Wales’s greatest hero: Aneurin Bevan

Nye BevanWales’s greatest hero, Aneurin Bevan, died 55 years ago today of cancer, aged only 62. Born into a mining family in 1897, he experienced first-hand the problems of poverty and disease. A committed socialist and miners’ leader, Bevan was elected as the Labour Member of Parliament for Ebbw Vale in 1929.  After the landslide Labour victory in the 1945 general election, Bevan was appointed minister of health, and became the architect of the National Health Service which was launched in July 1948, just 67 days before I became an NHS baby.

In 1951, he resigned from his position as a Government Minister in protest at the introduction of prescription charges for dental care and spectacles and became a member of a very exclusive club – that of politicians with integrity. Indeed, he had been briefly expelled from the Labour Party on the eve of the Second World War for advocating a popular front. He was a difficult man to work with as he spoke his mind. Churchill called him a “squalid nuisance” and he repeatedly savaged the two leading Labour members of Churchill’s coalition cabinet, Ernest Bevin and Herbert Morrison.

Aneurin Bevan“In Place of Fear”, the title of Aneurin Bevan’s 1952 book stated that it was possible to create a society where all could live without fear of going hungry, being poorly housed, or of living with (or dying in) great pain. Sixty years later, the Conservatives are doing their best to destroy that Utopian dream which was well on the way to being achieved.

It was not simply the introduction of the NHS in 1948 that halved inequalities in health in Britain between the 1930s and early 1950s. The overall improvement in living standards brought about by the introduction of the welfare state transformed people’s lives. The strongest correlate to poor health is poverty, and the longer people live in poverty the shorter lives they can expect to live.

The Tory budget due in two days will continue to dismantle the good work done by Aneurin Bevan and his Labour Party, which was a genuine socialist party, unlike the anaemic, people-pleasing shadow of a party that it is today. The Tories have scrapped poverty targets, benefits will be cut and the poor will be even poorer.

We need politicians like Aneurin Bevan today, who will ignore the focus groups, the media moguls and the opinion polls to care for the disadvantaged people of our society.

Dylan Thomas, a lemon, a World Record and Men in Dresses

Dylan ThomasI discovered a work by Dylan Thomas recently, that was totally new to me. Apparently he wrote the screenplay to an unremarkable film called, Rebecca’s Daughters. Despite having Peter O’Toole and Paul Rhys in the cast, the film has deservedly disappeared without trace. The interesting contribution it made to history was that it took 44 years from the time it was completed by Dylan Thomas in 1948, until its release in April 1992, which remains a world record for the longest time a screenplay has taken to be filmed.

What annoys me about the film is that it was a comedy. It was loosely based on the Rebecca riots which took place between 1839 and 1843 in mid and south Wales. Those riots were born out of poverty and injustice and were anything but funny. 

From 1815 Wales, like the rest of Britain, experience a post-Napoleonic war slump and agricultural prices remained volatile for many years and many farmers were unable to produce their crops profitably. At the same time a series of rent rises caused many farmers to lay off agricultural workers.  The rural counties of Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire experienced a major increase in population during that post-war period from industrial workers who have had been laid off and returned to their rural roots[1].

The first of three situations which culminated in the Rebecca riots occurred in 1834 when an amendment to the Poor Law created workhouses – a degrading institution housing the poorest members of the community unable to support themselves and requiring them to do pointless manual labour.

The second factor causing anger in Wales and contributing to the riots was a government requirement to pay tithes – a tenth of a man’s income – to the established Anglican Church. As the population was almost universally Non-conformist, this was particularly resented at a time when prices were falling and people were living at subsistence level. An Act in 1836 allowed tithes to be calculated on grain prices averaged over the previous seven years. This led to an increase of 7 per cent in tithes at a time when farming incomes were at 50 per cent of their pre-war level.[2]

However, the main powder keg that exploded in south and south-west Wales related to the numerous toll gates encountered by farmers moving around their area in order to service their farms. Historians are agreed that a chaotic system in operation throughout Britain was particularly inefficient in Wales where they were numerous and operated over small districts. Even on relatively short journeys, farmers might encounter a number of toll gates, particularly near larger towns like Swansea and Carmarthen. Those who had to make longer journeys in order to buy lime to use as fertiliser, for example farmers in northern Pembrokeshire who travelled to the south for supplies from the kilns, were particularly disadvantaged by a multiplicity of tolls they had to pay on their journey.

