How Green Should My Valley Be
by Tim Williams
Those familiar with the works of the Welsh novelist. Richard Llewellyn will know that there was a sequel to his best-seller, How Green Was My Valley, entitled Green, Green My Valley Now.
Where the earlier book had been strident if not hysterical in its denunciation of industrialism and its consequences in South Wales – in particular the development of an English-speaking, secular, Labour-voting working class – the later book looks on the Valleys of the 1970s with some satisfaction. For, as Llewellyn’s protagonist Huw Morgan notes, Gilfach Goch (the village on the edge of the Rhondda fictionalised as ‘the Valley’) had changed for the better:
“This was not the Valley I had known. From other brains another Valley had been born … cleaner, happier, greener, than any since the time of my grandfather.
“How green was my Valley then, yes, but green, green my Valley now, all praise and thanks to the Lord God, and his craftsmen … “
What Llewellyn invited us to praise was the de-industrialisation and de-population of the coalfield which had left villages like Gilfach with grassed-over slagheaps and cleaner streams but without an economic rationale or basis for that dynamic communal culture he so despised. The “greening” of Gilfach Goch meant the draining of its lifeblood. They make a desert and he calls it “peace”.
In our desperate desire to reclaim the Green mantle from the overweening ‘Porriticians’ who have stolen everything from William Morris save his dedication to the interests of the working class, the Left must not forget that whatever their ills or failings, industrialism and urbanism brought into being the very people that the Labour Movement was invented to represent and the rural life was only ever an idyll for those with money and power.
When given an opportunity, poor country dwellers have always sought to leave the rural areas for the greater freedom, life-possibilities and richness (in all senses) of industrial life. This was as true of mediaeval Germany (where the phrase Stadt-luft Macht Frei / Town own life makes free, was coined) as it is of contemporary Latin America. It was certainly true of the anglicised and socialist coalfield so hated by Richard Llewellyn. This was, after all, peopled by migrants from rural Wales and the West of England who were delighted to be free of the ‘joys of country life’ – a mood voiced by B.L. Coombes, who moved from Herefordshire to the coalfield on the eve of the Great war:
“Up there in the works is the place for a young feller. Shorter hours and good money, not like as it be hereabouts … gotter graft all the hours as God sends. Ain’t got to call no manner of man sir up there- no yuh ain’t.” (These Poor Hands, 1939)
For the working class brought together in communities yes, communities, which are not easily forged in dispersed farming areas – by industrialisation, abandoning the countryside was a precondition of political and social advance. The process historically weakened the landed gentry as it simultaneously brought the domination of the countryside, economically and· politically, by the urban forces in which the organised working class became an increasingly significant element.
Out of the environmental desecration of rural South Wales came an alternative beauty – the beauty of communities which spawned an innovative collectivist politics associated with the names of Aneurin Bevan, Arthur Horner, and James Griffiths and an impressive popular culture whose finest exponents were singers, instrumentalists, actors, and sports people of world class. A Labour perspective on Green issues must surely ground itself in a recognition of the fact that the escape from rural life and indeed the de-ruralisation of areas of development, made Labour politics and culture possible.
This is not to call for the industrialisation of Dartmoor. To be Green at all, a Labour perspective must of course seek to sustain, and indeed improve, the natural environment and in particular to plan development in what remains of the British countryside so as to ensure its continuation as a source of food, leisure and pleasure for both ‘the country’ and ‘the city’.
Planning – a dirty word for Party ‘thinkers’ in recent years, although one increasingly in vogue in post-Thatcherite academic literature – alone cannot define a properly Labour perspective on Green issues. It is a necessary but not sufficient condition for it. The other pillar of the perspective must involve the clarification of who exactly are the clients or end-users of our politics.
A failure to address this question, let alone resolve it, has played a central role in Labour’s decline. The ‘recovery’ of the last few years has not been firmly rooted in a resolution of the question but on the ephemeral and incoherent findings of market research. Our policies are no longer programmes for achievement of goals in the interest of an identifiable social force, but padded-out slogans and sound-bites, in which the Party leadership imagines it speaks to ‘all’ whilst in fact reaching no-one in particular. The real world of hard choices, of priorities in resource allocation, of zero-sum games and clashes of self interest – the world a Labour government will face – cannot be understood or managed from the Groucho Club/Walworth Road axis which runs the Party at the moment.
Labour’s Green politics must encompass, and intervene in, such a world, as the Left itself must recognise if it is to offer an alternative to the vapidity of the Party’s current manifesto. This requires political hard-headedness which acknowledges that the Labour tradition has never been solely about idealism or the realisation of the often contradictory aspirations of single-issue movements which look to us for support. We were founded as a Party to advance the self-interest of the industrial working class. It remains a necessary orientation for us, not out of sentiment but out of political necessity: no market-research based ‘majority’ or ‘rainbow coalition’ comes anywhere near fulfilling its role for the Party.
Historically, other social forces pursued their objectives by attaching themselves, in a subordinate role, to a Party with a simple but compelling dynamic: the economic and social advancement of working people. Renewing the Party’s relationship with the still massive millions of Labour’s urban heartlands remains a precondition for forging wider electoral success.
Everyone gains from clean air and water. Not everyone gains from wider access to the countryside – certain environments and livelihoods are endangered by urban intruders. Choices, therefore, have to be made, boundaries defined, balances struck.
Labour’s choices, boundaries and balances, reflecting a different social interest from the marginal groups which currently inhabit ‘Greenland’ must, accordingly, be different. Can we, for example, really opt for ‘zero-growth’ policies which would depress the living standards of industrial society and with it our own people, historically the less privileged portion? Can we really advocate organic methods of food production which nourish the soil (and forms of snobbery) but not the millions which intensive, state subsidised, agri-business has demonstrated it can feed? Can we really oppose new industrial development in rural or suburban areas, as more and more Labour activists and politicians up and down the country now do, either out of an unacknowledged or unthought-through anti-industrialism, or in pursuit of the elusive approval of the articulate, campaigning middle classes whose opposition to development often stems from a very unenlightened self-interest related to property values? Precisely in whose interest do we justify campaigns of carte-blanche opposition to industrial employment?
Our politics can be Green without raising such questions. However, they can only be Labour by raising them. They can only be successful by answering them.
Green and Untruthful?
“How Green Was My Valley is a 1939 novel by Richard Llewellyn, narrated by Huw Morgan, the main character, about his Welsh family and the mining community in which they live. The author had claimed that he based the book on his own personal experiences but this was found to be untrue after his death; Llewellyn was English-born and spent little time in Wales, though he was of Welsh descent. Llewellyn gathered material for the novel from conversations with local mining families in Gilfach Goch.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/How_Green_Was_My_Valley as at 20/10/2019.)
It seems that Tim Williams was too generous with Mr Llewellyn.
Gwydion M. Williams, 20th October 2019.
This article appeared in January 1992, in Issue 27 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs. You can find more from the era at https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/.