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The Other Side of the Eighties in Britain, 1983-1988: The Miners and The Militants.   Leave a comment

Labour – Dropping the Donkey Jacket:

From 1980 to 1983, Michael Foot’s leadership had saved the Labour Party from splitting into two, but in all other respects, it was a disaster. He was too old, too decent, too gentle to take on the hard left or to modernise his party. Foot’s policies were those of a would-be parliamentary revolutionary detained in the second-hand bookshops in Hay-on-Wye. I enjoyed this experience myself in 1982, with a minibus full of bookish ‘revolutionaries’ from Cardiff, who went up there, as it happened, via Foot’s constituency. When roused, which was often, his Cromwellian hair would flap across a face contorted with passion, his hands would whip around excitedly and denunciations would pour forth from him with a fluency ‘old Noll’ would have envied. During his time as leader, he was in his late sixties, and would have been PM at seventy, had he won the 1983 General Election, which, of course, was never a remote possibility. Unlike Thatcher, he was contemptuous of the shallow presentational tricks demanded by television, and he could look dishevelled, being famously denounced for wearing a ‘donkey jacket’, in reality, a Burberry-style woollen coat, at the Remembrance Service at the Cenotaph. But he was more skilled than anyone I saw then or have seen since, in whipping up the socialist faithful in public meetings, or in finger-stabbing attacks on the Tory government in the House of Commons, both in open debates and questions to the PM. He would have been happier communing with Jonathan Swift and my Gulliver forbears in Banbury than attempting to operate in a political system which depended on television performances, ruthless organisation and managerial discipline. He was a political poet in an age of prose.

Nobody in the early eighties could have reined in its wilder members; Foot did his best but led the party to its worst defeat in modern times, on the basis of a hard-left, anti-Europe, anti-nuclear, pro-nationalisation manifest famously described by Gerald Kaufman as the longest suicide note in history. Kaufman had also urged Foot to stand down before the election. It was a measure of the affection felt for him that his ‘swift’ retirement after the defeat was greeted with little recrimination. Yet it also meant that when Neil Kinnock won the subsequent leadership election he had a mandate for change no previous Labour leader had enjoyed. He won with seventy-one per cent of the electoral college votes, against nineteen per cent for Roy Hattersley. Tony Benn was out of Parliament, having lost his Bristol seat, and so could not stand as the standard-bearer of the hard left. Kinnock had been elected after a series of blistering campaign speeches, a Tribunite left-winger who, like Foot, advocated the unilateral abandonment of all Britain’s nuclear weapons, believed in nationalisation and planning and wanted Britain to withdraw from the European Community. A South Wales MP from the same Bevanite stock as Foot, he also supported the abolition of private medicine and the repeal of the Tory trade union reforms. To begin with, the only fights he picked with the Bennites were over the campaign to force Labour MPs to undergo mandatory reselection, which handed a noose to local Militant activists. Yet after the chaos of the 1983 Campaign, he was also sure that the party was in need of radical remedies.

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To win power, Labour needed to present itself better in the age of the modern mass media. Patricia Hewitt (pictured above), known for her campaigning on civil liberties, joined Kinnock’s new team. She was chosen to fight Leicester East in the 1983 Election but was unsuccessful. In her new role, she began trying to control interviews and placing the leader in more flattering settings than those Foot had found himself in. Kinnock knew how unsightly ‘old’ Labour had looked to the rest of the country and was prepared to be groomed. He gathered around him a ‘Pontypool front row’ of tough, aggressive heavy-weights, including Charles Clarke, the former communist NUS leader; John Reid, another former communist and Glaswegian backbench bruiser. Hewitt herself and Peter Mandelson, grandson of Herbert Morrison and Labour’s side-stepping future director of communications, led the three-quarter line with Kinnock himself as the able scrum-half. Kinnock was the first to flirt with the once-abhorred world of advertising and to seek out the support of pro-Labour pop artists such as Tracy Ullman and Billy Bragg. In this, he was drawing on a long tradition on the Welsh left, from Paul Robeson to the Hennesseys. He smartened up his own style, curtailing the informal mateyness which had made him popular among the ‘boyos’ and introduced a new code of discipline in the shadow cabinet.

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Neil Kinnock attacking the Militant Tendency at the party conference in 1985.

In the Commons, he tried hard to discomfit Thatcher at her awesome best, which was difficult and mostly unsuccessful. The mutual loathing between them was clear for all to see, and as Thatcher’s popularity began to decline in 1984, Labour’s poll ratings slowly began to improve. But the party harboured a vocal minority of revolutionaries of one kind or another. They included not only the long-term supporters of Tony Benn, like Jeremy Corbyn, but also Arthur Scargill and his brand of insurrectionary syndicalism; the Trotskyist Militant Tendency, a front for the Revolutionary Socialist League, which had been steadily infiltrating the party since the sixties; and assorted hard-left local councillors, like Derek Hatton in Liverpool, a Militant member who were determined to defy Thatcher’s government, no matter how big its democratic mandate, by various ‘ultra-vires’ and illegal stratagems. Kinnock dealt with them all. Had he not done so New Labour would never have happened, yet he himself was a passionate democratic socialist whose own politics were well to the left of the country.

Neil Kinnock was beginning a tough journey towards the centre-ground of British politics, which meant leaving behind people who sounded much like his younger self. On this journey, much of his natural wit and rhetoric would be silenced. He had created his leadership team as if it were a rugby team, involved in a confrontational contact sport against opponents who were fellow enthusiasts, but with their own alternative strategy. He found that political leadership was more serious, drearier and nastier than rugby. And week after week, he was also confronting someone in Thatcher someone whose principles had been set firm long before and whose politics clearly and consistently expressed those principles on the field of play. Yet, like a Welsh scrum-half, he was always on the move, always having to shadow and shade, to side-step and shimmy, playing the ball back into the scrum or sideways to his three-quarters rather than kicking it forward. The press soon dubbed him ‘the Welsh windbag’, due to his long, discursive answers in interviews.

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The first and toughest example of what he was up against came with the miners’ strike. Neil Kinnock and Arthur Scargill (above) had already shown their loathing for each other over the mainstream leadership’s battles with the Bennites. The NUM President was probably the only person on the planet that Kinnock hated more than Thatcher. He distrusted Scargill’s aims, despised his tactics and realised early on that he was certain to fail. In this, he was sharing the views of the South Wales NUM who had already forced a U-turn on closures from an unprepared Thatcher in 1981. Yet they, and he had to remain true to their own traditions and heritage. They both found themselves in an embarrassing situation, but more importantly, they realised that like it or not, they were in an existential struggle. As the violence spread, the Conservatives in the Commons and their press continually goaded and hounded him to denounce the use of ‘flying pickets’ and to praise the police. He simply could not do so, as so many on his own side had experienced the violence of the police, or heard about it from those who had. For him to attack the embattled trade union would be seen as the ultimate betrayal by a Labour leader. He was caught between the rock of Thatcher and hard place of Scargill. In the coalfields, even in South Wales, he was shunned on the picket lines as the miner’s son too “frit” in Thatcher’s favourite phrase, to come to the support of the miners in their hour of need. Secretly, however, there was some sympathy for his impossible situation among the leadership of the South Wales NUM. Kinnock at least managed to avoid fusing Labour and the NUM in the mind of many Labour voters, ensuring that Scargill’s ultimate, utter defeat was his alone. But this lost year destroyed his early momentum and stole his hwyl, his Welsh well-spring of ‘evangelical’ socialist spirit.

The Enemy Within?:

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Above: Striking Yorkshire miners barrack moderate union leaders in Sheffield.

The first Thatcher government was had been dominated by the Falklands War; the second was dominated by the miners’ strike. Spurred on by ‘the spirit of the Falklands’, the government took a more confrontational attitude towards the trade unions after the 1983 General Election. This year-long battle, 1984-5, was the longest strike in British history, the most bitter, bloody and tragic industrial dispute since the General Strike and six-month Miners’ Lock-out of 1926. The strike was eventually defeated, amid scenes of mass picketing and running battles between the police and the miners. It resulted in the total defeat of the miners followed by the end of deep coal-mining in Britain. In reality, the strike simply accelerated the continuing severe contraction in the industry which had begun in the early eighties and which the South Wales NUM had successfully resisted in what turned out, however, to be a Pyrrhic victory. By 1984, the government had both the resources, the popular mandate and the dogged determination to withstand the miners’ demands. The industry had all but vanished from Kent, while in Durham two-thirds of the pits were closed. They were the only real source of employment to local communities, so the social impact of closures proved devastating. In the Durham pit villages, the entire local economy was crippled and the miners’ housing estates gradually became the ghost areas they remain today.

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The government had little interest in ensuring the survival of the industry, with its troublesome and well-organised union which had already won a national strike against the Heath government a decade earlier. For the Thatcher government, the closures resulting from the defeat of the strike were a price it was willing to pay in order to teach bigger lessons. Later, the Prime Minister of the time reflected on these:

What the strike’s defeat established was that Britain could not be made ungovernable by the Fascist Left. Marxists wanted to defy the law of the land in order to defy the laws of economics. They failed and in doing so demonstrated just how mutually dependent the free economy and a free society really are.

It was a confrontation which was soaked in history on all sides. For the Tories, it was essential revenge for Heath’s humiliation, a score they had long been eager to settle; Margaret Thatcher spoke of Arthur Scargill and the miners’ leaders as ‘the enemy within’, as compared to Galtieri, the enemy without. For thousands of traditionally ‘militant’ miners, it was their last chance to end decades of pit closures and save their communities, which were under mortal threat. For their leader Arthur Scargill, it was an attempt to follow Mick McGahey in pulling down the government and winning a class war. He was no more interested than the government, as at least the other former, more moderate leaders had been, in the details of pay packets, or in a pit-by-pit review to determine which pits were truly uneconomic. He was determined to force the government, in Thatcher’s contemptuous phrase, to pay for mud to be mined rather than see a single job lost.

The Thatcher government had prepared more carefully than Scargill. Following the settlement with the South Wales NUM, the National Coal Board (NCB) had spent the intervening two years working with the Energy Secretary, Nigel Lawson, to pile up supplies of coal at the power stations; stocks had steadily grown, while consumption and production both fell. Following the riots in Toxteth and Brixton, the police had been retrained and equipped with full riot gear without which, ministers later confessed, they would have been unable to beat the pickets. Meanwhile, Thatcher had appointed a Scottish-born Australian, Ian MacGregor, to run the NCB. He had a fierce reputation as a union-buster in the US and had been brought back to Britain to run British Steel where closures and 65,000 job cuts had won him the title ‘Mac the Knife’. Margaret Thatcher admired him as a tough, no-nonsense man, a refreshing change from her cabinet, though she later turned against him for his lack of political nous. His plan was to cut the workforce of 202,000 by 44,000 in two years, then take another twenty thousand jobs out. Twenty pits would be closed, to begin with. When he turned up to visit mines, he was abused, pelted with flour bombs and, on one occasion, knocked to the ground.

Arthur Scargill was now relishing the coming fight as much as Thatcher. In the miners’ confrontation with Heath, Scargill had led the flying pickets at the gates of the Saltley coke depot outside Birmingham. Some sense of both his revolutionary ‘purity’, combined with characteristic Yorkshire bluntness, comes from an exchange he had with Dai Francis, the Welsh Miners’ leader at that time. He had called Francis to ask for Welsh pickets to go to Birmingham and help at the depot. Francis asked when they were needed and Scargill replied:

“Tomorrow, Saturday.”

“But Wales are playing Scotland at Cardiff Arms Park.”

“But Dai, the working class are playing the ruling class at Saltley.”

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Many found Scargill inspiring; many others found him scary. Like Francis, he had been a Communist, but unlike Dai (pictured above, behind the poster, during the 1972 strike), he retained hard-line Marxist views and a penchant for denouncing anyone who disagreed with him. Kim Howells, also a former Communist and an officer of the South Wales NUM, gained a sense of Scargill’s megalomania when, just prior the 1984-5 strike, he visited his HQ in Barnsley, already known as ‘Arthur’s Castle’. Howells, a historian of the Welsh Labour movement, later becoming an MP and New Labour minister, was taken aback to find him sitting at this Mussolini desk with a great space in front of it. Behind him was a huge painting of himself on the back of a lorry, posed like Lenin, urging picketing workers in London to overthrow the ruling class. Howells thought anyone who could put up a painting like that was nuts and returned to Pontypridd to express his fears to the Welsh miners:

And of course the South Wales executive almost to a man agreed with me. But then they said, “He’s the only one we’ve got, see, boy.  The Left has decided.”

Scargill had indeed been elected by a huge margin and had set about turning the NUM’s once moderate executive, led by Joe Gormley, into a militant group. The Scottish Miners’ leader, Mick McGahey, although older and wiser than his President, was his Vice-President. Scargill had been ramping up the rhetoric for some time. He had told the NUM Conference in 1982, …

If we do not save our pits from closure then all our other struggles will become meaningless … Protection of the industry is my first priority because without jobs all our other claims lack substance and become mere shadows. Without jobs, our members are nothing …

Given what was about to happen to his members’ jobs as a result of his uncompromising position in the strike, there is a black irony in those words. By insisting that no pits should be closed on economic grounds, even if the coal was exhausted, and that more investment would always find more coal, from his point of view the losses were irrelevant. He made sure that confrontation would not be avoided. An alternative strategy put forward by researchers for the South Wales NUM was that it was the NCB’s economic arguments that needed to be exposed, along with the fact that it was using the Miners’ Pension Fund to invest in the production of cheap coal in Poland and South Africa. It’s definition of what was ‘economic’ in Britain rested on the comparative cost of importing this coal from overseas. If the NCB had invested these funds at home, the pits in Britain would not be viewed as being as ‘uneconomic’ as they claimed. But Scargill was either not clever enough to deploy these arguments or too determined to pursue the purity of his brand of revolutionary syndicalism, or both.

The NUM votes which allowed the strike to start covered both pay and closures, but from the start Scargill emphasised the closures. To strike to protect jobs, particularly other people’s jobs, in other people’s villages and other countries’ pits, gave the confrontation an air of nobility and sacrifice which a mere wages dispute would not have enjoyed. But national wage disputes had, for more than sixty years, been about arguments over the ‘price of coal’ and the relative difficulties of extracting it from a variety of seams in very different depths across the various coalfields. Neil Kinnock, the son and grandson of Welsh miners, found it impossible to condemn Scargill’s strategy without alienating support for Labour in its heartlands. He did his best to argue the economics of the miners’ case, and to condemn the harshness of the Tory attitude towards them, but these simply ran parallel to polarised arguments which were soon dividing the nation.

