Race, National Identity, and Responses to Muhammad Ali in 1960s Britain

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I have just published a new article looking at how ideas of race and national identity framed British reactions to Muhammad Ali in the 1960s. You can download a version of the article here.

Muhammad Ali fought in the UK three times in the 1960s, each time to the accompaniment of significant media coverage that made him into a public figure. On his first fight in 1963, his unusual personality both delighted and reviled. Many of the criticisms were rooted in a dislike of American culture but beneath them were also racial stereotypes that encouraged a view of him as brash and immature. By his second and third fights in 1966, he was a deeply controversial figure in the USA because of his conversion to Islam and opposition to the Vietnam War. Yet neither issue had the same significance in the UK and his British fan base grew, despite the way he also reminded some of the danger that British racial tensions might escalate in the way they had in America. Ali was also an inspiration to Britons of colour and those who believed in the need for radical challenges to the world’s problems. As such, he is an example of how ideas, fears and hopes around race relations were transnational and the need for its British historians to ensure their accounts are de-domesticised.

For those with institutional access, the published version of the article can be accessed here: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/09523367.2019.1679775 

 

Jack Leslie: The man who should have been England’s first black international footballer

By Martin Johnes (Swansea University) and Alex Jackson (National Football Museum)

In 1978 Viv Anderson became the first black player to represent England at football. But 53 years earlier, another black player had been selected for England. Jack Leslie of Plymouth Argyle, however, never joined up with the squad. The FA claimed at the time that he had never been picked and that the press reports of his inclusion were a mistake. Leslie himself claimed years later that he had been dropped because of the colour of his skin.

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Born in 1901, Jack Leslie was the son of a gas fitters’ labourer, who was from Jamaica, and a tailoress from Islington. He grew up in Canning Town in London and went onto become a very successful inside left with Plymouth Argyle from 1921 to 1935, scoring 137 goals in 401 appearances in the third and second divisions. In 1930 The Football Herald claimed he was ‘known throughout England for his skill and complexion’, while in 1932 the Daily Mail called him a ‘coloured genius’.

At the time, he was one of only two black players who were regulars in the Football League, the other being Eddie Parris who played for Bradford Park Avenue, Bournemouth, Luton and Northampton. Parris won a single cap for Wales. His international cap came at a time when Wales were desperate for players. He did not have a good game and was never selected again.

Dusky Leslie SPorts Budget 13 March 1925

How much racism Parris and Leslie faced in the game is unclear. Both were regularly described in the press as ‘coloured’ but not by their local newspapers and research has not uncovered any reports of crowd abuse towards them. But newspapers might easily have wanted to ignore anything uncomfortable and, in a society where there were deeply-held feelings of white superiority, it is unlikely that the two never faced racism from crowds. Indeed, as the above 1925 cartoon suggests, questions of race seemed to make white society uncomfortable and it was easier to ignore it or turn it into a joke than to discuss its meanings.

Both players were, however, popular with their own fans. This owed much to their skills and goals but was perhaps rooted in the fact that their colour made them different. In many ways, they were probably curiosities and they were sometimes referred to as notable personalities in the game.

In 1978, when Anderson was selected for England, a Daily Mail reporter interviewed Leslie. By then, he was working as a bootman for West Ham. Leslie told the reporter how the Plymouth manager had called him into his office, put his arm on his shoulder and said ‘I’ve got great news for you. You’ve been picked for England’. Leslie recalled this knocked him ‘sideways’. He went on:

Everybody in the club knew about it. The town was full of it. All them days ago it was quite a thing for a little club like Plymouth to have a man called up for England. I was proud – but then I was proud just to be a paid footballer.

Then all of a sudden everyone stopped talking about it. Sort of went dead quiet. Didn’t look me in the eye. Then the papers came out a day or so later and Billy Walker of Aston Villa was in the team, not me. I didn’t ask outright. I could see by their faces it was awkward.

But I did hear, roundabout like, that the FA had come to have another look at me. Not at me football but at me face. They asked, and found they’d made a ricket. Found out about me daddy, and that was it.

There was a bit of an uproar in the papers. Folks in the town were very upset. No one ever told me official like but that had to be the reason, me mum was English but me daddy was black as the Ace of Spades. There wasn’t any other reason for taking my cap away.

Leslie’s selection was indeed announced in the press but as a reserve rather than as a first-team player. After the press announcement, the story did disappear and Leslie never joined up with the team. Leslie does not feature in the team recorded in the FA’s selection committee minutes, although these were drawn up later and could have been altered.

England teams were picked by a selection committee of fourteen administrators who voted on the team, showing little consistency but much experimentation and confusion and a desire to ensure teams were not overly dominated by professionals. In 1930, the Athletic News noted that in the eleven seasons after the Great War 145 players were chosen by England and that 66 were yet to win a second cap.

