If anyone ever asks for a recommendation of what to read on Welsh history, or what’s the most important Welsh history book of all, then I usually point them in the direction of Gwyn Alf’s 1985 tour de force, When Was Wales? For historians from other parts of the United Kingdom, and abroad, it might seem strange to point to a history written in the gloomy winters of the early 1980s, to offer up a slice of Welsh history that is, at best, a generation old and contained ideas formulated as much in the 1930s and 1960s as in the 1980s. And yet anyone who has ever thought to study Welsh history has read it at some point: it is, without a doubt, the most important book of all. But what makes When Was Wales so important? Today’s review, the first in a new weekly series here on History on the Dole, offers my own thoughts.
Gwyn Alf Williams was a Marxist, he was also a Gramscian. He believed in the singular importance of class and in the validity of organic intellectuals – those who rise up from their class to help guide and inform the journey to a better future. The Gramscian side of Gwyn Alf’s historical thought is often overlooked – remarkably given its centrality to When Was Wales – but he was a remarkably early adoptee (and proponent of) ideas such as hegemony (on which he published an article in 1960) and he published a book on Gramsci and the origins of Italian Communism as long ago as 1975. His history writing was European, Welsh, and American, and he took little interest in ideas that were not wide ranging and broad. For those who know my own work, it’s not surprising that Gwyn Alf is a bit of a hero.
Most people who read When Was Wales do so in the Penguin or Pelican paperback. On the front is Gwyn Alf, his tobacco-yellow quiff amidst “late-blonde” hair strikes you immediately, as does the very 1970s jacket. This particularly bachgen bach o Ddowlais epitomised the ‘cool’ history lecturer back in his day. The cover also includes that most typical of Welsh landscapes: mountains permeated by an Edwardian castle – in this case, Conwy.
The book opens with a poem by R.S. Thomas from his 1952 collection An Acre of Land. ‘We were a people taut for war’, it begins, ‘we fought and were always in retreat, like snow thawing upon the slopes […] We were a people wasting ourselves, in fruitless battles for our masters, in lands to which we had no claim, with men for whom we felt no hatred’. Thomas was a pure-bread nationalist, he supported the fire-bombing campaigns of English-owned second homes in West Wales, and despised any form of Anglicisation in Wales. It’s no surprise, really, that Gwyn Alf did not quite get on with the ideas expressed in the poem, but it’s a convenient start because history is not myth, nor should it exist in the service of mythology. Rather, history – particularly for Gramscian Marxists such as Gwyn Alf – should provide a mechanism through which ordinary people can ‘take possession’ of the possibilities of the future.
It comes as no surprise, really, that the first third of the book – up to (but not including chapter four) – is the least effective. That’s not because pre-Roman, Roman, and early medieval history is beyond Gwyn Alf’s narrative-theoretical capabilities, but rather because it was simply not his area of direct expertise. At least, that is, not in Welsh history anyway (he had, after all, done his PhD on medieval London). Besides which, our understanding of the history of that part of the British Isles we now call Wales in the pre-medieval period has advanced considerably in the last generation, as new archaeological techniques and technology has filled in gaps where written evidence is lacking. Anyone who doubts the vast holes in the history presented in When Was Wales should turn their attention to Thomas Charles-Edwards’ mammoth Wales and the Britons, published a few years ago by Oxford University Press. But Gwyn Alf probably wouldn’t mind anyone pointing that out, since his purpose is not to colour in a picture of pre- and post-Roman Wales.
The book begins to come into its own in chapter four, ‘European Welsh’, which takes up the history of Wales after the Norman Conquest. This is the period in which Wales became a frontier, politically and culturally. On the one hand, the Norman period pulled Wales into the cultural sphere of European Christendom – the empire of Christendom, as Robert Bartlett has put it, which stretched from Catholic Spain and Portugal in the west, to the banks of the Elbe in the east; from Sicily in the south to Holstein in the north. Wales had, previous to this, been part of a different world, that of ‘the Celtic-Scandinavian world of the Irish Sea’ (as Gwyn Alf puts it). This was the first of the major breaks to which Gwyn Alf returns with increased frequency throughout the rest of the book.
