Whenever the entire British establishment sings from the same hymn-sheet there is one thing you can be certain of: they are telling a gigantic lie. This is what we have seen this month on the 50th anniversary of the Aberfan disaster. The broadcasters, the press, the politicians, the churches, the royals, the Great, the Good and Uncle Tom Cobley and all…they are unanimous in their damning condemnations, stern admonishments, deep sympathies, sombre remorse, humbled shame, heartfelt inspiration and absolute determination that lessons be learnt. But these are just words. Useless, glib, insincere, manipulative, routine, ritualistic, expedient, virtue-signalling, obfuscating, patronising, hypocritical, dirty, filthy, sickening words.
There is no better exponent of the Great British Lie than the BBC. I dutifully watched BBC Wales’ prestige, hour-long Aberfan: The Fight for Justice from beginning to end. It was very good, very good indeed. No expense had been spared from BBC Wales’ miniscule and ever-shrinking Welsh-specific programme budget, largely taken already by Dr Who and a tower block in Temperance Town. Huw Edwards, the only possible candidate for the job on Auntie’s entire pay-roll, forensically, methodically and calmly narrated the appalling, still shocking and utterly damning facts to a sumptuous backdrop of exquisitely-filmed locations. Verbatim dramatisations of key moments in the official inquiry compellingly underlined the incredible callousness, wicked chicanery and murderous criminality of Alfred Robens (1910-1999) and his National Coal Board (NCB). The extraordinarily despicable cruelty of the Labour government in London and, most specifically, Secretary of State for Wales George Thomas (1909-1997) who refused to remove the tips, hid from protestors at the Welsh Office in Cardiff, capitulated gracelessly and then raided the disaster appeal fund to pay for the removal was laid bare, as was the rotten-to-the-core sadism and larceny of the Charity Commission that sought to compensate at the rate of £50 per child (the working-classes would only fritter away an unaccustomed windfall) on condition that the parents could prove the child was important and close to them. Survivors and the bereaved spoke with powerful dignity, noble rage and moving eloquence. Huw Edwards concluded with elegiac wisdom from the memorial garden. The essence of inhumanity is not hatred, it is indifference. Oh how true. I duly wept.
There you are then. Put the kettle on, Polly, there’s a New Tricks repeat on Drama…
It took me a while to realise what was wrong with the programme: everywhere was stunningly beautiful. Aberfan appeared as cutely immaculate as a Cotswold village. The Welsh Office in Cathays Park glittered with the elegant grandiosity of a Roman temple. The hills and valleys were a bucolic paradise of lush woods and pastures. Nowhere in the film did a solitary item of litter or single stain of decrepitude sully the pristine environment. All was bathed in a golden glow of sunlight shining warmly and benignly under aquamarine cloudless skies. Even Merthyr Tydfil, for heaven’s sake, looked the epitome of sleek, scrubbed, sophisticated prosperity. In this setting, the horrifying black and white pictures of 1966 couldn’t help but emphasise the grey gloom and prompt the inescapable comparisons: that was then, this is now; everything is completely different; things are better; the past is a foreign country.
Since filming took place across six months and the programme was meticulously scripted, planned, designed and choreographed, and since the chances of accidentally stumbling upon a sunny day in the valleys are around 30 to one, the decision to bathe the present in this glorious glow was clearly directorial and deliberate. And, since the chances of avoiding eye contact with random mounds of fly-tipped debris let alone a stray plastic bag are virtually zero anywhere in Wales, this means the BBC actually deep cleansed down to the last fag-end everywhere they filmed. Why? What possible reason could there be to buff up, airbrush, censor, misrepresent and shoot through vaseline and gauze the abandoned, blighted, bleak, desecrated, derelict, broken valleys of 21st century south Wales, such a by-word for poverty that they have been forced to subsist on European emergency aid for decades? There can be only one answer. Behind Huw Edwards’ righteous, reverential indignation, which in any case is the only possible response to Aberfan after 50 years of overwhelming, staggering evidence, slinks the subliminal message: problems are sorted, stay anaesthetised Taffy.
But the components that produced the Aberfan disaster are far from sorted. In fact, all are still at large and indeed thriving as never before in today’s Wales.
