Pam Na Fu Cymru – Why Wales Never Was

Huw Williams reviews Pam Na Fu Cymru by Simon Brooks.

Simon Brooks has a tendency to make me feel uncomfortable. I should probably add that this comment does not relate to him as an individual – indeed, he is remarkably entertaining and irreverent given the intensity of his prose, and his unforgiving political directness.  It relates instead to the content of his social and political arguments and their capacity to give rise to troublesome and unsettling tensions.

As someone born into the Labour Party, his unabashed political nationalism (Welsh, rather than British, should that need clarifying) is a direct enough challenge to contend with.  The fact that he articulates this nationalism through a brand of conservatism makes it even more of a test.  Yet in reading his latest work, Pam Na Fu Cymru it is impossible not be impressed, if not taken, with a number of his key arguments.

Indeed, the experience of reading the second in Daniel Williams’ UWP series ‘Syniadau’ was in many ways akin to reading Michael Oakeshott’s Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays.  That book, and in particular the eponymous essay, has the ‘progressive’ reader fighting every fibre in their intellect to resist the allure of its arguments, but to no avail.  In spite of Oakeshott’s apparent desire to return to the middle ages, his critique of modern politics – and its tendency to claim all problems can be addressed and resolved through technocratic expertise – is all too persuasive (we are bearing witness today to its most perverted and masochistic tendencies, in the unrelenting and sickening attack on the poor and vulnerable).

For the left-leaning reader there are similar tensions involved in reading Brooks’ work.  He presents a less esoteric conservatism but it is conservatism nevertheless, whilst he puts forward a powerful critique of the ideology of progressive politics.  Indeed, it is the tendency of liberalism to promote the cause of the dominant, whilst claiming neutrality, which is the central motif of his work.  In the case of Wales, he claims it has been the progressive narrative of the Liberal and latterly the Labour movement that have justified the debasement of Welsh culture and language – and ultimately the Welsh nation.

This is the key normative claim in the work, but Brooks puts the case to us on the basis of a historical study of Wales in the 19th century, taking the year 1848 as the central launch pad for the argument.   This of course was the year of the revolutions in Europe where small nations, in the Habsburg Empire in particular, began to flex their muscles and lay the basis for their claims of nationalism that would be realised in years to come.  Brooks encourages us to ask why the same process did not occur in Wales.  He reminds us that we are a historical anomaly in the sense that many key preconditions – such as industrialisation – applied in the same way, but that it did not result in the same powerful political movement towards nationhood.

This is why he asks ‘Why Wasn’t Wales?’, and his argument is fascinating.  Essentially he blames the bulk of the Welsh establishment, namely the liberal non-conformists – the famed ‘Welsh radicals’.  Their desire to accept the liberal, progressive British narrative of the time, and readiness to capitulate to the racism of the Blue Books, put pay to Welsh self-respect and integrity at a time when other small nations began a process of self-realisation.  Rather than promote a Welsh political identity, they preferred to cleave to the purportedly universalist and general claims of the liberal movement.  And here’s the crux: rather than British liberalism being genuinely tolerant and accepting of difference and supportive of all its constituent members, it did in fact mask a cultural superiority that regarded the assimilation of the inferior Celts by the English as the only way to guarantee progress.

It is fascinating in one respect because Brooks is able to show how the liberal narrative was actively embraced by many Welsh radicals – and many Welsh speakers amongst them. It is interesting in another respect because of course the Welsh Chapel has in the popular mind been the mainstay of Welsh language and culture.  For these paragons of Welsh progress to be painted as the ones who betrayed their nation is an equally powerful story to tell (and it is one that has much credibility, especially if you speak to others knowledgeable about the period –  I was particularly amused to hear one academic talking about ‘Homer Simpson’ theories of language acquisition in the Victorian era that held that English had to replace Welsh because there is only so much room in the human mind).

It is an open question, however, whether Brooks is justified in being quite so harsh in his judgment and to characterise them as such active agents in the sublimation of Wales and Welsh culture within Britishness, given the ideological, social and economic forces at play.  In particular, a separatist project within the world’s foremost economic power would not have been a straightforward argument to make given the prosperity it offered to the upwardly mobile.  Fittingly, given that it is the 150th anniversary of the Welsh landing in Patagonia, it is one of this project’s prime instigators, Michael D Jones, who offers the counter narrative that Brooks extols.

Along with Lady Llanover and Emrys ap Iwan, he was one of the key figures who defended the integrity and potential of Welsh nationhood and culture and crucially, he was from the non-conformist mainstream.  Brooks’ account alerts us to the insight and foresight of Jones’ thought and demonstrates how he was ahead of his time. His critique of mainstream British liberalism, and his ability to recognise its deleterious effects for minorities, foreshadows the arguments that would develop against universal liberalism both in the post-colonial literature and the identity politics of modern greats such as Miriam Iris Young.

