History On The Dole

notes from the margins of the past

Dic Penderyn: Class or Nation?

What follows is an edited version of a paper I gave at the Remobilising Militant Pasts conference at King’s College, London, in August 2017.


O Arglwydd, dyma gamwedd / Oh Lord, this is injustice. The final words of Richard Lewis (1808-1831) of Aberavon, better known as Dic Penderyn, spoken on the scaffold of Cardiff Gaol before Lewis’s execution for his part in the Merthyr Rising. Penderyn had been arrested in Merthyr accused of stabbing Donald Black, a soldier from the Highland regiment sent into the town to quell the rebellion, with his own bayonet. The evidence that Lewis had been, as the judge put it during the trial, ‘either the first or one of the first to make an attack upon the military’ has always been regarded as fairly tenuous. Nevertheless, as the historian Gwyn A. Williams put it in his famous study, The Merthyr Rising, ‘Richard Lewis … was condemned … even though throughout his trial he had been treated as a secondary offender … it was the less rather than the more guilty, who was to take two minutes to die at the end of a rope’. Lewis as Dic Penderyn was quickly identified as a martyr to the cause. But whose cause and what kind of injustice was being invoked on the scaffold on 13 August 1831 has divided Welsh society for nearly two hundred years and continues to be a line of demarcation: for class or for nation?

For many decades, Dic Penderyn was a figure largely lost to public discourse, both in English and in Welsh. Search for his name in the newspapers of the nineteenth century and he does not appear until the mid-1880s, and although he appears intermittently in journal literature of the nineteenth century, such intermittence is hardly indicative of the same kind of posthumous ‘fame’ he was to enjoy in the twentieth century. Just as Dic Penderyn had been invisible prior to his trial, so he became largely invisible thereafter. He was, as Gwyn A. Williams put it, not so much the face above the crowd, but a face within it. The recovery of the story of Dic Penderyn began in earnest in the early twentieth century. It is hardly a coincidence that this was the same period that saw the rise of the Labour Party and the emerging appreciation of what we now recognise as labour history but which was then understood as industrial history. The martyrdom of Dic Penderyn, as it became, was set into a grand narrative that linked together Chartism, democratic reform, and the eventual coming of socialism. Perhaps inevitably, such a narrative needed both martyrs and leaders, and so, over time, the myth of Penderyn’s leadership during the riots emerged.

This leadership role found its way into the writing of Ness Edwards, perhaps the leading worker-historian of the South Wales Coalfield in the early twentieth century. He was later Labour MP for Caerphilly. In his The History of the South Wales Miners published in 1926, he wrote of the Merthyr riots that they were indicative of the ‘gathering clouds of class hatred’ which were ‘coalesced by the tyrannical methods of the employers’. Dic Penderyn, now elevated to the role of leader of the Merthyr workers, was ‘hung from the gibbets. The workers were cowed by the soldiers’. This was, of course, history useful in the present quite as much as the past; the ironmasters of 1830s Merthyr were the coalowners of 1920s South Wales, and there is something akin to AJ Cook in Ness Edwards’s depiction of the heroic struggle of Dic Penderyn. This historical narrative was to be carried forward in the industrial histories and pageants written and performed in the 1920s and 1930s. It was a cultural manifestation of the struggle that led to the formation of a social democratic political system in the South Wales region that was almost unique in Britain at that time.

The parallel narrative that has subsequently emerged since the Second World War is firmly nationalist in character. Stressing Dic Penderyn’s Welshness, this version of the story positions events in Merthyr Tydfil not in a grand narrative guided by class struggle but in a grand narrative of Welsh struggle against external oppressors, particularly from England. Meic Stevens, a leading Welsh folk singer, occasionally likened to Bob Dylan, at least in Welsh-language circles, penned his iconic song ‘Dic Penderyn’ in 1972 with lines that reference the ‘Cardiff Englishman’s rope’, for instance, and a musical narrative that instils the idea that the rising was not so much about labour country, but a country – a nation – called Wales. This was carried forward by an even more ambitious telling of the Dic Penderyn story in 1978 in the form of a rock opera performed at the New Theatre in Cardiff during that year’s National Eisteddfod. The theatre company that staged the piece, Theatr yr Ymylon (Fringe Theatre) had been formed a few years earlier in an effort to spur the development of a genuinely ‘national’ theatre for Wales, based in the national capital, as well as to set out the parameters of a theatrical tradition for the nation that was both bilingual and able to tackle historical themes in contemporary ways.

In both forms, then, the Dic Penderyn story was utilised as public theatre, as history, and as poetry or song, and throughout the twentieth century events in Merthyr in 1831 appeared as one or other of those things. From Ness Edwards’s early writings in the 1920s to Gwyn Thomas and Islwyn ap Nicholas in the 1940s, to Harri Webb and Gwyn A. Williams in the 1950s, and Meic Stevens and Alexander Cordell in the 1970s, the legend of Dic Penderyn has advanced both as class struggle and as a chapter in the saga of national liberation. There is one last layer to include before considering the meanings and purposes reflected in these works, namely memorialisation. There are several memorials to Dic Penderyn around South Wales. The first of these was, of course, his grave stone ultimately replaced in 1966 by a more ambitious marker on the encouragement of Alexander Cordell. As a non-conformist and chapel-educated, Dic Penderyn’s religious faith had little to do with Anglicanism or the Church fundamentally identified with the Establishment ‘over there’ and frequently decried as yr hen bradwress, the old traitress. Nevertheless, as Gwyn A. Williams noted, it was the Church that preserved both Dic Penderyn’s memory and his mortal remains. The irony should not be lost:

It was this church which was the first institution in Wales to raise a memorial to Dic Penderyn, martyr of the Merthyr Rising. Merthyr itself, hoary old capital of Welsh radicalism didn’t erect one till much later and then it was done at fictional second hand.

The gravestone at St Mary’s Church, Aberavon, is relatively moderate in tone and only hints at the class-orientated nature of Penderyn’s execution. It reads: ‘To the memory of Richard Lewis’, reads the dedication, ‘executed at Cardiff for the part he played during the industrial riots in Merthyr Tydfil in June 1831’.  That compares with the marker in Merthyr, referred to by Gwyn A. Williams, which was unveiled by Len Murray, the General Secretary of the TUC, at Merthyr Central Library in 1977. ‘Merthyr Gweithwyr Cymru / Martyr of the Welsh Working Class’. This would be echoed even more strongly in the blue plaque erected in Cardiff in 1980 on the site of the former gaol (today it is Cardiff’s grand indoor market). Donated by the National Union of Mineworkers, the plaque stresses the class struggle:

Dic Penderyn (Richard Lewis) aged 23 was hanged on this site at 8.00 am on Friday 13th August 1831 for the alleged wounding of a soldier during the 1831 armed rebellion of the Merthyr trade unionists when 24 people died. When Dic Penderyn’s body was taken to Aberavon the funeral cortege was over a mile long. The County Gaol stood on this site for over three hundred years and it was the scene of brutal punishment and religious and political martyrdoms.

There are no memorials that stress the nationalist narrative; but because history is continually turned into spectacle in our postmodern age, there is a pub named for Dic Penderyn. It’s a Wetherspoon, of course, and sits on Dic Penderyn Square immediately opposite Merthyr Central Library. First as tragedy, then as beer. Karl Marx might yet approve.

There is much to unpick in this complex weaving together of class-based martyrology, the construction of a saga of national liberation, and contemporary memorialisation, so here I shall focus on a few examples, namely that of Gwyn Thomas and Harri Webb. Both labour history and national history need foundation myths, legends, and martyrs. And, as nationalism in Wales has moved steadily leftwards over the course of the twentieth century, it’s no surprise that certain individuals have become a little like Harvey Dent and readily appropriated to both traditions.

The poet, librarian, journalist, and political activist, Harri Webb, occupies a fascinating position within the Welsh nationalist tradition. He identified early with the nationalist-republican left and for a time in the 1950s swung in and out of Plaid Cymru and the Labour Party. Born in Swansea in 1920, Webb studied languages at Oxford and graduated in 1941. After service in the Royal Navy he returned to Wales and absorbed himself in the emerging nationalist-republican movement, a tradition to the left of mainstream (liberal) Welsh nationalism at the time. He wrote articles for the Welsh Republican, a remarkable post-war newspaper, which sought a uniquely Welsh socialist position. As Webb put it in an editorial, ‘Welsh republicanism develops as the practical successor to English Labour “socialism”’. But the movement eventually faded and Webb took a job at Cheltenham Public Library in 1952. He joined Labour in 1953 and remained a member until 1958 before rejoining Plaid Cymru in 1960. It was during his period as a member of the Labour Party that he started working seriously on events in Merthyr in the 1830s. A return to Wales came in 1954 when Webb was appointed librarian at Dowlais Library. (He would later become head of the library service for Mountain Ash Urban District Council.) The two primary outputs of his work on Merthyr are a poem published in Rampage and Revel in 1977 and his pamphlet on Dic Penderyn and the Merthyr Rising published in 1956.


The poem is symptomatic of the nationalist-republican idealisation of Dic Penderyn, although it’s not very good:

But still we hold in honour

The men who struck and bled

For freedom and for justice

And to give our people bread.


And the time is surely coming

When Wales must once more show

The courage of Penderyn

So many years ago.

The pamphlet, which has its origins in a lecture delivered to Merthyr Trades and Labour Council in 1955, is far more interesting. Despite stretching the Penderyn story for literary and political purposes, it was the first publication to actively present the events of 1831 as a rising, rather than merely a riot or act of rebellion. Webb began:

Merthyr Tydfil in 1831 – the industrial centre of gravity of the universe – the greatest populated place in Wales, larger than Cardiff and Swansea and Newport put together – the satanic metropolis of iron, built in the image of the ironmasters, where the flaring furnaces cast their lurid light on the gleaming new stonework of Cyfarthfa Castle, and over the unspeakable slum homes of the workers.

The literary quality of the piece descends from this fanciful rhetoric into language that gets worse. For instance: ‘The house was full of soldiers whose bayonets had already drunk Welsh blood’. For Harri Webb, the only heroes were on ‘our’ side, and the rest were evil, regardless of who they were. This was Jesus on Calvary, Daniel in the lion’s den, black and white, right and wrong. Whatever historians said in response, and respond they did, it didn’t really matter, because this was narrative for a purpose. It set down the idea of the Merthyr Rising as a particularly Welsh rebellion – a theme taken up by the historian (and Welsh Republican) Ivor Wilkes – that could be set alongside Owain Glyndwr and a Wales that was and might be. It is hardly sober history and it is highly internalised. Nevertheless, the influence of Harri Webb’s take is evident in Meic Stevens’s song and it has consequently resonated in cultural circles ever since.

There is, of course, an alternative, namely the narrative produced by Gwyn Thomas in his remarkable novel All Things Betray Thee. Gwyn Thomas was born in the Rhondda in 1913 and like Harri Webb he studied languages at Oxford. He spent a period of time in Republican Spain, a cause to which he was attached all his adult life, and returned to the Rhondda in the mid-1930s where he struggled to find work and eventually settled into teaching. For a time he wrote obituaries for the local newspaper, the Rhondda Leader, and took to writing short stories and novels. Several of these were published at the end of the 1940s culminating in his retelling of the Dic Penderyn story. This was his most important novel and one that earned him plaudits all over the world. Thomas had seen, and taken part in, the mass protests against the means test in the 1930s, he’d volunteered for Spain but was too ill for service in the international brigades, and moved in communist circles although a member of the Labour Party. For Gwyn Thomas, events in Merthyr were the beginning of a great epic sweep of history that culminated in the coming to power of the first majority Labour government in 1945. This was workers taking control of their own destiny, combating capitalism, and about a collectivist response to the state and collectivist action in challenging the state’s power.

