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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.

 

 

 

Posted October 1, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in Affluence, Birmingham, Britain, British history, Britons, Caribbean, Coalfields, Cold War, Communism, Conservative Party, Coventry, democracy, Europe, European Economic Community, France, guerilla warfare, History, Humanities, Hungary, Ireland, Journalism, Labour Party, Marxism, Midlands, Migration, Militancy, Narrative, National Health Service (NHS), nationalisation, Population, Remembrance, Revolution, Russia, Social Service, south Wales, Thatcherism, Uncategorized, Unemployment, USA, USSR, Victorian, Wales, Welfare State

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‘The March of Wales’ – Border Country: A Historical Walk in the Black Mountains, following Offa’s Dyke. Part One.   Leave a comment

“I was walking the line of Offa’s Dyke in North Wales when

the slanting late afternoon winter light raked across the landscape,

illuminating the folds in the gently rolling hillside.”

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Offa’s Dyke in North Wales (foreground) with Chirk Castle in the distance.

Photo by Kevin Bleasdale, Landscape Photographer of the Year.

(www.ukgreetings.co.uk)

Bucket-lists and Border-lines:

One of the things to do on my ‘bucket list’ is the Offa’s Dyke Path, the long-distance footpath which ‘follows’ the Dark Age dyke allegedly made by the King of the Saxon Kingdom of Mercia to mark the boundary of his territory with ‘the Welsh’ territories to its west. I have done two other long-distance paths, the Pennine Way and the Pembrokeshire Coast Path, together with long sections of the South West Coast Path, between Plymouth and Teignmouth, and completed the Wessex Walk between Uphill and Wells. By comparison with these long-distance paths, only two sections of the Offa’s Dyke path, through the Black Mountains and the Clwydians, really offer the same sort of open walking country. Having completed one short section near Chirk some twenty-five years ago while staying in Llangollen, in this post, I wish to concentrate on the first of the section between Llanthony Priory and Hay-on-Wye, which I hope to tackle this summer (July 2018), fitness and weather permitting! Llwybr Clawdd Offa, as it’s known in Welsh, is Britain’s fourth long-distance path to be officially opened, runs the entire length of the border, from the Severn Estuary near the old Severn Bridge at  Chepstow to the sea at Prestatyn on the north Welsh coast, a distance of 168 miles. Throughout its length, history is brought to life, not just by Offa’s frontier earthwork, but by ancient hill forts, prehistoric trackways, old drover roads, medieval castles and by the numerous small market towns and villages which are linked by the path.

As a footpath rich in scenic variety, as well as historical and literary associations, it will have attractions not just for the seasoned walker, completing the coast-to-coast walk in two or three weeks, but also the amateur historian and archaeologist, and those seeking casual recreation. The footpath was approved by the Minister of Housing and Local Government in 1955 but little progress was made for some years in opening up the many miles of new rights of way needed. Then, in 1966, the National Parks Commission decided to give greater priority to the proposal and three years later, when it became known as the Countryside Commission, came a decision to open the path during 1971. The Offa’s Dyke Association, set up to promote conservation of the Border area along the path, and to work for the path’s completion, were naturally sceptical. But with the exception of a few sections, the route had been completed with waymarks by the target date. On 10th July 1971, the path was formally opened at an open-air ceremony in Knighton, preceded by an inaugural walk along the path north of the town over the Panpunton Hill. More recently, a connecting path to Machynlleth and on to Welshpool (Y Trallwng) has been added, called Glyndwr’s Way, which provides a circuitous historical walk from the Dyke across the Cambrian mountains.

Celts, Romans, Britons and Saxons:

The History of ‘the Border Country’ goes back to Roman times when in A.D. 47 the invaders had reached westward to the Severn. On the other side of the river lay the hill country, defended by strong Celtic tribes: the warlike Silures of the south were led by their Belgic leader Caradoc (Caractacus) who had fled westward to rouse the western tribes: the Ordovices of the central border and the Deceangli of the north. Caradoc was defeated in A.D. 51, and many places along the hill margin, including ‘British Camp’ in the Malvern Hills, claim to be the site of his last battle. Strong resistance continued, however, and it was ten years before the Romans could attack the Ordovices and the Deceangli, following the establishment in A.D. 60 of the fortress and legionary headquarters of Deva (Chester). Only a year later the army had advanced to Anglesey, overrunning the hill forts. In the south, the campaign of A.D. 74 was the decisive one when Julius Frontinius fought a hard battle against the Silures, though it was four years before the Romans could move further west under Agricola.