It’s not surprising that, over the centuries that have followed, many Welsh have looked across Y Môr Iwerddon and imagined different possibilities. In one sense we’re still living with the consequences of the Norman Conquest, for the frontier that they left behind divided Glamorgan, Monmouthshire, and southern Pembrokeshire, from the rest of Wales, transforming one into an eastward-looking, partly Anglicised ‘March’, and the other into a Cymricised hinterland kept deliberately at arm’s length from the rest of the island of Great Britain. The March, of course, as Rees Davies and others have shown, was not fully integrated either. It, too, was a place of lawlessness and difference; a place where criminals could escape the clutches of the king’s law, which did not operate there. The March became something of a ‘hybrid’ society, entirely of its own making. That’s a theme that returned much later, when South Wales was transformed once again.
By the time of the Stuarts, Wales had gone from being one of the most troublesome parts of the British Isles, to one of the most loyal. Indeed, during the Civil War, the Welsh were overwhelmingly loyal to the Stuart crown. Except for two parliamentary strongholds – south Pembrokeshire and Wrexham – there was little desire for Cromwell and his ideas. ‘Most of the Welsh’, writes Gwyn Alf, ‘lived through the Commonwealth as an enemy occupation’. But Tory Wales rested on a fragile coalition of forces and the eighteenth century would shatter it, exposing Wales once more to European influences and to the transformative impact of Protestant dissent. By the middle of the eighteenth century, as the Catholic squirearchy of North Wales involved themselves in the doomed Jacobite rising, the appeal Methodism was beginning to be felt. A reinvention of the Welsh was about to occur.
Chapter 7, which picks up this part of the history of the Welsh, is really where When Was Wales gets going. As a reader we’re moving into Gwyn Alf’s best territory, and his enthusiasm knows no bounds. Perhaps it’s because he can see his own home – Merthyr and Dowlais – coming up on the horizon. For by the end of the eighteenth century, Wales was being transformed by industry. Merthyr, Hirwaun, Pontypool, Tredegar, Swansea, places so closely associated with iron and copper that new terms were invented to describe them: copperopolis for Swansea; ironopolis for Merthyr. Into these towns came immigrants from the then much more heavily populated areas of North Wales and from the South West of England. The former brought their fierce independence; the latter brought their brand of dissenting Protestantism. The mixture of the two was to change Wales forever. As Gwyn Alf writes:
This migration, millenarian in tone and strongly Dissenter in spirit, may have been one factor in the regional differentiation between the sects of Nonconformity which becomes a factor of major significance from this period. While the denominations were competitively present everywhere in Wales, it was the hinterland of Carmarthen, the textile districts around Llanidloes and, above all, the south-eastern coalfield, which emerged as the centres of the more liberal, rationalist and radical doctrines’.
It’s no surprise that these would become the hotbeds of Welsh Chartism. They became attached to ideas of democracy in the wake of the American Revolution. It’s no small matter that nearly half of those men who put their signature to the declaration of independence in 1776 were Welsh, not least of them being Thomas Jefferson. ‘Politics in Wales’, observes Gwyn Alf, ‘begin with the American Revolution’.
Through religion, the Atlantic world (to which Wales was indubitably attached), and the new politics of ideas, the Welsh began the process of reinventing themselves once more. But there was something different that time, for ideas were being expressed in two languages and by peoples from across Britain who had come to Merthyr (especially Merthyr) in search of work. Industry yanked Wales out from its rural slumber and onto a very different path. ‘If Wales had not been industrialized during the nineteenth century, its people would almost certainly have suffered the same fate as the southern Irish. Since the Welsh were so much fewer, any recognizable entity which could be called “Wales” would have disappeared’. The Welsh, after all, were counted in the hundreds of thousands in 1800; the Irish were already in their millions. It goes without saying that Gwyn Alf is in his element in what follows. At heart he was a historian of nineteenth century Wales, because that’s the history of his people – the people of Merthyr and Dowlais. Though the facts of life in those two places was grim indeed, the nineteenth century was when standing at the head of the river Taff was to stand at the centre of global capitalism. It really was downhill from there.
