My grandfather was born in Blaengarw, the last mining village in a valley of mining villages, eighteen months after the General Strike. His father, a Somerset man, had served in the First World War as part of the British Army’s last line of defence in the Khyber Pass. The men who passed the war there complained of boredom and rubbish cigarettes, but knew fully well how fortunate they were not to be in Flanders fields. Whatever it was, Carry On Up the Khyber it was not. He came back to Britain when the war was over and got his job back on the railway, moving to work in the refreshment hall in Newport’s GWR station. Sheer fed-upness, and a desire for a more stable career, took him into the police force – the Glamorgan Constabulary had lost considerable numbers of men during the war and struggled for years to regain its full strength. My great-grandfather’s politics, though, were of the labour movement – he never wavered in that and it often placed him at odds with the conservatism that dominated the officer ranks of the constabulary (not to mention the freemasonry that he rejected too). Like many who came to Wales in the early part of the twentieth century, he was and remained an Englishman. But that didn’t really matter, thousands of others living in the coalfield were too.
Grampa, on the other hand, was a classic valleys boy. He had that sonorous voice of the valleys west of the Rhondda, he knew Welsh as a passive second language, he played rugby for his local community (the family eventually settled in Llanharan) and later Bridgend Grammar School and Swansea University, and his politics were those of the labour movement too. His Welshness was firmly of the XV-man kind: I don’t believe he ever signed up to the politics of nationhood and in any case moved away to Wales-on-Sea (Weston-Super-Mare). Questions such as ‘when was Wales’ or ‘why did Wales never happen’ would likely not have made much sense to him. I can hear the voices contained in this book telling me, see butt told you Welsh nationalism had failed!
Two years before my granddad was born, a group of intellectuals formed Plaid Cymru (well, Plaid Cenedlaethol Cymru but it’s easier that way). The politics of some leaned towards the socialism shared by my ancestors and others like them; the politics of several others – Saunders Lewis most obviously – were completely the opposite. Then, as now, Wales was a singular noun but a plural experience (as Dai Smith famously put it). The nation – most obviously its southern counties of Glamorgan and Monmouthshire – had just passed through its most significant rupture, perhaps, in the final analysis, the most brutal of all ruptures, and found itself with a new politics, a new governing strata, and an economic hangover of the sort to make any first year undergraduate grateful to have avoided it. Whatever Wales was going to be after the mid-1920s, what it had been was no longer possible.
The years after the First World War tore up the status quo in Europe. Gone were the old empires and in their place culturally and (to a large extent) linguistically homogenous nation-states had emerged. From Ireland in the west to Estonia and Finland in the north-east to Hungary in the centre, the logic of Europe in the twentieth century appeared to be that of peoples without ‘history’ writing the first chapter of it. That process is, almost, complete. Only a few of the imperial states remain – France, Belgium, Spain, and, of course, the United Kingdom. There was, undoubtedly, a moment when the UK appeared to be on the brink of following the Habsburg, Hohenzollern, and Romanov empires, by collapsing into its national units. But this stalled with the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December 1921. The process has only recently been reignited. But why has it taken so long and why hasn’t Wales played the role it seemed destined to play a century ago?
These are questions that preoccupy Simon Brooks in his latest book, Pam Na Fu Cymru (Why Wales Never Happened). The answer he arrives at is a startling one – for the charge of culpability is laid firmly at the door of liberalism (and by implication its precocious child, socialism). As Brooks reminds us, Victorian and Edwardian Wales was one of the most liberal nations on earth. Indeed, in 1906, just one Welsh MP was not officially part of the liberal parliamentary caucus – Keir Hardie. This triumph gave Wales its nationalist voice, its particular form of nationalist politics, and its national institutions. The national university, for example, or the national library, even the specifically Welsh model of intermediate education, all of them were the products of liberal nationalism. It is no surprise that the high water mark of Welsh institutionalisation coincided with the high water mark of Welsh liberalism (i.e. a few years either side of 1906). For Wales, then, read liberalism.
