The Fed: Welsh labour history's most iconic and significant work.
The Fed: Welsh labour history’s most iconic and significant work.

The Fed is an iconic text. For historians of modern Wales its influence is inescapable. But it is also a much abused work, both for what it says, what it does not say, and what it might have said. ‘This is not the book we intended to write’, confess Dai Smith and Hywel Francis in the preface, ‘It is not the complete, rounded social history of South Wales we plotted and carried in our heads for years. Perhaps that was always an unrealisable ideal…’ On its own terms the Fed is a triumph of synthesis, analysis, argument, and a mixture of heavily researched history of the past and an attempt to make sense of the contemporary. More than any other book this is my bible and I return to it more often than any other work of scholarship. For all that, however, The Fed should never be taken as the final word on the history of South Wales. It was and remains a snapshot compiled at a particular moment, by two historians intimately tied to the world around them, and for a particular purpose.

At its most basic, The Fed is volume III of the official history of the South Wales Miners’ Federation. The others, written by Robin Page Arnot, took the story from 1898-1914 (Volume I, 1967) and from 1914 to 1926 (Volume II, 1975). Page Arnot was born in Scotland in 1890, and so was of that generation of radical leftists who came of age around the time of the First World War. He had been a conscientious objector during the war – he spent time in Wakefield prison – and joined the Communist Party on its foundation in 1920. Reading his papers that trace the many difficulties he had in compiling his histories of the South Wales miners before 1926, particularly in gaining access to records from the coalowners themselves, it’s clear that Page Arnot’s approach to the question of the miners, their union, and its history, was constrained not only by his own radicalism but also by prevailing official attitudes to him. As graduate students ploughing a more traditional route of scholarship, Francis and Smith enjoyed much greater freedom and privilege. The Fed is therefore both a continuation of and departure from the Page Arnot model. This was less true of Volume II, which could at least draw on the resources of the emerging South Wales Coalfield Archive and the South Wales Miners’ Library (although Arnot was locked out of the coalowners’ archive in the National Library of Wales).

The Fed is also closely related to a few other books, namely Hywel Francis’s Miners Against Fascism (1984); K. S. Hopkins’s edited collection Rhondda: Past and Future (1975) which has essays from Francis and Smith that echo elements of The Fed; and Jeffrey Skelley’s edited collection on 1926 published for the 50th anniversary of the General Strike which features an essay by Hywel Francis on the events of May 1926 in South Wales; and the special issue of the Welsh History Review from the mid-1970s. But the most significant works that underpin all but the final chapter The Fed are Francis and Smith’s respective doctoral theses. Recognising how The Fed is anchored to doctoral research is useful for understanding the position advanced in the book and the gaps. At this juncture it’s worth reminding ourselves that the book’s subtitle is A History of the South Wales Miners in the Twentieth Century, it was always going to be a partial picture. The signifying indefinite article, as Simon Schama reflected during the fuss over his selectivity in the television series (and trilogy of books) A History of Britain, is worth paying attention to.

So let me do something which I hope Hywel and Dai don’t mind me doing and pull The Fed apart structurally chapter by chapter to show where the various bits of the book come from. Before I do that let me offer a few observations of my own, having already undertaken this historiographical analysis. The first thing that emerged was the need to read The Fed and Miners Against Fascism as one work. They inform each other, balance each other out, and are intimately connected. This might seem obvious but across the nearly 1000 pages of text, and the underlying research, we find a rich portrait of the South Wales Coalfield and its self-perception through to the 1940s. I say that because the only chapter written entirely from scratch in The Fed, that which takes the story up to the 1972 and 1974 strikes, is an exercise in contemporary history long before the methods of contemporary history had been worked out fully. That must be dealt with on its own terms. That’s my second observation. My third observation is just how difficult it is to categorise The Fed from a historiographical point of view: it is a traditional labour history, broader social and cultural history, a form of working-class intellectual history, and a holistic attempt to link work, politics, representation, and ideas together. Few other books in the Welsh canon are this rich.

