Friday, 21 October 2016

Aberfan: man-made disaster

Fifty years ago today I was thirteen years old. I wasn’t highly alert to what might be happening outside the world of school and friends and family. 

Hey, I was thirteen.

Even so, I looked with incomprehension mixed with revulsion at the pictures on TV from a small Welsh village I’d never heard of, where a slag heap had slid down a hill and engulfed a school. 116 children, younger than I, had died as well as 28 adults. I might never have heard the name of Aberfan but after that, I’d never forget it.

Aberfan child coffins: the aftermath of a catastrophe made by man
A slag heap. The waste product of a coal mine. Surely an industry as old and established as mining knew how to handle slag? But it turned out that they didn’t. They’d simply planted it on the slope of a hill that was soaked with rainwater and natural springs. Underneath all that slag, the ground had become saturated and slippery and the whole thing had, eventually, come tumbling down.

A few hours later, and the school would have been empty. But as it was all but a handful of the village’s children were wiped out.

Perhaps even sadder was the other irony, that many had warned of the disaster to come. A year earlier, the head of the school, Ann Jennings had presented a petition about the tip from mothers of pupils, to the local council. No action was taken. And Ann Jennings would be one of the victims of the slip.

One of the most shameful repercussions of that terrible day in 1966 was the behaviour of Lord Robens, then Chairman of the National Coal Board. He denied that the slip could have been prevented, a statement that was found to be false by the enquiry into the disaster. He denied that the Coal Board had any responsibility towards Aberfan other than to stabilise the remains of the tip. When he finally agreed to get rid of it insisted, he had the gall to insist that £150,000 of the money raised for the village by the disaster relief fund (nearly 10% of the total) should be diverted to help pay for that work.

Robens had been a Labour MP – Labour, for Pete’s sake – and even a member of one of the great Labour governments, Attlee’s. The National Coal Board had been set up as a result of the nationalisation of the coal mines.

One of the central aims of socialism is to ensure that the sources of economic wealth, the means of production, should be held by the whole of society on behalf of the whole of society. This strikes me, as it would anyone who feels inspired by socialist views, as a highly laudable objective. I have to admit, though, that it’s hard to see a satisfactory way of achieving it. The shortcut adopted by many socialists or social democrats, from many countries, in the middle of the last century, was to nationalise industries. That means bringing them under state control.

It seems to make sense. At first view, the state represents everyone and belongs to everyone. So if it owns the means of production, then everyone owns them.

The problem comes at second view. Because do we all really own the state? Isn’t it, in reality, controlled by an elite as isolated and opaque as occupants of the board rooms of private industry? If they control the state, how can we say that we own what the state owns?

The lesson of Aberfan seems powerful to me. State ownership is not popular ownership. In that  little Welsh village, a state-owned industry did terrible damage to the people. It was ungenerous in its assistance and then it tried to leech on the support others gave.

Stateism isn’t socialism. The State is capable of being just as oppressive towards people as any private industry. State ownership isn’t in itself a route to liberation, it’s merely an economic tool to be used where it’s useful and avoided where it isn’t: some industries are better state-owned than privately-owned, some are better state-owned today but not tomorrow, others it’s best to keep well away from the state.

Socialism, if it’s to be worth anything, is about doing far more than demanding nationalisation. It’s about helping people like the inhabitants of Aberfan. Doing what we can to make sure that avoidable suffering is never inflicted on them again and, where it’s unavoidable – as in natural rather than man-made disasters – to come to their aid. The rest is just a means to those ends.

For today, though, on the fiftieth anniversary of that catastrophe, we should put all that aside and just focus on the victims. And remember the incomprehension so many of us felt back then. Even callous thirteen-year olds.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I agree Aberfan was a terrible disaster ,nothing to do with nationalisation simply mans need for affordable energy. Nationalisation was about rescuing a number of industry's that were left destroyed and bankrupt after the war. The result was they were saved as were the shareholders who received very good compensation in government bonds with a very good yield, far better than their previous share holding had returned. So who was it good for? I don't know what nationalisation offers or proves. Without private enterprise there would have been nothing to nationalise, so what is the answer, to me it's an entropronerial world what else. It's exactly what a positive or negative society is about. Labour we all want to be middle of the road and Conservative we all want everyone to be a winner.