10 random facts from the modern history of Christmas

  • In 1914, Christmas caused a break in the fighting in many places on the Western Front but at home there was disagreement over whether it should be celebrated at all. In Burnley, a mill manager tried to stop the Christmas Eve tradition of halting work for a while for ‘a little jollification’ and was punched in the face for it.
  • The government has acted at times to keep Christmas special. The 1934 Betting and Lotteries Act outlawed gambling on Christmas Day. The 2004 Christmas Day (trading) Act prohibits large shops from opening at all.
  • In 1940 the government decided not to bomb Germany on Christmas Day, unless there was a German attack the day before. It did not announce the truce for strategic reasons but it still hoped to get credit for the decision and had feared looking bad in American eyes if the British carried out raids but the Germans did not.
  • Although many of our traditions date back to the Victorian period, it was not until relatively recently that they became standard practice. It was the 1950s when Christmas trees and turkey dinners became the norm for working-class families.
  • The Trafalgar Square tree has caused a number of political controversies. In 1958 and 1959, despite protests from the public and press, the police refused to approve its lighting after 11pm for fear it would lead to drunks assembling there. A ban on importing trees after the war meant the government had to give the tree a special licence, despite the risk of bringing disease into the country.
  • Cuts to Christmas day rail services caused problems for football fans and players in the 1950s. This meant a full Football League Christmas day fixture list was last scheduled in 1957. By 1960 there were no league games that day at all in England and Wales.
  • In 1959, the Queen’s pregnancy meant her speech was recorded for the first time. The BBC broadcast it at 9am and it was repeated at 3pm on ITV. At 3pm the BBC instead showed ‘Chipperfield’s Circus Festival’. The challenge of scheduling against Her Majesty meant that by 1961 both channels returned to showing the Queen at the now traditional time.
  • In 1966 the Royal Mail held a children’s competition to design a Christmas stamp. Some stamp collectors thought this undignified and wrote to the press to complain about the disgrace.
  • In 1968 the Queen and Prince Philip decided to write the Christmas speech themselves and their draft included a reference to Britain’s ‘serious economic difficulties’. The government was unimpressed and the sentence was deleted.
  • It was 1974 before Boxing Day was made a bank holiday in Scotland, a century later than England and Wales.

All taken from Martin Johnes, Christmas and the British: A Modern History (Bloomsbury Academic, 2016). 

In defence of Cardiff’s Christmas tree (and a brief history of civic trees)

This article was first published in the South Wales Echo.

Cardiff Council’s Christmas artificial tree has come in for some stick in the last couple of weeks. First, it was late appearing. Then, it turned out to be forty-foot-high rather than the promised forty metres. And then some people didn’t like it or complained that money was being spent on a tree at all.

Cardiff isn’t the only council to suffer such woes.  In Leicester, the civic tree was accused of first being half finished and then a gaudy mess. Some of the complaints seem rather petty or are perhaps down to people trying to be clever. Did anyone really care exactly when Cardiff’s tree went up or expect something nearly as tall as the 46m Statue of Liberty?

The gripes that it is ugly or comes from China rather a Welsh forest are more substantive. They also reflect a much wider sense that Christmas trees are symbolic.

Whatever kind of tree we choose for our own home is a more than a matter of simple taste. Christmas decorations are statements about ourselves.  Whether we go for something natural or plastic, whether we adorn it with gaudy multicoloured decorations or a simple colour scheme, our Christmas tree is a way of exhibiting our taste or sense of fun.

Yet leaving the curtains open so neighbours and passers-by can see our lit tree is not primarily about showing off our personal taste and style. It is also about sharing the joy that Christmas decorations can bring. Even the grumpiest Scrooge might admit there is something pleasant and even magical about Christmas lights on a cold and dark winter night.

Public trees have the same function. We might argue over what they should look like, but the civic tree is there as something for people to share and enjoy

The first public trees in the UK probably date to the inter-war period and were seen on village greens and town centres and at railway stations.  By this time, most middle-class families erected trees in their homes, but the ritual was still establishing itself amongst the working-classes who concentrated their limited resources on presents for the children and a good meal.

Public trees were far more common on the continent and after 1945 around twenty towns and cities in the UK were gifted trees by European communities as thanks for their assistance during the war.

The most famous was the Trafalgar Square tree, an annual gift to London from the people of Oslo. It quickly became something of a Christmas icon, encouraging more towns and cities to erect their own trees from public funds.

This new trend was not without its problems.  Like the other gifted trees, the Trafalgar Square tree had to receive special exemption from a ban on importing trees for fear they might bring disease. In 1958 and 1959, the police even refused to approve its lighting after 11pm for fear it would lead to drunks assembling around it.