Chapter One: ‘The Union in its Society’. The phrase is taken directly from Dai’s PhD, which carried a version of this as its subtitle (originally it was ‘a trade union in its society’). The opening, page long, paragraph is unique to The Fed, but thereafter we find ourselves in Dai’s doctoral introduction, exiting it only on page 8 after landing on ‘weak foundations’. The next few pages weave in elements of Hywel’s PhD introduction, which helps to explain the shift from union structures and their dynamics to an emphasis on immigration, educational ideas, and proletarian internationalism. We find ourselves in a different part of the coalfield as well, but does anyone really notice the shift of authorial voice? I doubt it.  We arrive back on Dai’s patch on page 13, heading into the storm of the Cambrian Combine Dispute of 1910-11. We are, of course, back in the Rhondda, but can anyone – except perhaps the good folks of the Cynon Valley – really dispute the necessity of being there in those years? I doubt it. We do not leave Dai again until page 28, this time with an extra linking sentence: ‘none the less, the particular nature of their history did not preclude wider horizons’. The next section (until we re-join Dai on page 31) is more obviously different. International figures like Lenin appear and the emphasis is more firmly on the emergence of the Communist wing of the labour movement after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.

The wheels really did come off after 1921, at least economically. And the strength of the Fed began to weaken through fragmentation, inconsistent working patterns, and the running down of the industry. Return to privatisation, and defeat in 1926, precipitated a collapse and the Fed needed to be rebuilt. The weaving together of Dai’s and Hywel’s introductions ends with this quote:

No strangers come to the valleys except with a commercial or a political purpose […] It seems as though in the past no one from outside had ever taken a social interest in the miner; this task has fallen wholly on the SWMF which proclaims that it exists for the complete abolition of capitalism, and teachers its members that the upper classes never do anything for nothing. The miner finds that easy to believe. There are no well-to-do people living in the valleys, they choose to avoid the ugliness and the high rates.

We move on to Dai’s conclusion, which provides almost the entire remains of chapter one of The Fed – the final paragraph being, like the opening paragraph, the only new addition to the piece.

Broken down in this way, The Fed emerges as much more interesting than it already was. Obviously Hywel and Dai were doctoral students in the same department working through many of the same records, so the relative ease with which their work overlapped and could be woven together is entirely understandable, but as those of us who have gone through the process can attest to such symmetry is rare. Remarkably very little was actually left on the cutting room floor, mostly a small amount of scaffolding from the theses that would not be of particular use in a book. This in itself says something about the South Wales Miners’ Federation as an institution. It was capable of industrial militancy, political leadership, a degree of insularity, and proletarian internationalism, all at the same time.

On the whole the portrait provided by Hywel and Dai in the opening chapter of The Fed has not been overturned (or significantly challenged). There are, of course, a number of silences (again a direct reflection of the doctoral research), not the least of which is the relative absence of women – there is a marvellous Western Mail cartoon on page 9 and nods to the ‘white shirting’ affrays both of which hint at the place of women but that’s as far as it goes. But we should not make too much of this, since the emphasis of the chapter is on the union in its society, and the union was exclusively male, even if wider society assuredly was not. Given the later controversy about ‘the macho world of South Wales’ in response to Dai’s Aneurin Bevan and the World of South Wales (1993), there is pretty much an even balance between passages of The Fed dealing with women that draw on Hywel’s research and those that draw on Dai’s. A more concrete criticism of this opening chapter of The Fed is its regional bias, most of the ‘action’ derives from the Rhondda-Cynon-Taff milieu or the Glamorgan part of the anthracite coalfield. This is slightly unfortunate because the coalfield, which stretched from Monmouthshire in the east to eastern Carmarthenshire in the west, was not entirely uniform, particularly not in its responses to industrial matters.

Let me explain what I mean. If we look at the results of the 1918 General Election expressed in percentage terms, Labour’s greatest concentration of success was in Monmouthshire, not Glamorgan. This situation reversed in the 1920s. Apart from Llanelli, Carmarthenshire was never really a ‘Labour county’ in the same way (it was first won by a Labourite in 1929 and promptly lost again in the debacle of 1931). So within the counties of Glamorgan and Monmouthshire there were particular labour dynamics to be explored and which were not fully explored in the opening chapter of The Fed. Monmouthshire provided the first Conscientious Objector to parliament – Morgan Jones, Labour MP for Caerphilly – it provided the SWMF’s president from 1916 onwards in the form of Jimmy Winstone, the most iconic politician (Aneurin Bevan), and would pioneer direct physical action to press the labour cause. For all that the Cambrian Combine dispute was the fulcrum of ideas, it was Monmouthshire that provided the lesson that fighting with fists against the state is a necessary evil. So to put this into some kind of idea, the South Wales Coalfield was a trinity: Monmouthshire, Steam Coal eastern and central Glamorgan, and the Anthracite of western Glamorgan and eastern Carmarthenshire. It was working together that made the place so explosive, but experiences were not always identical in Ammanford, Aberdare, and Abertillery.

