30 May 2013 Review of Ben Curtis, 'The South Wales Miners: 1964-1985' - Chris Williams
Ben Curtis, The South Wales Miners, 1964-1985 (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2013), xvi + 301, with 16 photographs and two maps. ISBN 978-0-7083-2610-7 (hardback), 978-0-7083-2611-4 (paperback), 978-0-7083-2612-1 (e-book).
Before this review proceeds any further I should declare an interest. This book is substantially based on a 2006 doctoral thesis completed at the University of Glamorgan under my supervision. It is volume 34 in the University of Wales’s Press Studies in Welsh History monograph series, which is jointly edited by Professor Ralph Griffiths, Dr Eryn White and myself. It is not unreasonable to suggest, therefore, that I have lived with this scholarly enterprise for as long as its author, Dr Ben Curtis. This means, of course, that any critical assessment of the work is, in some small measure, self-criticism. This review necessarily treads a careful path between the extremes of pain and pleasure that any exercise in self-flagellation involves (or so Dr Andy Croll, Ben’s second supervisor, tells me).
This substantial volume contains an introduction, six chapters and a conclusion. It is, unusually for the series in which it appears, appropriately and attractively illustrated with two inserts of black-and-white photographs. The topic is an important one of continuing and general public interest, and no doubt the publishers anticipate a readership wider than that of the standard historical monograph. It appears in both hardback and paperback and, in tune with modern tastes, also as an e-book.
The introduction begins by citing a 1981 speech made by South Wales NUM President Emlyn Williams which claimed that the South Wales miners had ‘an historical mission to lead in class struggles’. There then follows an overview of the political and industrial relations histories of the South Wales miners from the great lock-out of 1898 through to the late 1950s, supplemented by a review of historiographical approaches to the subject of mining trade unionism and coalmining militancy.
The first chapter on ‘The politics of the South Wales miners’ is unlike those that follow in that it is thematic rather than chronological in structure. It performs a vital scene-setting task in introducing the framework (of the trade union, of the variegated society of the coalfield, and of the political parties, large and small, that vied for the miners’ loyalties) within which the year by year and decade by decade history may be located. It also provides synopses of the key political alignments and trends operating within the discrete phases of the miners’ struggle from 1964 to 1985. For Curtis, the key lessons to be learned from this thematic (rather than chronological or methodological) introduction are that the ‘democratic structure’ of the NUM helped in promoting leaders who ‘reflected the … aspirations of the broader membership’ (pp. 44-5) and that the South Wales miners were best characterised politically as ‘left Labour’. Elements of this chapter previously appeared in journal article form in Labour History Review in 2011 (‘A tradition of radicalism: the politics of the South Wales miners, 1964-1985’).
The remaining five chapters are all chronological in structure. Chapter II looks at the programme of pit closures implemented by the Labour Government and the NCB between 1964 and 1970. Readers of Llafur: The Welsh People’s History Journal will recognise at least some of this narrative from Curtis’s 2004 article ‘The Wilson government and pit closures in South Wales, 1964-1970’. Chapter III tackles the turbulent years of the Heath government from 1970 to 1974, and thus constitutes one of the first scholarly attempts to assess the importance of the miners’ strikes of 1972 and 1974 in a specifically South Wales context. Chapter IV – ‘Interlude’ – takes the story from 1974 to the fall of the Callaghan government in 1979, and Chapter V covers the preliminary skirmishes between the NUM and the new Conservative administration from 1979 to 1983 (again, some overlap here with Curtis’s 2009 Llafur article ‘The calm before the storm? The South Wales miners versus the Thatcher government, 1979-1983’). Chapter VI is devoted in its entirety to the 1984-85 strike.
The conclusion is partly an epilogue, covering the demise of the deep-mined industry in South Wales, but at the very end Curtis attempts to draw lessons from the story he has covered in considerable detail. He endorses (p. 258), in ‘its most general and non-determinative aspects’, the image of the ‘archetypal proletarian’ in respect of the South Wales miners, and champions their ‘exceptional vanguard place in British labour history’, as ‘the conscience of the labour movement’.
These closing remarks reinforce the impression that Curtis’s study has been designed and executed very much within the dominant paradigm in South Wales labour history – especially trade union history – which is that established by Hywel Francis and David Smith’s The Fed, first published in 1980. Heedless of my occasional supervisory jibes that his text might be labelled ‘Son of Fed’ or ‘Fed II’, . Dr Curtis notes (p. 18) that he is ‘[f]ollowing in Francis’s and Smith’s footsteps’, his aspiration being ‘to provide a similarly cogent analysis of the south [sic] Wales miners’ history in the later twentieth century.’ The most privileged point of view is that of the union loyalist, the striker, the politically-aware activist.Heavy emphasis is placed on fidelity to union structures, leaders and policies, while those that flout them (particularly in pursuit of individualistic or right-wing agendas) are, implicitly or explicitly, cast into the outer darkness.
At one level, the adoption of this conventional and somewhat derivative analytical framework represents a serious limitation of the book’s intellectual range and of its capacity to generate novel perspectives. It also lends it a slightly old-fashioned air, given that, as Curtis recognises (p. 13), ‘[t]his type of labour history is not currently fashionable’. I suspect that the volume will be taken as a case study by historians of coal mining and trade unionism, but they will quarry it for its detail, rather than be influenced by its methodology or its conceptual orientation.
Yet, although I think this criticism is valid, one must at the same time recognise the value of this new and important volume in breaking new ground and establishing a historical record which will be the starting point for all future analyses. Dr Curtis, in the course of his extensive researches, has engaged with a vast body of source materials, mostly in the form of the records of the National Union of Mineworkers (South Wales Area), consulted at their offices in Pontypridd. As he observes (p. 13) ‘no other evidence type can produce a comparable level of detail’. It is testimony to Curtis’s persistence and conscientiousness in working through a forbidding volume of archival deposits that one can have great faith in the accuracy and good sense of the history that he relates. Printed, archival and manuscripts sources have been supplemented by more than forty interviews conducted by the author with union activists, and it is to be hoped that, as with the 1970s interviews now located in the South Wales Miners’ Library that he also cites, Dr Curtis’s more recent audiotapes will find their way into the appropriate public repository.
Ben Curtis is a Rhymney valley boy, educated at the universities of Oxford and Manchester, who returned to carry out his work on the coalfield in the coalfield, at the University of Glamorgan (recently altered to become part of the University of South Wales). His identity, his loyalty, his commitment and his debts both personal and intellectual, are clearly in evidence in this important and proud study. Its contribution to the establishment of an authoritative understanding of the closing chapters of the story of the South Wales miners will be long-lasting.
Chris Williams, Pontypridd, May 2013