Adam Price, Institute of Welsh Politics, Annual Address, Aberystwyth, 16th November 2009
I hope you will forgive me a moment of self-parody, but it almost always necessary in Wales to begin any address with an apology. This is a politics lecture which is two thirds history, and one third psychology. I hope at the end of the address you will agree that there is more logic here than may first appear in giving this address at an Institute for Welsh Politics.
The case for the defence is this: that for a fundamentally new politics to flourish in Wales we need a new psychology which has at its heart the idea of Wales, and of ourselves within it, as making our own history.
History does not repeat itself, but it sure does rhyme – said Mark Twain. So it is that Wales, for much of its history an anomaly, today finds itself anomalous again. Before the Act of Union we were a conquered nation that was never fully subdued. Post-devolution we’re a post-colonial country still waiting to be decolonised. It is these contradictions that describe our present predicament: we are a hybrid state living in the cracks between a dependent past and an independent future.
This lecture is unabashedly didactic. It hopes to convince you of three propositions no less revolutionary for all their simplicity; that the longue duree of English imperialism began here in Wales; that the deepest legacy it has left is psychological. And that national liberation, if it is to mean anything, has to be a liberation of the mind. Otherwise we will be condemning ourselves to be not just the first but also the final colony.
To begin at the beginning. English imperialism can perhaps be described as Wales’s greatest and most terrible export. What was tried and tested here, soon became the template for what one English historian has called the “thousand year Reich” of the English empire. It is a pedigree we appear to have worked very hard to forget. The title of ‘First Colony’ is a crown of thorns more often claimed by the Irish – most recently in setting the scene for the 2005 BBC series of The Sceptred Isle that focused on Empire. And yet the Normans settled Wales a near century before Ireland, and the Statute of Rhuddlan, formally annexing Wales, predates its Irish equivalent, the Statute of Kilkenny by about the same number of years. Whatever the Irish suffered, we sadly suffered first.
A more plausible case for English colonialism’s origins perhaps could be made by the Cornish. But Cornwall was merged with Wessex before England as a nation proper had been formed. So though it may be the great unspoken fact of our identity, we in Wales were indeed the first piece in England’s empire.
But does enough of our past qualify as colonial in the classical sense for this to have relevance for us today?
Answering that question means looking in turn at each of the six core features of colonialism: military conquest, settlement, cultural assimilation, political subjugation, economic exploitation and racial discrimination. There is plenty of evidence of all of them at work in Wales over the best part of a millennium, but the most obvious and least debatable is the brutal fact of the conquest itself: Even today Edward’s I’s ring of iron stands as a potent reminder of our colonial past. The Normans’ castle building programme in Wales remains the most concerted effort at the pacification of an occupied country in European history.
Of course, Wales was to prove, in that classic formulation, an easier country to conquer than to hold. England’s new rulers quickly extended their control of the river valleys and coastal lowlands seasonally vacated by a farming people that in the Summer moved their stock to the hills. In some important sense, they never conquered Wales above six hundred feet where their heavily armoured knights lost their advantage over Welsh archers and lightly armed infantry. Indeed the ‘piecemeal, long-drawn out and uncompleted’ nature of the English conquest of Wales was why it had to be done again and again. The highlands and the forest remained in the hands of a Welsh insurgency using the tactics of guerrilla warfare as described by that mixed-race Cambro-Norman Gerallt Cymro. Between 1090 and 1415 Wales was a country in rebellion or else under siege, raiding or being raided, celebrating victory or coping with defeat in a landscape for the English occupying power as hospitable as Helmand, for the Welsh as merciless as Fallujah.
But the Norman conquest was no mere military affair. Territorial annexation by force was simply the prelude to the entire panoply of measures in colonialism’s armoury. First came the movement into Wales of whole populations of English or Flemings combined with the forced displacement of the indigenous Welsh. Wales was divided into two separate domains: ‘Englishries and ‘Welshries’, a powerful settler minority and a conquered native populace. This was not the natural, organic shift of population happening all over Europe throughout the Middle Ages. This was a deliberate act of State policy that presaged the creation of ‘Planter’ settlements elsewhere in the tragic unfolding story of colonialism.
Alongside their castlries, the Anglo-Norman invaders created in Wales a powerful bulwark in the chartered town with borough status. A class of special liberties – the so-called Laws of Breteuil – imported from the town of the same name in Normandy by the Marcher Lords was created to entice settlers in as surely as the Castle was to keep the Welsh out. While Carmarthen, Montgomery and even Aberystwyth were soon sites of growth for a nascent property-owning English merchant class, the Welsh became outcasts, confined to the favelas of medieval Wales on the margins of town or in the rural uplands. In this way the Welsh are not just the original inhabitants of these island. They are also the the very first to be socially excluded.
The third vector of colonialism is cultural: the supplanting of inferior local languages and traditions by the supposedly superior culture of the colonial power. The first stage, after all, of any sustained colonial project is to convince oneself that conquest is “ordained of God” and necessary for the ‘civilisation’ of a barbarous people. The first victim was a slightly anarchic Celtic church soon Romanised into an orderly hierarchy of Bishoprics and Parishes all under the ultimate authority of the State-approved denizen of the Canterbury see.