Such concerns were not unfounded. In 1953, a Royal Navy officer was charged with being drunk and disorderly after climbing the thirty-foot tree in the centre of Bristol to take the star from its top.

But more generally public trees spread Christmas cheer and became part of what many enjoyed about the season. Thus in 1949 one local newspaper, while noting how common public trees had become in the southwest of England, argued they were ‘the centres of colour, life and laughter in the market places of many towns’.

Public trees, however, were more than just public celebrations intended to raise festive spirits.  The 1950s and 60s saw most towns and cities also start decorating their retail centres with displays of electric lights to promote Christmas shopping and the public tree became part of a wider civic display.

Making Christmas shopping pleasant mattered because so many people also found the expense, decisions and crowds stressful.  The ambience a tree and decorations generates compensates for that and helps make Christmas shopping a special experience.

Indeed, with consumers expecting shopping at Christmas to be different from the rest of year, any town or city that does not spend money on decorations risks losing custom to a nearby rival or, increasingly, to the convenience of online shopping.  A study of Manchester in 2012 found that the council’s festive lighting had cost £339,000 but that the city’s Christmas markets alone had generated £71 million in spending.

Unhappy people are always more forthcoming with their views on the world than those who are content.  Cardiff Council should thus take some comfort in the likelihood that their derided tree will generate more quiet cheer than vocal complaint.

They should also take comfort in the fact that putting the sparkle of a Christmas light onto a winter street is not only something of a tradition in itself, it’s also good for the local economy. Online retailers have many advantages but they don’t provide a tree and lights to enjoy.

Martin Johnes teaches history at Swansea University. He is the author of a new book, Christmas and the British: A Modern History, published by Bloomsbury.

Christmas in October

xmas-coverIn 1958, a writer in The Times remembered that before the war older people were complaining how tawdry and commercial Christmas had become ‘but in their most disgruntled moments they had never imagined anything like this steam-roller, gathering momentum all October and November, with the London streets disguised as toy bazaars, and false Father Christmases popping up in every store’.

Complaints about the commercialization of Christmas date back into the Victorian period but one of the most persistent was the claim that it was appearing in the shops earlier and earlier. Yet actually proving that assertion is not easy. What is certain is that Christmas in November is not a twentieth-century development and Christmas in October dates back to at least the 1950s.

In as early as 1824, the compendium Forget Me Not was being advertised as a Christmas present at the beginning of November, complete with the claim that many people had been left disappointed the previous year when stock sold out a few days before the festival.  The commercial Christmas was still very much in its infancy at this time but over the course of the nineteenth century it grew as people indulged themselves in the pleasures of food and presents, and appreciated how the festival reaffirmed social bonds. It was thus as much in response to consumer demand as a shopkeepers’ hunger for profit that advertisements for Christmas goods became very common in November in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.

However, there was never any agreed date among retailers about when festive displays and advertising should begin and by the early twentieth century the Christmas shopping season was something that arrived gradually in November rather than suddenly at a set date.

selfridges-8-nov-1926
Ad for Santa Claus’ arrival on 8 November 1926. Includes the suggestion to ‘shop early’.

Consumers, of course, did not have to respond to advertisements and displays but even early in the century, November Christmas shopping was not uncommon. In November 1921, for example, Christmas shopping was reported to be in full swing in Knightsbridge by the middle of the month. Some started well before this. On 30 October 1933, The Times was reporting early Christmas displays in large London shops and that the Queen had begun her shopping. Shops explicitly encouraged this, not just for the sake of their profits but also to relieve the workload on their staff in December.

The war and subsequent austerity curtailed this, at least temporarily.  In 1952, it was noted that Christmas was now concentrated in the week or two before the day itself and the time of its stretching back into November was gone. That did not last and the return of affluence renewed and enabled people’s desire to spend at Christmas.  Just a year later, there were reports of a Christmas tree being put up outside a Leeds store in October.  In 1959, the first decorations in Oxford Street went up on 22 October.

Even some children were put out at the fact that Father Christmas was in some stores in October. ‘Christmas is lasting too long these days’ remarked one lady to a television reporter in October 1959. In the same year, Coventry City Council responded by banning shops putting illuminated trees up outside before 1 December.