The novel is a fusion of the contemporary and the historical; it is about the 1930s as much as the 1830s, about the waning of the power of the South Wales Labour Movement as much as its waxing. It’s also a novel about making choices and about recognising situations that we, as individuals, find ourselves in. And those choices should be based on a critical awareness of the past. As he has one of his characters explain, early in the novel:

Yesterday’s beliefs are nice, smooth drumsticks, and they are often brought to tap out reassurance against fears to which we have no answer at all. These people, brought here from a dozen counties, have no common understanding, no common language. They are still frozen and made dumb by the strangeness of their different yesterdays. Men are always shy to say clearly how the dream of freedom really strikes them.

And the choice:

I don’t know. I’ve never seen life as you boys seem to see it, a distinct, separate think like a detachable shadow, to be examined and kicked or kissed. It’s just flown around me, not hurting too much and I’ve never given a conscious damn. No, I’ve never thought about this business of choosing.

The choice, consistent with Gwyn Thomas’s own political view, was between a proletariat that simply accepted its place, and one that resisted and stood up for itself. It would be easy to switch this over to the nationalist narrative but Gwyn Thomas saw nationalism as supreme infantilization of politics. Towards the end of his life, endlessly hounded by nationalists who attacked him vehemently, he barked that nationalists had to grow up: ‘we’re off rusks now’. If nationalists hated him, socialists and communists loved him. They saw that Gwyn Thomas was writing their kind of literature; that is, literature with a political purpose, a literary contribution to socialism. ‘We must accept the world before we can change it’, argued Jack Lindsay, ‘we must accept the world in order to change it. That is the law of the artist, which may often irritate the hasty and sectarian; but it is sound politics’. Ultimately Dic Penderyn was reabsorbed as one of the people, but one of those who had made the choice to resist. He was neither leader nor martyr nor legend nor hero but part of a collective response, part of the crowd, part of the working class.

We live in times that echo the 1930s and the 1970s. Nationalism is riding high tides, although there are those who call for clear choices to be made. Humanity, writes Bernie Sanders, is at a crossroads. ‘We can continue down the current path of greed, consumerism, oligarchy, poverty, war, racism, and environmental degradation. Or we can lead the world in a very different direction’. We can, in other words, make a choice – which kind of militant past are we to engage with. In the last thirty years or so, relatively little has been written about the Merthyr Rising or about Dic Penderyn, certainly little that advances our understanding. Indeed, these days the Merthyr Rising is a music and cultural festival which is admirably sponsored by trade unions, but has the Morning Star as its official media partner, and takes its political cues from the hard left – John McDonnell, for instance, was a key note speaker this year, as was Robert Griffiths, the general secretary of the Communist Party. It’s a kind of post-modern performative radicalism, if you like. Like wearing a Billy Bragg t-shirt or something from the Philosophy Football catalogue on the one hand (harmless enough, and widely engaged in), or voting for Jeremy Corbyn on the other without recognising the origins of his politics.


The Wales of today, having voted for Brexit, governed by a “Welsh” Labour Party that is to the right of the Labour leadership in London, and certainly more overtly nationalist, is at a curious crossroads. It has, in many respects chosen to reject the labour version of the Dic Penderyn story and come to embrace a form of the nationalist one. It may well be that Wales and its left are different from England and its left, or (dare we say it) Britain and its left, but I doubt it, at least now. The distinctiveness that made the Welsh left, such as it can be called that, came from coal – Dic Penderyn was a coal miner, after all – and from a collective purpose based on clear choices made to advance the fortunes of working people. Those aren’t the values of nationalism. The trouble is, the nation’s mythologised hero, whose injustice was class-based and material, is lost in a translation that stresses the national liberation saga. In the end, all that remains is the question: Dic Penderyn, wyt ti’n fwy? Who is he?


Rhondda’s First Indian Doctors

Sanjeev Bhaskar as The Indian Doctor (BBC TV). Photograph taken at Big Pit, National Coal Mining Museum, Blaenafon.

One of the most common ideas about post-war Wales is the presence of the Indian doctor, brought over to work in the South Wales Coalfield because of shortages of general practitioners within the National Health Service. The BBC have even gone so far as to make a situation comedy out of this, imaginatively titled The Indian Doctor, it tells the story of a 1960s mining village changed forever by the arrival of their new GP, ‘a high-flying Delhi graduate’. This particular doctor, of course, is a cipher for the very many who did arrive in the 1950s and 1960s often in the hope of gaining specialised training in large teaching hospitals but then confronted with the realities of medical employment in the United Kingdom. It might be thought that this wave was the first to bring Indian medical personnel to Britain, or even to the Rhondda, but this is not really true. In today’s blog, I want to explore the life and career of one particular Indian doctor, born in Calcutta in the 1860s, who came to Glasgow to train, and who eventually ended up in the South Wales Coalfield. I want to explore his politics, too, and to show how this earlier wave of doctors encouraged awareness of conditions in India and the reasons for the emerging Indian nationalist movement.

Krishna Lal Datta was, as I say, born in Calcutta in the 1860s (he gives a few different dates on the census). Initially he travelled to Britain to study for the civil service with the aim of joining the India Office. But after a dispute with his family over his conversion to Christianity, he sought a medical career instead and moved to Glasgow in the mid-1880s (around 1884) to begin his medical training at the city’s medical school, graduating in the 1890-1891 session. Whilst in Glasgow, Datta became active in the Junior Liberal Association and in 1885 was selected as one of the three Liberal candidates challenging for the new Bridgeton constituency (later made famous as the seat held by James Maxton), and was perceived as being a ‘man on a mission’, although it appears he did not campaign very hard. Instead, he gained a steady renown for his views on British imperialism in India, on the opium trade, global peace, as well as the national movement in Ireland. After graduation, and further study in Rome and Paris, Datta moved to Yorkshire, taking up medical practice initially in Huddersfield and then in Leeds. Speaking at Bethel Chapel on Meadow Road in Leeds in November 1892, for instance, he spoke on the failure of lawmakers to balance modern drugs legislation in Britain with equivalent legislation in India. ‘If they went into a chemist’s shop in Leeds’, he explained, ‘they would find that there was an Act in force called the Food and Drugs Act, which precluded chemists from selling more than a certain quantity of opium’. He continued:

If they went to India, however, they found that there was no such Act, but that any quantity of opium could there be sold, that children might be sent for it, and that, if any one chose to be so foolish, he might eat as much as would kill him. […] The government, however, said they could not do without the opium trade. […] This was a question for the English people, who could not expect to escape the evil consequences of the opium trade if, having the power to stop it, they did not do so.

In 1894, Dr Datta moved from Leeds to teaching extra mural classes in Edinburgh, before finally moving to South Wales in the spring of 1899 to take up the post of assistant to Dr Thomas Hall Redwood, the medical officer of health for Rhymney Urban District Council, where he remained for nine months before being appointed by the colliers at Ferndale as a colliery doctor and an assistant to Dr Parry-Jones the colliery surgeon. One newspaper described Datta as a ‘native of India, black in colour, and from a princely family’. Datta’s politics had advanced significantly since his earlier efforts for the Liberals in Glasgow, and now had the clear colour of labourism. In an address given at a welcoming ceremony in Ferndale, Datta remarked on the ‘possibilities of the working men of today for the elevation of their social conditions’ and that responsibility ‘rested entirely in their own hands, by sending labour representatives as their representatives on all public bodies’. This was, of course, the message of the Independent Labour Party, which Datta joined at around this time.

Datta also brought into coalfield politics his earlier focus on India and imperialism, encouraging much greater awareness in the region of both. This is important to recognise because it is often assumed that Keir Hardie infused this particular political passion into coalfield politics following his global tour in 1907. Whilst there is no denying Hardie’s enthusiasms, it is clear that an understanding of Indian nationalism and Indian politics had begun to be shaped prior to this. Thus Datta spoke, for instance, on issues such as ‘India, its needs and wants’ as well as on subjects relating to the coalfield itself such as ‘the economic conditions of colliery labourers’ and (in similar vein) ‘the economic condition of the collier’s life’. He was also active in the campaign for better workers housing (another campaign platform of the ILP). But it was his work as a colliery doctor that proved transformative since it exposed the monopolised medical practices that had developed in the Rhondda since the middle of the century. Datta’s erstwhile colleague, Dr Parry, was paid a poundage rate of 3d which was kept at the colliery itself every week, whereas Datta was paid a wage that was the equivalent of 1s a month per collier and stopped from their wage packets. This was the so-called ‘new system’, and allowed the colliers to select their own doctor rather than the one tenured by the colliery officials.

Given the tension that quickly developed between the two men, Datta offered to help the more radical miners of Ferndale to establish their own cottage hospital, paying much of the initial operating costs out of his own financial resources, with more traditional fundraising efforts kicking in in subsequent years. The Ferndale Workmen’s Hospital opened towards the end of 1900 and was staffed by Datta, his assistant Dr David Scott, and several nurses, namely, Lydia Maurice, Elizabeth Williams, Helen Evans, Blanche Rogers, Annie Beavan, and Mary Edwards. It transformed the medical situation in the Ferndale district – previously the closest hospital had been at Porth, at the lower end of the valley, with many cases having to travel on to Cardiff infirmary. More than his predecessors, Datta endeavoured to provide medical education in the locality, as well as contribute to the political activism of the labour movement, a reflection (undoubtedly) of his previous experience as an extra-mural tutor. During the First World War, for instance, following service in France, he ran ambulance classes and classes for women to undertake sick nursing, as well as delivering lectures in paramedical support.

The life of Kristnalal Datta, even in brief like this, reminds us that the South Wales Coalfield was a world within a world; described by Dai Smith as ‘American Wales’ there are many facets of this world that are yet to uncovered. All the more so since Dr Datta was not the first Indian doctor to arrive in the Rhondda. That honour (so far as I can tell) goes to Montagu Duncan Makuna – the anglicised adopted name of Mamkjee Dosabhai Makuna, who settled in Ystrad Rhondda in 1877 to take up a role as colliery doctor in the upper Rhondda Fawr working alongside the quack-doctor Idris Davies. In subsequent years he moved to Treherbert and finally to Trealaw, whilst maintaining a surgery branch at Treorchy. Dr Makuna was a graduate of Bombay University (1870) and London, and joined the Royal College of Physicians in 1876. His first job as a doctor in Britain was as superintendent at Fulham Hospital. He died in 1913 and one obituary described him as ‘highly respected throughout the Valleys, not only for his medical knowledge and skill, but also for his high moral character’. He was, the article recorded, ‘somewhat brusque in manner [and] he never hesitated to express his opinions, but underlying what might appear to be severity there was a tenderness which only those who came into close contact with him realised’. Like Datta, Makuna was a converted Christian. (His favourite hymn, apparently, was Abide With Me)

Remarkably, then, for the first decade of the twentieth century, the leading colliery doctors of the upper Rhondda Fach and the upper Rhondda Fawr were both from India. They would be joined by jobbing specialists in ocular medicine who travelled the coalfield (and neighbouring districts) selling their services in the absence of stable employment in colliery hospitals and surgeries. So much, we might conclude, for the idea that British medicine, especially one the periphery, can survive without immigration – it has always relied on immigration. And perhaps most especially, most poignantly, it has always relied on the emigration of doctors and para-medics from the Indian subcontinent. It is a history of immigration almost as old as the industrial revolution in the Rhondda itself, and it should be cherished and celebrated.

Professor Cole’s Nordic Audience

GDH Cole pictured in Norway, 1951.

George Douglas Howard Cole (1889-1959) was one of (if not) the leading intellectual figure of the British labour movement in the middle decades of the twentieth century. He wrote prolifically, and in the 1930s with a degree of urgency, as his multiple contributions to the Left Book Club illustrate, and had an important intellectual influence over numerous Labour Party figures, notably Hugh Gaitskell and Harold Wilson. Cole was himself a product of Oxford University. Educated at Balliol College, Oxford (1908-11), his first teaching posts were with the Workers Educational Association (WEA) in Newcastle (where he also taught philosophy at Armstrong College, the forerunner of today’s Newcastle University). His undergraduate performance – a double first – ensured him a prize fellowship at Magdalen College (1912-1919), and he remained in the city for much of the rest of his life. Before being appointed as a reader in economics and fellow of University College, Oxford, in 1925, Cole worked as a journalist, writer, and activist, tutor, and he was for a time labour correspondent of the Manchester Guardian. He remained at Univ until 1939 when he was appointed fellow of Nuffield College. In 1944, he became the first Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory, a post he held until retirement in 1957. Succeeded at All Souls by Isiah Berlin, Cole returned to Nuffield as research professor, remaining there until his death in 1959.