Ecclesiastical colonialism is the first of the great continuities of Welsh history as it features in all three waves of colonial conquest: Norman, Tudor and Victorian. So we have in the early years of the Norman occupation, the sidelining of ancient abbies dedicated to the names of Welsh holy men by local Benedictine franchises – the religious equivalent of Starbucks or MacDonalds – promoting universal saints with no local connection. With Cistercian support, Wales was able to rebuild aspects of a national church in the Thirteenth Century, an achievement that Glyndwr sought to consolidate through the programme agreed at the Pennal Synod. With that dream defeated, the English delegate at the Council of Constance was able to declare when the issue of the Welsh church was raised: “inclyta natio Anglicana Brytannica”, an early Latin rendition of “For Wales, see England ”.
Fast forward five centuries and in the second wave of colonisation – closely tied as it was to the Reformation of Convenience under Henry VIII – and we have a State-funded campaign of iconoclasm targeting such medieval shrines and images of Welsh piety as Derfel Fawr, St. Winifred’s Well, our Lady of Cardigan and the Virgin of Penrhys. The English Bishop of St. Davids’s hates the cult of St. David so much he strips the lead off the roof of the Cathedral and moves the Bishop’s Palace to Abergwili where it remains to this day. (Perhaps in an Act of Penance it’s time the Bishop of St. David’s moved back in.) An English Book of Common Prayer is then pressed on a monoglot Welsh population with, predictably, little success, shoring up the popularity of old Catholic Rites.
Most people will not realise it but Wales, like Ireland, remained stubbornly loyal to Mother Church long after England had succumbed, much to the frustration of English Puritan missionaries. It wasn’t until the Eighteenth Century that the Protestant Reformation – in the sense of a genuine popular attachment and the full rejection of what later came to be known disdainfully as the Marian cult – could be said to have been completed in Wales and, only then, because of a Third Wave of ecclesiastical colonisation that drafted in Anglophone Anglican priests in their hundreds into Welsh parishes and drove their long-suffering laity into the enthusiastic arms of the Methodist revivalists.
The Welsh, therefore, despite inhabiting the only part of the Island of Britain to have an unbroken Christian tradition, must join a long list of colonised peoples forced to change their religion as a consequence of conquest. Not content to steal our land, they then conspired to steal our soul. No wonder the poet Thomas ab Ieuan Rhys would lament: “We have been changed by the faith of the Saxons. Our hearts are not inclined towards it” and Sion Brwynig would speak in 1550 of the “icy coldness” of the new faith and the”bitter blow” of witnessing the removal of the altars and adjuncts of Catholic worship. It is hardly any wonder that when Guido Fawkes went to see Philip of Spain in 1603 – introduced most probably through the auspices of Hugh Owen, Plas Du, Hispanophile and the Continent’s leading Catholic spy – to petition him in favour of an invasion, it was Milford Haven he proposed as the landing site since Wales would prove the most fertile recruiting ground for a Catholic army.
It was a change of strategy not a change in purpose that won Wales to the Protestant faith. Elizabethan state sponsorship of the translation of Bible and the Book of Common Prayer should not be mistaken as an altogether altruistic measure. The final clause of the “Act for the Translation of the Bible and Divine Service into the Welsh Tongue” required that an English Bible be placed in every Welsh Church so that the monoglot Welsh “may by conferring both Tongues together, the sooner attain to the knowledge of the English Tongue”. Whatever William Morgan’s motivation, the ultimate aim was the same as the Acts of Union themselves: Anglicisation and uniformity. The fact that it had the opposite effect was more by accident than design.
The wider attack on the Welsh language probably represents the longest State-sanctioned policy of attempted linguistic genocide in history. A Charter granted to Welshpool in 1406 stated that legal cases could only be pleaded henceforth in French or English. Six hundred years later and we are still pleading for Welsh to achieve equal status in the courts. The Acts of the Union with their condemnation of “sinister usages and customs”, in Gwyn Alf Williams words, rendered a ”largely monoglot people aliens in their own land”. With friends like the Tudors, who needed enemies.
The Victorians – for all their Celtomania – were determined to finish the job: even theArch-Celticist Mathew Arnold was to declare “the sooner the Welsh language disappears as an instrument of the practical, political, social life of Wales the better”. With Arnold a senior inspector of schools, it could hardly came as any surprise that the 1870 Education Act made English compulsory. It was to take until 1939 for the first Welsh-medium school to open – here in Aber. By then the damage had been done.
The most telling symbol of all of cultural imperialism in Wales, of course, was a little wooden halter with the letters WN branded in it that hung around the necks of children. The language was literally beaten out of us. But children were forced not just to betray their culture but also their classmates: the ultimate mental cruelty. The Welsh Not was the model for the corporal punishment of indigenous culture thoughout the Empire; the Nobel prize winning Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o wore a wooden tablet around his own neck as a child which they called ‘Monitor’. Any child speaking KiSwahili or Gikuyu would be given the Monitor until he heard another child do the same so he could point them out to the teacher . The child left holding the Monitor at the end of the day would be beaten with a stick. Sounds familiar?