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Leslie listed in the England team. Nottingham Journal 6 October 1925.

The selectors were thus picking large numbers of players who they appeared to know little about and it is not impossible that Leslie was chosen without any knowledge of his colour.  Leslie was playing in the third division (south) and would not have been very well known. One paper regarded his selection as a ‘surprise’, while another called the whole team ‘experimental’.

There does not seem to be any evidence of an uproar in the press when Leslie did not join up with the team but the Daily Herald did seek further information about what had happened. It was informed by the FA that Leslie had never been selected. Yet the Press Association told the paper that its announcement of his selection had come from the Football Association.

The Plymouth press had initially welcomed his selection but then dropped the story.  One local reporter did, however, write:

My readers may be expecting from me a comment upon the Argyle Club’s announcement that Jack Leslie was not chosen as reserve forward for England. Unfortunately my pen is under a ban in this matter: but I may say that a mistake was made in London and transmitted to me. Anyway, Leslie was at that time playing quite well enough to be chosen.

Clearly some people at the time felt something untoward had occurred. Yet it is notable that nowhere in the discussion was his colour mentioned. The selection of a black man had not been not the cause of celebration or even comment. If it was then thought that he had been deselected because of his colour, as Leslie believed, then this was not a matter for public discussion either.

In later years, he was occasionally touted as a potential international but was nothing happened. In 1933, one national newspaper said of Leslie, ‘Had he been white he would have been a certain English international.’ It made no further comment. Racial discrimination was perhaps simply a matter of fact.

This article derives from a forthcoming study Martin Johnes has written on Eddie Parris and race in interwar British football. Martin also has forthcoming articles on race in post-1945 British boxing.  Credit is due to Phil Vasili, the pioneering historian of black footballers. Further details of Leslie’s career can be found in Ryan Danes’ Plymouth Argyle: The Complete Record (2014).

Plymouth Argyle 1926. Leslie is second from the left.

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Emotions, the Welsh Not and getting to know a Victorian headmaster.

As part of a project looking at the suppression of the Welsh language in 19th century schools, I have spent some time this week reading the logbooks of elementary schools. These were diary-like records of school life that headmasters were required by law to keep after the 1870 Education Act.

Given there were hundreds of schools in Wales, knowing where to start is a daunting task. Ideally, I would like to read every one and come up with stats that quantified the different approaches to the Welsh language. That would be a huge task and one where the outcome would not be worth the effort since most don’t actually seem to make many references to Welsh at all.

Thus I’m being very selective in which ones I look at. This morning I concentrated on a school in the Gwaun valley in Pembrokeshire. This was because I had come across a 1920s letter to a newspaper from a man who recalled the Welsh Not being used there when he was a pupil in the 1880s.

Given the school’s single teacher, one Mr Llewellyn, was a man who apparently punished his pupils for speaking Welsh, I began reading with a disapproval of him. Maybe the historian should not start with a sense of judgement about the people being studied but I think that’s impossible. We certainly have to be careful of judging the past through modern values but this just means remembering the judgments being made and thinking about how that affects interpretations.

In this case, I did not feel too bad about expecting to dislike Mr Llewellyn because the Welsh Not was unusual by the 1880s. Most of education seems to have moved on by then and Mr Llewellyn was behind the times.

Unfortunately, the log book made no reference to the Welsh Not at all or indeed give any clue that his pupils did not speak English when they started school. Instead, the section from the 1880s was one sustained weather record and a repeated moan about very poor attendance and the impact of this on school learning.

At first, this was not very informative but gradually a picture of rural school life emerges. And the more I read, the more I began to feel sorry for the poor teacher.  He despairs about how he can teach when half the school are regularly absent. Rain, snow and heat all keep children at home because many had to walk some miles to get there. So, too, does hay making, crop sowing and harvesting, local fairs and chapel meetings.  Some children go three or four months without turning up. Many simply say when they do eventually attend that they were needed at home.

The inspection reports the school received were scathing and a copy of each one was handwritten into the logbook by Llewellyn.  This in itself cannot have been a pleasant task. They question his physical ability to run a school alone. At first, I thought this meant more staff were needed but the second reference to this implies that he is not fit or healthy enough. I picture an ill man. The reports also question why some pupils are not there on inspection day, implying that they are being kept away so as not to affect the exam results. Arithmetic and sewing are  the only subjects that seem ok, perhaps because they did not require English-language skills.

The School Board comes in for criticism too. More needs to be done about absenteeism and Llewellyn needs an assistant. There are no inkwells. The poor reports lead to cuts in the school’s government grant. I magine a frosty relationship between Llewellyn and the board that empoys him. Llewellyn records at one point: “The teacher is altogether blamed when an unfavourable report is given at the annual inspection of the school”.