Moreover, like Kinnock, Scargill was a formidable organiser and conference-hall speaker, though there was little economic analysis to back up his rhetoric. Yet not even he would be able to persuade every part of the industry to strike. Earlier ballots had shown consistent majorities against striking. In Nottinghamshire, seventy-two per cent of the areas 32,000 voted against striking. The small coalfields of South Derbyshire and Leicestershire were also against. Even in South Wales, half of the NUM lodges failed to vote for a strike. Overall, of the seventy thousand miners who were balloted in the run-up to the dispute, fifty thousand had voted to keep working. Scargill knew he could not win a national ballot, so he decided on a rolling series of locally called strikes, coalfield by coalfield, beginning in Yorkshire, then Scotland, followed by Derbyshire and South Wales. These strikes would merely be approved by the national union. It was a domino strategy; the regional strikes would add up to a national strike, but without a national ballot.

But Scargill needed to be sure the dominoes would fall. He used the famous flying pickets from militant areas to shut down less militant ones. Angry miners were sent in coaches and convoys of cars to close working pits and the coke depots, vital hubs of the coal economy. Without the pickets, who to begin with rarely needed to use violence to achieve their end, far fewer pits would have come out. But after scenes of physical confrontation around Britain, by April 1984 four miners in five were on strike. There were huge set-piece confrontations with riot-equipped police bused up from London or down from Scotland, Yorkshire to Kent and Wales to Yorkshire, generally used outside their own areas in order to avoid mixed loyalties. As Andrew Marr has written, …

It was as if the country had been taken over by historical re-enactments of civil war battles, the Sealed Knot Society run rampant. Aggressive picketing was built into the fabric of the strike. Old country and regional rivalries flared up, Lancashire men against Yorkshire men, South Wales miners in Nottinghamshire.

The Nottinghamshire miners turned out to be critical since without them the power stations, even with the mix of nuclear and oil, supplemented by careful stockpiling, might have begun to run short and the government would have been in deep trouble. To Scargill’s disdain, however, other unions also refused to come out in sympathy, thus robbing him of the prospect of a General Strike, and it soon became clear that the NUM had made other errors in their historical re-enactments. Many miners were baffled from the beginning as to why Scargill had opted to strike in the spring when the demand for energy was relatively low and the stocks at the power stations were not running down at anything like the rate which the NUM needed in order to make their action effective. This was confirmed by confidential briefings from the power workers, and it seemed that the government just had to sit out the strike.

In this civil war, the police had the cavalry, while the miners were limited to the late twentieth-century equivalent of Oakey’s dragoons at Naseby, their flying pickets, supporting their poor bloody infantry, albeit well-drilled and organised. Using horses, baton charges and techniques learned in the aftermath of the street battles at Toxteth and Brixton, the police defended working miners with a determination which delighted the Tories and alarmed many others, not just the agitators for civil rights. An event which soon became known as the Battle of Orgreave (in South Yorkshire) was particularly brutal, involving ‘Ironside’ charges by mounted police in lobster-pot style helmets into thousands of miners with home-made pikes and pick-axe handles.

The NUM could count on almost fanatical loyalty in coalfield towns and villages across Britain. Miners gave up their cars, sold their furniture, saw their wives and children suffer and lost all they had in the cause of solidarity. Food parcels arrived from other parts of Britain, from France and most famously, from Soviet Russia. But there was a gritty courage and selflessness in mining communities which, even after more than seventy years of struggle, most of the rest of Britain could barely understand. But an uglier side to this particularly desperate struggle also emerged when a taxi-driver was killed taking a working miner to work in Wales. A block of concrete was dropped from a pedestrian bridge onto his cab, an act swiftly condemned by the South Wales NUM.

In Durham, the buses taking other ‘scabs’ to work in the pits were barraged with rocks and stones, as later portrayed in the film Billy Elliot. The windows had to be protected with metal grills. There were murderous threats made to strike-breaking miners and their families, and even trade union ‘allies’ were abused. Norman Willis, the amiable general secretary of the TUC, had a noose dangled over his head when he spoke at one miners’ meeting. This violence was relayed to the rest of the country on the nightly news at a time when the whole nation still watched together. I remember the sense of helplessness I felt watching the desperation of the Welsh miners from my ‘exile’ in Lancashire, having failed to find a teaching post in the depressed Rhondda in 1983. My Lancastrian colleagues were as divided as the rest of the country over the strike, often within themselves as well as from others. In the end, we found it impossible to talk about the news, no matter how much it affected us.

Eventually, threatened by legal action on the part of the Yorkshire miners claiming they had been denied a ballot, the NUM was forced onto the back foot. The South Wales NUM led the calls from within for a national ballot to decide on whether the strike should continue. Scargill’s decision to accept a donation from Colonel Gaddafi of Libya found him slithering from any moral ground he had once occupied. As with Galtieri, Thatcher was lucky in the enemies ‘chosen’ for her. Slowly, month by month, the strike began to crumble and miners began to trail back to work. A vote to strike by pit safety officers and overseers, which would have shut down the working pits, was narrowly avoided by the government. By January 1985, ten months after they had first been brought out, strikers were returning to work at the rate of 2,500 a week, and by the end of February, more than half the NUM’s membership was back at work. In some cases, especially in South Wales, they marched back proudly behind brass bands.

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Above: ‘No way out!’ – picketing miners caught and handcuffed to a lamp-post by police.

Scargill’s gamble had gone catastrophically wrong. He has been compared to a First World War general, a donkey sending lions to the slaughter, though at Orgreave and elsewhere, he had stood with them too. But the political forces engaged against the miners in 1984 were entirely superior in strength to those at the disposal of the ill-prepared Heath administration of ten years earlier. A shrewder, non-revolutionary leader would not have chosen to take on Thatcher’s government at the time Scargill did, or having done so, would have found a compromise after the first months of the dispute. Today, there are only a few thousand miners left of the two hundred thousand who went on strike. An industry which had once made Britain into a great industrial power, but was always dangerous, disease-causing, dirty and polluting, finally lay down and died. For the Conservatives and perhaps for, by the end of the strike, the majority of the moderate British people, Scargill and his lieutenants were fighting parliamentary democracy and were, therefore, an enemy which had to be defeated. But the miners of Durham, Derbyshire, Kent, Fife, Yorkshire, Wales and Lancashire were nobody’s enemy. They were abnormally hard-working, traditional people justifiably worried about losing their jobs and loyal to their union, if not to the stubborn syndicalists in its national leadership.

Out with the Old Industries; in with the New:

In Tyneside and Merseyside, a more general deindustrialisation accompanied the colliery closures. Whole sections of industry, not only coal but also steel and shipbuilding, virtually vanished from many of their traditional areas.  Of all the areas of Britain, Northern Ireland suffered the highest level of unemployment, partly because the continuing sectarian violence discouraged investment. In February 1986, there were officially over 3.4 million unemployed, although statistics were manipulated for political reasons and the real figure is a matter of speculation. The socially corrosive effects were felt nationally, manifested in further inner-city rioting in 1985. Inner London was just as vulnerable as Liverpool, a crucial contributory factor being the number of young men of Asian and Caribbean origin who saw no hope of ever entering employment: opportunities were minimal and they felt particularly discriminated against. The term ‘underclass’ was increasingly used to describe those who felt themselves to be completely excluded from the benefits of prosperity.

Prosperity there certainly was, for those who found alternative employment in the service industries. Between 1983 and 1987, about 1.5 million new jobs were created. Most of these were for women, and part-time vacancies predominated. The total number of men in full-time employment fell still further, and many who left the manufacturing for the service sector earned much-reduced incomes. The economic recovery that led to the growth of this new employment was based mainly on finance, banking and credit. Little was invested in British manufacturing. Far more was invested overseas; British foreign investments rose from 2.7 billion in 1975 to a staggering 90 billion in 1985. At the same time, there was a certain amount of re-industrialisation in the South East, where new industries employing the most advanced technology grew. In fact, many industries shed a large proportion of their workforce but, using new technology, maintained or improved their output.

These new industries were not confined to the South East of England: Nissan built the most productive car plant in Europe at Sunderland. After an extensive review, Sunderland was chosen for its skilled workforce and its location near major ports. The plant was completed in 1986 as the subsidiary Nissan Motor Manufacturing (UK) Ltd. Siemens established a microchip plant at Wallsend on Tyneside in which it invested 1.1 billion. But such industries tended not to be large-scale employers of local workers. Siemens only employed about 1,800. Traditional regionally-based industries continued to suffer a dramatic decline during this period. Coal-mining, for example, was decimated in the years following the 1984-5 strike, not least because of the shift of the electricity generation of the industry towards alternative energy sources, especially gas. During 1984-7 the coal industry shed 170,000 workers.

The North-South Divide – a Political Complex?:

By the late 1980s, the north-south divide in Britain seemed as intractable as it had all century, with high unemployment particularly concentrated in the declining extractive and manufacturing industries of the North of England, Scotland and Wales. That the north-south divide increasingly had a political as well as an economic complexion was borne out by the outcome of the 1987 General Election. While Margaret Thatcher was swept back to power for the third time, her healthy Conservative majority largely based on the voters of the South and East of England. North of a line roughly between the Severn and the Humber, the long decline of the Tories, especially in Scotland, where they were reduced to ten seats, was increasingly apparent. At the same time, the national two-party system seemed to be breaking down. South of the Severn-Humber line, where Labour seats were now very rare outside London, the Liberal-SDP Alliance were the main challengers to the Conservatives in many constituencies.

The Labour Party continued to pay a heavy price for its internal divisions, as well as for the bitterness engendered by the miners’ strike. It is hardly Neil Kinnock’s fault that he is remembered for his imprecise long-windedness, the product of self-critical and painful political readjustment. His admirers recall his great platform speeches, the saw-edged wit and air-punching passion. There was one occasion, however, when Kinnock spoke so well that he united most of the political world in admiration. This happened at the Labour conference in Bournemouth in October 1985. A few days before the conference, Liverpool City Council, formally Labour-run but in fact controlled by the Revolutionary Socialist League, had sent out redundancy notices to its thirty-one thousand staff. The revolutionaries, known by the name of their newspaper, Militant, were a party-within-a-party, a parasitic body within Labour. They had some five thousand members who paid a proportion of their incomes to the RSL so that the Militant Tendency had a hundred and forty full-time workers, more than the staff of the Social Democrats and Liberals combined. They had a presence all around Britain, but Liverpool was their great stronghold. There they practised Trotsky’s politics of the transitional demand, the tactic of making impossible demands for more spending and higher wages so that when the ‘capitalist lackeys’ refused these demands, they could push on to the next stage, leading to collapse and revolution.

In Liverpool, where they were building thousands of new council houses, this strategy meant setting an illegal council budget and cheerfully bankrupting the city. Sending out the redundancy notices to the council’s entire staff was supposed to show Thatcher they would not back down, or shrink from the resulting chaos. Like Scargill, Militant’s leaders thought they could destroy the Tories on the streets. Kinnock had thought of taking them on a year earlier but had decided that the miners’ strike made that impossible. The Liverpool mayhem gave him his chance, so in the middle of his speech at Bournemouth, he struck. It was time, he said, for Labour to show the public that it was serious. Implausible promises would not bring political victory:

I’ll tell you what happens with impossible promises. You start with far-fetched resolutions. They are then pickled into a rigid dogma, a code, and you go through the years sticking to that, outdated, misplaced, irrelevant to the real needs, and you end in the grotesque chaos of a Labour council – a Labour council – hiring taxis to scuttle round a city handing out redundancy notices to its own workers.

By now he had whipped himself into real anger, a peak of righteous indignation, but he remained in control. His enemies were in front of him, and all the pent-up frustrations of the past year were being released. The hall came alive. Militant leaders like Derek Hatton stood up and yelled ‘lies!’ Boos came from the hard left, and some of their MPs walked out, but Kinnock was applauded by the majority in the hall, including his mainstream left supporters. Kinnock went on with a defiant glare at his opponents:

I’m telling you, and you’ll listen, you can’t play politics with people’s jobs and with people’s services, or with their homes. … The people will not, cannot abide posturing. They cannot respect the gesture-generals or the tendency tacticians.

Most of those interviewed in the hall and many watching live on television, claimed it was the most courageous speech they had ever heard from a Labour leader, though the hard left remained venomously hostile. By the end of the following month, Liverpool District Labour Party, from which Militant drew its power, was suspended and an inquiry was set up. By the spring of 1986, the leaders of Militant had been identified and charged with behaving in a way which was incompatible with Labour membership. The process of expelling them was noisy, legally fraught and time-consuming, though more than a hundred of them were eventually expelled. There was a strong tide towards Kinnock across the rest of the party, with many left-wingers cutting their ties to the Militant Tendency. There were many battles with the hard left to come, and several pro-Militant MPs were elected in the 1987 Election. These included two Coventry MPs, Dave Nellist and John Hughes, ‘representing’ my own constituency, whose sole significant, though memorable ‘contribution’ in the House of Commons was to interrupt prayers. Yet by standing up openly to the Trotskyist menace, as Wilson, Callaghan and Foot had patently failed to do, Kinnock gave his party a fresh start. It began to draw away from the SDP-Liberal Alliance in the polls and did better in local elections. It was the moment when the New Labour project became possible.

A Third Victory and a Turning of the Tide:

Yet neither this internal victory nor the sharper management that Kinnock introduced, would bring the party much good against Thatcher in the following general election. Labour was still behind the public mood. Despite mass unemployment, Thatcher’s free-market optimism was winning through, and Labour was still committed to re-nationalisation, planning, a National Investment Bank and unilateral nuclear disarmament, a personal cause of both Neil and his wife, Glenys, over the previous twenty years. The Cold War was thawing and it was not a time for the old certainties, but for the Kinnocks support for CND was fundamental to their political make-up. So he stuck to the policy, even as he came to realise how damaging it was to Labour’s image among swing voters. Under Labour, all the British and US nuclear bases would be closed, the Trident nuclear submarine force cancelled, all existing missiles scrapped and the UK would no longer expect any nuclear protection from the US in time of war. Instead, more money would be spent on tanks and conventional warships. All of this did them a lot of good among many traditional Labour supporters; Glenys turned up at the women’s protest camp at Greenham Common. But it was derided in the press and helped the SDP to garner support from the ‘middle England’ people Labour needed to win back. In the 1987 General Election campaign, Kinnock’s explanation about why Britain would not simply surrender if threatened by a Soviet nuclear attack sounded as if he was advocating some kind of Home Guard guerrilla campaign once the Russians had arrived. With policies like this, he was unlikely to put Thatcher under serious pressure.

When the 1987 election campaign began, Thatcher had a clear idea about what her third administration would do. She wanted more choice for the users of state services. There would be independent state schools outside the control of local councillors, called grant-maintained schools.  In the health services, though it was barely mentioned in the manifesto, she wanted money to follow the patient. Tenants would be given more rights. The basic rate of income tax would be cut and she would finally sort out local government, ending the ‘rates’ and bringing in a new tax. On paper, the programme seemed coherent, which was more than could be said for the Tory campaign itself. Just as Kinnock’s team had achieved a rare harmony and discipline, Conservative Central Office was riven by conflict between politicians and ad-men. The Labour Party closed the gap to just four points and Mrs Thatcher’s personal ratings also fell as Kinnock’s climbed. He was seen surrounded by admiring crowds, young people, nurses, waving and smiling, little worried by the hostile press. In the event, the Conservatives didn’t need to worry. Despite a last-minute poll suggesting a hung parliament, and the late surge in Labour’s self-confidence, the Tories romped home with an overall majority of 101 seats, almost exactly the share, forty-two per cent, they had won in 1983. Labour made just twenty net gains, and Kinnock, at home in Bedwellty, was inconsolable. Not even the plaudits his team had won from the press for the brilliance, verve and professionalism of their campaign would lift his mood.

