Today’s blog is extremely long, but I make no apologies for that. I had considered whether to split it into several posts but I think the exposition is necessary to enable the point I’m trying to make. I hope that readers will bear with me but also that you may find something of interest in what I have to say. The blog was prompted by observing comments made in relation to ‘uneven development’ and the idea that the northeastern corner of Wales might benefit from the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ that the government in Westminster are trying to develop. In typical vein, Labour members thought it likely that the places such as Wrexham would likely benefit from the economic stimulus, whereas Plaid Cymru bemoaned the ‘lack of ambition’ which sees Wales having to rely on someone else rather than forging ahead with our own ‘Northern Powerhouse’. The instinctive response is to roll our eyes, not least because, if thought about properly, the idea that a ‘Northern Powerhouse’ in a region of about 700,000 people (taking Anglesey, Gwynedd, Conwy, Debighshire, Flintshire, and Wrexham together) could compete with one of 2.7 million (the population of Greater Manchester) is rather ludicrous. But then the idea of ‘internal colonialism’ was raised and we find ourselves rolling back into debates that are now decades old. We don’t seem able to move on.
Forty years ago, an American sociologist published one of the more curious books about Britain and its social and economic history since the sixteenth century. I refer, of course, to Internal Colonialism: The Celtic Fringe in British National Development, 1536-1966 by Michael Hechter. Now professor of political science at Arizona State University and professor of sociology at the University of Copenhagen, Hechter published the book when he was an assistant professor in sociology at the University of Washington in Seattle. His first major publication, it was later nominated as one of the Best Books of the Century by the International Sociological Association. (Although in the final tally it only scored one vote – the prize went to Max Weber’s Economy and Society.) Observant readers, then and now, will note that Hechter’s chronology is directly framed by two Welsh events: the Acts of Union undertaken during the reign of Henry VIII (not, it has to be said, a contemporary term, but a twentieth century one) and the election of Gwynfor Evans, the Plaid Cymru President, in the Carmarthen by-election. This is an interesting choice – he might, after all, have chosen to end with the Hamilton by-election of 2 November 1967 which saw the SNP’s Winnie Ewing catapulted into parliament in what was (in the words of Tom Devine) ‘the most sensational by-election result in Scotland since 1945’. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s possible to imagine him doing just that.
Given the way that his career was made, it is no surprise that Hechter remains interested in the character of nationalism and what he now refers to not as ‘internal colonialism’ but as ‘Alien Rule’. Writing in the journal American Behavioural Scientist in 2009, Hechter observed that ‘at the most basic level, alien rule exists whenever one or more culturally distinct groups are governed by individuals of a different cultural group. This description encompasses the legally distinct situations of colonialism, foreign occupation, and those multinational states composed of some nations whose members consider their rulers to be alien’. A reasonable prognosis of the concept, to be sure, though it rests, as he recognises, on problematic concepts: governance and cultural distinctiveness. The former is easy, the latter much less so, as we shall see. But for Hechter, ‘the hallmark of alien rule concerns the identity of the rulers rather than the provenance of the ruling institutions’. In this reading, we might think of the British ruling the Welsh, since the identification of the ruler and the ruled is distinctive. Nationalism therefore can be reduced (though this isn’t quite as reductive as it seems) to discontent with ‘alien rule’, just as Hechter saw it in the 1970s as symptomatic of the inequalities of uneven development and ‘internal colonialism’. Same point, different alphabet soup.
When Internal Colonialism was first published it prompted not inconsiderable comment, reaction, and subsequent work. Spin-off case studies can be found (mostly published in the late-1970s and early 1980s) for Israel, Quebec, the Soviet Union, and the United States, amongst others. Turning our attention to contemporary comment, then, we find, as is often the case, that it really depended on who you were, what you were, and where you were, as to whether Hechter’s analysis proved effective or not. The reviewer for Welsh History Review, P. J. Madgwick, a political scientist probably most famous for his 1973 book (written with Non Griffiths and Valerie Walker) The Politics of Rural Wales, opined in an otherwise favourable review that ‘it is stimulating, occasionally irritating, illuminating, too; but sometimes it seems to throw darkness into light corners’. Part of the problem, as Madgwick identifies, is Hechter’s use of history and historical interpretation – fitting details to fit his theories in ways that left the picture ‘at times not quite sharp enough’. He continues,
the chapter on “Servitor Imperialism” is suggestive but puzzling, and requires a much more searching account of imperialism as a popular phenomenon (and incidentally a British, not just an English, affair). The differences between and within the countries of the Celtic fringe are inadequately dealt with, and detract from the prime example, Wales, which best fits the theorising and methodology. The contribution of the political parties to the ‘nationalizing’ of politics is hardly dealt with.
And so on.
It was Hechter’s use of history that irritated Dai Smith, too. Writing in the Times Literary Supplement in 1977, Smith attacked with vigour, though without example (since this is a passage in a broader piece about uses and abuses of the Welsh past). ‘It’, he remarked of Internal Colonialism, ‘seeks simplicity where none exists, at least in the Welsh situation’. Not at all surprisingly, as K. O. Morgan observed in his subsequent review, Dai Smith’s edited collection A People And A Proletariat (1980), gave the idea ‘short shrift’. That was a collection featuring Dai, Gwyn A. Williams, Ieuan Gwynedd Jones, L. J. Williams, Hywel Francis, and Peter Stead, all of whom know a thing or two about Welsh history! In fact, if you look carefully at book reviews of modern Welsh history in the late-1970s and into the 1980s, one phrase crops up time and time again, ‘nationalist mythopoeia and a-historical ideologising in the manner of Hecter’s Internal Colonialism, as Eric Hobsbawm had it in Welsh History Review in 1983; ‘the unhistorical work of Hechter’, as Ieuan Gwynedd Jones had it in Morgannwg that same year. Historians and sociologists of Ireland, such as J. A. Jackson of Trinity College Dublin, were much more sympathetic to Hechter’s thesis. ‘The survival of cultural distinctions in language, religion, politics and indeed their resurgence in recent years’, Jackson observed in the British Journal of Sociology, ‘all argue strongly for the internal colonialism case’. The who, what, where, when, and why, which dominates all history (real history anyway) bites again.
There are not many historians working in Wales today who would take Hechter seriously – looking at the bibliographies of the relevant books in the Studies in Wales series published by the University of Wales Press, Internal Colonialism goes uncited, and only a few essays by Neil Evans stand out as meaningful engagement. Although this ought not to lend credence to Richard Wyn Jones’s attack that ‘one of the weaknesses of modern Welsh studies is an aversion to big-picture thinking, witnessed, for example, in the hysterically hostile reception afforded Michael Hechter’s Internal Colonialism’ (my italics) – a point I’ll come back to later. The concept, however wrong-footed it is, historically-speaking, has not gone away. Indeed, it has been making a ‘come back’ in the emerging field of Welsh Studies, which has been guided primarily by scholars working on Welsh Writing in English (WWE), notably Daniel G. Williams, and in political science – most especially Richard Wyn Jones. Even this is not shared by everyone: Internal Colonialism goes uncited in Kirsti Bohata’s otherwise theoretically sophisticated Postcolonialism Revisited (2009), for instance. The question we should ask ourselves is why? Why revisit what seemed thirty years ago to be a discredited ‘master concept’? The answer lies very much in present neuroses about ‘nation’-hood, ‘national’ identity, and the desire to construct a singularity out of a land of plural experiences (to abuse a phrase).
What follows I hope offers some ‘big picture thinking’ that Richard Wyn Jones accuses us historians of lacking, but to get to that point a few house-keeping details are in order, for it is my intention here to look at the broadest possible span of ‘Welsh’ experience to emphasise my own rejection of both the diffusionist-modernist model of development (which supposes the spread of ‘modernity’ from the centre to the periphery) and the various nationalist-colonialist models that draw on Hechter’s ideas to a variety of different ends. There is a third way. I take as the foundations of this third way, Dai Smith’s explorations of ‘American Wales’, but in contrast to Daniel Williams my aim is not to reconcile that with a nationalist-colonialist model that provides for the nuances of contemporary pluralism, rather it is to push on to Smith’s logical ends. At the end of the ‘American Wales’ yellow brick road lies pluralism, yes, but regionalism, and, above all, an appreciation of parts of ‘Wales’ as borderlands. A regions-borderlands model, then, if you will. Let me explain (and here I’m leaning on a series of articles I’ve published with my former supervisor, Colin D. Howell, a Canadian historian).