Brooks sees this, however, as a threat to Wales. Rather than being a productive mechanism for the development of Wales as an independent nation, liberalism provided just enough institutional rope to suffocate even more radical visions. Wythnos yng Nghymru Rhyddfrydol is a pleasant enough experience but it’s not really Wales at all, more a theme park with all potential and opportunity safely locked away from the public and the key kept in the manager’s office situated elsewhere. Strip away liberal Wales and what are we left with? Well. Brooks keeps his name off the page for a long time, but there can be no doubting who ‘he-who-shall-not-be-named actually is – Saunders Lewis. When he was asked about being a nationalist, Lewis famously quipped that if he lived in England (and was English) he would be a conservative, but because his allegiance was to Wales, he became a nationalist. Most Welsh commentators – particularly historians who have tended to come from the opposite tradition – have recoiled at this. Welsh conservatism, Brooks notes, is mocked in the historiography. Wales has never been conservative historians cry; it can’t be Tory – that’s an English disease. Except the Wales that once was – the Wales before nonconformity, before the liberal Wales of Victorian and Edwardian imagination – was Tory. It was so Tory that it leant its support to King Charles I. The leaning tower of Caerphilly Castle is one of Cromwell’s little lessons.
The true radicals of an independently-minded Wales – rather than the radicals whose vision of Wales sat comfortably within the ‘family of nations’ that made up the United Kingdom and the wider British Empire – are not the Lloyd Georges, Huw T Edwardses, or Leanne Woods, therefore, whose politics sit on a trajectory stretching back towards Cymru Fydd and liberal nationalism, but individuals such as Iolo Morganwg and Saunders Lewis who combined conservatism and radicalism in order to reject the universalising logic of Anglo-British culture and politics. This might seem a little odd, since conservatism in most Welsh discourse is identified with the very things that are apparently anti-Welsh: the Anglican Church, the British state governed from London, the rejection of the Welsh-language as backward and antithetical to progress, and so forth. Brooks argues against this, however, by pointing towards the early nineteenth century – the frontier years as Gwyn Alf Williams called them – and reminding us that many of the characteristics of Welsh nationalism in those years were rather closer to patriotic conservatism of later years than to liberalism, and were more dangerous. We should look back, then, to the writings of Johann Gottfried Herder, the founding father of German nationalism, who laid stress on self-determination, cultural unity, and, most importantly, the naturalness of the ethno-linguistic state. As Brooks writes (my translation)
The liberal politics of the Welsh, on social and economic matters such as Church disestablishment and the land question, were much less threatening to the British order than ethnic politics, or Herderism, which were more conservative and conceived earlier in the century (p. 71).
That project, of course, was something of a failure and came to be dominated by the aggressive, imperialising nationalism of Prussia. And still today, Germany is haunted by the consequences of Prussian imperialism in the first two phases of the European civil war that stretched from the 1860s to the 1940s. History is nothing if not an ironic muse.
For me, this is an interesting intellectual stance but I’m not entirely convinced, for reasons that I shall come to in a moment. For if there is a late-eighteenth / early nineteenth-century German writer to whom we should be drawn it is not Herder but Friedrich Schiller whose poem An die Freude has lost something of its potency over the years (not least because of its setting by Beethoven for his ninth symphony) but nevertheless calls for the universal fellowship (and friendship) of humanity. Ethnic nationalists, of course, have admired Schiller as much as socialists, not least because the themes of Schiller’s fellowship are not incompatible with families of self-determining nations. But I’m not quite sure that’s what Schiller was really driving at when he wrote:
Deine Zauber binden wieder,
Was die Mode streng geteilt,
Alle Menschen werden Brüder,
Wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt.
Thy enchantments bind together,
What did custom stern divide,
Every man becomes a brother
Where thy gentle wings abide.