Cole’s political and intellectual legacy was, at least in his lifetime, felt far and wide, particularly within guild socialist and Fabian circles, as well as the WEA. Despite this, he was dismissed later in the twentieth century as old fashioned and even ‘conservative’ and remains something of a neglected figure who is appreciated more, now, for his contributions to the political theory of the Left than to economics. It is not my intention in this blog to rehearse these debates, but rather to explore the reception given to GDH Cole’s ideas in social democratic circles abroad. Although not, in the conventional sense, a social democrat, nor was that a label he accepted, Cole was often received as such in Europe and further afield – most notably in Japan where his work was first translated in 1919. What follows is based primarily on Scandinavian sources, partly for interest’s sake and partly because it was in Scandinavia that social democracy developed most strongly in Cole’s lifetime. But it is important to recognise that Cole’s reception in Scandinavia was different from his reception elsewhere in Europe and in Japan. So whilst the central theme of this blog is – to what extent was one of Britain’s leading leftist thinkers engaged with in Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, and what reception was given to his ideas? – it remains necessary to see this is as just one part of a broader picture, which I hope to come to infuture blogs.

To begin with, then, and this was very much in keeping with his reputation in Britain, Cole’s reception in Scandinavia was the result of his work on guild socialism and industrial democracy. As Noel Thompson records, ‘works such as The World of Labour, 1913, Self-Government in Industry, 1917, and Guild Socialism Restated, 1920, establish[ed Cole] as its [guild socialism’s] most important theoretician and effective populariser’. It is clear from the writing of the Norwegian journalist and lawyer Inge Debes that Cole’s Self-Government in Industry (1917) was read in Norway in English and it subsequently appeared in Swedish as Industriells Självstyrelse in an edition published by the Stockholm-based Tidens Förlag in 1921. The translation was undertaken by Otto Bucht (1887-1951) and served as a contribution to the contemporary debates on industrial democracy and the response of the Swedish and Norwegian labour movements to the Bolshevik Revolution. With the emergence of the Swedish Communist Party in 1921 and the Norwegian Communist Party in 1923, these debates waned somewhat, as did Cole’s presence in Scandinavian leftist debate. Although he hardly slipped into obscurity, Scandinavian readers had to make do with either the English originals or translations into German or French, and this meant the sum total of Cole’s prolific output escaped even dedicated followers, as the Danish writer Even Marstrand confessed in 1933.

Advert marketing the Norwegian translation of The Intelligent Man’s Guide Through World Chaos, 1935. The text reads: 50,000 sold in England! Handbook to today’s economic problems.

In the global economic and political turmoil of the Great Depression, however, Cole’s writings gained a new lease of life. In this, Cole was aided through his association with Victor Gollancz and the intellectual debates encouraged by Gollancz and the Left Book Club. In 1935, for instance, Cole’s The Intelligent Man’s Guide Through World Chaos (1932) appeared in Norwegian, by coincidence often appearing in the same advertising lists as the Norwegian edition of Trotsky’s autobiography! Published by the Labour Party’s printing arm, Tiden, it cemented Cole’s presence in social democratic debate in Norway. The translation was first advertised in Norway’s leftist press in the autumn of 1934, drawing on its substantial sales in Britain. The edition was translated and abridged by the archivist Jakob Friis (1883-1956), the economist Arne Skaug (1906-1974), and the librarian Henrik Johnsen Hjartøy (1892-1971), all of whom were active in the Labour Party and (at times) the Communist Party. The previous year, amidst discussions on how to resolve the effects of the economic crisis on Norsk Hydro, which struggled to turn a profit for much of the 1930s, Cole’s work on industrial democracy was revived and appeared as part of a special series in the social democratic newspaper Det 20de århundre (The Twentieth Century).

With the outbreak of war and the invasion of Norway in 1940, the transmission of ideas and Scandinavian commentary on British social democratic thought inevitably went underground. The only major translation to appear was a Norwegian edition of Cole’s Left Book Club contribution The Means to Full Employment (1943) published in Stockholm by the cultural arm of the Norwegian trade union federation LO in 1944. Five years later, alongside the European federalist, Ronald Mackay, he contributed a chapter (translated into Swedish) on social democratic politics in post-war Britain to Rickard Lindström’s What Can Social Democracy Do For World Peace(Vad kan socialdemokratin göra för världsfreden). Then, in July 1951, alongside former WEA organiser Elizabeth Monkhouse, Cole visited Oslo to take part in a British-Norwegian summer school at Sørmarka. There he spoke on the ‘British labour problem’ and the role of planning in British social democracy. Monkhouse spoke on European Unity and European federalism. By the 1950s, Cole could be introduced as someone who, in the words of one newspaper, ‘had had a significant influence on the older generation of Norwegian labour activists’.

This post-war period was also the peak of Cole’s influence over Danish social democratic thought, too, with the appearance of his Introduction to Economic History (1952) in Denmark in 1955, and much greater coverage of his work in the Danish press. What was true of Sweden, Denmark, and Norway, however, seems not to have been true of Iceland and Finland, for here Cole’s work was less well known and although he appears to an extent in the Iceland press after the Second World War, it’s not quite so apparent that he was held in the same regard as elsewhere in the Nordic world. But then, in neither Finland nor Iceland, the two republics of the Nordic world, was social democracy quite as evident, so that might well provide an explanation as to Cole’s relative lack of significance there.

Summing up Cole’s intellectual trajectory, A.W. Wright remarked that there was ‘early emphasis on problems of social theory, followed by a long period in which economic concerns predominate[d], itself followed by a return to the very earliest interest in problems of social theory and organisation’. Both of these trends can be seen in the reception of Cole’s work in Scandinavia. Wright notes also that Cole’s political allegiances moved from an anti-parliamentarian and anti-state position to one that accepted a moderate role for the state and its mechanisms – he was, in fact, attacked by Beatrice and Sidney Webb for his steady ‘moderation’. The Webbs’ attack was a false one. For Cole was, by his own definition, and despite his embrace of Fabian politics, ‘neither a communist nor a social democrat’. These were, he thought, both ‘creeds of centralisation and bureaucracy’ which could not resolve the fundamental dilemma of escaping capitalism. A truly socialist society was one in which ‘equalitarian principles of human brotherhood […] rest on the widest possible diffusion of power and responsibility’.

Given this, it might seem curious that Cole’s writing was ever properly absorbed into the mainstream Scandinavian social-democratic milieu. After all, his views did not really accord with (in Mary Hilson’s words), ‘a government-funded welfare state, an egalitarian tax system, and strict job regulation’ and a state in which power was vested primarily in parliament rather than the commons. And yet, there he is. There is, of course, a flip-side to this seemingly esoteric exploration, namely that for the post-war years historians have become accustomed to reading about British social democrats visiting Scandinavia and yearning for the kind of social-democratic stability available in Norway, Sweden, and, to a lesser extent, Denmark. (See, for instance, Perry Anderson’s attack on Tony Crosland in the NLR.) It was there even in the Left Book Club of the 1930s and 1940s. It is less frequently recognised that this was two-way traffic with a vintage of several decades, and that Scandinavian social democrats took a very keen interest in what their British comrades were saying and doing.

The Anti-Partition League in Wales

Anti-Partition League Meeting, Belfast, 1950. L-R: Sean McNally, Senator JG Lennon, James McSparran MP, Eddie McAteer MP, John Fogarty (Cardiff), P. Cunningham (Glasgow, Scottish General Secretary).

With the world nursing its post-St Patrick’s Day hangover, and with the prospect of a United Ireland back on the political agenda, however temporarily, because of Brexit, today’s blog draws our attention to one of the more interesting facets of the Irish presence in Wales after independence was won in the early 1920. Most work on the Irish in the Welsh context tends to stop at this juncture: Paul O’Leary’s classic Immigration and Integration ends in 1922, for example, and the essays collected in The Irish in Modern Wales (edited by O’Leary) take a Victorian focus. My own essay, on the fortunes of the Gaelic Athletic Association and the clubs of the South Wales County Board, of necessity, since the championship suddenly stopped at the time of the General Strike and Miners’ Lockout, draws to a close in 1926. So, there is a profound gap: Peter Beresford Ellis’s attempt to draw together the various ‘Celtic’ nationalisms under the same umbrella, and on-going work on individual figures and movements, notably Saunders Lewis and the Welsh language movement as inspirations for what was going on in Ireland, and vice-versa, notwithstanding. The question to ask, then, is what did it mean to be an Irish nationalist in Wales in the era of nationhood and, of course, partition of the island of Ireland?

Politically it meant several things. Up until independence, the primary allegiance of the Irish community had been to the Liberal Party and then to the Labour Party, whose fortunes were bolstered (even ‘made’) by the transfer. Amid this political alliance was the South Wales Miners’ Federation which took an activist-internationalist stand on the question of Irish Home Rule and held several great protest meetings during the War of Independence demanding immediate military withdrawal from Ireland and the establishment of an Irish parliament with all the powers of self-government that could be afforded to it. Nor was this a fringe section within the SWMF, but a movement which drew together leading figures of the period – James Winstone (SWMF President, 1915-1921), Vernon Hartshorn MP (Ogmore; SWMF President, 1922-1924), Thomas Isaac “Mardy” Jones (MP for Pontypridd, 1922-1931). The consolidation of several elements of the non-Labour far left into the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1921 further added to this left-leaning, pro-Irish political milieu. But as the Labour Party marched towards government, first in 1924, and for a longer period between 1929 and 1931, its attitudes to constitutional change began to alter, and to become more pragmatic.

In 1918, several key figures in the Labour Party, notably Arthur Henderson, and in his own manner, Jimmy Thomas, came out in favour of devolution and a federal structure as the best solution to both the constitutional crisis that had been waging for decades and the looming military conflict sparked by events in 1916. Ivan Gibbons has shown how Labour’s support for this solution was anchored in a belief in a united Ireland. J. R. Clynes, Labour leader between 1921 and 1922, argued in the House of Commons in 1919 that ‘the plea was for a united Ireland, governed by the collective rule of the people of Ireland, under conditions which would give the amplest and fullest safeguards to those who claim to represent Ulster’s interests and rights’. In the post-war debates on Ireland, Labour held to this anti-partition position. This was also the same period when Labour seriously engaged with the question of electoral reform and renewal of the voting mechanisms to ensure fairer representation of all the political voices in the country, including its own.

But a party in opposition has different responsibilities and freedoms to a party of government and the Labour Party, governing as a minority on both occasions, were no less able to break that rule in the 1920s than they are now. Although traditionally regarded as a weak minority government constrained on all sides by the insurmountable political forces of the Liberal and Conservative opposition parties inside the House of Commons, and the twin issues of Ireland and the Soviet Union outside parliament, this was not necessarily the case of either the 1924 or 1929-31 administrations. As Keith Laybourn and John Shepherd have asserted, rightly,

the 1924 minority Labour administration was a sensitive indicator of how much Labour had progressed since the Labour Representation Committee was founded in London in 1900. […] Above all, the 1924 Labour government was vital in legitimising Labour as the representative of the progressive forces in British politics, and helped to dispatch the Liberal Party to political oblivion for more than eighty years.

What Labour faced in office in 1924 was a situation in which both governments, in Dublin and in London, had to assert their own legitimacy. The Free State government after a turbulent period of war and then civil war, during which its most charismatic figure, Michael Collins, had been assassinated, and the Labour government which faced accusations that it would lead Britain to the brink of bolshevism. In such a context, it would be difficult to maintain the previously warm relationship between Irish nationalism and the British Labour Party.

