As I look outside my window here in Pontypridd, I can see two large yellow cranes and the outline of three new buildings which have changed the skyline, bringing the Edwardian-cum-1960s melange of a town centre into the twenty-first century. They will house a brand-new library, gymnasium, and the administrative centre of the South Wales Metro. Soon a new footbridge will cross the River Taff providing quick access to the rejuvenated and popular National Lido of Wales. In recent weeks, the Rhondda has been enjoying an arts festival featuring everything from Welsh language slam poetry to breakdancing championships to open-air Shakespeare. We Valleys folk have lots to be pessimists about, to be sure, but we do not live in a post-Thatcherite wasteland. Our world is changing.
Just before the 2016 Referendum, I was in the Rhondda filming with the BBC. On the hillside, the crew and I looked over the once beating heart not just of the Welsh coal mining industry but of British imperial power. Steam coal from the Rhondda powered the Royal Navy and a considerable proportion of Britain’s commercial shipping. At the industry’s height, one Welshman in every four was employed by the pits (not all of them underground) with the rest of the economy and an entire class structure built on top of that foundation. But the coal industry in the Valleys peaked in terms of manpower and output in 1913: every single year thereafter, despite all the innovations underground and above, it was in absolute decline. Tempting as it is to do so, it is difficult to blame Margaret Thatcher entirely for a process begun before she was even born.
Given the slow death of industrial Wales, governments of various colours, with varying degrees of success, to say nothing of ideological intent, have endeavoured to find something which can meaningfully replace an industry which was all-encompassing. That was what the postwar Hoover or Triang factories in Merthyr Tydfil were all about, or the Brynmawr rubber factory, or the efforts by Alfred Polikoff to rejuvenate the Rhondda with his factory in Treorchy. The age of the factory, making everything from spectacles to washing machines and model aeroplanes, certainly alleviated the decline of coal and brought prosperity for a time. But the effects ran out in the 1970s and the social violence of unemployment was exacerbated by the Thatcherite politics of the 1980s and early 1990s. Not even government rescue packages, such as the millions of pounds offered in 1975 by Harold Wilson’s Labour government to keep the Triang factory in Merthyr Tydfil, could stem the tide–Triang shut in 1978. In short, there was very little in the arsenal of twentieth-century economics that could wholly resolve the death of coal; there is as yet nothing in the arsenal of twenty-first-century economics that will. Hence the debate: ‘what are the Valleys for?’ A question with a difficult answer because ‘The Valleys’ as a singular experience rather than a plural noun are a product not of reality but of mythology.
This is evident with the Brexit vote in the Valleys, which was by no means uniform: the Rhondda voted to Leave, neighbouring Pontypridd voted to Remain. Even in a constituency like Merthyr, which was heavily targeted by the Brexiters, there was a debate. Teaching in the town, I hear its terms regularly. But why? In his piece, Steffan Thomas suggests that the Valleys have ‘not experienced any real immigration since their glory days’ and thus discussion about immigration is merely spectral rather than based on contemporary reality. This is a common observation, to be sure, but incorrect. In fact, in numerical terms, European immigration to the Valleys in the present generation is not that different compared with a century ago. Between 2001 and 2011, the largest single percentage increase in non-UK born citizens in Wales occurred in Merthyr Tydfil–a leap of more than two hundred per cent. The Valleys may look, to all intents and purposes, very white, but this does not mean an absence of immigration, nor should it mean that immigration was the central issue in the Brexit vote.
We should look to austerity, a sense of lost pride, and a willingness to try something different seemingly without anything to lose, instead. Brexit was a roll of the dice, a loud fuck you to the outside world, yes; but like many things done when you’re angry, an own goal. Hundreds of millions of pounds in European funding will disappear from the Valleys if we leave, funding which has led to significant infrastructural regeneration. It will almost certainly not to be replaced. The European Union has been the largest single investor in the Welsh economy since the glory days of coal. We jettison at our peril.
That warning is not to disregard the feeling that many residents have that European funding has been misdirected or poorly spent. Constructing buildings for government administration and university research or leisure and tourism, laying out new roads, supporting the reopening of railway lines – these activities can appear to be little more than top-down charity in the absence of long-term job creation and economic growth at the grassroots. When a hillside funicular appears (as it did in Ebbw Vale), but local services are cut like libraries, junior schools or day centres for the elderly, it is easy to regard the European schemes as coming at the wrong time or in the wrong way. But we’ve targeted our anger in the wrong way: the decision to close a library or consolidate a school was not taken in Brussels, but the the new FE colleges or university campuses across South Wales which many people benefit from would probably not exist without European funds.
The lesson to be drawn today from the Valleys and their political, social and cultural history is not to be found in the dice rolling, but in the grassroots construction of communities and infrastructure using the determination of local people and the strength of local government: democratic socialism in action. The pit brought jobs, but it did not make a community. The people themselves did that. We laid out the parks and recreation grounds, we built and funded the facilities like hospitals and libraries we wished for or needed. We provided scholarships for young people to study at university. We did so through careful use of financial support from above (such as the Miners’ Welfare Fund) but with local committees taking the decisions and ensuring delivery of the schemes. And then, at some point, the state was doing these things instead. Thus, we forgot what our ancestors knew instinctively: the state can be fickle, and national priorities don’t always match up with local needs. The same, no doubt, is true of how EU funding has been allocated in the Valleys.
We cannot rewind the film and replicate the past, however. It does no-one any favours to cling on to the embers of the coal mining industry as a form of political nostalgia. We should let it rest in peace. It need not have been this way, that is true, but we are where we are. The Valleys do have a special history: it makes them ‘distinct and separate’ and should be celebrated. But we owe it to ourselves to focus on building a future. That’s what cranes over Pontypridd signals; that’s what the impressive college in Merthyr Tydfil signals; that’s what the restored railway line to Ebbw Vale and the new college at the head of that line signals. We will need that infrastructure, paid for by Europe, when austerity finally comes to an end. After all, it is austerity, not the European project, which has made us all so angry. Let us not justify an act of catastrophic self-harm by invoking ‘The Valleys’ as an anthem for a lost cause.