That we were a subject people in political terms is also an objective fact however uncomfortable we may be with its consequences. Wales, unlike the Scots or Irish Parliaments, was not consulted on its own Act of Union. We were to be rendered politically invisible as things turned out until the final year of the final century of the last Millennium. Our royal house was not conjoined through dynastic marriage; it was murdered. The heir to the English throne, a constituent of mine who admittedly has shown more genuine interest in Wales than all his predecessors put together, has about as much moral right to the title Prince of Wales as Perkin Warbeck did to the English throne in the time of Henry Tudor. And it wasn’t the just descendants of Hywel Dda that were ‘disappeared” like the victims of a military junta; his laws too were consigned to the garbage heap of history. Monmouthshire found itself lumped in with England for no better reason than the English circuits were composed of four counties – and Wales had thirteen, so Monmouthshire was forced to make up the numbers with its three English neighbours. That said in the remaining twelve counties the native law of Wales survived two of the three attempts to render them null and void. The Statute of Rhuddlan in the Welsh circuit courts soon evolved into the Statute of Wales and a separate Welsh judicature developed which again somehow survived the Act of Union’s legal lynching. Welsh law obviously embodied the spirit of Gwilym Crach of Gower who was hung not once, but twice for his involvement in a rebellion of 1298, and still survived… The devil simply wouldn’t die. So it was that even as late as 1779 Welsh defendants were employing the legal argument – breve regis non currit in Wallam – the king’s writ doesn’t run in Wales. It was the last great imperialist monarch that succeeded where Edward I and Henry VIII failed: Queen Victoria abolished the Welsh Court of Great Sessions in 1830 and finally laid the legal legacy of Welsh independence to rest. At least until now.
The reasons for the colonisation of medieval Wales were probably more strategic than economic. Upland Wales helped supply England with beef, milk and wool but it was acting as a buffer against foreign invasion that was probably the principal attraction. In the third wave of colonisation fuelled by the Industrial Revolution, that position was dramatically reversed when Wales became one of the most industrialised regions on the planet.
As Professor Merfyn Jones has said, Wales from 1850 can be caricatured as one big mine or quarry as some mineral or ore was being extracted virtually everywhere. Iron ore was dug and smelted here continuously from the late 1780s; at the same time Anglesey had a virtual world monopoly on copper: Here in Ceredigion the mines were for lead and zinc. And yes, Wales was the only the part of modern Britain ever to see a gold rush, in Dolgellau in the 1880s.
Then there were all the different types of stone quarried here: limestone for the foundries, sandstone, dolerite, granite and, of course, slate where North Wales represented the world’s biggest producer for all of the 19th century and much of the 20th. And I haven’t even mentioned coal . By 1913, 35% of the tonnage of all Britain’s exports was leaving through south Wales ports: almost all of it coal to fuel the industries of the world.
One of the most striking features of all this impressive economic record is that it was led, with a very few exceptions, by English proprietors. The Dowlais Iron Company, for example, that turned Merthyr into an economic powerhouse was founded by Anthony Bacon from London. He was followed by the Crawshays from Yorkshire and the Guests of Herefordshire. The Ebbw Vale iron works was established by the Homfrays of Worcester. In North Wales, it was John Wilkinson of Lancashire that led the way. The metal industry in Swansea meanwhile was developed by the Vivian family from Cornwall.
There were some exceptions – the Copper and Coal kings, Thomas Williams or David Davies- but on the whole the pattern was clear. John Taylor, the leading figure in the Welsh lead industry, was from Norwich. English landowners were at also the forefront of development. The current Duke of Westminster’s Grosvenor family was involved in lead mining in north east Wales. Another Cheshire family, the Assheton’s Smith’s of the Faenol estate, made their fortune in slate. The Butes made vast profits not only from coal but from the ports they built to export it. Even in agriculture the almost feudal level of absentee ownership persisted late into the 19th century. In 1887 less than 5 per cent of the land in Caernarfonshire was owned by its tenants.
With such a high level of English ownership, we bore all of the human and environmental cost but saw little of the profit – with the exception of a few square miles of civic pride in Cardiff. Instead follies and mock-feudal mansions were built the length and breadth of Wales. This was the Welsh equivalent of what economists call the ‘resource curse’, the fact that mineral wealth is almost always more trouble than its worth. The ‘path dependence’ created by an extractive mono-culture is still with us today: our failure to develop an indigenous enterprise culture or, as George Monbiot has recently pointed out, the preponderance of East-West over North-South links all stem from the colonial exploitation of our economy.
Beyond economic domination and military conquest, as the late Edward Said was able to show, colonialism is also, of course, a discourse of domination: a deep-seated idea that the imperial power has an inherent right to rule and impose its values on the nation that it dominates. The first step, then, in any colonial project is convincing oneself that the colonised are inferior; that the act of conquest itself, for all its brutality, is morally justified, even “ordained of God”. So it was that the Anglo-Norman propagandists opened up a ‘cultural front” in their war against the Welsh which has formed the bedrock to Cambrophobia down the centuries.
