Alun Burge’s new book William Hazell’s gleaming vision (Y Lolfa, 2014) is an important work, at once a celebration and an archaeological excavation. It uncovers an era and a culture almost forgotten today, and restores to both the place they deserve in our common history.
Thanks to two generations of talented historians the labour movement in south Wales is well documented. But there are gaps, and one of the most obvious is the impact of the co-operative movement, which Alun’s book starts to fill. Co-operation got off to a slow start in Wales, but once it took root, from the 1880s, it prospered, expanding in times of relative plenty, before the Great War, and surviving through the long post-war depression to flourish again after the Second World War. Though the core of its work lay in the retail business, where it developed a real community-based alternative to prevailing ‘shopocracy’ capitalism, its contributions to the life and culture of the communities it served were many and various.
William Hazell, a Londoner who came as a young man to the village of Ynysybwl, north of Pontypridd, to find work in the Lady Windsor coal mine there, quickly associated himself with the ideals and practice of co-operation. He was elected to the Management Committee of the Ynysybwl Co-operative Society in 1915, aged 24 years, and retired from it in 1959, though he continued as President till his death in 1964.
He never attained the status of a national leader of the co-operative movement, but in south Wales Hazell was prominent and highly respected for his dedication, organising ability and integrity. He makes an ideal focus for a study of co-operation in Wales, for two reasons: not only did he range widely across the local labour movement – as well as holding positions in the Ynysybwl Co-operative Society (YCS), including its Presidency for 30 years, he was active in the miners’ lodge and institute, and served as a local Labour councillor – but he was also a thinker and intellectual, and published on co-operation and on a huge array of other subjects over many decades. Alun lists almost 400 articles Hazell contributed to newspapers and periodicals, in addition to histories of three co-operative societies, including one on Ynysybwl which he entitled The gleaming vision (1954). Family letters from Hazell also survive, which enable his biographer to flesh out the story of Hazell’s political and public career with vivid details of his domestic life.
No one reading Alun’s book could fail to see that William Hazell was a remarkable man, even if he never gained, or sought, wider recognition. His achievements were built on two equal pillars. The first was an unshakable set of values. These crystallised around the idea that cooperation, collectivity and solidarity could be applied to consumption as well as production, and could be further extended to other aspects of life in a community (co-operative social activities included choirs and other musical groups, lectures, exhibitions, excursions and educational classes). The second was an intense personal dedication that drove him to serve his causes vitually night and day. As Alun remarks, ‘thinking, speaking, writing and doing for Hazell were indivisible.’ This commitment, reinforced by his autodidact’s love of knowledge and by his religious faith, he pursued at the expense of other responsibilities, including at times his duties to his family. In some respects Hazell was ahead of his time, especially in his ideas on the status of women and on the need to respect the natural environment. He thought most intensively about the future of his beloved co-operative movement, especially at critical moments like the advent of the post-war Labour government, when, in his view, state ownership and management from above gained the upper hand at the expense of locally based and locally accountable voluntary effort. His ambitions for his movement were high: its expansion could lead to ‘the genesis of a new social order’. Yet his idealism and his radicalism – his attacks on capitalism never wavered – were allied to a practical bent, most obvious in his tireless committee work.
The social conditions of the valleys before the Great War, the seed bed of the co-operative movement in Wales, were special. Very few inhabitants of Ynysybwl had been born there. Most people had moved in, from dozens of counties in Wales and England. And yet these people, who had been thrown together so quickly, grew into a remarkably coherent and close community. Between 1907 and 1925 only 8% of the colliery workers travelled in to work from outside the village. This social cohesion no doubt accounts for the fact that Hazell’s co-operative society and others like it began life in villages before branching out into larger towns – Pontypridd and Caerphilly in the case of the YCS.
The successes of the cooperative movement in the central Valleys shine through the narrative. Looking back from the 1960s, Alun observes
It is difficult now to imagine a single enterprise that could incorporate a butchery, hardware, travel bureau, cafeteria, building, painting and decorating service, a carriage and coach building workshop, ladies hairdressing, toys, TV radio and repairs, footwear, optical and funeral services, sports … It was, in effect, a mini business empire.
Yet by now the Co-op was already facing decline, as affluence, consumerism and youth culture began to change the shape of consumer behaviour. Today the Co-op is a shadow of its old self, its businesses on the point of being sold off, its bank in the merciless hands of US private hedge funds.
Alun refrains from drawing parallels and lessons from the point of view of 2014, but it’s difficult to read his book without asking yourself questions such as ‘is a truly local cooperative movement imaginable again?’. Common sense suggests not. Our economy is, it seems, irrevocably global and dominated by massive, unaccountable and all-powerful conglomerates. The neoliberal principles that support it remain virtually unchallenged, even in the wake of the 2008 crash.
And yet few things last for ever. To take a retail example, a year or two ago no one could have forecast that the vast hypermarkets besieging the outskirts of our towns and cities would, like woolly mammoths, suddenly lose their evolutionary niche in favour of small, locally-based shops. A more difficult question is whether, after decades of relentless hegemonic domination by notions of competition and individualism it will possible in future for the subtler attractions of self-interest through co-operation to regain their appeal. A.R. Davies’s formulation of the essence of co-operation, ‘a living, practical demonstration of what can be accomplished by an enthusiastic, self-governing local democracy of working men and women’, seems to belong firmly to another age – the 1950s and earlier.
Whatever the answers to these and other questions, it’s impossible to leave reading William Hazell’s gleaming vision without a huge admiration for what Hazell and his allies achieved, and a sense of loss at the eclipse, at least for a while, of their human and humane values. This is a book – as readable as it is pioneering – that deserves a wide audience, and not just in Wales, because its messages are universal.