expelled the four members of the Cymric Society named on its membership card, including its minute’s secretary and entertainment secretary, the latter of whom had had no involvement or prior knowledge of the action. The injustice of this victimisation was obvious, and the Student Union’s bilingual solicitor in Menai Bridge was immediately called into action to write to the Principal, Sir Charles Evans, following a lengthy briefing with the four students. I remember well the sombre mood which attended that meeting in his office, even though I could understand only a little of the content of the discussion. However, the predicted backlash in the student body as a whole to the precipitate action, meant that, when the General Meeting was held on 18th November, there was an understandable mood of antagonism against the Cymric which defeated a motion calling for concerted action to secure the reinstatement  of the four officers.

The Society again took matters into their own hands by announcing a strike, which was swiftly followed by an occupation of the main lecture theatre. There seemed little alternative for the Welsh learners but to support this unofficial action, and I well remember the defiantly spontaneous, harmonised singing of Welsh hymns by the whole of the Cymric gathered there. For someone brought up in a Nonconformist household and church, this was a very moving experience, evoking a deep sense both of shared values and of the injury and injustice over the treatment of the language which these students felt so keenly, but were enduring so stoically and endeavouring to overcome.

When a second motion proposing direct action against the College by the whole student body was narrowly defeated a week later, with only a small number of Welsh ‘delegates’ present and refusing to vote, the substantial minority of English-speaking students who had supported it decamped to Neuadd John Morris-Jones, where an impromptu meeting was held in its main hall, declaring its support for the Cymric and the setting up of an autonomous, ‘sister’ Welsh-speaking Union such as existed at Aberystwyth. Only then, we agreed, could  the Welsh-speakers have the official voice necessary to deliver the bilingual policy without further victimisation from the College authorities and having their protests continually voted down by an English student majority with little sympathy for their cause. Speaking in response, the provisional Cymric leadership called upon the Welsh learners and their supporters to show their support by occupying the Maths Tower. A set of keys was produced and a small, advanced party gained unforced entry, followed by larger numbers, so that control was swiftly established. After a small group of cleaners were allowed access in the early morning, the stairwell was well-barricaded, and the Tower remained closed for lectures the next day and into the next week, despite the writ being granted.

The permanent occupiers were led by Elen Rhys-Tyler, while Vaughan Roderick, Leighton Andrews and myself acted as go-betweens for the Welsh learners, the Cymric and the Student Union. A further Student Union Emergency General Meeting was called for the middle of the following week, as the term was coming rapidly to an end, there was a need to ensure that any threat of action would not be seen as idle and could result in the reinstatement of the four students for the beginning of the next term (I had joined the student strike as Undergraduate Representative, since my main concern was for the academic progress of the four).

We left the tower reluctantly, but of our own free will, a day or so after the writ was issued. This was at the request of the Cymric, who had also begun the unofficial supportive action through the Welsh Learners’ Society. We had been invited to take action as its members, not as officials and members of the Student Union, since the Union had rejected such action. We therefore had no mandate for the action on behalf of the student body as a whole. The Cymric Society also ended the occupation because of a small, but disruptive, group of ultra-left activists in the occupation, who had no real interest in the campaign for a bilingual policy and were advocating a more violent campaign solely on the issue of College victimisation. In reality, we feared that they simply wanted to foment disorder and destruction of property. Since ‘the Cymric’ were committed, in the long-standing tradition of the Welsh Language Society, to pacifism and non-violent direct action, they considered that this was too much of a risk to take both with the College’s property and with the future of a campaign that was already in its fourth year and set to run for some time. As Welsh learners, we also felt responsible for the backlash the action had already provoked among both students and staff, as well as for the tutorial work we had abandoned. In addition, we needed time to win support from the wider community in Bangor and the surrounding villages, since the College, as a major employer, was already manipulating the media to claim that important employee and student records had been trashed in the original actions taken by the Cymric Society a fortnight earlier. We therefore agreed to resume both our academic studies and constitutional/ diplomatic campaigning activities through the Student Union. In this, we gained the support for a second Emergency General Meeting from its officers, especially its Deputy-President and Leighton Andrews, to be held in Neuadd Pritchard-Jones later that week.

