The life and hope of William Hazell, Ynysybwl, South Wales

William Hazell, who died in the year I was born, was a miner and co-operative writer and activist from South Wales. His biography has been published recently, written by Alan Burge. It is an extraordinary read, full of the hope, integrity and compassion that has sustained the co-operative sector as a social movement over a long period of time.

Of himself, Hazell commented that he had been ‘on the anvil for most of his life, and taken many a hammering’. Alongside his work as a miner came his participation and writing as a co-operator, involved through the local co-operative society and in networks from South Wales to the national federal associations, the Co-operative Wholesale Society and the Co-operative Union, where I work today.

The greatest wonder of Wales and Glamorgan, he believed, was “the co-operation of a million of its people in the co-operative soceities of its towns and cities. Confident in the principle of mutual help and communal effort, they go forward, amid conflicting currents of individualism and state-dependence, to be a commonwealth of sturdy, thrifty, neighbourly, kind men and women who believe, not only in themselves, but in their fellows also.”

These practices and principles of self-help and mutual aid also underpinned his views on national politics. While he always saw an embedded and overlapping relationship with trade unions and the Labour Party, Hazell’s writings also offered a critique of the twentieth century ‘turn to the state’ of the political left. A miner himself, he criticised state ownership of the mines he had worked in, arguing that the creation of the National Coal Board was a top-down model that did nothing to change conditions and character of those involved. In 1953, he asked “how much wiser, better and happier the world might have been” if it had turned towards the ideas of Robert Owen rather than those of Karl Marx.

“We in the valleys”, he said “are community-bound. Cords of friendship and understanding, and knowledge of each other’s problems, attainments and limitations, bind us together in bonds more firm than any Act of Parliament could ever prescribe.” The dynamics of voluntary mutual aid, he predicted, would outlast many of the schemes of the national state.

Passionate about his co-operation, open to new ideas, he was never partisan in his politics. When asked in a meeting whether he was a left or a right winger, he answered: “My friend, I think more of the bird than the wings.”

Hazell’s views reflected a tradition of radical economic thought, focused on human scale, economic democracy and a critique of market and state, that remains wonderfully fresh, in today’s age of networks and participation.

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