The Border formed very much a frontier zone in the Roman expansion. Except in the south, in the Wye Valley area, and east of the hill margin, developments were essentially military in character, with no great effect on native life, which went on much as before. Roads linking the several forts that had been set up in this zone ran along the north and south coast routes, based on Deva and Isca (Caerleon), and east-west up the main valleys into the hills, the easiest into what later became Wales. A north-south road linked these roads through the hill margins. During the first century of Roman rule a number of Celtic hill forts were strengthened, for although the Celts had made use of the sharp edges of the uplands for farming, its strategic and military potential was first realised by the Romans as a base for launching their campaigns against the uplands. It was these roads and forts which first defined the border.

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With the withdrawal of the Roman Legions in A.D. 410, Celtic culture saw a renaissance in craftsmanship and bardic poetry, and a growth in political and the rise and spread of Christianity by the Celtic Church. Gradually, various Romano-British kingdoms or ‘fiefdoms’ began to emerge under separate rulers or ‘chieftains’. One of these, Ambrosius Aurelius, may have been the inspiration for the Arthurian legends, having fought a series of battles against the invading Saxons which ended with Badon Hill in about A.D. 515. Along the hill margins, the kingdom of Gwynedd covered the land north of the River Dee and west of the Vale of Clwyd. The Vale itself formed a contested territory between Gwynedd and the great central kingdom of Powys, ‘the Paradise of Wales’ as it was called by the bard who wrote the ‘saga cycle’ of Llywarch Hen. On the southern margins, Brycheiniog covered Breconshire and Gwent, Monmouthshire. Powys was the great bardic centre, from where we find the reference to Taliesin singing at the court:

I sang in the meadows of the Severn

Before an illustrious lord,

Before Brochfael of Powys…

It seems to have been usual for an official bard to be attached to each court, with some lords and princes acquiring reputations as patrons of the bards. The achievement of these early poets was considerable. They created a heroic age, a new legendary past for ages to come. As long as the Welsh tradition lasted, that is to say, for at least another ten centuries, their patrons were taken as models of generosity and courage. The poems and sequences of englynion (stanzas of three or four lines) associated with Llywerch Hen (‘the Old’) were long thought to be the work of the sixth-century prince but were later shown to be about the legendary figure, rather than being by him. They belong to the ninth-century sagas, with the narrative told in prose. Llywarch was a warrior of North Britain, who bore the severed head of his lord King Urien of Rheged from the battlefield, so that it would be buried and not humiliated. He eventually found refuge to the south, in Powys, where he again found himself having to fight the Saxon invaders, and his twenty-four sons, impelled by their own ready valour and their father’s bitter tongue, fought too. One after another they perished in their father’s pride. Gwén, the last of them, arrives late for the battle, to find all his brothers dead. There is no-one left to defend the Gorlas Ford on the River Llawen. Llywerch himself, old as he is, is arming himself for the battle. Here, as Gwén too prepares for battle, father and son enter into dialogue:

Gwén:

Keen my spear, it glitters in battle.

I will indeed watch on the Ford.

If I am not back, God be with you!

Llywarch:

If you survive it, I shall see you,

If you are killed. then I’ll mourn you,

Lose not in hardship warrior’s honour!

Gwén:

I shall not shame you, giver of battles,

When the brave man arms for the border,

Though hardship beset me, I’ll stay my ground.

Llywarch:

A wave shifting over the shore,

By and by strong purpose breaks,

Boasters commonly flee in a fight.