Christmas in October may have been thought by some to be too early but the logistics of supplying and storing festive goods encouraged shops to erect October displays.  Local authorities too had played their part in pushing the date back into October by deciding when to erect their street decorations. In 2008, when town centre decorations went up in Coleford (Gloucestershire) on 12 October, even some traders were upset but one shopper told a paper that the decorations were ‘splendid’ and it was better to enjoy them for three months than three weeks.  Although some hated Christmas shopping, more saw it as a fun, pleasurable and exciting activity, something to be indulged in over a number of trips rather than cramped into a one stressful day. A vocal minority complained about the early Christmas but the silent majority shopped away.

Throughout the 20th century, retailers thus claimed that early starts were a response to consumer demand.  In 1926 Selfridge’s were justifying Christmas preparations in November by saying that anticipation was a central part of the season’s enjoyment. In 2002, Debenhams, who put up its Christmas display on 20 October, claimed that if they did not do this they would get hundreds of complaints, while Marks and Spencer claimed that half of their customers wanted to buy Christmas items in October.

In fact, for some people Christmas shopping was a year-round activity. Even in the 1930s there is evidence of people making lists  throughout the year of anything they saw in the shops that would make a suitable present. As pockets deepened after the war, this extended to some people actually buying presents all year round. This was partly because they enjoyed buying presents but it also spread the cost and avoided the pressures of shopping in December. A 1973 survey found that 56 percent of respondents had started thinking about Christmas shopping by 8 November and 28 percent had actually bought some presents.

15-nov-1933
Shop early ad, 15 Nov. 1933

There may not be much evidence that Christmas in the shops has got earlier since its clear encroachment on October in the 1950s but it is undoubtedly the displays and advertisements that mark the arrival and approach of the season in the public mind. Not everyone approved but there was little they could do about it when consumer demand was big enough to make the October and November efforts of retailers worthwhile.

Martin Johnes is author of Christmas and the British:  A Modern History (2016). Available all year round and not just at Christmas.

The Political Aftermath of the Aberfan Disaster

Martin Johnes and Iain McLean

On Friday, 21 October 1966 a coal tip slid down a mountainside into the mining village of Aberfan in the South Wales valleys.  The slide engulfed a farm, around twenty houses and part of the local junior school before coming to rest.  The disaster claimed the lives of 144 people, 116 of whom were school children.  The horror felt around the world was made all the more poignant as news emerged of previous slides and brushed aside warnings.  Such was the widespread sympathy that was felt that a fund set up to help the village raised £1,750,000.

Image result for aberfan disaster

A terrifying tale of bungling ineptitude

In the days after the disaster, Lord Robens, chairman of the National Coal Board (NCB), attributed the tragedy to ‘natural unknown springs’ beneath the tip.  This was known by all the local people to be incorrect.  The NCB had been tipping on top of springs that are shown on maps of the neighbourhood and in which village schoolboys had played.  The government immediately appointed a Tribunal of Inquiry.  Its report was unsparing:

Blame for the disaster rests upon the National Coal Board … The legal liability of the National Coal Board to pay compensation for the personal injuries (fatal or otherwise) and damage to property is incontestable and uncontested.

These dry conclusions belie the passion of the preceding text.  The Tribunal was appalled by the behaviour of the NCB and some of its employees, both before and after the disaster:

the Aberfan disaster is a terrifying tale of bungling ineptitude by many men charged with tasks for which they were totally unfitted, of failure to heed clear warnings, and of total lack of direction from above

Colliery engineers at all levels concentrated only on conditions underground.  In one of its most memorable phrases, the Report described them as ‘like moles being asked about the habits of birds’.

The Tribunal endorsed the comment of Desmond Ackner QC, counsel for the Aberfan Parents’ and Residents’ Association, that coal board witnesses had tried to give the impression that ‘the Board had no more blameworthy connection with this disaster than, say, the Gas Board’.  It devoted a section of its report to ‘the attitude’ of the NCB and of Robens and forthrightly condemned both.

Corporate responsibility

In the face of the report, it now seems surprising that nobody was prosecuted, dismissed, or demoted or even said sorry.

It  is also surprising that Robens’ offer to resign as NCB chairman, which even at the time was seen as perfunctory, was rejected.  Public records released under the thirty year rule, show that he had advance sight of the tribunal report and his private office ran a media campaign to keep himself in place.  Through very public attacks on government fuel policy, he was able to portray himself as a defender of the industry and win the support of the unions.  This was not a new line for him to take but Robens was a great PR manipulator and he knew that he was securing his position.  Ministers let him stay, despite disliking him, because they thought he was the only man who could manage the decline of the coal industry and avoid strike action.  In effect, Robens’ behaviour after Aberfan became irrelevant to whether he kept his job or not.  Rather, political expediency was the name of the game.

