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Wednesday, 31 August 2011

The 1911 uprisings– nation or class?


In thinking about our 1911 centenary week, and Saturday’s climactic march, rally and graveside ceremonies, I’ve been reflecting on the two different currents that made up the bulk of our political support: socialism and Welsh nationalism.

How do these two currents interact? They’re reflected in purely parliamentary terms by the Labour and Plaid Cymru parties. But socialism goes wider and deeper than that, as does nationalism. Socialism is about establishing a new sort of society based upon the working class. Nationalism is also about establishing a new sort of society, but one based upon national identity, politics and culture. Whether either of the two parties I have mentioned are effective in promoting the interests of the groups they claim to represent is, of course, another question.

As I pointed out in an earlier article, there is a Welsh nationalist ‘take’ on the 1911 events which focuses on the English soldiers and on the intervention of the English government, Churchill in particular. In this narrative the brutal English state is smashing a strike by Welsh workers.

But this interpretation doesn’t really hold water. Leaving aside the fact that one of the shot men – Leonard Worsell - was actually English, it was Welsh capitalists like Thomas Jones JP, aided and abetted by other Llanelli crachach, who called in the troops in the first place. It is class, not nationality, which is the deciding factor here. The hero of the hour, by the way, is another Englishman, Harold Spiers, who refuses to open fire on the strikers. By insisting on a narrow Welsh perspective, the whole affair is hopelessly over-simplified, seeing supposed nationality as key, rather than class.

That this should be looked at in class terms is demonstrated by the fact that these years saw not only Welsh, not only British, but international revolts. 1910-1914 – the years of the ‘Great Unrest’ - saw strikes and industrial uprisings break out all over Britain, and also in other parts of the world, including Spain, Sweden, Argentina, France, Ireland and America. This shows that it was the way that the dominant economic system – capitalism – was developing, that caused these social and industrial explosions. The key factor here was economic, rather than from any national forces, or notions of nationhood.

In fact, south Wales had long been drawing in workers from all over the world, seeking employment in the mines and other industries. Immigration was a central force in developing Welsh industry, society and identity. The rural society changed out of all recognition, and developed to become an industrialised, more multicultural south Wales.

Some of the disturbances of 1911 did develop racial overtones. In the Tredegar riots Jewish shops and businesses were targeted, and in the seamen’s strike at Cardiff, Chinese seamen, and Chinese laundries and lodging houses, were attacked. But neither of these episodes expressed a burgeoning Welsh racism. The anti-Jewish riots happened in a context of a long and bitter strike towards the end of which shopkeepers in general were targeted. The Cardiff events occurred because the shipowners brought in Chinese sailors as blackleg labour, to break the seamen’s strike. These were at base economic, not racial, disturbances. But the strike and rebellion of Llanelli 1911 was a class battle par excellence. It was everything to do with class, and with one victim and one hero being English, nothing to do with national identity.


Friday, 26 August 2011

Free Wales Army on the march?











The centenary march and rally on 20 August to commemorate the Llanelli 1911 railway strike and uprising was excellent, with good attendance, good speeches (Bob Crow’s speech is on YouTube – google Bob Crow at Llanelli) and a moving graveside ceremony where the male voice choir and the service were just about perfect. It was supported by the Labour Party, Plaid Cymru and by many trade unions, trades councils and other sections of the left and the workers’ movement.

But I want to quote Rhydian Hughes’s letter in last week’s Star. He congratulated the 1911 Llanelli Railway Strike Committee on “a magnificent march and commemoration week, well organised and highly enjoyable” . But he objected to the presence of the Free Wales Army (FWA), “the ultra-nationalist group advocating armed resistance against the ‘oppression’ of the British regime.” He referred to the ‘poisonous ideologies’ of this group, and that their presence was an insult to the “countless working-class heroes who had given all for their class.”

Like him, I imagined that this organisation had died off or disappeared into the Celtic twilight long ago, so I was as surprised as anyone to see their banner among the other, overwhelmingly trade union, banners. A real ‘blast from the past’, perhaps. Their paramilitary style didn’t quite fit either, and their sartorial ambience did have, it must be said, a touch of the EDL about it. However, they have never to my knowledge publicly come out with any overtly racist or Islamophobic pronouncements – in fact quite the opposite – they are quite offended by the propensity of the EDL to sing “God Save the Queen” at the drop of a hat.Their links were always rumoured to be more with the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the Official IRA, not fitting too neatly with the Loyalists of the far right. The anarchist Ian Bone (founder of Class War) seems to be quite happy to romanticise them on his blog.

