"They went to show Wales to London" - Geoff Charles Collection, National Library of Wales. Available via Flickr Commons.
“They went to show Wales to London” – Geoff Charles Collection, National Library of Wales. Available via Flickr Commons.

Recently History on the Dole celebrated its third anniversary, a fact that is quite remarkable given how this site began and its original aims. Its growth over the past couple of years in particular has been the result of a flourishing of critical engagement with Wales’s past, ideas of nationhood and class and the consequences of devolution and potential for independence – of which I’ve only played a small part so far. Put in straightforward terms, Wales’s scholars have yet to comfortably overcome – not withstanding some fine attempts – the conflict between class and nation and role of language, race, gender and sexuality in complicating that conflict. Oftentimes it seems easier to say, as Gwyn Alf Williams suggested as a way out, ‘Mother Wales get off my back’. But that wasn’t his choice in the aftermath of the 1979 General Election and nor should it, really, be ours today – the experiences of the people who live in the land called Wales are too frequently rendered invisible for that to be a justifiable action. At the same time, it is worth remembering his stark warning that ‘if capitalism in Britain lives, Wales and the Welsh will die. If we are to live, capitalism in Britain must die’. Gwyn, of course, was a libertarian communist. There were few of them when he wrote his article in Marxism Today; there are even fewer now. He spoke the truth, nevertheless.

The first questions are the obvious ones, and the ones that Gwyn himself posed. When was Wales? When did Wales come into being? What is Wales? And, perhaps more dangerously, but no less important, is Wales really a necessary nation? Each requires a subtle answer, for there is nothing straightforward to offer as a response – even to the last question (to which my instinct as an internationalist says no). Readers familiar with Welsh historiography will recognise the first. Gwyn Alf offered a stimulating, vigorous, Gramscian reply. That Wales is made and remade by the Welsh, if they so choose. It isn’t something that is inevitable, nor has it always been. Medieval Wales is not the Wales of now, they are linked but they are not direct ancestors. Owain Glyndwr has very little to say about neo-liberalism and the symptoms of precariousness. Put the flags down people! Too much of the nationalist canon in this regard plays on invented traditions, a point I shall come back to shortly. The Wales of today is a few things: a unit of governance within the United Kingdom; a feature of sporting competition; an imagined community that means different things depending on where you live, what languages you speak, and so forth; and for many it is an irrelevance, as important in their lives as the seating on a train service to a Yorkshire suburb or the artificial boundaries of central London boroughs. The good, the bad, and the uninteresting. Like most PhD theses I suppose.

This brings me to whether or not Wales is a necessary nation. Undoubtedly – and unquestionably – for some it is. Such uncritical engagement with ideas of nationhood may stem from eighty (or ninety) minute patriotism. The sort that buys international jerseys, sings the anthem, and expresses a few xenophobic comments about the opposing nation. We’ve all done it, understandably, since sport offers a viable mechanism for national identity. But sport is also a vehicle for gender, class, racial and sexual identities, all of which complicate the apparent uniformity of the nation on display. The moment when the nation is defined solely as a rugby-playing or soccer-playing, white, heterosexual, bilingual, middle-class male, for instance, it excludes those who are none of those things. That’s a simplistic critique, but it is the necessary first step on the road towards an answer. Jehovah might even prefer korfball.

The nation can be defined – and constructed – in numerous ways, then: literature and poetry, music, sport, and language, all of these things provide possible boundaries of nations and offer invented traditions that people living in a particular place can share. Take that line from the anthem – Gwlad beirdd a chantorion – I’m not sure about you but I’ve not seen many bards around lately. Such things invariably exclude as well as include people living in a particular place. Invented traditions, imagined communities, half-recalled historical facts, these are the things which inform popular impressions of what any nation is and what it means. They are as necessary as stories before bedtime.

The extent to which a nation means something in physical terms can only be properly defined through politics and economics. And in this sense “Wales” does rather badly, always dependent on another polity (in the modern era of nation-states) to define its limits and what it can do. But that is because “Wales” is not an inevitability, a natural thing. It may be, to some, a kick in the teeth, but the truth is that the “Wales” of today is an administrative boundary within the broader United Kingdom and, ultimately, the European Union (themselves artificial, political and economic constructions). Indeed, its borders have been markedly fluid over the last few hundred years. The Assize courts of Monmouthshire, for instance, formed part of the Oxford circuit with judges travelling from Reading and Oxford to conduct the sessions in Newport each quarter. The poet Idris Davies may have written of his being from Rhymney, Monmouthshire, Wales, but this was not always the case. In the northeast, too, such inconsistencies were apparent. When the Great Sessions of Wales existed (they came into being in the sixteenth century and were abolished in 1830), the circuit for Montgomeryshire, Denbighshire and Flintshire was run from Chester. Even today Shrewsbury provides Aberystwyth with its postcode.