The rest of The Fed breaks down more straightforwardly and requires less of a close reading of the text. Without giving everything away (you never know, I might turn this into an article some day!), the bulk of the book derives from Dai Smith’s PhD. Recognising this helps us to understand why The Fed says what it says. The title of Dai’s PhD was ‘The Rebuilding of the South Wales Miners’ Federation, 1927-1939: A Trade Union in its Society’. And it is that process of rebuilding that occupies so much of The Fed itself. We pick up the story in The Fed not amidst triumph but amidst enormous adversity. For all the intellectual and political fervour of 1910-1921, what happened thereafter was defeat after defeat, setback after setback, and the emergence of a completely different trade union from the one founded in 1898. In a lecture given in Swansea in 1973, Page Arnot had referred to the years between 1914 and 1926 as ‘the years of ordeal’. For him the war, and the twin lockouts of 1921 and 1926 were exactly that, a kind of biblical trial leading up to an awakening of a radical kind.

This I think hints at the direction Page Arnot might have taken the history of the SWMF in its last phase (before the establishment of the National Union of Mineworkers). After 1927, things really did take a radical turn, at least on the ground. Much of the personnel of the Fed remained the same until the Popular Front Era, and there were even reverses for those whose mindset was pro-Communist, notably S. O. Davies. The death of Jimmy Winstone, the Fed’s popular president, in 1921, saw the election of Vernon Hartshorn to that office. Although he had had a radical phase before the war, standing on platforms debating the Miners’ Next Step, by the early 1920s Hartshorn was the epitome of trade union respectability. The formation of the first Labour government in January 1924 saw Hartshorn enter the cabinet as Postmaster General. He resigned as President of the SWMF and was replaced by the veteran Enoch Morrell, agent for the Taff-Cynon district and the first ever mayor of Merthyr. Morrell held the office for ten years until his death in 1934. James Griffiths, the moderate Labour-nationalist from Carmarthenshire, whose politics had had an anarchist leaning before the First World War, then held the presidency until he was elected MP for Llanelli in 1936. It was in that year that Arthur Horner, the most powerful communist in the South Wales Coalfield, was elected president signalling the complete transformation in the SWMF and its becoming a ‘popular front’ institution.

Horner’s election amidst the popular front activities after 1936, would certainly have attracted Page Arnot, as they did Hywel Francis. There is much greater emphasis in chapter 10 on this facet of the 1930s than in the surrounding chapters that come from Dai Smith’s hand. Those who have read the respective PhD theses would recognise the subtle divergences from the outset: the opening pages of Hywel’s thesis focus on culture and lodge banners, Dai’s on the other hand are firmly on the intellectual and organisational legacies of the period around the Cambrian Combine strike. What I’m getting at here is this – The Fed is often bitterly attacked now by ‘young Turks’ for exaggerating the intersections between politics, society, culture, and ideas. Proletarian consciousness, alternative society, even the idea that South Walian society was progressive or radical is called into question.  But that’s not really a fair assault. Remember that the underlying momentum within the book is the rebuilding of the South Wales Miners’ Federation after 1921 and 1926 (we should also add in the anthracite strike of 1925). The SWMF was being rebuilt alongside a society that was also trying to rebuild itself. Economic pummelling in the late-1920s and 1930s hit both. It can be no surprise therefore that the outcome was an institution so intimately tied to the people. Part of the reason why ‘proletarian consciousness’ seems like a rather strange turn of phrase in chapter one but becomes so obvious by the time we get to chapter ten is precisely because of this reconstruction process.

There is so much that can be said of The Fed so let me conclude with this final thought. I said at the outset that this was a book with a purpose. That purpose was twofold: on the one hand to lay before readers a history of a crucial period in Welsh history and to try and explain why South Wales appeared to be so different from other coalfields both in its political radicalism and its fundamental political stability. But the other purpose was much more tangible and indicative of the period when the book was written. It is a guide to standing up for ourselves and fighting back against the state even when things are desperate. It is a plea to look out on the world not with fear and hatred but with openness and embrace. During the 1984-5 Miners’ Strike, copies of The Fed were given away as fundraising prizes, as a message to tell support groups all around the country ‘this is what we in South Wales are all about’. A copy was given, for instance, to Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM); they in turn handed to the Neath, Dulais, and Swansea Valleys’ Miners’ Support Group a copy of Jeffrey Weeks’s Coming Out. The irony being that Weeks was born in the Rhondda so was himself a product of that South Wales.

History, as Gwyn Alf Williams once said, is more than the page of a book. The Fed is a perfect example of what he meant.