Category: History

Occupy the Tollgates: the Rebecca riots as myth, meme and movement

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Originally written for Wales Arts Review 13.11.15

Part of the pleasure of studying history is its ability to throw as much light on the present as the past. Long-term perspectives can make the short-term easier to understand. For me, having an interest in history was a function of growing up in a place which often seemed to consist, as the poet observed, of nothing but the past. History in Wales is not so much submerged as sedimentary, with much of it seeming to commemorate only struggle, failure, loss, and things which might have been. In school and out of it, I learnt about the Valleys’ radical tradition: the Scotch Cattle’s nascent trade union agitation, the raising of a red flag in the 1831 Merthyr Rising, and Welsh Chartism’s mass drive for popular democracy and parliamentary reform. Intrinsically tied to the progress of industrial capitalism, the grand narrative of the south Welsh coalfield presented instance after instance of the clash between workers trying to improve their conditions and local employers and authorities. In this context, things like the 1984-5 Miners’ Strike, which still casts its shadow over post-industrial parts of the country, slotted more comprehensibly into place. The history of my part of Wales, it seemed, was full of conflict, resistance, opposition – and, apparently, inevitable defeat. While this knowledge helped me to make historical and political sense of myself and my surroundings, it became at the same time a source of fatalism and of pique. However inspiring and heroic figures like the Merthyr Rising’s Lewsyn yr Heliwr or the Chartist leader John Frost seemed to me, they were also undeniably tragedies, martyrs, their stories bleak and their endings unhappy.

When I looked at the gloomy chronicles of Welsh protest, its single bright spot seemed to originate further afield, not from my own bleak and militant south-east coal and iron belt but from the country’s apparently placid south-west muzzle of Carmarthenshire, Cardiganshire and Pembrokeshire. The 1840s agricultural unrest known as the Rebecca riots is remembered as having been an unqualified success and, most famously, as having been carried out on horseback at night by men dressed, for some reason, like our grandmothers. The Rebecca riots capture the retrospective imagination, much as they did at the time, by their colourful and spectacular qualities – not least the fantastical images of stout Welsh farmers sporting bonnets and petticoats – and by their appearing to be a textbook example of righteous community uprising against unfair financial penalties, a bit like a nineteenth-century incarnation of the Poll Tax Riots. I spent a chunk of my postgraduate years examining how true this impression was, and discovered a complex but still inspiring picture. Having maintained my interest in the Rebecca movement through years of incremental independent study. I now find myself in the vaguely surreal position of bringing out my own book on it.

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Rebeccaism, then: what happened, and why? For south-west Wales, the early 1840s were years of population growth, increasing poverty and unemployment, and deepening social and economic division between landowning gentry and their tenant-farmers and labourers. The latter group, facing a fall in income due to bad harvests and low prices for their produce, saw no such fall in the money they had to spend, as church tithes and poor rates remained constant or increased and landlords refused to lower their rents. This material pressure intersected with a developing sense of cultural conflict between largely Welsh-speaking, chapel-going tenants and Anglicised, Church-going landowners. Additionally, the effects of the 1834 New Poor Law were also restricting the support that poverty-stricken individuals could expect from their local authorities. Those asking for help risked being committed to one of the multiplying number of workhouses, in which families were separated and conditions frequently made deliberately harsh in order to discourage applicants from seeking further relief. In 1843, the Welshman newspaper described the region’s rising sense of economic and social crisis: Continue reading

On Enemies Within: growing up with the Miners’ Strike in memory, myth and history

Faced with possible Parliamentary destruction of all that is good and compassionate in our society, extra-parliamentary action will be the only course open to the working class and the Labour movement.”

– Arthur Scargill, 1983

“We’re secure in the knowledge that we already lost a long time ago.”