The Welsh learners withdrew from the Maths Tower following the release of hundreds of balloons declaring ongoing support for ‘the Four’ and the bilingual policy all across the town, put bilingual flyers under every door in every Hall of Residence, so that Neuadd Pritchard-Jones, the main Assembly Hall in the old ‘Top’ College, was filled to its 2,000 capacity, despite the non-attendance of all but a handful of Cymric members, since their occupation was continuing in the lecture theatre nearby. A simple but vaguely worded motion calling for ‘all peaceful actions’ to reinstate the four expelled students was proposed by the Union’s Palestinian Deputy-President, Mohammed Abu Koash. It was supported, with reservations clearly aired, by an overwhelming majority of those present, which meant that, had the votes of the otherwise ‘occupied’ Cymric been taken into account, two-thirds of the College’s students were unmistakably behind some form of concerted and coordinated non-violent direct action. A few days later, on receipt of written assurances of  ‘good behaviour’ from the four, the College backed down, commuting their punishment to a suspension until after the Christmas holidays.  All four stood together in accepting responsibility, including two brothers who were talented musicians and members of a soon-to-be internationally acclaimed Welsh folk group. Everyone in the College, except (it seemed) Sir Charles Evans, knew or accepted that at least one of them had taken no part in the action which led to their expulsion, but this brother, to his lasting credit, had steadfastly refused to deny responsibility while the other brother and the two other students stood likewise accused. Many lecturers, regardless of their views on the language issues, had been deeply concerned both for these obviously talented students and for the precedent that their continued expulsion would set.

The College gradually implemented a bilingual policy over the next two years, and the focus of campaigning shifted to  the linguistic and cultural effects of its continued expansion. Although the Welsh learners urged the Cymric to work in tandem with the Student Union to achieve this, its leadership was heavily influenced by the separatist ‘Adfer’ group into setting up a ‘culturally pure’  Welsh Student Union, ‘Undeb Myfyrwyr Colegau Bangor’, operating out of its ‘Caffi Deiniol’ in Upper Bangor, and drawing membership from the Bala-Bangor Theological College and the Teacher-training college, Coleg y Normal.  They rejected the overtures for a con-federal union structure, similar to the Guild of Students in Aberystwyth, with autonomy on Welsh language issues and campaigns and sole use of the third floor of the Student Union building, together with the Welsh Learners’ Society.  Jim Bloice-Smith, a prominent English ‘home counties’ student member of the Christian Union, an independent College society, offered to chair negotiations, but even this approach from a respected member of the overall student community was dismissed, albeit politely.  There followed a variety of rather sinister attempts to spy on and ‘purge’ members of the Welsh Learners’ Society in ‘Neuadd JMJ’.

The Society continued to operate within the official Student Union and was instrumental in persuading it to make the offer of a new constitution to the break-away union, a ‘covenant’ which was written simultaneously in Welsh and English, reflecting the different cultures as well as languages which would need to agree to develop a genuinely bilingual student body, rather than one which simply provided token translations. However, it became increasingly apparent that UMCB was set on a course of linguistic apartheid.  In response to continued threats and intimidation, including the use of ‘kangaroo courts’, the Welsh learners within the Plaid Cymru student branch came out ‘fighting’, finding a platform for their moderate stance and almost succeeding in getting a full ‘slate’ elected to its executive in the spring of 1977.  This was evidence that the ultra-nationalist position of UMCB was not as widely supported among the ordinary Welsh-speaking students of Neuadd John Morris-Jones as it claimed, even those from the Welsh ‘heartlands’ of Gwynedd. The  Welsh learners also became active in UCMC (NUS Wales), which had been established some four or five years earlier, and elected Michael Antoniw, a Cardiff Law student of Ukrainian descent, as its Chairman, at a Conference held in Bangor that Easter. It established a ‘Welsh Language Action Group’, coordinating activity across the constituent colleges of the University and the teacher-training colleges. UCMC also provided a forum for research about the wider educational context of Welsh-medium education throughout Wales.

However, the opportunities for democratic debate and discussion in Welsh in Bangor were effectively stifled by the leadership of the UMCB, and the increasingly oppressive atmosphere which the Warden of ‘JMJ’ Hall strove to ameliorate led to the leadership of the Welsh Learners’ Society decamping to set up their own private residence in Upper Bangor. This proved something of a thorn in the side of the ‘Adferites’  who targeted the house for attack on at least one occasion that I can remember well.