Eventually one Summer holiday he resigns. Perhaps he had no choice. But after ploughing my way through 150 pages or so of his handwritten laments, I feel rather sorry for him and have forgotten how he used the Welsh Not. Maybe the picture in my head of a bent, elderly and frustrated teacher working to the ends of his wits is wrong. Maybe he took out his frustrations on the children and was vicious and bad tempered with them. The possibility of my sense of him being wrong is why the sympathy I developed should not shape the analysis. But it did shape my emotional experience of doing the research.

Whatever the poor standard of education in the school or the evils of the Welsh Not, forty years later one of his pupils exhibits no anger in recounting that this small peice of wood was ‘considered one of the most serious sections of the day’s curriculum’. Indeed, he relates the story of a farm boy turning up late to school and explaining to the others “Our donkey had a small donkey”. He was asked when but confused this for the Welsh word for white (wen) and replies “Nage, un ddu” (No, a black one). For this, he was presented with the Welsh Not. The letter does not record what the punishment was.

Such humorous stories of confusion were not uncommon in recollections of the Welsh Not. Like the experience of archival research, they are a reminder that emotions are not always what we might expect. People, after all, are complicated and little in the past is straightforward. Decent people can still do bad things. People who have bad things done to them can still laugh. And the historian can feel for them both, without losing the objectivity needed for analysis.

 

 

“God Bless the Prince of Wales”

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I recently presented a programme called “God Bless the Prince of Wales” for Radio 4. It looked at the 1969 investiture of Prince Charles and the rise and relevance of Welsh nationalism. It was part of the Archive on Four series and drew upon a range of archival sound recordings.

A central theme of the programme was the idea of the stories we tell about ourselves. It looked at  the flooding of Tryweryn, its influence on 1969 and how the memory of that event is still central to ideas of Welsh nationalism. History, no matter how selective, is central to understandings of the present. Where people want Wales to go draws upon their ideas of where it has been.

The Daily Telegraph had a nice review of the programme. It argued: “The story gave weight to injustices against Wales, but was balanced in considering wider political problems that Wales faced. It was vibrant and carefully told. … Brexit and Scottish independence currently dominate the conversation about national identity, but this programme gave space to Wales’s story. It was an important piece of social history that showed how rich, complicated and fragile being British really is, for all of us.”

The genesis of the Millennium Stadium

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Photo via <a href=”https://www.goodfreephotos.com/”>Good Free Photos</a>

By the 1990s South Glamorgan County Council (SGCC) wanted to turn Cardiff into a European city of the stature of Cologne, Copenhagen, Seville or Barcelona through a long-term strategy known as Euro-Capital 2020.  The aspiration was to develop Cardiff into a city that could compete for investment on a European platform by raising its international profile and creating a quality of life comparable with Europe’s most desirable cities. The policy was an attempt to embrace the move towards a single European market, to be prepared for the possible advent of devolution under a future Labour government, and to encourage the people of South Glamorgan to share in the vision.

Becoming a city of European worth meant developing the cultural, environmental and physical characteristics of continental cities.  A first step was the redevelopment of Mill Lane, a downmarket street at the bottom of the central shopping district.  Although Wales does not enjoy the same weather conditions as southern Europe, the street was transformed, with SGCC’s aid, into a café quarter, complete with fashionable restaurants and pavement tables.  This was a popular and commercially-successfully project, but it was far too small to promote Cardiff into the European league of capitals.  Instead, the central tenet of the 2020 project became the Millennium stadium. This was a project whose genesis owed more to external factors that the European capital vision, but it did give Cardiff a facility of true world-class quality.

In 1992 Barcelona hosted the Olympics and the event was perceived to have been central to the city’s successful regeneration. It became something of an inspiration to Cardiff and other cities across Europe and longterm ideas of sport as a major driver of urban renewal began to seem more concrete. Cardiff had already unsuccessfully bid to host the 1986 Commonwealth games.  Although the near-corrupt practices of that process had disillusioned South Glamorgan County Council, sport remained in the council’s thinking as it looked to promote Cardiff as a vibrant capital city of European status.

The initial impetus for a new stadium came from the Welsh Rugby Union’s plans to bid to host the 1999 rugby world cup.  The SGCC leadership supported the planned bid, not only because its leader Russell Goodway was a rugby fan, but also because such an event offered an opportunity to promote Cardiff on the world stage.  Yet the WRU also had plans for a new stadium in Bridgend. This would have undermined the benefits for Cardiff of both a world cup and rugby internationals more generally. The council thus suggested taking the idea forward by building a brand new state-of the-art stadium on the site of Cardiff Arms Park with funding from the lottery’s Millennium Commission.  This idea was an opportunity to ensure that, in the economic and environmental modernisation of Cardiff, the centre was not left behind the fast changing Bay.

