Two books on the working-class history of Wales provide valuable accounts of a rich tradition, but neglect some radical aspects, argues Chris Bambery
At the beginning of the twentieth century the South-Wales coalfield was called the ‘American Wales’. It was a description later taken up by the Welsh Marxist historian, Gwyn Alf Williams, because of the massive in-migration into the Valleys during the coal boom, which was only matched by the rate of migration into the United States. From the 1880s to World War I, people came to find work from rural Wales, England, Ireland, Spain and rest of the world. The other two Wales were Welsh Wales, where Welsh was largely spoken, and English Wales; the south-eastern and north-eastern coastal belts, Pembrokeshire, and the regions of mid Wales bordering England.
American Wales is what Daryl Leeworthy calls in this book ‘Labour Country’, a book which gives a detailed history of the emergence of trade unionism and the left from the early nineteenth century through to the Great Miners’ Strike of 1984-85. Yet there is something strange in his conclusion that the Labour Party’s ‘pragmatic realism’ was always going to triumph over those who stood to its left. Strange, because Labour’s dominance was only consolidated in the grim inter-war period. The defeat of the 1926 General Strike was key because it marginalised the pre-First-World-War syndicalism represented by The Miners Next Step, the 1912 pamphlet calling for democratisation of the South-Wales Miners’ Federation and direct action against the pit owners. Most of these syndicalists joined the Communist Party after the war, continuing as able rank-and-file leaders.
The Communist Party remained important in the Valleys, recovering a degree of influence in the 1930s through its role in the unemployed marches, the fight against fascism and in support of the Spanish Republic during the Civil War (particular the number of Communists who volunteered to fight in the International Brigades, one fifth of its male South-Wales membership, a third in the Rhondda).
For the period prior to the First World War, Leeworthy pictures a vibrant left-wing culture which might have challenged the rise of Labourism. The Independent Labour Party, while formally part of the Labour Party, was well to its left and operated with Marxists and syndicalists.
Welsh language and devolution
The other strange thing is that the book assumes that a Welsh identity and the Welsh language were not important factors in ‘Labour Country’. There was a very important part of the Labour Party which opposed any devolution of power from Westminster to Cardiff, culminating in 1978 when Neil Kinnock and other MPs campaigned for a ‘No’ vote in a referendum on devolution initiated by a Labour Government which supported devolution. Many South-Wales Labour MPs were hostile to the Welsh language. All of this flowed from an identification with the British state and Westminster, a belief that it was the British state that could revive South Wales and that English was the vehicle for progress.
Yet the Welsh language was not alien to the Valleys. The last words of Dic Penderyn, hanged outside Cardiff jail for his part in the 1831 Merthyr Tydfil uprising (he was falsely accused of killing a soldier) were ‘O Arglwydd, dyma gamwedd’ (‘Oh Lord, here is iniquity’). Welsh and a Welsh identity are not something alien to South Wales. The first Welsh working-class newspaper, Y Gweithiwr (The Workman) was bilingual, established in Merthyr in 1834 by ironworkers. Five years later the Chartists had 25,000 members in the new South-Wales coalfield. The Merthyr Chartists had their own paper, Udgorn Cymru (The Trumpet of Wales). The insurrectionary tradition of Merthyr and Newport and the Valleys to the north in 1839 are downplayed in the book.
Many migrants into South Wales in the nineteenth century learnt and used Welsh. In 1910 the syndicalist leader Tom Mann came to Tonypandy in the Rhondda Valley, where troops had been sent to reinforce police against striking miners. He wrote of mass pickets made up of women and men with the former shouting out ‘in pretty emphatic Welsh, which I could not understand’.
Both the ILP before the First World War and the Communist Party, in the 1930s and later, used Welsh in their propaganda. The Welsh-language poet Thomas Evans Nicholas (whose Bardic name was Niclas y Glais) was a Congregationalist minister when he founded an ILP branch in the Neath valley and was Welsh-language editor of Keir Hardie’s constituency paper in Merthyr, The Pioneer. He preached Hardie’s funeral sermon. After the war he gave up his ministry, joining the Communist Party but remaining a Christian. He was jailed during the Second World War, under false charges of being a fascist. In Swansea and then Brixton jails he wrote 150 sonnets expressing his Christian and Communist convictions. Protests from MPs, religious figures, and the trade unions secured his release after four months. Finally, the South Wales NUM ran a Miners Eisteddfod.
It is not that Leeworthy does not grasp there is something wrong with Labourism in South Wales:
‘The element … that is missing from twenty-first century Wales is the culture, society and politics of the valleys themselves. The collapse of the Labour citadel into a static, bureaucratic, devolved machine has starved the valleys of their potential to be, once more, the engine of Welsh (and British) life.’
Yet in the next paragraph he argues that after the fall of social democracy, ‘we will not find a joined-up answer within the framework of a nationalist perspective’ (p.17).
Leaving aside that support for independence is not reducible to nationalism, Leeworthy charts the decline of Britain and its destructive impact on South Wales, but what he seems to miss is that the crisis of the British state produced by that decline, now centred on Brexit, can lead towards a growing belief that it is necessary to escape the UK.
Wales is coming from further back in the field than Scotland, but there is evidence that this conclusion is one being reached by more and more people. If Scotland was to achieve independence, and the odds are shortening on that, what would the impact be on Wales?
Hywel Francis is a writer, co- author of The Fed: A History of the South Wales Miners in the 20th Century, and author of Miners Against Fascism: Wales and the Spanish Civil War, an academic, activist and a former Labour MP. His father, Dai, was leader of the South-Wales National Union of Mineworkers from 1963 to 1976.
