In an election week, it’s difficult to maintain my principle of completely excluding politics from this blog. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always been interested in politics (and, indeed, taught it for many years): indeed, I suspect I’m also a member of one of the most exclusive clubs in the whole of British politics. There are probably only a few hundred people in the country, at most, who can legitimately claim that the first two votes they ever cast were in referendums – or referenda, if you prefer, as does this proud possessor of a Grade 5 Latin O-level. I turned eighteen in April 1975, and was therefore thrown at once into a bitter battle of profound principle between two great opposing forces, with a truly momentous issue of life-changing proportions at stake: yes, the Welsh Sunday drinking referendum.
(The other referendum I voted in that year was something to do with the Common Market, whatever that was.)
The Sunday drinking votes were one of the great oddities of Welsh life for many years. Because of the powerful influence of the chapels and the temperance movement, an act of 1881 banned drinking in Wales on the sabbath. Or at least, it banned drinking in pubs: working men’s clubs and rugby club bars did a roaring trade on Sundays, while the loophole that towns with livestock markets could permit all-day opening on market day led to the bizarre situation in Carmarthen, which had market days six days a week but where the pub doors remained resolutely closed on a Sunday. Elsewhere, some pubs straddled county borders, so it was legal to drink in one bar on a Sunday but illegal to drink in the other one. From 1961 onwards, each Welsh local authority was permitted to hold a referendum once every seven years to determine whether their area should remain ‘dry’, but this only created more anomalies. For example, in Llanelli, where I grew up, 11.45 or thereabouts on a Sunday morning would see the curious spectacle of a large convoy of cars heading for the Loughor Bridge, about four miles away, which was the Glamorgan border – for Glamorgan had gone ‘wet’ in one of the earlier votes. Thus the pubs in villages like Loughor, Gorseinon and Gowerton, just over the bridge, did a roaring trade from the hordes of thirsty Llanelli-ites pouring through their doors as soon as they opened at noon. And so off I went to the ballot box, put my X in the box, and found myself on the winning side – Llanelli went ‘wet’.
But back to my reasons for making this blog a politics-free zone. For one thing, I don’t want to offend one group of readers by nailing my colours to too many masts. For another, there are many people much better qualified than myself to blog about politics – or at least, who think they are. Above all, though, I learned very early in life that politics is a minefield, and that it was much better to keep my opinions to myself. This was due principally to the influence of my grandfather and his five brothers, who between them included committed supporters of Labour, the Liberals, the Conservatives…another brother was an army sergeant who served on the North-West Frontier in the 1920s and 1930s, and although I never knew him or his politics, I somehow suspect that he wasn’t a Guardian reader…and then there was Uncle Ivor.
A gregarious, pugnacious character with a liking for the odd glass of Scotch, Ivor was a card-carrying Communist whose name once featured on the front pages of the tabloids: he was one of the Communist members on the national executive of the Electricians’ Union who were indicted for ballot-rigging during one of the great political scandals of the late 1950s and early 1960s.* Unsurprisingly, perhaps, my grandfather and great-uncles tended to steer well clear of political discourse whenever they got together, no doubt learning the lesson from many a blazing row in their younger days – although I well remember Ivor saying to Vincent, the Tory, that ‘come the revolution, you’ll be the first one hanging from the lamppost’. I think he was joking, but you could never be entirely certain with Uncle Ivor.
Perhaps not surprisingly, then, I’ve always eschewed party political labels, apart from a brief flirtation at university. The one label I might have been happy with was that of the seventeenth and eighteenth century Country Party, a grouping so amorphous that it’s now seen as more of a ‘persuasion’ than a party, and which based its philosophy on deep-rooted suspicion of whoever was in government at any given time, regardless of which party they came from; let’s face it, during the forty years that I’ve had the franchise, I’d suggest there’s plenty of evidence to support taking a Country Party stance. Unfortunately, though, I grew up in a constituency which had a 20,000-odd majority for one major party, and now live in one that has a 20,000-odd majority for the other, so although I’ll dutifully head up to the polling station on Thursday and exercise my democratic right, I still don’t really have much idea of how someone with Country Party leanings from a Labour/Liberal/Tory/Communist family background should vote in such circumstances. Oh for the joyous days of the 1975 Sunday drinking referendum, when the cause was simple and my vote really mattered…
* Strangely, there’s very little information available online about this saga – not even a Wikipedia entry, for example. The summary of this thesis provides a basic outline, but otherwise, the most detailed accounts tend to come from a Communist viewpoint. One day, I hope to get a chance to work on the ETU archives at the University of Warwick to see if I can get to the bottom of Ivor’s role in the affair.