Historians of modern Wales tend to fall into particular chronological groups: a small coterie of Victorianists, a larger cohort of specialists on the first half of the twentieth century, and a rare few who move much beyond the fall of the Attlee government in 1951. Martin Johnes is one of those historians whose eye has shifted away from the inter-war years that catches the attention of so many Welsh students of the past to the post-war landscape. The result of his researches is Wales since 1939, an interesting and ambitious project that is not without its problems, however. At its heart is a study of the interaction between Welshness and Britishness (I should say I have problems with treating those in the singular, but I’ll get to that) and what the rear blurb describes as Wales’s ‘more assertive identity’. Having discussed the book with others, it’s clear that this is an almost whiggish account of progress towards a devolved Wales. Like Kenneth O. Morgan’s Rebirth of a Nation, with which Wales since 1939 is readily compared (if a little awkwardly), Wales is taken as a given and therefore its history since the Second World War is one of increasing maturation as a political entity. That’s all fine as far as it goes, but not a perspective I share.
But let us deal first with the points of agreement. These are chronological, like Martin I see 1970 as a dividing line in the history of post-war Wales. The fall of the Wilson government that year, against rising militancy in the National Union of Mineworkers (especially in the South Wales and Yorkshire Areas), and the shock defeat of the official Labour candidate in Merthyr Tydfil by the octogenarian S. O. Davies, marked an end to Labour’s guaranteed dominance in its Welsh heartlands. For all that the nationalist narrative places great emphasis on 1966 and the subsequent by-elections in Rhondda and Caerphilly which certainly caused some panic in Labour circles, it’s worth reminding ourselves that Gwynfor Evans lost badly in 1970, haemorrhaging over 1,300 votes compared with the by-election victory. The Labour Party gained almost 5,000 votes over the course of the two elections (although remained considerably down on Megan Lloyd George’s victory at the 1966 general election). By 1983, Evans and Plaid Cymru had slipped to third place in the constituency, behind the Conservative Party. The other great divide was 1984-5, although most historians agree on that.
Wales since 1939 is at its most successful in fleshing out the social and cultural histories of the post-war period. From the rock and roll music that engaged Welsh teenagers in the 1950s to the ebbs and flows of soccer and rugby. Johnes reminds us of some long-forgotten classics such as The Alarm’s ‘A New South Wales’, and criss-crosses the dividing lines between the two cultures of Wales (Anglophone and Cymrophone) to illustrate that roc a rôl was just as fun in Bethesda as rock and roll in Barry. Likewise the illuminating detail on a society adapting to the NHS and quickly taking it for granted. All of these details, and others, are ample demonstration of the value of incorporating the experiences of Barry and Bethesda into bigger studies that often prefer to deal with Birmingham, Belfast, or Bermondsey. It’s a regular complaint to make but historians from outside of Wales too willingly use “in Britain” without ever bothering to check whether things were actually different outside of their immediate area of focus.
Now for the however.
If Wales since 1939 was merely a book of social and cultural history, it would have few critics. It is an excellent foray into those aspects of the Welsh past and although more targeted research would have made some of the points far more secure – for instance on gender and sexuality – that is to cavil at a genuine achievement. Most general readers wouldn’t notice that the social attitude statistics on homosexuality, for instance, disguise a far more complicated story; likewise, many would tend not to be overly interested in the debates and discussions of the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s and 1980s. That said, the achievements of the gay liberation movement and the women’s liberation movement do deserve much greater attention than the book afforded them. But both of these movements were highly political, self-charged with a mission to completely overhaul society. To end sexual oppression of minorities on the one hand, and to bring an end to patriarchal privilege on the other. And it is in the realm of politics that Wales since 1939 fails most completely.
Despite the willingness of the book to engage with the dialectical relationship between Welshness and Britishness, and therefore attempt to give some sense of the nuances between nationalism and unionism, Wales since 1939 nevertheless pursues a soft-nationalist line. All of the major nationalist motifs are here, even if the book does not quite scream Cofiwch Tryweryn and leave you humming a verse of Yma o Hyd. The antagonists of Johnes’s narrative are undoubtedly the Labour Party, notably those elements most hostile (or at best ambivalent) to the idea of Wales as a distinct political entity rather than cultural idea. Those voices tend to get sidelined in the narrative: Gwyn Thomas, the novelist, whose prominence in literary and broadcasting circles ought to earn him a considerable place in any history of post-war Wales gets just five nods in the main body of text; Leo Abse, organiser of the anti-devolution voices in the 1970s and 1980s, is similarly pushed to the side. Arthur Horner falls off the page before page 30. Jimi Hendrix and Richard Hoggart appear, but neither Dai Francis nor Bill Paynter do. And although Neil Kinnock, Michael Foot, and Aneurin Bevan, reached the top of the Labour Party, collectively they earn less space in the book than Gwynfor Evans or (on an individual level) Dafydd Iwan. Mind you, if anyone deserves to feel short-changed in this soft-nationalist narrative it is Dafydd Elis Thomas.