The SDP-Liberal Alliance had been floundering in the polls for some time, caught between Labour’s modest revival and Thatcher’s basic and continuing popularity with a large section of voters. The rumours of the death of Labour had been greatly exaggerated, and the ‘beauty contest’ between the two Davids, Steel and Owen, had been the butt of much media mockery. Owen’s SDP had its parliamentary presence cut from eight MPs to five, losing Roy Jenkins in the process. While most of the party merged with the Liberals, an Owenite rump limped on for a while. Good PR, packaging and labelling were not good enough for either Labour or the SDP. In 1987, Thatcher had not yet created the country she dreamed of, but she could argue that she had won a third consecutive victory, not on the strength of military triumph, but on the basis of her ideas for transforming Britain. She also wanted to transform the European Community into a free-trade area extending to the Baltic, the Carpathians and the Balkans. In that, she was opposed from just across the Channel and from within her own cabinet.

In the late eighties, Thatcher’s economic revolution overreached itself. The inflationary boom happened due to the expansion of credit and a belief among ministers that, somehow, the old laws of economics had been abolished; Britain was now supposed to be on a continual upward spiral of prosperity. But then, on 27 October 1986, the London Stock Exchange ceased to exist as the institution had formerly done. Its physical floor, once heaving with life, was replaced by dealing done by computer and phone. The volume of trading was fifteen times greater than it had been in the early eighties. This became known as ‘the Big Bang’ and a country which had exported two billion pounds-worth of financial services per year before it was soon exporting twelve times that amount. The effect of this on ordinary Britons was to take the brake off mortgage lending, turning traditional building societies into banks which started to thrust credit at the British public. Borrowing suddenly became a good thing to do and mortgages were extended rather than being paid off. The old rules about the maximum multiple of income began to dissolve. From being two and a half times the homeowner’s annual salary, four times became acceptable in many cases. House prices began to rise accordingly and a more general High Street splurge was fuelled by the extra credit now freely available. During 1986-88 a borrowing frenzy gripped the country, egged on by swaggering speeches about Britain’s ‘economic miracle’ from the Chancellor, Nigel Lawson, and the Prime Minister. Lawson later acknowledged:

My real mistake as Chancellor was to create a climate of optimism that, in the end, encouraged borrowers to borrow more than they should.

In politics, the freeing up and deregulation of the City of London gave Margaret Thatcher and her ministers an entirely loyal and secure base of rich, articulate supporters who helped see her through some tough battles. The banks spread the get-rich-quick prospect to millions of British people through privatisation share issues and the country, for a time, came closer to the share-owning democracy that Thatcher dreamed of.

The year after the election, 1988, was the real year of hubris. The Thatcher government began an attack on independent institutions and bullying the professions. Senior judges came under tighter political control and University lecturers lost the academic tenure they had enjoyed since the Middle Ages. In Kenneth Baker’s Great Education Reform Bill (‘Gerbil’) of that year, Whitehall grabbed direct control over the running of the school curriculum, creating a vast new state bureaucracy to dictate what should be taught, when and how, and then to monitor the results. Teachers could do nothing. The cabinet debated the detail of maths courses; Mrs Thatcher spent much of her time worrying about the teaching of history. Working with history teachers, I well remember the frustration felt by them at being forced to return to issues of factual content rather than being able to continue to enthuse young people with a love for exploring sources and discovering evidence for themselves. Mrs Thatcher preferred arbitrary rules of knowledge to the development of know-how. She was at her happiest when dividing up the past into packages of ‘history’ and ‘current affairs’. For example, the 1956 Hungarian Revolution was, she said, part of history, whereas the 1968 Prague Spring was, twenty years on, still part of ‘current affairs’ and so should not appear in the history curriculum, despite the obvious connections between the two events. It happened at a time when education ministers were complaining bitterly about the lack of talent, not among teachers, but among civil servants, the same people they were handing more power to. A Hungarian history teacher, visiting our advisory service in Birmingham, expressed his discomfort, having visited a secondary school in London where no-one in a Humanities’ class could tell him where, geographically, his country was.

At that time, my mother was coming to the end of a long career in NHS administration as Secretary of the Community Health Council (‘The Patients’ Friend’) in Coventry which, as elsewhere, had brought together local elected councillors, health service practitioners and managers, and patients’ groups to oversee the local hospitals and clinics and to deal with complaints. But the government did not trust local representatives and professionals to work together to improve the health service, so the Treasury seized control of budgets and contracts. To administer the new system, five hundred NHS ‘trusts’ were formed, and any involvement by elected local representatives was brutally terminated. As with Thatcher’s education reforms, the effect of these reforms was to create a new bureaucracy overseeing a regiment of quangos (quasi/ non-governmental organisations). She later wrote:

We wanted all hospitals to have greater responsibility for their affairs.  … the self-governing hospitals to be virtually independent.

In reality, ‘deregulation’ of care and ‘privatisation’ of services were the orders of the day. Every detail of the ‘internal market’ contracts was set down from the centre, from pay to borrowing to staffing. The rhetoric of choice in practice meant an incompetent dictatorship of bills, contracts and instructions. Those who were able to vote with their chequebooks did so. Between 1980 and 1990, the number of people covered by the private health insurance Bupa nearly doubled, from 3.5 million to a little under seven million. Hubris about what the State could and could not do was to be found everywhere. In housing, 1988 saw the establishment of unelected Housing Action Trusts to take over the old responsibility of local authorities for providing what is now known as ‘affordable housing’. Mrs Thatcher claimed that she was trying to pull the State off people’s backs. In her memoirs, she wrote of her third government,

… the root cause of our contemporary social problems … was that the State had been doing too much.

Yet her government was intervening in public services more and more. The more self-assured she became, the less she trusted others to make the necessary changes to these. That meant accruing more power to the central state. The institutions most heart in this process were local councils and authorities. Under the British constitution, local government is defenceless against a ‘Big Sister’ PM, with a secure parliamentary majority and a loyal cabinet. So it could easily be hacked away, but sooner or later alternative centres of power, both at a local and national level, would be required to replace it and, in so doing, overthrew the overbearing leader.

Sources:

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

Peter Catterall, Roger Middleton & John Swift (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books.

 

 

 

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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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A Hundred Years Ago – The Great War: Spring into Summer, 1918.   Leave a comment

‘Aces High’ downed – Red Baron & Prancing Horse:

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The Royal Air Force, formed on 1st April, celebrated by shooting down German ace Manfred von Richthofen three weeks later. He was the ‘ace of aces’, the fighter pilot who brought down the most enemy aircraft. He had begun the war as a cavalry officer before transferring to the German air force. He led a fighter wing known as the ‘Flying Circus’ because of their brightly painted aircraft.  Von Richthofen’s own personal machines were painted bright red, giving rise to his nickname, the Red Baron. Between September 1916 and April 1918 he brought down eighty allied aircraft before he was finally brought down. One RAF fighter pilot, Mick Mannock, refused to toast von Richthofen on his demise, saying “I hope the bastard roasted on the way down.” Later, in the summer, British novelist D H Lawrence was married to Frieda von Richthofen, a distant cousin of Manfred.

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In June, Italy’s highest-scoring fighter ace, Francesco Baracca, was killed. His aircraft featured a prancing horse symbol painted on the side. Years later Francesco’s mother suggested to a young racing driver called Enzo Ferrari that he adopt the symbol for his racing cars.

The Australian Corps go fishing:

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Above: An Australian Imperial Guard keeps watch.

The renowned Australian Corps came under the command of the British Army’s General Rawlinson early in 1918. He was pleased with the men and wrote in his diary about their unusual pastimes in the trenches:

They are certainly original fighters and up to all sorts of dodges, some of which would shock a strict disciplinarian. Some of the German shells were falling short into the pools of the Somme river and exploded under water. Two Australians spent the day in a boat rowing about and watching for a shell to explode and then picked up the stunned fish. They wore their gas masks to prevent recognition!

Third Battle of the Aisne, 27th May – 9th June:

Aiming to tie the Allies down to allow a main attack in the north, the Germans launched their third large-scale attack at Chemin des Dames and the River Aisne with a new storm breaking on the Aisne heights, a ferocious artillery barrage that shattered French units massed on the front line. It was estimated that two million shells were fired in the four-and-a-half-hour-long preliminary bombardment. By the evening, the French gains in the three great actions had vanished like smoke, and the Germans had crossed the river, advancing fourteen miles on the first day, an unprecedented success on the Western Front. Operation Blücher-Yorck was a great success for the German commander, Erich Ludendorff. On the second day, he was beyond the Vesle, and on the third, his vanguard was looking down from the heights of the Tardenois on the waters of the Marne. It was the swiftest advance made in the West since the beginning of trench warfare.

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Pleased with his success, Ludendorff then changed his plans and took forces reserved for a northern attack to support a drive westwards to Paris. The message painted on Germans trucks read, On to Paris! But the advance ran out of supplies and momentum as American troops, fighting their first engagement of the war at Cantigny, together with French forces, stood in the way. Captain Lloyd Williams of the US Marines in Belleau Wood summed up the Americans’ mood; Retreat? Hell, we only just got here! Williams was killed in the ensuing battle that followed on 6th June. The Marines began a counter-attack to take the wood. On the first day, they lost 1,087 men, more than had been lost in the whole of the Marines’ history to that date. Nevertheless, after three weeks of brutal fighting, they eventually took the wood. Meanwhile, on 9th June, Ludendorff had tried to cut off the Allied salient between the two great dents he had made but failed again. His position was hopeless; he was the victim of his own early successes.

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Above: New British troops arrive at a port in France.

Battle of Matz, 9th – 13th June; Advent of the Americans:

Operation Gneisenau, a further German attack, was intended to straighten their forward line. Despite inadequate planning, they pushed the French back, gaining six miles of territory and inflicting heavier casualties than they suffered. However, the offensive floundered and French counter-attacks forced the Germans to halt proceedings after only a few days. In the course of this Spring Offensive, as it became known, they had lost 963,000 men. By this time their surviving soldiers had become so disheartened and disillusioned by their failure to break through the Allied defences that they began shouting abuse at their own reinforcements, calling them, War prolongers! At the same time, ten thousand Americans were arriving each day in France. By the summer of 1918 half a million ‘doughboys’ were on the front line. The British Army was also reinforced, having suffered a 36% casualty rate during the Spring Offensive, with 540,000 new recruits being sent to the Front between March and August. But the Germans facing them still had 207 divisions in all, compared with 203 Allied divisions. Britain also employed manual workers from several nationalities to work in France:

Chinese               96,000

Indians                48,000

South Africans     21,000

Egyptians            15,000

West Indians        8,000

On 19 July, Honduras became the last country to join the war, declaring war on Germany.

Heroines at Home and at the Front:

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Above: Women filling shells.

Back in ‘Blighty’, after an explosion at the Chilwell National Shell Filling Factory in Nottingham killed 134 employees, it was suggested that the Victoria Cross be awarded to staff for their subsequent bravery in going about their own work. Sadly this was not done, as the medal could only be given to individuals in uniform. The number of women in non-domestic employment in April 1918 had risen to 4,808,000, 1.5 million more than four years earlier.

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At the Front, two British women who had earned themselves the nickname from Belgian troops, the two Madonnas of Pervyse, Mairi Chisholm and Elsie Knocker, were injured in a gas attack in 1918. They had travelled to Ypres in 1914, setting up an independent first aid station. They were awarded seventeen medals for bravery.

The Second Battle of the Marne, 15 July – 5 August:

The May and June attacks by the Germans had driven the French back from the Aisne to the Marne. There are two explanations for the surprising extent of the German advance, shown on the map below. First, instead of attacking in ‘waves’ of men, they advanced in small groups pressing forward where the opposition was weak and keeping their reserves close at hand to exploit any gap created. Secondly, the British Fifth Army was unusually weak: the line recently taken over from the French had not been put into a proper state of defence; Haig had massed his reserves in the north, where he expected an attack; and after Passchendaele, Lloyd George had retained many reserves in England to prevent unprofitable squandering of life. However, by early July, the German successes had failed to bring outright victory.

The advances had so exceeded Ludendorff’s expectations that he was unprepared to exploit them. The British troops offered magnificent resistance in response to Haig’s famous order, With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause, each one of us must fight on to the end. Finally, the arrival of Allied reserves, in fresh condition from Palestine and Italy, turned the tide.

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Ludendorff still hoped to create a diversion that would allow a decisive attack in Flanders. His last offensive began on 15th July, east and west of Rheims. Divisions drove forwards, crossing the River Marne in several places, but then they were held. The advance achieved nothing and instead the Germans had fallen into the Allied trap. Hitherto Foch had stood patiently on the defensive, hoarding his assets. He had tried almost too highly the fortitude of the British soldier. Now he had got his reserve, and Haig, to augment it, had dangerously thinned his own front in the north, to the consternation of the War Cabinet. The moment had come to use it. On 18th July Foch counter-attacked on the right flank of the new German salient and drove it in. This attack was led by masses of light tanks which forced the Germans to retire. It was not a great counterstroke, but it forced Ludendorff to pause and consider. He halted and then began to withdraw from the Marne pocket.

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Foch now had freedom of movement, for with him, at last, was the full American army. By July, there were already a million Americans in France. The German command had long been aware of how great this menace was, but the German press had told the people that it was only a force in buckram. Even up to July this newspaper belittlement continued. But at Chateau-Thierry in June an American contingent had fought with furious gallantry, and on 15th July in the same area, one American division and elements from another had rolled back the German assault. These were the troops who, according to the German press, would not land in Europe unless they could swim like fishes or fly like birds. They had proved their worth in pushing the Germans back to their March starting positions.

Preparations for the Peace Offensive:

But the true counter-attack was not to come until August, at Amiens. In July, the Allied attacks showed the effectiveness of ‘all-arms’ battle tactics, with troops and tanks advancing behind an artillery ‘creeping barrage’ while ground-attack aircraft swept overhead. At Amiens, these were to be put into operation to great effect. The plan for the Peace Offensive, which aimed at compelling a German surrender, was wholly British. Haig had now come to the height of his powers and was a different man from the cautious, orthodox soldier of the earlier days of the war. He had not always been happy with his French colleagues; in some ways, he had been too similar to Pétain, and in every other way too dissimilar to Foch, to be quite at ease with either of them. But now his mind and Foch’s seemed to be on the same ‘wavelength’. The Chief of Allied forces was now elevated enough to take advice, and from Haig, he drew not only his chief weapon – the tank – but also many of his tactics, as well as certain key points in his strategy. The British Army had suffered far more than the French in terms of casualties, but they were still ready to take the chief role, one which they retained until the last day of the war. This was a measure of the reverence in which Foch held his ally. The British ‘Tommy’ was, by now, well-disciplined, as the following notice, pasted into their pay-books, suggests:

Keep your mouths shut! The success of any operation we carry out depends chiefly on surprise. Do not talk – when you know that your unit is making preparations for an attack, don’t talk about them to men in other units, or to stangers, and keep your mouth shut, especially in public places.