In all the UK coalfields it was only in Wales that colliery waste was dumped onto steep slopes and only in Wales that tips were located above places of human population. This was possible because Wales had no say whatsoever in any decision affecting it, was deemed to have no interests of its own and had the classic extractive economy of all colonial possessions. No sovereign state would do such a thing to its own people. Fifty years on, a few tentative, partial, limited and strictly conditional morsels of devolution have been hard-won but in all the ways that matter Wales’ position is unchanged. Wales still has no control of its energy, minerals, land-use, infrastructure, environment and industries – the very areas of policy where spectacularly negligent mismanagement by the UK combined to bring about the Aberfan disaster. Coal-mining’s death toll has plunged only because all that dirty, dangerous work has been outsourced to faraway low-wage economies, not because UK governance has become any less uncaring, incompetent or irresponsible. Nowadays, to provide the UK with its cheap energy, Wales is just inflicted with the vast craters of open-cast mining, the CO²-belching chimneys of unreconstructed, climate change-denying power stations, the dark, dead forests of the timber industry, the swishing blades of wind-farms from coast to mountain-top, the crackling of overhead pylons goosestepping across the hills, the spewing clouds of incinerators and scrap metal processors, the engorged and leaking underground pipes of explosive chemicals and gases beneath our feet, and the radioactive poisons of an encircling clamp of nuclear installations. And, although one of the consequences of Aberfan was the eventual removal, over many decades, of dangerously unstable coal tips in the valleys, all the other legacies of environmental desecration are present and correct. The hideous, humiliating scars of the industries that exploited and then abandoned Wales still deface the country: derelict steelworks, demolished factories and disused smokestacks, waste plants, holding tanks, pipelines, chimneys and quarries; barren, scalped deserts left by the ransacking of Wales’ iron, tin, copper, lead, gold, slate, stone and coal; toxic, contaminated settling ponds, water-courses, springs and lakes; and everywhere the chucked away detritus and rubbish that was never cleared up because it was valueless and this is only Wales. Most pertinently, a multitude of coal slag heaps still deface southern Wales, reduced in height, made less precipitous, roughly ‘landscaped’, but all too evident through the sickly pale-green of what sparse vegetation they can sustain. For instance, in the Rhondda Fach, where I’ve been spending a lot of time recently, the stratospheric conical tip above Tylorstown is visible from Cardiff Bay 22 miles away, while the jagged peaks of a tip exposed by the Porth by-pass at Wattstown have to be held in place by a girdle of steel and concrete. Two valleys eastward, at Aberfan itself, the mountains above the Taff are plastered with slag heaps that have simply been flattened across the uplands, acidifying the soil and making an eco-holocaust as bad as anywhere in the world. This is the grim, horrifying reality that rebuts any notions that the Aberfan disaster changed attitudes to the Welsh environment or taught the British authorities any sensitivity, any respect or any inclination to make genuine reparations.
The UK’s atrocious treatment of the Welsh people over centuries was symbolised perfectly by the fact that the epicentre of the Aberfan disaster was a junior school; the place above all others where the British state, in loco parentis, has the paramount legal duty to care for and protect those least able to look after themselves. Then the contempt was rubbed in when nobody was prosecuted, fined, sacked, disciplined or even reprimanded for this most serious of all crimes, all the way to where the buck didn’t stop: the desk of NCB boss Robens. Here, in the most graphic way imaginable, was Britain doing what it has always done in Wales: getting away with murder. These days the malevolence is less crudely blatant but distributed across all areas of policy and far more lethal. For 40 years, the wicked economics of free-market turbo capitalism have been imposed on Wales by London. In a casino economy designed for spivs, con-men, money-launderers, tax-dodgers and crime syndicates, the rich have got ever more obscenely richer and the poor ever poorer. To give just one illustration of the UK’s staggering rise in inequality: in 1980 bosses’ pay was 20 times greater than workers’ pay, today it is 200 times greater. Inequality will always increase unless government intervenes, simply because money makes money and lack of money begets further lack of money. So in Wales, handicapped by being impoverished already, the consequences of the free-market Neo-Con experiment cooked up at the behest of billionaires, press barons and Old Etonians, have been especially catastrophic. Every aspect of Welsh economic, social and cultural life has been savagely wrecked and thousands upon thousands of lives have been ruined. Among the countless examples in every walk of life, the destruction of the social security system stands out. Wales was made dependent on the benefits system by the summary abolition of its industrial base, the main source of employment, and the relocation of industry to unregulated, de-unionised sweat-shop economies of the third world, the better to drive down pay, boost corporate profits and crush workers’ organisations. After a century in which Wales had been ransacked of its natural resources and stripped of its wealth in an unprecedented orgy of greed, the entire industrial identity of Wales was dispensed with in 10 years flat by Thatcherism, dismantling communities and leaving the dire health consequences of heavy industry as the only lasting legacy. Then, having been thrown on the scrap-heap and forced into reliance on the safety-net of a social security system that had been hard-won after decades of struggle, that safety net was, by increments, completely dismantled by a sequence of odious Labour and Conservative British governments – culminating in today’s reality of ‘fit for work’ tests that nobody can pass, ‘sanctions’ that leave people starving, a bedroom tax that throws people out of their homes, massive housing benefit reductions, swingeing cuts to disability benefits and 40,000 Welsh children relying on food banks – all conducted to a hateful propaganda onslaught by the media giants against ‘scroungers’ and ‘skivers’, and all for the sake of bailing out the billionaire bankers with trillions from the public purse when their pyramid-selling scams went belly up. In this way thousands of Welsh people have been effectively killed off by Britain over the past decade. Anecdotally, I know of three people in Cardiff this year alone who prematurely ended their lives for sheer want of basic human needs here in the 6th richest state on the planet. Across Wales there is now a body-count of Aberfan proportions every day.
