September 1967 issue of Direct Action including: Aberfan Inquiry, Vietnam, IWW strikers broke colour bar, Fidel Castro, anti-war protests in Japan.
Direct Action (SWF): Vol 8 #09 (75) Sept 1967
After Aberfan: The Whitewash – Tom Brown
Syndicalist Tom Brown on the official Inquiry into the 1966 Aberfan Disaster.
It is often said that a man is best judged by his behaviour in crisis or adversity. This might also be said of groups of men and social institutions. Judged by such a standard the ruling class, new and old, and its power cliques and institutions, in the disaster of Aberfan are not only guilty, but also petty, cowardly and lying.
The Report of the Tribunal of Inquiry, however, though deliberately restrained, unearths the ghastly truth of laziness, incompetence, callousness and lying as the attribution of the governors concerned. All political societies—slave, feudal, capitalist, Socialist, Bolshevik and Fascist—are like a huge pyramid, or a series of pyramids of varying volume, where power is concentrated at the top and is delegated downwards controlling the huge human base beneath. From the top, we are told, "Not only is this the best, it is the only possible form of society. They at the top know best, they select the best officials in descending order. The social base cannot be trusted, is ignorant and irresponsible."
In contrast to political society, Syndicalism works towards a society that, while not resembling the ever-present pyramid, is controlled from below, that responsibility and familiar control that in its most important social task, is known as Workers' Control.
Let us put on trial the system of the boss class. The Report proves that the disaster was foreseeable, was indeed foreseen for many years. The National Coal Board, that much boasted massive pyramid that quashed the numerous smaller pyramids of pre-nationalised coal, is condemned for foolishness, ignorance, bungling ineptitude and blindness in the face of warning signs writ large. The warnings were passed, say the Tribunal, "into the limbo of forgotten things. A terrifying tale."
As to knowledge of their subject and control of that which they were highly paid to control, the Report condemns Lord Robens, the Top Brass of the NCB, and the management at each descending layer of power. "They were like moles being asked about the habits of birds" (in spite of Robens's private NCB airplane).
“The report which follows tells not of wickedness but of ignorance, ineptitude and a failure of communications."
The exact opposite of just those things that all politicians boast of.
Even after the disaster, while public opinion was still warm, the Coal Board were still too tired to take the first obvious step. Not till the 55th day of the inquiry did they announce their intention to build a culvert to take water directly from the Mountain to the River Taft at the modest cost of £20,000.
The much-promised good relations between the boards of nationalised industries and Labour-controlled local councils is exposed as hollow propaganda, the Tribunal saying:
"We do not claim to understand even today why the (Merthyr Tydfil) Borough Council and the National Coal Board were unable to reach an amicable settlement of what appears to be a simple drainage problem and so avoid a great deal of misery in the village over many ears."
“The former can no more be acquitted of lack of vigilance than the latter can be absolved from grave failure to face up to their substantial responsibility in relation to what was for decades undoubtedly a scandalous state of affairs."
Those who seek immense power, political and economic, lay claim to almost superhuman measures of character and intellect, but they do so in fine weather. Come bad weather they deny responsibility. They demand power but they will not have responsibility. It seems we are not alone in this observation: the Daily Telegraph (4.8.67) said
"The Tribunal was very displeased at the fact that it was not till the 74th day of the inquiry that counsel for the National Coal Board admitted the Board's responsibility for the disaster. By that time, one after another of the officers of the Board had given evidence, all more or less following one pattern.”
"They started by denying knowledge or responsibility but were steadily driven by relentless cross-examination into admitting some knowledge or other and agreeing that by some act of commission or omission—usually the latter they had contributed to the state of affairs which ended in disaster. “
"The Tribunal endorses the view of counsel for the Aberfan residents that much time would have been saved ‘if the National Coal Board had not stubbornly resisted every attempt to lay the blame where it so clearly must rest—at their door'."
Robens himself gave the lead for this stubborn defence of the indefensible. At the time of the disaster he appeared on TV and said that the fact that the tip had been built and extended upon a stream was unknown until that day. That must stand as one of the greatest untruths of politics—an occupation not known for veracity. In his evidence to the Tribunal Robens still held, to the annoyance of all, to this obviously false statement.
"Nor did we accept it for one moment," says the Report, So bad was Robens's evidence that the counsel for the NCB was forced to repudiate the whole of his long evidence and asked the Tribunal to say that the position was as if Robens had not given any evidence at all.
As to the technical knowledge he claimed and disclaimed from having, and knowledge of the general problem, the Report says:
"But as Lord Robens himself knew nothing beyond what he was told by others in the calamitous circum-stances then prevailing, it was unwise of him to imply at Aberfan that he had knowledge, and it is understandable that his statement was bitterly resented by the residents who possessed the intimate local knowledge which he lacked."
Of course every worker knows that every day in industry and commerce, ignorance, bluff and picking others' brains by top management are the warp and weave of the game. Everyone expected that after this self-exposure and the rest of the Report Robens would resign. Indeed the Press had already published, some in giant type, the coming resignation. Then the political machine got to work. They learned from Nasser who after his terrific defeat and exposure of bluff staged a well-advertised "resignation", then allowed his stage managers to work up demonstrations and phoney appeals : "Nasser please stay"—and "in response to enormous public request" he stayed on. The Labour Party knows that Aberfan has exposed the rottenness of the whole political set-up in general and the false promises of nationalisation in particular.
Easy, then, to get here a union committee, there a union boss or there a capitalist Labour MP, as Woodrow Wyatt, to say, "We the miners of Britain implore you Lord Robens to stay and carry on with the good work you are doing."
What good work? Robens, then a union-sponsored Labour MP from a mining constituency, was appointed by a Tory government and is now supported by a Labour one, to slash the coal industry as Beeching slashed the railways. But we are told that Robens has eased the rundown of the industry. Where is the evidence of the Board's clemency to pitmen communities? That evidence is as thin as the evidence given by its chairman at Aberfan.
Labour Party and coal
Wilson, too, a few weeks ago at the Durham Miners' Gala, said that the Labour Government was helping the coal industry to beat oil with coal; at the same time his outfit had just ordered a nuclear power station for Durham. The truth is that the coal industry was mortally wounded when its fight with oil began and that, early in 1946, by the Labour Government in which Wilson was a junior minister. Then the Government created a big department which sent hoards of men about every kind of industry to persuade those enterprises to switch from coal, which we had, to oil, which was in other hands. A leading member of the Labour Government was Hartley Shawcross, QC, whose interest in oil swiftly Ied him to be legal adviser to BP Shell and afterwards one of its directors. What sympathy could they have with the pitmen?
To the Aberfan Tribunal, S.O. Davies, Labour MP for Merthyr Tydfil, said that he had been prevented from taking action on the tip's stability because the miners feared the closure of the pit and unemployment. Here is a long-established Labour MP who got into Parliament by telling the miners that Labour would bring full employment and nationalisation and would give them security, safety from danger, and a full life!
Start at the roots
Why, even the officials of the National Mineworkers' Union were charmed by their party's oil propaganda and in their new London head offices, built just after the war, they said, "No coal or cone here. We'll have oil for central heating," and they went ahead until public shame caused them to switch back. The so-called big men at the top of the pyramid are intellectual dwarfs and moral midgets. They have not the gifts they pretend to. We can better manage our own affairs. Pull down the Pharaohs and their monuments of slavery. Start at the roots to grow and build again.