Nobody suggested that Robens himself was to blame for the disaster but he was the head of the organisation that clearly was.  The extent of mismanagement revealed by the Tribunal was such that the question of prosecution arose in Aberfan and the media.  However the NCB itself avoided prosecution because the concept of corporate manslaughter was very much on the fringes of legal procedures.  Mining was a dangerous industry where accidents were normalised as an almost inevitable part of operations.  This is not to say that they were taken lightly but rather that they were seen as just that, accidents.

Accidents might be the product of individuals’ errors maybe but the idea that those errors could be fostered by a wider corporate culture that amounted to criminal negligence was simply not part of the contemporary agenda.  When the question of manslaughter charges was raised it was with regard to individual employees not the NCB itself.  Concepts of corporate responsibility, in and outside the coal industry, were essentially under developed.  Thus, despite the evidence to the contrary, the Aberfan disaster did nothing to challenge the picture of disasters as tragic accidents rather than criminal negligence.

A catalogue of self-serving episodes

Other events that now seem surprising followed Aberfan.  In August 1968, the government forced the trustees of the disaster fund to contribute £150,000 to the cost of removing the remaining NCB tips from above the village.  These tips were in a place and condition in which, according to the NCB’s own technical literature, they should never have been. Yet the board refused to pay and even undermined the efforts of a rival firm offering to remove the tips for less money that the NCB thought it would cost.

The contribution was bitterly controversial.  Some people wrote to ministers to complain that it was inconsistent with the charitable objectives of the fund; ministers’ replies did not address the point.  The Charity Commission failed to intervene or even query the debatable point on whether such a contribution was legal.  In contrast, it asked the disaster fund to ensure that parents were ‘close’ to their children before making any payment to them for mental suffering.

The villagers of Aberfan were traumatised  beyond the comprehension of outsiders who could see only their ‘unpredictable emotions and reactions’.  The trustees of Bethania chapel, which was used as the mortuary after the disaster, pleaded with George Thomas, the Secretary of State for Wales, to get the NCB to pay for it to be demolished and rebuilt, on the grounds that its members could not longer bear to worship there.  Thomas passed the plea on to Lord Robens, who rejected it.  Eventually it was rebuilt but at the expense of the disaster fund not the NCB.

The NCB paid just £500-a-head compensation to the bereaved parents.  To some parents this was insultingly low. Coal board lawyers, however, regarded it as ‘a generous settlement’ and it was not at odds with other contemporary payments of loss of life by a child.  Even as insurers wrangled, the ruins of the school and empty houses remained for a year.

For those in Aberfan, the legacy of this catalogue of self-serving episodes was a deep feeling of being let down and injustice.  The result is a lingering mistrust of authority.  It has also made the closure process difficult and undoubtedly hindered the healing process in the local community.  Subsequent events served to exacerbate that feeling.  In October 1998 the village suffered severe flooding.  An independent inquiry showed that the flooding was exacerbated by dumped spoil from the removed tips.  One survivor of the disaster and victims of the flooding said ‘I was buried alive in that tip in the disaster.  Now it’s the same tip again dumped outside my door.  It’s no wonder I am angry.’

A community on the periphery

George Thomas, Secretary of State for Wales and originally a teacher from the Rhondda, did initially protest at the decision to encourage the disaster fund to contribute to the payment of the removal of the tips.  But his lone voice in the cabinet was not sufficient and in the end he acquiesced in the plan and placed strong moral pressure on the disaster fund to ensure it too gave in.

There was considerable local anger but the South Wales valleys consisted of safe Labour seats.  All the major Labour figures knew that the rising Plaid Cymru support in the valleys was essentially just a protest that would pass.  The Labour hegemony thus condemned Aberfan to the margins.  In contrast, Robens’ ability to avert a coal strike was very much the concern of government and he kept his job as chairman of the NCB.

Gwynfor Evans, leader of Plaid Cymru, complained in the parliamentary debate on the disaster that if the tips had been at Hampstead or Eton, the Government would have taken more notice.  Aberfan was a small working-class community isolated from the heart of UK politics.  The government’s decision to grant legal aid to the Aberfan Parents and Residents’ Association at the Tribunal of Inquiry did mean they were able to afford the best ‘silk’ of the day.  The fearsome Desmond Ackner triumphed over the NCB at the Tribunal.  But in the aftermath of the disaster, a Labour government, whose support across South Wales was secure, ignored Aberfan’s interests.

