[A caveat: what follows is definitely a work in progress, although the thoughts behind it have been floating around this blog for a while now – for the finished version check the North American Journal of Welsh Studies in a few months, where it’ll (hopefully) be published!]
Elections, huh: they throw up some surprises every so often. Indeed, one consequence of increasing voter apathy across Europe has been the rise of so-called ‘fringe’ parties that present themselves as the hope of the ignored, the disenchanted, and those who hope for a different way. Centrism, focused as it is on the hopes and desires of the wealthy middle-classes who live in suburbia (or ruburbia in parts of Britain and Ireland), has proven itself over the last few years as democratically bankrupt, unable to enthuse anyone except the coterie of professional politicians that benefit directly from it. The danger for those of us who sit on the Left is that, too often over the last 100 years, where we turn to apathy, those on the right turn to populist statements of racism, xenophobia, and protectionism. And as the European Elections in 2014 have demonstrated, that’s a trend not in any danger of being proven wrong anytime soon.
75 years ago, exiled to a school in Cardiganshire where he found stable work for the first time since leaving Oxford University half a decade earlier, Gwyn Thomas wrote despairingly on the situation he found in Europe after years of appeasement and right-wing triumphs. As war raged on the continent, Thomas’ frustrations spilled onto the page. For him, the 1930s became the moment of lost opportunity, when humanity could have taken a different path and didn’t. As he put it in one of his short stories:
Most of the people in the terraces […] are so amazed to wake up in the morning and find capitalism still there, they wait for the thing to come around in the afternoon and say it’s sorry.
It’s not surprising that this should be his attitude: South Wales had, after all, been one of the leading fronts in the battle against the cynicism of the right, against apathy and disconnect, against (ultimately) the alienating effects of capitalism. Labour councillors had contrived to defy central government cuts and stand up for the people they represented (how times change), people on the streets campaigned and listened to politics in a variety of different forms – be it the early adherents of Plaid Cymru (many of them teachers), the lingering forces of Liberalism (for whom Lloyd George remained the apostle), the firebrand politics of the CPGB, or the umbrella politics of Labour. The Tories were there too, but they were the most frustrated of all – victorious in England but unable to seriously challenge the dominance of the South Wales Miners’ Federation in its heartlands. Only in Cardiff, where Liberals and Conservatives formed a coalition to prevent the Labour Party taking control of city hall, did the ‘anti-socialist’ stockade hold.
Then, as now, the buzz word amongst analysts was ‘apathy’ or ‘discontent’, particularly amongst young people. The studies produced by the Carnegie Trust, and others, have come in for a great deal of criticism from historians. In a famous essay, Ross McKibbin dismissed what he considered a ‘stereotype of unemployment’ which rang through each of them. As he writes, ‘like all stereotypes, it was as much ideologically determined as based upon observation’. There is much to be said for this view, but at the same time there are unsettling echoes which speak to our own times. Let’s listen to what was said in the most significant of the reports, Disinherited Youth published by the Carnegie Trust in 1943 and based on field work carried out between 1936 and 1939. ‘For many, youthful dreams and ambitions had been rudely shattered’, the report observed at its outset, before concluding that a lack of secure employment was the root cause of discontentment amongst the young. Plus ça change there then. The effects of apathy and inheritance were felt widely, particularly amongst the political establishment.
The Labour Party, still reeling from its electoral shattering in the General Election of 1931 (although not really the case in South Wales, where it held most of its seats in the coalfield), focused a good deal of attention on securing the support of young people. Internal party documents from the period show, however, the limited success of these efforts, particularly in areas where the Labour Party was dominant, such as the Rhondda, with fewer than 100 young members joining the Labour Party League of Youth during its major membership drive in 1935. This was a familiar story right across the region. By 1948, the rot had set in so badly in the Rhondda that branches reported a total collapse of spirit and older members complained that ‘things aren’t as good as they used to be’. Gwyn Thomas confided to his journal five years earlier that ‘the Wales of my childhood, the libertarian noon’ was now ‘all gone’. And yet we remember the inter-war years as the high noon of something. We remember them as a period when people fought for something different. So who exactly was doing what fighting?
One answer lies in how we read the past, in the questions we pose of it. The pre-title sequence of the classic mid-1980s documentary series, The Dragon Has Two Tongues, features the two presenters, Wynford Vaughan Thomas and Gwyn Alf Williams, giving a sense of the different perspectives it’s possible to bring to the study of history. Who can forget, having seen that short prologue, the striking remarks made by Gwyn Alf:
History is more than a page of a book! History is the buckle that bites your back. History is the sweat you can’t keep out of your eyes. History is the fear crawling in your belly.
He continues later:
History isn’t something you can bring to live because history isn’t a story, it’s an inquiry. The past is chaos, we in the present make sense of that past by manufacturing a history out of it. We do that by putting questions to it and the kind of questions you put depends on who you are, what you are, when you are. We won’t ask the same questions as our grandparents. A collier won’t ask the same questions as a merchant banker, a wife as a husband, a Welsh-speaker as an English speaker. […] We’ve been around for 1,500 years but our history has been an endless sequence of brutal ruptures. Break after break after break, and with every break the Welsh people have been transformed. So far we’ve survived, but we’ve survived in crisis. For 1,500 years the Welsh people as a Welsh people have lived in a permanent state of emergency.
Ah, I can hear you say, if the Welsh have lived in a permanent state of emergency for 1,500 years, perhaps they simply didn’t notice and just carried on as normal? I think not. In fact, history was front rank and centre of a swathe of adult education classes established across the South Wales Coalfield in the 1930s. As Hywel Francis has pointed out, the area was ‘soaked in voluntary education’. There was the WEA, the Central Labour College, twenty or so miners’ institutes, unemployed clubs, educational settlements, the YMCA, the boys’ club movement, public libraries, and more. The unemployed, the young, the generally interested, took part in lessons that taught them how the South Wales Coalfield had been formed and the social, economic, political and cultural consequences of it. One of the teachers in those classes had been Gwyn Thomas himself. Not everyone took part in these classes, of course, but enough people did to fashion a sense of the world that could be shared, inherited, by the rest of those living in South Wales. As Richard Burton put it in his obituary of Stanley Baker:
There is a class of Welshmen, original and unique to themselves, powerful and loud and dangerous and clever and they are almost all South Welshmen and almost all from the Rhondda Valley, and there are not very many of them.
These men (and women), like Gwyn Thomas and Richard Burton, helped to create a form of Welshness endowed with a sense of what might have been. Whatever happens tonight in the European Elections, whether UKIP wins or not, we will still cling on to those old ideals, and the black humour that comes from the knowledge that they will remain just ideals and never realities (not unless Labour comes to its senses): our unofficial histories are fast becoming the only thing we have left.