Llywarch urges his last son to sound the horn given to him by his uncle, Urien, if he is hard-pressed in the forthcoming fight. The way that Llywarch mentions it suggests that this horn, in the saga, may have had magical properties. But Gwén replies contemptuously, Though terror press round me, and the fierce thieves of England, … I’ll not wake your maidens! It is the mutual anger between father and son, each insulting each other’s honour, that makes any genuine precautions against tragedy impossible. Magic is irrelevant in this equation. All that matters is human folly and pride. Yet there is an over-riding sense of fate or destiny, a supernatural context in which such situations are allowed, or even willed, to take place. Llywarch is not only pitted against his own pride and folly, but also against hostile destiny – tynged in Welsh – whose design is revealed to him only gradually as his downfall proceeds. And as he grows old, the bard gives him one more opportunity to reveal himself to the in-every-sense bitter end: angry, baffled, useless to man, woman or beast, a prey to pain, remorse, lacerated vanity, and a desperate loneliness. His king, his fellow-countrymen, his Patria, his sons – all are in ruins. Where has it all gone? And where is longed-for Death? As ‘folk-history’, Welsh heroic poetry was driven into the subconsciousness by the trauma of the Anglo-Saxon conquest of the sixth century, and by what Anthony Conran, in his introduction to his own translations of it, called the cultural amnesia of the times. When it re-emerged, it became intimately connected with a whole prophetic tradition, which kept up its messianic rumblings right through to the Wars of the Roses.  

From the late sixth century, the mixed peoples of eastern Britain, generically labelled ‘Anglo-Saxons’ and organising themselves in kingdoms, resumed their advance into the west. It was a long, slow, piecemeal process; some of the advances may not represent straightforward conquests and there is evidence of the transient existence of people who were literally ‘mongrels’. But it was remorseless. The foundation of kingdoms in the north opened an epoch of battles with the North Britons which were to be central to later historical traditions among the Welsh. After a battle near Bath in 577, the kings of Gloucester, Bath and Cirencester were gone and Saxon power reached the Bristol Channel, from where it was able to press on into the south-west. Ceawlin, king of Wessex, drove a wedge between the Britons dwelling between the Severn Estuary and the Irish Sea and those in Devon and Cornwall. A second wedge, driven by Aethelfrith, king of Northumbria, early in the seventh century, separated the Britons in Cumbria from their compatriots, or Cymry, further south. This effectively isolated and created Walleas, the Germanic word for ‘aliens’, or ‘North Wales’, as distinct from Cornwalleas, or ‘West Wales’ including Devon, and Cumbria and Strathclyde, the kingdoms of the northern Britons.  

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Between 650 and 670, the Saxon advance westward had reached the borders of Powys and the River Dee, while the River Wye marked the limit of the advance in the south. In the early seventh century, Northumbria was the most powerful kingdom of the Anglo-Saxon ‘heptarchy’. The ascendancy of the midland kingdom of Mercia began during the reign of the warlike, pagan Penda (623-654). Minor kings after him rose and fell in a period of civil warfare until by 731, Bede tells us, all of ‘Aengleland’ south of the Humber was subject to Aethelbald (716-756). He, therefore, referred to himself as ‘King of the southern English’. He maintained his ascendancy for thirty years until he was murdered by his own bodyguard. From the ensuing civil war within Mercia itself, Offa emerged as the key figure in the Mercian supremacy. He reigned from 757-796 and was the first king to be styled, in imperial terms, as King of the English.

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Who was Offa and why did he build a dyke?

History reveals all too little of the Mercian king whose name is forever linked to the great dyke built in the margins which had been continually disputed by the Welsh and the English. We do know that the means by which he gradually expanded his kingdom and his hegemony over the heptarchy were not always fair. In 793, Aethelbert, the Christian king of East Anglia, paid a visit to Offa to seek the hand of his daughter Aelfrida. He was murdered, either on the orders of Offa, or those of his queen. There are differing accounts of what happened, but it is most likely that Offa realised that, with Aethelbert ‘out of the way’, Mercia could take control of East Anglia, which it did. Offa was then able to deal on almost equal terms with Charlemagne who had once closed his ports to English trade for some three years.

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Above: A Victorian tile from the floor of the choir in Hereford Cathedral depicting the beheading of St Aethelbert by order of King Offa.

Throughout the first half of the eighth century a protracted struggle had gone on between Mercia and Powys as the frontier was gradually driven back from the line of furthest advance marked by various short ‘dykes’ to the more settled frontiers marked by the great running earthwork constructed under Offa, probably after the last Welsh counter-attack in 784. Around this time we can picture the English as settled farmers, with greater craftsmanship and better equipment than their sixth-century predecessors, if with less military skill. The Welsh occupied the hill territory to the west, living in kinship groups (gwelau), were dependent mainly upon the cattle they summer-pastured on the hills and over-wintered in the valley meadows.

