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Ed George

A Note on Welsh History and Politics

[October, 2002]

It had been on my mind for a while to write a more extended piece on Welsh history, simply by virtue of the fact that the job has yet to be done satisfactorily: the problem of Welsh history is the same as that of any history, that it has been by and large written by the bourgeoisie. But in addition to this, where it has been written by radical historians, they either reflect a British chauvinist disregard for Welsh specificities, or they reflect a nationalist disregard for class specificities. This gap has yet to be bridged, and it is not going to be bridged here either, even though I am going to offer a few pointers.

I need to say here that – as is normal – my thinking is the product of dialogue and collaboration with others. In particular, the person who had the best grasp of Welsh history and politics that I know of – more than the rest of the experts put together – was my very close friend and comrade Ceri Evans: my sadness is that he died this past August. In good part, then, in what follows, I am not only speaking for myself, but on his behalf too. I hope he would have liked what I am about to say.


The first point is that I think we need to be wary of characterisations of Wales as a ‘colonial nation’, or of talk of ‘occupation’. If it is fundamental to understand that Wales is not England, it is also of equal importance to grasp that it is not Ireland either - the historical experience is in fact completely different: specifically, the Acts of Union of 1536, which formalised the incorporation of Wales into England, precisely did not make Wales a formal colony of England:

If colonialism is understood to be a specific, political relationship between two states, then quite the opposite [happened] in fact. [...] As Gwyn Alf Williams has pointed out, it actually rescued us from colonialism. From being a disenfranchised and colonised people, the Welsh, or at least their ruling class, were made politically equal to their English counterparts.1

There is nothing in Welsh history that compares with, for example, Ireland: to take one example, the land question, as in the rest of the British state was reduced to bringing landlord and gentry under the control of the bourgeoisie, rather than having to deal with absentee landlordism, catastrophic famine, massive emigration, foreign domination, etc.

In fact, prior to the nineteenth century there is an absence of a nationalist movement of any character. Contrary to nationalist mythology, the revolt of the Llewelyns of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and that of Glyndŵr in the fifteenth century were internoble struggles aimed at enlarging feudal territory rather then national struggles. In the same vein, it is also necessary to reject the nationalist myth that the Welsh language was suppressed by the English. The (in-) famous ‘Welsh Not’2 was not administered by the English against the Welsh, as nationalist mythology would have it, but by the Welsh speaking intelligentsia on its own children in its own schools, even though it is true that the then British (i.e. English, Scottish and Welsh) state created the cultural and political climate in which speaking English was most definitely encouraged.3 Yet assimilation was almost entirely voluntary: what killed the Welsh language in many parts of Wales was the British empire, and its essential fuel – the crude oil of its day – coal. And fundamental to the south Wales coal boom was the decision of the Royal Navy in the early 1850s to grant a monopoly franchise for its coal supplies (an enormous operation at the time) to south Wales steam anthracite.

The impact of the coal boom on Welsh society, politics and culture cannot be under-emphasised. In 1851 Wales had a little over a million inhabitants; in 1914 it had something over two million and a half. In 1851 a third of the male workforce was employed in agriculture and around 10 per cent in coal; by 1914, the positions had been reversed. In 1850, south Wales exported half a million tons of coal; in 1913 nearly 40 millions. And, highly significantly, from the mid point of the nineteenth century to the First World War, comparisons of immigration and emigration patterns not only within the British state but between European countries shows that Welsh industrial development marched out of synch with processes underway elsewhere: industrial Wales boomed while industrial Britain began to stagnate. In short, industrial capitalism developed later in Wales than in the rest of Britain, but it developed markedly more rapidly. And it is this process that gave birth to the specific social formation that today we call Wales.

Clearly, this process was not one of colonisation. In Gwyn Alf Williams’ words, Wales was transformed practically overnight from ‘a marginal province into a sector of an imperial economy.’ The title of the book from which this quotation is taken is When Was Wales?: and the answer to this question seems to me to be that in any meaningful sense Wales itself was born here, mid nineteenth century. Any account which dates the birth of this particular foundling any earlier necessarily bases itself on mythology and whimsy.

