There is always a moment of relief when a typescript goes off to the editor, no more so for a book-length project. (They dominate your life for long enough that it really is the end of an era.) In committing to a particular focus, set of ideas, and analysis, you learn a lot about yourself and your role in the wider world. The oldest ideas to be found in Labour Country were first thought about and worked out about a decade ago as I wrote my undergraduate dissertation. Why, I set out to know, then, did South Wales secularise and can that pathway to secularism tell us anything about industrialisation, immigration, popular culture, and language conflict? In other words, was liberal, Welsh-speaking society the victim of its own prejudices? My conclusion was an emphatic yes: there was Anglophobia, there was a bitter struggle to maintain religious control, there was xenophobia, and there was an exclusionary, politically forceful strain of nationalism emanating from the governing party. The Wales we were taught in school and by historians like K. O. Morgan to regard as wholesome and valuable was not very nice at all. (In part, I add quickly, I don’t suppose it was all like that.) The other Wales, which is what my subsequent work has excavated, was Labour Wales. More open and tolerant, Labour Wales absorbed ideas from Europe and America, it thought and communicated in English but its influences came from Spanish, Italian, French, German, Russian, Czech, the Scandinavian languages, Hiberno-English, and it had no truck with domestic nationalism.
This was the Wales of the twentieth century, but it is already dead.
The purpose of today’s blog is to tender a resignation, which I will get to at the end, but it behoves that I explain how I have reached this conclusion. So bear with me. I am, and will likely remain, a Euro-federalist on the one hand, and a devo-sceptic on the other. This may seem a rather compromised position but it is a logical one if you believe in the necessary diminution of nationalist sentiments. There is no such thing as fluffy nationalism, the kind that the SNP or Plaid Cymru or Welsh Labour would have us believe in; to be a nationalist is to believe in the othering of everyone else. The logic of the United Kingdom, if nothing else, was that it (in principle, at least) flattened out the differences between the “Scots”, the “English”, the “Welsh”, and the “Irish”. As in the United States, the multiplicity of voices in the union became the single collective of the union. Again, we should be so naïve as to say that this has entirely come to pass, but principles are important and we should aspire to them. Nationalism encourages people to say – go home, get back to England, or wherever it might be, even when you’ve made your life in a different place. This is something I’ve experienced in the village I grew up in. Who said it? Plaid Cymru councillors. They’ve said worse to me and about others, but nationalism’s handmaiden is xenophobia and this deserves to be said aloud.
Every time I dug into the relationships between the Welsh and those who moved here from abroad, I discovered a fault line. It was there in Dowlais and Merthyr in the early part of the twentieth century when Spanish socialists and anarchists soon discovered that the self-professed internationalist Welsh had little time for the outside world and were given over to a streak of nationalism that precluded openness and tolerance. The only band of brothers and sisters they were able to work with were the members of the Independent Labour Party, a handful of brave comrades who broke with the consensus of Late-Victorian and Edwardian Wales to pursue a better kind of politics for a better kind of world. The same party listened attentively to the claims of Indians to independence and worked for it; they supported comrades in Canada in their industrial disputes; they worked with the Irish republicans in their pursuit of independence; they worked with the emerging civil rights movement in Britain to recognise diversity. Let no-one dismiss the true legacy of the Labour Party for contemporary gain – I’ve heard enough myth making from several current PhD students and holders of doctorates to know that this is a battle that still needs to be fought. Sadly.
My first aim with Labour Country was to write a defence of The Fed – Dai Smith and Hywel Francis’s masterwork. This is a book that has suffered from the art of over-revisionism in recent times, partly because so few people have thought to go back to the beginning and try again, to follow those same sources through, and those that have been opened up since it was written in the 1970s, and see what conclusions might be differently drawn. That is what I did. There is a vast array of source material available to write that kind of history now. ‘This is not the book we intended to write’, they begin in the preface, ‘it is not the complete, rounded social history of South Wales we plotted and carried in our heads for years’. Such a thing is still not written. Labour Country was an attempt to write such a book, whilst retaining the principles that underpin The Fed – social history that does not divorce the consequences of politics from the actions of politics; a social history that recognises the centrality of the South Wales Miners’ Federation whilst contextualising it; a social history that does not duck out of the challenges posed by integrating into the story women, people of colour, lesbians and gays, and migrants. The lay of the land remains, even when we know a little bit more about those living on it.
And so I did start again. I took all of the sources that I had read for my undergraduate, masters, and doctoral work, those that fed into the essays I’d published subsequently, and hundreds of hours in the archives and hundreds more amongst digital archives online, to try and put together that story. That history, even. I tried, as best as I could, not to be guided by the existing literature, on the principle that when The Fed was written and researched there was relatively little secondary literature to rely on in the first place. Only where there was direct synergy between my thoughts and those of others did I weave them together. In the end I reached similar conclusions to Francis and Smith but having wandered off onto different paths. That perhaps says something about our mutual perspective on the meanings of the South Walian past, but also on the actuality of it.
