Geraint Talfan Davies on a new study that provides a warning against dominant narratives in recent Welsh history
I feel sorry for the English. After centuries of not having to worry about their national identity – English? British? what does it matter? – they are now being enjoined by an alliance of Welsh and Scots to take the fluff out of their navels, do a bit of gazing at the revealed part and sort themselves out. All this, they are told, is a precondition of sorting out the union. Not content with having to deal with the apparently importunate demands of Scots and Welsh, and the rather more threatening northern Irish, they are now being asked to imitate the Celts by developing their own psychosis about identity. It must seem tiresome.
Worried by the hijacking of the Union Jack by the British National Party and the Cross of St George by football fans who treat it with rather less reverence than the American military show to their own flag, English politicians are getting serious about what they have slowly realised is their own country.
The coalition government is bent on tackling the Gordian knot of the West Lothian question, while Ed Miliband showed just how knotty a problem identity is in a long lecture that, rather limply, tried to elevate an array of laudable but wholly ubiquitous personal characteristics into distinctive English virtues. The thought seemed to die on the page, and certainly didn’t survive the first television probing. Worrying the carcass of an old song takes practice. His only policy response was give local government more power.
If the Welsh response to its own circumstances and sense of identity had been to give more power to Anglesey County Council, I doubt that Wales would have been taken very seriously. I recommend that Ed Miliband read Martin Johnes’s recent hefty survey of the last 70 years of Welsh history, Wales since 1939. It is instructive because it attempts to chart the connections between the changes in the way Welsh people have lived their lives in this period, the changing way in which we have thought of ourselves, and the way both have translated into political action.
Responding to the anglo-centricity of much British history – against which his fellow historian Norman Davies was again eloquent at the Hay Festival last summer – Martin Johnes subscribes to the view that “understanding Britain means understanding its margins”. But a more profound purpose of his book is to emphasise the other side of that coin: that “Welshness has existed and still exists within the British state and culture, making Britishness not something external to Wales but part of Wales. A history of Wales that does not acknowledge Britain is deeply misleading”.
In that sense the book is a reminder of the gap that often exists between political rhetoric and the daily lives of those who vote or, increasingly frequently, do not vote for them. Indeed, the first six chapters in the book touch relatively lightly on questions of identity, or even the politics of Wales. Primarily, they describe the changing reality of life in Wales – from Wales at war through post-war austerity, and the cultural changes of 1960s and 1970s – moving the dominant colour of life and recollection from black and white Picture Post imagery to full technicolour, simultaneously with the corresponding move in television itself.
It is exhaustive, almost exhausting, in its factual detail. Johnes reminds us that the history of the last 70 years is rooted in the experience of war: 15,000 Welsh war dead, 33,000 houses damaged in Cardiff, 30,000 bombs dropped on Swansea. More surprisingly, the statistics also include five dying from bombing in Caernarfonshire, 200,000 people moving to Wales from England in only the first two years of the war, and 110,000 evacuees received by Welsh counties.
Combined with the fact that military organisation no longer tried to keep soldiers from particular localities together, this meant that the war sharply increased Welsh contact with the English. And yet, even during this wartime high point of Britishness, a 365,000-signature petition led to the Welsh Courts Act in 1942 which allowed Welsh to be used in some court proceedings.
Johnes describes how the “post-war economic and social transformations of British life were further tying Wales into the British system”. These included the welfare state, the new National Coal Board in which Wales was at the outset part of a south western division, the record – initially disappointing – of the 1945 Distribution of Industry Act, grammar schools modelling themselves on English public schools, and the creation of the NHS.
On the last of these, rather than emphasising the role of the Welsh hero, Aneurin Bevan, Johnes is relentlessly factual: “Most of the hospitals in Wales were simply in too poor a condition for any serious opposition to their nationalisation”. As on other matters, Johnes also adopts the pointilliste approach: the impact of free dentures on people’s self-confidence, or the fact that miners were the main customers for a Swansea manufacturer’s subsidised wigs.
The 1950s saw the beginnings of affluence. Televisions, irons, vacuum cleaners and washing machines were bought in such profusion that the consumption of electricity doubled between 1949 and 1957. The emergence of supermarkets marked the beginning of the homogenisation of the shopping experience across Britain. But again the detail is telling detail. In 1960 Swansea had 257 butchers, but no licensed restaurants.
The economic signals, too, were mixed. It was in 1955 that Wales saw its lowest ever level of unemployment – 1.4 per cent – and it is chastening to read that in 1962 male manual wages were higher in Wales than in any other part of the UK except the south and Midlands. The average weekly wage was 30 shillings higher than in Scotland. At the same time, of the 270 branch factories that opened in Wales between 1945 and 196o, 46 per cent had gone by 1965.