How did the explosion of the coal industry kill the Welsh language? For the bourgeoisie and aspirant bourgeoisie quite simply the clear path for advancement and enrichment lay through the British Empire rather than an independent Wales. This meant not only adopting the English language as their own but also burying forever any thoughts of Welsh nationhood. The brief fluttering of a Welsh nationalist movement at the end of the nineteenth century – Cymru Fydd (in English, literally, ‘Wales Will Be’, prominent among whose leaders was a young, ambitious Liverpool-born lawyer by the name of David Lloyd George) – was simultaneously both birth pang and death agony of authentic bourgeois Welsh nationalism. In this case, class was to win won out over nation.

As for the working class of Wales, it was face with a parallel choice: Liberalism, or its own parties and unions. As for its relation with the language, it seems that in many places a collective decision was taken to use English as the language of political struggle: the boom in the coalfield attracted not only migrants from rural Wales but from elsewhere in Britain, Ireland, Spain, Italy and eastern Europe. From surviving documentary evidence, we know that many predominantly Welsh-speaking coalfield areas chose to conduct their politics in English. What happened in the coalfield is best summarised by the following anecdote:

In 1909 at a meeting of the Rhondda district of the Fed [South Wales Miners’ Federation], the chairman asked: ‘Is there anyone here who wants the resolution in Welsh?’ The reply – ‘Everyone here understands English.’4

But the supplanting of Liberalism in the working class movement by an admixture of syndicalism and Labourism was only one part of the top to bottom reconstruction of Welsh society and politics. Also set adrift were processes which were to result in the next wave of popular Welsh nationalism. Petty bourgeois and rural layers, previously trenchant in their Liberalism, were cast adrift with their interests apparently undefended. The state now entered the smallest rural land-holding to conscript a youth whose deaths would be relayed back in a foreign language: English. Migration to the coalfield compounded rural depopulation and debt. Key in the construction of a response to these dislocations of rural society was a section of the Welsh-speaking intelligentsia: despite church disestablishment, land reform, the setting up of a University of Wales – i.e. the achievement of a substantial chunk of the programme of Cymru Fydd – the unremitting retreat of Liberalism, the growing division between town and country (especially as perceived in language terms) led to the establishment in 1925 of Plaid Cymru (literally: ‘The Party of Wales’) as a defensive reflex on their part. Despite the disparate nature of the forces that came together in the party – a layer of the Welsh-speaking intelligentsia, a section of the non-conformist clergy, small farmers, teachers, artists, and a layer of rural workers – they were united by their opposition to the destruction of the rural way of life and the erosion of the Welsh language.

Yet Plaid in particular and nationalism in general was to remain marginal to Welsh politics for two generations: although a tradition of support for Welsh Home Rule survived in the labour movement – at least up to the Second World War – this was in the main an inheritance of Liberalism and as a consequence more associated with the movement’s right wing.

Nevertheless, the first essential point to grasp about modern Welsh history is that it is not the history of a colony of either England or the British state: the Wales – especially the south Wales – that was built in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was not an underdeveloped colony but an overdeveloped section of the most powerful imperialist power in the world.

It is also fundamental to understand that the integration of Wales and Welsh culture into English/British culture was by and large not forced: social and economic forces undermined, for example, the language – and in the context of a chauvinistic culture – but the process was an organic and voluntary one on the part of the overwhelming bulk of the Welsh.

It is necessary to make these points – to cut the thicket of nationalist mythology back a little – because of the pernicious misunderstandings that prevail on the left in relation to the national question, both in general and in relation to the British state. The point is that is not necessary to either ‘prove’ the prior existence in history of a ‘Welsh nation’ by objective criteria or to ‘prove’ the existence of a colonial relationship or material oppression before accepting that self-determination is either valid or necessary in a particular situation. As I have made these points repeatedly on this list I shall not go into them further here, other than to comment that to by going down this road in relation to Wales you not only end up making something of a fool of yourself5 but also that you end up making a case for national (and in this case Welsh) self-determination which is particularly easy to shoot down.