This isn’t to be over-sensitive, Plaid Cymru and the Conservatives certainly do deserve to be written into the history of modern Wales. The latter most especially. But Labour dominated the political environment of Wales all the way through the period of the book in ways not at all engaged with in Wales since 1939; and at various levels from Cardiff Trades Council all the way up to the Executive Committee of the South Wales Area (NUM) and the Wales TUC, the mode of interaction was between communists and labourites. Plaid Cymru and the Conservatives existed on the margins. The only person from the outside who was really able to intervene and harness these forces was Dafydd Elis Thomas, whose activities on the Welsh Left in the 1970s and early 1980s cannot be underestimated. Not for nothing was he known as the MP for the Welsh Miners during the 1984-5 miners’ strike. That’s why I think he gets a raw deal here.
Whatever its strengths as a work of social and cultural history, Wales since 1939 is a poor attempt at political history and this undermines the overall success of the book. It’s not that it presents a false image of modern Wales – after all, all history is an enquiry about the past, guided by the interests of the person writing – but it is not entirely accurate, either. Perhaps this difference of perspective comes down to the idea that I started off with, that there is not Welshness versus Britishness but many different forms of Welshness versus many different forms of Britishness. I don’t mean this simply in terms of language and culture, although that is certainly one framework, nor do I mean it in terms of political allegiance, which is another. No nation is a naturally existing thing, it does not exist but has to be made, if people chose to make it. Not my words of course, but those of Gwyn Alf Williams, whose own political activity played a part in the making of a certain form of Wales in the early 1980s. As he put it in November 1979, right at the end of that blwyddyn y pla:
There is no historical necessity for Wales; there is no historical necessity for a Welsh people or a Welsh nation. Wales will not exist unless the Welsh people want it. It is not compulsory to want it. Plenty of people who are biologically Welsh choose not to be Welsh. That act of choice is beyond reason. One thing, however, is clear from our history. If we want Wales, we will have to make Wales.
In its own way, Wales since 1939 is an exploration of the twists and turns that Professor Williams refers to here. For both Johnes and Williams, Wales exists, it’s the form that it takes that is in doubt. They have made their choice. And in their own way they have contributed to the making of a version of Wales (and continue to do so). In a way they share the ethos of a quite different school of history, that which emphasises “South Wales” (yes, the capital is a necessity), namely a belief that in writing about and analysing the Welsh past you contribute to its future. The outcomes, needless to say, are quite different. For my own part, I’m not sure I share that purpose. I suppose I have taken the opportunity to reject Welshness (and Britishness, too, whatever that means). That provides at least some of the reason why I don’t really like Wales since 1939.
And so to bring some kind of meaningful conclusion. There is no doubt that this is a pioneer, that this is an ambitious attempt at synthesising post-war Welsh experience, and on the level of social and cultural history it is extremely successful. But a book is always the sum total of its parts. On the politics of modern Wales this is, at best, only part of the story, and at worst overly partial. Guided by a soft-nationalist perspective it lays emphasis on the wrong themes and on the wrong people. Perhaps this was inevitable: in a historical field dominated by historians whose leanings are to the Labour Party and the Communist Party, a revisionist work has to take a different line to make its case. I think, in the end, this is a book that could only properly be written by a historian from outside of the “World of South Wales”. For those of us whose world has been shaped by the coming together of the Rhondda, the Cynon, the Rhymney, and the Taff, this is not the book that we would write. Nor could we, with the same degree of conviction. It’s as if to say, ‘who cares how red your valley is when there’s all this other stuff going on too’. ‘Wales’, as Dai Smith once concluded, ‘will continue, for a while yet, to be a place of argument, of tension, even of conflict’. Thirty years on, I’m not sure we’re any closer to a resolution. Long may that continue.