In an editorial for Llafur published over a decade ago, Neil Evans observed that Welsh history has the habit of being ‘cosy and uncontroversial’ and that, perhaps (though I don’t think this is entirely true), ‘free debate is suppressed by friendship’. That latter comment draws on an essay written by Kenneth O. Morgan on ‘consensus and conflict in Modern Welsh History’. That editorial was written to accompany a set of essay responses to Stefan Berger’s comparative study of the South Wales and Ruhr Coalfields, which was published in Llafur the year before. It drew some sensible commentary from Joe England and Nina Fishman and a truly woeful (and in my view unpublishable) response from Mike Lieven which crossed the line between academic critique and ad hominem attacks. Not surprisingly it drew a strong response from Dai Smith (who nails it!). That mini-storm, which need never have happened, represents the height of Welsh academic controversy in the last two decades. At no point since has there been anything like the same kind of angry debate, though several of us have tried to start one! Perhaps it is true, then, that we like each other too much to commit our annoyance to paper preferring instead to just say it bluntly over a pint?
As a field of enquiry largely grounded in the 1960s social history revolution, modern Welsh history shares the great positives of that type of scholarship and its flaws. Representation of people of colour, of linguistic minorities (and here I don’t just mean the Welsh language community), of sexual minorities, and women, has only slowly been reconciled to the otherwise effective ‘grand narrative’ of working-class agency. The first essays on Welsh women’s history didn’t appear in Llafur until the early 1980s, for instance, more than a decade after the journal was first published, and the first essay on sexual minorities appears this year – by me as it happens. The question is not so much about the dates but about why a field grounded so heavily in the desire to give voice to ordinary experience struggles to defend its own legacies.
Why, in other words, the debacle of this year’s Welsh History Month – the annual hist-fest in the Western Mail – which has written about 1 woman in twenty days and claims only 7 in the whole 31 days of its run, has gone broadly unnoticed?
Back in 1980, when A People and a Proletariat appeared, it was possible for the editor, Dai Smith, to lament the absence of an essay on women in the book and the struggle faced in trying to secure one (although as he suggests, a single essay would have seemed tokenistic). He wrote:
We should be far more concerned at the continuing absence of any sustained history of women in Wales. A society whose dependence on female labour, at the work-place as well as in the home, has been lengthy and complex needs an analysis of the social culture erected, often with calculation, around this more real biological divide. Women were never “outside” the actual history of wales; they have been almost forgotten in our written history. […] Arguably, they will require a separate history before they can figure in our male-dominated historiography with integrity and therefore integrally (p. 13).
I’m sure these words will surprise a few people…, but in any case. It took until 1991 to produce the first academic bomb – although the first published study (I think) was Deirdre Beddoe’s 1979 book Welsh Convict Women and Sue Bruley’s work on women in the Communist Party contained substantial material on Wales (Leninism, Stalinism and the Women’s Movement in Britain, 1986). Angela John’s edited collection Our Mother’s Land remains the cornerstone of Welsh women’s history and without it we would be seriously in danger of having no histories of Welsh women’s experiences at all. In her introduction, John writes that:
The history of Welsh people has often been camouflaged in British history yet women have also been rendered inconspicuous within their own Welsh history. The icons of the making of modern Wales are powerful and familiar: coal-mining and slate-quarrying dominate the images of work in south and north respectively whilst rugby and male-voice choirs have frequently been made synonymous with recreation. The emphasis has been placed on celebrating the land of our fathers rather than viewing Welsh history from the equally valid perspectives of women. A powerful labour tradition has meant an emphasis on the institutional, organizational aspects of modern Welsh history, occluding women’s activities or casting their often tangential relationship to active trade unionism in terms of deficiency (p. 9 – in the 2011 edition).
It has to be said that this critique is better remembered than the one raised by Dai a decade earlier, even though both proceed from the same basic tenets: that women’s work and labour must be understood as equal but distinct, and that their social and cultural activities must be appreciated on their own terms, not in relation to those of the world of men.