It was during this, my final year, in Bangor, that I wrote the following speech as a Student representative on the College Court of Governors’ meeting on 1st February 1978, on the proposals put forward for the College’s future. The Court was split three ways on this. The College hierarchy wanted to continue the policy of expansion by at least 10%, while UMCB, through its sympathising lecturers, wanted a cut in student numbers by more than 15%. The Student Union’s position remained one of opposition to both cuts and further expansion:

In opposition to the motion (supporting a cut in student numbers), the Students’ Union…would not wish to deny that the imbalance of student numbers in favour of those from outside of Wales has had an anglicising effect on the College and local communities. However, we disagree with the supposed ‘solution’ put forward by the breakaway union….and supported here by Mr Griffith and Mr Orwig, for two main reasons:

1.)  As we’ve said in our own motion, cutting the intake of students to 500 undergraduates would inevitably mean that many local people, many of them Welsh-speaking, will lose their jobs. About two thousand people are directly employed by the College. That is the reality which the proposers of this motion have to face. Since there is little alternative means of employment in and around Bangor, these people will be forced to move elsewhere to look for work. One of the reasons why the Welsh language is in such a weak position is…because Welsh-speakers have continually been forced out of the Welsh-speaking areas in order to find security and a decent standard of living…What this proposal does is to look at the language question in splendid isolation from the social and economic conditions in which the language exists. It looks at it from the lofty position of an intellectual élite who refuse to descend from their pedestal to ask the ordinary people in the College, the ‘werin’, what they want. The Students’ Union, however, holds regular meetings with representatives of the campus trade unions and we know what their attitudes are to this sort of policy. Mr Griffiths and Mr Orwig agree with the leaders of the ‘Undeb Cymraeg’ , who recently stated on TV that they believe that it is only this intellectual élite of university students and other literary figures which can save the Welsh language.  

2.) Cutting the student intake to 500 will not make the College any more relevant to the local community. It will probably result in the closure of the College in the same way that Lampeter is threatened with closure. 

Our motion restates Student Union policy going back over a period of five years…We’ve decided to bring this issue up again at this Court meeting not so much as a response to the ‘Undeb Cymraeg Education Policy’ (we didn’t know that Mr Griffith and Mr Orwig had agreed to act as their mouthpieces until we received the papers from the Registrar two weeks ago) but because, despite the consistent opposition shown by the students and local people, the College has continued to expand. Although the expansion rate has slowed, the College is still proposing to increase to nearly 3,500 by 1980/81. Only 150 of these new places result from the amalgamation with St Mary’s (Teacher-training College). The Principal himself admits that ‘even modest growth of the College presents us with problems’. In our view, this is something of an understatement, because it seems to fail to recognise that we have enormous problems already. Why is expansion not in the interests of staff and students?

1.) It would increase the sizes of already overcrowded classes;

2.) It would produce an added strain upon  staff and essential resources, e.g. the Library, because the College will attempt to keep further employment to an absolute minimum.

We are opposed to any further expansion, but I must emphasise that we do not see stopping expansion as an end in itself.  We want to freeze the number of students coming to Bangor so that then, as lecturers and students and local people, we can attempt to change the College into a more progressive institution more oriented towards the needs of the local community. ‘Undeb Cenedlaethol Myfyrwyr Cymru’ (NUS Wales), has been at the forefront of the campaign to obtain a more comprehensive system of further education in Wales and, as a step towards this, the devolution of the University of Wales to the Welsh Assembly. The only way, ultimately, to make the Colleges of Wales more Welsh is to encourage Welsh students to stay in Wales for their higher education, and that is why we advocate the setting up of a federated Coleg Cymraeg to coordinate teaching through the medium of Welsh throughout the University, and, ultimately, on a comprehensive basis, throughout Wales. Our policy of ‘no expansion’ is thus a means to these ends, the destruction of a binary system and of University elitism and an end to an education system dependent on ‘paper qualifications’. We must ensure that access to a decent standard of education is open to all who wish to benefit from it. 