If we stop and think about it, revelling in the mythology and pseudo-histories of a ‘lost Wales’ or a Wales that was ‘colonised’ is quite dangerous (think of Michael Hechter’s book from the 1970s Internal Colonialism). It willingly overlooks – and thereby denies – the demographic trajectory of the western two peninsulas of the island of Great Britain since the industrial revolution and grassroots decision making. Dai Smith has often remarked that the Welsh did not need to go to the United States to find a cosmopolitan melting pot, they found it in the valleys and towns of Glamorgan and Monmouthshire. Just looking at the census for Ynysybwl, for instance, you find people from Barbados, the United States, Canada, Australia, Gibraltar, Ireland, Italy, South America, Germany, and Greece, all living in a community that was broadly Welsh in origin. Of the people who were not born in Glamorgan, but were born in Wales, many came from Monmouthshire, Montgomeryshire and Cardiganshire. Few came from Anglesey, fewer still from Denbighshire and Flintshire.

But it was from England that the biggest group of migrants came, and from Bristol, Somerset, Wiltshire, and Gloucestershire in particular. Often people think of the largest group of immigrants into Wales coming from Ireland in the wake of the famine, but that was nothing in comparison to the English migration in the wake of industrialisation. The community of Ynysybwl comprised people from as far away as Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, Suffolk and Kent, Lancashire and London. And how things changed: the street that I live on went from being overwhelmingly Welsh and Welsh-speaking in 1901 to being overwhelmingly English and English-speaking (with a distinct Bristolian twang) by 1911. Other parts of the village remained broadly Welsh-speaking, broadly Cardi, but the shift was firmly towards bilingualism (and eventually English monolingualism) – a reflection of which language held sway in public affairs is perhaps indicated by the fact that the miners’ federation lodge minutes are entirely in English. The secretary, John E. Morgan, was fully bilingual but the necessity of a lingua franca in a relatively cosmopolitan community necessarily favoured the Somerset or London brogue. The same choices were made in the Rhondda too, as Dai Smith pointed out decades ago.

Those early generations of South Wales Miners’ Federation officials, men such as T. I. Mardy Jones, Noah Ablett, Charles Stanton, and S. O. Davies, were typically bilingual. Ablett himself was a first-language Welsh speaker and learnt English in school (on the 1891 census he is recorded as speaking Welsh only, but 1901 he spoke both). The same was true of SO. Stanton learned Welsh as an adult (the 1891 census records him as speaking only English), almost certainly as part of his rise through the trade union ranks. And of the top rank of the South Wales Miners’ Federation – William Abraham (President), William Brace (Vice President), Alfred Onions (Treasurer), and Thomas Richards (Secretary), Brace and Onions (who was born in Shropshire in any case) did not speak Welsh. This was hardly a labour movement that denied the Welsh language, then.

The second generation of political figures to emerge from the SWMF was rather different. Younger, more radical, and less likely to speak Welsh – its most high profile figures, the two Arthurs, Horner and Cook, one born in Merthyr, the other in Somerset, spoke only English. It was a West Country accent, with some Rhondda-isms, that Cook spoke with [http://www.bishopsgate.org.uk/content/1430/Recordings-of-Talks]. Horner had a rather plumy accent which defied geographical precision. Of the politicians that came to represent the coalfield after the First World War, the contrast could not be clearer: the intake of MPs for the coalfield at the 1918 General Election was almost entirely bilingual, that at the 1929 General Election far more commonly English-speaking. Some seats, such as Abertillery, had an English monoglot all the way through the period, some such as the Rhondda seats continued to be represented by bilingual men, but most experienced a shift.