My own politics are worth iterating at this juncture, since they have a bearing on what I have to say next. As I mentioned at the outset of the review, my family has been labour supporting for as long as the Labour Party has been in existence. It is only made marginally more complex by referring to my Scottish ancestry inherited through my paternal grandmother (leading eventually to the Highlands and to the Gàidhealtachd – if there is a Celtic language I should properly speak, Gàidhlig is it). From those roots come a smattering of Scottish liberalism, Scottish labourism, and, of course, a good dram of Renfrewshire communism. If I take up a proper role in the mudiad cenedlaethol it will be as, in essence, the llais llafur, or rather the voice of democratic socialism. I reject ethno-cultural nationalism looking instead to a time when the only –ness we need worry about is human-ness.
To that end, a radical-conservative, ethnic Welshness, jars. But it does none of us any good to just read and think about ideas that chime with our own. For marxist, social democrat, liberal, or conservative, the national movement inevitably provides options, as it has over the last century or more. But which direction do we follow in the future, that is the question. A century ago the Social Democratic Federation discussed Welsh nationalism and believed that it would thrive under socialism as it had done under liberalism and even before that when Wales was Tory. That was the logic that led the Welsh district committee of the Communist Party to engage seriously with ideas of nationalism in the 1930s and it was the logic that led to SO Davies – the ILPer and Labour Party stalwart – to present the most far-reaching home rule bill ever conceived for Wales to parliament in 1955. It’s less clear that the logic thrives today, like much else inherited from Labour Wales it appears a little sickly. The 2015 Plaid Cymru manifesto was its most left-wing for quite a while, but the Party’s success was muted. I suspect that we will look back and see that it was not the leftist ideas that was the problem but tacking too closely to the coat-tails of the SNP and not coming up with a clearly Welsh voice, an irony that we may wish to explore further over the next few months.
There is a need in Welsh politics at the moment to find a way of bridging the gap between multi-lingual, multi-cultural Wales and visions of Wales that remain somewhat caught in the binary of English v Welsh. The answer to that, I believe, lies in a revived form of social democracy fit for the twenty-first century (perhaps a theme that may one day find its way into this series?). The great danger – Herder understood this himself – of ethnic nationalism is its exclusivity. It sits, all too easily, on a washing line of privilege along with patriarchy, hetero-normativity, and white-ness. If we imagine an independent Wales that is ethnically homogenous and fully Welsh speaking, where does its politics lie? To the right, as has happened in Hungary? To the left, as is the case in Catalonia? Do these spectral labels even matter anymore? I think, in the end, that the real failure of Welsh nationalism is not because of liberalism, as Brooks valiantly tries to show in his book, but its failure to grasp the shifting dimensions of politics in the twenty-first century. Whoever is able to provide the political answers for the precariat will come to dominate our century, just as those who were able to provide the political answers for the proletariat were able to dominate the previous one. Neither liberalism, conservatism, or labourism, have shown that they can.
Pam Na Fu Cymru is a challenging piece of writing because like all the best books it runs against the grain, it sets out a stall that few of us think about and makes its case effectively. I don’t think that the ideas will necessarily capture the popular imagination, but they needed airing because they have thrown down the gauntlet to those of us who think of Wales, Welsh nationalism, and Welsh internationalism, rather differently. I’m certainly encouraged to return to texts I’ve not read since I was an undergraduate and to look again at the ways in which Welsh ideas can be – and should be – compared with those of nations across Europe. Often enough we are encouraged, not least by the Welsh liberal press of the late-nineteenth century that so many of us use as our sources, to think of industrial Wales as ‘American’. That produces remarkable ideas for change, as Daniel Williams’s recent book Wales Unchained demonstrates amply. But, as Simon Brooks shows here, the effects of thinking of Wales as ‘German’, ‘Finnish’, ‘Catalonian’, or ‘Hungarian’, are really quite tantalising too. The next step, perhaps, is to try and put the two together, although I’m not sure that’s really going to be possible. We will learn much from the failure of that though. For those who can read the Welsh, this is a book that you should absolutely read; for those who can’t, it’s either time to learn or time to lean on a friend who can!