So it is that the author of the 12th century English history The Deeds of King Stephen informs us that “Wales is a country of wooded pasture that breeds men of an animal type, swift-footed, accustomed to war, volatile, quick in breaking their word and changing their abode” he omits to mention the fact that the Welsh also lived in towns until the Normans drove them out and that the need to fight and keep constantly on the move may have had something to do with his kinsmen’s presence.
When Chretien De Troyes says, in writing of Peredur or Perceval – one of a number of Welsh characters to populate the European romantic imagination for the best part of a millennium – not bad for a people ‘on the edge’ – “All Welshmen are, by nature, more irrational than animals in the field” he is not just echoing the views of the Anglo-Norman elite, he is presaging the classic strategy of the coloniser of rendering the colonised as the savage “Other” used centuries later by the European Powers in Africa, Asia or America. But he also represents a tradition that continues right through to the nineteenth century view of the Celtic personality as irrational, feminine, child-like and impractical and racially inferior to the Saxon.
A second reoccurring theme is our immorality. The Normans justify their Takeover of the Welsh Church by reference to the loose morals of their flock who practiced trial marriage, homosexuality, and inheritance rights for the illegitimate. We were, it seems, prodigiously modern. It is here that the continuity of colonialism re-emerges. When the infamous Report of the Commissioners of Inquiry into the state of Education in Wales of 1847 (which came to be known by Nonconformist Wales as the Treachery of the blue Books) was published it was again the moral laxity of the Welsh that was held up as the most pressing reason for making English the sole medium of instruction.
In those periods where the Welsh demonstrate passivity and obedience then a different picture of the Welsh is presented as the comically stupid if a little two-faced. In the eighteenth and nineteenth century there was a rich market for this kind of thing – Taffy and his wife sat atop a goat – because they couldn’t afford a horse, leeks poking out of their hats, holding a cheese in one hand, and their pedigree in the other.
There was often a modern sinister undertow. In 1885 John Beddoe, President of the Anthropological Institute had developed an Index of Nigrescence which claimed to show that the Welsh and western Irish were “Africanoid” in their ‘jutting jaws’ and ‘slitty nostrils’ and thus originally immigrants from Africa. This idea of the Celts as ‘colonials’ had been a constant theme since the Age of Discovery: as one Protestant pamphleteer said in 1651 frustrated at the lack of success in converting the Welsh: “We have Indians at home – Indians in Cornwall , Indians in Wales , Indians in Ireland. ” Forget sending missionaries to the West Indies he argued, send them to Merthyr.
So it is that prevailing image of the Welsh in England throughout these three colonial periods ranges from submissive and deferential, to lewd and unruly, and even downright perfidious on a par with that of the wild Irish. What never changed was the tacit assumption that we were by definition inferior
The lowest point was the passing of the Punitive Laws in the wake of the Glyndwr Rebellion which introduced a system of racial discrimination equal to Apartheid. These race laws have fallen prey to a collective amnesia so it is worth recounting them in full: from 1401, no Welshman was to enjoy the privilege of burgess status (an absolute prohibition traditionally reserved for the Jews); no Welsh man was to buy land in England; no Welshman was to hold a major office in Wales. These prohibitions extended to any Englishman who had married a Welsh woman since the revolt began. No Welshman was to carry arms in any town, market, church assembly or highway. No Welshman was to hold a castle or any other defensible house that had existed in the time of Edward I. Garrisons would comprise exclusively of Englishmen – not even men of mixed race would be allowed. No Englishman was to be convicted in Wales by, or at the suit of a Welshman.
As Rees Davies argued what is particularly striking about these edicts is that they are “specifically racist in character”. An extreme reaction to the shock of the Glyndwr revolt they undoubtedly were – but they were also reinstating the common law practice of three hundred years of English supremacism. Kidwelly created in 1100s had English, French or Flemish burgesses – but no Welsh (or forinseci) – we were literally foreigners in our own land. In 1351 the ironically named Hope in Flintshire banned the Welsh from holding burgages and confiscated any that already did – but this was nothing new, Edward I had banned Welshmen from holding land in borough towns in reaction to Llywelyn Bren’s revolt of 1294.
The attitudes that underpinned the Punitive Laws have re-emerged at other times in our colonial past, and overt discrimination continued to be part of our experience in Wales right through into the modern period. For the first part of the Eighteenth Century, for example, the majority of Welsh by virtue of their Nonconformity were banned from taking office in the House of Commons. They couldn’t enter Oxford or Cambridge finally until 1871 – this being one of the principal drivers behind the establishment of the University of Wales.
We were a colony. And now we’re in a state of denial. The factual evidence for the reality of colonisation is all around us – indeed it can even be said to be within us. But to the extent that we acknowledge it, it might as well be invisible. Dilys Davies, a Welsh psychiatrist working at Guy’s hospital who has conducted an exhaustive analysis of the Welsh psyche, has called this a form of cultural autism and drawn analogies with child sexual abuse which for all its pervasiveness was once met by a wall of silence. Colonisation is our ‘dangerous idea’, a “dirty little secret’, a ‘painful memory’ that has to be repressed. Cambridge University Press’ primer on Medieval Wales warns the reader that in Wales’ case “the colonial analogy – may be pushed too far and it must be used with great sensitivity”. The late great Rees Davies – whose revolutionary tracts Colonial Wales and Race Relations in Post-Conquest Wales were published within a year of each other in the mid 1970sas he moved to Aberystwyth – was very much the glorious exception. He himself was warned that specialising in Welsh history was reputational suicide for a young Welsh historian and, sadly, he never got to teach a course on the history of his own country here at Aberystwyth though he is probably one of our the greatest historians that Wales ever produced.
