Around 9.15 on the 21st October 1966, a colliery spoil tip collapsed above the Welsh village of Aberfan. It triggered an avalanche of slurry, which careered downhill and made contract with Pantglas Junior school, where lessons had just begun. In the most unimaginable way, 116 children and 28 adults lost their lives in a thick mixture of mud, sludge and rubble.
Last month, hit Netflix show The Crown retold the story of Aberfan to a new audience. The choice of subject is bold. But the reception of the episode has been strong. The Telegraph awarded the ‘deeply moving’ episode five stars. The Sun heralded the episode’s ‘sensitivity and impact’. The Daily Mirror dedicated significant effort to compiling praise left by emotional fans on social media.
For some, the act of retelling the story of Aberfan has an innate value in itself. It re-inscribes a moment from history that should never be forgotten back onto our collective consciousness.
But there is injustice in how it tells that story. Many who watched The Crown will know nothing more of Aberfan than what they saw in this programme. This gives the show a remarkably privileged position in moulding our collective memory of the disaster. And the story it tells is one warped by an establishment viewpoint and a narrative that obfuscates structural injustices.
The problem is one of focus. The episode makes a conscious choice to focus, almost exclusively, on what we can and should expect from establishment figures after disaster strikes. The bar it sets is incredibly low – suggesting that all we need are leaders who can feel and demonstrate genuine human empathy when faced with the institutional murder of over 100 children. In this retelling, the establishment is given a redemptive role – symbolic of a world view where the establishment is an antidote to our suffering, not a cause.
This comes at the exclusion of any real detail about how and why Aberfan happened. The explanations flicker between fleeting and lazy. Fleeting in the half-hearted implication of the role the National Coal Board played in the disaster. Lazy in the implication that blame lies predominantly with the devious Wilson-led Labour government. Not entirely untrue, but over simplistic.
The Crown, then, provides a new audience with a snapshot of Aberfan sanitised of the structural and institutional injustice that caused it. There is little to no acknowledgement that this is what happened when our institutions are allowed to hold working people in contempt. Yet that contempt, particularly on the part of the National Coal Board (NCB), is inseparable from the events as they happened. The NCB were responsible for authorising colliery tips to be built at five times the limit set in regulations. They were responsible for ignoring residents’ express fears for their safety. As one father put it, the victims were “buried alive by the National Coal Board.”
The most astonishing insult came, of course, after the disaster. A grassroots relief fund was forcibly co-opted by the NCB. They used the funds to pay the cost of clearing the remaining dangerous collieries from above Aberfan. It was not until 1997, after a thirty-year fight, that the appropriated money was repaid to the relief fund.
In fact, the NCB provides us with one of the earliest examples of an institution run under neoliberal logic. It had seen a single-minded approach to productivity implemented in 1960; severe reductions in its workforce and conditions throughout the decade; and the conditions laid for the largescale miners’ strikes (1969, 1972) that brought about the three-day week. The consequences of public bodies being run by this logic are, of course, very pertinent today – one need look only at the actions of the Home Office in the Windrush scandal.
In that logic, it found allies in the print media. Particularly, several national papers created suspicion around what the Aberfan community wanted to do with their relief fund. Villagers were forced to defend themselves from accusation of greed and violent quarrelling. This kind of vilification of working-class voices, particularly after disasters, is only too common – it’s one we saw peak 23 years later in the aftermath of Hillsborough.
Aberfan was an institutional crime. And in the face of that, the story told by the Crown takes on a bitter irony. The Queen – who perhaps represents the establishment and British class system better than any other – searches for redemption against the unspoken backdrop of a disaster caused by that very system, those very institutions.
The decision the Queen faced at Aberfan repeated in summer 2017, in the aftermath of Grenfell fire. In this instance, she acted far more decisively – ignoring her own safety to offer direct support to those affected. Her empathy was clear. But the plaudits she received expose, again, our tendency to judge our establishment on how it reacts to disaster, rather than its implication in the causes of catastrophe.
A much more critical process must put such incidents in a proper historical and political context. To do so does not play down the unique grief caused by Aberfan and Grenfell respectively. Rather, it helps us identify the common causes of the disasters – and to do the incidents justice in the stories we tell about them. Like Aberfan, neoliberal governance sat behind Grenfell. In 2016, this meant cutting red tape for housebuilders, cutting to welfare and social housing, and allowing privatisation into the inspection regime.
In both cases, institutions that were meant to provide safety nets were exposed as scams. The respective communities had raised the alarm regarding their safety long before a disaster happened. Both were systematically ignored until it was too late. Indeed, it took very little time for the contempt working class voices receive to remerge – the ‘greed’ of Aberfan on the one hand, Jacob Rees Mogg’s ‘lack of common sense’ on the other. Having been failed by their institutions, the blame subtly shifts away from the establishment and back on to the communities that have suffered.
And both occurred at a time when political radicalism in Britain stood at a remarkably low ebb. Two decades of politics had been defined by the moderate, neoliberal consensus of Blair, Brown and Cameron. In Aberfan 1966, over a decade of Conservative rule had given way to Wilson – a pragmatist at the head of one of Labour’s most moderate governments.
Without radicalism, policy operates within the constraints of its given system. This is nearly always described as ‘pragmatic’, but always means also giving up ambitions for structural changes that might genuinely threaten ‘the way things are.’ It is unsurprising that this provides a backdrop for disasters where working class voices were subordinated to establishment, institutional interests
This kind of analysis should be the foundation of stories we should demand to be told. The failure of an establishment that espouses neoliberal logic, adulates class inequality and fails to mount radical challenge to societal injustice even with decades of opportunity. If we do not, we fail those that suffered by failing to learn the lessons of social injustice.
For me, Aberfan is a symbol of the neglect mining communities have faced throughout Wales for as long as they’ve existed. But more than that, it symbolises the missed opportunity to radically challenge those structural inequalities. In missing this opportunity, the callousness of Thatcherism was allowed to unfurl. If we don’t tell better stories about catastrophes, and their institutional and structural causes, my fear is that Grenfell, too, will become the symbol of missed opportunity that preceded a more brutal regime to come.