Brittle with Relics: A History of Wales, 1962-97 
by Richard King.
Faber, 526 pp., £25, February, 978 0 571 29564 7
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Thevillage of Capel Celyn was drowned in 1965 when the valley of Tryweryn, in north-west Wales, was flooded to create a reservoir to serve the (English) city of Liverpool. No Welsh MP supported the bill that enabled the reservoir to be built. Seventy people had to leave their homes. The words ‘Cofiwch Dryweryn’ (‘Remember Tryweryn’), written on the wall of a ruined cottage near Aberystwyth, subsequently became a slogan for Welsh nationalism, and the flooding of the valley precipitated the election of the nationalist Plaid Cymru’s first MP, Gwynfor Evans, in 1966. That same year, the village of Aberfan in South Wales was partially submerged when Tip 7 at the Merthyr Vale colliery collapsed, sending a deluge of spoil from the local mines down the hillside, destroying several houses and the primary school. Driving to the site of the catastrophe, the first thing one member of the Aberfan Mines Rescue Service saw was ‘a large diameter pipe … actually bobbing along as if it was a lump of timber on waves’. ‘We were digging with our hands,’ he went on, ‘because we didn’t have any tools.’ Another witness remembered the slurry: ‘you dig it and as quick as you dig it, it fills back in again.’ The death toll was 144, including 116 children. It was only after a tribunal was convened that the National Coal Board (headquartered in London) admitted that the collapse of Tip 7 was not an act of God but an avoidable tragedy.

These two submerged villages are central to Richard King’s oral history of Wales – or, really, of Welsh-language activism and Welsh nationalism – in the late 20th century. The injustices and catastrophes caused by the government in Westminster weren’t the only thing that stimulated Welsh activism during these decades. Rural Wales had long been in decline, and by the 1970s its industrial heartlands were too. A large number of ‘incomers’ had arrived in rural areas: hippies and environmentalists, as well as retirees and second-home owners who drove up house prices. And, starting in 1979, Wales endured eighteen years of Conservative rule, despite never electing a Tory majority at a general election. In this context, a network of new organisations and movements supplemented, and sometimes challenged, Plaid Cymru, which had been founded in 1925. Not all of them saw themselves primarily as nationalist, or sought self-government for Wales, but, as King shows, they were densely interconnected.

The new direction taken by Welsh campaigners was signalled in 1962 when Saunders Lewis, a founding member of Plaid Cymru, made a speech arguing that defending the Welsh language and Welsh culture, rather than self-government, should be the primary goal of nationalists, and that direct action should be the strategy. Welsh was in real danger of dying out. Since 1536, all holders of public office in Wales had been required to speak English, though it is estimated that in 1801 around 80 per cent of the population still spoke Welsh, most of them as their only language. By 1961, only 26 per cent did, and English was seen by many as smart and modern, whereas Welsh was the language of old-fashioned respectability, Nonconformist Chapel-going and the Eisteddfodau (festivals of Welsh culture). Today, the figure is 30 per cent, with half of those speaking Welsh on a daily basis.

Welsh-speaking was, and still is, unevenly distributed across the country. With the coming of the railways in the mid-19th century, increased travel led to a decline in the language, as did an elementary education system that gave teachers financial incentives to get their pupils through reading tests set in English. Some pupils heard speaking Welsh were punished by being made to wear a tallystick, the ‘Welsh Not’. English-speaking grew quickest in areas close to the border and in the South Wales valleys, the centre of industry. But industrialisation and migration did not immediately or inevitably wipe out Welsh-speaking, and the secure economic base of booming industrial communities even strengthened the language for a time. As the Welsh economist Brinley Thomas put it, ‘the unrighteous Mammon, in opening up the coalfields at such a pace, unwittingly gave the Welsh language a new lease of life, and Welsh Nonconformity a glorious high noon.’ There are still large numbers of Welsh-speakers in the north-west, including 75 per cent of the residents of Gwynedd.

Within a few months of Saunders Lewis’s speech in 1962, Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (the Welsh Language Society) was formed to take direct action. Its principal campaigns were for Welsh to have equal status with English in government and public services, for Welsh-medium education and a Welsh-language TV channel, and for Deddf Eiddo, a property act to tackle the housing crisis. In pursuit of these goals, activists undertook campaigns of civil disobedience and the destruction of property, defacing road signs written in English and spraying lemonade around the office of a Tory MP. They were non-violent, though some in Cymdeithas admired the Easter Rising and forged links with Irish republicans. In some mainly English-speaking areas the language campaign was viewed with suspicion; it seemed exclusive, and, to many on the left, conservative in its cultural focus, uninterested in the pressing issue of economic development.

Not all Cymdeithas activists described themselves as nationalists: some prioritised socialism and the decentralisation of power, and wanted to be more than ‘purely’ a language movement. During the miners’ strike of 1984-85, a number of them supported the (overwhelmingly English-speaking) mining communities of South Wales, and many began to see the organisation’s role as about defending all Welsh communities, not just those where Welsh was widely spoken.

Smaller groups proliferated. Mudiad Adfer (the Restoration Movement) was founded by a leading member of Cymdeithas to address the housing crisis and to substantiate the mythic idea of Y Fro Gymraeg – the Welsh-speaking heartland – in monoglot Welsh communities in the west, buying properties, renovating them and letting them to Welsh-speaking locals. There were soon tensions between Adfer and the majority of Cymdeithas activists, who thought there was something ‘fascistic’ about Adfer’s ideal of a purely Welsh-speaking Wales. Adfer members could be aggressive towards English speakers, and even towards people learning Welsh. The movement’s project, and its prejudices, were similar to those of Plaid in its early years, but Plaid itself was now moving to the left under the aegis of Gwynfor Evans and Dafydd Elis-Thomas.