The Borderlands Idea
The borderlands perspective, with its consideration of the multi-directional character of cultural transfer and economic development, enables a reorientation of analysis from the metropolitan to the peripheral, from top-down models that service the national narrative to bottom-up understandings that shed light on the activities of ordinary men and women and the communities that they formed. It also gives attention to the way that local communities adapted transnational influences to local circumstances and needs. Borderlands, for Colin and I, are not only terrestrial but oceanic. Thus, the North Atlantic in the second half of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth centuries – and even before that – was a site of economic exchange and capitalist enterprise, of international labour employment and mobility, a catalyst for industrial and commercial development, and a multi-directional highway of cultural transmission from sea to shore. Whilst recognising, of course, that amid the myriad of individual interactions influenced by these larger processes, there were always imbalances of power that attended the negotiation of metropolitan and peripheral, imperial and regional initiatives, and the social relations of capitalist production (and consumption), it is nevertheless true that the North Atlantic in these years served as the hand-maiden of transnational and global interconnectedness, rivalling in significance recent technologies that have shaped post-industrial cultural practices and our contemporary globalised experience.
Attentive theorists and historians will recognise that the borderlands idea emerged from a twin desire in American historiography to ‘internationalise’ the writing of US history on the one hand and to recognise the importance of interaction across the Canadian-US and Mexican-US borders on the other. Unsurprisingly, the most influential work has come from the southwestern United States, where the borderlands are not exactly ‘benign’ territory given contemporary politics, and the northeastern United States where they most assuredly are. But for Howell and I there are other considerations too, not least attentiveness to Marxian and Gramscian ideas about power and power-relations, and the validity of pointing out that history looks very different from the margins. Colin’s specialism is the history of the Maritime Provinces of Canada, most notably Nova Scotia, a province that, like Wales, sits on the extremities of power and has tended to be written off by historians from Central Canada. As one of them, Frank Underhill, once famously put it, ‘as for the Maritimes, nothing much happens down there’. Like Wales it is divided, with old resource-towns that once produced coal and steel (or were focused on fishing) and are now caught in the same post-industrial decline as the South Wales Coalfield, the dynamic but somewhat isolated urban centre of Halifax-Dartmouth (and by isolated I mean it’s a long way to Montreal or Boston), and a rural hinterland centred on the Annapolis Valley and the Cape Breton Highlands.
Significantly, Nova Scotia has also undergone a process of ‘nation building’ (or, more properly, province building). In the 1860s when Canadian Confederation was completed, Nova Scotia, which had enjoyed responsible government since 1848, experienced a wave of anti-confederation sentiments (here I’m simplifying) that might well have caused the province to walk out of Canada and join the United States – Halifax had been an important safe-haven for Confederate blockade runners during the Civil War. At both provincial and federal elections in 1867, anti-confederationists won a supramajority of seats, only to find their desire to leave Canada blocked by the imperial parliament in London. Their language is rather familiar:
[Confederation] would, if adopted, deprive the people of the inestimable privilege of self-government, and of their rights, liberty, and independence, rob them of their revenue, take from their the regulation of trade and taxation, expose them to arbitrary taxation by a legislature over which they have no control [since Nova Scotia would always be overruled by Ontario or Quebec or both], and in which they would possesses but a nominal and entirely ineffective representation…
How different is that to, say, contemporary debates here in Britain about English dominance of the House of Commons? 1868 doesn’t seem so far from 2015 after all. But anti-confederation was not just blocked by far-away Britons, in the end the momentum was broken by that old shibboleth – pragmatism. Key to this was the winning over of Joseph Howe, Nova Scotia’s most important nineteenth century politician. Between 1860 and 1863, Howe had served as Premier of Nova Scotia and was a key activist against confederation – he led the failed negotiations with the British to allow Nova Scotia to secede from Canada. John A. Macdonald, the Canadian Prime Minister, offered Howe a seat in his cabinet in 1869, which he accepted having recognised the futility of the secessionist position (against the political climate of the day, it’s worth pointing out). In the aftermath of this failed attempt to ‘wriggle free’ of an imbalanced Canada – which given the westward expansion of the country subsequent to Confederation was only going to get worse – the attention of Nova Scotians turned to the development of a distinctive culture, informed as much by the northeastern United States and the wider North Atlantic as by the rest of Canada.
But if you go to Nova Scotia today, you’re not confronted with that, you’re confronted with the product of the province-making that I mentioned just a moment ago: an official ‘Scottishness’ which was overlaid the province in the interwar years by the Liberal Premier Angus L. Macdonald. Macdonald was easily the most successful Premier of twentieth century Nova Scotia – only Robert Stanfield, the Conservative Premier between 1956 and 1967 comes close in terms of lasting influence – and is as much an icon of his century as Howe was of the nineteenth. In common with Nova Scotian tradition, Macdonald was an advocate of provincial autonomy stressing the need for greater redistribution of federal revenue to enable the development of the poorer provinces of the confederation. Time and again he pointed out that by the Depression of the 1930s, Nova Scotia had gone from being the richest province to the poorest. But rather than radicalise and turn towards social democracy as happened in Saskatchewan, Macdonald turned to a form of nationalism and began the process of projecting Nova Scotia as an antimodern arena. Canada’s ocean playground, as the province’s licence plates have it. This process, as Ian McKay has written, ‘erase[d] evidence of an urban, capitalist society, of class and ethnic differences, and of women’s emancipation’. It turned Nova Scotians into a folksy kind of people – the sort that muttered a few phrases in Gaidhlig, enjoyed ‘folk music’ of Scottish reels and jigs, wore tartan to family weddings, and so forth. It was Anglo-Celtic in a province comprising Acadian, African, and indigenous peoples, a situation that has only exacerbated as the ethnic composition of Halifax, in particular, has changed over the course of the twentieth century.
Underneath all this, though, is the real Nova Scotia of poverty, of class, of ethnic and cultural and linguistic diversity; the Nova Scotia of the borderlands. But because Nova Scotia is, compared to Ontario, relatively under-developed and appears, because of nearly a century’s worth of myth-making, to have a different ‘culture’ to the centres of Canadian power, it is also the kind of place to which it would be very easy to begin to apply the internal colonialism argument; we can hear it now – the resources of the eastern provinces, coal, steel, cod and lobster, exploited for the benefit of central Canadians and their imperial masters who live far away and do not understand them. And so on it goes. But before we get into it too deeply, we end up at the Maritime Rights Movement, recognition of indigenous territorial claims, and similar objections to its implications, and the whole theory starts to unravel once again cut to pieces by the scissors of history. An awful metaphor I know, but I digress.
Looking at history from the borderlands perspective encourages, I think, a history that is neither neat and nor tidy nor, to adopt Dai Smith’s words, ‘static and linear’. It is instead, ‘a cubist vision’ which enables us to ‘recapture the flux of change in boom, slump and war between, say, 1880 and 1940’ and I hope in other periods too. (Although there aren’t that many ‘Smithian’ historians employed by Wales’s universities. Hélas.) For the most part, Welsh history has been compartmentalised. Few historians have written single volume histories covering the full span of history from the Romans to the present day. The exceptions are, of course, rightly famous: John Davies’s A History of Wales (Originally Hanes Cymru, although the two are not exactly the same), Gwyn A. Williams’s When Was Wales, and Geraint H. Jenkins’s recent A Concise History of Wales. We might also add John Graham Jones’s The History of Wales from a more popular market. These are examples that historians can, and do, occasionally, write histories of Wales but in general we tend towards close detailing of particular periods and moments in the past rather than broad synthesis. It is especially curious that, in an age of so-called nation building, only one synthesis has been produced that pertains towards academic quality, namely Jenkins’s A Concise History which came out in 2007 and shows its age now.
In the current climate, that ‘cubist vision’ is clearly not nationalist enough – by this I mean it doesn’t treat the nation as an inevitability, a necessity with which to face the outside world. To raise objections to the nation is often to invite the retort that they are ‘common sensical’. Are they!? Indeed, if this cubist history is forced to drape itself in a flag, it instinctively asks for several all at once. As Linda Colley once put it, and she is assuredly a unionist (and curiously absent from the bibliography of Wales Unchained and similar works), identities are not like hats, we can and do wear several all at once. Stripped of all its finery, the cubist vision of the past is one in which we can ask – as Gwyn Alf Williams did – ‘what have we to do with medieval princes’ and not be confronted with a few spurious lines about ‘universities’ and ‘national self-awakening’. Aye, the ordinary family in a terrace in Cwmparc has more in common with a bloke who married his daughter into the ranks of the English aristocracy than to the family in a terrace house in Huddersfield simply because one is across a manufactured ‘border’? I think not.