It was also an idea that was very firmly rooted in political opportunism.  In Cardiff Bay, there were ongoing plans to build an opera house that were running into controversy, not least over design and match funding, in the quest for support from the Millennium Commission.  With a public outcry over the spiralling cost of the Covent Garden opera house in London, the government was reluctant to see another costly, high-culture project given a large sum of public cash.  In contrast, a new stadium was clearly populist, and offered the government a way of rejecting the Cardiff opera house bid without being seen to snub Wales or its capital.

The sceptical WRU was won over to the cause of a new stadium but its first, rather thrown together, bid for lottery funding from the Millennium Commission failed.  This led SGCC to essentially take over, preparing a successful second bid.  Securing the money became something of a personal priority for Goodway and considerable SGCC time and resources were pumped into the project.  The WRU has since been given much of the credit for the stadium but initially it seemed rather conservative in both its ambitions and plans.  Individuals within SGCC were instrumental in persuading the WRU of the need for a retractable roof and removable pitch, both of which were crucial to making the stadium financially viable by diversifying its possible uses.

The economic hope placed in the new stadium was considerable.  Goodway claimed it could ‘be the engine house of prosperity for the next 50 years, attracting investment and tens of thousands of visitors to Cardiff and Wales, helping regenerate large areas of the heart of the Welsh capital.’  By being a national stadium, its importance and significance stretched beyond South Glamorgan and into Wales as a whole.  Here was Cardiff acting as a capital by providing the rest of the nation with a landmark building, that was not only economically important but that could also act as a focal point for Welsh patriotism.

Given the importance of sport in Welsh national identity, the impact of the stadium here should not be underestimated.  It was envisaged that it would be a symbol of hope, progress and pride for Cardiff and Wales. Implicit in this was the modernity of the project.  The stadium’s marketing made clear how it was one of the finest stadiums in the world, whilst in its retractable roof, it had a feature that was hi-tech, progressive and (in Europe) unique.  Even the stadium’s very name suggested something for the future (although this was coincidental since it was rooted in the stadium’s primary funders).  Thus it was hoped that the stadium would be far more than just a contributor to the economic well being of Cardiff, South Glamorgan and Wales; it was intended as a symbol of what sort of places they were, or at least wanted to be.

In many ways, the stadium has become one of the few genuine success stories in the recent history of Wales. It is also a sign that local governments can make a difference.

The stories that bind us: history and the new curriculum

This weekend I attended an excellent event put on by the Cardiff Story museum about the 1919 race riots. The speakers included artists and activists from the Butetown community that was the victim of the 1919 racist attacks. There was a clear desire among both speakers and the audience that the riots be remembered and that the community be allowed to tell its own history.

Theatre events, poetry and art are allowing the riots to be remembered now, but ensuring the memory lives on beyond its centenary is less straightforward. There was  a clear ambition voiced at the event to see the riots, and black history more generally, placed on the Welsh national curriculum.

The national curriculum in Wales is currently undergoing a radical redesign but it will be based around specific skills rather than specific knowledge. Thus in history there will be no requirement that any particular event or person is taught. Similarly, in English and Welsh literature, there will be no poet or novelist who is required reading.

Teachers and schools already have some choice about what they teach but now they will be given free rein to use whatever content they like to meet the curriculum’s overall requirements of ensuring pupils are

  • informed citizens of Wales and the world
  • ambitious and capable learners
  • enterprising and creative contributors to society
  • healthy and confident individuals.

The curriculum also requires that the Welsh context in which pupils live should be central to all these ambitions.

Teaching pupils about the race riots of 1919 would certainly fit with the curriculum’s ambitions and there would be nothing to stop schools using it as a way of both teaching about the past and encouraging thinking about the dynamics of race today. However, the new curriculum will not allow this to be a requirement. If it happens, it will have to be the choice of individual teachers and schools.

As someone in the audience at the 1919 event stated, this means that there is no guarantee that children will learn about the riots and the racism they involved. It may be, it was suggested, that some white teachers will not see ensuring such things are taught as important.

The same fears exist among those who want every child to learn about other specific events that are central to the history of Wales. There is no guarantee that any pupil will learn about medieval conquest, the flooding of Tryweryn, the Second World War, the struggles for civil rights, or the rise of democracy.  Some children will learn about all these things but future citizens’ knowledge of history could vary significantly according to which school they attend.

This has implications for the very nature of Welsh society. The curriculum is intended to foster a sense of Welsh citizenship and to put that in a global context. The question is whether that can be achieved when every child is learning about Wales through different sets of knowledge.

Wales is a diverse place and Welshness means many different things. A curriculum that reflects this, and a nation that is comfortable with a plurality of knowledge, is a mature one. A curriculum that demands every child learn the same ‘national story’ is perhaps something that only a country unsure of itself would produce. Such a story would also inevitably lead to considerable controversy about what it should include. And that is before any consideration of how events should be interpreted.

