The United Kingdom goes to the polls this week in the most drawn out general election contest of modern times. This is an election being fought, in essence, of values: do we believe in a Britain of progressive politics, in which the poor and the vulnerable are treated with dignity, rather than subject to the whims of the benefits sanction regime? Or, on the other hand, do we believe in carrying on down the path laid down by the United States – towards more neo-liberal retrenchment, the penal state rather than the welfare state, and a government for the haves rather than the have nots?

At the centre of this struggle is a tawdry debate on immigration. Given media ignorance of the past, we are taught to think of Eastern European immigration as a recent thing: as waves (or hordes for any UKIP readers) of Czechs, Hungarians, and Poles, all flowing into the country in the 2000s. Whilst the recent wave of immigration has been significant, it is not the first of its kind: from the 1930s to the 1950s, nationals from Eastern Europe migrated to Britain for economic and personal security reasons. They arrived in a country at times fearful of others and with immigration restrictions that were often used in a racist manner. But at the same time, they arrived into communities at the forefront of social democratic politics. What lessons might we learn from this period and what difference did immigration really make?

In the aftermath of the Second World War, Britain needed labour to rebuild itself. The question of whether Britain would be an open or closed country was much discussed and debated at the highest levels of government and the trade union movement, as well as within local communities. The matter first arose with respect to repatriation of German prisoners of war, who had hitherto been providing free labour on essential works projects. The Labour government hoped to mitigate the impact on productivity that sure to result from the loss of the POWs by importing labour from Eastern Europe, but faced considerable opposition from elements within the trade union movement such as the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). The government’s plan was for approximately 1,000 Polish workers to ease shortages in the coal industry and improve productivity. The NUM had other ideas and the plan sparked fierce debate within the union itself. Manny Shinwell, the Minister of Fuel and Power, was forced to tell his cabinet colleagues that the NUM would object to ‘even 200 Polish miners’.

Unimpressed with the NUM’s intransigence, even radical members of the cabinet, such as Ellen Wilkinson, suggested that the union ‘might face realities’ when prisoners of war went home. But Shinwell was right: NUM officials were uncomfortable and some went so far as to declare ‘is this union so weak that it cannot protect its members against the influx of 1,000 Poles?’ NUM vice president, James Bowman, thundered at the union’s annual conference in June 1946 that the government ‘are playing with dynamite’. He continued ‘there are thousands of men on the surface who will be willing to go down the pit to the other job’. There was, he insisted, little need for Polish labour.

For six months the NUM held firm, despite scepticism in the press at their actions. The Manchester Guardian, for example, declared it ‘a lamentable exhibition of narrowness’ and continued that ‘coming from the miners, who claim to be internationally minded, it is extremely surprising’. In July 1946, Shinwell appeared before the House of Commons to explain that only 200 of the projected 1,000 Poles were actually ready to begin work underground, but that there was a possibility of a further 3,000 who might be trained up and given the necessary language skills. A few months later, the Times reported that Shinwell had given in ‘because he did not wish to provoke a major dispute’. In place of Polish miners, the NUM sought Irish migrants instead, even going so far as to open special recruitment offices in Ireland to entice workers across. As James Bowman, the union’s vice president, explained:

We have had our recruiting people in Eire and Northern Ireland and men are coming into the industry from those sources. We have had men in recruiting offices in Germany, talking to the early demobilisation groups. We have an arrangement with the War Office for our people to go to demobilisation camps in this country and talk to boys coming out of the Forces.

Herbert Morrison told an NUM meeting in Newcastle that December, enthusiastically, that: ‘Irish labour is flowing in, and while the wastage is of the old, the sick, and the idle, the newcomers to mining are young and volunteers’.

Behind the scenes, the government had been negotiating with the NUM and the TUC to reach an agreement on the use of Polish labour in the mining industry. In January 1947, they reached a deal subject to three safeguards:

  1. That the local miners’ lodge agrees to accept Polish workers
  2. That they must be members of the union.
  3. That in the event of men becoming redundant, the Poles shall be the first to go.

Two months later, the first contingent of Polish miners began training at the mines training centre at Oakdale Colliery in South Wales. After four weeks, the group were split up and sent to various collieries around the country that had agreed to take them on. Twenty remained in South Wales and were billeted at the miners’ hostel in Rhydyfelin, near Pontypridd. Fifteen were to be employed at the Ty Mawr Colliery in the Hopkinstown and five at the Maritime Colliery in Maesycoed, both in Pontypridd. The local newspaper, the Pontypridd Observer, sent a reporter to interview the men and spoke to two – Jan Szoltysck and Franciszeck Piotrowski. Jan, who had been a miner for eighteen years prior to joining the Polish Army in 1939, explained that ‘I was very pleased about Pontypridd. People are all very kind to me, and the miners too. […] I think we are going to like it here’. As the weeks progressed, further contingents arrived, with Polish miners finding jobs at the Cwm Colliery in Beddau as well.