Borderlands and the metaphor of cubism, then, encourage us to think of fragments, not unities; regions not nations; and a history that points to the cultural complexity of these two western peninsulas of this island in the Atlantic which was informed as much by external trade and trade of information and resources as by internal self-expression of a ‘Welshness’ upon which few people have ever really agreed. Certain poets and writers may have wished for ‘Wales’ to have wriggled out of the hands of the ‘English’ or the ‘Anglo-Saxon’, but politics, economics, and culture dictated otherwise. This leads me to one final windmill before I launch into my historical narrative, and that is the term ‘Celtic’. At the outset I should say that I quite agree with Gwyn Alf that the adjective ‘Celtic’ is ‘something of a misnomer’ used to describe a ‘confederacy of very different peoples embraced in a Europe-wide […] language family’. These words, of course, were written in the 1980s so let us check in with some more recent literature. ‘There can be no serious doubt that in the first millennium BC, communities in Gaul as well as much of the British Isles were speaking closely related languages, which the linguists have chosen to call “Celtic”’. So writes Raimund Karl, an archaeologist working at Bangor University. But therein lies the problem, as Gwyn Alf undoubtedly saw and I do too – ‘Celtic’ is a label that we have chosen to apply retrospectively. What exactly did these early “Celtic”-speaking peoples call themselves? Does it matter? Perhaps to ask such a question is to get ahead of ourselves.
To begin with we need a better sense of the lay of the land. Archaeologists and ‘pre-historians’ divide the period prior to the Roman Conquest in two, the Bronze Age and the Iron Age, details of which are widely known and don’t properly need discussing here. Suffice to say that Iron Age society in northern Europe was sophisticated and connected, albeit in different ways, to the Mediterranean world dominated successively by Greece and Rome. Indeed Celt was what the Romans (and before them the Geeks, since the Romans nicked the world) generally called the northerners they encountered. (Julius Caesar’s writings suggests things were more complex, hence the qualification.) Celt meant, to excuse my lack of philological nuance here, ‘foreign’ as the word walha did to the Germanic peoples of the north. That word, as is known, eventually became in Anglo-Saxon speech wealas. We know it today as Welsh. Celtic mercenaries, Celtic trades, foreign rulers, all criss-crossing a continental borderland to such an extent that, as the anthropologist Peter Wells has posited, it implies nothing short of strong familiarity and ease with the Roman world long before the soldiers arrived to conquer. As he notes, a proliferation of studies of indigenous peoples on the border of the Roman Empire have pointed to the active role played by them in the development of the Empire, rather than, as earlier scholarship suggested, the portrait of ‘largely passive recipients of Roman imperial policy’. This restoration of agency reflects a rebalancing of historical interest away from understanding how the top-down implementation of Roman authority worked in practice (i.e. understanding the conditions of colonisation) to a reading into Roman history of the processes of negotiation and re-negotiation evident on the frontiers and borderlands of later empires (including the British Empire).
Gone, then, is the idea (common in the middle of the twentieth century and in popular circles even today) that the Celts were a unified people – linguistic characteristics aside – who responded to the Romans in a singular, negative way (in the sense of being oppressed). Not that the Romans were a single people either, it has to be quickly added. Instead there is the local context, which shines light on how Romans and “Celts” engaged with each other in different circumstances. None of this will be a surprise to specialists, of course, for whom this localism has been a feature of the literature for many years now, but in the absence of a full, popular synthesis of the peoples who reside in the western two peninsulas of Britain, it is a valuable insight and one that serves as a clear reminder that we are constantly involved in the act of history, that is reading back into the past some of the needs of the present.
Interaction, of course, means many different things, both positive and negative, so it behoves to unpick what I intend here. In those parts of Britain closest to the continent, there is sufficient archaeological evidence of strong trade links with the continental Roman Empire and, perhaps more importantly, cultural embrace. That is hardly surprising but it merits restating. Indeed, as Jonathan Williams notes, ‘it has long been recognized that most legends on the coins of Pre-Conquest Britain are written in Roman script’. There are plenty of coins, too, as he goes on to state, that used Latin in ways that went beyond merely copying texts from one source to another which demonstrates the cultural expansion of the Roman world into southern Britain some time before its territorial absorption into the political boundaries of the Empire. That expansion undoubtedly came from the near continent rather than as a direct projection of metropolitan Rome. As Williams concludes, ‘Britons did not need to go to Rome to pick up some Latin, as there were both Latin speakers and other Gaulish learners close at hand on the other side of the channel and no doubt crossing it fairly regularly’. Now, the further you moved from the continent, the less pronounced these interactions were (again, as is surely obvious) and another ‘world’ came into view – that which formed an axis linking Ireland, Northern Britain, and Northern Europe (Scandinavia and so on), the ‘pagan’ ‘barbarian’ world that the Romans never did get round to conquering. In this model, Northern Britain means Northern England and Scotland since in the pre-Roman period the people living in this part of the island did not use coins as part of their economic system.
But where, then, does ‘Wales’ fit it? (Since it’s not at this point actually Wales as we know it today.) Well, the four principal tribes of Iron Age ‘Wales’ – the Deceangli in the north, the Ordovices in the centre, the Demetae in the southwest, and the Silures in the southeast – were not coin-making, coin-using societies either. All the archaeology is of imported coinage. But nor was there uniformity across the four groups. Peter Guest, of Cardiff University, observes of both Roman and Iron Age coins that ‘finds are concentrated in the coastal areas, particularly in the south and north, as well as along the river valleys that dissect the Welsh uplands’. But there is a corollary, ‘very few coins have been recovered from the highlands and some coastal regions, for example the Lleyn Peninsula’. Indeed, of the Iron Age coins that have been found, most were discovered in the southeast, closest to those parts of southwest ‘England’, where coins were in regular use and, indeed, struck there. For all intents and purposes, then, and insofar as numismatic evidence demonstrates, ‘Wales’ was not part of the ‘southern’ zone of continental influence, but, in a qualified sense, of the ‘northern’ zone. Guest concludes, ‘the impression is that the population of Wales can hardly ever have seen a coin, except in the south-eastern corner of the country’. The arrival of the Romans brought coins in far greater numbers, but the evidence seems to point to their use within the Roman economic system – not least because so many of the coins have been found in Roman contexts, namely forts and settlements. Again, in the southeast.
Taken with other evidence, such as the establishment of civilian administration, the civitas, and of the construction of villas, coinage finds point to the steady drawing into the Roman world of the southeast leaving much of the rest of ‘Wales’ (the hinterland around the civitas at Carmarthen being the broad exception) outside on the frontier, a militarised zone indicative of a less secure grip. What I mean by this, assuming I have read the evidence and findings correctly, and I am in no way a Roman historian, is not that the southeast (Glamorgan and Monmouthshire in today’s terms) and to a lesser extent the area around the Teifi valley was necessarily ‘Romanised’ but that this is where the boundaries of the borderland of Roman and indigenous culture lay. This is important, it seems to me, because it set in motion one of the great consistencies of our story, namely the distinctive character of the south-eastern corner compared to the rest of ‘Wales’. The distinctive character of the borderlands, in other words. This is hardly a novel discovery on my part – it’s a feature of Gwyn Alf’s writing, for instance – but I think we historians underestimate, and have thereby enabled other disciplines to underestimate, its significance in the long term. I shall return to this theme as we go along.
Where To’s You From Butt?