So it was left to Gwynfor Evans to continue where the professional historians left off. When Michael Hechter produced his magnus opus: Internal; Colonialism: the Celtic Fringe in British National Development, he was met with a chorus of disapproval from Welsh academics. Alfred Zimmern could have warned him perhaps of the professional perils of an American prognosticating about issues of Welsh identity.
In some ways the robust rejection of the theory of ‘internal colonialism’ was in part a reaction to the myths perpetrated by colonialism itself – that Wales was a backwater, outside the mainstream of modernity, and the Welsh a people whose history was lived perpetually in the passive tense. For Gwyn Alf, Wales’ global industrial pre-eminence meant the Welsh Working Class – always written in capital letters – were “junior partners in the British Empire”. Casting back to Tudor times he showed us how that latter-day Merlin, Dr John Dee, uses the Madoc myth to stake a British claim to the New World – and British, mind you, the Welsh at the Tudor Court having reconquered Albion for the Celts. Far from being victims of the British Empire, according to this, we damned well invented it.
There can certainly be no doubt that that the Welsh enthusiastically embraced imperialism. Though less prominent than the Scots, the Welsh were well represented among the military and civilian ranks of Imperial Britain. At one time, both the Chief Justices of Bengal and Calcutta were Welsh-speaking Welshmen. But does the sight of Zulu spearing Welshmen at the Battle of Isandlwhana or Welshmen bayoneting Zulu at the Battle of Rourke’s Drift in return help or hinder the hypothesis that Britishness was forged by all four nations of these islands in the cauldron of empire which became the Britannic melting-pot, as Gordon Brown’s favourite historian Linda Colley suggests. Could this not simply be a rather poignant reminder of the practice of empires of time immemorial of pressing the already vanquished into doing the next bit of vanquishing.
Of course, we participated in later imperial adventures. Denied of opportunities for advancement at home, we often had little choice. But this obscures the bigger truth, that where other colonies were the copy, we were the original where colonialism’s die was first minted. It was the Marcher Lords like the de Lacys who founded Drogheda who sought in the first instance to pacify Ireland, able to draw as they were on a century or more of experience of colonial occupation in Wales. The peopling of Pembrokeshire by Flemings presaged the later Plantation in Ulster. The Tudors hold-up post-conquest Wales as the model for recalcitrant Ireland. As Sir Henry Sidney’s secretary William Gerard assured the Privy Council on the occasion of his master’s transfer from Wales to Ireland: “A better president (precedent)…..colde not be founde than to imitate the course that reformed Wales.”
Wales was the epicentre for three tidal waves of colonial expansion in the history of the Anglo-British State: the insular colonialism of the Norman period, the transatlantic ambitions of the Tudors and the global imperialism of the Victiorians. We supplied the model for the first, the myth for the second and the material for the third. In each phase we paid a heavy price for our collusion in our own enslavement with the progressive colonisation of our own mind and imagination. The first English imperialists were early amateurs at this kid of thing – but come the Treason of the Blue Books they had learned to deploy it with devastating effect.
Colonialism in any society and in any period is an act of violation which results in a kind of trauma whose effects are felt for many generations. Hence the most long-lasting and deep-seated legacy of colonialism is psychological. It was the mixed-race French-speaking Caribbean Frantz Fanon, practising psychiatry and preaching revolution in occupied Algeria, who first realised this and began to write painfully but eloquently about the psychology of colonialism. Welsh psychologists and psychotherapists by contrast have been almost completely silent on this theme. Dr Dilys Davies of Guy’s Hospital, the only professional psychiatrist to have written at all about colonialism’s effect on the Welsh psyche, suggests that – as with Rees Davies the historian, it is not in the professional interests of the Welsh psychiatrist to appear too ‘parochial’. Dr Davies, by contrast, stands out as the Frantz Fanon of Wales and virtually the entirety of what follows is based on her pioneering work.
As with many other things, the Irish have a head start on us in thinking about the psychology of colonialism. An important feature according to the psychologist Vincent Kenny is the way in which the Irish have internalised their own oppression. One way of overcoming the feeling of powerlessness that flows from being dominated is to identify with the dominator – sometimes even unconsciously. It is a kind of sociological equivalent of Stockholm syndrome – what Fanon calls ‘adhesion’ to the dominator, the Brazilian pedagogist Paolo Freire called “housing the other” and the German-jewish psychologist Erich Fromm called an “inner duality”. It goes by many names but its self-destructive consequences are only obvious: our selves becomes divided against ourselves. We become self-oppressing. It should be no surprise therefore that Beriah Gwynfe Evans, the Secretary of Cymru Fydd, was an enthusiastic exponent of the Welsh Not as a young teacher- and that its use was far more widespread among voluntary schools prior to 1870 than in State schools thereafter implying that parents generally approved of its use. Was Welsh as the language of the majority murdered or did it commit suicide? The question is in some ways irrelevant because both realities are in fact the parallel outcomes of the selfsame process. (The Welsh Not was also an early example of the insidious effects of performance related pay – since the teachers were paid by results and Welsh didn’t form part of the formal curriculum, the use of Welsh was actively discouraged by the teachers).