Ironic, then, that the first great battle of Welsh historiography came just two years later when Dai’s Aneurin Bevan and the World of South Wales appeared. One review was by Angela John in the New Welsh Review, albeit in response to another of those god-awful reviews that editors should leave on the floor (by D. Hywel Davies, author of a fairly good study of the Welsh Nationalist Party). But since it was published, woeful will do. John’s critique observes that ‘Women exist merely in a relational, familiar capacity: as sisters, wives, loves’. The potential for gendering the Welsh past, and thus seeing beyond the predominantly male public sphere, was missed. Similar points were raised by David Howell in the Welsh History Review. Howell even went so far as to suggest that the book might be better called Aneurin Bevan and the Macho World of South Wales.
In his effective summary of the debate, published in History Workshop Journal, Chris Williams makes the valuable point that ‘there is a gender dimension […]: the stress upon rugby and public-house conviviality, upon underground work and boxing, render it immediately apparent’. The gendered vision of the past present in the book was South Wales and its masculinity, and about how that masculinity derived from heavy labour and homosociability manifested itself and expressed itself through politics, literature, and sport. And in this way Howell’s title would work quite effectively! But it would also have missed the point which is that the book is a musing on the distinctiveness of largely Anglophone South Wales (the capital letter is another bone of contention that I shalln’t go into here) and its self-expression. The tortured world that gave rise to most of Wales’s most famous authors, to its Hollywood imagery, and to its twentieth-century sense of purpose: who but Aneurin Bevan, the figure at the heart of all this, could have been voted Wales’s greatest person? Richard Burton, perhaps? Even travelling on a different road, we still end up in the same kind of place.
Looking back on that debate now, conducted when I was in primary school, it’s quite clearly about where modern Welsh history had got to, not about where it was going. The doom and gloom of the 1980s, the massive defeat in the miners’ strike of 1984-5, the continuation of Conservative government, and the turbulence of the end of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe, all contributed to a break in the past. The passing of Raymond Williams in the late-1980s and Gwyn Alf Williams in the mid-1990s summed it up. Not for nothing has the history that has subsequently been written by those practicing in the field of modern Welsh history been rather less bold, self-assured, and, above all, determined to change the direction of travel. There are honourable exceptions, of course, not the least of which was Chris Williams’s Democratic Rhondda (1996), a model that I strive towards, and Alun Burge’s masterly William Hazell’s Gleaming Vision (2014), but their power and imagination remind us what we’ve lost in the turn to respectability.
In the 25 years or so since Our Mother’s Land was published, there has been a complete revolution in Welsh women’s history. Russell Davies produced a remarkable study of sex and violence in Carmarthenshire between 1870 and 1920 (Secret Sins, 1995), more than amply fulfilling the promise signalled in his earlier essays on gender history (including one in OML). It was followed by Deirdre Beddoe’s Out of the Shadows published in 2000 (the book that fulfilled some of the anticipations of the 1980s), by Mari William’s work on female munitions workers during the Second World War (2002), Ryland Wallace’s book on the suffrage movement (2009), Ursula Masson’s utterly brilliant work on the women’s Liberal movement (2010), which I think is still the outstanding product of this entire field, Sue Bruley’s gendered study of the 1926 lockout (2010), Sally Baker and B.J. Brown on rural women in the middle of the twentieth century (2011), and mostly recently (well, as in it’s out shortly) Rhian Evan Jones’s gendered study of the Rebecca riots, Petticoat Heroes. Much of the rest of the field is in the form of articles or book chapters or unpublished theses (there’s a good guide in Angela John’s 2011 introduction to Our Mother’s Land), although they are none the worse for that. What we need now, undoubtedly, is a new synopsis which takes us right back to what Dai wrote in 1980 and we can move into integration not tokenism. The research is there, is it not?
All of which leads me back to this year’s Welsh History Month. It has been a truly dire series that showcases absolutely nothing of the richness of Welsh history or, indeed, the Welsh past (since the two are not the same thing). An utterly woeful article by Russell Deacon summed it up for me (another of those items of trash that should never have made it into print) but his ideological nonsense is entirely hollow and quite harmless. Like the irritation that follows from getting vinegar into a paper cut. More dangerous is the idea that ‘revisionism’ in the Welsh context means a wholesale retreat into ‘Great Men’ history. Gwyn Alf Williams once observed that the past is chaos and we manufacture a history out of that past by asking questions of it. A case in point comes from the fusion of three chronologies, one taken from Sbec in 1989, the other from Our Mother’s Land – the dates are not entirely comparable so I’ve had to add a few things to make it work (if it does really)
|Date||Dyddiadau Pwysig||Key Dates||Another Chronology|
|1929||Ethol y wraig gyntaf yn Aelod Seneddol yng Nghymru – Megan Lloyd George yn Sir Fôn.||In the General Election, the Labour Party wins 25 out of the 36 seats in Wales.||First General Election in which women vote as equal to men. Rose Davies stands as candidate in Devon.