We agree that the College is at present far too large, but the way to counter this is not to cut its size…but to broaden its functions and change its nature, into a College whose prime commitment is to meet the needs of the local community. That doesn’t mean that we want a College which is parochial and inward-looking which is what you’d get if you replaced a College full of English academic students like me with a College full of Welsh academic students. However, in the short-term we can prevent the College from losing altogether its Welsh character by adopting a realistic policy of ‘no further expansion’, while rejecting the recipe for disaster which (some) would have us follow.  However, by doing so, we will only be carrying out a cosmetic operation. The place of the Welsh language in higher and further education in Wales can only be found in terms of a more comprehensive system. That is why we ask you to reject motion 13, because it fails to identify the real problem. It fails to see the need for a more fundamental reorganisation in the structure of education in Wales. It also proposes to seriously damage any progressive movements by throwing out of work the very people whose support we need. I ask you to accept motion 14 as a policy around which we can unite and carry the campaign for the Welsh language forward.

The motion calling for the cut in undergraduate intake was defeated, but just over a week later, on February 9th, a group of 50-70 members of UMCB, the breakaway ‘Undeb Cymraeg’, occupied various parts of the old building in ‘Top College’. Their action was taken in protest against the then democratic decision of the College Court not to recognise the new union and to refuse the policy of limiting the number of non-Welsh-speaking students coming to the College for the next session. The campaign began on 6th February with the jamming of keyholes in Top College by means of glue. The following morning the UMCB members barricaded themselves in the Principal’s office and the Registrar’s office. When the barricades were breached they then moved into the nearby hall, Neuadd Powys. However, realising that their occupation was having little effect, they decided to end it by the early afternoon. Although it was thought that this was the preliminary action in a long campaign against the College authorities, it was also noted that the ‘Cymric’ campaign of 1976 had ‘received the support of many non-Welsh-speaking students and staff for its aim of an equitable language policy’, support which was ‘not forthcoming for this new campaign’.

Later that Spring, the Welsh Learners’ Society helped to get Barry Owen, a mature student from Flintshire, elected as the Students’ Union’s new President, the first Welsh-speaker to occupy the role since Ann Beynon. Leighton Andrews also became a sabbatical officer. I was elected Vice-Chairman for the University Sector of UCMC, succeeding Mick Antoniw as Chairman in 1979, shortly after the Devolution debacle and the success of the Federation of Conservative Students in taking control of the Student Union in Bangor and the Guild of Students in Aberystwyth, prior to Mrs Thatcher’s election. UCMC  succeeded in continuing to offer a  platform for progressive nationalists and Welsh language activists. Most importantly, it managed to contain the widening cracks on university expansion, bilingualism and Welsh-medium education in Bangor from spreading along a fault-line to Aberystwyth and Carmarthen. Our voice was respectfully heard on this, in Welsh, at a debate at the National Eisteddfod in Caernarfon in August 1979.

An accompanying major policy gain was the establishment of a federal Welsh-medium teaching board to develop courses throughout the constituent colleges of the University. In the autumn of 1979, UCMC also published its manifesto, Addysg yng Ngymru (Education in Wales) which elicited an editorial in The Western Mail and a great deal of more positive support from academics and administrators alike in the Welsh education system. The debate on Welsh-medium education had moved on from being simply the preserve of an intellectual elite  to its central role in developing a more comprehensive system of further and higher education throughout Wales, across the binary divide. Unfortunately, until the Welsh Assembly was finally established, this policy could not be implemented outside the somewhat narrow confines of the marble halls of increasingly competitive university colleges and through the Welsh Joint Education Council (WJEC). Successive Tory and Labour governments at ‘St Stephen’s’, Westminster, simply allowed further, unbridled expansion of the university sector and the transformation of respected local specialist Colleges of Higher Education into universities, without examining the relevance of the courses offered to local needs. Leighton Andrews has written about this legacy elsewhere.

Andrew James Chandler

February 2012

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‘Cofio’ gan Waldo Williams; ‘Remembering’   1 comment

Un funud fach cyn elo’r haul o’r wybren,

Un funud fwyn cyn delo’r hwyr i’w hynt,

I gofio am y pethau anghofiedig

Ar goll yn awr yn llwch yr amser gynt.

