By Susan Merrell
Although I’ve never met our Prime Minister Julia Gillard, her background is so similar to my own that I think of her as ‘our Julia’. It’s how she would have been known to those closest to her in the vernacular of South Wales from where both she and I hail and where, for a time, we lived seven miles apart before both our families migrated to Australia – mine two years after hers.
In the Australian vernacular we were ‘ten pound Poms’. But ‘Poms’ were the English and although used to refer to people from Britain generally, we Welsh knew we were different and that applied particularly to politics. For when England and Scotland voted Conservative last century, Wales never did.
The Welsh novelist and humorist Gwyn Thomas, who hailed from the Rhondda Valley in south Wales once explained to an interviewer that he was born with socialism running through his veins and that it would take the efforts of a whole blood bank to shift him to the right. As for Gwyn Thomas, so it was for many of us.
Although Ms. Gillard hardly had had the time to absorb the political context in Wales before her fifth birthday, her parents, nevertheless, were well versed and clearly imbued Ms. Gillard with this commonplace Welsh political outlook judging by her own rise through the ranks of the Australian Labor Party via the union movement.
In Wales, it was the issues of the coalfield that created the political mindset that has lingered even through shifting paradigms. Coal miners were some of the most exploited and oppressed of all workers even though the mine owners were the some of the richest men in the world (and yes, they were mostly all men).
Welsh miners became militant. Having nothing worth conserving, political conservatism was never a viable option. They organised and unionised to improve their sad lot. They embraced socialism and the Labour Party and they took the rest of Wales to the political left with them.
How ironic then that one of the first issues that Ms. Gillard faced as Prime Minister was the mining super profits tax.
For she was born in the shadow of the docks in Barry built by David Davies Llandinam who was one of the richest men in the world thanks to the ownership of South-Welsh coal mines. He built the docks in Barry to ensure a cost-effective and efficient passage for his coal, in preference to relying on the nearby Cardiff docks. Davies’ super profits must have been huge!
But it’s not the entrepreneurial Davies – who had risen to his position of wealth from a very lowly beginning (his father was a sawyer) – that Ms. Gillard has identified as her Welsh hero, but one Aneurin (Nye) Bevan, who was one of the architects of Britain’s ‘Welfare State’.
It was our Nye that designed and implemented Britain’s National Health Scheme as part of the 1945 Labour government of Clement Atlee.
Bevan’s move to political prominence in Britain was very similar to Ms. Gillard’s, firstly through the union movement as an official of the very powerful South Wales Miners Federation and then latterly through the British Labour Party.
Yet Bevan often found himself at loggerheads with the unions later on his career, deracinating him from his own union roots as a miner. Did Ms. Gillard’s winding back of the ‘super profits tax’ similarly deracinate her from her natural constituency?
The major difference in the trajectory of both careers resides in the fact that Ms. Gillard was successful in wresting control of the party away from her predecessor and gaining the ultimate political power in Australia whereas Bevan never succeeded in Britain.
For Bevan alienated many in his party. He was authoritarian and difficult. The press dubbed him the ‘Tito from Tonypandy’ (invoking the authoritarian leader of the then Yugoslavia, Marshall Tito, and Tonypandy where a miners’ strike provoked Winston Churchill, then home secretary, to controversially send in the army to quell it). Hugh Gaitskell, the politician who was the Labour Party’s preferred leader in a two-way tussle against Bevan nicknamed Bevan a ‘Cymric Hitler’.
So are there lessons for Ms. Gillard here?
With so many changes of leadership in our two major national political parties lately, there ought to be.
So, our Julia, heed the lessons well. The legacy of the militant Welsh miners is yours too. Pob hwyl i chi (Good luck to you.)