This year is the centenary of the 1911 transport workers' strike, which turned murderous in Llanelli. Robert Griffiths, general secretary of the CP recently gave the AL Morton lecture on this key event. For many years, since the imposition of the Poll Tax, protests at the siting of cruise missiles at Greenham Common and the strike at News International,  the repressive role of the State has not figured in the concerns of the labour movement. Robert's lecture shows how the state responds when challenged and why we need to be brushing up on our history. 

Socialist History Society

A.L. Morton Memorial Lecture 2010

 

"It is an honour to deliver the A.L. Morton Memorial Lecture. His work—notably A People's History of England—has educated generations of workers, socialists and progressives and inspired the formation the original Communist Party History Group, itself the basis for an enormous body of literature. 

 

As a history lecture and TUC tutor, I was one of many who made extensive use of The British Labour Movement, which he wrote with George Tate, to inform and enthuse students and shop stewards about the early history of the working class movement. 

 

Obviously, I am not in the slightest embarrassed to pay tribute also to Leslie Morton's lifelong commitment to the Communist Party. Given his activity as a journalist and local councillor in Suffolk and the wider Eastern District, he would be pleased that the Party has re-established its district organisation there, has recently formed two new branches and helped relaunch the Country Standard.

 

The dramatic events in Llanelli on the afternoon and night of Saturday, August 19, 1911, during the great railway strike, first came to my attention as the result of an article in the Welsh History Review by Dr Deian Hopkin, then a leading Welsh labour historian, today Sir Deian Hopkin, vice-chancellor of London South Bank University.

 

Published in December 1983, this was the first substantial account of this episode to appear anywhere. In 70 years, nobody had seen fit to research or write about such an historically significant event, namely the last—if not the final—occasion when British troops shot workers dead during an industrial dispute. The last occasion, that is, anywhere in Wales, Scotland or England.

 

Workers continued to be shot dead by British troops in Ireland and India, obviously.

 

The title of that article in the Welsh History Review was 'The Llanelli Riots, 1911'. There are three possible reasons why Hopkin chose to use the term 'riots'. The first could have been because his article paid a lot of attention to the rioting that took place in the town after the shootings on the Saturday afternoon, when crowds of industrial workers wrecked and looted railway carriages, stormed various buildings and fought hand-to-hand battles with the army and police.

 

In this context, 'riots' is not such a pejorative term.

 

But perhaps Hopkin had a second, additional or alternative, reason. He might have chosen the word with a sense of irony. 'Riots' was the intentionally disapproving term used by the press, preachers and most politicians of the time, appalled that such violence could be perpetrated by Welsh people—their fellow countrymen—in what had been known as 'the Baptists' Jerusalem', Llanelli, a bastion of respectable Welsh Nonconformism.

 

Indeed, a common accusation was that devout chapel-going, Welsh-speaking, Liberal-voting workers could not possibly have committed such outrageous acts entirely of their own volition. They must have been misled by English agitators; interlopers hell-bent on stirring up trouble between men and masters; atheistic socialists preaching class war, enflaming the passions of the emotional Welsh where once there had been patriotic harmony.

 

Either that or—another notion peddled at the time—the attacks on property were committed at random and by itinerant labourers from England or Ireland. 

 

Hopkin dispels such myths with ease, using court and newspaper records to confirm that most of those convicted of crimes against persons or property in Llanelli on August 19 were local people, mostly men but some women, many of them with identifiably Welsh (or biblical) first names or surnames.

 

Moreover, he shows that much of the action against property was directed against that of the Great Western Railway company, whose strike-breaking trains earlier that day had triggered the mass picketing and stone-throwing that troops had tried to suppress by shooting two young men dead and wounding two others. In the evening, the shops owned by those magistrates deemed responsible for summoning the troops and reading the Riot Act had been singled out for particular attention, the crowds enjoying fine cuts of free meat and debtors carrying away the ledgers that bore witness to their debts.

 

There again, Hopkin may simply have reproduced the word 'riots' without considering its pejorative connotation, or—less likely—he may have concurred with it.

 

After all, for a century and a half, the unequalled occurrence in Merthyr Tydfil—then the biggest centre of the iron industry in the world—when armed workers drove regular troops out of the town and held it for six days in June 1831, were widely referred to as 'the Merthyr Riots'. It took my late comrade Gwyn A. Williams, and his superb book and television programme, to discredit that usage and suitably honour those events as 'The Merthyr Rising' instead.

 

Similarly, despite its title, Hopkin's article on the uprising in Llanelli has rescued the affair from shame and ignominy.

 

A few years after his article appeared, I researched the script for a television drama-documentary based on the shootings, first shown in Welsh on S4C and then in English on BBC Wales. Deian Hopkin was unstinting in turning over much of his own work on the subject to me, but I never did ask him why he continued to refer to the 'Llanelli riots', when his article and lectures exposed the unsuitability of the term.