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British troops at Verneuil, 19 May 1918.

This secrecy was essential to success at Amiens since many previous battles had shown the Germans fully aware of Allied plans. The tables were now turned, with British intelligence also far more effective than it had been previously. Detailed preparations could be made on the basis of information obtained which identified 95% of German artillery positions. Ernest James RollingsIn particular, Lt Ernest Rollings MC of the 17th Armoured Car Battalion (pictured left) went ‘behind enemy lines’ to recover detailed plans of the Hindenberg Line. On his return, he commented that it was by far the best fighting day I have ever had. In 1931, a newspaper report described the Welshman as ‘The Man Who Ended the War’. Perhaps the journalist who wrote of it thought that he deserved a ‘niche in the pantheon’ alongside that other iconic Welshman, and PM, David Lloyd George (below), the Man who won the War.

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Above: David Lloyd George at the height of his power.

The Temper and Temperature of Britain:

For now, however, the temper of Britain through the spring and summer was heavy and apathetic, but it revealed by little spurts of violence how near men and women were living to the outer edges of their nerves. The crisis of March and April had produced a new resolution, but it was a resolution which had no exhilaration in it and little hope. People had begun to doubt if the War would ever end. The night was still so black that they had forgotten that the darkest hour might presage the dawn. But as the months of ‘darkness’ dragged on, and the word from the battle-fields was only of still further retreats and losses, the popular mood sank again into a dull listlessness. To make matters worse, in June there was an outbreak of ‘Spanish ‘flu’. Thirty people died in Lancashire, but no one had any idea how many millions more it was about to kill.

For Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, the soldier-poets, the satire they wrote was partly the product of the feeling that they belonged to a different race from the civilians they found themselves among while convalescing at Craiglockart Hospital near Edinburgh. Sassoon published his satirical poems in Counter-Attack (1918). Many of them were protest poems indignantly implying that the war was being needlessly prolonged by politicians and generals who could have stopped it. While Owen was on invalid leave in England, if he met civilians who talked too glibly about the war, he would thrust in front of their eyes photographs of horribly mutilated soldiers. But he, together with Sassoon and Osbert Sitwell, reserved his satirical condemnation for the rich, old men who were making a profit out of the war and did not share the soldiers’ terrible discomforts and dangers, yet concealed their selfishness behind a front of self-righteous flag-waving and jingoism. In his poem, The Parable of the Old Men and the Young, Owen envisages Abraham killing Isaac despite God’s command to sacrifice a ram instead:

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,

And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

This indignant mood that led these soldier-poets to satirise civilians is revealed in a letter which Owen wrote to his mother from Scarborough in July 1918:

This morning at 8.20 we heard a boat torpedoed in the bay, about a mile out. I wish the Boche would have the pluck to come right in and make a clean sweep of the pleasure boats, and the promenaders on the Spa, and all the stinking Leeds and Bradford war-profiteers now reading ‘John Bull’ on Scarborough Sands.

The Return of the War Horse & the Fall of the Virgin:

The morale of the soldiers at the Front throughout the spring and early summer matched the cynical protests of people and poets on the home front, for the war to be brought to an end. It was perhaps best summed up in the following song:   

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Meanwhile, preparations for the offensive continued throughout the summer. Fifteen thousand cavalry horses prepared for action. Cavalrymen had operated as unmounted infantry for most of the war since there were few opportunities for horse-mounted soldiers to fight effectively on the typical Western Front battlefield. As the fighting became more open again, cavalry began to be utilised once more.

Earlier in the war, in the town of Albert, near to the Somme, a statue of the Virgin Mary outside a church was hit. It didn’t fall completely and remained, leaning over. It was reckoned that when it finally fell the war would end. At the beginning of August, the statue toppled. Trench warfare on both sides was certainly coming to an end, thanks to the tanks. But as the Germans left their trenches in the summer of 1918, they left notices for the British to warn them that the war was far from won and lost:

Dear Tommy,

You are quite welcome to what we are leaving. When we stop we shall stop, and stop you in a manner you won’t appreciate.

Fritz 

Sources:

Norman Ferguson (2014), The First World War: A Miscellany. Chichester: Summersdale.

Fiona Waters (2007), A Corner of a Foreign Field: The Illustrated Poetry of the First World War. Croxley Green: Transatlantic Press.

John Buchan (1935), The King’s Grace, 1910-35. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

Irene Richards, J. B. Goodson & J. A. Morris (1938), A Sketch-Map of the Great War and After, 1914-1935. London: Harrap.

E. L. Black (1970), 1914-18 in Poetry. London: University of London Press.

Family Life, Labour and Leisure: The Forward March of Women In Britain, 1930-40 (Chapter Three)   Leave a comment

Chapter Three: Migrant Women, Work and Marriage:

In the early 1930s, migration to the new factories for both men and women was hampered by prevailing economic conditions. Despite payments of fares and expenses for the removal of household goods, only 1,200 families had been removed from the depressed areas under the provisions of the Transference Scheme up to the end of 1931. In the seven years which followed, approximately ten thousand more families migrated under government assistance. Apart from the difficulties associated with finding employment for adults in the ‘new areas’ during the general depression, local Ministry officials at both ends of the transference process were also very conservative in procedure, rarely committing time and resources to finding openings for families in the same way as Juvenile Employment Officers were prepared to in the case of young men and women moving independently of their parents.

For much of the period, Ministry officials would only advance rail fares in cases where the transferee had definite employment to go to. In 1935, however, this was broadened to the provision of free fares plus a loan equivalent to one week’s wages for men with good prospects of finding work. Since such prospects were dependent upon the residence in the ‘new area’ of friends and relatives, transference in this form amounted to the subsiding of voluntary migration. Even then, the subsidy was ‘hedged around’ by bureaucratic stipulations, which deterred people already suspicious of government motives and cautious about making a commitment to permanent resettlement, to become entangled in this way.

The state subsidies were sometimes made use of, however, when the head of a family had established himself a new area and was confident enough of the of the prospects for his family to apply for a grant to help with removal expenses. The assistance in this form was in the region of ten pounds in the mid-thirties, and this was probably the most successful aspect of the adult transference scheme. However, its successful operation came too late for large numbers of actual and potential Welsh migrant families. In the case of the Oxford Exchange District, with its huge Morris and Pressed Steel car plants in Cowley, hardly any use was made of the Family Transference Scheme until 1933 when thirteen families were assisted to migrate into the district. By the end of 1936, 186 families had received help, 115 of which were from Wales, including the Wilcox family among thirty families from the Pontycymmer Exchange in the Garw Valley. It would be more accurate to describe this as ‘assisted migration’ rather than transference, as most of the work was found by the migrants themselves, with help from friends and relatives already in Cowley, many of them working in the building trades. It was only after settling in Oxford that the migrants found more stable employment in the car factories.

Where the state machinery was used to direct and control the movement of workers via placements notified through the exchanges, the processes involved in resettlement were largely alien to the experience of these individuals so that the end product was frequently accompanied by a sense of atomisation and alienation. In turn, these feelings often led to large-scale re-migration to South Wales; of the ninety thousand men transferred by the Ministry of Labour from the depressed areas between 1930 and the middle of 1937, forty-nine thousand returned home. Despite the after-care provided for juveniles, it was estimated that between October 1934 and September 1937 approximately forty percent of boys and fifty percent of girls transferred by the Ministry returned home. The Ministry classified ‘homesickness’ as the most important reason for this and the social environment was as important in fuelling this as the working conditions. As one commentator put it, parents became convinced that it was better for their children to be half-starved in Wales than hopelessly corrupted in London. 

While official reports attempted to play down the cases of re-migration as hopeless cases of homesickness, unpublished sources show a growing concern among officials with the unsuitable nature of many of the domestic situations into which the juveniles were being placed, particularly in the London area. Wages paid to boys under eighteen were insufficient for them to maintain themselves; they were ill-prepared for the kind of work involved, which was often arduous, involving long hours and little time off, certainly not enough for an occasional weekend at home in Wales. As a consequence, many boys returned home without giving local officials the chance to place them elsewhere.

The Ministry recognised from the early thirties that the success of the scheme in placing a large number of boys in the South East of England would depend on finding them industrial placements. By this time, Welsh girls were also becoming increasingly resistant to being placed in domestic employment. In its Annual Report for 1930, the Oxford Advisory Committee for Juvenile Employment stated that only eight boys and fourteen girls from Wales were placed in employment, compared with forty-nine boys and eighteen girls in the previous year. This was due to fewer suitable vacancies being notified to the exchange. The reasons for this were seen as being very specific:

… An employer who has previously had in his employment Welsh boys or girls who have not proved satisfactory has declined to consider any further Welsh applicants for his vacancies. Of the Welsh boys who have been brought into the area during the past year, six boys and two girls have already returned home.

The young people concerned had been placed in hotels, as domestics in the colleges, or, in the case of many of the girls, in resident domestic situations. In small private houses where only one maid was kept, evidence of the increase in middle-class prosperity, Welsh girls were said not to settle easily. Their sense of isolation intensified and the resulting homesickness led them to return home. By contrast, those girls and boys who were placed in ‘bunches’ in the colleges were far more settled and were also able to return home during the vacations. However, even these young people found the expense of return rail fares a powerful disincentive to returning at the end of the vacations. Thus, by 1931, the experiment in placing juveniles in domestic service in Oxford had largely failed, and employers were showing a distinct preference for local labour.

Far more significant than the involvement of the Ministry of Labour in the reception and settlement aspects of transference was the role played by voluntary agencies. At a national level, organisations such as the YMCA and YWCA were keen to look after the social and moral well-being of the young immigrants. ‘Miss’ Allen, Secretary to the organisation’s Unemployment Committee, was thus able to report in October 1936 that all the organisers were working very closely in cooperation with the Ministry of Labour in the matter of the transference of girls… and were very much alive to the necessity of commending girls so transferred to the YWCA in places to which they went. Two months later, the Ministry informed the National Council of Girls’ Clubs that it was prepared to make a grant available for the establishment or extension of club facilities in certain areas to which juveniles were being transferred. In the following year the NCGC, the Central Council for the welfare of women and girls and the YWCA were involved in a conference on the problem of Transferred Girls and Women.

Concern for the moral as well as the material welfare of transferees is also evident in local sources dating from the late 1920s. These reveal an early provision of support for young transferees to the industrial Midlands which contrasted sharply with the lack of after-care provision in Greater London found in the mid-thirties. In 1935, Captain Ellis of the NCSS was no doubt mindful of this contrast when he arranged for Hilda Jennings to be released from the Brynmawr Settlement, where her survey of the Distressed Area was finished, to conduct a six-week enquiry into the efficacy of the methods of the various Welsh Societies in the Metropolis which catered for the welfare of Welsh migrants. The enquiry was paid for out of ‘private funds’ but was conducted with the fullest cooperation of the Divisional Controller of the Ministry of Labour.

The enquiry found that most of the transferees to Greater London were in the eighteen to thirty group, and were single men and women. It was critical of the London Welsh societies which it claimed were concerned mainly in preserving in the Welsh colonies the Welsh language, culture and traditional interests. As Jennings pointed out, most of the transferees from South Wales knew little or nothing of these. The problem was further compounded by the deliberate policy operated by the Ministry of mixing transferees from different home areas in order to diminish the overpowering “home” affinities and thus increase the chances of assimilation in the new community. Given the evidence identifying the importance of migration networks based on particular coalfield localities to successful settlement in the industrial towns of the Midlands, this policy was undoubtedly counter-productive, and a further example of the way in which the official Transference Scheme worked against the grain of the voluntary migration traditions of Welsh communities. 

The Ministry’s policies exacerbated the sense of isolation and meant that migrants were forced to meet at a central London rendezvous rather than being able to develop a local kinship and friendship network in the suburban neighbourhood of their lodgings and/or workplace. Moreover, the local churches displayed a complete incapacity to provide an alternative focus for social activity except for the minority of migrants who possessed strong religious convictions from their home backgrounds. However, Jennings’ suggestions for a strong central committee to coordinate and develop local district work met with considerable resistance from ‘the Welsh Community’, who resented both her criticisms and her dynamism, by the NCSS which by 1936 was divided on the issue of transference and therefore unwilling to provide the funds for such a project, and by the Ministry, who doubted its practicability. Consequently, the young adult migrant to London, lacking the conditions favourable to self-organisation which existed in smaller industrial centres, was left largely unorganised by the social service movement and its voluntary bodies.

It was the experiences and responses of those scattered throughout Greater London which received most contemporary attention from social investigators such as Hilda Jennings. This research into the new London Welsh, which formed the basis of a radio broadcast by Miles Davies, were focused on forty-five men and women living in different parts of London, working at different trades and occupations and coming from various parts of South Wales, most of whom were young, single people who had been in London between one and five years. A significant proportion had been transferred by the Ministry; others had arrived ‘on chance’; only a few had migrated with the help of friends or relatives already working in London. It is therefore not surprising that the respondents complained of the feeling of being adrift … the feeling of foreignness, of being among strange people. They generally contrasted the ‘bottling up’ of home life and the ‘latchkey’ existence in London with the ‘open door’ of the valleys. The impersonal and business-like visits of the tradesmen in London left the newly-arrived housewife in London with a real sense of isolation and loneliness. Of course, there were many older established districts of London in which more neighbourly contacts were the norm, but few Welsh people could afford accommodation in these districts.

One of the young women interviewed, however, pointed out that friendships in London had to be doubly precious and long-lasting, as against the casual half-hearted friendships of the village. The Welsh societies and chapels were unable to compensate for the loss of companionship; they stood aloof both culturally and geographically from their potential recruits. There was no easily-identifiable Welsh colony for them to serve. The eighteen respondents who were members of Welsh associations had to travel considerable distances to attend, and few migrants could be expected to go to the lengths of one girl who had actually learned Welsh in London in order to worship with Welsh people.

When the spotlight was shifted away from London and the South-East Division of the Ministry of Labour to the industrial Midlands, a more positive picture of the experiences of migration becomes more apparent. Captain Geoffrey Crawshay commented in his survey for his Special Areas Commissioners’ 1937 Report that there were many cases known to him personally where Dai in the Midlands finds a job for Ianto at home. Professor Marquand of Cardiff University also noted that younger men were subject to waves of feeling connected to the receipt of letters from friends who had already left Wales and he concluded that a programme of training and transfer would only prove successful if it were employed through a policy of group transfer.

