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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.

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