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The line of the Dyke extends from Sedbury Cliffs on the Severn, through the Wye Valley and Herefordshire, across the Clun district of ‘Salop’, part of Shropshire today, and northwards via Chirk and Ruabon to the sea at Prestatyn, a distance of 149 miles. Of these, the running earthwork of the Dyke itself is traceable for eighty-one miles, consisting of an earth bank with a ditch, usually on the west-facing side, sometimes with ditches on both sides, and averaging in height some six feet above ground level, and in breadth almost sixty feet. While contemporary manuscripts throw little light on the making of the Dyke, the more recent detailed archaeological surveys have led to a much deeper understanding of the Border as it existed in Offa’s time. Its principal purpose was to provide a frontier between Mercia and the Welsh kingdoms and to control trade by directing it through defined ‘gateways’ in the earthwork. It may, at times, also have been used for defensive purposes, but by the time it was built this would have been largely incidental. Only in a time of relative peace between the Welsh and the Mercians could a work of such a scale be achieved. It must, therefore, have been an agreed frontier. Moreover, although it would have presented something of an obstacle to cattle rustlers, it would have offered little prevention to cattle straying across.

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Above: The course of the path from Chepstow (bottom, left) to Prestatyn (top, right), in relation to surviving dyke sections.

The mastery of difficult terrain through which the Dyke runs suggests that the skill of its builders can only have been acquired through generations of experience. Two precedents on the ground can be found, firstly in the various short dykes that lie both to the east and west of the Great Dyke, and secondly in Wat’s Dyke which runs from Maesbury, south of Oswestry, to Holywell. A third precedent is found in the heroic poetry of the time. The short dykes found in the middle of the Border Country reinforced the most vulnerable sections of the Great Dyke where the hills of Salop are nearest to the Mercian capital of Tamworth. These dykes are similar in construction to Offa’s Dyke and are thought by archaeologists to form cross-valley screens at the head of agricultural land, while cross-ridge dykes controlled traffic along the ridge. These probably date from the time of Penda, representing the military activities of Mercia in the pre-Offan period. They are defensive in character, unlike Offa’s Dyke which represents the consolidation of the Mercian kingdom when the Saxons came to realise the limits of their ability to advance further west. Wat was a hero of Old English legend associated with an earlier Offa, a king of Schleswig and ancestor to the Mercian king. Wat’s Dyke may well have been named by Offa in commemoration of his own namesake, whose deeds were recorded in the epic poem Widsith, among them being his marking of boundaries.

As a boundary, however, Offa’s Dyke is unlikely to have been continuously manned but rather patrolled on horseback. Nevertheless, evidence reveals that it was built under the direction of men trained in military tradition. Offa himself is thought to have master-minded the work, possibly with a group of chieftains, planning both its course and its dimensions. Each landowner along its course was then consulted and subsequently made responsible for the construction of a particular section of it, depending on the extent of his lands or the labour available to him. In turn, this variation in experience and expertise, together with the willingness and size of the local workforce, inevitably resulted in differences in the quality and scale of the work. In some areas, the hostility of the local Welsh population, in particular, may have been a factor. Despite this, further evidence that it was an agreed frontier is contained in the existence of a set of laws governing the movements of both the Welsh and the English across the boundary. An early tenth-century document refers to an agreement between the English and the Welsh relating to Ergyng (Archenfield), a Welsh district between the Wye and the Monnow, now in Herefordshire, which remained Welsh-speaking into the nineteenth century and produced many Welsh ‘notables’. The same document also contains a reference to English territory north of the Wye, in Wales today, belonging to a people known as the Dunsaete. It suggests the existence of a relationship between these peoples which may well have dated from Offa’s time, deriving from Offa’s own laws for the conduct of both English and Welsh along the Border.