To return to our story. The coal economy that was built in the latter half of the nineteenth century was nothing if not an imperial economy: Britannia ruled the waves and the Welsh dug its coal. Consequently, the fortunes of the former followed those of the empire. The peak of south Welsh coal production – both in terms of output and numbers of workers (I normally hesitate about using the word ‘manpower’ but here this is what it was) was 1913; and as the British empire went into relative decline so did Wales, although the word ‘relative’ is most decidedly inapposite. The scale of the social and economic catastrophe that was wrought in the 1920s and 1930s is difficult to grasp: between 1921 and 1939 official figures (which probably underestimate the phenomenon) tell us that the population of Wales fell by something of the order of 20 per cent, i.e. one person in five left – many of them on foot – in search of work (the population of Wales did not return to its 1921 level until the 1960s). But this catastrophe was accompanied by a very high level of political radicalism, typified not only by the struggles against scab unionism in the coalfield and against the government’s new means testing for unemployment assistance (struggles accompanied by incredibly deep and sophisticated levels of organisation at the community level) but also by a significant degree of internationalism: witness the campaign for aid – and volunteers – for the Spanish revolution.6 Needless to say, the secular struggles of the southern working class movement left little space for nationalist concerns, and, in turn, Plaid Cymru, with its almost exclusive concern with matters cultural, could see little utility in the working class agenda: ‘Pentecostal utopianism,’ declared Saunders Lewis, referring to working class radicalism, ‘Is the curse of the country.’

Like much of war-torn Europe, from the later 1940s Wales underwent a significant degree of social and economic restructuring, much of it prompted and impelled by British-state government interventionism; indeed, what was implemented in Wales at this time can be understood as something of a mini-Marshall Plan all of its own. The major extractive industries declined sharply in importance in the Welsh economy, to be replaced by manufacturing, services and construction.7 This process of economic restructuring was accompanied by a parallel phenomenon of administrative devolution, a process itself bolstered by the increasing – if temporary – acceptance of Keynesian ideas. Bodies such as the Welsh Advisory Council of the Ministry of Reconstruction began to work out policies which would combine economic restructuring with the maintenance of social peace. A single Welsh Gas Board was set up. Government offices were moved to south Wales: the Royal Mint to Llantrisant, the DVLC to Swansea, the Passport Office to Newport. In 1964, the Wilson government created the cabinet position of Welsh Minister, and the administrative department of the Welsh Office.

The fundamental consequence for our purposes here is that this dual process – the restructuring of the economy and the restructuring of the state – created new social layers with a vested interest in a more developed state structure in Wales. It was these layers – mainly petty bourgeois and/or white collar workers, but – later – combined with more traditional sectors of the working class and radicalising students (this last especially evident in the campaigns led by Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg – The Welsh Language Society, formed in 1962), that lay the basis in the 1960s for the rise of the third, and so far most recent, rise of a nationalist movement in Wales.

The electoral scene that was to confront a quite literally rejuvenated and resurgent Plaid Cymru was of course dominated by this point almost completely by Labour, although by the turn of the decade Labour dominance had begun to slip a little from that near total achieved in 1966 when it won 60 per cent of the popular vote in Wales and when only four Welsh seats were not held by Labour.8

Of course, it had been the 1945-51 Labour governments that had consolidated Labour’s hold over the working class in Wales and the bureaucracy’s hold over the party. In the post-war period Labour in Wales presented an increasingly abhorrent, chauvinistic and paternalistic face to the world. With the Welsh economy increasingly dependent on the British state, for a significant period Welsh Labour provided both foot-soldiers and generals for the Labourite bureaucracy in Britain. It is noteworthy that three successive Labour leaders in the 1970’s and 1980’s – Callaghan, Foot and Kinnock – were MPs with Welsh constituencies: over this period Welsh Labour played a role analogous to that played by the Scottish Labour mafia in the 1990s.

It was into the Labourist redoubt that Plaid was to burst. The springboard was to be Carmarthen, to the west of the coalfield, where Gwynfor Evans, the leader of the party, won a shock by-election to become the party’s first ever MP. In the general elections of 1970 the party lost the seat, but its overall vote just topped 11 per cent, and it won surprising support in the valleys themselves. In 1976 the party won control of Merthyr and Rhymny councils (at the heart of the coalfield); its three Westminster MPs spent the 1970s propping up the minority Wilson-Callaghan government of 1974-9.