Having said that, some socialists and trade unionists were uncomfortable having them on the march, as was I. I decided after the march was over to find out more about where they were coming from, and so at a reception in the club bar got into a conversation with a member. The conversation rapidly turned into an argument as he came out with a depressingly racist, anti-immigrant rant. In fact, so unpleasant did things become that my partner and I refused to shake hands with him, and decided to leave.

While I and others in the socialist movement see the events of 1911 in class terms, there is also a perfectly legitimate nationalist narrative which locates 1911 in a trajectory of oppression of the Welsh, from the treason of the Blue Books to the ‘Welsh Not,’ the drowning of Tryweryn etc. This is fine: socialists have always supported the struggles of national minorities. But the danger with nationalist perspectives is that they accept national and racial identities, whereas as an international socialist I doubt the validity of 'race' as a concept in the first place. The anti-immigrant racism of the FWA member I spoke to was disgusting (this wasn't 'anti-English' either - that I could have accepted - it was 'anti-immigrant'). If what he said was representative of the views of the group in general, then I for one will not be marching with them again. And I suggest you question them more closely, Ian...

Monday, 22 August 2011

Thursday, 18 August 2011

The Headlong Stream -1911




This is a poem I wrote about the Llanelli railway strike & uprising of 1911...


The headlong stream is termed violent

But the river bed hemming it in is

Termed violent by no one. – Brecht

1

Out of nowhere it comes

A storm of resistance blowing

Hard through the night

Of imperial fantasies, Edwardian hubris,

As the wretched of the earth rise up out of the splintered rubble

And fight back.

Miners from the pits

Of the Cambrian Combine.

Anarchist militants from Liverpool

Railmen from the iron tracks, the sinews of empire.

Seafarers and dockers, calling the workers out with bugles

Blowing high across the jetties and wharves of Newport,

The quaysides of Cardiff.

And the seashore tinplate town, washed out along the Loughor estuary.

A world of forges, fiery furnaces,

Where metals burn like the fires of drink and the devil,

And the hellfire of the preachers in the 1904 revival,

And the fire in the belly of the syndicalist strikers

Fighting for one big union and a better world to come.

And New Dock and Seaside a teeming workers’ district,

Channelling coal and steel to feed an empire.

And still dire poverty, still dank damp housing,

Still plague spots, slums, unwholesome dens.

Still a hundred and thirteen babies dying

In the year of 1911.

And the rich get richer

2

And a hundred years later,

Looking down upon Llanelli,

From the slopes of Box Cemetery

I see a long unravelling,

Debt and desolation,

And the blood of so many washed away down the river

In numb idleness and heavily cut heroin.

Shooting up commodities

In negative equity

Or servicing the retail trade on minimum wage.

Strictly low budget, my friend.

Because if you don’t stand for something you’ll put up with anything.

And I cry out for the spirit of 1911

When they got angry and did the right thing

And an injury to one is an injury to all

And to hell with the consequences.

And the poor getting poorer

3

A sea of people surge at the level crossing,

Rebecca seizes the gates,

Railmen, tinplaters, wives, lovers and children,

Cold-roll boys smoking their Woodbines,

Sitting on the wall of the Station Hotel,

Carnival and an August moon.

Speeches ring out:

And it’s workers’ power,

And the international working class.

And the strikers singing ‘Sosban Fach’.

Even the police settle down to watch

The mock election and the tap dancing contest

And the crowds sing “For he’s a jolly good fellow”

As Sergeant Britten walks past.

And all through the night

Of the 17th August

The picket stays in place

And nothing moves without the nod

Of the strike committee.

Any kind of dual power

Is anathema to a ruling class.

4

The photos show us a young man:

Expressive features, dark hair

Parted in the middle, a trace of brilliantine,

A polka dot bow tie. Captain of the rugby team, a local hero:

Dodging, tackling - a centre with The Oriental Stars.

He earned his bread as a tinplateman,

A mill-worker at Morewoods.

And took to the streets to support his brothers on the rail.

Is he the one the major said jumped up and bared his chest

And dared them to fire?

John ‘Jac’ John,

21 years old, of Railway Terrace

Shot through the lung.