That we have been complicit in our own colonisation is undeniable. As Gandhi said of his own country : “the English have not taken India; we have given it to them.”
In developing this theme in his Hind Swaraj, Gandhi drew upon a little know treatise by an eighteen year old Frenchman, Etienne de la Boetie written some fifteen years after our own Act of Union: the Discourse on Voluntary Servitude. In it he argues that structures of power in any situation, even where they rely on physical force, depend in the last analysis on the consent, however reluctant, of those over whom power is exercised. As Gandhi went on to say: “It is we the English-knowing Indians that have enslaved India. The curse of the nation will rest not upon the English but upon us…”
So how has colonialism’s curse imprinted itself on the modern Welsh psyche. Broadly speaking the effects can be categorised according to two dimensions: the way in which we see ourselves, and the way in which we interact with others.
The former flows from the central fact of domination itself. Conquered peoples are often perceived as passive, a little fatalistic, prone to introspection. The writer Rene Marques has written, for example, about the docile nature of his compatriot Puerto Ricans. And how much has been written about the melancholia of the Celts? But as Erich Fromm pointed out, rather than this forming an essential part of our national character, it simply reflects our actual historic experience of being downtrodden. So Welsh music is sung in the minor key, and our poetry adopts an elegiac tone. In political terms we develop a begging bowl mentality, because have become resigned to the reality of our own domination. We feel a sense of helplessness and hopelessness – what J.J. Lee has called, in the Irish case, the ‘peasant residue’ in our psyche. We abdicate responsibility for our own future because we doubt our ability to act constructively and change our situation. We avoid taking risks, and prefer security even if that means locking us into relative poverty and unrealised potential. Above all we suffer from a profound sense of our own inferiority, a lack of confidence which expresses itself through our failure to show initiative, whether in political or business terms.
It is this deep insecurity that I believe lies at the heart of our still tentative embrace of devolution, and our rejection of what is after all, the normal aspiration of any nation: political independence. It also, in the economic sphere, explains our over-weaning reliance on public subsidy and our failure, so far, to develop, in sufficient numbers at least, an indigenous entrepreneurial class. We are economically dependent because we are psychologically dependent, and vice versa. And we reject political independence because of both.
Colonialism casts an equally insidious shadow on the way in which we communicate and relate to each other. We are a nation of indirect communicators, frightened to criticise in case we upset ‘the powers that be’ and lose face and even worse be punished financially. We are unwilling to be ‘pinned down’ and fearful of being down’. The number of Welsh social scientists, for example, that are prepared to make statements that could be seen as controversial can be counted on the fingers of one hand. The number of Welsh MPs who have criticised the Welsh National Opera and the British Lions is limited to one – for a country with a rich Nonconformist, anti-Establishment tradition we are, in our own context, incredibly conformist and establishmentarian. This is a typical survival tactic for a conquered people where direct challenges to authority are to be avoided at all cost. Instead we learn to be evasive., complaining to each other about someone else instead of tackling the person directly. This is how we earned our reputation of being devious and two-faced. We had to be.
But it also feeds into aspects of community life, especially in Welsh-speaking Wales where a taboo against self-promotion or self-revelation, a tendency to self-censorship and deference to authority among local people contrasts with the assertiveness of the in-migrant population. Welsh speakers are often the majority in public meetings but will often remain stoically silent – even where translation facilities are availble – and let others ‘dominate’ the meeting.
This self-censorship in the ‘public realm’ is perhaps the flip-side of another aspect of Welsh cultural psychology: a withdrawal to an inner world of self-reflection: “the everlasting Welsh habit has been to sink inwards” according to John Cowper Powys. But how does this fit with the Welsh love of performance on the stage, or the playing field where we suddenly shape-shift from a nation of passive spectators to a nation of exhibitionists. The answer can be found in the theory of constriction’ developed by the American George Kelly in the 1950s whereby the realms in which we can “be ourselves” are socially controlled. So it was that the Welsh language came to be limited to the emotive worlds of the sacred, the lyrical and familial and progressively banished from the world of the secular, official or practical.
These psychological manifestations of colonialism are not accidental by-products of broad historical processes. They are the outcome of two quite deliberate strategies of cultural alienation. The first one can be termed manipulation; inculcating within the mind of the dominated the dominator’s myths, their version of reality, their language, their values. So Paolo Freire argues that at a crucial juncture in their existential development members of the dominated group begin to aspire to become part of the way of the life of the dominator. So they start to imitate them, to follow them, and talk like them. When Chretien de Troyes’ Peredur first sets out for Court his mother persuades him to leave two of his three javelins at home “because they look too Welsh”. We have been leaving our javelins at home ever since. (Of course, this comes at a cost. As Aneurin Bevan quipped, when someone accused the late Roy Jenkins of lacking application, no-one who came from Abersychan and spoke like that could ever be accused of laziness.)