“One short minute before the sun goes from the sky,

One gentle minute before the night starts on its journey,

To remember the forgotten things

Lost now in the dust of times gone by.”

This is the beginning of the poem I learnt to recite for the 1976 Inter-College Eisteddfod in Aberystwyth when I was an undergraduate and Welsh learner at Bangor University. I got ill, lost my voice and never got to perform it in public, but it’s stayed crystal clear in my mind ever since, though I still don’t know what each and every word means, exactly. Neither did I know much about its author until I bought an anthology of Welsh language poetry, with English translations, in May of the following year. Born in Pembrokeshire, west Wales, whose wild and rugged coastline I walked round later that summer,  Waldo Williams (1904-1972) was an interesting personality, and someone I came increasingly to identify with, not just through the landscapes and seascapes which inspired much of his work, but also because he too taught small children, and was a committed pacifist and a Quaker, being imprisoned during the Korean War for refusing to pay income tax. Late in life he received the Arts Council prize for his one-volume collection of poems going back to the 1930’s, Dail Pren (‘Leaves of a Tree’). Published in 1956, they won him an enduring place in Welsh language literature.

His poems reflect both his responses to war and his experience of co-operation amongst the farmers of the Preseli Hills, which he took as the pattern of an ideal social order. These ‘traditionalist’ social ideals, including the Romantic ideal of universal brotherhood, seem in conflict with his ‘modernist’ poetic style. However, his nationalism is creative rather than defensive, revealing his belief in the power of imagination to overcome difficult present realities. This can be seen in his use of imagery and symbolism, giving an unusual force and freshness to his expression of ancient themes, as in Cofio. I well remember my teacher, herself from Dyfed, telling me to be more forceful in my rendition of the final verse and, in particular, the first stanza. ‘Hiraeth’, she told me, is not simply ‘longing’, but ‘heart-felt longing’, not an insipid childish ‘homesickness’, but a mature, adult emotion of  ‘deep yearning’, almost unfathomable, for, in this case, ‘the old forgotten things of the human family’:

Mynych ym mrig yr hwyr, a mi yn unig,

Daw hiraeth am eich ‘nabod chwi bob un,

A oes a’ch deil o hyd mewn Cof a Chalon,

Hen bethau anghofiedig teulu dyn?

“Often in the evening, when I am alone,

A longing comes to know you every one;

Is there anything that can keep you still in the Heart and Memory,

The old forgotten things of the human family?”

The limitations of translation in conveying the force of these words is always apparent to me when I repeat them in the original Welsh verse. It is as if the poet is grabbing each of his ghostly ancestors out of the sea mist and holding onto them with all his might. This is the conflict between Williams as modern man and the ancient bardic themes and traditions which he is confronting in order to make them come alive for a fresh audience.  The Welsh modernism of the post-war period is concerned with these themes of spiritual and national renewal, seeking to follow contemporary trends in European culture, at a time when rural ways of life were declining in Wales, together with the Welsh language. Williams greatest poem is widely judged to be ‘In Two Fields’, Mewn Dau Gae, which is based on a vision of brotherhood which he had whilst working on a neighbour’s farm as a boy. In this way, Welsh modernism took on a distinctive character through its association with religion and nationalism. Emotive words like hwyl (‘deep joy’) and hiraeth have deep spiritual significance, as does hyfrydol, which expresses more than the commonplace use of ‘wonderful’ in English. Significantly, indeed, it is the name of a famous Welsh hymn tune. To end on a lighter note, Williams also wrote a poem about the national flower-emblem of Wales, the daffodil, worn on St David‘s Day. According to Pliny the ‘Asphodel’ grew on the banks of the Acheron and the Elysian fields, delighting the spirits of the dead. This may account for the popularity of the flower on graves, but throughout Wales and England it has become the symbol of new life as Spring approaches, since it usually blooms on or before St David’s Day.  In Wales, they say that if you are the first to find a daffodil in bloom you will have more gold than silver for a year. It is these themes that Williams takes up in his poem, Daffodil:

“Lead on into the field, Lady of March,

Give a greeting, golden girl of cold March,

None but the little white lily will dare

Appear before you, none more pure dare grow.

I pray you, lead after you

The vast generation of the seasonal garden…

Lady of March, lead on into the field.”

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