Given the tension between the NUM and the government caused by this wave of migration, it is not entirely surprising to find that not every pit welcomed the Poles. The local option enshrined in the NUM-TUC agreement helps to explain the variance, but we should be careful in assuming that no votes were due to xenophobia. At the Lady Windsor Colliery in Ynysybwl, for example, lodge members passed a resolution stating that ‘no foreign labour would be allowed at the Lady Windsor Colliery’. This shielded the pit from overseas workers through the 1940s and 1950s – although to fill inevitable labour shortages, the National Coal Board eventually turned to miners from the Durham Coalfield. The Lady Windsor decision presents an interesting political question: the lodge chairman at this time was Goronwy Jones, a long-term member of the Communist Party. The influence of the CP may offer some indication as to the decision: Arthur Horner, the leading Communist-miner from South Wales, had announced in 1945 that the party would ‘not allow the import of foreign – Polish, Italian, or even Irish – labour to stifle the demands of the British people to decent conditions in the British mines’. Two years later he used his position as General Secretary of the NUM to suggest that the government ‘might get Poles or displaced persons but not coal’.

Nevertheless, by mid-1947 the NUM’s president, Will Lawther, could declare that ‘as the Poles are prepared to be trained as miners there ought to be no objection on the part of any of our branches to their employment’. He concluded pointedly: ‘branches taking up a certain attitude are acting contrary to the national policy of the union’. Behind the scenes, the NUM and the NCB applied pressure to those lodges that had ruled out foreign labour to win them over. On the Yorkshire coalfield, for instance, twenty four branches had passed such resolutions, but, by the end of July 1947, nineteen of these were won over. In Wales matters were slightly different, here opposition persisted and the unease at the development of ‘cosmopolitan coal mines’ was clear. Officials insisted that ‘there were no objections to the Poles as such’, simply hesitance lest Polish workers take the places of those still out of work – memories of the 1930s in the coal mines of South and North Wales remained strong. In modernising coalfields such as Nottingham, integration of foreign labour was straightforward, and the miners there considered the controversy at the national level detrimental to the image of miners as internationalists.

The exemplar was the Gedling Colliery near Nottingham. Workers there included Jamaicans, Germans, Lithuanians, Indians, Poles, Italians, Americans, Turks, Yugoslavians, Ukrainians, Czechs, and West Africans. As one miner explained, the local workforce had become as adept as London policemen in understanding the varieties of broken English used. But rather than holding aloof from each other, the migrant miners played a full part in Union life: whether simply attending lodge meetings and voting on lodge business or by participating in the variety of welfare schemes operated by the union. In this there was no sense of difference, no sense of foreign and domestic, but a single workforce united around the furtherance of the miners’ cause.

By the early 1950s, controversy over migrant labour had died down and there were a number of ‘cosmopolitan collieries’ operating around the country. The shifting positions of the NUM and its local branches, concentrated as they were into the period 1946-1948, has given rise to some debate amongst scholars as to the reasons for it. Was the rising tide of nationalism evident in Britain during, and after, the war – focused particularly on fascism and who was and was not an anti-fascist in Eastern Europe – liable to spill over into xenophobia? Can the NUM’s stance be accounted for by reference to concerns over unemployment and a slide back to the 1930s? Did party politics play a role? The most convincing argument thus far presented is that made by Stephen Catterall and Keith Gildart. The conclude that, rather than objections being based on racism or xenophobia,

hostility from rank and file members arose from the perceived ‘threat’ that the workers posed as a result of prodigious output performance and the mining skills they brought or through domestic and social tensions.

Old fears, stoked by experiences in the 1930s, about pit closures tied to productivity levels haunted the industry even after nationalisation. And yet bubbling under the surface – both within coal mining and in other industries – was hostility to those perceived to have been fascists. ‘I have had some experience on Merseyside in dealing with some of these so-called Polish refugees’, declared one delegate at the TUC, ‘the overwhelming majority […] have never fired a bullet or handled a rifle in this battle against Hitler Fascism’. He concluded that ‘there is no room in this country for these people’. Another delegate, this time from Scotland, made similar denunciations: ‘these Poles […] strut about like the arrogant fascists that they are, well fed, well clothed; better clothed, indeed, than our British lads’. Poles were not the only ones subjected to this sort of rhetoric, although few groups experienced quite the same severity of language. In the early years of the war, for example, the American foreign correspondent Ernie Pyle observed of Belgian refugees resident in Cardiff that:

Cardiff has 600 Belgian refugees. And to their eternal discredit, they are making asses of themselves – demanding, complaining, pestering. They are the crankiest people in a jam that Cardiff has ever had to deal with.

It appears tame by comparison, but Pyle doubtless averaged out the complaints he had heard on the streets of the city.

The effects of the Second World War on attitudes in the labour movement received a sharp jolt in 1950 with the outbreak of the Korean War. Although often overlooked in favour of the Suez crisis, the Korean War involved nearly 100,000 British troops and British involvement prompted fierce debates both in the House of Commons and in the country as a whole. No more so than in Wales. At the heart of a storm of his own creating was S.O. Davies, the maverick left-wing Labour MP for Merthyr Tydfil. Historians of Britain’s involvement in the Korean War, such as Max Hastings, have dismissed SO Davies’s intervention as unimportant but this overlooks the galvanising effects of Davies’s actions on the left-internationalist wing of the labour movement. Standing from the backbenches on the government’s motion of self-congratulation on 5 July 1950, SO tabled an amendment stating that:

This House expresses its deep concern at the alarming situation in Korea, and recognises the possibility of another world conflict arising therefrom […] and [… declares] in conformity with the Government’s socialist principles our determination to give every encouragement to all peoples aspiring for freedom and self-government.