The Pontypridd seat is a case in point. At the 1918 election the MP was T. A. Lewis, a Liberal solicitor and close friend of Lloyd George, whose patronage secured Lewis the coalition nomination. He promptly lost the seat at the 1922 election to T. I. Mardy Jones, the SWMF’s registration agent for the area. Hailing from Brynaman, Jones was an able orator in both English and Welsh, as was his successor in 1931, David Lewis Davies. A long-standing councillor and miners’ agent for the Pontypridd district, Davies came from the Treforest area of Pontypridd and was a well-regarded figure. He provided stability after Mardy Jones’s disgrace and was a key figure in building the popular front in Pontypridd. His death at the end of 1937 was a blow to the local Labour movement. He was also the last native speaker of Welsh to represent Pontypridd. His successor, Arthur Pearson, typified the town as it had become through industrialisation. His father, William, came from Cheshire to work at the Brown Lennox Chainworks and the family settled in the Coedpenmaen area of the town. Arthur Pearson also worked for Brown Lennox – a fact which proved mildly controversial when he defeated miners’ agent W. H. May to the nomination, the seat had become part of the SWMF’s “kitty” – and represented the Trallwn ward on Pontypridd UDC. Of the entire Pearson family, only Margaret, Arthur’s Pontypridd-born mother, spoke Welsh.

If, as Dai Smith and Hywel Francis argue in The Fed, their history of the South Wales Miners’ Federation in the twentieth century, the miners’ federation was a union that both represented and was representative of the society in which it was formed, then such details as these are important. Language shift does not happen overnight and nor can it be effected on this kind of scale through manipulation from above, not that there was any. Immigration into the South Wales Coalfield from England, Ireland, and abroad, all of which altered the linguistic profile of its most populous districts, was guided and encouraged by capital, not by some great colonising desire on the part of “the English” or however else it might be relayed in particular discourse. It was capital which fed on labour. Capital which ate away at the viability of the Welsh language. Merthyr in the 1830s had been chiefly Welsh-speaking, its Chartist newspapers were published bilingually with commentary that was just as fierce in Welsh as it was in English. But in the Merthyr of the 1930s, how very different it was. Of the nearly 9,000 people who had borrowing rights at the borough’s libraries in 1938, for instance, interest in Welsh language material was on a par with religion for lack of it. In October 1938, just 56 Welsh language books were borrowed from Merthyr central library compared with nearly 13,000 borrowings from the English language fiction section alone; the year before it had been nearly 100 compared with around 12,000. More tellingly, just three junior readers took out books in the Welsh language in 1938 compared to 1,100 works of popular fiction in the English language; in 1937 it had been a ratio of 1 to 1,400.

A century does not provide an easy point of comparison, of course, especially in a century as remarkable as that between 1840 and 1940, so let me be more immediate. In 1925, the workmen’s hall in Treharris issued its book catalogue. This shows quite clearly that after fiction, books in the Welsh language were the largest section of the library. Although a decline in percentage terms since the mid-1890s, 11.7% compared with 15.7%, this was still a sizeable part of the library. But did anyone read them? Unfortunately there are no borrowing records for the workmen’s library in Treharris for this period and so the only indicator we have is for the public library which opened in 1909. The borough librarian reported in February 1938 that nothing in the Welsh language had been borrowed from Treharris library that month, his report in October that year noted that just two items had been. By all accounts this is a startling figure, even taking into account the fact that the workmen’s library was more heavily used than the public library; but even there the Welsh language stock was old and only added to at a rate of four books a year. ‘Not’, as Chris Baggs notes, ‘the profile of a dynamic subject’. Nor was it any different in the bookshops, as Kate Roberts famously complained!

What we think we know of Wales’s past, then, is open to considerable scrutiny. How often do we see complaints, on both sides of the class/nation divide, so often relayed on twitter or online newspaper comments, of Labour having governed for a century and done nothing for the people of Wales – a line that reminds me so much of the famous Monty Python sketch that I hesitate to raise it; and of Plaid having forced the language question ‘down people’s throats’. To the latter I typically raise the fact that Plaid are a powerless party and given force requires the pressure of the state, those who have done the forcing are the Tories and Labour. So completely is the language question (negatively) associated with Plaid Cymru that the push to essentially effect a change from primary school to ysgol gynradd in every community is blamed on them, not on the Labour ministers and councillors who have implemented the policy. Who watches the watchers? Top down implementation of change, from which there is no alternative (which party in the Assembly would reverse it), is not a choice; what happened in the early years of the twentieth century when Welsh was effectively abandoned or not picked up by large swathes of the population, that was a choice. Ensuring that the very much alive Welsh language culture did not die was a choice too, but fewer people made it.

