John Winterson Richards questions the reality of our perceptions of Welsh history.
There are people in Wales who not only still believe that Winston Churchill ordered peaceful demonstrators machine-gunned in Tonypandy but make it part of an elaborate mythology on which they base their political beliefs. The purpose here is not to replace nationalist or socialist folk tales with liberal or conservative versions, but to encourage everyone to consider the extent to which their own perceptions of history have been influenced by modern subcultures.
In John Ford’s great film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a cynical newspaperman suppresses a true story with the words ‘This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.’
Wales is, of course, very much in the West. Perhaps more than any other country in the world, ours really is a Land of Myths and Legends – from Annwn and the shadowy vestiges of Ancient Celtic folklore, through Taliesin and Merlin and Arthur and the Cantre’r Gwaelod and the Mabinogion and Geoffrey of Monmouth and Owain Lawgoch and the Son of Destiny and Twm Sion Cati and Iolo Morganwg, to our contemporary myths.
A myth is the way the story comes down to us in its cultural context. As such, it is not necessarily a fable, a story that is entirely invented to make a particular point. Some myths are indeed total fabrications, but others, perhaps most, have some basis in fact, even if the tiny grain of truth at their heart has been obscured by many generations of exaggeration and adaptation.
For example, most of the tales of King Arthur and his Knights as they have come down to us are fictional. Those fictions were added to serve the cultural and ideological needs of the generations that invented them. Yet at the heart of it all, there was probably a real historical character, or, more likely, an amalgam of characters, on whom the fictional Arthur was based.
So the popular or received version of history, ancient and modern, is not necessarily wrong, but we must not forget that it comes to us through at least three separate but sequential filters.
The first filter is the initial reporting of historical events. Anyone who has ever experienced or witnessed or taken part in incidents that were later reported by the media will be familiar with the sense of unreality that can creep in when one tries to compare one’s personal recollections with the reports.
The second filter is the analysis of those reports, the primary sources, by academic researchers, who consolidate them in their books and articles, the secondary sources.
Of course, very few people actually read several hundred-page books by academics from cover to cover or leaf through back numbers of the excellent Welsh History Review. So most of the popular perception of history comes through the third filter of novels, television programmes, and feature films, supposedly based on research. Most of these adaptations involve some loss of accuracy – to put it politely.
Take, for example, a pivotal figure in Welsh history, Edward I. For every Welsh voter who has read Marc Morris’ fair-minded biography, perhaps a dozen have read the novels of Sharon Penman or Edith Pargeter, which take a rather romanticised view of the House of Gwynedd – and for every one of them perhaps a hundred know Edward only as the villain in the Mel Gibson film Braveheart.
This film really is appalling history. Mr Gibson has Longshanks, in his role of Hammer of the Scots, order a policy of systematic rape. That never happened. In reality, Edward, a pious Christian and, incidentally, a devoted husband, would have recoiled at the very idea. Yet most cinema-goers are under the impression, encouraged by studio publicity, that what they see on the screen is based on research and therefore substantially accurate.
A Hollywood producer might argue, if he could be bothered, that film is only entertainment and historical precision hardly matters. That would be disingenuous. Of course film matters. That is why it has been valued highly as a propaganda tool, not least by the likes of Hitler and Stalin, who took a strong personal interest in cinema. Stalin’s pet genius, Sergei Eisenstein effectively rewrote the history of the Russian Revolution for a mass cinema audience, turning a coup into a spontaneous popular uprising.
Even where there is no deliberate propaganda, film and television are far more influential than books, because they reach a wider public and because they can have a more immediate emotional impact. Some commentators see a definite correlation between the 1995 release of the Gibson film and the rise of the SNP. Perhaps one of the reasons Welsh nationalism remains relatively anaemic is the lack of a Welsh Braveheart. The thought occurs that the story of the heroically unsuccessful Warrior-Princess Gwenllian ferch Gruffydd might tie in nicely with the current trend for strong female protagonists.