Indeed, from the perspective of the increasingly conservative Free State government, the Labour Party were, in the words of Ivan Gibbons, lacking ‘the competence, understanding or commitment to resolve this issue [of the territorial boundary] and contribute to long-term stability in Ireland’. The reasons for this apparent lack of administrative ability lay in ‘Labour’s perceived lack of knowledge and interest in Irish politics’. If this absence of knowledge developed, at all, it must have developed quickly, because a matter of a few years before Labour were regarded in most Irish circles as the only political force in Britain that properly understood the Irish cause. The political directions of the two governments – the one towards social democracy, the other towards social and cultural conservatism – no doubt played a substantial role in this divergence, as did the need to assert the strength of respective national positions. Not for the first time, and not for the last, the conservative nature of Irish politics clashed with Britain’s steady move towards an idiosyncratic form of social democracy.

The more Labour participated in government, the less comfortable it became with the militant and militaristic tendencies of Irish nationalism, partly because of a genuine belief in the need for peace and partly for pragmatic reasons – British voters (it was felt) would not allow the British government to align itself with such activity. For all that the sympathies between the wider Labour Party and the Irish nationalist cause did not entirely dissipate – as the history of Labour’s current leadership team shows – it became far more of a minority engagement. An idea, rather than an active commitment.

But what was going on underneath the realm of high politics? At this level, particularly in areas where there had previously been quite substantial Irish political activity, such as South Wales, there was a distinct wave of ‘ethnic fade’. Cultural activities, such as Irish language classes, ceilidhs, St Patrick’s Day festivities, and for a period Gaelic Athletic Association competitions, certainly persisted, but for the most part the Irish ceased to articulate a distinct political identity and instead pursued the social, economic, and political, questions of the day through the labour movement. This became the default position of the mainstream and the question of partition, and Labour’s previously antagonistic stance, quietly dissipated.  The Irish Question moved to the fringes, to the Communist Party and the Independent Labour Party, on the Left, and to the fledgling Welsh Nationalist Party, Plaid Genedlaethol Cymru, on the Right.  For the CPGB, which inherited a substantial bloc of Irish support and membership from its predecessor parties and organisations upon formation in 1921, support for a united Ireland was a clear manifestation of communist commitment to colonial liberation and the throwing off the yoke of imperialism all over the world. This led, by the time of the Troubles, to an active call for the removal of British troops and administrative presence from Northern Ireland.

Plaid Cymru, on the other hand, embraced Ireland for a number of reasons. It had, to some extent, inherited the traditional Welsh nationalist view of Ireland as the vanguard of a wave of Celtic independence from British – indeed, English – colonialism and imperialism. Since Irish Disestablishment in 1869, Welsh nationalists had looked to Ireland, rather than Scotland, for their inspiration. Cultural nationalists, too, viewed the Irish cultural Revival, and its leading figures such as Sean O’Casey and W. B. Yeats, with a certain Romantic glow, hoping for a similar renewal of the Welsh cultural milieu. And, it must be said, too, the Catholicism of Ireland provided a clear appeal to several of the early leaders of the Welsh Nationalist Party, notably Saunders Lewis and Ambrose Bebb. In an era of starkly conservative Catholic politicisation, particularly in France, Spain and, of course, Ireland, the beliefs espoused by Lewis and Bebb, including that nationalists should seek to be ‘Europe’s interpreter[s] in Britain’, pushed them into a realm of politics that had little direct parallel in Britain itself. In this context, is it any surprise that Lewis expressed admiration for General Franco?

That Gwynfor Evans, the more traditionally Liberal president of Plaid Cymru after the Second World War, found a comfortable ally in the ageing Éamon de Valera is perhaps more surprising.  But then Plaid Cymru had its own reasons for allying itself with the dominant Fianna Fáil, not least the bolster of credence it gave to the Welsh nationalists who continued to struggle to break into parliament. It was in this period that the Anti-Partition of Ireland League was formed, providing an ideal platform for collaboration between Irish nationalists and Welsh nationalists at a grassroots level. As Jacob Murphy has written,

Whilst the anti-partition campaign was led in Ireland by Nationalist MPs and TDs both North and South of the border, the campaign in Britain focused much more on grassroots organisation through setting up branches throughout England, Scotland and Wales. This was particularly the case during the ‘flourishing days’ the League (1949-1953) where hundreds of branches were set up in and around Eamon de Valera’s anti-partition tour of Britain in 1948 and 1949.

There were, in truth, no more than a handful of A-PL branches established in Wales, and the centre of activity was in Cardiff. The branch there was established in 1947 by John Fogarty. Branches in Ferndale and Tonypandy, both in the Rhondda, followed in the next few years. Although primarily focused on the political situation, the A-PL also provided the catalyst for a revival in Irish cultural activity after the Second World War, with a new hurling club and Irish language classes established in Cardiff in 1952. The Cardiff branch also held regular ceilidh dances at the Co-operative Hall on Charles Street throughout this period.

The key figure, as already mentioned, was the businessman, John Fogarty (1877-1958). Born, at least according to the census entry he provided in 1911, in Drumkeeran, County Leitrim, he spent most of his life living in Cardiff. Forgarty was instrumental in establishing the Cardiff branch of the A-PL in 1947 and quickly became the president of the League’s Welsh Council when it was established in January 1948 (or so). Fogarty’s interest in this question was hardly a sudden one. Because of his longevity of life, he had been an active campaigner in Irish nationalist circles in Cardiff since before the First World War. Equally significant, but of a younger generation, was Frank McFarland (1922-1978) who took over from Fogarty as the president of the Cardiff branch in the mid-1950s. He had previously been the branch chairman. It was McFarland, rather than Fogarty, for instance, who represented the Cardiff A-PLers at the League’s Annual Convention in Enniskillen in 1954, although on all previous occasions it had been Fogarty who travelled to Ireland to represent Welsh members.

Nor did the branch have to send figures to Ireland to enjoy the patronage of leading political figures, several came to speak in Cardiff itself. These included Anthony Mulvey MP (Fermanagh & Tyrone), who denounced the post-war Labour government for seeking to ‘extend the power of the “Tory junta” at Belfast’; Cahir Healy MP (Fermanagh & Tyrone); Michael O’Neill MP (Mid Ulster); and Éamon de Valera.   De Valera’s visit, in the autumn of 1948 was part of his anti-partition campaign which took him around the world between 1948 and 1951. Having lost power in 1948, de Valera threw his political weight behind the anti-partition cause hoping to build a consensus at home and abroad for a united Ireland. It was, as Stephen Kelly has argued, a dismal failure. Nevertheless, when de Valera arrived in Cardiff towards the end of October 1948, he was greeted by the Anti-Partition League branch, by the Plaid Cymru present, Gwynfor Evans, and by a crowd, according to some reports, of around 1,000 who came to listen to what he had to say. Welcoming de Valera to the stage, Fogarty remarked:

I am glad to be here because I am an Ulster man. They want to continue to call it Ulster. Well, I will give you a word which better describes it, they have made it into an ulcer.

Gwynfor Evans then offered a few words from his own movement:

We feel a great wrong has been done to Ireland, a wrong that must be righted.

De Valera then spoke at length, remarking on the apparent fallacy of partition and the lack of enthusiasm for it outside of Belfast. There is, he said, ‘no justification on any principle whatsoever for cutting them off. If they had a chance of a plebiscite they would decide by a majority for a United Ireland’.

Plaid Cymru seized on the opportunity of de Valera’s presence in Cardiff and hosted a luncheon with the former Irish Taoiseach as guest of honour. Fully aware of his audience, de Valera encouraged those present with his belief that the anti-partitionists would ‘have the aid of Wales in getting rid of the present injustice. It would be a recognition of national rights and would be something in the way of full recognition of Wales’s own national rights’. This was little more than eighteen months prior to the launch of the Parliament for Wales Campaign at Llandrindod Wells. From a nationalist point of view, Irish and Welsh, de Valera’s visit was welcomed; but the view of the wider community was rather more hostile. Indeed, the Western Mail recorded a particularly stormy and hostile reception amongst the city’s business community. De Valera was even labelled a ‘traitor’ for his actions at the end of the Second World War. A meeting arranged by the Newport Rotary Club was cancelled, too. De Valera visited Wales once again in January and February 1950 when he delivered a guest address ‘Our Bilingual Problem’ at the Caernarfonshire County Association of the National Union of Teachers conference in Bangor. ‘The fate of a nation that loses its language’, he said, ‘is to be a cripple nation’. He made the same points at Caernarfon and in Aberdare, on 26 January, where he spoke in front of more than 1,000 teachers and students. His advice in Aberdare was:

[To build] a shell of protection around the hard core of the districts where the language, to be revived, was spoken, and gradually to restore the language to the ares bordering on them.

Again, this was more than a decade prior to Saunders Lewis’s clarion call, Tynged yr Iaith (1962), and shows, perhaps, the extent to which Plaid Cymru – in an effort to throw off the foul stench of the interwar flirtations with right-wing Catholic conservatism, which provided the Labour Party with the easy j’accuse ‘the Fascist Party of Wales’ – leant on the united Ireland campaigns as a way of turning the page. Gwynfor Evans certainly threw his political enthusiasm behind de Valera’s anti-partition cause. Labour, however, put considerable distance between itself and the former Taoiseach, with Labour councillors in Swansea refusing a civic reception in 1950. Evans denounced the action calling for the ‘sharpest censure’ for Swansea’s Labour Council for having acted in that manner. During de Valera’s earlier tour, David Rhys Grenfell, Labour MP for Gower, issued a barely disguised rebuke for the position being articulated remarking that ‘he had been very disappointed that a man who came from such an eloquent race should not have proved a better speaker’. Swansea’s Labour Council did, by contrast, hold a civic reception for Basil Brooke, the Ulster Unionist Prime Minister of Northern Ireland. Grenfell’s view of Brooke:

[He] was a very good exponent of the ideals which had sustained Ulster in her place in the political world for many years. There was no doubt about the loyalty of Ulster and the part she had played, and [he] was glad to meet people who believed so firmly in the righteousness of their cause.

It is quite clear what was going on in Swansea at that time, with civic receptions for one set of politicians from the island of Ireland and not another, and the rhetoric around it follows the familiar path of guilt by association. This was as much about the politics of Wales as it was the politics of Northern Ireland – although there is no doubt that the Labour Party were deeply hostile to the Anti-Partition League itself. Were the Welsh nationalists the ‘Fascist Party of Wales’ – well look at the company they keep…wink wink, nudge nudge. Now, it is far too easy to follow this quite esoteric aspect of post-war Welsh politics and think it rather more important than it was. The branches of the Anti-Partition League seem to have contained no more than a couple of hundred members in total, even where they were artificially inflated by dual members of Plaid Cymru, and they wielded almost no political influence. Except, that is, over Plaid Cymru.

Labour’s steady withdrawal from the Irish nationalist cause in the 1920s, then, together with the political malaise of the Liberal Party, left few meaningful political avenues for British support. Not that the steady divergence of political ethos between governments in Dublin and in London (to say nothing of Belfast) made for an easy relationship, either. In the era of independence, perhaps this sponsorship was no longer necessary, and that is why it ended up on the fringes of political discourse, the plaything of the Communist Party and Plaid Cymru. But it is a moment in time which tells us much about the way in which mainstream politics, today, has collapsed in on itself. And so I’ll end with a letter sent by Éamon de Valera to the Cardiff A-PL branch on St Patrick’s Day, 1954. Its words echo alarmingly today for one obvious reason: Brexit.

Greetings to the gathering at your St Patrick’s Day dinner. As you know the Partition of Ireland is a barrier which makes cordial relations between Ireland and Britain impossible. No Irishman can forget or forgive this crime against our nation. It sets a minority against a majority and leads that minority to resort to unjust and undemocratic methods to maintain their power in the area they control. Those who bring the evils of Partition to the notice of the people of Britain are serving not alone the interests of the Irish people, majority and minority, but the interests of the British people as well.