Offa’s laws, long thought lost, would then have provided for the setting-up of a “board” comprising both English and Welsh, the task of which was to explain the laws to their respective peoples. Included in the laws was a code for recovering livestock rustled across the Border, and another for the safe-conduct of either Welsh or Mercian ‘trespassers’ found on the “wrong” side of the Border by a specially appointed guide. However, the story that any man found ‘trespassing’ would be subjected to the punishment of losing his right hand, is an apocryphal one. Overall, the skill of the designer and eye for the detail of the landscape are remarkable. With few exceptions, even in the dissected terrain of the middle section of its length, the Dyke’s straights cleverly cling to the west-facing slopes, giving the Mercians the advantage of visual control over Welsh territories. Archaeological ‘detective work’  enabled the mapping of the Border landscape of Offa’s day. The straight alignments of the Dyke, occurring in both flat and undulating terrain, indicate a mixture of pastoral and arable farming; and in the uplands, open moorland. Small irregularities in mainly straight alignment tend to indicate the original presence of woodland. The Mercian farmers seem to have preferred sunny, south-facing slopes for growing crops, disliking the shaded north-facing hillsides which remained wooded. This is represented by alternate straight and sinuous alignments. Very irregular alignments, where the Dyke follows the contours of the landscape, occur where the terrain is especially rough, or where visibility between points was very limited.

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In profile sections, the Dyke varies considerably throughout its length. It is at its most formidable on the hilltops where ridgeways passed through, and on the valley floors where skilful use was made of the east sides, in order to allow the Dyke to descend from the ridges and cross the valleys while maintaining visual contact with the west. Here, too, cultivated clearings required protection in the tradition of short, transverse dykes. In many places, there is evidence of compromise between the Mercians and the Welsh. In some sections, the broad River Severn is left to mark the boundary, whereas, in others, the Dyke follows the slopes of the eastern hills above the Severn.

This suggests that to the south of Buttington, for example, the meadow pastures on both sides of the river were conceded to Powys, for, in The Mabinogion, it was stated that the man would not prosper with a war-band in Powys who would not prosper in that cultivated land. Likewise, in the Wye Valley, both sides of the river were used by Welsh timber traders who needed to land their boats on either bank. The Dyke is therefore high up on the eastern slope, controlling a long stretch of the river upstream to the point reached by exceptionally high tides in the Severn estuary.

For much of the length of the frontier, no trace of the Dyke has been found. From the point where the Dyke reaches the Wye west of Sedbury Cliffs to the Wye west of the Tutshill look-out tower, the sheer river cliffs would have formed a sufficient natural boundary in themselves. Between Highbury and Bridge Sollers in Herefordshire, the Wye again forms the boundary. For the next thirteen miles to Rushock Hill ancient and dense oak woods on the underlying Old Red Sandstone seem to have made the building of a section of dyke unnecessary, if not impossible. In this area, the dyke is only present on what would have been cleared land. For five miles north of Buttington on the Severn, the river again forms the boundary. However, the reason why the Dyke was not completed on the last five miles to the north coast is a matter of conjecture. Certainly, the intention was that it should reach the sea at Prestatyn. We know that towards the end of Offa’s reign the Welsh seem to have made an attempt to capture the land between the Dyke and the Dee. A Welsh legend, recorded in the plaintive lament Morfa Rhuddlan, tells of a fierce battle fought in 795, ending in Welsh defeat. Offa died a year later at Rhuddlan, and it may be that with his death went the driving force behind the Dyke.

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Offa was succeeded by his son, Cenwulf, who reigned until 816. His defeat at the Battle of Basingwerk marked the beginning of the decline of Mercian supremacy on the Border. Wessex was emerging as the most powerful Saxon kingdom, and Mercia was forced to turn its attention southwards. With the Dyke established, however, a degree of stability was brought to the Border Country for a time. Whereas to the east of a line from the Pennines to Salisbury Plain, there is precious little evidence of British survival into the ninth century, even in river names. West of that line, however, and into the upland watershed, there is much evidence. Place-names remain strongly Celtic, though often transmuted; Cymraeg, as well as Brythonic dialects, survived, as did Celtic farm systems and field boundaries. Early laws of the kingdom of Wessex make specific provision for a whole British hierarchy under overall Saxon rule. Further west, Cornwall survived as a British fiefdom, and in the Borderlands of the Wye and the southern Dyke, as English settlement developed, there may have been as much fusion and integration as conflict and conquest.