So we have a succession of groups that anglicise themselves in order to improve their life chances: starting with the uchelwyr who become the Welsh gentry and eventually the hated absentee landlords of the eighteenth century. But this percolated right the way down the social strata; the Welsh language came to be seen as ‘a badge of poverty”. Working class parents – like my own – decided consciously not to pass it on to their children in order to improve their children’s chances in life.
The third wave of Welsh colonisation, thus, was not conducted by military means. There was no need, as John Davies reminds us, the author of a nineteenth century Report on the Condition of the South Wales coalfield: “a band of efficient schoolmasters is kept up at much less expense than a body of police or soldiery”. Our enslavement was sold back to us as the means to our own liberation. So the 1870 Act which actually marked the beginning of the decline of Welsh as a national language was presented as a victory for the Welsh ideal of universal education. The Act of Union was dressed as being about equal rights for Welsh and English subjects, and the restoration of the rightful Brythonic claim to the throne. Even Edward I appropriated Arthurian myth to bolster his imperial ambitions – naming his first-born after the most famous of all our messianic figures – though we were less taken in by this chicanery it has to be said than by the Tudors. Come the Reformation, the Anglican Church presented itself as a recreation of the Celtic Church freed from the Romanising influences of Catholicism. Jesus College, Oxford – deliberately designed as a tool in the indoctrination of the sons of the Welsh elite – was presented as an act of munificence on the part of Good Queen Bess.
The second generic cultural strategy of the dominator is summed by the famous formula: divide et impera. The more a community can be broken up into separate parts, the less their sense of belonging to their own community, the easier it is to maintain dominance. This strategy was used by the British to devastating effect through the caste system in India or tribal divisions in Africa – divisions which have persisted long after independence. The Normans set about dividing Wales into two opposing camps of urban English settlement and rural Welsh. We have seen ourselves ever since as a country of two peoples, two cultures divided between the city and the country, north and south, English and Welsh-speaking – our divisions magnified and distorted deliberately to play one group off against each other. So it was during the devolution campaign of 1979 that No leaflets in north Wales would say that the Assembly would be dominated by the urban, more populous English-speaking south, whereas No leaflets in the south, you guessed it, warned of an Assembly dominated by Welsh-speaking farmers from Gwynedd.
So if you want to understand Welsh politics today, look to its roots: historical and psychological. We are in a country that has been in an almost permanent state of existential crisis. We voted ourselves out of existence in 1979, came close to doing it a second time in 1997, and are now worried that we might do it again. Our physical proximity and economic reliance on the colonial power has crushed our autonomy and made us dependent. In fact it has infantilized us. The arrangements of the Government of Wales Act 2006 – whereby requests for power are scrutinised in London and may be refused – is totemic of an attitude that regards the Welsh polity and by extension the Welsh people as too immature to make their own laws.
The forthcoming referendum is more than just a referendum on our system of government; it is a referendum on our state of mind as a nation, our dignity, our self-respect. It is an opportunity for us as a nation to start to draw a line under our experience of colonialism; as it will be the first referendum that we ourselves have initiated, it will be the first direct expression of our own sovereignty and our right to equality in these islands.
Since colonialism, as the Indian theorist Ashis Nandy tells us, is first of all a matter of consciousness, it has to be defeated at the level of the human imagination. Politics alone will not succeed. This struggle must be waged as a battle of ideas, new cultural practices and economic behaviours. In a sense outside of the language struggle our nationalism has been too much focused on nation-building as a process of creating representative institutions rather than thinking about the Wales we want those institutions to represent. There is an echo here of Saunders Lewis’ parting-shot in his history-shaping lecture Tynged yr Iaith where he warns that the decline of the language might be actually be accelerated unless we undergo the cultural change in mindset needed before independence itself is achieved. The Irish experience is clearly implied. The failure of Ireland on bilingualism, and on the economy until the 1980s, I think, points to a much deeper truth: that formal independence is meaningless unless we have first decolonised our minds.
As the Irish historian J.J Lee has written:
“The incapacity of the Irish mind to think through the implications of independence for national development derived largely from, and was itself a symbol of, the dependency syndrome which had wormed its way into the Irish psyche during the centuries of foreign dominance”.
The first step in national liberation is mental. Cultural revitalisation always predates political renewal, just as Dafydd ap Gwilym predated Owain Glyndwr. As nationalists the lesson is clear: we should each of us start to think and behave prefiguratively as if our nation is already free. We must be the Wales we want to create: a vibrant, self-empowering, dynamic country that emphasises the power of our own initiative.