Ways Out Of The Junction

English Translation - Édouard Louis, The End of Eddy (London: Harvill Secker, 2017)
English Translation – Édouard Louis, The End of Eddy (London: Harvill Secker, 2017)

If there is something that vexes the political left across Europe and the United States, currently, universally, it is the apparent disconnect between ‘traditional’ social democratic politics and its ‘traditional’ audience. Why, seemingly, are working people, if they are not turned off politics altogether, are turning from the left to the right, from the Communist Party in France to the National Front, from Labour to UKIP (or, at best, if we can call it that, the Conservatives)? Is there something in the political landscape of the last generation that hints at an answer to the question, or a solution to the problem? This is something I’ve certainly been thinking about, for it bears down directly on my current work – why, in an estuary of potential choices, was it Labour that became the dominant channel along which the political aspirations and actions of working people flowed?

It was with these thoughts that I chanced across a preview commentary on the English translation of Édouard Louis’s En Finir avec Eddy Bellegueule (2014) – Finishing With Eddy Bellegueule or in its more moderated, translated title The End of Eddy. In the three years between the French original and the English translation, the world has changed dramatically, but in fulfilment of the worst threats of that time. The list is instantly familiar, is it not: Brexit, Trump, the steady rise of Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, the Sweden Democrats, and comparable weakening of social democratic parties across Western Europe. As I raced through the text, it was unsettlingly and happily familiar. The Picardie of Louis’s childhood was not so far different from the South Wales Valleys of my own; there was a different language, too, often ill-represented in mainstream discourse; and there was the abandonment by the intelligentsia and political class alike, except for the stereotypes that they served to perpetuate. Was Brexit a shock at the end of that? Was (and is) support for the Front National? No.

But to say no in response to such questions is not to excuse those actions, for they are inexcusable, at least if that environment was once your own, but they are knowable and explainable. Édouard Louis relates, for instance, how his mother voted for Marine Le Pen in the elections because she spoke their language (“she’s the only one who talks about us, the little people”) and was, ultimately, the only politician with balls – to have the conviction of her beliefs. You hear much the same rhetoric swirling around Brexit. There’s little truth in it, to be sure, because the model of populist politics employed by Marine Le Pen and by the Leave campaign was not about overcoming the invisibility of the dispossessed by giving their ‘country’ back to them but about exploiting that invisibility to serve the ends of a minority. It is a lie that working people were ever in possession of their country.

A barefaced lie.

That was the whole reason, in the first place, for labour movements, for the language of social democracy, and for seeking power to change the way society functioned. ‘A young miner in a South Wales colliery’, wrote Aneurin Bevan, ‘my concern was with one practical question: Where does power lie in this particular state of Great Britain, and how can it be attained by the workers?’ That was the point. Then at least. But those workers who elected Bevan and other similar doers eventually became disconnected – a phenomenon that Bevan worried about:

Social institutions are what they do, not necessarily what we say they do. It is the verb that matters, not the noun.

If this is not understood we become symbol worshippers. The categories we once evolved and which were the tools we used in our intercourse with reality become hopelessly blunted. In these circumstances the social and political realities we are supposed to be grappling with change and reshape themselves independently of the collective impact of our ideas. We become the creature and no longer the partner of social realities. As we fumble with outworn categories our political vitality is sucked away and we stumble from one situation to another, without chart, without compass, and with the steering-wheel lashed to a course we are no longer following.

This is the real point of danger for a political party and for the leaders and thinkers who inspire it. For if they are out of touch with reality, the masses are not.

And in the process of becoming disconnected, the politicians retained the power that they once sought to rehabilitate to the classes populaires. The working class, and those without work who rest below them, became utterly dispossessed of all but the capacity to shock the complacent system when given the opportunity.

The everyday consequences of that dispossession lie at the centre of The End of Eddy, which is a truly remarkable book. I hesitate to use the word novel, because it isn’t that. Fiction allows for distancing of the author, to be sure, but even so manufactured a term as auto-fiction (applied with some merit to Karl Ove Knausgaard, for instance) hardly sums up a book that is as much sociology as it is literature, and which tells the truth. We are shown the abandonment of education – a choice as much as a guided fate – and the masculine determination that men win the bread for their families. There was the role of sport, in this case soccer, but in the valleys it could just as well be rugby union, in manifesting a particular masculine virility and providing a ready-made language to parrot as part of the ‘fitting in’ process. And of course there was the violence and racism and homophobia which became normalised within this milieu because any confrontation tended to come from the different and the over-theres. The true value of Édouard Louis’s writing, then, lies in the authentic internal confrontation of those traits.

The End of Eddy concludes, and there is nothing dangerous in revealing this, since it is as common as the baguette, in a departure. By leaving the village and heading off towards higher education, the young Eddy makes the break with his past and with the (almost) inevitabilities into which he was born. A similar departure occurred for Didier Eribon, to whom En Finir avec Eddy Bellegueule was dedicated, and provided the fundamental basis for his Retour à Reims (Returning to Reims). I read this subsequent to The End of Eddy and although it is the older book I’m quite glad I approached them this way around. Eribon is even less fictive than Louis and the result is a text that lays bare a much broader landscape and longer chronology of dispossession.

English translation - Didier Eribon, Returning to Reims (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2013)
English translation – Didier Eribon, Returning to Reims (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2013)

This is not quite En Finir avec Didier, so much as the end of the ‘class closet’ into which Eribon stepped in parallel with his emergence from the more traditional closet of sexuality. ‘I was obliged to shape myself’, he writes, ‘by playing one off against the other’. It’s a hard-hitting sentence that sums up the great value of the work. Returning to Reims fleshes out, sociologically, many of the themes raised in The End of Eddy, not least the relationship between dispossession and the use of the ballot box (or lack of it) to express a certain kind of will or general frustration. He writes:

A class war is carried out at the ballot box, a practice of confrontation is reproduced election after election, in which one class – or part of one class – is seen doing its best to make its presence manifest in the face of others, to set up a power relation.

The consequences of this, he continues, are manifest in the weakening of the old alliances of the Left and their replacement with new ones seemingly of those once regarded as enemies:

The major effect of the disappearance of the working class and of workers – or even, we might say, of the popular class more generally – from political discourse will thus have been the weakening of the long-standing alliances formed under the banner of the Left between the working-class world and certain other social categories (workers in the public sector, teachers, and so on), and the formation of a new ‘historical bloc’ bringing together large portions of the vulnerable popular classes living under conditions of precarity with shopkeepers and tradespeople, or with well-to-do retirees in the south of France, or even with fascist military types or traditional old Catholic families, and thus largely located on the right or even the far right.

This does not mean that the new bloc is as solid as the former alliances but it nevertheless exists and:

in voting for the National Front, individuals remain individuals and the opinion they produce is simply the sum of their spontaneous prejudices, latched onto by the party, and taken up and formulated into a coherent political programme.

What, ultimately, were the demographics of Brexit? Well, of the thirty areas with the highest number of old people, twenty-seven voted to leave (ninety percent). Of those with the lowest level of higher education attainment, twenty-eight voted to leave; of those with a median income below thirty thousand pounds the vote was to leave. And so on, and so forth. It hardly needs saying, either, that these are precisely the lines of fracture that are currently pulling the British Labour Party apart.

Matthew Todd, Straight Jacket (London: Penguin, 2016)
Matthew Todd, Straight Jacket (London: Penguin, 2016)

The massive gulf between these two works and the final one that forms this review blog, Matthew Todd’s 2016 work Straight Jacket, is not simply one of intent and aim, I feel it is one that sums up the absence in British intellectual life of what Édouard Louis and Didier Eribon offer to French audiences. All three books are bound together by their exploration of the challenges facing gay people as they come of age, but whereas Louis and Eribon then proceed with books that are guided by the political sensitivities of social class and alienation, Todd can’t escape the gaze of consumerist culture. Perhaps it is unfair of me to bring these works together like this, but I do so to make the point that there needs to be a follow up to Todd’s volume that moves away from consumerism and hears voices that are typical of the margins, that are less middle-class. Unless that happens, the margins will continue to slip by and the world won’t really change all that much.

Todd is drawn to the self-destructive consequences of what he rightly regards as a mental health crisis: substance abuse, alcohol abuse, addiction to sexual activity, body dysmorphia, anxiety, and suicide. One of the early examples in the book is Kristian Digby, a BBC presenter for the pioneering digital channel BBC Choice (later BBC 3), who died suddenly in 2010.  Digby first came to public notice as a presenter for That Gay Show, an attempt at producing targeted LGBT content that typified the social transformations of New Labour’s first term in office. In his mid-20s, good-looking, and keen to display his sexuality in a modern, uncamp manner, Digby readily appealed to young men in search of public role models. He was distinct from the Graham Norton mode of overt camp that was equally present at the time, or Lily Savage’s drag act. But beneath the surface, as Todd illustrates in his discussion, was a very different context illustrative of the self-harm that accompanied growing up gay in a society that said it was wrong. Section 28 may have been a failure as a piece of legislation, since it was frequently not implemented by local authorities, but it did engender a culture of silence in schools and that silence itself was deadly.

At this juncture, an entirely different book might have emerged if the intersectional relationships between class and sexuality and gender and social violence had been on Todd’s radar. Those are the causes. What he views instead are the effects. He is instinctively drawn to the manifestation of social traumas in addictive behaviour. He notes that many LGBT people have ‘chronic recurrent humiliation’ which manifests itself ‘as depression, suicide ideation and other negative feelings’, and provides the basis on which substance and other forms of addiction are built. Many will find something to relate to in Todd’s discussion of the ‘iceberg theory’ of addiction and may well recognise certain traits in their own patterns of behaviour – addiction to work is just as indicative as addiction to crystal meth. He continues:

One of the most classic and commonest symptoms of people with addictions is irrationally swinging from feeling better than everyone else to feeling worse than everyone else […] it’s a horribly confusing place to be.

Todd draws a persuasive line between trauma and the desire for self-expression that comes from an interest in science fiction and musical theatre. (One is easily more problematic than the other.) What science fiction offers, perhaps more than musical theatre, is an environment in which all individuals are respected regardless of who they happen to be. We’re told frequently how significant Star Trek was in the 1960s for the civil rights movement, for instance, and academics are now recognising the relationship between civil rights and the LGBT equality campaigns that followed. The similarly of appeal is hardly a coincidence. Compare that to musical theatre which narrows down to a certain type of heroism, and those who ‘make it’ in the theatre world are generally the most attractive and talented. Rather like the rest of the consumerist world or, perhaps more unfortunately, in literature. For all that an Alan Hollinghurst novel is still relatively rare in portraying gay life, it is still a poor illustration of how most gay people exist. Social realism has yet to find its way into ‘our lives’. Where, for instance, are the kitchen sink dramas? What if Arthur Seaton’s gay cousin came into view? Imagine how much healthier the world would be.

Nicola Field, Over The Rainbow (London: Pluto, 1995)
Nicola Field, Over The Rainbow (London: Pluto, 1995)

We return to the issue of class, once more. For a more politically-aware portrait of social trauma would have included far more on the intersection of class and sexuality, on the relationship between poverty and poverty of experience (that is, isolation). When I was doing my initial research on Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, I read an interview given by Mike Jackson, the group’s northern working-class secretary, who reflected on the way that a vital element of his existence – his sexuality – was being ‘stolen’ and manipulated by the wealthy middle-class men who revelled in the clubs and drugs but who did little to really change the world for the better. Perhaps it’s no surprise that another LGSM member, Nicola Field, wrote in the mid-1990s of the dangers of consumerist identity politics to the gay liberation movement. What Todd, to some extent, takes for granted, Field recognised as indicative of the wider problem. As do Édouard Louis and Didier Eribon.

In drawing this blog to a close, I want to pick up on one final point of connection that, as I reached the end of Returning to Reims, caught me completely off guard. That is, Eribon’s employment of Raymond Williams’s Border Country. Those familiar with that classic of Welsh literature will recognise certain traits common to the French writing discussed above. Like Eribon, I’m struck by the dilemma of the return. Can you truly go back to a place that you once rejected and whose values seemingly rejected the you that you became in exile? (This isn’t, to be sure, exactly the dilemma faced in Border Country.) Williams concludes thusly:

Only now it seems like the end of exile. Not going back, but the feeling of exile ending. For the distance is measured, and this is what matters. By measuring the distance, we come home.