It is fair to say that in 2015 Wales all three of these filters – news media, academia, and entertainment media – have a reddish tinge to them. While there are a few in the Welsh media and Welsh academia whose conclusions might challenge cultural and intellectual fashions, they try to keep their private convictions to themselves if they want to develop careers in sectors which are increasingly intolerant of dissenting views. There is no vast ‘left-wing conspiracy,’ just mind-numbing conformity. This is not to say that the Establishment does not include many people who make every effort to be honest and objective, but we all have our prejudices, and personal prejudices are much harder to resist when combined with organisational prejudices.
The three filters combined can have a very powerful distorting effect. Yet there is a fourth filter, which may be more influential than the other three put together. Most people tend to read, remember, and accept that history that conforms to their existing world view, and ignore or forget the rest. This can apply across the political spectrum but there are obvious psychological reasons why the tendency is more pronounced toward the collectivist end of that spectrum, which is deeply entrenched in some Welsh subcultures. Those types of personalities which tend to be attracted by a collectivist ideology are more likely to have a greater fear of exclusion from the collective if they express views which it interprets as challenging its norms. Put simply, it is very hard to be an anti-social socialist.
This explains the survival of what is probably the most influential myth in Wales, the myth of Welsh victimhood.
If people tend to accept the version of history that suits their world view, it is obviously convenient to view history in terms of oppression of the workers if one is a socialist or oppression of the Welsh if one is a nationalist – or oppression of Welsh workers if a socialist and a nationalist.
Before proceeding, we need to take a moment to clarify terms. The word ‘oppression’ is badly overused. To claim oppression is to allege something deliberate and specific, like the current persecution of Christians in the ‘Islamic State.’ To say that the lives of most of our Welsh ancestors were, in Hobbes’ words, ‘poor, nasty, brutish, and short,’ that they were overtaxed, and that they subjected to stupid, greedy, and intrusive bureaucrats is all self-evidently true – but it has also, sadly, been true of most people, especially the poor, throughout history, and still is today.
If the word ‘oppression’ is to have any real meaning, it has to signify something more than standard evils of poverty and government, and the specific myth of Welsh victimhood requires evidence of oppression of the Welsh as the Welsh. Yet when we come to examine alleged examples of that, we usually find at best only minute fragments of truth surrounded by thick layers of overstatement and misunderstanding.
In particular, one finds very little to support the notion that the English have made a deliberate and comprehensive attempt to destroy the separate Welsh language and culture from Edward I’s alleged massacre of the Bards to the ‘Welsh Not.’ The killing of the Bards is a much later fiction, and the ‘Welsh Not’ did not come from oppressors in London but from educators in Wales who, rightly or wrongly, believed honestly and sincerely that the children in their charge would fare better in life if they mastered English.
The motivation for the infamous medieval anti-Welsh laws was not primarily racial or cultural. For example, excluding native Welsh from English settlements was a sensible military precaution in a frontier zone, and apparently one poorly enforced much of the time. Similarly, establishing English common law in Welsh courts was part of a broader administrative project by the Crown, and medieval accounts do refer to the employment of interpreters.
The notion that the Conquest itself was somehow unfair is anachronistic: at the time the Welsh saw nothing wrong in fighting each other constantly, and were still hoping – rather optimistically – to drive the English out of England.
Modern myths focus on industrial more than racial conflict, but require similar footnotes. For example, Churchill’s alleged shooting of peaceful demonstrators seems to have been a conflation of the Tonypandy Riots and the Llanelli Rail Strike with the events of ‘Bloody Sunday’ in Russia a few years before. Nor was it Lady Thatcher who ‘closed all the pits’: that was a seventy-year decline in the coal industry which began when the Royal Navy, rightly under the circumstances, converted to oil – for which Sir Winston was, as it happens, partly responsible.