That individuals should migrate with the help of friends or relatives already established in the new area is, in itself, hardly remarkable. What is significant is the way in which this informal ‘networking’ extended far beyond the ties of kith and kin and became, in itself, almost an institution. Often it was a daughter or son who secured the first job and the strength of familial solidarity would lead, eventually, to reunification in the recipient area. In turn, once a family, especially one of some social prominence, had become established in the new area, a new impetus was given to the migration of additional relatives and friends, and eventually to that of casual acquaintances and even comparative strangers.

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In this way, a ‘snowball’ effect was created whereby large numbers of people migrated from a particular locality in South Wales to a particular place in the Midlands. For instance, one family from Cwmamman were responsible for the removal of a further thirty-six families from the village. By the end of the 1930s, substantial pockets of people from particular coalfield communities were located in particular Midland towns. Workers from the Llynfi, Ogmore and Garw valleys were dominant among the migration streams to Oxford while there appears to have been a preponderance of Rhondda people among the migrants to Coventry, and Birmingham seems to have attracted a good many workers from the Monmouthshire valleys. Although there is some evidence to support the view that workers from other depressed areas were influenced in their choice of destination in a similar fashion, the geographical patterns are not nearly as distinct. Moreover, the Ministry noted that a significantly higher proportion of Welsh people found work for themselves than was the case among migrants from Northern England. Indeed, the Welsh networks were so strong that many of those who accepted help from them were actually employed when they made this decision.

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Besides this independent and collective organisation of familial networks supplying information and support to fellow migrants, the retention of cultural traditions and associations helped to reinforce a collective identity and to establish a sense of stability and respectability in the recipient communities. These associations, or institutions, which the exiles carried with them, were outward expressions of an internal idealised image among the immigrants, an image which came complete with its ‘Welsh mam’ in Miles Davies’ 1938 radio broadcast:

What is there in this Rhondda Valley which is missing from… London? Climb with me for a moment to the top of mountain overlooking Tonypandy … past rows of cottages, with their slate roofs glistening in the sun … across the valley are the long streets of Penygraig, some tilted up the hill, some terracing the mountainside. It is all so near and so clear. You can pick out Dai Jones’ house below. There is the wash that his wife has just put out blowing in the wind; a brave show of colour. You can perhaps see Mrs Jones herself talking to her neighbour over the fence … That is the kind of picture that often comes to the mind of the Rhondda exile.

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Dunraven Street, Tonypandy, circa 1914

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Above: Glamorgan Colliery, Llwynypia, Rhondda, circa 1920

It was precisely this type of imagined scene which helped to provide the invisible binding ties for the Welsh exiles in the Midlands, ties which proved strong enough to hold them together in solidarity and resistance against the tangible tensions which were brought to bear on them in an atmosphere of economic precariousness and social/ cultural prejudice.

The Welsh working-class immigrants in England, men and women, like many other immigrant communities before and following them, found that their attempts to propagate a self-image of industriousness and respectability were in open conflict with a powerful panoply of counter-images and prejudices forged within host societies and reinforced by a variety of social and political commentators. Although long-distance and international migration was a major component of the social and cultural experience of many of the rural and older industrial areas of Britain, it was alien to the experience of most of the ‘new industry towns’ which had obtained their craftsmen in previous generations predominantly from surrounding rural artisans and labourers. The ‘local’ character of the populations of these centres meant that they were essentially conservative in social and cultural, if not in political terms.

The accusation that Welsh immigrants habitually undercut wages was a prevalent one. An American writer recorded that it was repeatedly said of the Welsh that they would work for wages that no Englishmen would dream of accepting. This view was a myth without much grounding in reality. Among the immigrants to London interviewed for the NCSS Report on Migration to London from South Wales in the late 1930s, eighteen young men and women had either left Wales upon leaving school, or held no job between leaving school and moving to London, or were too young to join a union in Wales. Twenty-one men had belonged to trade unions in Wales, eighteen of them to the South Wales Miners’ Federation (SWMF, or The Fed). Only ten of the interviewees, nine men and one girl, had joined unions since arriving in London. Those among the contributors who were active in the trade union movement in London said that they found it difficult to understand why previously loyal SWMF members were slow to join unions in London. They did, however, suggest a number of reasons, including that membership of The Fed had been accepted as a tradition to which they had subscribed without exercising much thought. On finding themselves in London trades, industries and services where no such tradition existed, they did not bother to seek out and join the appropriate union. Some complained that in the course of years of employment in London they had never been asked to join a union.

The age-old stereotype of the Welsh as being dishonest, even to the extent of thieving, was also alive and kicking. When it was revived and reinforced by the agents of authority in society, most notably by magistrates and the press, it was difficult to counteract. In 1932, Merthyr’s Education Committee resolved to send a letter of protest to the Lord Chancellor concerning remarks reported in the press as having been made by a Mr Snell, a magistrate at Old Street Police Court, London, during the hearing of a charge against a young ‘maidservant’ from Troedyrhiw:

Did your friends tell you when you came to London from Wales you could steal from your master, as I find a great many of you do?

The Committee protested that these remarks cast a very serious aspersion upon the integrity of the people of Wales, and in particular upon the inhabitants of the Borough. Of course, not many magistrates were as prejudiced in their attitudes, but cases of theft by Welsh immigrants were given pride of place in reports from the police courts. For example, in 1928, another domestic servant, nineteen years old, from Cwm Felinfach, pleaded guilty to stealing from a bedroom at the house in Oxford where she was employed, the sum of five pounds, six shillings. She was arrested at the GWR station, presumed to be on her way back to South Wales. Her employers asked the bench to be lenient with her as she had not been in trouble before. She was therefore remanded in custody for a week while enquiries were made with a view to helping her. Naturally, such individual cases were a considerable hindrance to those who were attempting to break down this popular prejudice against the Welsh, though they occurred with far less frequency than Mr Snell suggested.

In 1937, the National Council of Social Service made an application to the Special Areas Commissioner for funds to establish a reception service for Welsh immigrants to London. They presented detailed evidence from both London and Slough to show how, among the migrants, a certain amount of hostility had developed between those of Welsh extraction and other migrants. Hilda Jennings, one of the key social service figures in this proposal for a Government-funded initiative, emphasised the degree of prejudice and hostility which  immigrant girls from the depressed areas had to contend with from ‘local’ people as well:

In many districts to which migration takes place there is a growing uneasiness on social grounds. Sometimes, in default of precise knowledge, prejudice, due to the failure or misbehaviour of a few individuals, is allowed to determine the prevalent attitude to newcomers. Generalisations with regard to the ‘roughness’ of girls from Durham or the instability and ‘difficult’ temperaments of the Welsh, make it less easy for even the most promising persons from those areas to take root in new communities. Many of them make good, but others, for lack of better company, gravitate to the less socially desirable groups and reinforce existing anti-social tendencies.

In addition, Welsh women were often stereotyped as being ‘highly sexed’. Many commentators certainly took the view that they were more feminine than their English cousins. On the whole, they were more content than Oxford or Coventry women to accept traditional roles as either maidservants or housewives and mothers. Both oral and documentary sources suggest that very few Welsh women entered insurable employment in Oxford or Coventry before the war, compared with ‘native’ women or immigrant women from Lancashire. If the ‘highly-sexed’ charge related to a stereotype of the Welsh immigrants as having larger families than the natives, then the charge was as fallacious as the stereotype. Research showed that while the fertility of married migrants in Oxford differed little from that of the South Wales population, the fertility of both of these populations was less than that of the Oxford natives.

Given the scope and level of prejudice with which the immigrants had to contend, it would hardly be surprising to find that they also tended to conform to the stereotype of them as ‘clannish foreigners’. However, this was not only a tendency common among Welsh women, whether married or single. In this regard, the dilemma that both men and women migrants found themselves in was clearly articulated in the NCSS report of the late thirties on Migration to London from South Wales:

… instead of being encouraged to use the gifts of sociability and social responsibility which he has brought with him from the small community, he does not seem to find any demand for his services except in gatherings of his own people… The more Welshmen are able to keep together, the happier they will be. But at the same time they are building up a reputation for clannishness which does not help them to find a place in the mixed community in which they live.

There may be a danger that men and women from South Wales coming to London after, perhaps, long years of unemployment, tend to lose their courage. They use the Welsh churches and societies that they find in London as something of a shelter and do not make efforts to integrate themselves into the life of the metropolis. If this is so, then some of the blame must lie with London for presenting to the stranger the face it shows. 

In a 1936 edition of their journal, the ‘Middle Opinion’ group, Political and Economic Planning published statistics showing that immigration into the South East of England was in excess of total emigration from Britain as a whole, claiming that while the national importance of emigration has long been recognised, the practical significance of internal movements has often been overlooked. The pressure which groups like P.E.P. brought to bear led a year later to the appointment of Sir Montague Barlow to head a Royal Commission on the distribution of the population. Although the Commission’s full report was not published until 1940, it began receiving evidence in March 1938. By  then, there was considerable disquiet among the British public about events on the continent, not least in the Spanish Civil War in which bombing by Italian and German planes had led to a mass refugee problem.

On its sixteenth day, the Commision received evidence from a group of councillors, industrialists and academics from South Wales. They pointed out that in 1934, South Wales still possessed a high birth-rate compared with the other regions of Britain, at 16.1 per thousand of its population, compared with a rate of 15.4 in the West Midlands and 13.9 in the South East. However, Professor Marquand of the University College in Cardiff also pointed to the falling fertility rate due to the migration of men and women likely to have families elsewhere. This was borne out by the fact that, in the period 1937-39, there were on average sixty-six births per thousand South-Welsh women aged fifteen to forty-four, a rate less than that produced by women in the West Midlands. Demographic historians have highlighted the role played by the involvement of women in manufacturing industry in the Midlands, the North-west and South-east as an important factor in spreading birth-control techniques; the highest birth rates continued to be recorded in those areas where employment was mostly dominated by males.

Even before the Barlow Commission began to sit, concerns about the increasingly uneven distribution of the population had begun to be heard, especially from those living in London, as the following extract from The Round Table reveals:

London and its satellite towns have already expanded too far and too fast, from the social, health, and ascetic points of view. The heaping up of population in the quarter of these islands nearest to Europe constitutes a grave and growing strategic liability.

Although the increasingly dangerous international situation referred to created nervousness about the excessive concentration of the population in the Midlands and South East, it also created increased demand for labour in the industries which were responsible for rearmament, most of which were located in these areas of the country. It was not until 1939 that the economy of South Wales began to be transformed by rearmament in general and the resultant mushroom growth in women’s industrial employment in particular.

 

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In this context, the work of the Barlow Commission, completed in August 1939, was too late in taking cognisance of the widespread agitation for regional planning in response to the twin concerns about the denuding of the Special Areas and the threat from the continent. Its conclusion served as an indictment of pre-war governments and their piecemeal and paradoxical policies on the planning of population:

It is not in the national interest, economically, socially or strategically, that a quarter of the population… of Great Britain should be concentrated within twenty to thirty miles or so of Central London.

However, this still did not mean an end to the policy of Transference or to the continued voluntary exodus of workers from South Wales, especially since the rearmament boom meant that engineering centres like Luton and Coventry were swallowing up more and more labour by offering ever higher wages in their shadow factories producing aircraft. Welsh Nationalists denounced MPs and civil servants alike as ‘collaborators’ in the ‘murder’ of their own ‘small, defenceless nation’, a theme which was repeated in the Party’s wartime pamphlet, Transference Must Stop. Nevertheless, the Transference Policy had long-since ceased to occupy centre-stage by the time the Nazis occupied the Sudetenland, and there is evidence to suggest that the ‘Blaid’ leadership was itself slow to give priority to the issue, favouring a policy of deindustrialisation and being opposed on pacifist grounds to the location of armament industries in Wales.

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On 3 September 1939 Neville Chamberlain made his famous radio broadcast to tell the British nation that it was at war with Germany. In London, an air-raid siren sounded in earnest for the first time, though it was a false alarm; a Royal Proclamation was issued calling up the Reserves. The lesson of the fascist bombing of Guernica on 26 April 1937 was not entirely ignored by the Chamberlain government, despite their acquiescence. Cities were vulnerable to air bombardment and the civilian population would be a prime target in any Nazi attack. Such an attack would not discriminate in terms of gender or age, so women and children would, for the first time in British history, become the primary targets of the large-scale bombing. By September, a year before the beginning of the blitz on London began, the government had published plans for the evacuation of two million from London and the southern cities, and by 7 September, three and a half million had been moved to safe areas. The social effects on all sections of the community were traumatic, though the greatest hardship fell upon the working classes, of whom a million were still unemployed at the outbreak of the war.

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Billeting arrangements were often discriminatory against both girls and women. Pamela Hutchby, a ten-year-old girl, exhausted and travel-dirty after a slow train journey to Stafford recalled being driven from house to house, the billeting officer asking, do you want an evacuee? The reply came, what is it? A girl? Sorry, we wouldn’t mind a boy, but not a girl. Sarah Blackshaw, a cockney mum with a baby, remembered standing on Ipswich station and being left unchosen from a line of evacuees as farmers took their pick as though selecting cattle, their first choice being for strong lads who would be of most help on the farm. Elsewhere, middle-class families recoiled as billeting officers attempted to place poorly-dressed and underfed kids into their genteel homes, a world of oak biscuit barrels and fretwork-cased radiograms. Happily, there were those who took in and treated the city refugees as their own children and formed deep relationships which survived the war. The picture below shows children from Walthamstow, London, on their way to Blackhorse Road Station for evacuation.

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At 3.50 a.m. on 7 September 1940, the Nazis began their blitz on London, the target being the London docks and the solidly working-class areas around them. In the small terraced houses that had back gardens, the people took to their Anderson shelters, dug into the earth, but for tens of thousands in tenements and houses without gardens there were no deep shelters, only inadequate surface shelters built of brick. Buildings with large cellars opened them to the public and conditions were often appalling as thousand crammed into them night after night. People looked enviously at the London Underground stations, deep, warm and well-lit, but the official policy was against their use as shelters. In Stepney, the people broke down the gates when the stations closed and went down to the platforms. The authorities then relented and opened the underground stations as night shelters. At first, people simply took a few blankets and slept on the platforms like those in the photograph taken in October 1940 at Piccadilly. Seventy-nine stations were used as shelters and at the peak, 177,000 people were sleeping in them each night.

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In 1940, the general willingness of the British people to meet the demands of mobilising an entire economy for war production was a remarkable feature of the nation’s experience of the war.  This economic mobilisation had to be achieved while several million men were in the services. To meet Britain’s labour needs, therefore, over seven million women were drawn into the workforce. Recruitment campaigns were mounted by the government to encourage women to enter the factories, but ultimately compulsion had to be used. This was a controversial step, given existing social values and the fact that women were paid far lower wages than men.  It was made plain that female employment was a wartime expedient only: women were expected to return to domesticity once the war was over. Of course, many didn’t, partly because this profound social change towards a ‘dual role’ for women had already begun five years earlier in many engineering centres like Coventry.