004 (2)

004

The concessions made to the Welsh along the Wye may also have aided this process, as Archenfield remained Welsh-speaking well into modern times, and there is also an abundance of surviving Celtic placenames to the west of the Wye in what is land on the English side of today’s border. Around Welshpool names like Buttington, Forden and Leighton also show gradual Mercian expansion in the Borderlands between 650 and 750 and strengthen the case for the concession of the Severn meadows to Powys on the building of the Dyke. In the Vale of Radnor, names like Evenjobb, Harpton and Cascob again indicate a retreat by the Welsh, but elsewhere on the whole land bordering the Dyke, there is evidence of linguistic retention on both sides. Llanymynych has obviously retained its Welsh name, despite being half in half in England, whereas Knighton is generally known by its English name, despite being wholly in Wales and having a Welsh name, Tref-y-clawdd, meaning ‘the town by the Dyke’. The area between Offa’s Dyke and Wat’s Dyke has remained Welsh-speaking in character until recent times. Despite these examples of variation, we know that the Dyke’s construction was resisted by the Welsh in numerous places along its route. Offa had driven his Dyke from coast (almost) to coast, and as Gwyn Williams (1985) wrote of the Dark Age Welsh, ‘foreigners’ in their own land …

This few and fragile people took the whole of inheritance of Britain on their shoulders. And late in the eighth century they were confronted with an imperial Offa, king of the Mercians, who had the effrontery to score his Dyke across their land and shut them out as foreigners. … The Welsh, as a people, were born disinherited.  

The ‘Compatriots’ (Cymry) & their Bards:

002

By the ninth century, therefore, the Welsh were almost completely shut up behind Offa’s Dyke. Not unnaturally, in their ‘exile’, they turned to the stories of their old homes, in Regen, Elfed, Gododdin and the rich lands of eastern Powys – roughly Cumberland, Yorkshire, SE Scotland and Shropshire respectively, according to the later Medieval geography of Britain. This was the era in which the saga-literature was composed, in the ninth and tenth centuries, about events that took place in the sixth and early seventh centuries, during the heroic age itself. The Welsh had been cut off from their fellow countrymen in the North of Britain and in Cornwall. Only in a few pockets of rugged landscape, like ‘North Wales’ and Cumberland could the ‘Cymry’ (compatriots) be found. The sense of exile must have been further aggravated by the reappearance of Roman missionaries, in the shape of St Augustine of Canterbury, telling them that their traditional Christianity was out of step with the rest of Christendom, and demanding that they should abandon their hatred of the Anglo-Saxons and join with him in converting them. The Welsh ‘saints’ told him that they preferred the idea of the English roasting in hell forevermore!

From this point in time, the geographical centre of gravity also shifted steadily southwards and eastwards: from Mercia to Wessex and from Wessex to Normandy. With it went the Celtic influence on both Church and State as the Celts were driven more and more into the western promontories and peninsulas of Europe by the predominant Rhine-Rhone cultural axis. They were more and more in a state of siege, less and less able to move freely towards imaginative creation. The saga-literature they produced is saturated with feeling for the past. A good deal of it is lamentation of one kind or another. Sometimes it is personal, either for the death of a loved one or, as in Llywarch’s famous complaint of old age, for the speaker’s own changed state. Perhaps even more typical, however, is the lament for a ruined house that the loved one has died defending. Here the loss is by no means merely personal. Cynddylan’s Hall was the tribal centre; its overthrow represents the ruin of an entire society. In the saga of Heledd, the sister of Cynddylan, the lord of Pengwern (Shrewsbury), the English are invading the good land of Powys. They have killed Cynddylan and destroyed his home. In her Elegy on Cynddylan (the poet has composed them for the mouth of the saga’s heroine), Heledd is lamenting over the ruins.

Stand out, maids, and look on the land of Cynddylan; the court of Pengwern ia ablaze; alas for the young who long for their brothers!

Cynddylan the bright buttress of the borderland, wearing a chain, stubborn in battle, he defended Trenn, his father’s town. …

How sad it is to my heart to lay the white flesh in the black coffin, Cynddylan the leader of a hundred hosts.

Heledd has seen all her brothers killed in an unavailing defence of the townships of Powys against the English invader; she has reason to blame their destruction on herself: By my accursed tongue, they are slain!  In the original Welsh, these are superb, tragic images, according to Conran, though perhaps somewhat lost even in his translation, here rendered into verse:

Stafell Gynddylan ys twywyll heno,

Heb dán, heb wely;

Wylaf wers, tawaf wedy.

(Dark is Cynddylan’s hall tonight,

With no fire, no bed;

I weep awhile, then am silent.)

