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Contemporary Wales
Contemporary Wales

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5.1.1 Class as organisation and conflict

Class conflict provides a powerful image of Wales. It has been projected across the world. The most read book and most seen film about Wales, ever, is Richard Llewellyn’s 1939 How Green Was My Valley? John Ford directed a film of it in 1941, winning five Oscars (see Figure 9). It contains many scenes of industrial conflict and its strongly projected images endure. Of course it is an image which is most associated with the mining valleys of south Wales, but a hundred years ago south-east Wales contained three-quarters of the population of Wales and mining was the largest occupation there by far. In the rest of Wales there were small pockets which were similar, like the slate-quarrying communities of Gwynedd and the mining and other industrial communities in Clwyd, which also had a sometimes bitter industrial history.

You have already seen that being working-class in Wales has often been regarded as a positive identity and that this may have something to do with why so many people tend to identify themselves as working-class. Our images of class in Wales start in the era when large-scale and usually heavy industries were the dominant form of employment and tended to shape the nature of the communities around them. A hundred years ago the vast majority of the population of Wales was engaged in manual labour, and that was seen as a positive thing because civilisation was regarded as resting upon this work. Moreover, working people achieved respectable lifestyles for themselves through their creation of chapels, trade unions, choirs and many other organisations. They created communities, social and cultural capital, for themselves and were proud of the achievement. Many people were also proud of having a tradition of standing up for their rights; being radical is a way that many people think of themselves as Welsh.

Ronald Grant Archive
Figure 9 Miners come out on strike in John Ford’s How Green was My Valley?

An important aspect of class has been the creation of organisations which recruit mainly from one class and may be in opposition to others. Trade unions are very different from the craft guilds which preceded them, as guilds were run by master craftsmen (they were almost always men) but included the people they employed as well. Trade unions were formed on a class basis; those who were employed organised around their common interests and this meant not including the boss. The Labour Party, unlike similar European parties, identifies itself with a class rather than with a political viewpoint. The equivalent party in Germany calls itself the Social Democratic Party. The Labour Party owes its origins to the trade unions, though it now seeks votes far beyond the working class and claims to represent the people in general rather than one class in particular, but its name looks back to a time when the idea of class was central.

Strikes and massive industrial conflict have been rare in Wales since the mid-1980s. Like many images of places, it is a rather dated one. Indeed, it has been seen as dated for a long time. When social scientists began to take a strong interest in the nature of working-class communities and culture in the 1950s and 1960s they already talked about a ‘traditional’ working class. Miners, railway workers, dockers and steelworkers, the groups which dominated the working class in Wales at the time, were central to this group. They lived in communities side by side with other miners, railway workers, dockers and steelworkers. But there was also talk of a ‘new’ working class: workers in new mass production industries like car and white goods manufacture who faced assembly lines in their daily working lives. Their lifestyles were seen as being much more influenced by the boom in consumer goods in the period, and they were much less likely to live alongside others who worked in the same industry and to share their leisure time with workmates than were the ‘traditional’ working class. Both groups now seem rather like a vision from the past.

Being working-class was in many ways a masculine identity. To stand up to the boss was to be a man. Boys entered manhood by entering the work of work. In How Green Was My Valley, the central character, Huw, goes to a grammar school but ultimately rejects the office job he might have had in order to go down the pit with his father and brother. Women were much more confined to the home than they had been since the Second World War. Men were seen as being heads of household and so as giving the whole family its class position. Women, of course, did take part in strikes and politics, but often as supporters of men in their disputes. Most recently this was the case in the miners’ strike of 1984–5, but such support was a feature of many areas of Wales throughout the twentieth century.

Do any of these attitudes still influence our view of the world now? Does the strength of Labour voting in Wales suggest something about this? What about trade unions? To what extent do Welsh people still join them and is there anything distinctive in their support for them?

In 2010 one third of all employees in Wales were members of trade unions. This represents a considerable decline compared with the past, when heavy industry dominated the Welsh economy. But it is the highest level of any region or nation in the UK. It is also rising slightly, while the trend over the whole of the UK is for a slight decline. In the south-east of England, only about one in five employees are in trade unions, while the Welsh figure is slightly above the level of the old industrial regions of England, like the north-east and north-west. Trade union membership in Wales totals almost half a million and these days the new recruits are more likely to be women than men.

Generally, trade union membership is concentrated among people who work in the public sector and tends to be higher for managerial, professional and technical employees and lowest in sales and customer service occupations (Barratt, 2009). Much has changed in the trade union movement from the days when it had the image of men in flat caps and on picket lines. In the summer of 2009 the website of the Wales Trades Union Congress showed the changes. There were no references to strikes, but there was a welcome for a proposed government measure to promote equal rights for women and concern about the impact of the recession on women’s jobs. The same website in 2014 showed a major concern with poverty, equality and fair pay. But those who join trade unions probably think their interests are different from those of their employers.

So seeing class as being rooted in particular kinds of organisations has been important – and this view persists. Those who grew up in the era when such matters were more central to people’s lives (and there are a lot of them, because of the high birth rate immediately after the war) may find it difficult to adjust their perceptions, and family traditions affect behaviour. But this view is bound to be affected by changes in the nature of society, especially by the far greater numbers and proportion of women who leave the home in order to work. The old view of class resonates far more if we think of men working underground than if we think of women working in offices.