 

Like many distinguished people of letters, he's a frequent visitor to the old steel-based area of Splott in Cardiff, visiting a mutual friend who lives at the end of my street. It may not be too late to elicit an explanation. 

 

The TV programme was called 'Y Gwrthgiliwr', 'The Deserter', after Private Harold Spiers. He was a young soldier in the Royal Worcestershire regiment, one of 370 troops despatched to Llanelli near the beginning of Britain's first-ever general railway strike, launched by all four railway unions on August 17 1911 in pursuit of recognition by the companies, as the prelude to improving pay and conditions.

 

Llanelli was a tinplate town on the south-western rim of the south Wales coalfield. It had small but militant branches of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants—main forerunner of the NUR—and of the footplate men's (and they were all men) union ASLEF. The Trades and Labour Council was also active, due in no small part to the dynamism of the local branch of the Independent Labour Party.

 

But Llanelli was a solid Liberal constituency, with no significant record of industrial or political violence. Its importance for the railway companies, the military and the ruling class was its strategic location on the main line from London to Fishguard and thence by ship to Ireland.

 

According to Harold Spiers, he had been part of the company ordered to defend a train which a large crowd had boarded and halted just west of the town centre. As people on the banks overlooking the track rained down stones and clods of earth on the stationary engine and its alcoholically fortified driver, Major Brownlow Stuart gave the crowd 60 seconds to disperse before ordering his soldiers to fire.

 

Two men sitting on the garden wall at the back of number 6 High Street—one of them a tinplate worker and a rising local rugby star—died instantly under the fusillade, while two of their companions fell wounded. 

 

Witnesses and forensic evidence indicated that none had been involved in the stone-throwing, although John John and a labourer from London, Leonard Worsell, had been seen by Harold Spiers and civilian witnesses goading the troops below.

 

Spiers had refused to fire where directed, at those young men on the garden wall, and had then been sent to the rear under arrest. He escaped from military custody later that evening, in the chaos and violence that engulfed the town as metal workers and coal miners came in from the surrounding areas to take revenge on officialdom.

 

Four more people perished in Llanelli that Saturday, blown up by rifle ammunition thrown on a burning pyre of looted railway freight.

 

Spiers was eventually detained in New Radnor, mid Wales, a few days later, handed over to the army  authorities and charged with desertion while in aid of the civil power. Yet by the time he faced a military tribunal, the charge had been reduced to the considerably lesser one of going absent without leave.

 

I discovered the reason for the relegation in the Public Record Office at Kew. Home Secretary Winston Churchill's under-secretary had written to the Secretary of State for War—some government departments were named a little more honestly in those days—expressing Churchill's concerns: 

 

I am directed by the [Home] Secretary to say that he has noticed in the newspapers the case of a private soldier who is reported to have refused to fire at Llanelly on the occasion of the recent riot and who subsequently deserted. Mr Churchill does not know whether the newspaper accounts of this case are correct and what the special circumstances may be, but he desires me to say that in his opinion if the alleged incident actually took place, it would be contrary to the public interest to make the case a cause celebre by holding a sensational court martial, and thus investing it with an unnecessary and extremely undesirable importance. Mr Churchill hopes that the course will be adopted which will most effectively avoid any undesirable publicity.

 

For good measure, Churchill's under-secretary had already spoken to General Sir Nevil Macready, commander of military forces in south Wales during the railway strike.

 

So it was that the charge was reduced, Spiers withdrew his earlier testimony at the New Radnor magistrates court, pleaded guilty to the lesser offence and was sentenced to a fine and two weeks in prison. Shortly afterwards, he bought himself out of the army.

 

A notice soon appeared in the press wherein the authorities denied that Spiers had been on duty at the railway line in Llanelli on Saturday August 19, and so could not possibly have been ordered to fire upon civilians. 

 

In which case, his detailed testimony at New Radnor of events at the railway track was all the more remarkable because it coincided almost perfectly with eye-witness evidence reported in the local press and at the subsequent inquest—evidence which Spiers would have had no opportunity to read before he delivered his own statement.

 

I went in search of Harold Spiers' descendants some 70 years after these events. His army service records showed he came from a family of bicycle shop owners in Redditch, Worcestershire. 

 

After a series of letters and phone messages had brought no response, I finally spoke and corresponded with Edward Spiers, Harold's nephew. 

 

He told me that his family had been proud of its tradition of military service. Nobody spoke much about his uncle Harold, who had rejoined the army at the outbreak of the First World War, before marrying and settling in France until his death in the 1960s. Edward sent me a rare photograph of Harold Spiers, taken of him in military uniform during the Great War, and reproduced in the Welsh and English language editions of my book on the 1911 railway strike.