The disaster itself, of course, was not marginalised.  The London media, Royalty, and the Prime Minister all travelled to Aberfan to see the horror for themselves.  It was only a few hours drive away or an even shorter flight.  Even Lord Robens got there, 36 hours later.  Politicians were undoubtedly personally touched by the disaster.  Harold Wilson noted that when he visited a Cornish school less than eight days after the disaster, he felt ‘almost a sense of resentment at these happy innocent children, with all they had to look forward to, compared with the children of that Welsh valley, who had no future.’  Intensive media coverage, particularly television, ensured that the disaster was seen as a national one.

Yet this was not enough to overcome the residents of Aberfan’s position on the political periphery, something that had contributed to the causes of the disaster and intensified the injustices after it. The disaster simply would not have happened had the NCB taken local fears about the tips more seriously or enforced its own rules on tip safety. But it was an organization hampered by mismanagement yet protected from market and political pressure by being part of the state and a dominant local employer.

Before the disaster, the NCB’s economic and local political power meant no one, including the small local authority in Merthyr, was able to challenge it to do more about fears on tip safety. After the disaster, the NCB’s economic and national power meant its interests took precedent over those whose children it had killed.

Martin Johnes and Iain McLean are the authors of Aberfan: Government and Disasters (Welsh Academic Press, Cardiff, 2000).  Further details of this book and other aspects of the disaster can be found at www.nuff.ox.ac.uk/politics/aberfan/home.htm A second edition will be published in 2017.

 

 

Twelfth Night

There is some confusion about when twelfth night actually is. If you count the 25th as the first day of Christmas, then twelfth night is 5 January. However, others have regarded 6 January as twelfth night, partly because the day is sometimes also known as twelfth day, a celebration of importance in its own right. The 6th of  January is certainly Epiphany, the date the Three Kings are said to have visited Jesus.

Before the Victorian re-imagined what Christmas was, twelfth night marked the second most important day of the Christmas season. It was a night for parties and jollity amongst all the classes and associated with drinking, eating, visiting neighbours and a brief respite from some of the normal conventions of public behaviour. A special cake with a lucky pea and bean inside it was common, the roots of both modern Christmas cake and the coins in Christmas puddings. In some parts of Britain, there were local traditions such as sporting contests, wassailing at orchards and even burning bushes or trees. It was essentially a celebration of the end of the Christmas holiday.

https://austenonly.files.wordpress.com/2010/01/keeping-christmas26546-correction.jpg?w=1076&h=913
Twelfth Night by Isaac Cruickshank 1794

The shift to the Gregorian calendar in the middle of the 18th century added to the significance of 6 January. Eleven days were removed from the calendar in 1752, which meant the new 6 January was the old Christmas day and some of those angry at the change continued to celebrate Christmas itself on this day. The anger may have faded but even in the early 20th century there were people whose grandparents had celebrated  the family Christmas on the sixth. Right through the Victorian period, twelfth night was also a popular date for civic Christmas balls and children’s charitable parties.

However, the Victorian period was also the time when Christmas was invented as a commercial festival and the shopping associated with this led to Christmas day becoming the culmination of celebrations rather than the start of them. The needs of an industrial society also meant people returned to work far quicker than they once had, with 25 and 26 December generally being the only days off in the late 19th century. Cakes were still eaten by some in the middle classes, and sometimes accompanied with funny rhymes and games, but the whole significance of the day was fading fast.

12tnight
Lincolnshire Echo, 8 Jan 1935

By the First World War, there were complaints from those who remembered the parties of their youth that twelfth night no longer meant anything but that was not true. In some areas there were conscious attempts to uphold older local traditions associated with the day. Some interwar towns continued their balls, whilst other communities shared cake and wassail bowls; folk culture was becoming widely valued, just as it was in its last throes.

Most commonly, twelfth night was associated with taking down Christmas decorations. Before the Victorians, when decorations were ivy, mistletoe and the like, it had been regarded as bad luck to either take down decorations before Candlemass (2 February) or before they had begun to wither. This superstition was a hangover from the belief that there was some kind of sprite in the decorations who would escape if not removed correctly and bring bad luck. Some people believed that the decorations should be burnt to avoid this.

As paper, glass and then plastic decorations became popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the superstition was transferred to these new forms. However, knowledge about why this was done could not be assumed and a 1921 magazine article felt it had to explain the superstitions to readers. There was also disagreement about whether decorations should come down on the 5th or the 6th. Nor did everyone stick to the idea of twelfth night and some decorations were taken down quickly after Boxing Day.

Walking around any town or city suggests that the majority of people no longer leave the decorations up until twelfth night and the night before returning to work or school is probably now the most common date, although not all even wait until then. Twelfth night has thus lost all its real significance but in the confusion surrounding when it is and what it signifies it is actually quite typical of Christmas traditions. We might imagine they are static and historic – and indeed that is part of their attraction – but they actually shift and alter with our changing tastes and culture.