No historian would argue that there is a single simple Welsh story that could be taught. The past is both vast and complex. Deciding what matters is a political decision. So, too, is explaining why something matters. Giving power to schools and teachers does not overcome that but it does at least free the curriculum from the kind of government interference Michael Gove tried to enact in England in 2013 with his plans for a revised patriotic history curriculum.

Yet teachers are political too, and they do not operate in value-free environments. Their own interests and experiences will influence what they decide to teach. They will, inevitably, reproduce some of the existing outlooks instilled in them by their own education.

Thus those who hope the new curriculum will lead to a flourishing of Welsh history may find it doesn’t because of the existing lack of Welsh history taught in schools and universities. Those who hope it will lead to more teaching about the diversity of Wales may find it does not because that diversity is so often invisible in existing practices. Where teachers come from, where they go to university and who they are will have profound influences on the evolution of the new curriculum.

The freedom the curriculum gives teachers is both its strength and its weakness. It should allow teachers to tell the stories of their own communities and to give them and their pupils a sense of ownership over those histories. It is certainly a recognition of teachers’ professional standing and experience. It should give them the opportunity to innovate and develop exciting programmes that inspire our children.

But it will also be up against the challenges of time and resource that teachers face. It will be up against the real socio-economic inequalities which exist and which challenge teachers in their daily working lives. It will be easier to develop innovative curricula in schools where teachers are not dealing with the extra demands of kids who have missed breakfast or who have difficult home lives. The very real danger of the new curriculum is that it will exacerbate the already significant difference between schools in affluent areas and schools that are not.

The age of devolution has seen too many excellent policies flounder because of how they were (or were not) implemented. There will be an onus on government to ensure that schools are not cast adrift and left to work out things for themselves.  They need support and, I suspect, a whole host of exemplar programmes to show the curriculum can work in practice. If those exemplars are of high enough quality, schools will adopt them. It is through such exemplars and resources that there is the best opportunity to ensure the important themes and events in our history are taught in our schools.

In Game of Thrones, Tyrion Lannister claims that it is stories that bind people together. He is right. History’s stories can inspire, empower, liberate and unite us. It is not necessary that everyone knows all the stories. It will be impossible to agree which stories matter most and how they should be taught. There is nothing wrong with empowering the storytellers to make those decisions. This makes political and pedagogical sense.

But I also cannot help worrying that the new curriculum might further fragment society.  Despite my belief that all histories are equally valid, I cannot escape a nagging doubt that it would be wrong if children did not what know the basics of what happened in the Second World War or that people of colour have a long and rich history in Wales. 1919 is a reminder of what can happen when societies are not bound together. It should not be forgotten. 

 

 

 

 

The march for Welsh independence and dreaming of a better, fairer world

35,35,199,213.041809Like the political meetings of old, yesterday’s March for Welsh Independence was a mix of the serious and the theatrical.  With the sun shining, there was a joyous and good-humoured mood amongst the crowd. A few had come up in fancy dress and far more had brought flags. Alongside the Red Dragon and the logo of Yes Cymru (the umbrella movement for Welsh independence), were the banners of Glyndŵr, Scotland, Cornwall and Catalonia. There was singing and chanting that any football crowd would have been proud of.

There was even some pantomime booing of the representative of Welsh Labour. But of all the speeches, he made one of the most important points. If Welsh independence is going to happen, it needs the support of people who vote Labour. The turnout and atmosphere at the march may have been uplifting but it does not change the fact that Welsh independence remains very much a minority position. An opinion poll this month had support for it standing at 12%.

This owes something to perceptions that Wales is too small or too poor but it also owes something to how nationalism is perceived. Although the vast majority of people across Europe are nationalists in the sense they believe in nation states, nationalism remains a word that a great many people find uncomfortable because of its historical associations with arrogance, racial hatred, and conflict. The Second World War looms large in the popular cultures of the UK and Europe.

That was not the kind of nationalism that was on display yesterday. The speakers emphasised that Wales is a country that belongs to everyone who lives here. They spoke of social justice, equality, the environment, feminism, and internationalism. They spoke of a Wales that welcomes people rather than shuts them out. It was a vision of a better world.

The current economic and political model that dominates the UK and much of the western world is broken. It prioritises economic growth and works on the assumption that wealth will trickle downwards from large corporations and the well off. It fails to understand that wealth is finite because the physical resources that generate wealth are finite. It fails to understand that communities and economies work better when built from the bottom rather than the top.

Those who support our current economic and political model understand that inequality is the source of most of the discontent that exists in the world. Yet they fail to do anything radical to tackle that and remained wedded to the very model that has created the inequality. That model needs discarding. As more and more economists are arguing, there is a need to replace targets of growth with ones based around sustainability, redistribution and well being. This requires a change in mindset as much as policy.

The United Kingdom is probably incapable of making this shift, at least in the short and medium term. But the longer nothing happens, the greater inequality becomes, the longer people carry on living in poverty, and the greater the damage done to the only planet we have.