For the moment, let us fast forward to the period marked by the Roman withdrawal. It is at about this point that the Oxford History of Wales opens – with Thomas Charles-Edwards’s magisterial synthesis, Wales and the Britons, 350-1064. The withdrawal of the Romans led to the fairly quick disappearance of the functions of Roman civic life, notably the civilian administrations at Caerwent and Carmarthen – even the most civilised (in the sense of being governed by the civitas) part of ‘Wales’, Caerwent, did not survive much beyond the early fifth century. Latin did survive, although it was probably never the mother tongue of ordinary people anyway, that was always Brittonic. As the historian Chris Wickham notes, ‘Welsh is full of Latin loanwords, but it owes far less to Latin than modern English does to French’. Unless, of course, you happen to find yourself on a bridge! Latin and Brittonic were joined by Irish and subsequently Old English as languages spoken and used. Patrick Sims-Williams, professor of Celtic studies at Aberystwyth, has observed that there were as many as five languages used in Wales at various times before the Norman Conquest. Latin and Irish were strongest in the sixth century when, as Thomas Charles-Edwards records, Dyfed and Brycheiniog were kingdoms of three languages (Latin, Brittonic/Welsh, and Irish), although three centuries later this had retreated to Welsh as the sole common tongue and Latin as a language of liturgy and learning.
The polylingual context of early medieval Wales serves as a valuable reminder of the multiplicity of influences on the various cultures and societies that asserted themselves in the post-Roman world. By the ninth century, there were again four principal kingdoms, lying roughly at the four corners of modern Wales: Dyfed in the southwest, Glywysing in the southeast, Gwynedd in the northwest, and Powys in the northeast. Dyfed and Gwynedd were the largest of the successor kingdoms in post-Roman Britain. Given that these areas were amongst the least Romanised parts of that territory it may appear that they benefitted from continuity with a pre-Roman past. This is simplistic. Whereas Dyfed was, indeed, a corruption of the old (and Roman-ascribed) tribal name of Demetae, Gwynedd was a completely new territorial name. Even this betrays very little, for Dyfed was strongly influenced by Irish immigration and the concentration of Irish Ogham inscriptions is pronounced there. Of the 35 definitive inscriptions, 22 were found in Dyfed. Gwynedd, too, fell under Irish influence with the northwest, as Thomas Charles-Edwards has written, looking north towards Man and west to Ireland. West Wales, then sat in a cultural sphere centred on the Irish Sea; East Wales, with the exception of Brycheiniog, which was in any case founded by Irish migrants, looked towards the emerging Anglo-Saxon world. By this I assuredly do not mean cultural assimilation into the Anglo-Saxon world but, following Chris Wickham, congruity and at times common endeavour.
This is complex history and does not need a blogpost barging across its territory, more especially by a non-specialist, so let me attempt to move through this with slightly broader brush strokes than I would normally employ. ‘The English were often in Wales’, wrote Wendy Davies, ‘they had power there, and they were involved in Welsh politics’. Commonly this meant raids into Welsh territory from England, particularly from Mercia (the kingdom covering the present English midlands), and control of territory in the north that stretched from Chester towards present-day Conwy. As Davies points out, Viking incursions upset this westward expansion and Mercia’s struggle in the face of Viking aggression and conquest forced a reorientation of interests towards their own English frontier. The Mercians, of course, then fell under the power of Wessex who had a rather different approach to their Welsh neighbours. During the reign of King Alfred (871-899), kings in the southern part of Wales, notably Hywel ap Rhys (king of Glywysing) and Hyfaidd (king of Dyfed), both in 885, accepted his dominium or lordship and by the middle of the ninth century Welsh kings were regularly present at the English court. Lordship gave the southern kings protection from their enemies, Viking, Irish, and Welsh!
It went further than that, of course, since one our major sources for Alfred’s reign is the Life of Alfred written by the Welsh monk Asser. Although very few details are known about Asser, aside from the autobiographical details he provides himself in the Life, it is known that at the time he was recruited by Alfred to become a member of his court, Asser was in holy orders at St David’s (in the kingdom of Dyfed). And whilst in Alfred’s service split his time between Pembrokeshire, Alfred’s court, and various possessions in the southwest of England (monasteries at Congresbury, Banwell and later Exeter) given to Asser by the king. Of the submission by the kings of southern Wales Asser says the following:
At that time, and long before, all the countries in South Wales belonged to King Alfred, and still belong to him. For instance, King [Hyfaidd], with all the inhabitants of the region of Dyfed, restrained by the violence of the six sons of Rhodri [that is, Rhodri Mawr], had submitted to the dominion of the king. [Hywel] also, son of [Rhys], King of Glywysing, and [… the] kings of Gwent, compelled by the violence and tyranny of Ealdorman Aethelred and of the Mercians, of their own accord sought out the same king, that they might enjoy rule and protection from him against their enemies. King [Elisedd], also […] King of Brecknock, compelled by the violence of the same sons of Rhodri, of his own accord sought the lordship of the aforesaid king…
Asser then observes how Alfred rewards submission to his dominion (into which he records his own story): ‘those who desired his friendship acquired his friendship’. These were not, as Wendy Davies reminds us, although this point is now contested by historians, submissions because of military conquests but willing recourse to ‘friendship’ with the Kingdom of Wessex in the face of military pressure from another part of Wales, namely Gwynedd and its allies in Mercia. John Edward Lloyd even went so far as to suggest that Hywel Dda was ‘a warm admirer, not only of Alfred, but also of English civilisation’. This whole process of not permanent, of course, and was broken in the second half of the tenth century, by which time Gwynedd shifted their allegiances to the Vikings of Dublin and Man, but the fact that it happened should cause us to pause and think more broadly about the nature of interaction between the emerging English state and the internal divisions, chiefly regional, within ‘Wales’ that prevent the same processes of unity and state-formation to occur there. This process, it should be stated, was not uniformly welcome – one need only think of the Armes Prydein Vawr (The Prophecy of Great Britain) written in the mid tenth century which declares:
The Cymry have prevailed through the reencounter,
Completely unanimous: of one voice, of one faith.
The Cymry have prevailed to cause battle.
And the tribes of many a country they will collect,
And the holy banner of David they will raise,
To lead the Gwyddyl [Irish] through the dark blue sea.
And the faction of Dublin with us stood [i.e. the Vikings],
When they come to the battle, they will not deny themselves;
They will ask the Saxons what they seek:
How much of debt from the country they hold?
Whence is their route when they settled?
Whence their generation? From what land did they come?
Since the time of Gwrtheyrn [Vortigern] they trample upon us.
Truth will not be obtained in the land of discord.
Did they not trample entirely on the privilege of our saints?
Did they not entirely break through the miracles of David?
They Cymry will keep themselves, when they visit.
This is a poem which rails against the Anglo-Saxon invasion and the loss of Welsh territory, and prophesies a time when they will be driven away from Britain, with a little help from brethren overseas, and the Welsh will be restored to their place as the rightful rules of Great Britain. It deliberately calls on south Walians to rise up against Anglo-Saxon oppression. Helen Fulton has argued that this dates the poem to the period after the death of Hywel Dda, when Wales again fragmented and the likelihood of the south, ruled by weaker kings, slipping further under the Anglo-Saxon yoke a realistic one. ‘There would’ she writes, have been ‘little point in mounting such an impassioned anti-English diatribe during the lifetime of Hywel Dda […] who was unwilling or unable to give up his long-standing submission to the Wessex kings’. Ironically, it may be that the poem was written by a cleric at St David’s, proof, if ever any were needed, that two Welsh people are always want of a good argument!
Alfred’s reign, with its careful playing of politics, marked a ‘comparatively pleasant period in Anglo-Welsh relations’, as Thomas Charles-Edwards has termed it. It did not last, as the Armes Prydein implies. From the mid-tenth century, Gwynedd was subjected to Viking attacks, weakening its power and influence, and towards the end of the century the Vikings were successfully raiding monasteries in Morgannwg including Llanilltud (that is, Llantwit Major) and Llancarfan (near Cowbridge), although the majority of their attacks on the southern kingdoms were limited to Dyfed, Gwyr (Gower) and Cedweli (Kidwelly) – i.e. the southwest. With renewed Viking pressure on the English, also, their foreign policy shifted also seeking short-term advantage, rather than long-term relationships as had been the case during Alfred’s reign. Stability was replaced with turbulence and much less pleasant period of Anglo-Welsh relations was ushered in. The root cause was, it seems, the Viking expansion. Thus, as Thomas Charles-Edwards concludes, ‘the shape of Wales in 1064 was caused as much by the history of Britain and Ireland in the Viking era as it was by Welsh resistance to English conquests in the sixth and seventh centuries’
Again this brings out the question of regions. Despite the various Viking raids on the southeastern corner in the tenth century, the most prolonged influence of the Vikings was on the west, and particularly the northwest where they were, in Wendy Davies’s words, ‘in some sense ruling […] by the early eleventh [century]’. Although this is not the same kind of ‘rule’ as evident in York or Dublin or Waterford or Cork, but a cultural influence and an ability to extract resources either through raiding parties or through tribute. Thus the Annales Cambriae and the Brut y Tywysogion both refer to ‘Black Gentiles’, which is to say the Vikings. Viking sources, namely the sagas, also reveal strong familiarity with the Welsh coastline. The Orkneyinga Saga, for instance, records expeditions made by Earl Einar Sigurdsson, the Earl of Orkney from 1014-1020, to Ireland, Scotland, and the land the Saga writers referred to as Bretland (Wales). In the period after the Norman Conquest, the Norwegian King, Magnus Barefoot, conquered Anglesey ‘which is one-third of Bretland’, although it has never been established that he had a permanent settlement there. More tantalising is this passage of the Orkenyinga Saga:
Then Swein [Sweyn Asleifsson] and Holdbodi [Hundason] went out on an expedition with five ships. They plundered in Bretland, landing at a place called Jarlsness [unidentified but somewhere on the South Wales coast] and wreaked havoc there. One morning they came to a village, and met with a little resistance. The inhabitants fled from the village, and Swein and his men plundered everything, and burnt six homesteads before dinner. An Icelander, named Eirik, was with Swein, and sang the following:
Half a dozen homesteads burning.
