There are few more beloved phrases in the academic nationalist movement, aside from the great borrowing from Gwynfor Evans, “the British state”, than “Welsh Labourist historians”. In contrast to Evans’s assertion, which can be spun with a degree of utility into a Marxian motif, however, this grouping of certain historians together to make quite specific claims about them is relatively meaningless. As I hope to illustrate today, “Welsh Labourist historians” lumps together a range of individuals who actually hold a diverse range of opinion about the Labour Party, the labour movement, and the interplay between the nation, the state, and the international. Equally, the group is never specifically identified by its nationalist detractors, nor is the position that they (supposedly) hold ever quite narrowed down to its specifics either. To know these things is to understand the primary cleavage in modern Welsh historiography and its refraction in wider scholarship that deals with society and politics (and culture) in Wales, past and present. For outsiders, whose historical fields are able to transcend such matters, this may all seem like splitting hairs, but it is vital, it seems to me, because the existence and persistence of this debate says a lot about the depth of the identity studies rabbit hole down which Welsh scholarship has been dragged since 1999. I choose the date provocatively.
Now, the group of easily identifiable Welsh Labour historians is small. It consists, in my view, and apologies to anyone I leave out accidentally, of the following people: K. O. Morgan, Gwyn Alf Williams, Neil Evans, Joe England, Cyril Parry, Deian Hopkin, Ieuan Gwynedd Jones, Peter Stead, Hywel Francis, Dai Smith, Alun Burge, Chris Williams, Duncan Tanner, Andrew Edwards, Ben Curtis, Martin Wright, Stephanie Ward, and myself. There are a few others whose work exists – or is forthcoming – in doctoral form, or who deal more obviously with the labour movement in its broader character, but this group accounts for almost the entirety of the field since its active inception in the 1960s. Most of the list are now either retired, deceased, or have not written on Labour matters for many years. They are far from a homogenous group, politically or in their historical outlook as scholars of the Welsh labour movement. Few would wholly embrace the “British state” as a universalist mechanism and most would acknowledge both their Welshness (or Englishness) and their Britishness to varying degrees. This is the essence of the curious nationalist strawman that creeps into Daniel Williams’s latest blogpost – as a group Welsh Labourist historians (to use Williams’s terminology) are not the uncritical body of scholars he presents them as. Even with the qualification of “some” applied, it’s not clear that Williams’s description is accurate – as I hope to demonstrate.
In 1996, Chris Williams could comfortably assert that, in his study of the Labour Party in the Rhondda, questions of national identity can be marginalised because this was the default position for most activists. Williams writes,
If those self-blinded visionaries [of a linguistically exclusive “Welshness”] 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 is strong stuff – fighting talk to a certain type of scholar – and yet it is historically accurate. In a subsequent essay on the Lib-Lab movement, Williams recovered William Abraham’s discomfort with Liberal Nationalism, quite a different picture to the usual nationalist-inflected portrait that is provided elsewhere in the literature. Remember, Williams quotes Abraham at the height of Cymru Fydd, you are workmen first and foremost. Class, not nation, is the primary political consciousness to be examined. Williams would push this line of argument to its logical conclusion in his essay for Postcolonial Wales, which he edited with Jane Aaron in 2005. This essay has become something of an antagonist for nationalist scholars who cannot abide its rejection of national specificity – see, for a good example of this, Daniel Williams’s Wales Unchained. For Chris Williams, the artificial separation of workers into national blocks is illogical – a classic Marxian expression which is there in all of his work on this theme up to Postcolonial Wales.
Two others in my list of historians would follow Chris along this path – Dai Smith, his doctoral supervisor, and me. (Chris was my second internal supervisor for my PhD at Swansea and conducted my doctoral viva alongside Dai Smith and Tony Collins). We three – or four, if we include Hywel Francis too – approach the primacy of class over nation in subtly different ways which are not always apparent to critics. My view, following Tony Judt, is that identity is a dangerous word and that the more oxygen we give to it, the more fragmented society gets (and I really do mean societies not nations). As Judt wrote,
“Identity” is a dangerous word. It has no respectable contemporary uses. […] In academic life, the word has […] mischievous uses. Undergraduates today can select from a swathe of identity studies […] The shortcoming of all these para-academic programs is not that they concentrate on a given ethic or geographical minority; it is that they encourage members of that minority to study themselves – thereby simultaneously negating the goals of a liberal education and reinforcing the sectarian and ghetto mentalities they purport to undermine.