The flipside here when discussing the necessity of nations is the unionist project to which the labour movement became attached over the course of the twentieth century. Labour historians with an eye for this sort of thing remind us, correctly, that ‘the union’ was essentially a labour project: the National Health Service, British Rail, British Steel, the National Coal Board, and so on. The state was transformed from something that labour despised – rightly so, given how often its forces had been used to put down labour protests – to something that labour believed in as a mechanism for positive change. Miners fearful of sectional agreements – which hurt South Wales far more than most other coalfields – hoped for national wage structures and collective bargaining. The same was true of other unions, such as railwaymen and dockers. Even today most of us would baulk at the idea of different levels of welfare payments (although they exist in practice, particularly for housing) depending on whether you live in Pontypridd, Pontefract, Port Glasgow, or (what was once the London Borough of) Poplar. Thus the outlines of the union as a labour project remain fairly strong, as does the terminology – the National Health Service after all is a misnomer, there is a Scottish Health Service, a Welsh Health Service, a Health Service for Northern Ireland, and a semi-privatised Health Service for England. They do not work the same, even if they all rely, still, on the principle of one big pot of money that is shared out amongst all of us who live within the United Kingdom. Four nations: one piggy bank. And one Prime Minister getting, as it were, piggy with it

There is much less of this unionist project left now, it was dismantled by the Tories after 1979. ‘Sold off to private capital and foreign governments’, just about encapsulates it, but the phrase is also a stark summary of where the United Kingdom has disappeared off to. The thing that holds us together now is that piggy bank and what Gramsci called ‘political society’ – the police, the army, and other things which rule through force or fear such as a degree of xenophobia. Civil society, the arena in which concessions were gained and in which ideas and beliefs were shaped, both by the state and against it, is no longer tied to the unionist project. To be a unionist in Britain today is to side with the forces of capital, whose interests are assuredly not those of the vast majority of the people who live on these islands. But let no-one be under any illusion that nationalism does not lead straight there either; to modify Gwyn Alf a little, ‘if capitalism in Wales lives, the Welsh will die’. And they will die not by force of weapons but by force of a state that absolves itself of its Rousseauian responsibilities. Will food banks disappear if Wales becomes independent? No. Will harsh treatment of those who need the assistance of social security disappear? No. Will people stop saying ‘go back to where you came from if you don’t like it’? No. Nationalism aims at swapping one state for another, one form of political society for another, one set of nasties for another. Mother Wales get off me back indeed.

This is not a plea for anarchy, but a recognition of two things: the complex legacy of immigration on the people of South Wales (and Glamorgan in particular), which necessitates the abandonment of the ‘colonial’ discourse, and the need to reintegrate the legacy of industrial South Wales into the nation-building exercise that seems now unstoppable. To the nationalists that means an end to the “labour has done nothing for us ever” nonsense, for that is what it is, and to labourites that means a recognition of phases in the movement’s own history that make unionism not an inevitability but a possibility. Both must be informed by histories that map out the changing nature of politics in the land we call Wales. Studies of Welsh culture are insufficient on their own. In this regard historians are playing catch up: Martin Wright’s forthcoming book on Wales and Socialism in the formative 1890-1914 period, informed as it is by both English and Welsh-language sources, will surely serve to rehabilitate some of the legacy of the labour movement to the construction of an ‘indigenous language of socialism’, part of the four nations but distinctive in its own right.

My own work, drawing in places on Martin’s (and through our many discussions) is firmly rooted in the politics of community not nation and I have sought to show ultimately that ‘South Wales’ and ‘the Valleys’ were a thing and they meant something quite profound. At the heart of those ideas about community lies the principle of solidarity, and it knew no boundaries. The miners leaders of Tonypandy who toured Britain to raise money and tell meetings what was going on; the socialists of Bristol who supported strike after strike, hunger march after hunger march; the Scottish miner who became the talisman not just of a town in the coalfield but of a global labour movement. The ‘Lost World of South Wales’ defies so much and remains full of dangerous, exciting, necessary ideas.