 

My efforts to contact Harold's son Desmond, who was still alive and living in Redditch, proved fruitless.   

 

Winston Churchill earned the undying hatred of many people in the south Wales mining communities because of his role during the ferocious Cambrian strike movement of 1910 and 1911. He was held responsible for sending in the troops.

 

Let me defend Churchill's record in this respect. He had been reluctant to yield to the demands of the coalowners and the proto-fascist Chief Constable of Glamorgan for deployment of the military in that dispute. Even after soldiers had been despatched, Churchill wanted them to be held back at Pontypridd, rather than carry on up to Tonypandy and the Rhondda valleys where their presence would exacerbate the conflict.

 

The only fatality in that struggle was Samuel Rays, a miner clubbed to death by the police in Llwynypia rather than shot dead by the military.

 

Churchill's perfomance during the 1911 national railway strike, on the other hand, revealed the depth of his callous brutality, of his class hatred for workers who dared to fight back against those who—like himself—were born to rule over them.

 

In the diaries of Lucy Masterman, wife of Charles Masterman, a colleague and close friend of Churchill in the Liberal administration of Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, I found this entry relating to the railway strike:

 

He [Churchill] enjoyed immensely mapping the country and directing the movement of troops. Charlie thinks that in the main he did right, but that he did it in an amazingly wrong way, issuing wild bulletins and longing for 'blood' ... Winston was wildly excited and issued disastrous bulletins which did so much to exasperate the men's unions. 

 

The Cambrian experience may have given Churchill the taste for such things. His Cabinet colleague Lloyd George, Chancellor of the Exchequer, informed him by telephone that the strike had been settled on Saturday evening. According to Lucy Masterman, the Home Secretary said in response:

 

I'm very sorry to hear it. It would have been better to have gone on and given these men a good thrashing.

 

Churchill then went out with Charles to play a round of golf.

 

Lloyd George had volunteered to mediate between the railway employers and the unions, with the intention of repeating his success as President of the Board of Trade during the 1907 railway crisis.

 

But I believe he may have had a deeper motive in addition to any careerist considerations, one which reflected his own class background and outlook. 

 

Lloyd George was a small-town lawyer by training, a petty bourgeois radical on the left-wing of the Liberal Party, whose power base was among the largely Welsh-speaking petty bourgeoisie, but with significant support among the Nonconformist section of the working class. His cross-class appeal derived from a petty bourgeois conception of Welsh Nationalism which demanded Church disestablishment, Home Rule, a distinctive education system and temperance laws for Wales.

 

Private letters and diaries confirm that his greatest fear was that the English ruling class was sufficiently ruthless to drown working class protest in blood—to the detriment of Liberalism and, no doubt, of his own political career. He confided as much to Prime Minister Asquith's daughter.

 

Lloyd George's fear was grounded in his intimate acquaintance with Asquith himself—who had told a deputation of railway union leaders that in the event of a strike 'then your blood be on your own heads'—and with Churchill, and with King George V and the royal  court. 

 

Lloyd George wrote to his wife from Balmoral later that autumn that:

 

The whole atmosphere reeks with Toryism. I can breathe it and it depresses and sickens me ... The King is hostile to the bone to all who are working to lift the workmen out of the mire. So is the Queen. They talk exactly as the late King [Edward VII] & the Kaiser talked to me if you can remember the old Railway strike. 'What do they want striking?' 'They are very well paid' etc.

 

Of course, Lloyd George himself was well on the way to becoming a bourgeois politician in the service of the British ruling class. He would soon receive more money from one dealing in British-Argentinian railway shares than a railway worker would earn in ten years. Then he banged the drum for imperialist war and became wartime Prime Minister. 

 

Soon afterwards, in October 1916, in the middle of the imperialist slaughter, Lenin analysed the role of the populist demagogue in the new era of mass politics:

 

Nothing in our times can be done without elections; nothing can be done without the masses. And in this era of printing and parliamentarism it is impossible to gain the following of the masses without a widely ramified, systematically managed, well-equipped system of flattery, lies, fraud, juggling with fashionable and popular catch-words, and promising all manner of reforms and blessings to the workers right and left—as long as they renounce the revolutionary struggle for the overthrow of the bourgeoisie. I would call this system Lloyd-Georgism, after the English Minister Lloyd George, one of the foremost and most dextrous representatives of this system in the classic land of the 'bourgeois labour party'. A first-class bourgeois manipulator, an astute politician, a popular orator who will deliver any speeches you like, even r-r-revolutionary ones, to a labour audience, and a man who is capable of obtaining sizeable sops for docile workers in the shape of social reforms (insurance, etc.), Lloyd George serves the bourgeoisie splendidly,* and serves it precisely among the workers, brings its influence precisely to the proletariat, to where the bourgeoisie needs it most and where it finds it most difficult to subject the masses morally ...

