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

Margaret’s Marvellous Medicine:

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

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

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

Labour’s ‘Disembowelment’:

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

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

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

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

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

Wales: A View from the Abyss:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Grocer’s Daughter:

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

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

Steals from the poor, gives to the rich,

Silly bitch!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Above: In an interview with BBC correspondent, John Simpson

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

(to be continued…)

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Posted September 22, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in Anti-racism, Austerity, Baptists, BBC, Britain, British history, Brussels, Christian Faith, Christianity, Church, Coalfields, Commonwealth, democracy, devolution, Egalitarianism, Europe, European Economic Community, Factories, Germany, History, Home Counties, Journalism, Literature, manufacturing, Methodism, Middle East, Migration, monetarism, Mythology, Narrative, nationalisation, nationalism, Nationality, Population, Second World War, south Wales, Spanish Civil War, Thatcherism, tyranny, Unemployment, Victorian, Wales, Welsh language, Women's History

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(to be continued…)

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