A new Wales is an opportunity for a new economy and a new society built around principles of sustainability, equality and well being.  It is an opportunity to rethink our core principles and to start again. Even having a debate about independence can help deliver change because it challenges us to ask big questions and to reconsider the very way we organise our world.

Of course, not every supporter of Welsh independence would agree with the vision outlined by the new generation of economic thinkers or yesterday’s speakers. There are supporters of independence on the right who have a very different vision for Wales. There are also others who might agree with the ideas of social justice that independence could deliver but who are primarily motivated by the principle of Welsh independence. There were elements of that visible yesterday in calls and chants for a Free Wales.

The case for Welsh independence will never be won by such calls. Yesterday morning I told a friend I was going to a march for Welsh independence and she asked ‘independent from what?’ The majority of people in Wales simply do not regard themselves as living in an unfree country; they do not see the British state as an alien imposition. Survey after survey shows most people in Wales regard themselves as British as well as Welsh.

This is not false consciousness or Stockholm Syndrome. National identity is subjective, personal and emotional. Feeling British is no more ‘wrong’ than feeling Welsh is. Feeling Welsh and British is no more illogical than feeling Welsh and European. It is perfectly possible to feel you belong to more than one place. The movement for Welsh independence seems to be led (quite understandably) by people who do not regard themselves as British but electoral numbers mean it cannot be won without those who do consider themselves British.

For all the patriotism displayed yesterday, this is not what will deliver Welsh independence. What could deliver it is the speakers’ vision of a society that puts social justice first and it is the potential for independence to deliver a better, fairer world that makes it worth discussing at the very least, regardless of any question of nationality.

Yesterday was about optimism and looking forward. It was about imagining better ways of doing things. That is a message that has loud resonance and which can overcome doubts and fears about nationalism. It can win over people regardless of how they label themselves.  Whatever happens to Wales’ constitutional status, our society and our politics needs more optimism and the confidence to not just dream of a better world but to deliver one too. For our small corner of the globe, yesterday was a small but significant step in that direction.

 

 

 

The impact of the Second World War on the people of Wales and England up to 1951

Resource for WJEC History A Level Unit 1, Option 4
POLITICS, PEOPLE AND PROGRESS: WALES AND ENGLAND c.1880-1980

Debate the impact that the Second World War had on the people of Wales and England up to 1951

All wars have significant social and economic impacts but this is especially so in the case of the First and Second World Wars. Their impact was very different to previous European conflicts that Britain had been involved in because of their scale, the involvement of the civilian population, and the extended powers and actions of the state. Because the state operated at a British level, many of the war’s impacts did not differ between England and Wales. However, the war did heightened Welsh national consciousness, despite the power of popular and political Britishness. Yet this was actually an existing long-term process and many of the impacts of the war were a quickening of trends already taking place.

Conscription and the Armed Forces

Conscription was introduced for all British men between the ages of 18 and 41 from the outbreak of war. Some men were exempt because they were in ‘reserved occupations’ which were important for the war effort. This was particularly common in the south Wales valleys where the coal industry dominated employment. The scale of mobilisation meant it might be months before some men were actually called up. This added to the sense of the early months of the conflict as a ‘phoney war’, where little was happening.

By the end of the war, some 5 million British men and women were in uniform. Of these, perhaps 300,000 were Welsh, although there was never any attempt to come up with an official number. This in itself was a sign of how the war effort was perceived as a British one.

Only a minority of men in the armed forces actually saw combat. For those who did and survived, the experience could be frightening but it also often created a deep camaraderie and it was sometimes even seen as exhilarating. That camaraderie deepened the sense of loss felt when comrades were killed. Over the course of the war, almost 300,000 British members of the armed forces and merchant navy lost their lives. Estimates of the number of Welshmen killed are around 15,000.

Whatever their experience, service in the armed forces usually left a profound mark on men and women that stayed with them for the rest of their lives. For some it was a proud time when they had contributed to something that changed the world for better. Others, however, were frustrated at the routine, the discipline and the disruption it brought to their lives and plans.

The Home Front

The war affected every aspect of daily life, and not always in negative ways. Wages increased and unemployment virtually disappeared.  But that was small compensation for the hardships and sacrifices everyone endured. Working hours grew longer, entertainments were curtailed, the blackout cast a gloom over the evenings and there were shortages of everything from food and clothes to beer and paper. People’s weariness with these hardships was as much a threat to popular morale as the very real physical dangers of war. 67,635 civilians were killed in air raids on Britain, 984 of whom were in Wales.

One hardship that touched everyone was rationing, although it was stoically accepted by most, no matter how much they grumbled. Wartime diets were limited in quantity and rather plain and tedious. Nonetheless, rationing and price controls meant much of the working class actually saw their diets improve after the interwar years of unemployment and poverty.  The fact that rationing affected everyone also created a sense of shared sacrifice that cut across class lines. However eating at restaurants was not rationed at first, and thus those with money had access to more food, an example of how there was a more complex reality beneath the veneer of national unity.