Strong stuff, once more, but with which I wholeheartedly agree. My very first solo article was a study of the coalfield societies of South Wales and Cape Breton, I sought what was similar and what was different, and I’ve always tried to link the peoples and places I look at to the wider world. We should never be insular. Like Judt, my suspicion of identity – and linguistic-nationalism in particular – comes from displacement. Born in England, growing up in Wales, with Scottish grandparents, with higher education in England and Canada, a career trajectory that’s taken me from the Cambrian coast to the dales of West Yorkshire, it’s hard to know who I am in a singular or hyphenated kind of way. The hybridity of Anglo-Welsh, whose prejudices and predilections I almost certainly share, to a certain degree, hardly covers it. But then, neither does the apparent universalism of British. More on that in a moment.
I raise that complexity and uncertainty because it is fundamentally not true of Dai Smith. There is no question of his Welshness, nor does he question it himself. What’s at stake for Smith, and not for me, I don’t think, is a Welshness that is majoritarian and respects and reflects the historical realities of the majority of Welsh people both in their twentieth century experience and their twenty-first century reality. As he put it in 1999:
Broadcasting in Wales will increasingly need to stress the achievements and tradition of the majority experience in twentieth-century Wales in the language of that majority, the English tongue that has become our principal Welsh means of communication. Only a clear minded and full-hearted understanding and acceptance of our modern, complex history will be sufficient if we are to move forward. […] There are those who would wish the historical slate wiped clean; it can’t be done, and they will end up communicating only amongst themselves since communication is a two way process in which ears are as vital as mouths. And eyes, of course.
This, by the way, is easily taken as an attack on, or at least a rebuke to, the false universalism of bilingual Wales, but what it is not is an appeal to the universalism of Britishness. Look for such a thing in Smith’s work and you will struggle to find it. This is even more apparent in Hywel Francis’s work, reflecting Hywel’s deep immersion in the Welsh language culture of the anthracite coalfield. Stripped of this nuance our differing perspectives do not make sense, but when it is reapplied, the distinction between a Labour history in which nationhood is firmly marginalised and a Labour history which is actually about the primacy of a certain kind of nationhood suddenly becomes very apparent. They do, in the end, become rolled together as the ‘world of South Wales’, but it’s important to know that there was not one path travelled as is implied by nationalist critics.
A second loose school, looser in many ways than the one I’ve just discussed, can be discerned. It emphasises those elements of the labour movement that put Wales equal to or ahead of Britain and tends to seek to reduce the historical specificity of “South Wales” by drawing together examples from across the nation. The easiest entrée, and certainly the oldest, is that of K. O. Morgan. Morgan was an early proponent of what we might regard as the ‘national Labour’ position, which is summed up in his Welsh Political Archive lecture The Red Dragon and the Red Flag. A more critical, but certainly similarly themed, version of this position links Deian Hopkin and Martin Wright, both of whom are much more attuned to Welsh-speaking Labour circles, as is Andrew Edwards. The sensitivity of this school to Welsh-medium socialist movements is undoubtedly its strength, but its weakness lies in the creation of a relatively artificial Wales. The Wales promoted by RJ Derfel (who was actually from Manchester) or J. Rhoose Williams or even Idris Cox had to fall back on the ‘gwerin’ motif because that was the only way they could truly rehabilitate industrial and urban society with the Welsh radicalism they believed had existed before the bowels of the earth were opened to men. If that sounds a little Romantic, that’s because it’s all too easy to fall into that trap.
It’s also far too easy to give undue significance to a small group of North Walian voices who were not at all representative, indeed in many ways that’s what you have to do if you pursue a pan-Wales assessment of Labour and socialism. ‘Welsh’ socialism was most wholeheartedly pushed forward not by socialists from the world of South Wales but by their North Walian comrades – something which was also largely true of the Communist Party in later years too. Those who lived in the populous southern counties were far more sceptical of the association between nation and socialism. Huw Menai, a North Walian by birth but a South Walian by residency, whose Welsh language heritage might otherwise have led him towards a nationalist perspective, actively eschewed nationalist politics in favour of the international. He placed class and socialism, and Marxism, on a spectrum that was completely at odds with nationhood. None of which made him any more enthusiastic about the British state and its ‘assimilationism’, to be sure.
There is not, then, a singular Welsh Labourist historians’ school of thought, such a thing would tend to be absurd in any case. What there is, is a balance between those historians who assert the primacy of class awareness and the historical reasons for doing so, and those who end to place greater emphasis on identity and nationhood and the historical reasons for doing so. The conclusions that have been reached are myriad, they are multifaceted and complex, and they present a healthy debate about the nature of the past. So much so that I think the label “Welsh Labourist historian” can be rejected as meaningless. This has certain consequences of its own which I now want to explore.