Heledd’s laments are at once heart-rending and fiercely controlled, and many of the englynion on the hall of Cynddylan, the Eagle of Pengwern, the Eagle of Eli (the River Meheli in Montgomeryshire), the chapels of Bassa (Eglwysau Basa, or Basschurch) and the White Town, have the tone of great Welsh poetry. They are of a profoundly dramatic and emotional nature, but were part of a body of saga whose more direct narrative was presented in prose. Our knowledge of these sagas is unsure, for all we have are the fragments that were preserved. We must reconstruct the content of the vanished prose from the preserved verses:

The hall of Cynddylan is dark tonight, without fire, without light; longing for you comes over me.

The hall of Cynddylan, its vault is dark after the bright company; alas for him who does not do the good which falls to him!

Hall of Cynddylan, you have become shapeless, your shield is in the grave; while he lived you were not mended with hurdles.

The hall of Cynddylan is loveless tonight, after him who owned it; ah, Death, why does it spare me? …

The hall of Cynddylan, it pierces me to see it, without roof, without fire; my lord dead, myself alive …

They are enshrined in high dramatic utterance, not the merely ruminative mode of elegy. And as the elegy continues, the lamentation is raised, seemingly, not so much for one man’s death as for the ending of a way of life:

The chapels of Bassa are his resting-place tonight, his last welcome, the pillar of battle, the heart of the men of Argoed …

The chapels of Bassa have lost their rank after their destruction by the English of Cynddylan and Elfan of Powys …

The white town in the breast of the wood, this is its symbol ever – blood on the surface of its grass.

The White town in the valley, glad is the kite at the bloodshed of battle; its people have perished …

After my brothers from the lands of the Severn round the banks of the Dwyryw, woe is me, God! that I am alive …

I have looked out on a lovely land from the gravemound of Gorwynnion; long is the sun’s course – longer are my memories …

The theme, in common with the other sagas of Llywerch Hen, is that of the intertwining of both private and tribal disaster, where the facts of history are interpreted as the workings of fate and the nemesis of human pride. We leave Heledd, ‘the Proud Maiden’ and bereft Princess of Powys in her thin cloak, driving her solitary cow over the mountain pasture. In the soil that moulded her brothers, they now moulder, but she must go on living. Likewise, the Welsh went on living behind the Dyke, and the ninth to the eleventh centuries saw various attempts to create a wider unity within Wales itself, with varying degrees of success, as from time to time powerful leaders emerged: Rhodri Mawr, for instance (844-878) and Hywel Dda, his grandson, who brought together the various areas he had consolidated under the Law of Hywel Dda (the Good). But these two and a half centuries are almost without any surviving poetry. They were also punctuated by long periods of chaos, partly the result of continual Viking raids around the coasts and up the river valleys.

003

The early decades of the eleventh century were troubled times when usurpers like Llywelyn ap Seisyll (1018-1023) seized power. With his son Gruffudd ap Llywelyn, the whole of Wales came under a single ruling family for the first time. On the eve of the Norman conquest, Harold Godwinson defeated Gruffudd ap Llewelyn, the king of Gwynedd. With Gruffudd’s death in 1063, Wales was disunited once more, but Harold, on succeeding Edward the Confessor on the English throne, was unable to take advantage of this weakness, as he had to put all his efforts into the defence of his own crown against the claims of William of Normandy. During the last decades of the eleventh century, Welsh independence grew more and more precarious. For many years prior to the Conquest, Anglo-Saxon kings had claimed lordship over Wales and this loose relationship had been widely accepted by the Welsh princes; Earl Harold’s devastating campaign of 1063 had forcibly reminded the Welsh of the military strength of their English neighbours. As king of England, William I inherited this claim to Wales but, faced with problems in England and Normandy for some years after his victory at Hastings, he had little inclination to involve himself directly in Wales.

(to be continued…)

Posted June 29, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in Anglo-Saxons, Archaeology, Assimilation, Britain, British history, Britons, Celtic, Celts, Christian Faith, Christianity, Church, Civilization, clannishness, Colonisation, Commemoration, Conquest, Dark Ages, Empire, English Language, Ethnic cleansing, Footpaths, History, Humanities, Immigration, Imperialism, Integration, Leisure, Literature, Medieval, Mercia, Mythology, Narrative, Nationality, Old English, Recreation, Remembrance, Renaissance, Romans, Saxons, south Wales, Uncategorized, Wales, Warfare, Welsh language, West Midlands

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