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Nevertheless, the scale of the rearmament and restructuring task is best illustrated by the aircraft industry, in which the workforce increased from about thirty-five thousand in 1935 to nearly two million in 1944, some forty percent of whom were women. It became the largest industry in Britain, employing about ten percent of the total workforce. One typical company, De Havilland, builders of the Mosquito, had to expand rapidly from its Hatfield base into nearby ‘shadow factories’.  Factories in Luton, Coventry and Portsmouth, also built Mosquitoes. It was one of the most successful aircraft of the war, with nearly seven thousand produced and large numbers repaired. Those women who remained as housewives became involved in government initiatives such as the ‘Saucepans into Spitfires’ campaign (see the photo below). In 1940, housewives saved forty shiploads of paper and enough metal to build sixteen thousand tanks.

(to be continued)

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Family Life, Labour and Leisure: The Forward March of Women in Britain, 1930-40.   Leave a comment

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Chapter One: Semi-detached Britain.

The experience of women between the wars was part of a broader re-making of the main social classes, especially the professional middle classes and the working classes, a social reformation on a scale not witnessed for almost a century, with the maturation of the first industrial revolution. As early as 1934, a woman Oxford graduate commented:

Both the new rich and the new poor have learnt that the old social orders were not immutable, that the roles of Lazarus and his patron were interchangeable. It is significant that you seldom hear nowadays the phrase which was once so common, “know my station”…

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During the 1930s, well-to-do families could enjoy a rising standard of living, and it was possible for them either to evade the problems of society and, despite the declining number of domestic servants, to escape from them. Even the less well-to-do, provided they were employed, could react in these ways to their circumstances since, for the first time in modern times, the benefits of industrialisation began to be applied on a large-scale to the home as well as to the factory. New industries, geared to consumer demand, prospered while old basic industries declined. Meanwhile, ‘mass entertainment’, becoming an industry and sustained by new technical media, often encouraged the flight from the uneasy present, and the holiday resorts boomed.

The experience of the thirties remained fragmented and divided, yet as the decade went by it proved increasingly difficult completely to ignore the international ‘crises’. There was no domestic crisis equivalent to the General Strike of 1926, but the economic recovery after 1934 which raised the country out of the trough of unemployment and hunger was limited and precarious. It was recognised that, in part, the recovery depended on a rearmament programme which might ultimately involve Britain in another World War. Even after the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939, there was still no sense of common direction. The government, still the ‘National’ government which had been returned to power with a huge majority during the economic crisis of 1931, was not fully representative of the nation, even after its re-election in 1935. The war was fought so fitfully at first that it was called ‘the phoney war’ at the time.

It was not until the ‘Blitzkrieg’ of the summer and autumn of 1940 that Churchill’s new government was able to mobilise the full support of the vast majority of the British people. Their support was forthcoming not just because it was commanded, but because there was a strong popular feeling that the world could not remain safe or happy so long as Hitler was dominating Europe. With the ‘Blitz’, the ‘semi-detached’ period of British social history came to an end. With hindsight, the years between 1919 and 1940 looked like ‘the years the locust had eaten’, years of wasted resources and people. Yet this was not what they seemed like at the time to growing numbers of people who felt themselves to be ‘middle-class’, for whom there was much to enjoy and be thankful for. The contrasting measurements of the main social indexes – in health, employment, education, housing, food and leisure – revealed exactly how fortunate they were. One Yorkshirewoman, quoted in F. W. Hirst’s The Consequences of the War to Great Britain (1934), was convinced that…

… class distinctions have been positively toppled over since the Great War, or rather social barriers have been removed, not entirely by the upper class becoming less exclusive but much more by a general uplifting in the standard of living… Luxuries once enjoyed by the few are now regarded as ordinary expenditure by young people whose immediate antecedents were accustomed to such amenities, … Take for example the telephone, wireless, electric light, motor-cars, pictures. It might be said that these are all recent inventions brought into common use by the developments of science; but unless the standard of living had been considerably raised, these would still have been considered great luxuries to be used only by the wealthier classes. … (Yet) the landed aristocracy have been almost taxed out of existence, and are mostly living in a much less luxurious way than before the War; and the middle classes are undoubtedly labouring under a burden of taxation such as they have never before been called upon to bear. 

Even by 1941, by no means all of His Majesty’s subjects were enjoying such luxuries. For those on B. S. Rowntree’s poverty line’, whether in the depressed areas or in the ‘pockets’ of poverty in the more prosperous towns and cities, such luxuries remained far out of reach. Theirs was a more basic daily ‘fayre’:

Breakfast, Wednesday: Bread and dripping, tea. Dinner: Liver and onions, bread and butter and tea. Tea: bread and butter, beetroot, tea. Supper: Cocao … Breakfast, Friday: Bread and dripping, tea. Dinner: Cod and chips, bread and butter and tea. Tea: Bread and butter, tomatoes, jam, tea. Supper: None. Breakfast, Saturday: Bread and dripping, tea…

In his 1941 report, Poverty and Progress, he also found that taking the average figure for children of all ages there was a difference of five and three-quarter pounds between the average weight of girls in social classes A and B and D and E, while the girls in class X were on average twelve and a quarter pounds heavier than those in A and B. The boys in classes D and E were four and three-quarter pounds heavier and those in class X were eight and a quarter pounds heavier than those in classes A and B. Thus, the ‘weight gap’ between social classes was far greater among girls than boys of the same age. By the end of the thirties, impoverishment had also taken its toll on the diets of older women among the ‘respectable working classes’. William Cameron wrote in Common People of how…

Mother was glad to see Dick, and Catherine was glad to see him too. Visitors were rare. No one goes to see poor people. Even relatives stay away… Dick belonged to that aristocracy of Labour who have hot dinners with vegetables every day, eat real butter on Sundays, and have fresh cows’ milk with their tea. Mother made him a cup of tea and cut him a slice of bread and margarine, a sincere gesture of hospitality. She wanted him to feel at home.

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Thus the growing prosperity among many working-class families helped to underline the widening of divisions between sections of that class. However, with the decline of domestic service, the wealth and powers of both the aristocracy and the upper middle classes were also declining rapidly. The Quakers had long-held an antipathy for the inducement of men and women into selling themselves into service in exchange for shelter, food and clothes in order to gratify the ostentation and indulgences and lusts of their fellow-men. These objections, voiced by Shipley N. Brayshaw in his Swarthmore Lecture, Unemployment and Plenty (1933), were beginning to find a wider appeal among middle classes consciences:

Wealth should enlarge a man’s capacity for useful work and culture. Morally it is not a charter for an idle life while monopolizing the services of others. In the ideal state there would be no shortage of domestic help for responsible people or for those engaged in work of outstanding value to their fellows. The attendants, or servants, of such people would be taking a useful and worthy part in the work of the community, but if they gave the same advice to an idle rich man they would be flunkies…

On the other hand, obsequious service would be withheld, neither man nor woman would accept domestic service of the old humiliating type with its low status. It would be difficult to obtain any personal service which ministered merely to laziness, luxury, or vanity. To serve another, who serves no one, is to be the underlying of a parasite. There is always something humiliating in giving such service, and not many people with a decent alternative would submit to it.                                 

The towns of Britain greatly changed their appearance between the wars: in the twenty years between 1919 and 1939 four million houses were built and the towns spread outwards in all directions. Most of these were built by private enterprise so that the outer suburbs of most modern cities and towns are still quite largely a legacy of the thirties. Between January 1935 and the outbreak of war, 1,807,682 houses were built, more than three-quarters of them by unsubsidised private enterprise. In 1939, one-third of all the houses in Britain had been built during the previous twenty years. These figures were a sign of how much, and how quickly, England in particular, a country of smaller families, was changing. The old Victorian or Edwardian family terraced house was a dreary home, long and narrow and dark, with a tiny front garden in which nothing would grow after the hedge had been planted, and a very narrow strip at the back giving a view of countless others of the same sort. Quite apart from being cramped and dark, it had the added inconvenience that coal had to be delivered through the house, and if you owned a motor-bike that too had to go through the front door, down the passage and out at the back.

 

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So the new semi-detached house was very popular, even if the ‘detachment’ was no greater than a few feet. The earlier semi-detached were usually pebble-dashed plain square boxes with the slate roof of the nineteenth century, but by the thirties, they were mostly of brick and had red tile roofs. Terraced housing was still being built, but the romantic English ideas of privacy and a decent bit of garden all to yourself defeated the best intentions of the town planners. The most expensive semi-detached houses had a variety of features stuck on to give the much-desired air of individuality – bow windows and porches, turrets and latticed windows, even battlements. Many looked like miniature Tudor manors. In some streets, no two were alike, so strong was the reaction against uniformity, and they had names as well as numbers, all in the strong tradition of the English country house. Superior people mocked them, but they were a great improvement on their predecessors for their incumbents and the accusation that they were ‘jerry-built’ was untrue of the vast majority.

 

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There was surprisingly little ‘vox pop’ on radio programmes, but there was a great vogue for cinema documentary particularly among the politically conscious minority in the late 1930s, and in 1937 ‘Mass Observation’ was founded to note directly, without intermediate comment or theory, what people were saying about anything and everything in streets and public houses. J. B. Priestley portrayed the setting of all this in his English Journey (1934) which is comparable in its significance with Cobbett’s Rural Rides of the previous century. In it, Priestley wrote of an…

… England of … filling stations and factories that look like exhibition buildings, of giant cinemas and dance halls and cafés, bungalows with tiny garages, cocktail bars, Woolworth’s, motor-coaches, wireless, hiking, factory girls looking like actresses, greyhound racing and dirt tracks, swimming pools, and everything given away for cigarette coupons. 

As well as providing a useful corrective to the pessimistic view of the thirties typified by George Orwell’s work, among others, Priestley shows that the ‘two nations’ view of later historians such as E. J. Hobsbawm, was grossly oversimplified. There was certainly widespread depression and appalling human suffering, but it was regionalised, if not localised, rather than general. He identified ‘three Englands’, the first that of ‘Old England’, the country of the cathedrals and minsters and manor houses and inns, of Parson and Squire. Then there was that created by the nineteenth century, the industrial England of coal, iron, steel, cotton, wool, railways, making up the larger part of the Midlands and the North. His third England was the new post-war England, belonging to the contemporary age. This was the one described above, which he went on to describes as…

…essentially democratic… You need money in this England, but you don’t need much money. It is a large-scale, mass-production job, with cut prices. You could almost accept Woolworth’s as its symbol… In this England, for the first time in history, Jack and Jill are nearly as good as their master and mistress… Most of the work … is rapidly becoming standardised… and its leisure is being handed over to standardisation too. It is a cleaner, tidier, healthier, saner world than that of nineteenth century industrialism. 

Here then were the three Englands I had seen… and as I looked back on my journey I saw how these three were variously and most fascinatingly mingled in every part of the country…

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Most English people were enjoying a richer life than any previously known in the history of the world: longer (and paid) holidays, shorter hours, higher real wages. They had the motor car, cinemas, radio sets, electrical appliances. Yet the result of the National Government’s actions to save the pound resulted in the children of the unemployed having less margarine on their bread, while government ministers, along with the government ministers were able to enjoy Christmas 1931 in their warm, comfortable homes. Such was the equality of sacrifice experienced in Britain in the early thirties. Unemployment continued to rise through the winter of 1931-2, reaching a peak in the third quarter of 1932 when there were almost three million out of work throughout Great Britain. From that point onwards, as the map below shows, the divergence between depressed and prosperous Britain widened in terms both of levels of unemployment and the overall standard of living, due to the cuts in unemployment benefit and the introduction of the means test.

 

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Source: Ministry of Labour

 

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The politics of the post-1945 era were fought out on the record of the pre-war years. As late as 1951 the Labour Party campaigned with election slogan ‘Ask your Dad!’, an illustration of the way in which the emotive image of the ‘hungry thirties’ had become part of the repertoire of political cliché. Perhaps the slogan, ‘Ask your Mam!’ would have evoked a different response, as for most women the thirties were a release from domestic drudgery and an opportunity to do useful work outside the home. Nevertheless, the popular view of the decade as a period of unrelieved failure was undoubtedly hardened and reinforced in the years after the war; a view which became sharpened against the background of full employment and affluence of the 1950s and 1960s. Even in the next period of mass unemployment in the 1970s, the ghost of the thirties stalked political platforms and the media as a symbol of economic disaster, social deprivation and political discontent. A concentration on unemployment and social distress does not, however, represent an accurate portrayal of the decade. Beside the pictures of the unemployed and the impoverished, of the dole queues and hunger marches must be placed those of another Britain of new industries, prosperous suburbs and a rising standard of living for most if not all.

 

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Any of the objects in the photograph above, nearly all incompatible in style, could have been found together in any smart middle-class home of the thirties, exercising the primary function of making the owner feel up to date. Some of the forms claim to be austere, but the general effect is both cluttered and cosy. During the whole inter-war period, interior decoration and furnishings, like all the other arts, were in furious reaction against the Victorian belief in ‘Nature’. Man’s function in the universe was seen as intellectual. His job was analysis, not nature worship. None of nature’s curves was acceptable anymore, only segments of circles. In the twenties only those who were rich, leisured and intellectual enough cared about such fashions, but by the mid-thirties the idea of ‘modern’ and ‘bringing the house up to date’ had percolated down to the lower middle classes. The result was a softening of the austere ideal. A chair might be for sitting on, but when you weren’t sitting on it, you had to look at it. As women’s curves returned, it began to be appreciated in the decorators’ trade that Man, as well as being a machine for living, also had dreams, mostly of a sensual kind. It was the era of the suburban tennis club and John Betjeman’s adored Pam, you great big mountainous sports girl. If your quite small income was reasonably secure, you could enjoy a very happy, active, highly organised and, of course, rather snobbish social life in the outer suburbs in the thirties, with Who’s for tennis? as your watchword in the daytime and Shall we dance? in the evenings, with big bands flooding through the wireless, all glamorous under new electric lighting bouncing off walls and ‘limed’ oak furniture.

 

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Among ordinary people plastics had begun their career in the form of Bakelite, which in the early days was remarkably ugly, cast either in that chocolate-brown which rendered schools, prisons and other institutions so depressing at the time, or mottled like the cover of a penny notebook. Light fittings, switches and wireless sets were mostly in Bakelite. The wireless set was the centrepiece in most homes, with its great red-hot valves like an electric fire. Thirties furniture, angular and ugly, was meant to have a ‘structural look’. Everything from teapots to cigarette cases was cubical if possible, symbolising the discarding of sentiment and other non-essentials.

In the thirties, then, if you had a job, and particularly if you had one in the new light industries, you were not badly off, and your parents’ way of life could be dismally restricted and archaic. It was only the old-fashioned heavy basic industries, such as King Coal, which were now all but derelict: in the new industries based on electricity or petrol instead of steam, and consumer goods instead of iron and steel, there was a genuine and rising prosperity. Plastics appeared in the thirties, and man-made fabrics, beginning with artificial silk, were going well by the end of the decade. There was a great increase in the employment of women in the new electric and electronic factories, where equally new nimble-fingered techniques proved beyond the scope of the old-fashioned muscular worker, however skilled. Domestic servants, ‘the maids’, whose reluctance to come forward for employment had provoked so much indignation in letters to the middle-class press in the twenties, were now becoming even more difficult to get. They now demanded real pay, a day off in the week and tolerable rooms to live in. There was also a boom in the new ‘labour-saving’ appliances, which meant a reduction in the demand for servants and shortened the hours needed by women for domestic labour.