At this juncture I want to pick up on Daniel Williams’s rather –I’ll be frank– over-the-top conclusion. He writes:
The true British democrat […] is one who is prepared to argue that Scotland and Wales have the same democratic and multicultural potential as England within the geographical space that we call Great Britain. […] It is surely time to move beyond the ‘double logic’ by which ‘my nation is progressive and cosmopolitan’ while ‘your nation is separatist and divisive’.
One part of this is quite sensible, it is indeed time to move beyond that kind of non sequitur; the other part, however, is insensible. It does not follow that replacing a British state with a Welsh or Scottish or English one will make it any more or less likely that multiculturalism will thrive, for that is itself a political debate that will rage. Does not bilingualism, a state implemented form of assimilationism if ever there was one, not fly in the face of that logic? I rather think it does. After all, bilingualism is really a rejection of the Anglo-Welsh compromise that has been the mainstay of Welsh culture – and, indeed, the labour movement – throughout the twentieth century. But this blog is about historiography and scholarship, not about the politics of the present, and I shall keep to that theme.
Of the two broad schools of Labour history, the one guided by class, the other by nation, one is easily far more radical in intent than the other. Histories written about national identity tend not to really stir things up. Histories about class, on the other hand, often do – we need only think of the historiographical revolution that followed in the wake of The Making of the English Working Class, Edward Thompson’s great epic. Had he written The Making of England, would it still be as important? I doubt it. Who reads A. L. Morton’s A People’s History of England these days? Class is, itself, hardly a simplistic mode of understanding, as fierce debates over the last half a century illustrate, but it does set down a marker. Should a factory worker in, say, a large Swansea distribution centre, who feels indignant about the conditions of his or her labour, really be encouraged to complain about ‘foreigners’ (which is the nationalist stance) or about the exigencies of capital which places their conditions of labour on a continuum with those of workers in Bangladesh who make the clothes they’re packing or workers in China who make most of the rest of the stuff? These are the marginalised, the ‘edge people’ as Judt put it, whose lives aren’t so very different regardless of what ‘nation’ or what ‘state’ they live in.
History in the service of the nation – or the nation building process – can never sufficiently provide the evidence to challenge those conditions because in the end that is not its concern. National history is about us, not them, about the differences between peoples, and the internal logic of development. But the other kind of history, which is open, which supposes a rejection of the nation as a framing mechanism, does engage with marginality without making it about difference. To think of it another way: I am poor, my friend who lives somewhere else is poor, a third person whom I have never met is poor, let us do something about our mutual poverty. Not, I am poor because I am Welsh and have been exploited by the English. I am poor because I am British and can’t get a job because we’ve been overrun by foreigners. And so on. As Judt concluded, ‘“identities” will grow mean and tight, as the indigent and the uprooted beat upon the ever-rising walls of gated communities from Delhi to Dallas’.
What concerns me, with the waning of the Dai Smith school, in all its various forms, is that Welsh historiography will soon be entirely given over to identity scholarship. And then who will care? What difference does Welshness make to anyone outside of Wales? Who will care that, actually, unionist politics and unionist institutions, such as the National Health Service, owe rather a lot to the utter disregard of the interwar British state and employers for the people of South Wales? Who will care that Labour politicians were fundamentally anchored in South Wales. Aneurin Bevan, of course. James Griffiths, the MP for Llanelli, who established the post-war welfare state. Ramsay MacDonald, the first Labour Prime Minister, who was the MP for Aberavon. Keir Hardie, the iconic leader of the Labour Party, who was the MP for Merthyr Tydfil. Michael Foot, the leader during Labour’s period of great chaos during the early 1980s, the MP for Ebbw Vale. James Callaghan, Foot’s predecessor, and the last Labour Prime Minister before Blair, MP for Cardiff South. Neil Kinnock, Foot’s successor, the MP for Islwyn. Roy Jenkins, the most important Home Secretary of the twentieth century, came from Pontypool; Leo Abse, the MP for that constituency, co-sponsored the bill that led to the legalisation of homosexual acts in England and Wales. And these are just the most high profile individuals.
To understand many of the great contributions of the Labour Party and the labour movement in Britain in the twentieth century means understanding something about the politics, places, and peoples, of South Wales. But who, apart from the people I’ve mentioned directly or in passing above, really does understand? It wouldn’t be that difficult to overcome relatively broad ignorance. And yet, and with this thought I shall conclude, rather than talk about these great contributions, why they arose in the places they did, and to set such experiences alongside those of others elsewhere in the world, scholars are seemingly content to play with the label maker. Is that really the right thing to be doing at this moment in time?