  *I recently read an article in an English magazine by a Tory, a political opponent of Lloyd George, entitled 'Lloyd George from the Standpoint of a Tory'. The war opened the eyes of this opponent and made him realise what an excellent servant of the bourgeoisie this Lloyd George is! The Tories have made peace with him!

 

But even in the pre-war period, Lloyd George had come to realise that his biggest political enemies were those socialists agitating to separate the working class from the Liberal Party. He aimed special venom at Keir Hardie during the railway dispute and its aftermath, who condemned police and army violence in the sharpest terms, and who mocked the pretence of Lloyd George and other Welsh Liberals to be 'Welsh Nationalists'.

 

Hardie, the MP for Merthyr Tydfil, remarked that 'it was a very spurious kind of nationalism that allowed English soldiers to shoot  Welshmen without any protest'. For him, real nationalism—he might better have said patriotism—would, he told an audience in Dowlais, be:

 

... the people of Wales fighting to recover possession of the land of Wales ... the working class of Wales acquiring possession of the the mines, of the furnaces, and the railways, of the great public works generally, and working them as comrades, not for the benefit of shareholders, but for the good of every man, woman, and child within your borders ... And when that comes the red dragon will be emblazoned on the red flag of Socialism, the international emblem of the working class movement throughout the world.

 

One intention in my books was to explore the peculiarities of class-based politics in Wales, without divorcing them from their wider British and international contexts. I think A.L. Morton would have approved of such a project.

 

I doubt if would have endorsed any exclusion from my analysis of the role of the state apparatus, which sided almost wholly with the railway monopolies, verifying the validity of Marx and Engels' contention that 'the executive of the modern State is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie'.

 

Hence the title of my final chapter, in English, 'History as Class Struggle'. Lacking imagination, perhaps, but enough to arouse the ire of at least one prominent Welsh historian, academic and reviewer. He accused me of parachuting dogmatic Marxist concepts into Welsh history.

 

It rather reminds me of the riposte that the old Welsh socialist David Thomas delivered to those Anti-Socialist League Welsh Liberal Nonconformists who accused him of importing alien socialist ideas into god-fearing, patriotic and Welsh Wales. He reminded them that Christ was from Palestine, Luther was from Germany and Calvin was from Geneva.

 

There are, nevertheless, myths from the left that need to be quashed in the interests of fact-based analysis and understanding. For instance, there is the tendency in some quarters to overestimate the influence of syndicalism in the railway strike—certainly in Llanelli and nearby Swansea—in an effort to highlight the significance of revolutionary forerunners.

 

I found scant evidence of its existence on the ground at that time, although the Times and other peddlers of anti-strike hysteria did much to magnify what little there was. Syndicalism was, of course, a much more powerful force among the striking miners of the Rhondda.

 

The 1911 general railway strike was the first of its kind in Britain. It threatened the lifelines of economic and political power, and in the face of united, determined working class action Lloyd George brokered a compromise which half-promised trade union recognition and improved hours and wages—while delivering neither.

 

Nonetheless, the strike unionised the remainder of the railway industry and helped create the context in which many other hitherto unorganised sections of the working class secured collective bargaining rights. 

 

I have submitted an article to Llafur, the Welsh labour history journal, on the case of the Cardiff tobacco workers—almost all of them girls and young women—who struck in the same summer of discontent to win better terms and conditions, and in the process turned their factory into a fortress of shopfloor trade unionism for the rest of the century.

 

The 1911 railway strike and the wider wave of which it was part also helped to extinguish 'Lib-labism' and clear the path for the advance of socialist ideas. 

 

Who knows what else might have been achieved by the rail unions, the miners, transport workers and their Triple Alliance had imperialist war not cut short the forward march of labour in the period between 1909 and 1913?

 

I began my lecture with a tribute to Leslie Morton. Let me end it with mention of the chairman of the joint union strike committee in Llanelli in 1911.

 

Richard Squance was a remarkable working class leader, industrially and politically, now alas forgotten. He brought out much of the south Wales railway industry in solidarity with two local drivers who refused to transport Irish freight during the 1913 Dublin lock-out. 

 

I learnt more about him when researching my book on the history of ASLEF. As a regional organiser, he was imprisoned during the 1926 General Strike. As assistant and then general secretary of the union, he played a major part in rebuilding it during the 1930s. A Labour Party member, staunch supporter of the Soviet Union and a militant anti-fascist, he combined political incisiveness with an extraordinary capacity for administrative efficiency—a rare gift in the British labour movement. 

 

Squance was expelled from the Labour Party in 1941 for playing a prominent role in the People's Convention. He was almost expelled from history at the same time. Like the events of 1911 in his native town, Llanelli, he deserves to be rescued from obscurity.

 

Leslie Morton may have known him. He certainly would have approved of Squance's political and trade union contribution to the class struggle."