John Osmond says the 1980s miners’ strike provided the foundation for all that is happening in 21st Century Wales
A remarkable exhibition of photographs of 25 leading Welsh writers opened in the Old Library in Cardiff last week. All have come together to contribute essays to a new publication the IWA will be launching next week 25/25 Vision: Welsh horizons across 50 years.
The Exhibition, with photographs by John Briggs, and the publication have been put together to mark the IWA’s 25th anniversary this year. We will be celebrating the occasion next week with a reception at the Old Library exhibition followed by a dinner in the St David’s Hall restaurant across the road. Our guest speaker is Dai Smith, Chair of the Arts Council of Wales. It’s an occasion not to be missed, and tickets are still available here.
The writers we commissioned for the book range from Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State Owen Smith (Dai’s son – that’s Wales for you) to Plaid Cymru’s Adam Price, and north Wales teenage fiction writer Bethan Gwanas to Rhondda novelist Rachel Trezise – the full list is in the panel below.
I think the book will make a significant contribution to the way we imagine Wales. Two events stand out, the miners’ strike of the mid-1980s and the devolution referendum in 1997. Many of the authors in 25/25 Vision make clear the connections between the two. In my view they provide the essential background for all that has followed and is likely to emerge in the coming decades. As the American writer William Faulkner memorably put it, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
In my contribution to 25/25 Vision I say that an underlying question for what it is to be Welsh in our generation has been how far that can be understood in terms of the whole of Wales, rather than being merely connected to specific localities within it. In short, to what extent is it possible for us to feel solidarity in common as Welsh citizens?
The answer given by the 1979 devolution referendum appeared to be not very much. Indeed, at that time the notion of Welsh citizenship, bound up as it is with institutions of a state, was largely incomprehensible to most Welsh people. Such institutions as we had – notably the Welsh Office, the Welsh Development Agency and similar organisations – were invisible to most people because they lacked any meaningful democratic accountability.
The mystery of what happened in the nearly two decades that followed 1979 is to explain why there was a Yes vote in 1997. Many explanations have been put forward and doubtless all played a role. Most obviously, 18 years of Conservative rule up to 1997 did a lot to persuade a reluctant Welsh Labour Party that there were advantages in having democratic institutions that could defend Wales against the depredations of any future such occurrence. In this account it was Mrs Thatcher who delivered devolution.
Writers contributing to 25/25 Vision
But underlying such changes, I think a more fundamental psychological shift took place during the 1980s. And the hinge around which this turned was the miners’ strike, which was experienced differently in Wales from elsewhere in Britain. At the start the Welsh miners were opposed to the strike, correctly identifying the poor timing and Arthur Scargill’s weak strategic leadership. However, once called the south Wales miners became the spearhead of the union movement to ensure solidarity with the strike across the English coalfields. An estimated 4-5,00 south Wales miners (about 25 per cent of the workforce) were permanently mobilised throughout the coalfields of Lancashire, Nottingham, south Derby, Leicestershire, and Stafford. They were also picketing 26 nuclear, coal, and oil powered stations and manning six regional centres in England. Commanded like a military operation from the NUM’s Area headquarters in Pontypridd, the insurgency cost more than £1 million in the first six weeks alone.
The effort was doomed. Because of Scargill’s failure to allow a ballot, the miners were on the back foot from a moral point of view from the start and, of course, Mrs Thatcher’s government was well prepared. But the important question for the future was how the south Wales miners responded when it became clear that they could not rely on the richer coalfields of the English Midlands and Yorkshire where many miners continued to work under the banner of a breakaway union. They looked inwards and set about ensuring as far as they could, the survival of their families and communities, and ultimately the NUM itself.
In the process they forged a new style of politics. This was one essentially led by women who were at the heart of support groups that sprung up in every village and town in the south, and eventually across the whole of Wales. This became for a time a powerful national movement, the Wales Congress in Support of Miner’s Communities, involving Labour and Plaid Cymru, the churches, the Wales TUC, Cymdeithas yr Iaith, groups for peace, lesbian and gay rights, and others. As Hywel Francis, who chaired the Congress, put it, in his 2004 book History On Our Side: Wales and the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike, “The Congress was born out of a realisation by large sections of Welsh people that the miners were struggling for the future of Wales.”
The eventual defeat persuaded many Welsh people that ultimately they could only rely on their own resources and those of their communities. The experience of living through the strike also demonstrated the possibilities and life-enhancing qualities of community solidarity, of connecting class with nation, and of forging a new kind of nation in the process. These were hard lessons, dearly paid for, but they opened the way for the making a different kind of Wales. Its shape is being forged now, in the early decades of the 21st Century.