There are few occasions in this wonderful world of history where it is possible to review a book written about a man who lived his entire adult life in a house just around the corner from the one you grew up in. That is, however, the pleasure I have in writing about Alun Burge’s new, ground-breaking book, William Hazell’s Gleaming Vision. Written by the leading co-operative historian of Wales and a stalwart advocate of the co-operative’s place in the labour movement (and labour history), this is without a doubt the most significant work of labour history to emerge from South Wales in nearly twenty years. It stands alongside Chris Williams’ Democratic Rhondda (1996), Gwyn Alf Williams’ When Was Wales (1984) and The Merthyr Rising (1978), and Hywel Francis and Dai Smith’s The Fed (1980), as one of the books that will shape our thinking about the Welsh labour movement and the people who made it so very important.
But where to begin? Well, with a brief biography. William Hazell was, in the words of his friend, John E. Morgan, a ‘Bevin boy before Bevin’, that is a Londoner. Born on 27 August 1890 in St Pancras, William Hazell grew up in a working-class family and a political one at that – he would attend socialist meetings at Trafalgar Square with his father, one of those radical shoesmiths that Eric Hobsbawm once wrote about. Hazell came to Ynysybwl in around 1906 and lived there until his death in 1964. In the half century (and more) that he lived in South Wales, Hazell came to be a major figure in the co-operative movement, rising to become chairman of the Ynysybwl Co-operative Society, and a significant local figure in labour party politics: he represented Ynysybwl as a Labour councillor for decades, was chairman of the Mountain Ash UDC, and was deeply involved in health, education, and the management of a district that shed tens of thousands of young people in the 1930s. Hazell was also a historian – he wrote the singular history of the Ynysybwl Co-operative Society, published in 1954, and histories of other local co-operative societies as well. For him, the co-operative was a vital pillar of the labour movement – as important as the political and trade union pillars – but all too easily ignored following the 1945 General Election. If we may characterise Hazell as a socialist, we must characterise him as a libertarian socialist – he believed in a role for the state, but not one in which the vibrant working-class culture of the first half of the twentieth century was jettisoned in favour of statism and nationalisation. His solution for Britain’s future lay in co-operation.
This book is not simply a biography. Although, even were it a straightforward biography I would herald it as important because we do not have enough rigorous biographies of non-national labour figures from the Welsh labour movement. But no, this is a fully-fledged recovery of one of the most neglected pillars of labour – THE CO-OPERATIVE MOVEMENT: only women, and in more recent years, those marginalised sections of society that come under the (admittedly academic) banner of ‘identity politics’, have been less well treated in the literature. This is extremely unfortunate and has given rise to a labour history that has adopted a false chronology of labour’s rise. To view the labour movement through its political success historians tends to focus on particular landmarks: Keir Hardie’s victory in 1900, Labour’s coming to dominance over the parliamentary seats of the coalfield in 1918, and victory at the 1945 General Election, and so on. This narrative has extraordinary strength and has permeated pretty much everything but it needs to be challenged. Viewed from the point of view of the co-operative – or, indeed, labour culture – those forty years of political rise come at the end of decades of much wider development.
The Welsh co-operative movement dates back to at least the 1830s and its patterns of community development and support for industrial action were fairly similar all the way through until the advent of the modern co-operative in the 1980s. In the early 1840s, in the midst of the Chartist agitation, politically-advanced members of Pontypridd society, for instance, founded their own co-operative but managed to bankrupt themselves partly by supporting the chainmakers of the Brown Lenox Chain Works when they went out on strike (and were subsequently locked out) in 1842 and partly because suppliers refused to deal with such dangerous radicals. By the 1850s, the co-operative movement in South Wales was gaining significant momentum from Pembrokeshire in the west to Monmouthshire in the east. This all took place at the same time as steps towards unionisation and efforts to forge independent working-class political activity. At the very least this alternative chronology of labour forces the historian to push back a potential ‘rise of labour’ narrative twenty years.
The great value of Alun’s book, then, is precisely that he does recover this narrative and makes a strong argument for looking again at the Welsh labour movement and challenging the presumption that Wales shares the same chronology as other parts of the United Kingdom and that Labour’s nationalisation scheme of the 1945-51 was entirely the right thing to do from a working-class, independent action point of view. There are, I must admit, times where I find myself skipping pages – primarily through those parts of the book which tend to ground Hazell in the humanity of his family life, ironically – but that is down to personal taste rather than any great weakness of Alun’s part. After all, there are other parts of the book which made me laugh aloud because they are very ‘Bwl’ things to do – taking a walk along the Roman Road on the hillside above the Lady Windsor Colliery site, for instance. But this is how it should be. If you happen to read no other book of Welsh history this year, make sure you read this one!