Over the past year or so, I’ve been working on a large book charting the rise and fall of social democracy in Wales – admittedly, primarily South Wales since those are the sources that I have most ready access to. It didn’t start off this way, in fact when I first started thinking about the book last summer, having been made unemployed at the end of a fixed term contract at the University of Huddersfield, my plan was a more modest one. It was to look again at the period between 1898 (the foundation of the South Wales Miners’ Federation) and the election of the Labour government in 1945. The guiding purpose was to consider when the shift from libertarian socialism grounded in municipal activity to nationalised models of governance took place. Instinct – not to mention my PhD research – suggested the period 1927-1939 but I wanted to be more specific than that. The basic premise of the book was always an examination of Welsh social democracy, it seems!
There was, as there always is, a second idea running concurrent with the first – namely a desire to write a defence of The Fed, Hywel Francis and Dai Smith’s iconic 1980 history of the South Wales miners in the twentieth century (well, in practice, to 1974). It seems to me that this book is unduly attacked by self-proclaimed “revisionists” (such as Michael Lieven, but there are others) who tend to hold it up rather like a strawman. There have been accurate critiques – chiefly by Chris Williams, who suggests that ‘alternative society’ probably means something else, and by scholars such as Angela John, Sue Bruley, and Deidre Beddoe, who have collectively pointed to the ways in which the book might have been written differently had gender been taken into account. There is no doubt that had the book been published in 1990 rather than in 1980, some of these critiques would have been bypassed. It stands, for me, as the towering achievement of modern Welsh historiography, and when I started out on this path of writing a history of South Wales this is what I took as my model.
Sometime last September, having watched the film Pride in the cinema, I began to think of possibly extending the work to take into account other facts of social democracy. I wondered, given the absence of any sustained work on male sexuality in a Welsh context, what sort of attitudes had existed in the region and whether or not the embrace evident in the Dulais Valley during the 1984-5 miners’ strike was ‘out of the blue’ or it was grounded in something else. After all, had not the South Wales mining communities embraced Paul Robeson? Had they not embraced internationalism in the Cold War era? Had they not sent dozens of men to fight for freedom and democracy on the battlefields of Spain in the late-1930s? Surely, then, this wasn’t entirely random. I began in the nineteenth century looking through the blue books that lay out the number of people convicted each year for sexual crimes. Immediately I noted the relative paucity in Wales as a whole – with the exception of Monmouthshire which was, in these terms, part of England anyway (since it formed part of the Oxford Assize Circuit). This was particularly true of the rural western counties. In the north-west, decades went by without a single conviction and even in the industrialised counties of the south it seemed not to be a ‘thing’. I remembered at this point the writing on white shirting, the tarw Scotch and the ceffyl pren and wondered whether or not communities bypassed the police and took it upon themselves to administer justice. The evidence there is slimmer than necessary to make a case, but its absence leaves the probability that in Wales the liberal attitude of ‘live and let live’ prevailed.
That was certainly the impression I got when talking to Hywel Francis, who was, in any case, in the midst of the link up between Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners and the Neath, Dulais and Swansea Valleys’ Miner’s Support Group. His sense, and it’s one that I share having done the research, was that Wales was a place where ‘live and let live’ prevailed. This runs into some trouble with the recollections of men such as Chris Needs, and with some newspaper evidence, but not overwhelmingly so. The mass of police evidence points in the opposite direction, as does quite a lot of newspaper evidence, and from the growth of activism in Wales in the 1970s and 1980s. The more research I did on this area, the more I came to realise that the New Left had impacted on Wales in fascinating ways. There are standard junction points, of course, such as the NUS’s support in 1973 and the declarations made by the Communist Party in 1976, but there are specifically Welsh trajectories too. Pride celebrates the fact that the Labour Party signed up to equal rights in 1985, chiefly under pressure from the National Union of Mineworkers, but from a Welsh perspective it’s important to note that Plaid Cymru had got there in 1978.
Finding that Plaid resolution reinforced my growing sense that I needed to look more carefully at the post-war period and to integrated this into the narrative I was presenting. This meant growing the book to look towards 1985. What made Plaid so modern? The answer to that question, it seems to me, lies in the events of the 1970 General Election, and the Merthyr contest in particular. Without giving too much of the story away, SO Davies, the stalwart Labour MP since 1934, was deselected by his constituency on the basis of his age. He fought back and with the support of young political activists in the town, many of whom were Plaid Cymru members, he won – the first time that an independent had defied the party machine since 1945. His victory signalled a quite substantial break in Merthyr’s politics. In 1972, when SO died, Plaid Cymru had a beer mat in support of their campaign, on it the party tied its position to Keir Hardie and to SO Davies. The past may once have been Labour (albeit the far more radical ILP), but the future was to be Plaid Cymru. The candidate, Emrys Roberts, ran a close contest, but failed to win. Four years later, in a remarkable turn of the tide, Plaid Cymru took control of Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney councils. It was as much a tide of youth as it was a tide of nationalism. It is no surprise, I don’t think, that Merthyr was one of the few places in the coalfield that had a gay-friendly bar in the early 1980s. Legacies are important, after all.
Having projected forwards, somewhat nervously, I knew I had to stretch the book backwards in time too. Here I felt more confident. The rise of Welsh social democracy begins in Merthyr in 1831. It has a clear starting point, a clear starting position, and a beautiful symmetry. Just as it was Merthyr in 1900 that broke the liberal model, and Merthyr in the 1970s that broke the labour model, and Merthyr in the 1860s that broke the Tory model, so it was Merthyr in the 1830s that broke the model of pre-modern Wales. This wasn’t the problem, though. The problem was how to bridge the leap between the decline of Chartism in the 1840s and early 1850s, and the rise of socialism in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Historians have struggled with this for decades and no satisfactory answers have ever arisen. In Welsh labour history (distinct here from the social history of Ieuan Gwynedd Jones) there is a discernible gap between Gwyn Alf’s Merthyr Rising and the coming of the Fed in the 1890s. The answer, of course, was staring me in the face. I’d walked past his house almost every day of my childhood. But it took the cajoling of Alun Burge to make me see it. Co-operatives, Dar, he’d say, that’s what’s missing. How right he is, by the 1850s the co-operative movement had gained something of a stable footing in Wales – there had been co-operatives for at least two decades before this but few had survived in the long term. The mid-nineteenth century labour movement, it seemed to me, became concerned with the means of consumption rather than the means of production. That realisation was the final piece of the jigsaw.
By now, I have a book charting the rise and fall of social democracy in Wales from 1830 to 1985. It’s a mammoth book and a mammoth task. But history is not simple – human existence never is. In many ways, it still bears the influences of those earlier ideas. It still does stand as a defence of The Fed, it rejects the depoliticised history of post-war Wales presented by Martin Johnes, and it offers a slightly modified chronology of our past. I’m less convinced that the First World War was the ultimate break, for example, and have pulled that period around quite a lot. I don’t see 1926 as the defining moment of the 1920s, but I’m more inclined towards 1921. And in the end, I think Welsh social democracy is dead – it died a long time ago. Realising this helps us, as a nation, quite a lot. That’s a separate blog in itself, though, and I don’t want to involve myself in that discussion here. I suppose if the book has a contemporary purpose it is this: that rather than trying to maintain life support on a model of governance that has been in a vegetative state for about three decades, we need to come up with something wholly new. Social democracy as it was in the twentieth century is dead everywhere – we lost. But a twenty-first century social democracy can be born with a different purpose, if only we understand the history of how we got here. This is the century of the precariat, we need a social democracy that knows and understands us.