 

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Mass production was not confined to the emerging motor industry, and the fashion business, in particular, had adopted American methods in producing for the popular market. Though competition was fierce, clothing was an expanding home market. Montague Burton, the Tailor of Taste in every High Street could fit men out with a good suit for fifty shillings. The numbers employed in tailoring increased by a hundred percent between 1921 and 1938 to a record fifty thousand. The National Union of  Tailor and Garment Workers recruited heavily during the late thirties and despite opposition from some companies made substantial progress in the organisation of major manufacturers. The ‘Ideal Clothiers’, where the picture below was taken at their Elsden Road factory in Wellingborough, Northants, in 1937, was one of the big producers that accepted the complete unionisation of their staff. Employing more than two thousand workers at eight factories, engaged in the manufacture of men’s, ladies’ and children’s tailored outerwear, all employees were members of the NUTGW. Conditions of employment contrasted sharply with the familiar sweatshops of the tailoring trade and a progressive management offered the rare security of a non-contributory pension fund.

 

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It was in the thirties that the British middle-class scene turned visibly modern. The huge iron kitchen range had owned a red-faced cook or ‘cook-general’, often an apt title for a tyrant of the kitchen. When she failed to appear in her place of duty to be roasted alive at the range until she was properly scarlet, preferring to work in a factory, the range had to go, to be replaced by a gas or electric cooker. In turn, this relieved the maids of the desperate weekly chore of black-leading the monster and since, during the decade, hundreds of thousands of people were employed as door-to-door salesmen demonstrating vacuum cleaners, and stainless steel knives came into use, along with electric fires which eliminated most of the coal-heaving, a kitchen full of girls became more and more of a luxury. Only the copper and the great iron mangle stayed on for years to prolong the penal servitude of the past.

Americans, it was well-known, had washing machines, but only a few of the eccentric and under-bred ‘new rich’ were hardy enough to transplant them to into British society. For many years after the refrigerator had become standard domestic equipment in the USA, a cold slate slab in the north-east corner of the house where the larder with its gauze window still had its place was the Britons’ main line of defence against food poisoning. Every one of the labour-saving domestic appliances had to be begged, prayed and fought for by women against a strong male rearguard action, which resented each one of them as it arrived as a part of a process called Americanisation, which aimed at destroying good old high-bred British stoicism and the cold bath ethic, and would lead us all into decadence and ruin. As one small concession to modernity, the earliest pieces of electric equipment to be found in the British home was the hair-dryer. Women themselves sometimes shared men’s resistance or ambivalence to modernity, particularly to changes in the ways of bringing up children. F. W. Hirst’s Oxford graduate interviewee commented:

The post-war generation suffers from a sort of inward instability, a lack of character, due, probably, to the somewhat hysterical atmosphere of their childhood. There seems nowadays to be no desire to provide for the future or look beyond tomorrow. The war shattered that sense of security which brooded over Victorian homes, and made men buy estates and lay down cellars against their old age and for the benefit of their sons… Before the war children (in better class families at least) were kept apart from elders, had their own good plain food in the nursery and found their own simple amusements. Now they mix more with their elders, sit down to table with them, play the same games, and expect and get much more attention and amusement… But it is a great reflection on the common sense of parents of today that the indulgence and lack of discipline which were pardonable in wartime should be allowed to remain, and the fact that for four years Age had to stand aside and admire the feats of Youth is a poor defence for the absence of respect from the younger generation to the older in 1933. 

The new industries also produced a new style of worker and greatly augmented the middle class at its lower-paid end; it was these people, together with the old middle class of independent shopkeepers, tradesmen and small businessmen, with the professional upper middle class, the new financial and managerial upper class and the remnants of the land-owning democracy, who could have been expected to vote solidly for the National Government. In the event, they were joined by at least half of the old working class who were in dire straits, in what was a clear vote for tradition and stability at a time of crisis, both in 1931 and 1935.

With the upper classes more or less relegated to their crumbling estates in most areas of the country, it was the middle classes who took over the administration of English example and precept. In their hands, gentility became a furious competition and strange arbitrary rules grew up about clothes and fashion. Both men and women took an active role in this competition. Women’s judgements on the appearances of human beings had more of a biological than a social bias, and they were undergoing a profound transformation. The contemporary journalist René Cutforth observed that…

The old Twenties air of raffish individuality allied with a cool, if gin-soaked alienation was on the way out, along with the slate-pencil silhouette, the cloche hat, the cropped hair and the long cigarette holder. Breasts, hips and bottoms made a sudden and welcome comeback to the rapturous applause of their old fans, and this coincided with the introduction of the permanent wave. Overnight, it seemed, there was scarcely straight-haired woman with any pretensions to fashion to be seen throughout the length and breadth of the kingdom; dresses became longer as curves came in again and clothes were suddenly very soft and pretty, even fussy, and crepe de chine was the fashionable material. These were middle-class fashions. The upper class bought its clothes in Paris or Saville Row. The working-class had not enough money to affect fashion at all.

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Later in the decade, women’s fashions produced a round hat in black felt, of exactly the cut and shape of a parish priest’s. This was the ‘Puritan’ hat and originally indicated that its wearer was a bigoted fanatic dedicated to sex in its purest and most clinical form, unadulterated by any other kind of feeling whatever, a high priestess of the erotic, according to René Cutforth. There was no doubt in his mind that the British of that time were more inhibited sexually than most other Europeans, but he was also convinced that the followers of Freud, enthusiasts in stripping sex of its romantic trappings and of any feeling other than physical excitement, produced as many casualties as cures.  The sexual missionaries claimed D. H. Lawrence as their ally but by the time he had died in 1930, he had already detested and disowned them. Women in Love had shown that he was on the side of intuition against intellect, of feelings against concepts, of the sense of touch against the kingdom of the eye, of feminine sensibilities against masculine lust. Instinct, in his view, had been bossed around by the mind for far too long: it was time it staged a comeback. It did, in the thirties, as his influence continued to grow.

Another infection of mass conditioning which also crossed the channel, but whose virus bred much milder mutations in the British atmosphere was the Wandervogel, very much in vogue in the twenties in Germany.

 

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The Women’s League of Health and Beauty, led by Prunella Stack, was another manifestation of this continental vogue for mass parades. Women in every town and village in the land disported themselves of physical training, rolling about on the floors of gymnasiums, drill halls and village institutes, clad in a uniform of shorts and white satin blouses. ‘Hiking’ also began in the early thirties. ‘Going for walks’ in the countryside had been a British pastime for centuries. In the thirties, the countryside was much more attractive than it was after the second world war for two main reasons. Firstly, agricultural labourers, unable to live on their wages during the Depression, had moved in large numbers to the towns, so fields were ill-tended and wild plants grew everywhere. Secondly, chemical insecticides had not yet arrived to achieve the dull uniformity of efficient farming which became ubiquitous in later decades of the twentieth century.

 

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Walking, therefore, became a mass pursuit, with a uniform of shorts and open shirts. Carrying a knapsack or a rucksack on their backs, the hikers, the majority of them women in groups of five or six as shown in the picture above, ‘invaded’ the countryside in vast numbers. Special trains were laid on from the big cities to take them out into the wilder spots. The body, which had simply meant sex in the twenties, now came to mean health and hygiene. Sunbathing and nudism were also pursuits which, for some reason, had to be done in groups. These were derived from nature therapies devised by the Germans to help children who suffered from malnutrition in the days of the Allied blockade.

 

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The figures for car ownership also indicated rapid social change towards a more democratic society. The roads to the seaside were jammed with family cars and swimming pools were crowded. Thousands of people had tasted the delights of flying in Alan Cobham’s Air Circuses, and in the thirties flying was still glamorous. Amy Johnson was the ‘Truly British Girl’, brought up in Hull where her father owned a fish business, and flying for her was an escape from the humdrum into the high altitude where popular heroes lived. She was a solicitor’s typist but had made herself a fully qualified pilot and mechanic, a rare combination. She wrote to Sir Sefton Branker, the Civil Aviation Chief, about her ambition and Sir Sefton found sponsors for her. Amy bought an old green Gipsy Moth, called it Jason, rebuilt it with her own hands and flew single-handed to Australia in 1930. She became an instant success, ‘our’ Amy as much as Gracie Fields, the Lancashire mill-girl singer, was ‘our Gracie’. That was not because of any warm proletarian solidarity on Amy’s part, but merely the result of her Yorkshire accent. She filled the role of popular heroine and played the part of wonder-woman for years. She married Jim Mollison (pictured bottom), another record-breaking flyer and they became the first husband and wife to fly the Atlantic, but Mollison was something of a playboy and never really as good a flyer as Amy. Her serial came to an end when she crashed, unpublicised, during the war while flying a transport plane. She was, perhaps, the first modern British heroine. Heroes and heroines were much sought after in the thirties, particularly in sport. Thousands crammed into Wimbledon to watch British players Bunny Austin and Betty Nuthall (below) fight bravely and long against the great Americans.

 

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                                                                                                                                                                    (to be continued… )                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       

 

A Hundred Years Ago: The Great War, 1917 – Autumn into Winter   Leave a comment

This year’s Armistice Day (Saturday 11 November) also marks the end of the Battle of Passchendaele (Third Ypres), which ended on the 10th November, following the fall of the village of Passchendaele to Canadian troops on 6 November. It was claimed the offensive succeeded in stopping German forces from taking advantage of French weaknesses, but if this were true, it was only at a cost of 275,000 British casualties in return for just five miles of territory.

While British troops were dying in the Flanders bogs, the usual autumnal sacrifice of an ally was all but consummated. Twelve Battles of the Isonzo were fought on the Italian Front between June 1915 and November 1917. The Italians had little success after joining the war on the Allied side and suffered heavy losses in defeats by the Austro-Hungarian forces. Machine-gunners were heard to shout to Italian troops to stop and go back, promising to stop shooting. Italian commander Luigi Cadorna punished his underperforming units by shooting every tenth man, in a throwback to the Roman system of decimation. 

In 1917, the Battles on the Isonzo continued between June and November. On 24 October 1917 on the middle Isonzo, an army of nine Austrian divisions and six German burst in the misty morning through the Italian front, and in a fortnight’s fighting forced it back from river line to river line with a loss of 600,000 men. The German and Austro-Hungarian allies then advanced to positions just fifteen miles from Venice following their overwhelming victory at Caporetto in October and November, after which 260,000 Italian soldiers surrendered. The Italians eventually found standing ground on the River Piave, where they stopped their seventy-mile retreat, covering Venice, though only just. Britain and France sent reinforcements, and their generals helped to reconstitute the broken Italian forces.

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Back on the Western Front on 20th November, British forces, at last, achieved a breakthrough by deploying 476 Mark IV tanks at Cambrai. For a moment, they almost brought back the warfare of manoeuvre. Although first used at Flers-Courcelette, Cambrai was where tanks first showed their true potential. Additionally, the battle incorporated new tactics from the air as well as on the ground. Ground-attack aircraft and coordinated artillery fire ensured the advancing troops were able to move forward in a way which had hitherto been impossible or, at least, uncommon, along the front. The surprise was achieved across a broad section of it, and troops broke through the Hindenburg Line, in places gaining five miles of territory. Church bells were rung in celebration, somewhat prematurely, as it turned out.

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Yet Passchendaele had so drained and depleted British reserves that they were unable to develop their initial victory into an outright one at Cambrai or to prevent a determined German counter-attack ten days later. The reach of British forces had exceeded their grasp. The German counter-attacks reversed the successes. Casualties amounted to 45,000 on each side, but the battle at least, and at last, gave hope to the Allies that new tactics could succeed where the war of attrition had failed. Cambrai remains one of the key actions of the War, for it offered them a means of release from the bondage of sieges. For the first time the British, in particular, were able to learn the true value of a weapon of which they were the exponents.

At Cambrai, the British forces were pioneers in new tactics which their enemy did not grasp the full meaning of. But the Germans had also been innovative in their tactics. All former offensives had, sooner or later, come to a halt for the same reason – wearied troops were met by fresh reserves. The attackers continued hammering at an unbreakable front because they had ‘set the stage’ for action in that one area, and could not easily shift their batteries and communications. In a word, all offensives lacked mobility. Germany’s first business, therefore, was to make the battle mobile and introduce the element of surprise.

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Above: An ammunition column at the Battle of Cambrai, 21 November 1917.

Yet their plan was not a breakthrough in the older sense of puncturing the line in one spot, but a general crumbling of the line. It was based on the highly specialised training of certain units, and the absence of any preliminary massing of near the point of attack. There was no longer to be any prolonged bombardment to alarm the enemy. The advance was made by selected troops in small clusters, carrying light trench-mortars and many machine-guns, with the field batteries close behind them in support. The actual mode of attack, which the French called infiltration, was like a hand with steel finger-tips being pushed through a yielding substance, like loose earth. The élite troops at the fingertips made gaps through which those behind them passed, till each section of the defending line found itself outflanked and encircled. Rather than an isolated stroke, the offensive was like a creeping sickness which could demoralise a hundred of miles of front.

In fact, the Germans had first used these tactics at the capture of Riga in September, but the true test had come in October at Caporetto. The Allied Staffs had been slow to grasp the significance of the new method for the Western Front. Caporetto was explained by a breakdown in Italian nerve, hence their ill-preparedness for the counter-attack at Cambrai. There the attack on the British left, carried out using the old tactics, signally failed, while the assault on their right, deploying the new ones, was an obvious success. Yet the Allied Staffs blamed their defeat on defective local intelligence. As a consequence, four months later, their armies read the true lessons of Cambrai in letters of fire.

After Passchendaele and Caporetto some inquisition into military methods was inevitable. The first changes were at British Headquarters. The Prime Minister was in favour of a change in the chief command, but Haig could not easily be forced from his place. He made a bold bid for more unity in command, securing some lesser resignations in order to improve the efficiency of his staff. After Caporetto it was decided that a War Council should sit at Versailles, consisting of the Prime Minister and one other statesman from each of the Allies. The soldiers naturally objected to being mere advisers without executive power, so in January 1918 a revised machinery was framed – a military committee with Foch as president, empowered to create a general reserve by contributions from all the Allied armies. The committee soon failed, however, since it is one of the first principles of war that the same authority which controls general operations must also control reserves, and a committee cannot, therefore, command an army. Added to this, Haig refused to allocate British divisions to the general reserve since he believed that he had no divisions to give since they were all already deployed at the front.

If at the beginning of 1918, Haig and Sir William Robertson, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, had proposed Foch as their overall Commander, they would have carried the day, but in November 1917 Lloyd George was more interested in a great offensive in Palestine and determined to make the Versailles machinery work. He had complained, perhaps unfairly, that he did not get sufficient help from his official military advisers. Nevertheless, as John Buchan pointed out in 1935,

In a democracy relations between soldiers and statesmen must always be delicate, but they were notably less strained in Britain than in France or Italy.

