The Dragon and the Flame: An Analysis of the Welsh Arson Campaign
Geary, Roger, Contemporary Review
THE trial of three men, in Caernarvon, last year has focused attention, at least in the Principality if not in England, on the Welsh arson campaign that has been smouldering on for over twelve years. Although these events have been widely publicised in Wales, their impact on the other side of Offa's Dyke seems to be limited to the 'Not the Nine o'Clock News' spoof of the British Coal advertisement about buying a holiday home in Wales and coming home to a 'real' fire. Given the media coverage that overseas resistance and revolutionary movements often obtain, it is surprising that so little attempt has been made to understand the political significance of a phenomenon whose very existence within the United Kingdom challenges the dominant ideology in several ways. This article attempts to redress this neglect by considering the arson campaign in relation to the theory of social banditry first put forward by the social historian, Eric Hobsbawm some thirty years ago.
The burnings seem to have started in mid-December, 1979, when some eight English-owned holiday homes were destroyed within a month, a figure that would rise to over two hundred within the next ten years. Initially, the attacks focused on holiday homes, but before long, English-owned businesses, including a boat-yard, a cafe, and estate agents' offices in both Wales and England were also attacked. At a later stage there seems to have been a shift in tactics, as people rather than property were targeted, with incendiary devices being sent to a Government Minister and the police chief heading a special unit set up to track down the arsonists.
One constant feature of this campaign has been the steady stream of letters to the Welsh media from organisations claiming responsibility for the attacks. Initially, three movements were linked to the burning of mainly English-owned property in rural north and west Wales: Mudiad Amddiffyn Cymru (The Movement to Defend Wales), Cadwyr Cymru (The Keepers of Wales) and Meibion Glyndwr (The Sons of Glyndwr). In addition, The Welsh Army for the Workers Republic (WAWR) -- the word 'wawr' means 'dawn') claimed responsibility for several bomb attacks in the early 1980s on more explicitly political targets including Army Recruitment Centres, local Conservative Party headquarters and government offices. During the early years of the arson campaign, all these groups, with the exception of Meibion Glyndwr, either ceased operations or were apprehended by the police. It seems probable that Mudiad Amddiffyn Cymru were never active during this period despite claiming responsibility on one or two occasions, while the four members of Cadwyr Cymru pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges in November, 1980. In 1983, conspiracy and explosive charges were brought in Cardiff Crown Court against alleged members of WAWR. However, following allegations of fabrication of evidence and heavy-handed interviewing
techniques, the jury rejected police evidence with the result that only one defendant was found guilty. Following the Cardiff conspiracy case, which rightly became something of a cause celebre in nationalist and civil libertarian circles, WAWR seemed to cease operations and Meibion Glyndwr increasingly emerged in media accounts as the predominant group claiming responsibility for the burnings. Indeed, their name has come to symbolise the entire arson campaign in the minds of both press and public alike.
However, this crystallisation in the Welsh media and popular consciousness of the entire arson campaign with the name 'Meibion Glyndwr' may well operate to obscure the complexity of the phenomenon. After all it is unlikely that a single group has been entirely responsible for such a sustained campaign persisting over a twelve year period and focusing on such diverse targets. Moreover, the defendants in the most recent trial would have had to have started their illegal operations at the somewhat early age of ten and, in any case, further burnings have occurred since they were remanded in custody. …