And so it proves. Turning the page from chapter 10 into chapter 11, the sentence ‘they marched instead into a blizzard which killed their Wales stone dead’ echoes in our mind. For that is how Gwyn Alf deals with the First World War. Not for him the insistence of English historians (and latterly Scottish ones) that liberalism could have survived, that really class politics wasn’t inevitable. Oh no, the First World War was the dividing line between old imperial Wales and the Labour Wales of the future. The sorrow lies in the fact that the First World War also exposed Wales like never before to fragility and ignorance. Fragile economics and political disinterest gave rise to the ‘ruins of Dowlais’. ‘It was the central role of Britain in a world market which had created modern Wales with its offshore working class. That class was left stranded by the eclipse of British coal, the switch to oil, the contractions of British steel’. Wales would never recover, perhaps it can never recover.
The last chapter of When Was Wales remains the most controversial. As any historian of the contemporary will tell you, writing history that will get overtaken is apt to making predictions about the future, and historians are terrible at guessing what is to come. There is no doubting the fact that chapter thirteen was written at a moment of profound depression: the devolution referendum of 1979, which offered Wales a slither of self-government, was roundly defeated. In the general election that followed Wales turned to the Conservatives as never before. Ynys Mon and Brecon, which just five years earlier had returned Labour MPs, fell to the Conservatives. For the first time in decades it was possible to travel from North West Wales to the borders of the South Wales Coalfield without ever leaving Conservative-held constituencies. The advance of the Thatcherites, the fact that Wales had looked at the chance of self-government and turned visibly away, and the apparently unstoppable retreat of heavy industry, left a bitter taste. What happened in 1983 shattered any remaining notions that Wales was able to stand apart from the wider politics of The South (i.e. Conservative England). And so the coda:
Some, looking ahead, see nothing but a nightmare vision of a depersonalized Wales which has shrivelled up into a Costa Bureaucratica in the south and a Costa Gentrica in the north; in between, sheep, holiday homes burning merrily away and fifty folk museums where there used to be communities.
This is without a doubt a nightmare. Some human society will obviously survive, though what kind it will be, no one can tell. What seems to be clear is that a majority of the inhabitants of Wales are choosing a British identity which seems to require the elimination of a Welsh one.
[…] One thing I am sure of. Some kind of human society, though God knows what kind, will no doubt go on occupying these two western peninsulas of Britain, but that people, who are my people and no mean people, who have for a millennium and a half lived as Welsh people, are now nothing but a naked people under an acid rain.
That last line is justly famous. It stands are the epitome of early-1980s doubt and uncertainty. But how far from the truth is it? Gwyn Alf has often been criticised for despairing prematurely. After all, when the Welsh were offered a second referendum on home rule in 1997 they took the opportunity (by a squeak) and have never looked back. A third referendum in 2011 confirmed the appetite for Home Rule. Heck, Plaid Cymru even formed part of the Welsh government. And yet, he was right about Welsh politics. He was right because the Welsh have not rejected the Conservatives as fully as the Scots have done since 1979; and they certainly have not rejected UKIP in the same way either. The last chapter of When Was Wales calls for introspection and action. We need to understand why Welsh politics – which had once been the most radical in the entire United Kingdom – turned towards The South at a moment of profound instability. Part of that analysis means overcoming academic aversion to the Conservative Party in Wales – something that Sam Blaxland’s forthcoming PhD will do much to achieve – but also a need to revisit what made the Labour Party so important in the first place. Otherwise the answer to Gwyn Alf’s question will end up with a definite answer: in the past.
It’s hard to come to a verdict about this most profound of books. It has had a considerable influence on my thinking about the Welsh past and has encouraged me in moments of existential crisis. I know it has its faults and flaws – some of which I’ve highlighted above – and the first sections of the book are now obsolete, but there is something infinitely great about a book that knows its own mind and doesn’t shy away from saying what it believes. Too often these days historians are guarded in their opinions and too careful in their judgements. This is a problem. Postmodernism unleashed a generation of historians able to listen to their egos but unable to express it clearly on the page. Gwyn Alf was far from a postmodernist, he was one of a generation of truly radical historians which Wales, and particularly the South Wales Valleys, spawned a lot of in the twentieth century. In the final analysis this is a book that is able to speak to our times, still, and provides answers to questions we’re still asking. I can think of no greater compliment to pay a history book than that.