The problems come not from writing and understanding the past, though, but from communicating and (oftentimes) defending ideas drawn from that study in the present. And it is to this that I now turn. Two years ago, at the Llafur annual general meeting in Cardiff, I delivered a lecture called ‘A Sad but Beautiful Joke: Memory, History and Valleys Politics in the Twentieth Century’. The title was drawn from the work of Gwyn Thomas and he featured centrally in what I was trying to say. I initially began the piece as follows:
On 6 September 1969, Gwyn Thomas presented on BBC Two one of his most personal films, One Pair of Eyes, reflecting on the changes taking place in his native South Wales. In the accompanying Radio Times advert, the driving force of the programme is given voice. ‘The nature of a man’s life’, it reads in Gwyn’s very evident style, ‘the nature of a man’s mind, depends very largely on the kind of shocks and jokes to which he is subject. In Wales an industry was dying, a massive popular religion was dying. It was these things that held my eye and drove my pen’. He would expand the point in programme to include the third great death of modern Wales: politics. ‘And most important of all, the most dynamic and passionate politic belief in Britain was dying. I mean the Labour Party in my lifetime has entered into stages of petrifaction and decay’. One wonders what he would make of Welsh Labour today – buying up airports but cutting nursery schools and libraries. I daresay he might see the Labour Party as rather undead.
Two years later that zombified appearance continues as Welsh Labour politicians celebrate the introduction of childcare – public money in private hands – to replace the nursery education that they no longer saw as having value. The ridiculousness of that is precisely as it sounds.
I introduce this because it is possible to tell quite a lot about the state of the major party of Wales about its attitudes to public education. In 1926, Pontypridd Education Committee – then run by the Labour Party, of course – remarked to the government in London that they ‘fully realise the attitude of the Ministry of Health towards […] this area’. But it was not merely Neville Chamberlain’s handling of health matters that had raised their ire, it was the Board of Education’s handling of public provision too. They wrote to Lord Eustace Percy, the then President of the Board of Education, in quite dramatic terms:
While the authority realise that the financial condition of the council as a whole has to be borne in mind, they naturally regard it as a very serious matter that the children of miners should be denied the inalienable right of a public education because of the stoppage of the mines to which they are not parties and in respect of which they have suffered and are still suffering.
Notice the language, ‘inalienable rights’. It has direct echoes of that other great declaration of liberty and rights, the American constitution. It’s not a surprise in the slightest. Fifteen years earlier, in a lecture in Ferndale to mark the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s accession to the presidency of the United States, Thomas Isaac Mardy Jones, then the great hope of sections of the South Wales Miners’ Federation, expressed his belief in the continuing relevance for communities in South Wales of Lincoln’s commitment to freedom and equality for all people. We must never underestimate how important American political values were to the South Walian labour movement. That there was a rights-based political language here decades before it supposedly emerged in the 1960s is significant because the great rights campaigns of that time – for better education, better healthcare, better jobs, civil liberties – were all very much apparent in South Wales in the inter-war years. Things were meant to get better, not privatised by a Labour Government blinded by its own form of nationalism.
In recent weeks, or months, or years, depending on how much of this you’re willing to wade through, Labour politicians in Wales have spoken about the ‘national interest’. They speak with a divine reverence for the Welsh language (but never the English language which the vast majority of the Welsh actually use every day); they iterate an anti-Westminster incontinence and then wonder why the result is the political maturation of a party (UKIP) that carries for all the anti-establishment diarrhoea expelled by such rhetoric; and little by little they dismantle what remains of the social democracy which was their inheritance. Let us be under any illusions that Welsh Labour are uniquely culpable, they are not, under Plaid Cymru this would have happened too, at a much greater speed. The point, and the reason why I could no longer remain in Welsh Labour’s ranks, is that this is not the historic role of the Labour Party. Labour should break down barriers of prejudice, not erect them; Labour should work eradicate the establishment not lob bricks at it; Labour should defend and grow social democracy, not destroy it. There is something deeply wrong in Welsh Labour and it needs fixing rather quickly. But I can’t say I’m that surprised at the direction, for I recently found my notes from the leadership campaign fought by Carwyn Jones against Huw Lewis and Edwina Hart; they still serve as a warning that Jones would revel in a kind of nationalism-lite, not Labour being Labour (as Huw Lewis called for).
My resignation from the Labour Party was not, however, the resignation I referred to earlier, that is more substantive. In finishing Labour Country, I have reached the end of ten years of research and study of the place that I grew up in. That place, mentally, if not yet physically, is no longer my home. In everything that I’ve written and researched in those ten years, I’ve tried to recover something of the history of the marginalised. I was prompted to study Wales whilst a student at Oxford because it was on the margins of the history I was being taught. That was, I suppose, to be expected. Less expected was that this kind of history would end up on the margins even in Wales itself. In nationalist times an appeal to non-nationalist internationalism was always going to be limited in strength, but I had not realised quite how limited ‘limited’ really was. I find myself now at a crossroads: I can either continue bashing away, somewhat on my own, in the hope that one day I create a loud enough echo that others come and find out what I’m looking for; or I abandon the works and look for something else leaving the tools for whomever might want them later on. In light of Brexit and events in the United States, I don’t think I can justify to myself (financially or intellectually) the continuation of solitary confinement. There are more important things to be doing and saying, and to be utterly frank life below the bread line is soul destroying. I’ve been there for too many years now.
And so I am abandoning – as I said on social media a couple of weeks ago – any further study of the Welsh past and any further commentary on the Welsh present. Eventually I will leave Wales altogether. I feel that I’ve said what I can, made the plea that I wanted to make, tried to contribute as much as I could with what little resources I possess, and there is nothing else left to do. Those who profess to be afraid of nationalism abroad, in the form of President-elect Trump, or nationalism at home, in the form of UKIP, should be very aware of the nationalist rhetoric sold by other political forces too. Listen and respond; debate and reject. That is the way to build a better society. The way to construct unity and integration. Tolerance. Forget the fears about universalism trampling over specificity, that is a false quandary, but do not forget the othering of someone who happens to be different. There is, is there not, a good reason we tell ourselves that those who know nothing of history are doomed to repeat its mistakes.