Incidentally, just between us Welsh – forget what we tell the tourists – are we still pretending to lament the passing of the pits? The change was traumatic, as change often is, and it certainly could have been much better planned and managed, but, if an angel descended to offer us the chance tomorrow, how many of us would really want to go back to a time when the image of Wales was defined by deforestation, slag heaps, irremovable dirt, lung disease, strikes, and catastrophic disasters?
The irony is that Welsh nationalists in particular are missing a trick by perpetuating the myth of Welsh victimhood. One of the things that came very strongly out of last year’s Scottish Referendum is that independence requires a feeling of national self-confidence and self-reliance. Those who advocate an independent Wales might do better to drop the victim stuff and rediscover an older tradition, one with stronger roots in actual history, that of the proud, strong warrior-nation.
The myth of Welsh victimhood has had a particularly distorting effect on contemporary Welsh views of the British Empire.
Welsh critics of Imperialism tend to ignore the fact that Wales was an active participant in the Empire from the start. The first Anglo-Norman colonies in Wales were followed almost immediately by the first Cambro-Norman colonies in Ireland. The Welsh could indeed be victims of Imperialism, but they could also be beneficiaries – or both.
It is significant that the expression ‘British Empire’ is first attributed to a Welshman, and no coincidence – although other factors were also at work – that most of the great Welsh industries grew with the Empire and declined with it.
This is not the place to debate whether the good done by the Empire outweighs its evils, or vice versa. Suffice it to say that there was both good and evil done in its name, and any analysis that ignores either is missing the point.
The purpose here is simply to suggest that, in assessing the role of Wales in the Empire, we must, as we should in studying all other aspects of Welsh history, be on guard against being influenced unduly by personal, organisational, or fashionable political opinions.
It is unfair and unreasonable to judge our ancestors by prevailing contemporary standards. To say this is not an endorsement of ‘moral relativism’ but a plea for humility. For example, most of us today would agree that racism and slavery – and, above all, racist slavery – are morally indefensible, but, since most of us agree, how can we be certain that we are not simply agreeing because we are going along with the conventional opinion of our age and might therefore have gone along with the conventional opinion of another age when it was the opposite of what it is now?
Imperial occupations really ought to be judged relatively to what went before, to the likely alternatives on offer at the time, and to what happened afterwards. Wales before the English Conquest was not some serene bucolic idyll but a singularly violent place, and it would almost certainly have remained so had the English never invaded.
Both before and after the Conquest, medieval Welshmen often looked to the Crown for protection against local oppressors, whether fellow Welshmen or Marcher Lordships. The Glyn Dwr Rising was the consequence of a refusal of that protection at a time when a new regime in London was too politically vulnerable to intervene. Owain Glyn Dwr’s first instinct had been to apply to the Royal Courts for redress of his complaints against Lord Grey of Ruthyn and it was shock at the unexpectedly rude response that led to his rebellion.
In general, although there are exceptions, it is hard to deny that the central Imperial authority in London was more often that not a moderating force against local authorities throughout the history of the Empire.
Finally, there is the point made eloquently in Monty Python’s Life of Brian when Judean rebels complaining about their Roman oppressors are forced to qualify their complaints with a very long list of good things the Romans had done or brought with them. The same has to be said of the British Empire.
For every Cecil Rhodes, there were tens of thousands of district officers, missionaries, health workers, engineers, and others, many of them Welsh, who dedicated – and often lost – their lives to bringing law and order, education, medicine, sanitation, and railways, among many other benefits, to distant peoples who needed them, with little or no hope of personal reward, at least in this life.
In any case, we must all agree on one thing about the Empire: it is over. This has led some of those who view Wales as the first English colony to conclude that the Union should also be over. Yet that ignores the fact that Wales was never a passive object of Empire but an active and integral part of the whole Imperial project, and must therefore assume its share of both the blame and the credit.
All this matters because if we can confront our history as it really is, then we challenge the mythology sustaining the blind, irrational tribalism that is the curse of modern Welsh politics.
As Wales drifts towards ever greater autonomy, the need to develop a proper, mature democratic polity and civic culture becomes more urgent. Our future depends on our understanding our past.