People who haven’t been to the valleys for a while are always sickened to their core when they return and see what has happened to once dynamic, vital towns and villages, emptied of virtually all amenities and viable businesses, visibly crumbling, boarded-up, bought up cheaply by absentee buy-to-let parasites from England with money to spare to fatten their pension pots and purged of community, solidarity, collectivism, hope and purpose. In 2007 the people of Aberfan finally received the full amount of money they had been owed since George Thomas had stolen it from the appeal fund in 1968. It wasn’t the British state that coughed up though; it was the Welsh assembly, out of its tiny budget, that found the £2million owed. The almost powerless assembly had only been founded in 1999, in the teeth of opposition to its very existence co-ordinated by George Thomas, by then the openly Tory peer Lord Tonypandy. In this, and in many other small ways, even the toothless, timid and incoherent series of Labour governments in Cardiff Bay show how effortlessly preferable they are to whoever is in power in Westminster. If George Thomas had had his way, the money would never have been paid back. As it is, the £2million is chicken-feed that can do no more than maintain the cemetery, memorial garden and community centre for a few more years. Nothing can ever compensate the wiping out of a generation until Wales unshackles itself from the Britain that will always rain down horror on its abject subjects.
Yes, I reckon the Aberfan wailing and bemoaning of the BBC and all the British establishment is nothing more than the same old crocodile tears that were put on display on the 40th anniversary of the disaster, updated with more fearless research as the event gets ever more safely distant enough for it to be calcified into fable, sentimentalised into melodrama and twisted into ‘never again’ self-congratulation. If any of it were authentic, a quick start could be made on real rectifications by the extrication of Wales from the abominable Charity Commission of England & Wales, the body that behaved so very uncharitably 50 years ago. It’s still going strong almost entirely unreformed, still propping up private schools, religious fundamentalism and the self-glorifying tax fiddles of the wealthy, and still defining and overseeing a sector so corrupt that it was home from home for the single most effective charitable fundraiser in British history to date: Margaret Thatcher’s Christmas house-guest and Prince Charles’ mentor and confidant: Sir Jimmy Savile, OBE.
Talking of paedophiles, there is another small but resonant step that could be implemented immediately right here in Wales. The cancer charity, George Thomas Hospice Care, should rename itself pronto. It provides an important service that the terminally underfunded NHS does not, but persists in insulting Wales by plastering the name of the torturer of Aberfan all over its many charity shops in Cardiff and purpose-built hospice, Tŷ George Thomas, in Whitchurch. Coyly calling itself ‘GTHC’, which the charity has been increasingly doing while awaiting the outcome of the interminable investigations into allegations of historic child sexual abuse against Thomas, will not suffice. Regardless of what the police discover about him, it is indisputable fact that he was the epitome of the profoundly fucked-up self-hating Welsh traitor, a revolting crawler and toady to power and wealth, an evil oppressor of his own people for personal gain, a rabid rightwing British nationalist to his dying breath, a mind-boggling hypocrite who bible-bashed for the Methodists when he wasn’t getting his rocks off with bits of rough down the docks or paying off his rent-boy blackmailers. His name should be expunged from Wales – and, while we’re at it, the ‘Welsh’ Labour Party should also disown him, along with all the other anti-Welsh, anti-socialist infiltrators they have harboured and lionised over the years and whose contemporary versions are still plentiful within their ranks to this day.
Perhaps then we might begin to take these protest-too-loud protestations from Brit apologists seriously. Because until the incalculable, ongoing harm is firstly stopped, secondly reversed, thirdly repaired, fourthly recompensed and finally made impossible in the future, there can be no conclusion other than this: they don’t mean a word of it and the British are the very worst people the world has ever known.
Picture: HM Stationery Office