Rebecca RiotsOn 13 May 1839, a newly erected toll gate at Efailwen in Carmarthenshire was wrecked by protesters. Although the owners rebuilt the gate, a mob of 300-400 met together on the night of 6 June 1839 and destroyed the gate again. The protesters had assembled under the identity of ‘Daughters of Rebecca’ or ‘Children of Rebecca’, many with blackened faces and wearing women’s dresses. From this beginning incidents of destruction of toll houses and toll gates began to spread westwards across the county and into Pembrokeshire. However, after a month the disturbances largely ceased and there was a quiet period until winter 1842 when a much greater wave of protests started affecting trusts in both Pembrokeshire and Carmarthen. By 1844 the Rebecca rising had come to an end.

[1] D. Gareth Edwards, A History of Wales 1815-1906, (Cardiff, 1985) p.139

[2] D. Gareth Edwards, A History of Wales 1815-1906, (Cardiff, 1985) p146

The Future of Wales in a Broken Britain

general-electionSince 1970, which was the first year I could vote, I am proud to say I have voted at all 11 general elections and seen nine prime ministers come and go. The 2015 general election, however, is the first one I haven’t been excited about. I predict that it will produce confusion, division and weaken the United Kingdom hugely. 

In Wales, we have a number of choices of political parties – all of which are deeply flawed. As a committed socialist, I don’t believe there is an option that is good for Wales. My “in-depth” analysis of the options on offer are as follows:

  • Conservatives – a bunch of self-interested political elite, financially insulated from the realities of life that working people face. They are incapable of making policies that affect the vast majority of the population who live from month to month.
  • Liberal Democrats – an ineffective bunch of lying politicians who are not to be trusted with any promises more demanding than to get up in the morning abd who will vanish almost without trace anyway at this election.
  • Ukip – A bunch of racist, homophobic, bigoted Tories in another guise who make up policy on the hoof and who have no understanding of the implications of quitting the EU. They seem to forget that the open borders requirement is mandatory for countries like Norway who are not members of the EU but have a trading relationship. Deputy Ukip leader, Paul Nuttall, said at a meeting in Porthmadog recently, “We are one country, the majority of people in Wales speak English, if people come here they should learn English.” Not the best way to win Welsh votes!
  • Green Party – I would have some sympathy with this broadly socialist party who have some good policies but no skill or experience (remember the leader’s recent radio debacle). The heart of the problem is that parties that are born out of a single issue attract people from left and right of centre but founder when their membership has conflicting ethos. Plaid Cymru has the same problem. The Greens are almost invisible here in Wales.

After dismissing four of the parties, we are left with Labour and Plaid Cymru which I believe are the only parties that offer anything for Wales. Unfortunately, I’m uninspired by both of them.

  • PartiesLabour – I have been a member of the Labour Party for many years and am clinging on by my fingernails, but not for much longer. I shudder to think what Nye Bevan and James Keir Hardie would make of today’s wishy-washy, middle-of-the-road, appeal-to-all-people policies and their willing embracing of austerity. They support renewing Trident at a cost of £15-£20 billion, despite foodbanks having to deal with record numbers of clients. If the predicted rout of Labour in Scotland takes place, they will be decimated and I wonder if they will ever be a truly national party again.
  • Plaid Cymru – again, they declare themselves to be a socialist party, but I don’t see a great deal of evidence of this. They have three MPs at present and may pick up a seat in May. The problem is that they will only have a handful of MPs and in a hung parliament they may be able to do some good in a coalition. However, this is where my fear of divisiveness comes in. With a large SNP presence plus a few Plaid members and the strident Unionists from over the water, the national parties will require huge concessions which will contribute towards divisiveness and cause many English people to question if they really do want to be part of a United Kingdom. Plaid up here in its heartland is very negative towards non-Welsh speakers in general and England in particular.

As an aside, was a total advocate of proportional representation until I realised that it would mean that Ukip would have a lot of seats and that thought fills me with horror. Now I am not quite sure whether I think it’s a good idea or not to ditch the first past the post system. At least that will spare us from more than a handful of Ukip fruitcakes. Whatever happens in May, we are going to have a government which two-thirds of the population does not want and England is going to be full of resentment at the concessions that Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland will demand.

I’m going to keep banging the drum for the need for the UK to move towards a federal system, devolving almost everything except foreign policy and defence to the nations. We can but dream.