And the other one, the Londoner,

The boy from Penge. Although younger than Jac,

In this photograph he looks older. Hair curls

Over his forehead in a quiff.

Square-jawed, more wary,

More deeply impacted

By life

More unlucky maybe.

Although today

His level of bad luck was exactly the same as Jac’s.

He leaves school at 12,

By 19 has left London –

Looking for labouring work,

In an inversion strange to us,

In tinplate boomtown Llanelli.

Hit by tuberculosis, the scourge of the urban poor,

He is on weekend leave from Alltymynydd Sanatorium,

And has just finishing shaving

When he is shot.

Stripped to the waist,

No socks or shoes upon his feet,

He has gone into his back garden to see what all the noise is about.

Rarely were the words ‘innocent bystander’

More justly deserved.

Guilty, your honour, of living in a working-class street.

Leonard Worsell the labourer

19 years old, lodging at No.6

Shot in the heart.

5

It was Major Stuart who gave

The order to fire.

After his cut glass accent

Failed to dislodge

The men from the garden wall.

Wilkins the magistrate

Mumbled his way

Through the Riot Act –

“God save the King!”

Sixty seconds counted out

On the major’s pocket watch.

Then

Five bullets.

Nickel topped.

One hits John Francis

In the throat.

Another strikes John Hanbury’s thumb,

And smacks into Jac’s chest.

A third fells the lad from London.

Blood splashes the grass.

Three men down.

One hit but still walking.

The two in worst shape -

Jac and Leonard -

Laid out on the table

In the middle room of No 6

Where they die.

The landlady of the house

Is crying.

6

Down on the track below

Major Stuart orders his soldiers

To withdraw.

What thoughts are in his head?

One soldier refused to fire on the crowd.

Did this little mutiny take away Stuart’s trust in his men?

Or is it the realisation that he has played his last card.

If two deaths have not done the trick, will twenty?

So many questions,

So few answers.

7

The riot is the voice of the unheard.

The uprising is the same voice speaking

A full sentence.

The question is:

What does the voice say?

As news of the killings spreads

Groups of young men roam the streets

Around the station, seeking ways to strike back.

They say: “Men are born to live out their lives, not to be shot at like dogs. This was murder.”

A crowd chases the soldiers of the Lancashire Regiment

Into the railway station, then stones the building,

Smashing every window.

They say: “Where the interests of the rich are concerned, our lives are cheap. The soldiers are not here to defend us.”

The crowds loot the shop of Thomas Jones J.P. –

Shareholder of the Great Western Railway Company

- The man who called in the troops.

They say: “You brought in these soldiers to protect your investment. To see the job done you were prepared to kill. You don’t need all these hams, these cheeses, these cakes. We will take this out of what you owe us.”

The trucks of the Great Western Railway Company

Are looted and torched.

A truck explodes, killing four.

The voices of the dead say: “Blood of the poor is on the hands of the powerful. We live working or die fighting. The riverbed of steel that hems us in is called violent by no-one. ”

Strikers fight soldiers

Who, bayonets fixed, try to drive them

From the streets.

The strikers say: ”These were our streets. Our town. Now we find that not even the things we own belong to us.”

8

The strikes were called off

And although the people fought

There was no world revolution.

What happened instead was world war

But that’s another story.

And in the tinplate town the murders

Were drowned in guilt and shame,

As chapels and press

And the local crachach,

Terrified at the bolshevism that had blown up

In their faces, spoke of “slavering mobs”

And disgraceful disorder

And the cwmwl cywilydd brought upon the town.

And people forgot the worse injustice.

And the graves of Jac and Leonard

Still moulder and crumble up at Box.

9

When a dam bursts who can control

The water and the way it flows?

Some got drunk.

Well what of it?

Some stole.

So what?

What has been stolen from them all their lives

Makes the cakes

And the sides of ham

Seem small change.

Who blames them

For their night of riot

As they struck back

Against the murderers

Who had come to their town?

No, don’t blame them

Salute them

For their pig-headedness

Their nerve under fire, their humour

Their hwyl.

We will need that too

For today and tomorrow,

For who will defend the poor

As the rich come to steal

From them again?

10

The town stretches out

Along the coast today. The sunlight glances off the sea.

From here I can see Whiteford Point lighthouse

Shimmer in the distance.

The forges and fiery furnaces are

All gone. So are the dockers and miners.

But there are still plague spots.

Still people dying.

And the rich getting richer. ..