There was also a dark side to the 1950s, the data reminding the reader of how much life in Wales has improved in subsequent years. During the decade 823 men were killed in Welsh mines. Rural unemployment was worse than in urban areas. In 1956 40 per cent of Welsh farms did not have mains electricity, although in some cases this was, apparently, the result of their own stubborn parsimony. Even as late as 1961, 43 per cent of homes in the East Glamorgan and Monmouthshire valleys had no fixed bath.
The cultural impact of the 1960s was immense. The introduction in 1961 of local referenda on the Sunday closing of pubs is well known. However, it is harder to believe that in 1960 Cardiff Council were still refusing to let X-rated films be shown on Sundays, that the Football Association of Wales did not allow competitive football on a Sunday until 1968, or that the Welsh anthem was not played at Twickenham until 1968, or in Paris until 1971.
Affluence, consumerism, and a new youth culture resulted in the paradox of an individualism that expressed itself in a largely homogenised marketplace. You would be hard-pressed to distinguish any Welsh high street from that in any English town. Johnes strictures about the way 1960s planning ignored social needs and sowed the seeds of future calamity could be written about any place in Britain. In the main it was Welsh topography that saved us from the blight of high rise developments.
The irony is that a sense of Welsh identity grew in part as a resistance to this homogeneity, and became more politicised even as public disillusion with the effectiveness of government and politics grew. It is in the second half of the book that issues of identity and language take centre stage. They revolved around the decline of religion and the detachment of the language from religious nonconformity, the beginnings of language protest and its effective deployment, the modernisation of the image of the language through television, the growth of rural nationalism partly as an expression of class antagonism as inward migration increased, and the growth of Welsh medium education. Other critical influences were the Aberfan disaster and the sense of betrayal by the state, the failure to plan for an alternative to steel, and the widely perceived vindictiveness of government in the miners’ strike.
Johnes concludes: “The irony is that it was a Conservative government that did more than any other before it not just to bolster the official status of Wales and its language but also to encourage people to think about their nationality in more political terms. “
The book is also an implicit warning about the ease with which dominant narratives become lodged in the mind and exclude uncomfortable or forgotten information. For instance, despite the ‘spirit of the blitz’ indictable crimes rose by 89 per cent during the war, and violent crime against property rose by 150 per cent. In the early 1950s 40 per cent of grammar school children went into jobs with limited prospects. In the so-called summer of love in 1969, 93 per cent of Welsh births were legitimate. Cardiff was proposed as capital by the vast majority of Welsh local authorities. The village defence committee opposing Tryweryn was run by outsiders because of a lack of volunteers within the community. More pits were closed in the 1950s than in the decade after the 1984 strike.
Neither is it a detailed political history. This is not the place to come looking for the minutiae of political debate and detail of the dramatis personae. At times it is frustratingly de-personalised. Mention is made of “a professor of industrial relations, a school teacher and a naval officer” being elected in Cardiff in 1945, without mentioning that they were Hilary Marquand, George Thomas and James Callaghan. Johnes refers to the Archbishop of Wales pleading with Willie Whitelaw over the creation of a Welsh television channel, but not that he went with two others, Sir Goronwy Daniel and Cledwyn Hughes. The most important study of the first decade of devolution, the Richard Commission, is nowhere mentioned by name, merely referred to obliquely, “In 2004 one inquiry noted….”
Martin Johnes has written a meticulously informed account of our recent history, founded on prodigious data, and refreshingly enriched by the ‘evidence’ of poets and novelists. It is a healthy corrective to idealised narratives of Welsh progress, although perhaps a milder one than he may have intended. Johnes acknowledges that the National Assembly may have been, in large part, a creation of Welsh civil society, but it has written itself into the narrative of the lives of Welsh people with remarkable speed and thoroughness. Yet the British component of Welsh identity is undeniable but still unmeasurable. It is impossible to gauge what balance of emotion and pragmatism it encompasses.
You might even say the same about the crowds in London’s Mall during the Jubilee weekend. Was it a personal tribute to a monarch? Was it a need to party in the depths of recession? Was it a pavlovian response to an overwhelming media and marketing barrage, a high mass of Britishness with the BBC as celebrant, or was it a real display of British patriotism? And if so how deep was it? Could it have been as superficial as the perceived ‘republican moment’ at the time of Princess Diana’s death, and as fleeting? Beware people who believe they know.