Perhaps, in the end, this is much too hopeful. But then Matthew Price has not suffered the alienation of sexual difference, and that alone makes the distance of exile easier to measure. (The real exile is that faced by Hugh in Gwyn Thomas’s Sorrow For Thy Sons, who truly does leave the valley in an act of difference, of succumbing to the social violence whose scars he bore with him on the journey. But that is another story entirely.) Perhaps this is really a metaphor for the measurements taken by those who have little to do with working-class lives, either because they were born middle-class or remain happily locked in their class closets? Perhaps, indeed, it is both? Either way, to understand the violence of the social world, as it manifests intersectionally, with a clear eye on social class, as Eribon and Louis do, is to begin to understand how to ameliorate the dislocation and dispossession of the class to which we belong (once?). We are, after all, in search of lost time.

Dreaming of Phil Ochs

Phil Ochs, singing at the Stables, East Lansing, MI. Photographer: Kenneth Tash. Via: Wikimedia Commons.
Phil Ochs, singing at the Stables, East Lansing, MI. Photographer: Kenneth Tash. Via: Wikimedia Commons.

Of all the artists to emerge from the counterculture of New York’s Greenwich Village in the 1960s, the most politically significant was not the now Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan, whose songs Blowin’ In The Wind and The Times They Are A Changin’ continue to convey some of that radical age, but Phil Ochs. Born in Texas in 1940 to a New Yorker father and a Scottish mother, Ochs emerged as a protest singer in the early 1960s after a period studying journalism at Ohio State. Whilst at OSU, Ochs immersed himself in the folk music of the 1930s, the songs of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, the Weavers, and the Almanac Singers. Politically charged, and encouraged by the New Deal’s sponsorship of popularly accessible music and literature, which gave renewed purpose to Aaron Copland, Paul Robeson and John Steinbeck, this interwar folk music was incontrovertibly connected with the Communist Party and left radicalism. Its revival in the 1960s encouraged by the seemingly New Deal-esque liberalism of the Kennedy administration – Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy’s vice president, as was then widely known, and often forgotten today, had been a New Deal administrator in Texas.

If you search for Ochs’s songs on YouTube, one thing becomes immediately apparent: the relationship that the singer had with Scandinavia, particularly, though not exclusively, Sweden. (The SVT logo is hard to ignore on some of the videos.) Readers familiar with Scandinavian history and with sixties Sweden won’t find this overly surprising, since this was the period when Nordic social democracy gained both its global credence and its most charismatic proponent – Olof Palme. For readers less familiar, this period offers fascinating parallels with our own times: since American counterculture, Nordic social democracy, and the turbulent history of the transatlantic left are themes which have regained their immediacy. It is to this immediacy that today’s blog turns its focus.

Until the mid-1960s, Phil Ochs was largely unknown in Scandinavia. The first time one of his songs was played on the radio in Norway, for instance, was in August 1965 when Joan Baez’s cover of There But For Fortune appeared on Vidar Lønn-Arnesen’s radio programme, Sikksakk. The song was repeated a year later on Og ellers har De det bra, but it was not until 1967 that Ochs really broke into the Norwegian music scene, becoming a staple until the mid-1970s. This really followed his first visit to Oslo in December 1966: as the Arbeiderbladet put it, Ochs was still little known in Norway at the time of his trip. He came to Oslo to attend an international rally against the war in Vietnam at the Folkets Hus alongside Isaac Deutscher, who headlined, together with the Norwegian activist Ragnar Kalheim, and the American anti-nuclear campaigner Ralph Schoenmann (who was for a period also Bertrand Russell’s secretary). The rally was reported widely in the Nordic press – even as far away as Iceland – and in the United States, and Ochs played a second gig at the historic Folk Lorry in Frederiksberg, Copenhagen a few days later.

What Norwegian listeners heard on the radio were the staples of Ochs’s musical contribution and confirmed his status as one of the leading protest singers – in English – of the period. Some of the songs were, in actual fact, covers of the American folk tradition, such as Pete Seeger’s Lou Marsh, but others were his own major works such as Changes. Indeed, it must have been quite a thing to wake, on a mid-November morning, to lyrics such as:

Sit by my side, come as close as the air,
Share in a memory of gray;
Wander in my words, dream about the pictures
That I play of changes.

A significant milestone was NRK’s memorial broadcast to Woody Guthrie on Thursday 18 November, 1967. Guthrie had died about a month earlier on 3 October, and the special broadcast brought together Guthrie’s own recordings with covers by Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs. Ochs sang his Bound For Glory, which had been written in 1963, and told Guthrie’s life – the song title is a direct echo of Guthrie’s autobiography. The following year, NRK secured a 25-minute interview with Ochs conducted by Helge Rønning, although it was not Ochs’s voice that was heard but that of the actor Svein Erik Brodal who read a translation. Interspersed the interview were a selection of Ochs’s war-protest songs, and this was probably the first occasion that his The War Is Over was heard on Norwegian state radio. Such was Ochs’s reputation and renown in Norway by the summer of 1968, newspapers could publish lengthy interviews with him without worrying readers with a direct introduction. In one such piece he was introduced simply as the ‘McCarthy Kid’ – Eugene McCarthy, that is.

Phil Ochs, Club 7, Oslo, 1968.
Phil Ochs, Club 7, Oslo, 1968.

The summer of 1968 found Ochs on a tour of Norway and Sweden, he was there a few days after the assassination of Robert Kennedy in Los Angeles on 6 June. Ochs had played a concert at Lund University in Sweden that day. Little wonder, therefore, that so much of Ochs’s commentary that summer had an urgency about it, and the television appearances and radio broadcasts such political fire. One review of the Lund concert, published in Malmö, reflected that Ochs represented det andra Amerika – the other America. Ochs was in Oslo on 9 June and performed at the legendary Club 7 (1963-1985), the city’s mecca for counterculture – a kind of self-contained Greenwich Village in the centre of the Norwegian capital. From Oslo, Ochs travelled to Stockholm where he performed at the Konserthuset, on to Uppsala where he played at the university, and after a week or so in Germany and Czechoslovakia, returned to Sweden for a gig in Gothenburg on 19 June before ending his Scandinavian part of the tour in Copenhagen at the Tivoli Gardens on June 21st. (Ochs also played at the Folkets Hus in the Danish capital on 20 June 1968.) He returned to Scandinavia the following year, with concerts in Denmark and Sweden and a further round of television appearances.

Club 7, July 1965. Unknown photographer. Via: arbeiderbevegelsens arkiv og bibliotek & digitalmuseum Norway.
Club 7, July 1965. Unknown photographer. Via: arbeiderbevegelsens arkiv og bibliotek & digitalmuseum Norway.

The Stockholm concert in June 1968 was a benefit for charitable work amongst Americans who sought to evade the draft, or who deserted from the army, and who fled to Sweden – the war resisters. Organised by the peace organisation TUFF and the student peace movement, the concert was held in the smaller hall at the Konserthus and was packed out. Ochs sang for free, so all proceeds went straight to the charitable funds used to support war resisters and deserters. Thousands fled America to avoid the draft, most ended up in Canada (an estimated 125,000) but nearly 1,000 made their way to Sweden. Most of those had deserted their units. An article in the New York Times published in the mid-1980s reflected on the challenges faced by the young Americans, particularly the more than 100 African Americans who attempted to settle in Malmö. This group of ex-soldiers certainly found Malmö to be a somewhat hostile city – in contrast to the white Americans who settled in Stockholm, for instance, who had a better time of it. But then, perhaps we should not be too surprised, because the southern port city remains on the front lines of Sweden’s battle against racism and the far right and it is here that the Sweden Democrats have established an electoral powerbase.

The underlying tensions of racism and xenophobia, which settled alongside (but normally disguised by) the broader perceptions of Sweden’s social democracy in the 1960s and early 1970s, served as a stark reminder that not everything was comfortable in the Nordic world. This was, after all, the same period that Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö were writing their Martin Beck series which exposed the dark underbelly of late-1960s and early-1970s Sweden. With their themes of rape, molestation, murder, kidnap, paedophilia, mass shooting, and terrorism, this was hardly the paradise that many believed Sweden offered. Sjöwall and Wahlöö, both Marxists, were active in the Swedish New Left and their work exemplified New Left critiques. This was, after all, a generation activated by the Vietnam War and the ostensible support for the peace movement and anti-imperialism shown by leading government ministers (and ultimately Prime Minister) such as Olof Palme. Sweden’s international role and international reputation overshadowed certain realities at home. And this has long been the case: by Palme’s death in February 1986, as the auto-fictional writing of Jonas Gardell and historical inquiry of Jens Rydström has shown in recent times, the tensions around race revealed by African American ex-soldiers in Malmö in the 1960s were no less apparent when AIDS focused public attention on gays and lesbians. If nothing else, readers familiar with Henning Mankell’s work, which first appeared in the 1980s, will recognise a Sweden lacking in utopia.

Phil Ochs represented, spoke to and for, a generation who hoped for a different world and were willing to stand up and call for it. Det andra Amerika, like the other Europe, was one in which activists spoke about class, about feminism and sexuality, about race and combatting xenophobia, and about peace and tolerance. On his tours to Scandinavia at the end of the 1960s, Ochs may have played in trade union and countercultural venues, on university campuses, and in a theme park, but such was his immediate audience – he reached much further through newspapers, radio, and television. A key lesson for political movements today, no doubt. This was all fifty years ago, of course, but the themes are starkly appropriate to our own times. And they serve to remind us that to achieve change, it is necessary to fight for it – and by that I don’t mean take up arms rather to take up the pen, the guitar, the paintbrush, and the keyboard, and create an alternative world that is meaningful in other ways. Had Ochs lived, it may well have been him, not Bob Dylan, who received the Nobel Prize for Literature. At least, I’d like to think so.

Woody Guthrie, 1943. Via: Library of Congress.
Woody Guthrie, 1943. Via: Library of Congress.

I’ll end with these thoughts: in the last few years large protest movements have tended to respond to internal events rather than big international ones, often in order to secure a major change in domestic law. We need only think of the Human Rights Campaign in the United States which pressed for Equal Marriage or the equivalent movement in Ireland which sought a Yes vote in the Equal Marriage referendum. The lingering pro-European campaign in Britain will have this flavour too.  But we are undoubtedly entering a period when international solidarity is needed to oppose the populist and nationalist turn, on the left and on the right. And that movement will need to find a universal message that speaks as well in the United States as it does in France or the Netherlands or Germany or, dare we say it, the United Kingdom. This is not without precedent, but it behoves historians and commentators to recover those precedents and to make sure that they are more widely known about. And if not Phil Ochs, we can think back to President Obama’s inauguration in January 2009, when Pete Seeger joined Bruce Springsteen to sing all of the verses of Woody Guthrie’s This Land Is Your Land, directly linking that most recent moment of possibility to the New Deal of the 1930s. It’s even more tantalising a connection when we remember what was painted onto Guthrie’s guitar…


Pride and Prejudice? The Case of Leo Abse

Leo Abse, by John Roberts. Via the National Library of Wales.
Leo Abse, by John Roberts. Via the National Library of Wales.

For fifty years, Leo Abse’s name has been almost exclusively associated with the partial legalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales. Indeed, in a new HLF-funded exhibition launched by Pride Cymru next week at the Senedd in Cardiff, Abse is identified as one of the Icons and Allies of Welsh LGBT history. But the reality is rather more complex. As a lawyer, Abse campaigned for liberalisation of the laws as a correction of what he regarded as unnecessary criminalisation. Speaking on the BBC in December 1966, as his private member’s bill was being debated in parliament, he asserted the simple reasons for the need to change the law:

It is not a criminal offence to commit adultery. It is not a criminal offence to fornicate. These are not criminal offences according to our law, but the fact that the House of Commons does not make these criminal offences does not mean that we approve of them. And we do not condone homosexuality, what the House of Commons has decided is the homosexual has enough troubles without in addition having the fear and insecurity and the blackmail that arises from the existing law.

