1, relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process
2, occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold
Merthyr Tudfil; that crucible of the Welsh imaginary where industrial Wales began. Merthyr; that legendary name where the forces of Dissent first mustered in Wales; Merthyr; the word seared on every school child’s mind (in an independent Wales, at least), as that place where that other martyr, the greatest of the Welsh working class, Dic Penderyn, was falsely accused.
Merthyr Tudfil, that place where in that same rising, the calf’s blood stained the flag red, to be first hoisted as a universal symbol of socialism, and where neither the glimmer of new buildings or the surrealism of a mock fortress built as a temple to late capitalism can begin to dull the radical memories of a town hewn from a plunging valley and clambering hills. A teeming epicentre of ore-driven growth and expansion, where our forbearers amassed, many slung from the depths of rural Wales, as our people and their lands suffered fevered convulsions. The site where that emerging capitalist system, borne from the heaviest of industries, could no longer maintain an iron grip on its workers, and where 7000 and more marched not just to change their fortunes, but to change the world.
From the South, it is the gateway to rural Wales, as the Beacons radiate in the sun, or swiftly loom before you on a damp drive beyond Nant Ddu. From the North, it’s the yawning mouth of an industrialized south where the fields, hills and mountains of green between towns and villages steadily disappear. And to those of us who have never had the fortune to know them, this is the start of that living legend known by that catch-all phrase, ‘the valleys’.
But the liminal position of Merthyr relates to more than just its geography. It’s cut deep into its politics. In the same way that one might first suppose Merthyr is stuck firmly in the South, by forgetting its vistas to the north, one might also take for granted that it has always been stuck firmly in traditional British, unionist, labour country. But this, of course, would be to commit that eternal sin of taking the communities of Wales at face value, and telling only part of their story.
For a cursory glance at 20th century Merthyr begins with the father figure of the Labour Party, the Scotsman Keir Hardie, who as well as being a devout socialist, was also believer in Home Rule for the countries of the British Isles. His ‘Dowlais Declaration’ reflected the mood of key Welsh Labour figures of the period, such as David Thomas and T.E. Nicholas, who were agitating for a Welsh National Labour Party to drive through meaningful independence for Wales.
‘… the working-class of Wales taking over the ironworks and furnaces…for the benefit of every man, woman and child within your boundaries. That is the kind of nationalism I want to see; and when it arrives we shall see the Welsh Dragon emblazoned on the Red Banner of socialism, the international emblem of the world-wide Labour movement.’
This spirit of an amalgam of Welsh nationalism and internationalist socialism was incarnate in the extraordinary figure of SO Davies, the Labour MP for Merthyr who often secured 75% of the vote during his time as MP from 1934 to 1972, his politics captured in his famous quote,
‘I am an uncompromising socialist. But socialism can never materialize in Wales unless we can be free to apply our principles to our own way of life.’
His left wing views, his support for the Soviet Union, and his support for an independent Wales (with economic autonomy regarded as most crucial) did nothing to diminish his popularity in Merthyr. Indeed, after he was finally ejected by the Labour Party in 1970 he went on to be re-elected as an Independent Socialist. It perhaps comes as no surprise, given the precedent of his politics, that after his death in 1972, the Plaid candidate, the indomitable Emrys Roberts, polled a huge 37% in coming second, and that in 1976 he would take over as council leader, the first authority to be controlled by Plaid.
Since the end of this era it is only the scattered embers of a Welsh socialism that have been burning, and the liminality of the town has been of a different kind, but one that it holds in common with all of the south Wales coalfield – namely a community on the brink, where the good humour, love and solidarity built on the scaffold of a thriving, egalitarian culture, has been constantly under siege from poverty, and the proclivities of the world beyond. As with so many towns and villages across Wales, you cannot walk the streets without a burning anger at the injustice for people who deserve so much better than what the emaciated social contract of an elitist UK can offer them.
But we are also living in a time where hope is emerging once again, and we are on the brink of a sea change that will see a tidal wave in politics to submerge even the significance of the British Labour Party in the history of these communities.
Saturday’s march for independence in Merthyr can be the occasion that begins to break the buttresses of the Imperial Union in Wales under the pressure of a rising tide.
And how we need this change. That son of Dowlais, our greatest historian Gwyn Alf Williams, said in 1984 of his people – ‘no mean people’ – that they ‘are now nothing but naked under an acid rain.’ And what are we now, but excoriated and deracinated, facing forever greater poverty, disenchantment and a global environmental crisis that will burn us all?
A Marxist historian and a chronicler of the building of British Empire (and the leading role of the Welsh within it), he would no doubt tell us that these are the contradictions of capitalism sending a once Imperial state into its final throes. The “great”, western nation states of the imperial era are imploding around us and we – and peoples across the globe – must be ready to begin anew with values that can sustain both truly human lives for us all, and the natural environment that is our habitat.
So gather with us in Merthyr, and witness us moving onto the threshold of a Wales that can once more be at the forefront of the struggle for a better world.
Daw dydd y bydd mawr y rhai bychain.