Half a dozen households plundered:
This was Swein’s work of a morning –
This his vengeance; coals he lent them.
After this they went back to their ships. They were out reiving all the summer, and obtained much booty, but the Welsh chief fled to Lundy Island, where there was a stronghold. Swein besieged it for some time, to no purpose. In the autumn they went back to the Isle of Man.
This implies geographical knowledge, but in the Jomsvikingar Saga we are carried further, albeit into the realms of legend. ‘Now it is time to turn to Palnatoki and Bjorn the Welshman. They had three ships and a hundred and twenty men, half of them Danes and half Welshmen’. Tribute, after all, does not have to be in the form of money or essential produce. Bjorn was placed in charge of Wales by Palnatoki, a position he later shared with ‘his kinsman Vagn’, whose live Bjorn later saves. I suppose this suggests Viking ‘overlordship’ of some of Wales, but there are actual scholars of the Viking World to tell us these things! What is more indicative are place names that are identifiably Scandinavian – common in Pembrokeshire, but evident in Glamorgan too, particularly in the fertile lands of the Vale. Think of Tusker Rock off the coast of Ogmore-by-Sea, or Sker point between Porthcawl and Port Talbot; likewise there is the ancient Womanby Street in central Cardiff. The –by signifying in modern Scandinavian languages ‘a village’ but in Old Norse bú more simply a dwelling – in this case the house of a houndsman. The Bristol Channel is full of Scandinavian influences: Burry Holm, Steep Holm, Flat Holm. Holm, deriving from the Old Norse holmr, or small island. They point to the importance of the Bristol to Ireland trade route. And so, of course, does Swansea.
As we turn into the period that Rees Davies calls The Age of Conquest, then, Wales is caught between two worlds, that of England and that of the Viking Irish Sea, with its dominant staging posts of Dublin, Man, and York. And there is always the trouble of unifying a land that, even under Hywel Dda, was never quite a unity. The only ruler to achieve it, and thus the only ruler to achieve the legitimate status of King of Wales was Gruffudd ap Llywelyn between 1055 and 1063. Otherwise, ‘within the ambit of this small country there are striking regional variations in wealth and social structure, in settlement patterns and agricultural practice, in commercial and cultural links. Poets in this period thought of the country as built up of numerous districts – the same was true of its various kingdoms – in complete contrast to the centralised English state, which was in any case the most centralised in Europe. There was ‘little room […] for notions of the unity of Wales or for the emergence of a common polity. Political particularism seemed as natural to Wales as did geographical fragmentation and regional loyalties’. Indeed, understanding Wales as a single people was more common to outside observers than to internal ones, at least before the twelfth century. The thread of unity came chiefly from language, a literary tradition that was different from those elsewhere, and other cultural customs, and, of course, the law books associated with Hywel Dda, which are unlike the common law of England.
A Colony for a Nation
It is with the Norman Conquest of Wales, which began in earnest in the 1090s that the story of colonialism begins, or rather the process of colonialism, which had started in England in 1066, moved into Wales. Although it is a point of contention, a number of historians – not least Brian Golding, author of one of the most commonly sold textbooks on the subject – have called the results of the Norman Conquest ‘colonisation’. The wealth of England was concentrated in the hands of a small number of men, all of them bound by ties of kinship (in the case of Odo of Bayeux and Robert of Mortain), marriage and loyalty to William, Duke of Normandy. In his presidential address to the Royal Historical Society in 1982, J. C. Holt fired perhaps the first shot in this wave of rethinking about the implications of the Norman Conquest (the so-called discontinuity thesis as it has become known). Indeed, he went so far as to call 1066 a ‘revolution’. From his point of view, England in the twelfth century – the England of the Norman and Angevin kings – was better understood not centred on London but rather on Rouen or Caen. ‘Perhaps’, he wrote later, ‘it all has to do with those maps in which these dominions are all coloured the traditional red. Yet England was a colony and that fact accounted for a lot’. In encouraging historians of the British Isles to look internationally at their history and at Britain from the continent rather than the other way around, Holt’s perspective is valuable, albeit not accepted necessarily by those same historians.
A more pervasive approach is that taken by Robert Bartlett, Robin Frame, and Rees Davies, who point to colonisation, yes, but not necessarily with the same meaning employed by Holt. In this instance they mean the spread of Latin Europe out of its core and into its periphery, a process that Bartlett famously called ‘the making of the Europe’ (one might also note his subtitle, ‘Conquest, Colonization, and Cultural Change’). This process encountered especial difficulties in Wales and Ireland, both of which were essentially frontier societies with a certain portion of the landmass (and therefore people) taken up by a borderland between the two. In Wales we know this as the March. Those ‘river valleys and southern coastal lowlands of Wales and much of southern and eastern Ireland [which] were intensively settled and became proudly and defiantly English in customs, language, place-names, law, agriculture, social structure, and so forth’ (Davies’s words there). In Welsh terms this was nowhere more apparent than in southern Pembrokeshire – known even today as ‘little England beyond Wales’ – where Anglo-Norman power was as its most stable and where a wave of Flemish migrants were encouraged to settle, thereby cementing the region’s difference, its de-Welshification (if you will). Given the tensions and antagonisms that flowed across these borders, of language and custom, of consistent shows of military strength and prowess, it is not surprising that this period gave rise to ideas of ‘race’, ‘ethnicity’, and ‘nationality’, pitching the idea of difference in stark terms: us and them, friend and enemy.
This can all be carried too far, of course. Consider Michael A. Faletra’s overly-exaggerated portrait: ‘More than India or Hong Kong, more than South Africa or Iraq or the United States, Wales stands as the mote in England’s eye. Wales is England’s original repressed Other, the unruly subaltern that England sees in its mirror, the barbarian standing at the threshold’. (Pass the sick bucket.) Consider Rees Davies’s warning published in the Transactions of the Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion back in the mid-1970s:
We may easily exaggerate this ‘political’ difference, if we may call it such, between English and Welsh, between conqueror and conquered. We may do so in part because we forget that Welshmen like most other peoples, soon learn to adapt to conditions of conquest and to come to terms with their conquerors. […] We may also exaggerate the political difference for another reason: historians today, living in a highly-articulated and centralized polity, tend to over-emphasise the role of politics and of military conquest in a largely under-developed country, politically speaking, such as Wales was in the thirteenth century. Dynasties and conquerors, both native and foreign, had come and gone for centuries.
Likewise, present day consciousness of linguistic difference cannot be read back into a world of plurality. We’ve already noted the polylingual nature of early medieval Wales, but it’s easily forgotten that the kings of England also ruled over lands with a wide range of different languages (French, English, Irish, Latin, and so on), Welsh’s presence in that list was not problematic. A sense of divine linguistic mission took centuries to coalesce. Rees Davies again:
The king and his nobles still generally spoke and wrote in Norman French, while the royal and ecclesiastical administrators had their own lingua franca, Latin, and their own universal Latin culture. The Welsh could and did partake fully of these international languages: their churchmen and administrators, of course, employed Latin; their literature, especially their homiletic and prose literature, was far more international in its sources than it had been before the twelfth century or was to be by the sixteenth century.