The aim of the book, however, is as much to force us to reflect on our current situation as it is to provide a provocative and revealing account of our past.  Given our collective amnesia as a nation any contribution to historical debate is to be welcomed, but it is the way it sheds light on our contemporary thought-world in Wales, and the considerations it suggests that are perhaps most significant.  It is no coincidence, claims Brooks, that Welsh nationalism in the 1920s should arise in the conservative figure of Saunders Lewis who – like the central and eastern Europeans of yore – rejected the progressive liberal narrative, in keeping with Jones’ project.  Brooks wants to suggest that in providing ballast for the contemporary Welsh project this critique of the British establishment must be embraced.

The book represents a fascinating combination of social history, intellectual history and political theory that perhaps only a figure such Brooks could produce – it is to the detriment of Welsh academia that he is not in one of our Universities, but perhaps this allows the freedom to produce work that cuts across disciplines in a way that is less natural for those of us more entrenched in our positions. He raises many difficult questions for people across the political spectrum and in our current state of flux and confusion this is a priceless piece of work.  For me it represents the most challenging and significant work on Wales since devolution – although I have yet to read Daniel Williams’ Wales Unchained!

Certainly those such as Williams who see the future of Wales tied to left-leaning politics will have plenty to say, and will no doubt baulk at the implication that  contemporary Welsh nationalism (both cultural and political) cannot be tied to a broader emancipatory and progressive movement.  The two of them will have had plenty of time to discuss these ideas over this last month during a speaking tour across Wales.  Whatever one’s political colours (and innate aversions) this is a conversation you should be involved in.

Huw L Williams is Lecturer in Philosophy for the Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol. Simon Brooks and Daniel Williams' last stop on their tour, 'When Will Wales Be?' will be at the National Eisteddfod - Friday 7th August, 10.30am - Pabell y Cymdeithasau (Welsh-medium event - ticket to the maes required). Previous bilingual events were held in Caernarfon, Cardiff and the Rhondda.

15 thoughts on “Pam Na Fu Cymru – Why Wales Never Was

  1. A fine article on an excellent book, which exemplifies the way that Wales was crushed by British nationalism during its apogee in the 19th Century. We have never recovered from this incursion because the Welsh mindset has been shattered. Wales is arguably the finest example of London social, cultural and economic expansionism, and Brooks explains how religious and political leaders in our nation bent over backwards to allow our domination. A national tragedy!

  2. Myth built upon myth. Fantasy built upon fantasy.

    Only when Wales starts to educate its children to an acceptable international standard will we ever be able to understand and appreciate the history of this country.

    Until such its open season.

  3. CORRECTION – The Caernarfon leg of Simon Brooks and Daniel Williams’ tour will be taking place tomorrow at ‘Clwb Canol Dref’ at 11.30am as part of Gwyl Arall – £4 entry and simultaneous translations provided.

  4. Fine words but hardly for public consumption? Wales is a political irrelevance. As Owen Smith MP remarked in an interview with LFW last week, for the London media any stories on political Wales are “commercial death.”

    As for Dr Brooks, his notion that there should be a ‘Welsh Citizen Test’ for those moving into Wales, not only adds a new dimension to extreme Welsh nationalism, it is just plain loopy!

    With fragile, insecure nonsense like this coming out of Wales, it is no wonder that the Welsh are observed as being “fabulously dotty” by the rest of the UK.

    When are you all going to stop obsessing about the past,arsonist Lewis and Glendower’s dentures, and start doing something about the future??


  5. The Brooks-Williams dialogue is a top rate discussion. I attended the Caernarfon meeting, and was highly impressed with the standard and breadth of debate. Huw Williams’ piece is very good, and he is correct to observe that Plaid Cymru must abandon the Brit Left if it is to progress. They must also be very careful about jumping back into bed with Labour after next year’s Assembly Election. Perhaps now is the time, to answer Simon Brooks, for Welsh Nationalism to come of age.

  6. From the preliminary reviews I have read of Simon’s book, it certainly is an intriguing thesis. I shall certainly be buying a copy in the near future.

    I was somewhat taken aback to read that he is not in one of our Universities. The last time I looked, he was a Lecturer at Cardiff University. But a brief glance at the list of academic staff shows he no longer works there. Did he jump, was he pushed or did he simply move on to higher things?