– Richey James, 1992

I knew the death of Margaret Thatcher wasn’t likely to usher in a Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the Eighties, but it’s been good to see the thirtieth anniversary of the Miners’ Strike pass this year and last with due commemoration, and with little attempt to present what happened as a good thing.*

A few months ago I went to a screening of Still The Enemy Within.** This documentary does a fine job of detailing the strike’s background and bringing the experience of the strike to life. Generally I avoid (resist?) revisiting the strike in quite such unflinching detail, because – and apologies if this sounds hyperbolic; it isn’t – I find doing so almost debilitating, as though nothing else matters outside of emphasising how permanently shattering its results have been for a huge part of this country. The depth of feeling can be such that you want to back away from the edge. At this stage, at this distance, all one can do is bear witness. All one can do is testify.

(Every time I try to write about the Miners’ Strike and its aftermath, the exercise turns out to be merely a scraping at the surface, an unsuccessful attempt to uncover the heart of the matter. It’s a gradual stripping away of layers, on my part, of bravado and defensiveness and fatalism. This post won’t be definitive either. I want to do the thing justice, to give it adequate weight, and I know I can’t, so this will have to do. For the purposes of this piece, in any case, the strike is less of a conclusion and more of a jumping-off point.)

In its uncompromising commitment to telling a bleak and unrelenting story, Still The Enemy Within is a necessary supplement to something like Pride. The strike deserves to be remembered in the latter’s upbeat and uplifting terms of solidarity, sure, but equally what deserves remembering is that there were no happy endings, nothing of what we learned in the Nineties to call emotional closure. (Hoho, the only things that got closure in the Nineties were more of the pits.) There are wider questions here about what counts as history, and whether history must be necessarily cool-headed and objective, not relieved by colour or comedy or complicated by messy, judgement-clouding emotion. But the tangle of story and history surrounding the strike suggests that the event and what it stood for are not “just” history yet. Like Hillsborough in 1989, Brixton in 1985, Toxteth in 1981, the Miners’ Strike is a flashpoint that unforgivingly illuminates its era. That Eighties hot war of government against people still hasn’t cooled.

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You may imagine how exceptionally bored I was as a post-industrial Nineties teenager. (I mean, I couldn’t even join a brass band.) Growing up, before I ever knew I wanted to be a historian, I wanted to understand history – both its grand outlines and its bathetic, personal confines in which I knew my community to be stuck. How did we get here, and why? Growing up I felt stymied and stifled by history, and had the consequent compulsion to dig beneath the surface for the story. What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow, out of this stony rubbish? Continue reading

“Pride”, identity and intersectionality

An extended version of what I wrote for the New Welsh Review.

From a certain angle of rose-tinted retrospect, Britain in the 1980s is a storyteller’s dream. In the past few decades, British films like Billy Elliott, Brassed Off and The Full Monty have presented the era as one of struggle and defeat for the British working class, with Margaret Thatcher as a grotesque presiding nightmare. Counter-accounts of Thatcher’s rise — notably 2012’s The Iron Lady — have revolved around the victory of the country’s first female Prime Minister over a male-chauvinist political establishment and the macho thuggery of Britain’s trade unions. There has been less cultural coverage of the stories that unfolded in the margins of this grand narrative. Matthew Warchus’s film Pride is distinctive initially for its focus on those at the frequently forgotten intersection of 1980s conflict.

For audiences outside the UK, and even some within it, the details of the Miners’ Strike of 1984-85 are unknown or hazy at best. The ideological clash between the Thatcher government and the National Union of Mineworkers became a titanic struggle for the survival of the British coal industry, played out in mining communities up and down the country in a year long strike. Against the NUM, the Thatcher government deployed an unprecedented degree of police violence, media bias and state surveillance, the extent of which is only recently coming to light. Popular support for the strikers, meanwhile, was generated both by instinctive anti-Tory sentiment and an awareness that the miners were the front line of resistance to a right-wing assault on the economic, political and social fabric of Britain. If the miners were beaten, then sooner or later little of the postwar welfare settlement would be left intact. That they were beaten, and that NUM leader Arthur Scargill’s jeremiads on the triumph of neoliberalism have indeed come to pass, is part of why the strike retains its peculiar status as a cultural and political touchstone in Britain, and why it still has the ability to provoke powerful and frequently bitter reactions both for and against.