As Davies then goes on to point out, the leader of the Glamorgan Rebellion during the reign of Edward II, Llewelyn Bren, had, amongst his possessions, eight books, three in Welsh, four described as ‘other’, and one copy of Roman de la Rose – a widely read book of French poetry. Amongst the possessions of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, likewise, were ‘three books written in Welsh and one book of romance’. The wealthy of the medieval world had access to a multicultural world that was centred chiefly on France. And of course, they played its particular ‘games’ through marriage, as Glyn Roberts observed decades ago. Llywelyn ap Iorwerth (Llywelyn the Great) married a daughter of King John, and many of his offspring married into English baronial families, his grandson Llywelyn the Last event went so far as to marry the daughter of Simon de Montfort, although he marched eventually on the wrong side of history. Throughout the medieval period, as had long been the case, Welsh rulers compromised to preserve their own positions. Writes Roberts, ‘the great majority of their [Gwynedd’s] Welsh vassals opposed the imperialism of Gwynedd and were too often inclined to side with the [English] Crown against the pretensions of her princes; it cannot be too strongly emphasized that the ultimate failure of Gwynedd’s efforts to solve the Welsh political problem [i.e. its fragmentation] was as much due to the opposition of the Welsh lords as it was to the power of Edward I’. Such intermarriage, which was hardly limited to Gwynedd, had a particular bearing a few centuries down the line.
No Welsh Please, We’re Tudors
If we leap forward to the Tudor period, a time when linguistic patriotism comes very much to the fore, and the point at which Hechter begins his own survey, intermarriage has placed a Welsh royal house on the throne of England. Oh irony of ironies, then, that it is as a result of Tudor policy that Wales is finally absorbed into the highly-developed, centralised English state. One of the administrative consequences of the Wars of the Roses, which ushered Henry Tudor to power in 1485, was the Council of the Marches of Wales, an advisory body established by Edward IV in 1472. Based in Ludlow Castle, it provided civilian administration for the whole of Wales and varying parts of the borderlands of England on behalf of the Prince of Wales (that is, Edward V). The council was only placed on a statutory footing in 1542 at the end of the process that we now refer to as the Acts of Union between England and Wales (so that Wales mirrors Scotland in 1707 and Ireland in 1801, although the process resembles neither). Comprising the justices of the Great Sessions of Wales (which did not include Monmouthshire since it formed part of the Oxford Assize circuit), members of the royal household, and bishops, the council was chaired by the Lord President and his deputy. It was, in John Davies’s words, ‘a remarkable experiment in regional government. It administered the law cheaply and rapidly; it dealt with up to twenty cases a day and George Owen stated that “the oppressed poor flocked to it”’. Of the three regional councils established by Edward IV and his successors – of the North (1472-1641), of the West (1539-1540), and of the Marches of Wales – it was the Welsh council that survived the longest, being formally abolished only in 1689.
Few historians, it has to be said, have tasked themselves with writing about the Council of the Marches of Wales, for the simple reason that many of the records of its activities have ceased to exist. Caroline Skeel, a pioneering historian of Wales, published her study in 1904. Skeel’s The Council in the Marches of Wales: A Study in Local Government in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries stands as one of the first doctorates ever awarded by the London School of Economics. It was partly supplanted by Penry Williams’s work, The Council in the Marches of Wales under Elizabeth I in 1958. Skeel wrote approvingly of the Council that ‘it did something to render the union of England and Wales advantageous to both’. By this it appears she meant that the Council enabled the imposition of the rule of law (admittedly English law) and the eradication of the various legal boundaries of the March which enabled a criminal to escape punishment. As she writes in her conclusion, ‘the purpose for which the Council grew up was to repress disorder in Wales and the Marches. There was ample need for extraordinary measures. […] the turbulent Wales of the fifteenth century […was] transformed into a country as law-abiding as any part of England’. Not that that is current thinking any more!
A few curious things deserve to be examined. If George Owen’s observation that the poor flocked to the Council are correct then we must ask ourselves the simple question how that was the case if the imposition of the English language in the administration of Wales was quite so negatively impactful as has been subsequently claimed (particularly by nationalists and those who would apply Hechter’s model of internal colonialism). It seems fairly obvious that if there was a broad mismatch between the use of one language by the state and another by the broader population, the poor would not flock to the courts but actively avoid them (there wasn’t since the courts often took oral testimony in Welsh). Other evidence from the period – collated by Ogwen Williams in his Calendar of the Caernarvonshire Quarter Sessions – points also to a ‘flocking’ to the courts. An active decision then to work with, not against, the administrative structures of the Tudor and Stuart state even in those parts of Wales that would otherwise have seen themselves as guardians of pura Wallia. Glanmor Williams, writing in the third volume of the Oxford History of Wales, writes of the period after the Acts of Union in the vein more of comparability with the rest of England than a special case all of its own. As one review of Williams’s book had it, ‘the significant feature of Wales in the later period was its quiescence’. The imposition of the law and the willingness of the people to recourse to it, eventually replacing the ‘intensely acquisitive and fiercely competitive [Wales] at all levels of society’ in which ‘violence and bloodshed were always prone to break out in a society where people were thin-skinned and easily offended, and most men carried weapons as a matter of course’.
A second curiosity is the relationship between the rise in the importance of the courts – which conducted its written business in English and Latin in a society that was primarily monoglot Welsh and illiterate – between 15 and 20 percent of the population could read and write. Thus, as Lloyd Bowen has argued, those who could read and write were in a very privileged position and as a matter of course they spoke both English and Welsh. Mediation bred pragmatism bred, in Bowen’s words, ‘a more conservative and less critical culture of public politics in which there was a greater vertical integration of political opinion than can be found in […] early modern England’. It was when the elite actors, the interlocutors, if you will, turned their backs on the Welsh language (so Bowen argues) that the oppositional, radical lower orders of the nineteenth century ilk began to form. This echoes Geraint Jenkins’s The Foundations of Modern Wales which posited the eighteenth century as the turning point. Perhaps it is of no surprise that the Puritans of the seventeenth century felt Wales to be one of the ‘dark corners of the land’. And it is, of course, absolutely no surprise given these arguments that Wales was firmly Royalist during the Civil Wars of that century. None of this quite fits with history as written from the twentieth century – or even the nineteenth, the poet Glanffrwd, who was otherwise quite nationalist, wrote a serialised novel (it was published in Tarian y Gweithiwr) about Oliver Cromwell seeking to present him as a great saviour of liberty and parliamentary democracy. The irony is self-evident to us today, if less so at the time.
Too often, the years between Owain Glwyndwr’s failed rising (or rebellion, if that is more to your favour) of the fifteenth century and the Methodist revival of the eighteenth is rushed through with only a pause to consider the positive or negative impact of the Acts of Union (think of it like the service station on a long road journey). Indeed both John Davies and Gwyn Alf bound through the seventeenth century like men in a hurry, bashing through a century of religious strife and political change in a few pages. But by pausing to consider the period more carefully we begin to see the Wales that we are more familiar with, that of the 19th and 20th centuries, as having a rather more complex ancestry than previously thought. Crucial, I think, and in this regard Bowen is surely right to draw out attention to it, is the role of the bilingual elites who sat, Janus-like, between the pura Anglia (if you will) and the pura Wallia. The descendents of similar interlocutors over the centuries who mediated and navigated the various different influences on Wales: or, in other words, a borderlands people who forged their own particular culture. George Owen, that Elizabethan observer, noted of the Welsh elites how (I’ve modernised the spelling) ‘although they usually speak the Welsh tongue, yet […] they write each other in English, and not in the speech they usually talk’.
Of the break with this model of bilingual administration, Bowen and others have pointed to attraction of what Paul Langford called ‘the polite and commercial people’, that is the ideals of politeness and sociability that became fashionable in metropolitan society – the kinds of things that get a good airing on BBC Four programmes fronted by Amanda Vickery or Lucy Worsley. The gentry of Glamorgan, Carmarthenshire, and Pembrokeshire, for instance, turned their backs on Wales because they wanted to be part of the new elites, not be held in contempt by them as provincially backward. What emerged in place of this was know all too well: radical nonconformism, chiefly in the Welsh language.