  7. The session regarding Simon Brooks new book at Pabell y Cymdeithasau will be interesting! “Pam Na Fu Cymru” seems seems to share the characteristics of Professor Gwyn Alf Wiilliams’s “When Was Wales?” by questioning the sacred cows of the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Wales, and rural Wales in particular. For it is there, in rural Wales, that Radical Liberalism gained the greatest following, apart perhaps from the slate quarry workers of Caernarfonshire and Merionethshire who flirted with “sosialaeth,” in the 1890’s to the consternation of non-conformist ministers, and evasive action by Lloyd George. Even the Fabian based socialism of the Rev. Pan Jones and R.J.Derfel was anathema at the time.

    The tragedy of that period is that Liberal Radicals in Wales did not push boundaries, and far too willing to compromise in favor of “British” interests. Any thoughts of a strategic alliance with Home Rulers in Ireland were scuppered by the concerns of non-conformists about the sullying effects of Papism on their congregations. The proposed Nation Institutions of Wales Bill of 1891 that would have given Wales a greater measure of local control over its own affairs floundered before the starting gate. What is called devolution today is not that far beyond that first draft, incidentally. The “Cymru Fydd” movement of the 1890’s was defeated on home ground, not in Westminster.

    The willingness to compromise and pull back from legislative adventure haunts us today, which is perhaps the real message of “Pam Na Fu Cymru.” A reluctance to include statutory climate change goals in the first round of discussion of new environmental law, for example. Even more hopeless, the importation of second hand Westminster based law and the establishment of an advisory committee as core elements of a proposed bill to protect the historic environment of Wales, then call it sustainable. Tom Ellis would not have been amused by that, but his less adventuresome colleagues might have accepted it as exactly what is needed for future generations in Wales.

  8. It was Rhondda I attended, not Caernarfon. Went to another meeting in Caernarfon a few day earlier. Daft error, apologies! Good book and debate though!

  9. @Letters from Wales – what is your name? Such awful and misinformed responses shoud be included with a name so that people know who you are, as everyone else does on this site. If Wales is such an irrelevance than why do you insist on having such a foghorn for your bigotry called ‘Wales Uncut’?

  10. Excellent article and no doubt excellent book – a trip to the library first. I questioned my grandparents’ insistence on having Islwyn Ffowc Elis and Kate Roberts’ books alongside ceremonial plates to the Queen hanging on their walls. That the Welsh Eisteddfod revival needed Iolo Morgannwg’s London Welsh set to inspire it. That our national party needed the Scouse-Welsh Saunders Lewis to get it off the ground. I also wonder whether the Tudur period dropped us into this. Owain ap Maredudd ap Tewdur’s sly move into Valois’s chambers spawned a Tudur line that somehow made us feel as if we’s won the English throne when the reality for Wales was quite the opposite. We must get a grip. Everyone in Welsh politics keeps telling me that we are a country so it’s about time we bloody well acted like one.

  11. To Ken Thompson,

    ‘Crushed by British nationalism’? ‘London expansionism and domination’?

    For heaven’s sake get over it, and welcome to the New Jerusalem’s of Facebook and Tweeting.

    To Karen,

    A spark of light in all this nationalist hyperbole. Although a concentration on Welsh history such as it is, doesn’t quite cut it for a cosmopolitan outlook on the world does it?


  12. Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,
    Who never to himself hath said,
    This is my own, my native land!
    Whose heart hath ne’er within him burn’d,
    As home his footsteps he hath turn’d,
    From wandering on a foreign strand!
    If such there breathe, go, mark him well;
    For him no Minstrel raptures swell;
    High though his titles, proud his name,
    Boundless his wealth as wish can claim;
    Despite those titles, power, and pelf,
    The wretch, concentred all in self,
    Living, shall forfeit fair renown,
    And, doubly dying, shall go down
    To the vile dust, from whence he sprung,
    Unwept, unhonour’d, and unsung.

  13. To Letters from Wales Uncut: you obviously need to read the book before attacking Ken Thompson’s perceptive analysis. I’m always amused by Union Jack-wrapped critics who bleat on about the Welsh having to “learn their own history” in order for ‘them’ to “grow up”. It is the uncovering and revealing of buried or biased accounts of history, as Simon Brooks attempts in Pam Na Fu Cymru, which challenges the imperialistic accounts of ‘For Wales, see England’.

  14. I don’t understand why anybody would want to use 1848 as a base-line when it’s pretty obvious the people running Wales realised they were better off working with various incarnations of ‘the English’, rather than against them, several centuries before then?

    Some of us have figured out the late 20th century – especially 1999 onwards – might go down in history pretty much as the end of that period of mutually beneficial co-operation and the beginning of terminal decline!

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