The combination of everyday austerity, the worry over friends and family serving abroad, and, early in the war, the fear of invasion, meant that small pleasures like a pint, a dance, a film or a kiss became all the more important to people. The cinema, in particular, saw its position as the central pastime of the people enhanced. It also developed a new role as a medium of propaganda. A steady stream of films of varying quality tried to convince viewers of the righteousness of the British cause and the importance of everyone all pulling together in its pursuit. Audiences were not always impressed and there was a general skepticism about anything too overtly propaganda-like. Such things were felt unBritish and more appropriate for the fascist countries being fought.

Women

Propaganda encouraged women to join the war effort in factories, farms and the forces and they were conscripted to do so from 1942. Equally important was their role as mothers, housewives and volunteers, helping with everything from dealing with air raids and evacuees to cooking and cleaning for the troops. Indeed, during the war, there were more women in Britain who were housewives than there were in full-time paid employment.

The biggest demand for female labour came from the new munitions factories. In Wales the largest such factories were in Hirwaun, Glascoed and Bridgend which employed over 60,000 people between them, the majority of whom were women. There was patriotism in the factories and women were sustained by the knowledge they were doing something that contributed to victory. Factory work also paid well and many of the early volunteers were motivated by the desire to earn money. This was especially true for women from the south Wales valleys who had shouldered the burden of running a home during the inter-war years of mass unemployment.

Despite the extra money, the experience of working was not all positive. Leaving home could be traumatic, especially for Welsh-speakers sent to English factories. Munitions work could turn women’s hair and skin yellow. Factory hours were long, the commuting tedious, and the work itself monotonous. Many still had domestic commitments and finding time for shopping became a particular cause of complaint. The ‘land girls’, women sent to work on farms, also often endured a difficult war. Long hours, poor food, hard physical work and the isolation of rural farms were all common complaints.

Men were also not always happy with their women working. Some husbands could no longer expect dinner on the table when they got home.  There was indignity among some miners when they discovered that they were earning less than their wives or daughters. There were also accusations that the children of factory workers were being fed from tins and not disciplined properly.

Coping with the problems of war work was made much easier by the camaraderie that existed in all spheres of employment. Female workers also had money to spend in a climate where the social rules on what women could do were changing. The cinema, the dance hall and even the pub were all important places where women could relax. To cope with the hardships and tragedies of war, many women adopted a philosophy of living for today, spending freely and worrying less about what others thought and what the future held. One result was, at least according to some disapproving voices, a slackening of sexual morals. What was certainly happening was that gender was no longer quite as constraining as it once had been, although the fact that not all approved showed the limits of this shift. Moreover, the post-war aspirations of most women remained overwhelmingly traditional: a nice home, a good husband and healthy children.

National identities

Many of the experiences of everyday life during the war crossed regional, cultural and class barriers in Britain and created a strong shared sense of purpose and experience. Rationing, bombing, conscription, the loss of a son or husband – all these trials and tribulations fell on rich and poor, Welsh and English alike. Money and social position still mattered in civilian life and the armed forces, but the sense of solidarity and mutual-interest across Britain was strong, even if it was not always matched by reality.

Central to the idea of the united British nation was the BBC. Its news service, prime ministerial broadcasts and comedies all attracted huge audiences and were key parts of the shared British wartime experience. However, there were still many, especially in rural Wales, without radios. There were also over 40,000 Welsh people who could not speak English. The BBC did broadcast some twenty minutes a day in Welsh. This helped ease some of the annoyance caused by the BBC broadcasters who sometimes spoke of England’s rather than Britain’s war.

Such rhetoric again illustrates how the idea of British solidarity was often stronger than the reality. It also shows how Welsh identity remained important within a wider Britishness.  Those conscripted into the forces or English factories were often nicknamed ‘Taffy’, heightening their sense of difference to the English. But it also probably showed people that the actual cultural differences between the Welsh and English were relatively minor. In this sense, the armed forces both strengthened and undermined popular Britishness. Something similar happened with class. Increased contact between peoples of different backgrounds simultaneously broke down social barriers and heightened an awareness of them.

Not all the Welsh people saw British and Welsh identities as compatible. There was a small but vocal group of Welsh nationalists who thought the British war effort was destroying Welsh nationhood. They complained about evacuees introducing English manners and the English language into rural Wales. They bemoaned the conscription of Welsh girls into English factories and were horrified at the forced eviction of a Welsh-speaking community in Breconshire after the War Office requisitioned the land. But these were the views of a small minority. During and after the war, Nazism was widely seen as evidence that all nationalism was dangerous.