The Lost Boyos
After two centuries of development, how does Hechter’s concept of an internal colony shape up? Well, rather badly I’d suggest. Although to be fair to him, the historical revisions and advances in our understanding of the period have all come in the years since he wrote his book. Bowen’s article that I’ve been referring to above was published earlier this year and many of his references come from articles published since the 1980s. Yes, the Acts of Union made it necessary that all officials of the state spoke English but no that did not mean that Welsh was thereby oppressed as the evidence arrayed above suggests; and so on and so on. However, it is not the two centuries after the Acts of Union that really bothered Hechter (nor do they really bother those who have used his work in a Welsh context subsequently), but the two that came after that. Here we come to very familiar territory and given its familiarity I hope that readers who have stuck with me over the last 10,000 words will appreciate greater brevity (not least because this is the period of my own specialism and the blog is full of my ideas on this timeframe already)!
‘To be English-speaking in nineteenth-century industrial Wales’, Hechter wrote insistently, ‘was to be culturally privileged’. This statement is made after a delineation of Glamorgan as a ‘rather typical’ Welsh county economically and culturally before 1850. Both are highly problematic. Let’s take Merthyr, that crucible of change in the early 1800s. ‘In 1840’, writes Gwyn Alf, ‘only 9 per cent of Merthyr’s population was non-Welsh; in Aberdare, the proportion was 3 per cent. […] At the time of the 1841 census, the bulk of Merthyr’s people came from Glamorgan itself, most of the remainder from upland west Wales, with some coming in from the north’. The Irish in Merthyr in 1851 accounted for little more than 3,000 people, or about 7 per cent. Cardiff, of course, was different. There in 1851 nearly 3,500 Irish were living in a town of less than 20,000, a ratio of about one in every five. ‘This elementary social fact’, wrote Williams in 1966, ‘does not seem to have been properly assimilated’. There was a strong bilingual cohort in Merthyr, yes, not least amongst the ironmasters and their allies, but their privilege came from wealth not from language. Too easily is that overlooked when the emotive insistence that the Welsh ‘lost’ something in the process of industrial capitalist development.
In his book, Hechter sets out to ‘account for the bitter sea which separates England from the Celtic fringe’. He recognises that the ‘Celtic’ peoples did not react to English power in a uniform way, as he observes at the outset:
The Irish, at least the bulk of them, opted for the nationalist solution, and created a separate, sovereign state, while the Welsh and Scottish remained part of the United Kingdom, and, to a large extent, hoped that the rise of the new Labor [sic] Party would solve the severe problems of their respective lands.
The implication – shared by contemporary nationalists then and now – is that Labour did not do that and so a different solution, the nationalist solution, had to be sought out. A dichotomy of nationalism versus assimilation such as the one that Hechter draws is deeply problematic, both in Ireland and in Wales and Scotland. Irish nationalism was never uniform and itself acted to silence alternative voices. Class, for instance, ended up ‘locked out’ of Irish history by ‘an all-embracing focus on nationalism’. Cities such as Waterford – which has a rich and remarkable lineage stretching all the way back to the Vikings – were written off because of their attachment to the parliamentary solution. Waterford was one of a mere handful of constituencies to remain loyal to the Irish Parliamentary Party at the 1918 General Election. And it is not merely class that remains shut out of the Irish equation by nationalism but gender and ethnicity too.
In August 1893, for example, Joseph Diamond, a Jewish resident of Waterford, died. He was sixty-eight years old and hand been living at 48 Manor Street in the heart of Waterford’s small Jewish district – a handful of streets containing a handful of Jewish families to qualify it – and working as a draper in the family firm. Diamond’s death was a matter of course, of course, except for one striking feature: upon death, his body was shipped to Cardiff for burial in the town’s Jewish cemetery. This small link between the Jewish communities of southeast Ireland and South Wales reminds us that Welsh and Irish urban society were both culturally diverse, were both subject to and influenced by different cultures, different languages, and different customs, and were not limited in their scope to ‘the nation’. As the nineteenth century progressed this diversity grew substantially and numerous nationalities can be found living and working in Wales, albeit particularly in the southeast.
It is in the southeast, of course, that the movements towards socialism and the Labour Party grew to their greatest extent; it’s in the southeast that the language of class solidarity had its loudest airing (the quarrymen of the northwest were not all that far behind, however); it’s in the southeast that the decision is made to use English is the lingua franca of trade union business. And so goes the narrative of social, cultural, and political change. It is best captured, I think, by Chris Williams when he writes (this is taken from Democratic Rhondda published in 1996, but is present verbatim in his PhD thesis of 1991):
In an important sense that realm [he’s writing about the Rhondda, but it stands for the wider southeastern corner] had achieved greater vitality and relevance than anything achieved on the ground, because it contributed to a collectivist and universalist definition of working-class and, indeed, Welsh identity that defied the linguistically exclusively ‘Welshness’ of a privileged minority. If those self-blinded visionaries had looked, they would have seen Wales not in Penyberth but in Penygraig, where national identity was, if not irrelevant, then marginal compared to an intermeshing of class and community solidarities whose horizons were truly international.
This side swipe at the nationalism of Saunders Lewis and his ilk (the inference is directly to the idiotic bombing of the RAF school in the 1930s) is forcefully expressed. Chris returned to the theme of nationalism in an essay for the edited volume Postcolonial Wales a decade later. It is directly addressed by Daniel Williams in the introduction to his Wales Unchained and the debate is worth building on here although I do not wish to start in the same place. Instead I want to engage with two people that I think are symbolically neglected or wilfully misunderstood by the current crowd of literary and cultural critics in Wales: Gwyn Thomas. Gwyn is almost entirely absent from Wales Unchained and would have been absent entirely had it not been for Gwyn’s writing on Aneurin Bevan or, indeed, Raymond Williams’s introduction to the Lawrence & Wishart reprint of All Things Betray Thee in the mid-1980s. The other figure is Elaine Morgan. Both highly political writers, both shaped by the politics and culture of their age and, most importantly, their upbringing in the few miles of inhabited ground that run alongside the river Rhondda between Porth and Pontypridd. Gwyn was born in Porth in 1913, Elaine in Pontypridd in 1920. Both went up to Oxford. Both reacted to the Cold War milieu in similar ways – not least through activism with the peace movement. And both used television and the radio to present their Wales to the rest of Britain. Neither spoke Welsh – although Elaine’s children were educated in Welsh-medium schools – and neither were adherents to the political projects of Welsh nationalism.
The World Cannot Hear You
Gwyn was very outspoken on the question of nationalism – we need to bear in mind here his views on nationalism were framed as much by events in Spain and Germany in the 1930s as by Wales in the post-war world. Something he made quite clear on television in the 1970s: ‘how great is the distance from nationalism of whatever kind from the ghastly disease that came out of Germany’. And he was consistent. Around the time of the parliament for Wales campaign in the mid-1950s, speaking on an episode of the Brains Trust he declared that ‘any ambitious scheme of home rule would be of far less value to Wales than the tight unity with England from which she gains so greatly’. A decade later he wrote in favour of the Tryweryn project – like many people in Wales who saw its benefits, including Bala Urban District Council. ‘The national brain now bulges with such projects as the need to deny Welsh rainwater to the Liverpool water-board’, he wrote in A Welsh Eye in 1964. I can hear the froth forming already in the mouths of those who would have us all believe that all Welsh people, uniformly, were against that ‘colonial’ act.
In the terms employed by Welsh nationalists today, Gwyn Thomas would be described as a unionist (a more interesting and flavoursome word than ‘Brit-Nat’ which is a misnomer). He undoubtedly believed in ‘the whole community of this marvellous island’ as a collective, as a unit of solidarity between the ‘Scottish’ and the ‘Welsh’ and the ‘English’. As he stated in 1975 (and by this point he had sustained many years of attack): ‘The Scottish and the Welsh have expressed themselves with enormous eloquence and success through the British community’. Those old communitarian values were quite hard to shake. But he takes it further – and here echoing terms later used by Chris Williams:
It’s too late for this kind of nonsense. The nursery time is over. You are off rusks now. You are on man’s food, for god’s sake. Face up to it. This is a tiny orb, a tiny clinker that’s fast running out of its last juices of wealth. We’ve got to huddle together.