Both Dai and Hywel were born in Onllwyn at the head of the Dulais Valley. You might know it if you’ve seen the film ‘Pride’; its where the ‘Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners’ group visited in 1984 in support of striking miners and their families. The Dulais Valley went through the same sudden change in the nineteenth century as coal mines were dug in the Valleys. Its population grew from 622 inhabitants in 1861 to 4,569 in 1911. The change and the harsh reality of the mines threw up two cultures; the first non-conformist, the second left-wing with Communism playing a key role (though never surpassing Labour electorally). Dai Francis was a symbol of that, going in late 1937 from being a Sunday-School teacher to a member of the Communist Party. A Welsh speaker, he insisted Welsh was spoken in the home, a rule stuck to through to the 1970s when his daughter married an Englishman.
Once interviewed on the BBC he named ‘Arwelfa’ as his favourite Welsh hymn, adding that it was his mother’s favourite. The interviewer seemed nonplussed by this and asked how this sat with his Communism. Francis Senior then quoted to him the two opening lines of the second verse:
‘O mor hoff yw cwmni'r brodyr
Sydd â'u hwyneb tua'r wlad’
‘O how pleased is the company of the brothers
Who with their face towards the land’
Regional yet international
This is a vibrant community where self-learnt knowledge was treasured. Francis records the names of eminent visitors: Paul Robeson, folksinger Ewan McColl, Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, the Trinidadian writer and activist CLR James (who may have finished The Black Jacobins in Creunant in the home of Brinley Griffiths, a local headmaster and adult-education teacher who possessed an extensive library). The Indian Foreign Minister spoke at Onllwyn in the 1940s, and British Guyana’s first Prime Minister, Cheddi Jagan, in the next decade, both delivering powerful blasts against colonialism.
The chapter on Robeson underlines the deep bond linking the son of an American slave with the South-Wales miners. Robeson would write that it was in Wales he ‘first understood the struggle of white and Negro together.’ The link goes back to 1929 when he heard South-Wales hunger marchers singing in Trafalgar Square and then visited the Rhondda. At Mountain Ash in 1938 and in the Rhondda a year later he sung to welcome International Brigaders home, and in 1939 starred in the film ‘My Proud Valley’. His last appearance in Britain was in 1960 when he performed in the Royal Festival Hall in London for the Movement for Colonial Freedom with the Côr Meibion Cwmbach male-voice choir.
It was a community including people from Irish, Asturian and Basque families as well as from North Wales and the West of England. Included in the book is Francis’s oration at the funeral in 2004 of Esperanza Careaga. In May 1937, approaching her sixth birthday, she was evacuated on a ship from Bilbao before it fell to Franco’s fascists. The British Government of Stanley Baldwin had tried to prevent child refugees from the Basque Country but a public campaign, which included the Archbishop of Canterbury, forced them to back down, though they insisted no state funds would be available.
Esperanza’s brother was separated from her and sent to Russia; they wouldn’t see each other again for a half a century. She never saw her mother again while her father, a Communist miner fighting in the Basque Army was captured and ‘disappeared’ in prison. The Basque refugee children were initially held in a tent city outside Southampton before being allocated to different areas of the UK. Gert and George Harris took her in as their own daughter in December 1939. The Harris’ were free thinkers, Communists and ramblers. Basques, Asturians and others had crossed the Bay of Biscay at the start of the twentieth century to work in the South-Wales pits. Socialists and anarcho-syndicalists, they overcame suspicion to become pillars of the Fed. Francis tells of one man who taught Spanish via Welsh.
The Spanish Civil War is a constant theme in this book. Those that fought for the International Brigades were heroes but also, until they died in the 1980s and 1990s, figures in their communities. Francis also recounts the stories of those they left behind, sometimes proud, but also sad and bitter at the losses inflicted on these volunteers and on having been left to raise children in the Hungry Thirties.
Dead-hand of Labourism
The opening essay on the 1925 strike in the Anthracite pits, including the Dulais Valley, relives a victory for the miners, achieved through mass picketing and confrontations with the police, that was overshadowed by the great defeat of the General Strike and the year-long miner’s strike which followed.
Francis was an active participant in the 1972 and 1984-1985 miner’s strikes; building solidarity in London in the first and then active back home in the last. There are too many swipes at Arthur Scargill and too much about the alternative strategy of the South-Wales NUM for me, but I will pass on this. The essay on ‘London and the Miner’s Strikes of the 20th Century’ is excellent, particularly in detailing the story of the links built between the Dulais-Valley mining communities and ‘Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners’.
Yet there is something lacking here about the way that world in which Francis was raised is gone along with the pits, and so much of their villages now forested over. In particular, Francis passes over the dead-hand control Labour has in South Wales. As was the case in Scotland, it takes this for granted, and many MPs and now Assembly Members are selected for loyalty rather than panache. More importantly, Labour in Wales has always contained a wing, often in the van, that did not regard Wales as being a place apart from the UK, regarded the Welsh language with verging on contempt, opposed devolution in 1979, and only begrudgingly championed it in 1997. As in Scotland, they regard the ‘nationalists’ as the main enemy above the Tories.
There is another wing regarded with suspicion as verging towards ‘nationalism’ and as being too fond of the Welsh language. Intellectually it is more interesting and is more open to working with Plaid Cymru, whose agenda is clearly to the left of Labour’s. Today we have the strange situation where a Labour administration in Cardiff does not want powers brought back from the EU to the Assembly but prefers them to be decided at Westminster.
Despite some criticisms, both books are well worth reading and leave you with respect for the working-class tradition of South Wales.
Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.
More articles from this author
- Tory shambles boosts support for Scottish independence
- Ernie O'Malley's On Another Man's Wound: books that made me a socialist
- The violence of the Spanish state
- VE Day: a struggle for the future
- Neil Davidson (1957-2020)
- A People Betrayed - book review
- The Fall and Rise of the British Left - book review