Looking to the future

The war created a strong desire to build a better world, where everyone had access to a job, healthcare and education, a future where the war’s solidarity and spirit of cooperation continued. The practical consequence of this was a landslide victory for Labour in the 1945 general election. The party promised to deliver a fairer society based on the principles of the 1942 Beveridge report which stressed the role of the state in supporting citizens from cradle to grave. The fact that the report had been commissioned at all was a sign of the wartime coalition government’s awareness of the need and popular desire for change and, although Churchill’s interest in welfare was rather minimal, the Conservatives would also have implemented a programme of social reform had they won.

However the Conservatives had dominated government during the economic problems of the 1930s and they were also blamed by some for the appeasement policies that had allowed Hitler’s expansionism. Their election campaign was lacklustre and concentrated on the leadership of Churchill and the apparent dangers of socialism. In contrast, Labour were forward looking and optimistic, concentrating on how a fairer society could emerge from the sacrifices of war.  This message was extremely popular with the working classes and those who had served in the armed forces but it also won support from some middle-class individuals across Britain who had previously lent towards the Conservatives but now felt a new social obligation and a need for things to change. Their votes were key to the scale of Labour’s victory.

It is important not to exaggerate the extent to which the war had moved the British people to the left. The Conservatives still won 36 percent of the British vote. Many of these voters were middle class and they, like parts of the British press, greeted Labour’s victory with suspicion and nervousness. The war may have boosted the British reputation of the USSR but there remained a fear that socialism would deny people their freedoms and property.

In contrast, much of the working class was already committed to Labour before the war. This was especially true in heavy industrial areas such as the south Wales coalfield where Labour’s representatives had earned reputations for standing up for their communities against the blights of unemployment and government indifference.  In such areas, the 1945 election was merely a continuation of long-standing commitments to Labour rather than any kind of political or social earthquake brought about by the war.

Other parts of Wales were also testimony to the limits of any shift to the left brought about by the war. The Conservatives won a quarter of the Welsh vote in 1945. The tradition of voting Liberal remained strong in Welsh-speaking rural areas demonstrating that the war had not eradicated the conservative chapel culture that the party was rooted in.

Whether or not the war had created a new widespread desire for social and economic change, the new government did try to deliver that. It implemented a generous new welfare state, with universal free healthcare at its heart, that would gradually raise living standards and take away the fear of sickness and unemployment. It also nationalised key industries, sought to revitalise the economies of traditional industrial areas, and put full employment at the centre of its goals. This all became political orthodoxy until the 1970s and was made possible by the new political circumstances delivered by war.

Back home

For six long years had people coped with the daily hardships of war, as well as the constant fear for the safety of their loved ones who were serving abroad. When it all ended and the soldiers, sailors and airmen returned home, often looking tanned and well fed, there was even some resentment that those in the forces did not understand how hard life on the Home Front had been. Many, though not all, women left the workforce, not always of their freewill, as the economy adapted to peacetime and military production came to an end.  In some cases, men struggled to accept the new freedoms and confidence that their wives had gained while they had been away. It was little wonder then that some families did not survive and divorce rates would have been higher still had there not been some stigma around it, especially in Wales where the chapel morality remained powerful.

To make things worse, rationing got stricter before it got better, there was a devastatingly bitter winter in 1947 and the nationalisation of the coal industry did not prevent the closure of small mines or bring any immediate improvement in miners’ day-to-day conditions. Added to this was the fear of another war, this time fought with atomic bombs against the USSR. Thus the optimism that had greeted Labour’s victory in 1945 was quickly tempered by cynicism and a fear that the promises had been too good to be true.

Legacies

The impact of the war on people across England and Wales was significant but varied. There were huge personal costs but also new freedoms and a sense of purpose.  For all the talk of a people’s war where everyone pulled together, there was no gender or class revolution. Nor was Wales’ position in the UK altered in any significant way, despite a growing awareness of the ways Wales was both different and similar to England. The structures of society remained in place and the social reforms of the new Labour government did not change that or even attempt to, despite the new security they offered to the working class. The UK remained deeply unequal, with privilege ingrained in its political and social character.

Yet the lack of any kind of social revolution does not mean the war did not change things. Families saw their makeup and dynamics shift. Personalities and outlooks were altered. Even those who sought to return to pre-war normalities could not simply forget what had happened. This was all a very individualised phenomenon and generalizations about the precise personal impacts of war are impossible.

It was not always apparent to people at the time, but the war’s biggest legacy for Wales and England was  probably the welfare state that emerged out of it. It was certainly far from perfect, and right-wing historians argue it damaged the economy with its expense, but it did take away the worst of the fear and realities of interwar poverty with a security blanket for the most vulnerable and a healthcare system that benefited nearly everyone. The pre-war state may have already begun intervening to improve living conditions and fight unemployment but it was the political and personal disruption of the war that enabled it to act so quickly once the conflict was over.