If considered purely in terms of popular resistance to neoliberalism’s shock-troops, Pride could be dismissed for pulling its punches, since it shows little of the high political stakes invested in the outcome of the strike or the police occupation, brutality, and harassment to which mining communities were subject. But this is not quite the task it sets for itself. Directed by Matthew Warchus and scripted by Steven Beresford, Pride tells the story of the London-based activist group Lesbians and Gay Men Support the Miners, and their encounters with a group of striking miners from the Welsh coalfield. It’s a true story, though you’d be forgiven for remaining unaware of this until the closing credits, and, like many depictions of the 80s, its dramatic narrative seems almost too good to be true. The strike itself becomes a backdrop to the staple fare of feel-good film: gently comical culture-clashes, personal journeys and gently triumphant coming together in the face of adversity. Where Pride manages to be more than the sum of its parts, however, and where it becomes a particularly useful intervention into contemporary debates, is in its unabashedly political edge.

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From Olympia to the Valleys: What Riot Grrrl Did and Didn’t Do for Me

[This essay first published in the Wales Arts Review, with artwork by the tremendous Dean Lewis.]

 

With riot grrrl now approaching the status of a heritage industry, not to mention Courtney Love’s current incarnation as the post-grunge Norma Desmond, it can be hard to recall that both of them helped me find my feminist footing on the slippery rocks of a ’90s girlhood. This is a roundabout remembrance of how it happened.

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  The arts have long been a space for radical expression by women, even if the extent of that radicalism has often gone under-acknowledged. In 1915, the author and journalist Dorothy Richardson produced Pointed Roofs, credited as the first English stream of consciousness novel, using an innovative prose style which she saw as necessary for the expression of female experience. Virginia Woolf observed that Richardson ‘has invented, or, if she has not invented, developed and applied to her own uses, a sentence which we might call the psychological sentence of the feminine gender’. If Richardson’s challenge to linguistic convention in her writing has musical counterparts, one of them is the ‘new, raw and female’ sound made possible by post-punk. Punk removed barriers of precedent and technical expertise to engagement in music, enabling trips into less-charted musical and lyrical territory. But it was in the subsequent voyage of discovery that was post-punk that punk’s revolutionary potential really bore fruit, and the untried, experimental nature of post-punk music was particularly suited to women.

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Borrowed Nostalgia for a Half-Remembered Nineties

You may be wondering why I haven’t leapt into the current wave of 90s/Britpop nostalgia with all the teeth-bared alacrity of a pseudo-academic Berserker, desperate to point out that the career of Alex James highlights everything wrong with the world. The reasons I haven’t are, broadly, that a) I desire a worthier opponent than Alex James; b) Britpop isn’t, and really never was, the problem. Anything I might want to say about Britpop is wider than Britpop itself and concerns the particular intertwined development of politics, culture and society in that weird and decisive decade.

The problem with the 90s wasn’t simply that “politics” (specifically, the recognition of class as a political identity) vanished from mainstream pop culture, but that it vanished from mainstream politics too. After the Tories’ scorched-earth approach to industry in the 80s, the 90s saw a salting of the ground though privatization of the railways and the coal industry – as though by removing a class’s economic basis for existence one could somehow magically remove the class itself. Meanwhile, the Labour Party saw Blair’s ascendancy and the ditching, along with Clause 4, of its traditional base of support. In the late 90s, Blair’s rictus-grinned insistence on liberal harmony had no more room for class conflict than Major’s early-90s confected nostalgia for a pre-Sixties (‘back-to-basics’) England. In both politics and pop culture, we were held to be all middle-class now: in the swirl of postmodern irony, nothing mattered – certainly not your socio-economic position – so everything was permitted. The fact that alternative guitar music ended up mirroring this short-term hedonism and boorish chauvinism, and abandoning its early-90s countercultural instinct, makes it more a victim of the era than a villain.