Chris put it like this: Wales should avoid an ‘anachronistic burst of nation-building just as the nation-state finally begins to recede from its central position on the world stage’. Not quite the accusation of childishness that Gwyn Thomas levies, but certainly with little time for a project of ‘nation-building’. He moves on to suggest that nationalism is dangerous because its proponents ignore ‘the diversity of those individuals they wish to homogenize as members of the nation’. Any post-nation, for Chris, should do away with ‘singular forms of belonging, in favour of inclusivity and cultural diversity’. The consistent, insistent, repetition of diversity, plurality, and terms of that ilk, are an important feature of this rejection of the particularism of nationalist Wales.
For Daniel Williams this signals Chris’s embrace of ‘a postmodern enthusiasm for margins and minorities, suspecting consensus and solidarity as inherently authoritarian’. This is, to my mind, inconsistent with Chris’s own writing over several decades (which as a historian trampling over the same field I’m very familiar with), as I’ve pointed out above. After all, ‘an intermeshing of class and community solidarities’ hardly suggests a view that these things are ‘inherently authoritarian’. Where Daniel is on surer ground is on the question of intra-class plurality and the problems of racism and xenophobia within a supposedly ‘internationalist’ working class. We might think of the Spaniards of Dowlais and Abercraf who spoke out against the xenophobia of the Welsh and were themselves subject to stereotyping and occasional racial feuding. ‘They thought we were dangerous people to bother with’, lamented one Spaniard later, ‘they said we carried knives, and were only too glad to use them’. Not that this stopped nonconformist ministers from passing comment that ‘we [the Welsh] did not carry with us knives like the Italians and Spaniards’. The Spanish, in reply, appealed to ‘the Welsh people to practice the spirit of international solidarity of the workers’. They got that friendship … from the ranks of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and from the small numbers of anarchists in Wales such as Sam Mainwaring and Sam Mainwaring Jr. Welsh internationalism has always had its limits but that need not blind us to the process of its making and remaking: Spanish repression in the wake of the General Strike of 1917, for instance, drew resolutions and financial support for the Spanish workers from the labour movement in Dowlais, Merthyr, Aberdare, and Neath. By all means let us show that things were complicated, but let’s not throw everything out the window.
What is necessary, it seems to me, is a history that is not ‘white’, that integrates gender, race, sexuality, and language, into an understanding of how Wales – and most especially South Wales (I’m afraid I make no bones about the capital S, to remove it is deeply anachronistic and implies acceptance of a particular intellectual project) – came to develop a distinctive society. To understand, as Glenn Jordan, Laura Tabili, and Charlotte Williams, have encouraged us to do, that people of colour who made Wales their home experienced racism and xenophobia, ought not to blind us to the fact that those same people allied themselves to the Labour Party and Communist Party in ways that tied their fortunes and representation to the same momentum in evidence across South Wales. That a white miner in Tonypandy, a black sailor in Cardiff, or a Jew in Ystalyfera, all voted that way is important evidence; they may not have done so for the same reasons but they did share certain core political beliefs. In so doing, we may reach a post-revisionist historiography attentive to the very many influences on the ‘World of South Wales’.
None of this really gets to the nub of Daniel’s point of view, however, and so to do so we must turn, as he does, to another Williams – Raymond Williams, who also used the language of post-coloniality to suggest the uneven power relationship between the metropole and the periphery remains broadly intact. And it is at the level of ‘psycho-colonialism’ that Daniel is, like Raymond, working – and in this regard I suppose he might portray Gwyn Thomas as a very good example of one whose mind had been ‘taken over by a system of ideas, a system of feelings, which really do emanate from the power centre’, though I really am not convinced of that myself. To unchain Wales, then, is to break this lingering psycho-colonialism. And so we reach a different spin on internal colonialism – the internal here being internal to the self, rather than a political formation – but we end up at the same place and with the same intended outcome: to break the cycle of colonialization, we need to break the imbalanced links with the metropole and re-establish them on an even basis.
Gwyn Thomas is a good illustration of the many problems with this analysis. For his anti-nationalism and his appeal to the ‘British community’, he was deeply sceptical about the British state and its representatives, whether Labour or Tory. A letter penned around the time of the Korean War, Gwyn wrote to the American Communist Howard Fast that:
The butchering of whole nations in the Far East who are trying to usher in a new epoch in human organisation will mean very little to people put fast asleep by a Press which has presented this war as just another police operation against a covey of insubordinate riff-raff.
Two years later, he sent a message to the Communist-inspired Congress of the Peoples for Peace which was held in Vienna. Famously addressed by Jean Paul-Sartre, Paul Robeson, and Pablo Neruda, Gwyn’s contribution declared that
Every writer has a duty to make their voice heard in the struggle against the tide of hatred and intentionally-created prejudices that will sweep away the last hope of a reasonable and peaceful reconciliation of the peoples.
We remember, of course, that this is a writer admired in the communist states of Eastern Europe, who is translated into Russian, Romanian, Hungarian, German (both by a publisher in Switzerland and in East Germany), Italian, and Norwegian. We remember also that his work is published alongside blacklisted writers and others investigated by the FBI for un-American activities: Henry Miller, Ray Bradbury, Howard Fast, and others. And we remember also that Thomas was himself a victim of the red scare, his books failing to get published in America throughout much of the 1950s. He didn’t even go there until 1963. ‘The writers and thinkers are the people’s tongue’, Thomas wrote in 1950, ‘Let that tongue be ripped out and the people can rest assured that the amputation will not stop there’. To look at Gwyn Thomas’s writing and his personal activities in the 1940s and 1950s without understanding his antagonism to both the British State, America’s role in propagating the Cold War, and the red scare, is to misunderstand him entirely. Malicious obliquity, as he called it, is focused on the world around him, which he sure as heck did not like.
Nor was he alone. Elaine Morgan was expressing much the same views, only she was then living in Burnley. In a letter she wrote of how ‘that evil [i.e. fascism and nationalism] is abroad still in Greece, in Spain, in the Argentine, in the Committee of un-American Activities’. In a separate letter, she complained of how ‘the present Government was returned on a Socialist platform and pledged to the nationalisation of the Ruhr industries, yet in Germany it has been forced by American pressure to betray its own convictions. […] If [he] cannot see whose “tool” Britain is to-day, he is deliberately shutting his eyes to the facts’. And as Alun Burge’s work on William Hazell demonstrates quite clearly, it was possible to be antagonistic to the centralising forces of the British state and be uncomfortable with the closing down of the plurality that was the hallmark of South Wales (Hazell’s chief complaint in the latter regard was the Welsh Only Rule at the Eisteddfod). Who is doing the unchaining then?
The 18th of Yesterday
The preceeding analysis, which is now very long indeed, has sought to show two things, that firstly Wales has never been a static thing, that its history, when looked at in a ‘cubist’ way, from the perspective of the borderlands (which stresses interactivity, pluralism, and the margins not the centre), is one of multiple influences, multiple languages, multiple identities, multiple peoples. And that secondly ‘Wales’ has never been a unity: it has always been composed of regions and those regions have come to express themselves, necessarily, in different ways. To truly unchain ourselves, then, we need to think beyond Wales and beyond its twentieth century boundaries. If psycho-colonialism really exists, or rather persists, it is not because we are bound to the metropole but because we are bound to ideas of ‘Wales’ that have not actually survived into the twenty-first century. The ‘South Wales’ to which Dai Smith, Hywel Francis, Chris Williams, and I, have devoted our research to understanding, is now completely lost and it can never come back. But that does not mean that there are no lessons to be learned from what its people set out to achieve. It becomes rather difficult to ‘jettison our cultural past’ when little of it survives in reality. The borderlands represent the best of all the influences upon them but forge their own independent culture, values, and identities.
The value of the present Welsh studies scholarship is that it opens a dialogue with the many voices of Wales, whether they are those who revelled in their lack of the Welsh language, like Dylan Thomas, or those who would have preferred us all to go around talking in cynghanedd, like Saunders Lewis. But that does not mean we should limit our ambition in the present century to outdated models of political governance or allow ourselves to be ‘colonised’ by ideas of ‘Wales’ that are themselves limitations. It is easy to claim – and to mean it – that in the course of being industrialised in the nineteenth century, in the face of large-scale English immigration between 1890 and 1910, Welsh culture ‘lost’ a part of itself – the implication being that we can either turn the clock back and right that wrong, or use the present forces of the state to reverse the outcomes (which is what is currently happening in Wales). It’s far harder to embrace those changes and move forward with the process of making and remaking according to the circumstances in which we find ourselves. And what circumstances they are.