Or as he put it in his book, Fellatio, Masochism, Politics and Love, published in 2000:

Our laws relating to divorce, suicide, illegitimacy, adoption and homosexuality were unbecoming to any society claiming to be civilised.

This was not, then, liberalisation because of a fundamental belief in the naturalness of homosexuality and therefore in the necessity of equalisation, far from it, but liberalisation on the basis of the unevenness of the law code. Nor was Abse overly tolerant of the other aspects of the LGBT community (as we now recognise it). Indeed, five years after the law changed in 1967, the journalist Jan Morris underwent gender reassignment surgery and appeared on television opposite Leo Abse, Robin Day and others, who questioned Morris’s transition in stark and uncompromising terms. Those who caught Michael Palin’s affectionate portrait of Jan Morris a few months ago, when she turned 90, will have seen a clip of this programme in which Abse, in effect, declared ‘just because you’ve had it chopped off, that doesn’t make you a woman’.

Abse went on to review Morris’s memoir, Conundrum, for the Spectator in April 1974. From the perspective of the Abse appreciated as a law reformer, it makes for somewhat uncomfortable reading. The book, he writes,

is essentially proselytising and, as such, in my judgement, immoral. It is one matter to insist that, with contemporary psychiatry helpless in the face of adult transsexualism, the law must afford as much protection as possible. […] But it is another matter to label a pathological condition, albeit one that may have beneficial creative side effects, as magical or miraculous as Morris does.

Elsewhere in the review, Abse asserts his belief in bisexuality as the ‘default’ setting of humanity, but refuses to accept what he perceives as the assertion of ‘superiority’ of ’certain homosexuals’ and ‘transsexuals’ over ‘mere heterosexuals’. In other words, a discomfort at the growing assertiveness of the liberation movements of the early 1970s – the Gay Liberation Front being the prime example.

But who was Leo Abse? And how was it that someone with such views on sexuality and gender came to be so closely identified with one of the key liberalisations of English law in the 1960s?

Born into a Jewish family in Cardiff in 1917, Leo Abse grew up in the Welsh capital alongside his brothers Wilfred (a psychoanalyst) and Dannie (a prominent poet and writer). His politics were radical from a young age. He joined Labour at age 17 in 1934, was chair of the Young Socialist branch in the city, and fought his first council election in 1938, when he was 21. In the mid-1930s, together with his friend Sydney Hamm, who was then studying at Cardiff Technical College, Abse formed the Cardiff United Youth Movement, a left-wing youth organisation ostensibly linked to the Labour Party but which provided for considerable crossover with the Communist Party in the city. In those days the Labour Party headquarters and the Communist Party’s South Wales District Committee offices were a few doors apart on Charles Street and could provide a readymade, textbook example of left entryism between the wars. But that’s another story!

The CUYM was agitated particularly by the Spanish Civil War and its members would protest, fundraise, and take active part in the pro-Republican activities in Cardiff. Dannie Abse, writing in his famous memoir Ash on a Young Man’s Sleeve, recalled how he would go to meetings

listening to my brother Leo – who would one day become an MP – gesticulating on a soap box … and painting with words the bloody pictures of the war in Spain.

Leo Abse and Syd Hamm moved in circles that included men such as Gilbert Taylor, Alec Cummings, Len Jeffries, Lewis Jones, Idris Cox, Dora Cox, and Morien Morgan, all of whom eventually volunteered to fight in Spain, as did Syd Hamm. Taylor ran the Communist Party’s bookshop in the Castle Arcade, Cardiff, which was the main rallying point for would-be International Brigaders from the South Wales area. Here, having said nothing and left in the middle of the night, as Hywel Francis has described, they would be provided with train tickets, a little money, and instructions as to what to do when they got to London. These were idealists, yes, but equally politically committed young men who fought for a cause they truly believed in.

For although Cardiff was home to an active labour movement, Labour Party and Communist Party, it was also one of the South Walian stomping grounds of Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. The steward of the Empire Club was a local representative of the BUF and several of the shopkeepers were active BUF members. The city also had its own branch of the Italian Fascisti, with money coming into that branch directly from Italy via the Italian consulate. Fascism may have been fought ‘over there’ in Spain, but it was also a feature of the streets that Hamm, Cummings, Taylor, and Jeffries, left behind. And they were the streets on which Leo Abse campaigned and faced his own survival amidst the sacrifices of his friends. Dannie Abse once more:

We sat there in the bare October Hall in the days of blackshirts, Potato Jones, unemployment and Tommy Farr. Mrs Mary Ford walked in just as the speaker was thumping the table, making the water shake in the glass as he shouted, ‘THERE CAN BE NO VICTORY WITHOUT SACRIFICE’…all the audience eyed her pinched, translucent face, her frail shoulders draped in black. […] ‘If you feel so strongly about Spain’ I said (to Leo), ‘why don’t you go there?’ Leo gazed down at me from his 21-year old eyes, as if he had been struck a blow.

In the event, Leo Abse did go to Spain, clandestinely, as the Spanish Civil War was coming to an end in 1939.

After the Second World War, by then an emerging solicitor in Cardiff, Leo Abse became ever more active with the City of Cardiff Labour Party. He was its chairman between 1951 and 1953. In 1953, standing in the Ely ward, he was elected to Cardiff City Council for the first time and held his seat until his election as MP for Pontypool at a by-election in 1958. He would serve as MP for the town, and its successor, Torfaen, until 1987.

Having gained a reputation as a liberaliser in the 1960s, in the 1970s Abse became a thorn in the side of the nationalist movement in Wales. As the leading member of the ‘gang of six’, a group of Welsh MPs, including Neil Kinnock, most actively opposed to Welsh devolution, he sought to spurn any and all attempts at introducing a measure of self-government to Wales. He was hostile to the Welsh Language Act of 1968 and any attempts to require the Welsh language for government and local government appointments. He firmly believed that Plaid Cymru were, once, to borrow from Richard Wyn Jones’s title, ‘the Fascist Party of Wales’. No need for a question mark as far as Abse was concerned!

If Abse was profoundly anti-devolution, he was equally pro-European believing in the European project as the most fundamental bulwark against nationalism of any kind. A life-long commitment to anti-nationalism and anti-fascism encouraged this embrace of European integration. In some respects, the position that Abse took, which P.J. Madgwick and Denis Balsom label ‘British European’, is increasingly fragile in today’s Wales. There is not room in today’s blog to ponder this at any great length, but to be pro-European but anti-devolution is a rarer position than it was in the 1970s and 1980s. The consequences of that, as we saw last June, and in the May before that, are profound.

And so let me return to my original question: who was Leo Abse and why was it he who sought to liberalise the law? Abse had a life-long commitment, it seems to me, to ironing out the inconsistencies evident in the law and to making British social democracy better for everyone. He sought a better code of law, free of any moralising judgements. He was, too, a firm anti-nationalist rejecting Welsh nationalism and fascism in the same political sweep. And he was, very clearly, a complex individual whose historic fame as one of the great reformers of the 1960s deserves far more scrutiny. We can certainly share the words of James Callaghan, in his 2008 obituary, that Abse did ‘much more good in terms of human happiness than ninety percent of the work done in Parliament on what are called “political issues”’. But we should also be far more aware of what Abse said, for that makes the changes that, for fifty years, Abse has been rightly associated with far more remarkable.

Vesting Day, 1947-2017

Lewis Merthyr Colliery, Rhondda. Note the NCB plaque - 'this colliery is now managed by the National Coal Board on behalf of the people’. Via the People's Collection Wales.
Lewis Merthyr Colliery, Rhondda. Note the NCB plaque – ‘this colliery is now managed by the National Coal Board on behalf of the people’. Via the People’s Collection Wales.

70 years ago today, 1 January 1947, marked the formal transfer of the coal industry from private hands to the public sector. Two years before, on 1 January 1945, the National Union of Mineworkers had also come into being. The day was known simply as Vesting Day, and was marked at collieries all over Britain with a ceremony – the running up of the flag of the National Coal Board. Lodge officials, workmen, and perhaps even some interested members of the local community, gathered at the start of the day shift to conduct this peaceful transfer of control. At Ynysybwl, typically, the responsibility of running up the flag was given to the longest serving member of the National Union of Mineworkers, John E. Morgan. In a short address, he reminded those present that for almost fifty years, since the foundation of the South Wales Miners’ Federation in 1898, it had been the dream of socialists, the ‘few visionaries who were then considered cranks’, in his words, that coal would be nationalised. And so, as the flag rose to the top of the pole, it was. A plaque also told them that ‘this colliery is now managed by the National Coal Board on behalf of the people’. The people owned Lady Windsor Colliery until 1988, when it closed.

It is, of course, far too easy to look back at Vesting Day and see it just in terms of the transfer of ownership. Indeed, that would be to place much too rosy a complexion on the moment. For the late 1940s were anything but a happy time in the mining industry, with debates about migrant labour, most of it from Eastern Europe, raging, and there remained the many after-effects of the hard years of the 1920s and 1930s and the industrial turbulence of the 1940s. Nor was it a happy start for nationalised coal, given the shortages that amplified that harshness of the winter of 1947. The minister responsible for overseeing the establishment of the National Coal Board was Manny Shinwell, a radical Scot who sat, like Aneurin Bevan, on the left-wing of Attlee’s cabinet. Shinwell had previously been minister of mines in the short-lived Labour governments of 1924 and 1929-1931, so was a familiar figure to the mining industry. His handling of the fuel crisis in the winter of 1947, however, led to his reshuffle that October and his removal from cabinet; he was replaced as minister by Hugh Gaitskell – an appointment that forever marred their relationship. As Gaitskell lamented in 1950, Shinwell ‘never loses an opportunity of picking a quarrel with me, sometimes on the most ridiculous grounds’.

Reading the cabinet papers during the crisis one theme emerges very clearly – the battle between production from the pits and the needs of power stations on the one hand and industrial production on the other. Such a battle would remain a constant for a number of years, with the fateful decision made by the Conservative governments in the 1950s to begin the transfer of energy production from coal to oil, gas, nuclear, and even hydro-electricity in the north of Scotland. That, in turn, enabled the Coal Board to begin its pit closure programme ultimately leading to the showdown between the Coal Board and the NUM in the years after the ‘October Revolution’ of 1969. In many ways, the contribution of Herbert Morrison to cabinet on 7 January 1947 is prescient. He argued for incentivised pay, something which came in in the 1970s when regional wage structures were effectively reintroduced; he argued for a major rethink over how electricity was produced; he encouraged importation of coal over seemingly limited domestic production; and he pressed the need for migrant labour to fill immediate labour shortages. Cabinet also discussed the relative merits of electrical appliances in the home over traditional coal-fired stoves, concluding that their use ‘enabled economies to be made in the consumption of domestic coal’. Although it is important not to overstate this change in consumer habits, since there had been several previous attempts, not least during industrial turbulence of the early 1920s, to wean the public off coal-powered domestic appliances. Nevertheless, the trajectory for domestic appliances after the Second World War was away from coal.

There are, of course, a great many ironies about coal industry between, say, 1945 and 1985, and it has long been the case that the first two decades are seen in the light of the second two. This is hardly a surprise when we consider just how much of the secondary literature, from the iconic The Fed by Hywel Francis and Dai Smith to Vic Allen’s The Militancy of the British Miners to Tony Hall’s King Coal, was written in the 1970s and published at the start of the 1980s. The turning point, on which they all agree, was 1969. This, wrote Hall, ‘was probably the most important year in the history of the NUM’. He continued:

It was the year that provoked what some in the union called the ‘October revolution’, when the frustrations of a decade and more boiled over in a strike the like of which had not been seen since 1926.

