Against the odds, the survival of Welsh identity

Rhys David on a new book that asks what exactly it is to be Welsh and how well it is surviving in a multicultural world

What it means to be Welsh is a topic that has been widely considered over recent years in the face of the demographic, constitutional, social and other changes that have taken place in Wales. Now, in a new book published by the IWA today,  Against the Odds: The Survival of Welsh Identity Harold Carter, a former professor of geography at Aberystwyth University, explores how Welsh identity has been shaped over recorded history and how it continues to develop to this day.

He sees language and religion, rather than nation state or vague concepts such as race as initial prime identifiers of ethnicity, though a whole raft of other institutions and ideas act as re-inforcers and have been gaining in importance. “Many of these are intangible difficult to isolate and define but make up for each group the ‘creed’, that complex which makes a group feel different and independent from fellow human beings,” he argues.

The outlines of Welsh history since the Roman occupation of Britain and the subsequent collapse of Roman power is outlined. This was followed by the emergence of separate kingdoms competing with each other across Europe. The Welsh, however, failed to unify, partly because of gavelkind’s effects within a territory lacking rich agricultural land as a route to wealth and hence trade and urban development. Sometimes harsh attempts to suppress Welsh identity under Norman and Tudor kings and to render the territory a province of England were equally unsuccessful, however, running into a strong Welsh insistence on retaining distinctiveness.

Professor Carter sees the periods after the Act of Union and following the Industrial Revolution as two key phases in the survival of Welsh identity. Opportunities outside Wales posed a severe threat to its survival, drawing away the gentry to become anglicised and divorcing them in speech, customs and practice from the ordinary people. The translation of the Bible – to save souls rather than the language – nevertheless did have the latter effect.

In the 19th Century Welsh identity was strengthened by the restructuring of employment away from agriculture and along industrial lines in the ironworks and mines of the Welsh Valleys. During this century the rise in population in Wales was due to natural increases in the birth rate and most migration was internal  to Wales, so that for the first time a Welsh urban settlement pattern was created. Other associated examples of the development of Welshness include the growth of choral music as a national pastime and the Welsh mini-Renaissance exemplified by the creation of a range of national institutions, the most prominent of which was the University of Wales.

Much of Professor Carter’s argument focuses on the impact societal change has had over the centuries on the key historical definer of Welshness – the language. He argues, however, that while the trend has been for the Welsh language to retreat, reclamation of territory has also been a consistent feature. The Welsh boroughs (Conwy, Caernarfon, Aberystwyth, Tenby et. al.) were initially established to impose English rule on Wales after the Statute of Rhuddlan in 1284 and were off limits to Welsh people. Gradually, as wealth spread to the Welsh outside the walls, or at least some of them, Welsh people established themselves within, status rather than ethnic origin coming to distinguish those outside from those inside.

Not unlike the boroughs, industrial towns such as Merthyr Tydfil were originally divided on ethnic lines with separate quarters for incoming English managerial or skilled classes, native Welsh, and imported immigrant labour often from Ireland. In these towns, too, the Welsh have come to reclaim lost territory. A new phenomenon affecting previously remote Welsh speaking areas has now established itself, however – counter-urbanisation where congestion, crime and pollution drive the middle classes to escape to Wales. The immigration patterns of recent decades have had a significant impact on numbers speaking Welsh, and thereby on Welsh identity, but losses in predominantly Welsh speaking parts of Wales have to some extent been balanced by increases in previously heavily anglicised areas such as Cardiff which have benefited from the movement of young Welsh people to jobs in the capital.

Professor Carter moves on to a wider examination of the factors which have led to an apparent revival of the language as measured by census figures, paradoxically at a time when the language’s greatest areas of geographical strength and its domains have been eroded. The explanation is found in the weakening of political ideologies that polarised attitudes towards Welsh, coupled with the rise of single issue politics across Britain. Within this environment a powerful agenda-setting pro-language movement has emerged in Wales, and has been successful in influencing public opinion. Social and economic changes, too have played a part with a switch to public and private service sector employment creating new higher status positions of influence for Welsh speakers. Significant events, such as the drowning of Tryweryn and the battle to establish a separate Welsh-language television service, have also played a part. Conflict over the language has not, however, been completely resolved and as an issue it still has the capacity to rouse emotions.

Sunday closing, Cardiff’s role in Welsh life and as capital city, and multiculturalism are also examined. The strong links between Welsh-speaking areas and support for continued closure of public houses on Sundays is tracked, with those rural areas still most deeply attached to traditional values the last to agree to the removal of restrictions.

A critical approach is adopted towards Cardiff, which, it is claimed, has played no part in the evolution and development of the traditional culture of Wales and all the elements which compose it. The author concludes that for a variety of geographical and economic reasons Wales has never had a ‘primate’ city substantially bigger than all its rivals  and to which all roads lead. He also argues that the growth of national institutions based in the city has still only made a superficial difference to its ability to contribute to Welshness.

Professor Carter believes Welsh people have inherited a shattered cultural core as a result of conquest and subsequent attempts to enforce integration with England but that the past 150 years have seen a slow and incomplete process of  re-integrating the elements of cultural identity. The continuing arguments over language suggest in his view, however, that Edward I’s work and the Act of  Union still stand as fundamentally successful in robbing Wales of its coherence and unity as a people and have substituted conflict and rancour. The constitutional changes of the past decade give Wales the opportunity, he argues, to force the single identity that remains so elusive.

Against the Odds. The Survival of Welsh Identity. IWA. 150pp. £9.99. ISBN 978 1 904773 50 4. The book can be ordered here

Rhys David is a writer on business, economic and other issues. He is a former Financial Times journalist and is a trustee of the IWA.

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