When Wales was truly radical: the Merthyr Rising, 1831.
When Wales was truly radical: the Merthyr Rising, 1831.

At Plaid Cymru’s Annual Conference in 1981, a majority of the delegates present backed a motion committing the party to a socialist future for Wales. Although this was not a move supported by former leader Gwynfor Evans (although he was undoubtedly sympathetic to the Left) or by the then leader Dafydd Wigley, it was a remarkable victory for the Plaid Left and its charismatic, vital leader Dafydd Elis Thomas (probably the only politician capable of uniting the entire Welsh Left in the last generation). It led laid the foundations of Wigley’s removal as party president in 1984, in favour of Elis Thomas, a matter of weeks before the outbreak of the miners’ strike. That was a key moment, to which I shall return later on. Suffice it to say for now that without Dafydd Elis Thomas at the helm in 1984-5, Plaid Cymru may well have been marginalised in favour of other radical parties and movements, notably the Communist Party which deserves a good deal of the credit for fusing cultural nationalism and leftist politics in post-war Wales.

 

The 1981 conference resolution did not come out of the blue, of course. The second half of the 1970s had seen a remarkable rise in Plaid’s fortunes, particularly in South Wales – in 1976, for example, the party symbolically took control of Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council. As the iconic seat of Keir Hardie and the birthplace of the Welsh workers’ movement, this was a considerable achievement for the party and a signal of its coming of age as a force in the (increasingly former) coalfield. This upsurge of support in the socialist south led to the foundation in 1980 of the National Left (or Y Chwith Genedlaethol) a space in which serious ideas about left-nationalism (which had previously been the domain of the Communist Party) were debated. The NL was important because it enabled Plaid to focus attention on its newly-won presence in South Wales and to shed some of its problematic identification as a cultural movement. By 1982, the NL had a majority on Plaid’s executive council and exercising considerable influence over its policy. With Dafydd Elis Thomas’s leadership from 1984, the party, as John Davies has written:

 

tried to encourage a thorough and committed study of the problems of Wales, and to build bridges between the party and a whole host of movements, among them trade unions, feminists, the gay community, anti-racists, anti-nuclear campaigners, ecologists, and the advocates of the validity of a national English-language Welsh culture.

 

This political context is easily appreciated by turning to the pages of the National Left’s mouthpiece, Radical Wales, which was first published in 1983. The first issue contained an interview with Gwyn A. Williams who had recently joined the party. I am I suppose, he said, in inimitable style, the mirror image of Saunders Lewis. A life-long Marxist, Gwyn Alf was an important member of the National Left, one of the most prolific correspondents of Radical Wales, and a frequent speaker at rallies and campaign meetings. It was in this period that he coined one of his favourite phrases ‘blwyddyn y pla’, the year of the plague, to describe the arrival of Thatcherism, and at the same time his Gramscian vision of a Wales made and remade by its people, suddenly found its voice through the remarkable television documentary The Dragon Has Got Two Tongues (1984-5).

Overall, Radical Wales provides a remarkable insight into the nature of Welsh leftism of the 1980s and early 1990s and stretches far beyond its immediate links with Plaid Cymru: here we can read about the Anti-Apartheid campaign, the Wales-Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign, and the emergence of the renewed fight for self-government. One very clear trend in the 1980s which has yet to be properly examined in detail is the way in which the decline of the Labour Party as a radical political force, together with the shattering of the National Union of Mineworkers in the aftermath of the miners’ strike, left the strength of the Welsh Left in the hands of activists involved in a variety of pressure groups both old and new. Many of them, of course, were linked together through common activity in a number of pressure groups, but this was a new model of politics altogether: left-nationalist on the one hand, fervently internationalist on the other, and with a keen awareness of feminist and gay rights positions. It can all sound strikingly familiar. Here’s Gwyn Alf in 1987:

 [At] Westminster now, the Plaid-SNP alliance is stronger than what’s left of the SDP. The SNP vote went up sharply in Scotland and there is a strong demand for self-government within Scottish Labour. In Wales, though the Labour Party staged a recovery, its percentage of the Welsh vote is now ever lower than in the disaster year of 1979; many of its members are converting to Welsh self-government. The tide is beginning to turn. Look ahead. The liberal-SDP alliance is in a shambles. […] Only one thing can save us – a total reconstruction of the structure of government in this island, to restore power to its peoples. No political party which is committed to the centralist British state will ever achieve that.

Where did all this come from? The answer lies in that maelstrom year of 1984-5. As I said at the outset, it was in 1984 that Dafydd Elis Thomas became President of Plaid Cymru, and the party’s shift to the Left was made firm. When the miners’ strike began in mid-March of that year, the Welsh Left rallied to support Wales’s most iconic industry. Political differences were (to a large extent) cast aside and Labour, Plaid, Militant, and the Communist Party, came together to work on achieving victory for the miners. This temporary unification of the Welsh Left generated some remarkable organisations: at the local level there were the support groups, such as the Rhymney Valley Miners’ Support Group, which made the unification overt – on every one of its broadsheets, the group reminded readers that this was an alliance -, and at the national level there was the Wales Congress in Support of Mining Communities. This, as Hywel Francis enthusiastically related in Marxism Today, was about ‘mining the popular front’. He continued:

Farmers, church leaders, teachers, public employees, Welsh language activists, historians, poets, folk-singers, communists, members of the Labour Party and Plaid Cymru, ministers of religion, the women’s movement and the peace movement, all made common cause in support of Welsh mining communities.