Is Wales necessary, then? No it is not. Is Wales inevitable? No. Is Wales desirable? Not on the terms currently presented (by any side). So what is the answer? For me it lies in the abandonment of nineteenth century understandings of self-governance – the very things that the labour movement endeavoured to move us away from. The nation, grounded in Enlightenment ideas of order and structure, is a fallacy in a world connected by instantaneous communication that does not switch off and global capital that both avoids contributing to the common weal and presents itself as a mechanism for its furtherance. There is no reason to lumber ourselves with it still further. In his recent book, Wales Unchained (2015), Daniel Williams takes umbrage with the ideas presented by Chris Williams in Postcolonial Wales (2005). For Chris Williams, nationalism is something from the past, what in Leninist language might, I suppose, be called an ‘infantile disorder’ (not words, I hasten to add that Chris uses). As he writes, Wales would be better off avoiding an ‘anachronistic burst of nation-building, just as the nation-state finally begins to recede from its central position on the world state’. For Daniel Williams, on the other hand, ‘nationalism rests upon a moral principle’, that self-representation and self-governance is just and fair. Far more just and fair than being represented and governed by somewhere and someone else in a way that claims to be universal. I read that and am drawn back to something that Dai Smith has said, both in person and in print:

If you stand on the railway platform to go to the Valleys from Cardiff, you will hear the announcements made – y tren nesaf etc and then in impeccable estuarine English voice. Most of the people catching those trains are being told where they’re going in two languages neither of which they largely speak or understand.

I have my own addition to make. At Cardiff Central Library they have recently changed the announcements that tell you when the library is closing and so on. For as long as I’ve been using the library the announcements were made in English directly over the tannoy by whomever happened to be on the desk – mostly in a Cardiff accent, sometimes in a Barry accent, and occasionally in a Valleys accent – and the Welsh version in a pre-record. The Welsh was spoken by the Welsh librarian who came from South East Wales (I never asked where exactly) and so had a South Walian lilt. Now, however, the Welsh announcement is spoken in throat-cramping Gwyneddian voice. Why the change? Why the implementation of cultural invisibility? I leave you with the same implications as Dai does.

If nationalism rests on a moral principle, then such outcomes as these are problematic and show nationalism up as not exactly holier than thou. To be sure, as Daniel Williams reminds us, the universalism of class and community has its problems too – racism and xenophobia are very much a feature of all communities in Wales (not just working-class ones) but those boundaries of difference and intolerance did not stop the Labour Party and the Communist Party from gaining remarkable prominence in the South and Adamsdown wards of Cardiff (the two dockland wards), did not prevent Hungarian and Polish migrants from expressing how welcome they felt in the Valleys, or the few black faces in inter-war Maerdy from saying the same. And they assuredly did not prevent the wholesale migration of the Irish community from the nationalist movement into the labour movement in the first decades of the twentieth century. Selectivity on all sides gets us nowhere and leads only to continued marginalisation and to cultural imperialism, but perhaps in a different form from that which nationalist critics would typically identify (those implications again, eh).

The universal speaks to the economic exploitation of the have-nots by the haves, from the point of view of the historian it means surveying the contours of movements that have sought to change that balance – an act that Canadian historian Ian McKay calls reconnaissance. Universalism is a fundamentally moral position, too, and rests on principles like social justice and equality for all irrespective of gender, sexuality, race, language, or class. But to pin down movements that aim for these things, to ensure that they retain their radical fervour, it behoves us to remind of the specific too. By that I do not mean the nation but the immediate context in which individuals live. We are all impacted by the struggle against capital, but we feel it in different ways. Here in Britain we do not feel the shattering force of militarism, but we undoubtedly feel the effects of preciousness in the workplace. Just because the effect is different, doesn’t mean that the cause is. I worry in the end that nationalism diverts us away from this, makes us throw our anger towards the wrong places. I worry that if defenders of the universal tradition – inside the academy and outside – do not remind the current generation of its legacies (in full colour, not selective grey) then all we will be left with is the hollow, but attractive, rhetoric of left-nationalism. I worry that in the tussle between nationalism and socialism in an independent Wales, the former will win and it will win through allying with the forces of capital. Will the precariat disappear in an independent Wales? No, conditions will probably get worse. I worry that far from being unchained, we will have swapped one set of irons for another. A different conclusion, to a different pamphlet comes to mind…

To worry is about the world is no good though, the point is to change it. For it is post-capitalism that we need. To misquote a toy: to universalism and beyond!

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