My book Christmas and the British: A Modern History will be published by Bloomsbury Academic in October 2016.

 

 

People, home movies and their ordinary histories

I spent my afternoon watching Christmas family home movies from the British Film Institute’s newly expanded archive player.

1937Not much happens in any of the films and the absence of sound adds a rather surreal feel. The people featured are not named. We can only guess at their ages and what they are saying. They are all clearly aware of the camera but they are also carrying on pretty much as normal.

Everyone gives and receive presents, they eat meals and play games and most people laugh and mess around a bit. There are some nice shots of living spaces, furniture and seasonal decorations and some touching hugs and thank you kisses. It’s all very ordinary. Although Christmas is the most unusual day of the year, some of what makes it special is just doing everyday things with the people you love.

Some of the films come from the same family and watching them in order allows you to see fashions in dress and furnishings evolve, adults age and lose their hair, and their young children grow into teenagers. A slightly grumpy looking grandfather appears in the first of the sequence but not in any of the subsequent ones. By the last one, his wife is in a wheelchair and looking frail. Christmas always reminds people of the passage of time but these films actually chart it, in all it sadness and joys.

There has been much talk online recently about the need for radical histories that challenge and confront the present. That is, of course, important but so too is history that is more mundane because, for most people throughout history, daily life has been just that.

People eat, drink, sleep, travel, work and play. They love and they lose. Histories of such things do not have to have a political relevance, a challenge or a lesson for the present. But they can remind us that the past, like the present, is about real people. As historians we make people into numbers, categories and classifications but they are still are individuals too and watching them celebrate Christmas is a vivid reminder of that.

My favourite of the home movies can be watched here: http://player.bfi.org.uk/film/watch-family-christmas-1952/

My book Christmas and the British: A Modern History will be published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2016.

Goodbye, Mr Chips, modern education and the REF

Last night I watched a lovely 1939 film called Goodbye, Mr Chips.  In it, an elderly teacher rallies against the Headmaster of the public school he has spent his career at:

I’ve seen the old traditions dying one by one. Grace, dignity, feeling for the past. All that matters here today is a fat banking account. You’re trying to run the school like a factory for turning out moneymaking machine-made snobs! You’ve raised the fees, and in the end the boys who really belong to Brookfield will be frozen out, frozen out. Modern methods, intensive training, poppycock! Give a boy a sense of humor and a sense of proportion and he’ll stand up to anything.

Historians more than anyone should be aware of the dangers of nostalgia but as universities spend the next few days pondering, proclaiming and panicking over the results of the Research Excellence Framework, it will be difficult not to think this is not what education should be about.

The Victorian public school system is hardly a model for what universities should be doing in the 21st century but Mr Chips understood that education is about far more than things that can be quantified, monetized and put into boxes or league tables.

The creation of the Welsh Office…

It’s 50 years since the Welsh Office was created. Here’s an extract from my book Wales since 1939 that outlines the background behind its creation and the growth of Welsh administrative devolution.

Fears about the economic future in the late 1940s and early 1950s had also created demands within the Labour Party for some official recognition of distinct Welsh needs and a distinct Welsh identity.  In an acknowledgement that Wales did at least exist as an economic, administrative and cultural unit, a Council for Wales and Monmouthshire had been set up in 1949 as a non-elected advisory body to the government.  It came under the chairmanship of Huw T. Edwards, a Caernarfonshire trade unionist whose profile through the 1950s saw him dubbed the ‘unofficial prime minister of Wales’.  Looking back in 1958, a civil servant argued that the council had probably be intended as ‘relatively meaningless sop’ but Edwards’ personality had seen it gain a good deal of importance.  Through the 1950s the Council did keep up the pressure on the government to create a Welsh Office and Secretary of State, framing its demands more in terms of effective government than national recognition.  The Council was taken seriously by government but Edwards resigned in 1958 after it became apparent that it was not going introduce a Secretary of State. The government interpreted the Council’s demands as a desire for parity with Scotland but feared that should that be granted then Scotland might demand further devolution.  Given that Wales was operating under the same legal system, it foresaw that any Secretary of State would have to follow different policies to England in order not to make the position superfluous.  This, it feared, would be difficult to explain and would lead to inequalities that would be especially manifest in the Marches where social and economic ties crossed the border.  It also worried about the costs and administrative complexity of forming yet another department and feared controversy over the position of Monmouthshire, which it regarded as an English county but one that by tradition would have to be included in Welsh administration.