To this picture may be added gay and lesbian groups, students, and international supports from both sides of the cold war divide.

Francis has more recently reflected on the ‘unique roles of both the Communist Party and Plaid Cymru’, which hints at the political basis of the Wales Congress and is worth drawing out. To understand the nature of the Wales Congress, it is necessary to turn away from Plaid Cymru and look at the internal politics of the South Wales Area (NUM) from the mid-1950s onwards. Much of this reflects the personnel involved at executive level. Typically the senior posts of the South Wales Area were shared between the Labour Party and the Communist Party, but at times the latter gained the upper hand. This was particularly apparent in the 1950s and early 1960s. In 1951, Will Paynter, former International Brigader and leading Communist, was elected Area President. Two years later, his friend and fellow Communist, Dai Dan Evans, of Abercraf, was elected Area Vice-President (and in 1958 Area General Secretary). During the overlap, Dai Dan (as he was frequently known) and Will Paynter, together with Dai Francis (who succeeded Dai Dan as General Secretary in 1963) set about building the cultural and educational outlets of the South Wales Area in response both to a perceived decline in radicalism amongst younger miners and to the Communist Party’s embrace of Welsh Left-Nationalism. It was in this period that the Miners’ Eisteddfod, the Miners’ Gala, and the South Wales Miners’ Educational Programme were all instituted.

The eisteddfod and gala are significant because they provided an environment in which an entire spectrum of left-politics, activism, and international engagement, could deliver its message without prejudice. At the 1964 miners’ gala, for example, a group of Czechoslovak miners attended and discussed life in the eastern bloc. The 1957 eisteddfod, which was held at Porthcawl, famously heard from Paul Robeson via a transatlantic link. A sense of the moment can be found in this clip, presented by Eddie Butler, (Robeson’s message starts at 1.40):

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00gzwng

The educational programme, delivered initially by Ronald Frankenberg, taught lodge officials and would-be lodge officials the social and political history of Wales, the essentials political economy, and the means of organising and maintaining trade union activity in a range of contexts. They were ostensibly designed to re-engage a new generation, a generation which had not fought strikes on any significant level, in the politics of being members of the South Wales Area (NUM) and the inheritors of the politics of the South Wales Miners’ Federation. Recent historiography of the union has tended to focus on executive decisions and lodge politics, but it was these cultural outlets that really transformed the fortunes of the South Wales Area and laid the groundwork for what happened in 1984-5.

I don’t really have the space here to engage with the nitty-gritty of the Communist Party in post-war Wales – I shall come back to that story in a subsequent blog – but suffice it to say that if we look at the party’s electoral performance alone, its significance is lost. There can be no doubting that, as Chris Williams has expertly demonstrated, the electoral prowess of the Labour Party was far greater and that it was Labour which defined the contours of Welsh politics. Yet, for all that, the cultural politics of Welsh Left-Nationalism were the domain initially of the Communist Party and later of Plaid Cymru as well.

This brings me back to the miners’ strike. It was in this year, just five years after blwyddyn y pla, after rejection of devolution, too, that many people came to the realisation that the miners’ strike was not merely an industrial dispute. It was, depending on your point of view, about equal rights, about representation, and about self-government. As Raphael Samuel put it in an article in the New Statesman, the strike, in Wales, perhaps more than anywhere else in Britain, was a ‘regional crusade’. Wales Congress provided the environment, and the political language, to harness the ‘regional crusade’ and turn it into a drive towards real self-government. We’re still on that journey today, although the fires of it have gone out somewhat. The biggest mistakes of 1984-5, in the Welsh context at least, were made by the Labour Party. There’s a pamphlet published by Plaid Cymru in the middle of the strike entitled The Miners Betrayed: Labour and the South Wales Coalfield which points to the feeling that the Labour Party leadership, in failing to support the miners wholeheartedly, had let the people they represented down. Pointedly it was Dafydd Elis Thomas, MP for a rural, North Wales seat, who was welcomed as the ‘Member for the Miners’ not a Labour MP for a valleys constituency.

When the strike was lost, and the NUM’s strategy shown wanting, the aspirations and hopes of those support groups, pressure groups, and the Wales Congress, turned finally away from class politics and towards identity politics and questions of international solidarity. In his book on sexual politics in the twentieth century, Jeffrey Weeks, who grew up in the Rhondda in the 1940s and 1950s, describes the labour culture that he encountered as:

 A conservative, defensive culture: conservative in terms of its gender, family and sexual values, resistant to criticisms. It was ironic that it presented itself to the world as a politically radical society with a strong commitment to trade unionism and socialism, but these commitments rarely challenged the patterns of everyday life.

In a lot of ways, this characterisation still rings true. So much of what the Labour Party in Wales, today, trades on is a cultural memory of earlier struggles. That simply isn’t good enough, and most of us realise that. Which begs the question I began this blog with: why aren’t the many Plaid? The answer to that lies in the failure of the Welsh Left-Nationalists to maintain the spirit of engagement evident in 1984-5. Wales ceased to be a radical nation on that day in mid-March 1985 when the miners marched back to work. Radical Wales is an artefact which the radical Welsh produce, if they want to, as Gwyn Alf might once have written, if he’d thrown in a few more adjectives. That, I think, is why the many are not Plaid: it’s not that we do not possess the means, but simply that our current answer to the question of whether we want Wales to be radical nation or not is simply ‘no ta’.

Advertisements