At the close of 1917, British public opinion could no longer see a clear outline of the war. Russia had fallen out of that line, and new and unknown quantities had entered the conundrum. It had been a depressing year which, beginning with the promise of a decision, had closed for the Allies in a deep uncertainty. They had taken Baghdad and Jerusalem, indisputable successes, but ones which affected only Turkey, and even there weakening her extremities rather than striking at her heart.

Discomfort was growing in every British home since lights were darkened and rations were reduced, and there was the unvarying tale of losses to rend the heart. One such tale was that of Mrs Amy Beechey, who had eight sons, all of whom served in the armed forces. Five were killed: Barnard at Loos in September 1915; Frank on the Somme in November 1916; Harold at Arras in April 1917; Charles in Tanzania in October 1917 and Leonard, who died in December 1917 after being wounded at Cambrai. When the King and Queen met Mrs Beechey, she told the Queen:

I did not give them willingly.

Of her three other sons, Chris suffered severe injuries after being hit by a sniper at Gallipoli, Samuel served in France at the very end of the war, and Eric became a dentist in the Royal Army Medical Corps. In addition to these bereavements, women were also being killed in the munitions factories at home. In 1916-17 ninety-six died from poisoning caused by working in TNT. Women munitions workers became known as ‘canaries’ due to the toxicity affecting the liver and causing jaundice, turning their skins yellow.  The economic cost of war was also taking its toll, with seventy percent of Britain’s Gross National Product being spent on it in 1917.

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Above: Women making shells

Peace, Bread and Land were what the Bolsheviks promised the Russian people in the October Revolution (which took place in November in the western, Gregorian calendar). Protests had led to the end of the tsar’s rule in March, after which the Provisional Government had kept Russia in the war. The minister of war, Alexander Kerensky, advocated a fresh attack but the lacklustre Kerensky Offensive in June, although initially successful, saw the Russian Army disintegrate as the Germans overwhelmed their opponents, reaching Riga in September.  The First Women’s Battalion of Death was set up to shame male Russian soldiers into fighting, though they were also antagonistic towards those seeking to prolong the war.  In total, several hundred Russian women took part in the war.

Kornilov, the one fighting General left, wasted his in futile quarrels; a weary people turned to whatever offered leadership; and in October the Bolshevik revolution, inspired by Vladimir Lenin and organised by Leon Trotsky, marched swiftly to power. On 7 November (in the west) its triumph was complete, the triumph of a handful of determined men. When Lenin and Trotsky established the Bolsheviks as the dominant group in December, he was then in a position to take Russia out of the war. An armistice soon followed, on 16 December, with Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and Turkey, thus ending Russia’s involvement in the war. At Brest Litovsk before the close of the year, the new Russian rulers accepted from Germany a degrading peace. The victory of the Bolsheviks and the defeat of Russia meant Germany would no longer be fighting on two fronts, and so troops were released to take part in the Spring Offensive – Germany’s last chance to win the war.

In Britain, the Russian Revolution, followed by the Stockholm Conference, let loose a flood of theorising; there were incessant Labour disputes. John Buchan observed that the British people were…

… war-weary, puzzled, suspicious, and poisoned to some extent by false propaganda. All zest and daylight had gone out of the struggle. The cause for which the British people had entered it was now half-forgotten, for men’s minds had grown numb. Civilians at home, as well as soldiers in the field, felt themselves in the grip of an inexorable machine.

He remarked that it was a dangerous mood;

… dangerous to the enemy, for it meant that grim shutting of the teeth which with Britain is a formidable thing. But it was also dangerous also to ourselves, for it might have resulted in a coarsening of fibre and a blindness to the longer view and the greater issues.

But Buchan believed that Britain had an effective antidote to this mood in the stoical form of George V:

That this was not its consequence was in large part due to the King, who by his visits to every industrial centre kept before dazed and weary minds the greatness of the national purpose and the unity of the people. Wherever he went he seemed to unseal the founts of human sympathy. 

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He visited the shipbuilders on the Clyde and the Tyne, as well as most of the major munitions works. To the disquiet of the War Cabinet, he also went to Lancashire during a strike, where he was warmly welcomed. Lloyd George paid the following tribute to his role:

The loyalty of the people was heartened and encouraged… by the presence of their Sovereign in their midst, and by the warm personal interest he showed in their work and their anxieties. In estimating the value of the different factors which conduced to the maintenance of our home front in 1917, a very high place must be given to the affection inspired by the King, and the unremitting diligence with which he set himself in those dark days to discharge the functions of his high office.

The Autumn and early Winter of 1917 were indeed the darkest days of the war for Britain, but exactly how dark was only realised by the Government and the Admiralty. Lloyd George himself also rose to the crisis. The loss of British shipping to the U-boats in the early part of the year had left the country with only six weeks of corn supplies. It was impossible to lay a mine-field close to the German bases or to attack them because the Battle of Jutland had left the Royal Navy without full command of the North Sea. Much was done by rationing, by increasing home production and through the expansion of shipbuilding, but the real remedy, which, before the summer had gone had relieved the situation, was a new plan of defence. The convoy system was pressed upon an unwilling Admiralty at a time before Britain had even the promise of a multitude of American destroyers. With the help of some of the younger naval officers, it was finally accepted and put into force. It had an immediate effect, as the losses to convoyed ships amounted to only one percent, compared to the one in four being lost in April. By September, the monthly tonnage lost was under two hundred thousand, compared with the 875,000 lost in April, at the peak of the losses. When peace came, eighty-eight thousand merchant vessels had been convoyed, with a loss of only 436. At the same time, the advent of better depth charges led to the destruction of more than half of the U-boats by the Royal Navy before the end of the War.

Despite this improving picture at sea, by the end of 1917, the initiative in the war on the land had passed once again to the Central Powers. Russia’s collapse enabled the Germans to redeploy large forces from the Eastern to the Western Front which meant that they could muster more men on the latter than the Allies, who had resigned themselves to a defensive campaign until the Americans could send their armies. Germany had one last chance to beat the Allies before that happened. The U-boat campaign had failed and the German people were weak with privations and their hope was failing, having suffered so many military disappointments. A decisive Spring Offensive was all that stood between them and ignominious defeat in the year to come.

 

Sources:

Norman Ferguson (2014), The First World War: A Miscellany. Chichester: Summersdale.

John Buchan (1935), The King’s Grace. London: Hodder and Stoughton.

 

The Dialects of Middle English: Part two; From Mercian to West and East Midland.   Leave a comment

The Anglo-Saxons who invaded and settled the Midlands and Northern England spoke two distinct dialects of OE, Northumbrian (North of the Humber) and Mercian. During the ME period, Mercian or the Midland dialect developed distinctive features in the Danelaw, where it came under the influence of Danish Old Norse speakers. As a result, OE Mercian developed into two ME dialects, East Midland and West Midland. The West Midland dialect can again be divided into two, one to the north of the Trent and the other to its south, but there are sufficient similarities for them to be treated as one dialect.

The north-West Midland Dialect

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a romance in alliterative verse which tells a story of the legendary court of King Arthur. The story begins with the New Year celebrations at the court, when a green knight rides in, carrying a battle-axe, and challenges any knight to strike him a blow with the axe, provided that he can give a return blow a year and a day later. Gawain takes up the challenge.

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The only surviving manuscript (transcribed and in print above) was probably written towards the end of the fourteenth century, and the scholars are agreed that the dialect is the north-West Midland of present-day south Lancashire and Cheshire. The manuscript shows how, long before spelling became standardised, a single letter could be related to several different sounds in English. The poem is written in 101 stanzas which have a varying number of unrhymed alliterative lines followed by five short rhymed lines. Like all OE and ME verse, it was written to be read out loud to an audience. Although it was contemporary with Chaucer’s writing, it is more difficult to read for MnE users, partly because some of the vocabulary is from a stock of words reserved for use in poetry, and partly because many words of the West Midland dialect came down into MnE spoken dialects, but not into written Standard English. It contains a large number of ON, Old French and dialect words that have not survived into MnE.

The south-West Midland Dialect 

Piers Plowman is one of the most famous poems in ME. It must have been a very popular work in its own day, because over fifty manuscripts have survived. The poem is an allegory of the Christian life, and of the corruption of the contemporary Church and society, written in the form of a series of dreams or ‘visions’:

Ac on a May mornyng on Maluerne hulles (= hills)

Me biful for to slepe

And merueylousliche me mette (= dreamed),

as y may telle.

(Prologue, lines 6-7, 9)

Piers is a humble poor labourer who stands for the ideal of honest work and obedience to the Church. The poem’s author, William Langland, is unknown other than for this one work, in which he characterised himself as ‘Will’ or ‘Long Will’, living in London, at Cornhill, with Kit his wife and a daughter named Calote. Apart from what he tells us, there is no evidence about him. There are three versions of the poem extant today (A, B and C texts), which show that Langland continually revised and extended the poem from the 1360s to the 1380s, when the C-text was probably completed. It is a fine example of alliterative verse in English. The dialect is south-West Midland, but rather mixed, and there are many variant spellings in the fifty manuscripts. The later, printed text of Langland’s poem is ‘edited’, based on one of the C-text manuscripts, but using other manuscripts or making changes where these do not make good sense. Abbreviations are also filled out and modern punctuation added. In addition, the manuscripts used by the editor are copies, not the original. Consequently, any observations made about either Langland’s ‘idiolect’, or the south-West Midland dialect in general would need to be verified from other sources.

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There are relatively few words of French origin in Langland’s verse (extracts above and below), and even fewer from ON. The South, West and West Midlands of England had not been settled by Danes or Norwegians, so the scarcity of ON words is to be expected. The proportion of French words in one short text cannot be used to come to any significant conclusions, but it does perhaps demonstrate that the solid core of OE vocabulary continued into the ME of these regions of England, becoming the basis of their modern colloquial language.

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East Midland and London Dialects:

Of the ME manuscripts which have come down to us, a large proportion are in the form of sermons or homilies which set out the ideals of the Church and the Christian life. A typical example is in The Parson’s Tale from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, in which the primary and most prominent theme is sin and repentance for sin, or penitence:

Seint Ambrose seith that penitence is the plenynge of man for the gilt that he hath doon and namoore to doon any thyng for which hym oghte to pleyne.

The secondary theme is the ‘Seven Deadly Sins’, those sins which were thought to be the most offensive and serious. These were pride, envy, wrath (= anger), sloth, covetousness, gluttony and lust:

Now it is behouely thing to telle whiche ben dedly synnes, that is to seyn chieftaynes of synnes… Now ben they clepid chieftaynes for as much as they ben chief and sprynge of alle othere synnes… This synne of ire, after the descryuyng of seint Augustyn, is wikked wil to be auenged by word or by ded.

One of the reasons for learning about the early development of the English language is to understand the relationships between the dialects and Standard English in the present-day language. In the conglomeration of different dialects that we call ‘Middle English’, there is no single recognised standard form. By studying the political, social, economic and cultural history of England in relation to the language, it is possible to determine that the conditions for a standard language to emerge were beginning to take shape by the second half of the fifteenth century. From the beginning of the sixteenth century, scholars and writers began to discuss the need for a standard in spelling, pronunciation and grammar, which naturally raised the question as to which dialect or variety of the language should be used to create that standard. A standard language, in modern sociological terms, is…

…that speech variety of a language which is legitimised as the obligatory norm for social intercourse on the strength of the interests of dominant forces in that society (Norbert Dittmar, 1976: Sociolinguistics).

By this definition, the choice is made by people imitating those with prestige or power in their society, while those in power tend to prescribe their variety of the language as the ‘correct’ one to use. A standard language is not, of itself, superior as a language for communication over other dialects, but in its adoption and development it is the language of those with social and political influence, and therefore intrinsic superiority is often claimed for it. For example, in 1589, the poet George Puttenham published a book called, The Arte of English Poesie. In it, he gave advice to poets on their choice of language:

It must be that of educated, not common people, neither shall he follow the speech of a craftes man, or other of the inferiour sort, though he be inhabitant or bred in the best towne and ciie in this Realme. But he shall follow generally the better brought up sought,… ciuill and graciously behauoured and bred.

The recommended dialect was therefore Southern, forming the usuall speach of the Court, that of London and the shires lying about London within sixty miles… This defines the literary language already in use in the sixteenth century, and clearly describes it as the prestigious language of the educated classes of London and the South-East. Being the centre of government, trade and commerce, its dialect was that of the ‘dominant forces’ in society, so that it was set to become the dominant form of the language.

The London dialect in the late fourteenth century derived from a mixture of ME dialects, but was strongly influenced by the East Midland dialect, partly because the city was then built wholly on the North side of the Thames, with suburbs running out into Essex and Middlesex, rather than into Kent and Surrey, and partly because there was a significant migration into London from the East Midlands and East Anglia in late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. There were also immigrants from south of the Thames, especially from Kent, which stretched from Dover to Greenwich at that time. However, although there are traces of the Kentish and Southern dialects in the London dialect, present-day Standard English derives its origins from the East Midland dialect of Middle English, which is why the English of Chaucer from the late fourteenth century is not so very different from the late sixteenth century language of Shakespeare. Both, of course, had Midland origins themselves. The extract below is from ‘The Friar’s Tale’ by Chaucer:

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Geoffrey Chaucer was born in the 1340s and died in 1400: He was acknowledged in his own day as the greatest contemporary writer, not only in poetry, but also in the arts of rhetoric and philosophy. He wrote in the London dialect of ME of his time; that is, the literary form of the speech of the educated classes. The dialect of the mass of ordinary people living in London must have been very different, both in form and pronunciation, as it is today. The Canterbury Tales is Chaucer’s best-known work, but some of the tales are much more widely read than others. Most of them are in verse, and it is unlikely that the two tales in prose will ever be popular, since their content and style are less accessible to the modern reader. However, they do provide evidence of the development of the language. However, changes and variations in the pronunciation of a language are much more difficult to study than changes in vocabulary or spelling. One useful source of evidence, however, is in rhyming verse. If two words rhyme, we presume that they contain the same sounds. We can then look up the derivation of the words and compare the spellings and possible pronunciations. The principle changes from OE to ME are in the loss of inflections, but there are many changes from ME to MnE in vowels, and some in consonants. There are also some interesting changes in the stress patterns of some words from ME to MnE, so that identical words no longer rhyme in present-day English.

From the fourteenth century onwards, we begin to find many more examples of everyday language surviving in letters and public documents than we do for earlier English. Literary language draws on the ordinary language of its time, but we cannot be sure that it tells us how people actually spoke. In Chaucer’s day London was, from time to time, the scene of violence and demonstration in the streets. Thomas Usk was involved with what turned out to be the losing side in the political factions of his day, and describes a series of incidents in the 1380s. He was unsuccessful in his appeal for clemency in 1384 (below), and was executed sometime after. His appeal is an example of the London English of a fairly well-educated man, and provide further evidence of its proximity to the East Midland dialect of ME.   

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