The 90s cultural studies bandwagon should not be allowed to flatten the complexities of those years in the same way that commercialization steamrollered early-Britpop’s interest and potential and left us with Cool Britannia. In the strange and significant year of 1994, as Alex Niven points out, the movement that became Britpop retained a lot of chippy subversiveness, earnest optimism, and creativity, which was later lost to money-making, irony, and formulaic blandness. While capitalism has always been able to commodify alternative culture, and rebellion has always been turned into money, the 90s set in motion a wider process whereby pursuits previously associated with collective enjoyment, escapism and improvement particularly for the working class – whether pop music, or football, or the Labour Party – were sanitized and made safe for those beyond their traditional pale. This would have mattered less had it not been accompanied by the rise of networks of nepotism and the spread of unpaid interning in arts, media and politics, which not only reduced the ability to compete but began edging the working-class and/or non-independently wealthy out of the arena entirely, to an extent that is now glaringly apparent. All this alongside a relentless pretence at meritocracy and a stress on individualism over collectivism, implying that dissatisfaction with your circumstances was not a result of structural conditions, but an individual failing that only you could change – by altering yourself and not the system.

Perhaps the Labour Party’s Blairite turn played into the shape that 90s opposition to the Tories took, being scrappy and direct – Reclaim the Streets, 1994’s Criminal Justice Bill protests – and displaying an attitude to constitutional politics that was at best distrustful and at worst disgustedly disenfranchised. The turn to direct action and civil disobedience rather than parliamentary politics grew throughout the 00s’ anticapitalist (‘anti-globalisation’, in the parlance of the day) movements, reaching its zenith perhaps in Occupy.

None of which should have happened at all, of course. What reasons did we 90s children have for dissatisfaction or dissent now that it wasn’t the 80s anymore? Another of this year’s anniversaries is of Fukuyama’s ‘end of history’ thesis, which should in theory have rendered us with nothing to protest about. The ‘end of history’ bore as much relation to reality as ‘we are all middle-class now’, but it fitted very well with the arrogant complacency with which the West began the 90s. It fitted in too with a Britain punch-drunk and reeling from the 80s but denied the means to articulate the fact that the fight was still on. Anxiety could be expressed in the 90s, and damage acknowledged, but only if framed in terms of emotion and not economics. This of course dovetailed with the erasure of class and the emphasis on individual striving and ambition as a cure-all, without reference to socio-economic conditions which might hinder an individual’s ability to achieve. So the 90s ideology claimed: if you couldn’t achieve, you needed to work on yourself and your sense of ambition and entitlement (after all, girls can do anything, just look at Thatcher!); if you were stuck on benefits then you probably preferred it that way, otherwise you would have striven and done something about it; and if at some point you wondered about any of this, if you were anxious or unsure, then again, you needed to treat yourself kindly, to be soothed, to consume, to empower yourself through earning and spending. You certainly didn’t need to conclude that the problems might (still) be systemic, still external, still political rather than personal.

Bonnets and Bolshevism

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1. For my next trick in the arena of niche overthinking-it monographs, I am going to be writing a book on the Rebecca riots. There have already been magisterial studies of the movement which have focused on its political and economic aspects, but I am going to look at its social and cultural aspects, and the ways in which it had more variety, more politics, and more of Old Weird Wales than is generally acknowledged.

To include: why there was a bit more to the movement than hill-farmers smashing up tollgates in bonnets, petticoats and false beards; the nature of Welsh resistance to early industrial capitalism (as touched on in this post); contemporary ideas of gender and the early Victorian undermining of female social and sexual agency; how Rebecca’s image became a national ‘idiom of defiance’ – basically, a meme – and wider issues hopefully relevant to today, eg “rough” versus “respectable” protest; the traditions of masked and anonymous protesting; and how popular culture can be integrated into popular resistance.

Don’t worry, I’m fully aware that this book will be of interest to about four people at a push.

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2. The last time I was in the House of Commons in any official capacity, I was taking students to lobby against the introduction of top-up fees. Our side having narrowly lost that vote, I then got massively drunk in the ULU bar, decided to give up student politics as a mug’s game, ranted at a Sky News crew and eventually had to be carried out to a taxi by members of my delegation.

Last month I attempted to conduct myself with greater dignity, and spoke on this Zero Books panel. Strike! magazine wrote up the evening here.