Since this point to almost the present day, Plaid has maintained this more or less ten percent share of the vote in elections in Wales, though its most solid base of support – from where it gets its MPs – is in the west and north (Gwynedd and Caerfyrddin-Carmarthen and its hinterland in particular). Nevertheless, Plaid has also consistently picked up something of a protest vote – small but significant – in the south Wales coalfield valleys.

Where does Plaid fit into the political spectrum in Welsh politics? Although ostensibly a ‘nationalist’ party, of petty bourgeois origins, Plaid has since the 1980s maintained itself on a programme of ‘independence in Europe’ (a plain contradiction in terms) coupled with a mild and largely inoffensive social democracy. Yet even this gentle appeal to ‘social justice’ begins to look radical against the new model Blairite Labour Party, especially when measured against the degree of social and economic crisis that Wales has suffered since the 1974 recession burst the post-WW2 Keynsian restructuring bubble, and especially following the appalling consequences of the Thatcher governments’ crash-and-burn restructuring of the British economy.

And it is in this context that we see the Plaid’s recent breakthroughs in the traditional Labour heartlands of the south, in both the 1999 Assembly elections and last year’s general elections.9 Has a mould been broken in Wales? It really is too early to say, but it is possible, on the strength of the analysis offered above, to draw some general conclusions.

Modern Wales is clearly not in good shape. Although the processes of reorganisation and restructuring in Welsh society and economy that are described above are long term trends with deep historical roots, the Thatcher governments and their successors of the 1980s and 90s variously consolidated, sharpened and exacerbated them to such a degree that 1979 can be regarded as something of a watershed in the evolution of Welsh society. The legacy that faced today is both manifest and devastating. There has been a structural increase in male unemployment, a lowering of wage rates and a fall in trade union membership. All this has facilitated an intensification of the labour process and a reduction in the limited degree of control that workers once had over the rhythms of production. Aggregate economic activity has declined. Some new jobs have come, but on the basis of labour that is both cheap and flexible; and they have been more than offset by the old traditional jobs that have gone forever. In the south Wales valleys and in much of rural Wales underdevelopment and poverty reign. If there were grounds for belief in the immediate post war period that capital could alleviate the structural inadequacies of the Welsh economy that led to the social catastrophe of the 1920’s and 1930’s then the last 30 years should have buried those illusions forever.

Of course, many illusions do persist in Wales today: as ever, mass consciousness lags reality. Nowhere is this more clear than when we measure the inadequacy of the present political leadership of the Welsh working class against the contemporary realities and the historical necessities that are today posed. If one conclusion can be drawn here, it is the necessity of constructing new leaderships that measure up rather better to the aspirations of the working class in Wales. Space permits only the briefest outline of the strategic contours of this process.

Outside of revolutionary crises, the working class follows its traditional organisations, which themselves reflect the ‘normal’ conservatism of the mass of the class. The mainstream political character of the traditional organisations of the working class in Britain today – Labourism – owes its dominant position to the nature of the privileged labour aristocracy in Britain of the late nineteenth century, which, because of its beneficial position, was not able or not willing to challenge the British bourgeoisie politically, i.e. at the level of the state. From this position developed the main political traits of Labourism: the separation of economic struggles from ‘politics’, the trade unions forming the future political party, the working class of Scotland, Wales and England accommodating themselves to the Union because it was considered generally acceptable and because political struggle against it was regarded as subordinate to ‘economic’ issues.

The fact that the working class in Wales more unanimously vote Labour than their English sisters and brothers does not reflect a political ‘immaturity’ but rather indicates that they are further along the road to discovering that Labourism will betray them. This is a discovery that they will have to make for themselves: they are not at this stage going to listen to a small band of revolutionary desperados telling them what lies at the end of this road. The best revolutionaries can do at this stage is to assist the development of this process.

Integral to this overall development in Wales is the centrality of the national question: questions of Welsh self-government and autonomy will remain at the heart of the political agenda in Wales in the long term, not least because the pattern of industrial decline partially precludes the prospect of gains through ‘economic’ struggle. The development of the consciousness of the working class and the resolution of the problems of leadership in the long term in Wales will revolve around the intersection and supersession of nationalism and Labourism.