There was some popular support for devolving some powers from London.  In 1956 the Parliament for Wales campaign presented a petition with 240,652 signatures, representing some fourteen percent of the Welsh electorate.  Gwynfor Evans estimated that 80 percent of the people asked had signed it.  This was the culmination of a six-year campaign that had included leading figures from Labour, the Liberals and Plaid Cymru.  But it won no sympathy with the government or most of the press.  The Cardiff Labour MP George Thomas thought the Welsh people needed saving from themselves, while David Llewellyn, a Tory MP in the same city, even drew parallels between the campaign and Mein Kampf.  The lack of specificity in the campaign’s claims probably made it easier to collect signatures but the internal disagreements within the campaign over what Wales’ problems actually were and how a parliament would solve them undermined its political influence.  At the end of 1956, one of the leading figures in the campaign reflected ‘All the petition’s papers are now in cardboard boxes, one on top of each other, rotting through dampness’. The campaign did help raise the profile of Plaid Cymru and was another step towards the gradual construction of a proto-Welsh state but ultimately its failure marked a widespread satisfaction with the status quo.  This was clear when the South Wales area of the NUM voted against the campaign, fearing it would undermine the UK bargaining position of the union.

The Tryweryn revolt, the reports of the Council for Wales and the Parliament for Wales campaign may not have secured their immediate objectives but cumulatively they encouraged government to take specifically Welsh interests seriously.  In 1958, civil servants anticipated that Plaid Cymru could grow if Welsh feelings were ‘handled tactlessly’ and if there was a fusion between the party and elements within Labour that were ‘more Welsh than Socialist’.  The key to avoiding this, they felt, lay in persuading Wales that the government was taking its economic welfare seriously and dispelling the ‘widespread notion that people in England neither know nor care whether the Welsh and Welsh culture fare well or ill’.  Seven months earlier the Prime Minister had told his cabinet, “There is a general feeling among Welsh people that their particular interests are not receiving the attention which they should and we shall need to be specially careful and sympathetic in our handling of Welsh affairs at the present time if we are to prevent the Welsh Nationalist movement from gaining ground.”

In response to pressure from Welsh MPs for a Secretary for State for Wales, the Conservatives had already introduced a Minister of Welsh Affairs in 1951, a post held by an existing Cabinet member with a different portfolio.  Although the minister did not have a government department, the position did ensure someone within the Cabinet with a specific remit to look after and act on Welsh interests.  The first holder was the Home Secretary Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, a Scottish lawyer, who tried to defuse criticism that he was not Welsh by claiming that that one of his ancestors had led an army from Scotland which tried to join Owain Glyndwr.  He proved the worth of the post by shelving unpopular forestry and military plans for Welsh land. Although there were still the occasional controversy – such as the government’s 1960 appointment of a non-Welsh speaker as National Governor of the BBC in Wales – there were significant signs of increased sensitivity to Wales.  In 1958, a Festival of Wales was held under the government’s auspices. It culminated in the holding of the Commonwealth Games in Cardiff and the announcement by the Queen that Charles would be made Prince of Wales.  The introduction of county rather than national referenda on Sunday opening in 1961 was a concession for rural Wales, as was the main Mid Wales railway line’s survival of the Beeching cut. The government began giving financial support for the publishing of Welsh-language school books in 1954, and the 1959 Eisteddfod Act allowed local authorities to support financially the National Eisteddfod.  In 1958, a new steel development went to Llanwern rather than Scotland after anger in Wales that the Forth Bridge had been given priority over the Severn Bridge, despite the Minister for Welsh Affairs arguing the Severn’s case to combat the ‘wide and deep distrust of the Government’s attitude towards Wales’. Cardiff was made the official capital of Wales in 1955 and four years later government pressure on Buckingham Palace led to the Red Dragon being declared the official national flag.  These Conservative concessions were the result of external pressure on the party but they also show how the existence of a minister for Wales and then sensitivity over Tryweryn increased the influence of Welsh interests in government.

In contrast, internal pressure from Labour MPs, not least James Griffiths, led that party to finally commit itself to creating a Secretary of State for Wales, a promise which it honoured when it returned to power in 1964.  Not everyone in government was enamoured.  In his diary, Richard Crossman called the Welsh Office an ‘idiotic creation’ and ‘completely artificial’.  There was also some concern in the north that Wales’s voice in Cabinet would actually diminish because the post meant Welsh affairs would be treated separately after England had been looked at.  The Secretary of State would be ‘a lone voice, and one can only hope for the best’ one paper surmised.  But one immediate benefit was felt.  The new department took the importance of expanding the M4 far more seriously than the Ministry of Transport and plans were quickly put in place for a series of new sections that would open through the 1970s.