The surfacemen’s strike, which began in Yorkshire and quickly spread to other militant sections of the coalfields, which gave rise to the nickname and to Arthur Scargill, tends to get underplayed by historians these days but that is a mistaken revision. 1969 really was a turning point, and set in motion what happened in 1972, 1972, and ultimately 1984-5. The question is not really about the militancy of the 1970s and 1980s, so much as the apparent lack of urgency amongst the miners of the late-1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. Allen posited the ‘depoliticisation’ of the miners in those years and Tony Hall pointed to the ‘ascendancy of the Right’. You might look at things like that, I suppose; but there is another way and it is with this alternative that I want to finish today’s post. It can be summed up in one word: internationalism.

Now, you might be forgiven for thinking that the internationalism pointed to by historians like Francis and Smith (the post-1947 chapter of The Fed was written by Francis, it’s worth saying) rings with more than a little communist propaganda to it. Certainly, it echoes the fellow travelling enthusiasms of many of the leading NUM officials at district and national level, men such as Dai Dan Evans and Arthur Horner. But. And this deserves being stressed. That on its own does not explain the remarkable engagement of the NUM in international affairs from the peace movement and anti-Vietnam demonstrations, to support for workers in Spain and Greece, to the anti-Apartheid movement, to attempts at reconciliation between Communist East and Capitalist West in Europe. This internationalist perspective, signified by the stress placed on fellowship and solidarity on lodge banners – the two outstretched hands locked in embrace, the comradely greeting of a ‘white’ miner and a ‘black’ miner, and so forth -, is the great consistency of the miner’s union. The list of moments of solidarity ranges from the locked out workers of Dublin in 1913 to those on strike in Barcelona in 1917 to Spain in 1936 to Lidice in 1942 to Paul Robeson and Hungary in the 1950s to Vietnam and South Africa in the 1960s and 1970s. These were, very often, radical stances to take and they certainly exposed the distance between the left-leaning opinion of the coalfields (most consistently the South Wales and Yorkshire Coalfields) and mainstream British politics.

So perhaps as we look to re-write the history of miners and the British coalfields we should stress the importance of both the international and the domestic to their development. I don’t mean this in terms of export figures and how coal travelled around the world, an important story, to be sure, but rather in terms of the politics of the coalfields and the people who live in them (then and now). Therein lies, I think, an important message for our times – that the people of the coalfields, particularly the miners, did not stand in the shadows and ignore events going on elsewhere but they stood in the light and said we’re on your side. Those who watched Pride on Boxing Day, whether for the first time or the 47th, will recognise the significance of that solidarity. A few of those involved in the Neath, Dulais and Swansea Valleys’ Miners’ Support Group, which was twinned with LGSM, travelled to Prague in 1986 in order to say thank you for the support during the 1984-5 strike that they had received from Czechoslovakian workers. It was just one small way of saying thank you for a truly pan-European act of solidarity in 1984-5. And that’s the point in the end, isn’t it? That from Vesting Day to the very end of the coal industry itself, the British coalfields were more than just a little bit European. Let’s not forget that as we march, unhappily, out the door.

Butetown’s Baltic Missions

German Seamen's Pastors, 1906. Julius Jungclaussen is in the front row, fourth from the right (with the full white beard).
German Seamen’s Pastors, 1906. Julius Jungclaussen is in the front row, fourth from the right (with the full white beard).

With today’s blog, the next in the current series looking at the overseas Seamen’s Missions in Cardiff in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, I want to turn my attention to some of the more hidden and unknown aspects of this rich organisational-religious culture in the port. The Norwegian Church and the Greek Orthodox Church, both of which still stand, and in the case of the latter still serves the community as a religious building, are well-known. Their history, if often misreported in certain details, is at least known about by those familiar with Cardiff’s multicultural past. Less well-known, and in some cases perhaps almost completely unknown, are the missions that served the Dutch, Estonian, Finnish, German, and Latvian, communities that settled in the port and were bolstered by regular maritime trade. These missions, about which it is difficult to find historical information in English, and as good as nothing in Welsh, nevertheless serve to remind twenty-first century readers of the cultural complexity of the ‘Chicago of Wales’, and are vital aspects of the past to recover in these days of strong anti-immigrant rhetoric.

We begin more than 150 years ago, in the year 1865. In that year, a German seaman called James Schmutz first organised a mission in Cardiff for seamen from the German-speaking lands of central Europe. Although not yet part of a formal organisation, Schmutz worked alongside (and initially for) the British and Foreign Sailors’ Society, which had established itself in Cardiff in about 1857, and the Baptist missions in the docks. Born in 1844, Schmutz lived in Cardiff from the 1860s until his death in 1927. Throughout that period, the census described Schmutz as a missionary, although he was also described in the press as a colporteur, which may have provided him with a source of income, but at no time does it appear that he was ever formally ordained. As far as can be established, at least from histories of German religious organisation in Cardiff, the German Church was essentially a small wooden hut located on Bute Street, although trades directories do also hint at another possibility. Following the closure of the Greek Orthodox Church at 31 Patrick Street in about 1877, it appears that Schmutz was able to rent the same building to open a German Mission Church (although in some trades directories it is mislabelled as a ‘Dutch Church’). Although this does not appear to have lasted for too long, since by the mid-1880s the building was being used as a bonded store. It is possible, of course, that both elements are true.

The loss of the mission church was, however, only the end of the initial phase of development in the German community in Cardiff. Encouraged by the success of the Scandinavian seamen’s missions, German churchmen sought to establish their own formal institutions in overseas ports. This coalesced in the formation in Hanover in September 1886 of the Committee for the Religious Provision of German Seamen Abroad (or Komitees für kirchliche Versorgung deutscher Seeleute im Ausland). Later known as the German Seamen’s Mission – Deutsche Seemansmission – it was through their auspices that the first ordained pastor arrived in Cardiff from Germany, his name was Julius Jungclaussen (1854-1921). Jungclaussen was born in one of Northern Europe’s most contentious regions, at least in the middle of the nineteenth century, namely the southern part of the Jutland peninsula. (His childhood home was in Itzehoe.) Two wars, the first won by Denmark, the second by Prussia, between 1848-1851 and 1864 (the course of the latter was recently made into a television programme), saw the region become Danish and then German. Not surprisingly, Jungclaussen grew up able to speak both languages – something he put to use during his pastorates in Cardiff and Hamburg.

Having arrived in Cardiff in July 1887, Jungclaussen set about re-organising the German Mission. In November that year he established a prayer room and reading room at 186 Bute Street, and in April 1888 was able to take over the entire building establishing the Seamen’s Home that remained there for nearly thirty years. The Seamen’s Home at this point was run by Herr Hillmann, a former sailor from Vegesack, a district in the northern part of the city of Bremen. Jungclaussen remained in Cardiff until the end of March 1891 when he was called back to Germany – he made his home in Hamburg, where he served as Seamen’s Pastor for a number of years. Hillmann subsequently followed him to work at the Seamen’s Misssion in Hamburg.

Jungclaussen’s replacement was Paul Oehlkers (1862-1922), a native of Hanover, who lived in Cardiff until 1895. The Seamen’s Home was now managed by August Weckman. The Mission by this stage also included a vicarage located at 59 Romilly Crescent, Riverside. Church services conducted by Oehlkers, and Jungclaussen before him, were held either at the Home or at the Norwegian Church. Trades directories for Cardiff in this period describe an evangelical mission held at a Gospel Hall on Bute Street, which was organised by James Schmutz, but these two institutions seem to have been distinct from each other. The yearbooks and material printed by the German Seamen’s Mission do not discuss Schmutz’s endeavour, as evidence for this. Oehlkers left Cardiff for Bremerhaven at the end of March 1895 and returned to Hanover in 1897. Oehlkers’s replacement was Pastor Körner, who lived in Cardiff until 1900 and then the Julius Achilles, who lived there until 1906.

The twenty years between Jungclaussen’s arrival and Achilles’s departure had seen a dramatic increase in the number of German ships entering Cardiff and the other Bristol Channel ports – not surprising since this was nearing the peak of the coalfield economy, which came in the decade or so before the First World War. At that time, the German Mission in Cardiff was so busy that it could sustain two pastors with a third based entirely in Swansea. This was to be the arrangement until the outbreak of war in 1914 brought a sudden end to the Mission and the evacuation of its personnel. Elsewhere in Britain, German pastors were actually arrested by the authorities, so this evacuation was hardly over-dramatic. By this point, a Dutch Mission (or Tehuis voor Zeelieden) had opened at 143-144 Bute Street, which was able to take over some of the responsibilities of the German Mission during wartime.

The German Mission, as with the Norwegian Church, played a vital role in sustaining German associational culture in Cardiff in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. But it also played a vital role in providing support to the cultural and religious life of those living and working in Cardiff who came from the Baltic states, particularly Latvia and Estonia. Cardiff was extremely unusual in having a Latvian missionary living there and working amongst the seamen who came to the port. In fact, when the Livionian Seamen’s Mission (as it was originally known) was first established at the end of the 1890s it had two places of operation: Riga, as would be expected, and Cardiff. The most prominent of the Latvian missionaries was Konstantins Uders (1870-1919), who came there in about 1900 and left in 1906. He was ordained as a minister in 1903. Before Uders’s arrival in Cardiff, which enabled year-round services to be organised, the Latvian mission rotated on a six-monthly basis with a missionary resident in South Wales between December and March. Given the itinerant nature of the Mission, it needed support from more established organisations and this was readily given by the German Mission. The Livonian Missions were inspired by (and in many ways were an offshoot of) the German Seemannsmission – Oskar Schabert (1866-1936), who helped to established the Livionian organisation, had worked at the Seaman’s Mission in Hamburg before translating to Riga. Uders was killed by Latvian Bolsheviks during the Latvian War of Independence, 1918-1920, ostensibly because of his support for Germany.

Inside the Finnish Church, Cardiff, 1931. Via the Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham.
Inside the Finnish Church, Cardiff, 1931. Via Cadbury Library, Birmingham University.

Of the Estonian residents and seamen living in Cardiff, it is difficult to establish exactly what provision was made, except that at the beginning of the twentieth century they took part in the services of the Latvian Mission run by Konstantins Uders. From the 1920s onwards, Estonians were served by the Finnish Mission (about which more in a moment) and several Finnish pastors who were able to speak Estonian. The Finnish Mission has its origins in the Finnish Church in London which opened in 1882. In contrast to other ports, such as Hull, which did have Finnish churches of their own, Cardiff was initially served by the minister from London who visited once a month to conduct services in Finnish at the Norwegian Church. That changed after Finnish independence in 1917 and a new seamen’s mission was opened in Hannah Street after the First World War. Overseen by its secretaries, initially Frans Emil Uuro and later J. Ingren, the Finnish Mission was a feature of Cardiff’s docklands until the 1950s and was noted particularly for its rather handsome church organ. Despite more formal organisation, services continued to be held by ministers travelling from London rather than a resident pastor. The same seems to have been true of Swedish services, which catered both for Swedish citizens and Swedish-speaking Finns.

In all of this, the Norwegian Church emerges as an even more important institution in the docklands of Cardiff than at first glance it appears. In the blogpost on the Greek Church, I speculated that the relative fortunes of the two perhaps reflected the material circumstances of the two communities, but it is clear that the Norwegian Church was also sustained precisely because it provided a religious home not only to Norwegians but to Swedes, Finns, Germans, Latvians, Estonians, Danes, and Icelanders too. A church building, then, which was multicultural and multilingual in a city that was multicultural and multilingual. This demonstrates just how integrated Cardiff was with Europe and the rest of the world, and how much the rest of the world knew about (and took an interest in) what was going on in South Wales – a term I use deliberately. But such discussion is for another time. I’ll end, instead, with this thought: the source material that has supported the last three posts has come from half a dozen languages, but primarily English, Norwegian, German, and Swedish, a linguistic dexterity necessary for any kind of internationalist project. That simply reflects the interconnected world as it was (and continues to be), and it reflects the true meaning of ‘American Wales’ as well. For that was a world that knew itself to be part of the international.

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