|1931||Dim ond 37.2% o boblogaeth Cymru a fedrai Gymraeg yn ôl y cyfrifad.
|Death of Welsh miners’ leader A. J. Cook|
Sefydlau’r Bwrdd Marchnata Llaeth.
|1934||265 yn cael eu lladd ym Mwll Glo Gresford, ger Wrexham.||Male unemployment in the Rhondda 60%, in Merthyr Tydfil 69%, in Dowlais 73%.||Attack on welfare offices in Merthyr Tydfil led by women, documents destroyed in protest at unemployment regulations.
|1935||Y BBC yn cynhychu o Fangor.||
Major means test protests erupt across South Wales.
|Women’s Hunger March to Cardiff.|
Carcharu Saunders Lewis, Lewis Valentine a DJ Williams am eu rhan yn yr ymosodiad ar yr Ysgol Fumio ym Mhenyberth.
|Outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. Arthur Horner elected President of the South Wales Miners’ Federation.||Women active on the hunger march to London.|
|1937||Mudo o Dde Cymru yn cyrraedd ei frig.||Mass emigration from South Wales at its height.||Women active on the Spanish Aid Committees and as volunteers at the Basque children’s refuge centres at Caerleon, Swansea, Brechfa, and Old Colwyn.
|1939||Agor yr ysgol gynradd Gymraeg gyntaf yn Aberystwyth.||An economic report suggests that Merthyr Tydfil be abandoned as a town and its population transferred||Outbreak of the Second World War.|
When we start out with the basic premise of finding out ‘the greatest’ this or the ‘first’ that, inevitably we end up writing histories that do not deal with the poor, the oppressed, the many, but which focus on those who have the resources, the power, the possibility. And in a country that has only ever had one female prime minister, the resources, the power, and the possibility, rarely fall into the hands of women. And when they do, they are easily stripped away from them by … yes, you guess it … men who become threatened.
We should be deeply intolerant of this kind of history, not out of bigotry and antagonism towards the wealthy and rich, but because it leads us down the wrong path. Veneration – as evident in Russell Deacon’s piece on liberal businessmen – of this kind of individual strips away all that is valuable about Welsh history and makes it utterly redundant. Labour politicians of the interwar years, who struggled against the authoritarian, centralising approach of the Baldwinite conservatives of the 1920s and the National Government of the 1930s (they’re pretty much the same thing), do not deserve to be unfairly compared with Liberal politicians of the late-Victorian and Edwardian period who held power across the board and acted like it. Those same, wonderful Liberal businessmen politicians who closed down free speech in Cardiff’s parks, treated working-class people with contempt, and refused to spend money to alleviate poverty on their streets? Those same, wonderful Liberal businessmen who were outdone on social campaigning by men like Samuel Arthur Brain – yes, that one! Sometimes, fellow historians, it really is brains you want.
And if I can get angry about the failure of my profession over the last generation to respect and keep banging on about the legacy of those interwar activists – men and women – who built nurseries, infant welfare clinics, recreation grounds, hospitals, swimming pools, libraries, public halls, cinemas, ran their own newspapers and shops, educated themselves in ways that today’s university students can only dream of, looked after refugees, sent vital aid into warzones, and even fought and died to protect the principles of democracy, then that is as nothing as to the anger that we should all feel at the deliberate writing out of our history of half the population. And it is absolutely deliberate when you choose to advance down the path of ‘great men’ history.
It is time for those angry debates, to set friendship aside, and to actually remind ourselves why we bother ‘doing’ history at all. I continue to be amazed at how absent the voices of most Welsh historians are amidst economic turmoil, cultural change, and the continual push of neo-liberalism into every aspect of our lives. But then, it’s easier to write about ‘national’ identity than it is to stand up and say the whole damned system is wrong; easier to drape yourselves in the mythology of ‘great men’ than to speak out against the oppression of pretty much everyone else; easier to be an academic than a historian.
History then, eh, what’s this History?