This informs what revolutionaries do today in Wales. I have elsewhere argued on this list that the twin demands for Welsh self-government and for a united states of Europe need to be at the heart of revolutionary politics in Wales; indeed, I’m going to be demagogic and claim that a revolutionary movement that does not grasp the fundamental nature of these tow questions will not lead the revolution.

Some will claim that the call for self-government fosters nationalism; but it should by now be clear from the above that if there is a nationalist movement in Wales it is there precisely because both labour and Labour have failed dismally to address real national grievances. It is never the workers’ movement’s championing of national demands that bolsters national sentiment but precisely a sectarian approach to them.

Regarding the question of Europe, it is necessary to emphasise the importance of internationalist concerns. By this is suggested more than solidarity with struggles in other countries, especially those dominated by imperialism (in particular our own), necessary though this is. It also suggests the fact that the international nature of capitalism (and, by implication, of its successor, socialism) has penetrated ordinary people’s consciousness to the degree that purely national solutions to the social crisis appear increasingly untenable, be they solutions posed by traditional Welsh nationalists of the old school or by the little Englander Europhobes of the Labour (or Tory) right. Twenty years ago the rallying cry of the left was the Bennite slogan of ‘Britain out of the Common Market’; today we have to say more. Alongside convinced opposition to the economic and political strictures of Maastricht we also have to advance positive notions of common European (and world) development. The idea that the United States of Europe is the necessary task of the working class also has to be at the heart of a revolutionary view of the measures necessary to resolve the social crisis.


1 Ceri Evans, ‘For Welsh Self-Government!’, unpublished, 1996 (here).

2 The ‘Welsh Not’ was a wooden sign hung around the neck of a child found speaking Welsh. In order to be free of the sign, the child had to find and inform on another child speaking Welsh: the Not was then duly passed on. The child wearing found wearing it at the end of the day would be beaten.

3 As, for example, the report of the Commissioners of Inquiry for South Wales (1844), which argued that: ‘The people's ignorance of the English language practically prevents the working of the laws and institutions and impedes the administration of justice.’ This report led to another Royal Commission, held in 1847, whose report is what has come to be called ‘Brad y Llyfrau Gleision’ – The Treachery of the Blue Books (‘Blue’ after the colour of the binding): the inability of the Welsh-speaking children interviewed to answer simple questions was put down to ignorance, and the habit of speaking Welsh variously blamed for dirtiness, laziness, ignorance, superstition, promiscuity and immorality. The report concluded that: ‘The Welsh language is a vast drawback to Wales and a manifold barrier to the moral progress and commercial prosperity of the people. It is not easy to over-estimate its evil effects.’ The point about the Blue Books is not their sickeningly reactionary and ignorant character, which stands clear enough, but that they were never, because they did not need to be, implemented. Parenthetically, it is also interesting to note that the motive of the Commissions principally arose from the 1839 Newport Insurrection, which caught the authorities completely on the hop, since it was organised in a language – Welsh – its police spies did not understand (it is necessary here to remember that ‘physical-force’ Chartism was – uniquely in Britain – the majority current in Wales).

4 Gwyn Alf Williams, When Was Wales? (Harmondsworth, 1985), 245.

5 A textbook example of this approach can be seen in Tim Richards’ laughable A Class History of Wales, which can be read on the Cymru Goch website here.

6 A struggle typified by the Communist and writer Lewis Jones, who literally campaigned himself into an early grave over Spain, and whose two novels Cwmardy and We Live stand as essential background to understanding both the scale of social and economic catastrophe of the period as well as its accompanying extreme political radicalism.

7 It is something of a myth that it was the Thatcher governments that were responsible for the decline of the Welsh coal industry. All Thatcher did was administer the coup de grace, since the industry had already suffered decades of decline prior to 1979: between nationalisation in 1947 and the oil crisis in 1974 150 collieries and 75,000 jobs had disappeared from the coalfield.

8 In fact, in the latter half of the twentieth century the Labour Party enjoyed a preponderance of electoral support in the south Wales valleys practically without equal in the rest of Britain. The only areas that compare are parts of ‘greater’ Glasgow (where the Scottish National Party also vies for the Labour vote), the Yorkshire Dales and ‘greater’ Liverpool. In this respect, as in some others, the south Wales valleys really are sui generis in the British state.

9 See my note here.


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