Of course, we can never escape from our colonial past by refusing to acknowledge it. To liberate our selves we have to learn about ourselves. On the psychology of colonialism itself we need more research. We need to move from a culture of silence to a culture of salience. There is an Irish Journal of Psychology and an Australian Journal of Psychology. A Welsh Journal of Psychology is long overdue, and a Welsh Institute of Psychiatry would be a good idea too. More generally, we have to detach ourselves from the insular intellectual straitjacket in which we find ourselves – in which Welsh literature, Welsh psychology, Welsh history, and Welsh politics are still seen as subaltern specialisms in more mainstream disciplines. The Institute of Welsh Politics becomes our National Institute of Politics. We all stop reading the London Review of Books or re-read: Gandhi, Fanon, Nandy, Ngugi and Said. And stop reading London newspapers too. If we have to take a foreign newspaper, we will read Liberation or the Irish Independent
To bypass the dyad of domination between ourselves and the former imperial capital, Wales must find a new context as an European Nation, in the same way that Llywelyn and Glyndwr sought allies in France, Europeanising Wales means that our experience of domination can be understood as by no means exceptional nor ineluctably permanent. Building on the success of the last fifty years of bilingual education, now is the time to campaign for tri-lingual schools immersing students from Welsh-speaking homes in French, German or Russian just as effectively as English-speaking children in Welsh. We have long claimed a greater facility in other languages one of the advantages of being bilingual. It’s time to prove it.
In education more broadly we need what Paolo Freire originally called a pedagogy of the oppressed. Developing Welsh as a medium of instruction was the first vital step; gaining control of the content of the curriculum the next. But the third vital ingredient – transforming the very nature of the teaching process – itself – we are only now beginning to embark upon. But it is here where the truly revolutionary potential of teaching lies. Education in Wales – informed by a conservative grammarial tradition, and historically taught in people’s second language where education was seen primarily not as a route to knowledge, even less self-knoweldge, but for the lucky few at east, the route out of poverty and all too often the route out of Wales – has also been a domain of prescription rather than development . As Dilys Davies has said:
“Education with the ideological intent ….of unquestioning adoption, resists dialogue and critical thought and treats its students as objects. The students are not called upon to know but to memorize the contents narrated by the teacher.”
When Welsh was finally appended to the curriculum, this ‘mechanical drilling’ of learning-by-rote was then later applied with disastrous ineffectiveness to the teaching of Welsh as a second language to those that had lost it.
In the new Foundation Phase we have the chance of a new start for a new generation. In ditching formal teaching for three to seven year olds and adopting, on the Norwegian model, a strategy of learning through play we have finally broken with the regimented learning of 1870 on. And when I say regimented I choose my words advisedly. The model of formal learning adopted with the advent of compulsory schooling in Britain was the same one that spread throughout Europe following the Prussian model of compulsory education that was first developed in response to their defeat at the hands of Napoleon. Schools were to become factories which would turn out obedient soldiers for the army, subservient workers for the mines and submissive civil servants for Government. Independent thought – and on our case, an independent language – was to be beaten out of our children. We have finally laid this ghost to rest.
With this new emphasis on developing our innate creativity we have the potential to become a nation of entrepreneurs, both individual and collective. Our only sure means of finally putting paid to the dependency myth is to show, by example, that we can be economically successful – in business, and also in our own unconventional terms by developing business models that chime more readily with our own collaborative and egalitarian system of values than the rapacious Anglo-American ideal of heroic individualism. The Welsh National Dictionary of Biography of the Twenty First Century should be as defined by innovators of every description as the Nineteenth Century version was peopled by Ministers of Religion. One important contribution might be creating an English language version of Menter a Busnes – which has been using a range of techniques to promote enterprise culture among Welsh speakers for two decades, with increasing signs of success.
A final imperative has to be the creation of a new unified pan-Wales sense of identity. This undoubtedly is the biggest failure of the national movement. The language movement did manage in the words of a young Cynog Dafis, “to effect some kind of transformation in the Welsh psychology” counter-colonial counter-culture it helped foster has largely been self-contained within the Welsh-speaking community. Reaching out to the English-language Wales is partly a political task: the most socially disadvantaged in Wales today, in Hechter’s terms the modern equivalents of “hewers of wood and drawers of water” – unskilled English-speaking women is the category that is least likely to vote Plaid. We cannot truly claim to be a national party until we change that.
But at the level of the nation as a whole, we need to transform nation-building into a personal experience. We could usefully learn from the Canadian experiment of Katimavik in the 1980s, a voluntary 12 month national civilian service programme whereby young people got to spend time working with other young Canadians in the different provinces of Canada. Huw Lewis has recently suggested immersing Welsh learners in the Welsh language culture by billeting them with families in the West. I agree, but let’s do it in reverse too and have young Welsh women and men from the north and the west spending time in the valleys and our cities.
If we do all this, then unlike Ireland in 1921, when independence finally comes, as come it will, we will have a generation that has been prepared for it.
Will we be the final colony? Well, that of course is up to us. In the words of Antonio Machado:
“Our footprints are the only road;
we make the road as we travel.”
Somebody said to me recently that Welsh independence is a bit like nuclear fusion: it is always a generation away. But in a sense it has been ever thus. I am personally hopeful. If Sion Cent, warming himself with the dying embers of Glyndwr’s memory and what might have been could still say: My Hope Is On What Is To Come, then I too can find reasons to be an optimist.
Wales was not just colonised, but re-colonised and then, for good measure, re-colonised again. We somehow survived Norman blitzkreig, Tudor lebensraum and Victorian eugenics. We have survived for a reason. And the reason lies within us, however buried deep within.