The full and referenced version of this text can be found in Martin Johnes, Wales since 1939 (Manchester University Press, 2012), available in paperback, hardback and on Kindle.

Disco for the Eyes: NME’s review of Star Wars

I stumbled on this last week whilst reading through the NME’s incessant hatred of Christmas songs. The NME thought it was far too cool for its own good but this is unusually perceptive.

“Star Wars is the only movie I’ve ever seen which captures the unique feeling of reading comic books while stoned. … The ‘70s are a time of coping with psychic defeats and the deadening of our collective nerve ends, and Star Wars is an entertainment built around spectacle: it tickles, dazzles and delights the senses while leaving the intellect and the emotions as undisturbed as possible. Finally, it’s disco for the eyes.”

New Musical Express 24 December 1977

What next? Some back of the envelope thinking

It was nowhere near as close as many hoped or feared but 1.6m UK citizens still said they wanted out. The prime minister has reaffirmed his commitment to the vague devo-max promises made late in the day.  Fearing the rise of UKIP, his backbenchers insist that the ‘English question’ needs sorting too. Despite the uncertainties, constitutional change is coming.

Scotland will sort itself out I’m sure. The backlash would be too great if they did not get something acceptable to the Scottish government.  The Tory  backbenchers would no doubt like to see public spending in Scotland brought into line with England but the PM seems to have committed to the Barnett formula that allows higher Scottish spending, while oil revenues offer him a justification to defend that.

The problem with committing to Barnett is that it hurts Wales. Unlike Scotland, Wales gets more from the public purse than it pays in (maybe £12billion a year) but  if its block grant was funded on the same basis as Scotland it would get another £300m a year.  (I’m simplifying but that’s basically the case).

The UK government could of course just change the Barnett formula so Wales and Scotland were treated equitably. However, a greater ‘hand out’ to Wales will not go down well with the backbenchers or the English nationalist party that masquerades as UKIP. It might also mean less cash for Scotland. A future Labour UK government does appear to have promised some sort of Barnett reform  but the details are vague and, anyway, they’re not in power.

Cameron has to face up to solving the Barnett issue because without doing that he can’t deliver “English votes for English issues”. At the moment, the level of public spending in England helps determine the size of the Welsh and Scottish block grants. Thus any vote on, say, English education that involves a change to spending levels is not an England-only issue because it affects the Welsh and Scottish budgets.  Welsh and Scottish MPs will continue to be justified in voting on English issues for as long as Barnett continues.

Thus any constitutional reform of England has to first address how Wales and Scotland are funded.  But it is surely not impossible to come up with a new formula that calculates the Welsh and Scottish block grants based on an equitable assessment of their needs (i.e. the extent of deprivation there and the cost of delivering services).

Once you have a new formula there is nothing to stop a federal parliamentary system for the UK, the ‘home rule for all’ option. Here the Commons becomes the English Parliament and the parliaments of all four nations have fiscal and domestic responsibilities. The Lords, meanwhile, is replaced with a UK-wide new elected chamber that deals with defence and other UK-wide issues. England has a first minister. The UK has a prime minister. They might belong to different parties.

There might need to be some policy alignments between the nations or a retention of some UK-wide domestic issues.  For example, significantly different levels of unemployment benefit and state pensions could lead to some awkward population movements.  But you could leave welfare payments (except housing benefit which is ultimately a local issue) at a UK level.

Most importantly, a federal UK could only work if there was some form of wealth redistribution between the nations. This happens within the EU and would be the cost of retaining some form of political unity and collective safety. In essence what would happen is that Wales and Northern Ireland, using whatever replaced Barnett, would get a subsidy from England, plugging the hole in their finances. If they wanted to spend beyond that they would have to use their tax and borrowing powers.

UKIP would moan but surely would not be in an electoral position to do much about it now the England question is solved.  (The EU issue would still be there but I have enough faith in the English electorate to vote to stay in any European referendum .) Labour would lose some influence in England but not in the UK. They won’t like that but democracy means it is unfair for them to govern England unless they can get a majority there. The Tories would be happy because they  had saved the union, increased their influence in England and hurt UKIP.  National identity in the four nations would be recognized.

The biggest question mark would be whether the English electorate would accept the subsidy of Wales and Northern Ireland.  But that already exists and polls say they want to keep the union and believe in social justice. This is the cost.

I’m sure the devil is in the detail but I’ve put the same level of thought into this as the back of the envelope vows made by the UK parties just before the referendum.