The government whips were incensed and even left-wingers such as Michael Foot felt it a step too far to hold back from intervention. It would, he insisted, be an act of appeasement. The Western Mail, not missing the opportunity to chide the ‘loony left’ (as it saw SO as part of) called SO the ‘Welsh Don Quixote’. But SO, and his supporters, such as Keir Hardie’s son-in-law and biographer Emrys Hughes, a conscientious objector during the First World War, did not feel this to be a case of tilting at windmills. Certainly his constituents, who packed into the British Legion Club in Merthyr on 16 July 1950, did not agree with SO’s detractors in the House of Commons. And neither did the Irish Times, who splashed the meeting on their front page! In letter after letter, people from all over Wales wrote to SO declaring him to be the ‘true inheritor’ of the spirit of Keir Hardie – the anti-imperialist and peacemonger whose convictions had revived that particular streak in the labour movement even as the Labour Party swallowed the rhetoric of Churchill. The rest of the Labour left would catch up with SO and Emrys Hughes during the Suez Crisis in 1956, we can but wonder if they ever said ‘we told you so’.

These political re-awakenings in the early 1950s are important because they allow us to appreciate the complicated reaction to Hungarian refugees in 1956. It would be straightforward to see the refugees solely as those escaping the turmoil of the Soviet invasion and therefore readily integrated into British society. Certainly, in the immediate aftermath of the invasion, communities across the country kicked into fundraising mode – galvanised by the Lord Mayor of London’s national appeal. Pontypridd was no different. In November, the chairman of the district council launched the local appeal ‘for the relief of suffering in Hungary’. A relief centre was opened in Penuel Lane – the site is now a solicitor’s – and it took daily donations of food, clothing, and money. A special collection was also held at the Ynysybwl Co-operative Society branch in the town centre, raising over £130 in two days. So far so much would be expected. However the political debate over the Soviet invasion was multifaceted and spirited. It was, many delegates of the Pontypridd Trades and Labour Council argued, hypocritical to call for the removal of Soviet troops whilst ‘Britain is bristling with American servicemen and there are these Americans all over Europe’. Others point to Hungary’s fascist past and wondered whether they were entirely innocent. And there were those, such as Charles Anzani, the secretary of the council, who decried the Soviet actions as barbaric.

The first refugees from Hungary arrived in South Wales in January 1957. Composed of 100 young men aged between 16 and 21, they were housed initially in Cardiff before being resettled at the miners’ hostels in Rhydyfelin and Hirwaun (near Aberdare). They were to be trained in English and mining techniques at the training centre in Aberaman with a view to working underground in the near future and were therefore given a modest 12 shillings pocket money to buy cigarettes and other daily comforts. Over the next few weeks, the Hungarian teenagers were integrated into local society and, for the most part, gained jobs at the Albion Colliery in Cilfynydd or the Britannic Colliery in Gilfach Goch. The Ty Mawr, Maritime, and Lady Windsor refused, however. At the Ty Mawr there were grumbles that they had absorbed too many foreign workers in the past. Whilst at the Lady Windsor, the secretary, George Hatch, reiterated the resolution passed in 1947. The South Wales Area executive insisted that lodges had the right to decide for themselves.

And yet, beyond their place of work, the Hungarians enjoyed a hearty welcome. They went along to local youth clubs and jive halls, they got into trouble for hanging around with Teddy Boy gangs, young women swooned after them (much to the annoyance of local lads), and they formed a soccer team. They grumbled about wages – just as local workers did. And for those in the market for a new television set, one capable of receiving the new ITV station, for instance, there was every possibility that one of four young Hungarians (employees of Rediffusion Ltd) would appear to install the television and aerial. As they learnt English and could communicate more effectively with the people around them, the Hungarians came to enjoy living in Pontypridd and growing up in a community that welcomed them.

So what do these experiences tell us about migration, work, and the social democratic ethos that existed in the 1940s and 1950s? Clearly, the impact of migration on the workforce, particularly in sectors of industry that perceive themselves vulnerable (as mining evidently did in the 1940s), can cause tensions: but we should be wary of reading such tensions as symptomatic of xenophobia or an abandonment of internationalism. That is, after all, the logic of ‘Blue Labour’, the strand of current Labour thought which suggests uneasiness amongst working-class people about immigration and particularly the economic effects of a migrant labour force. We should be wary of such ideas and we should also be wary of the notion that Eastern European migrants to Britain are a recent thing. In fact, when the miners’ strike broke out in 1984, one of the miners on the picket lines outside the Cwm Colliery in Beddau, was George Winorgorski. For forty years, Polish miners – and those with Polish heritage – had worked at the Cwm, had been an integral part of post-war mining in Britain, had worked to make and endeavoured to protect the social democracy that we so badly need.