Welsh nationalism had a paramilitary arm too. Mudiad Amddiffyn Cymru (the Movement for the Defence of Wales) detonated a series of bombs in the 1960s, including one at the construction site of the dam used to flood Tryweryn, and, in 1969, at sites connected to the investiture of Prince Charles as Prince of Wales. Although the aim was to cause disruption rather than loss of life, an 11-year-old boy was seriously injured when he stumbled on a bomb that had failed to detonate on time (King’s comment that this reveals the ‘arbitrary nature’ of Mudiad Amddiffyn Cymru’s strategy is a rather weak gloss on the maiming of a child). The smaller Free Wales Army, which was rumoured to have bought weapons from the IRA in 1968, was more flamboyant but less effective: it liked to take credit for paramilitary actions carried out by others, and gained a lot of publicity when several of its leaders were arrested on the day of Prince Charles’s investiture. The shadowy Meibion Glyndŵr (Sons of Glyndŵr) began an arson campaign in 1979, burning empty second homes and the offices of estate agents who marketed them. (The identity of its members remains unknown.)

All of this activism drew strength from a larger cultural revival. Welsh publishing houses and record labels sprang up, along with Welsh bands, some achieving major national and international success. There was a renewed sense of cultural confidence, even when – or especially when – the bands were critical of traditional Welsh culture and middle-class Welsh-language activists. One musician on the scene told King that the experimental rock band Datblygu ‘completely changed how I thought about the language, how I thought about my own culture … Someone’s actually speaking about what it’s like to live in Wales. What it’s like to have to deal with all the fucking harp-playing stiffs.’ Datblygu lampooned the Welsh-speaking establishment – in Welsh – in ‘Cân i Gymru’ (‘Song for Wales’), singing about the sort of people who had ‘Gradd da yn y Gymraeg/Ar y Volvo bathodyn Tafod y Ddraig’ (‘A good degree in Welsh/On the Volvo a Tafod Y Ddraig sticker’) and ‘Tocyn oes ar y trên grefi’ (‘A lifetime ticket on the gravy train’) of Welsh nationalism.

None of these organisations and groupings could take the credit for the devolution referendum which the Labour government held in Wales in 1979: the impetus came from Scotland, where the issue was forced by the electoral success of the SNP, bolstered by North Sea oil. Wales got a referendum because Scotland was having one, but most of the Labour Party was implacably hostile to devolution: Neil Kinnock, soon to be party leader, led the No campaign. The proposed Welsh assembly would have neither legislative nor tax-raising powers, and few Plaid and Cymdeithas activists felt any enthusiasm for such a toothless body. Ron Davies, the valleys boy who eventually masterminded devolution, thought that ‘English-speakers in the south of Wales voted No because they didn’t want to be dominated by Welsh-speaking northerners, and the Welsh-speaking northerners voted No because they didn’t want a devolved government to be dominated by English-speaking Southerners.’ The vote was 80 per cent against.

Two months later, Thatcher became prime minister, and, after a failed attempt to abort the new Welsh-language TV channel, S4C, the Conservatives shifted strategy, handing out more tickets on the Welsh-language gravy train. They increased funding for Welsh-medium schools and for the Eisteddfod, and passed the Welsh Language Act of 1993, which put Welsh and English on an equal footing in the public sector. The thinking behind all this was to buy off the Welsh-speaking middle classes and dampen calls for self-government, but ultimately the Language Act helped make devolution more thinkable by depoliticising the language question.

Once again it was events in Scotland, where Labour was now seizing the initiative on devolution, that put the issue back on the agenda in Wales. During his brief time as Labour leader, John Smith tasked Davies with drawing up plans for devolution in Wales. Smith was a true believer, unlike Tony Blair. But Blair inherited fully formed plans for devolution in Scotland and Wales when he became leader in 1994, and Smith’s commitment to hold referendums went into the manifesto. They took place shortly after Labour’s landslide victory in 1997. In Scotland, nearly 75 per cent of the votes were for devolution. In Wales, it was just 50.3 per cent Yes, and 49.7 per cent No: closer than Brexit, a margin of victory for the Yes campaign of just 6721 votes. Many of King’s interviewees weigh in on the reasons for this underwhelming result: continuing opposition from many in Labour; a lack of long-term planning from Plaid and Cymdeithas; fears that devolution was a stalking horse for separatism; the death of Diana and an outpouring of royalist sentiment in the middle of the campaign. In many areas of Wales there simply wasn’t much enthusiasm for self-government, a project that seemed bound up with nationalist and Welsh-language activism. When the pollster Philip Gould led focus groups in Wales, he found a depressing ‘lack of confidence of people in themselves, their communities and the future’.

In the end the narrow margin of victory didn’t matter. The Welsh Assembly existed, and over time it took on more powers. Since 2020 it has been known primarily by its Welsh name: the Senedd. Labour has never won an outright majority but has been in power, either in coalition or minority government, since 1999. It has passed landmark legislation such as the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act of 2015 – which requires all public policy to be written with the sustainability of the environment and of communities in mind – and its policies draw on a radical ‘foundational economy’ approach, focusing on the services everyone relies on and the people who work in vital but often low-paid jobs. It has pioneered a less oppositional, more experimental way of governing. In 2007, Welsh Labour entered into a coalition with Plaid, and since last November the two parties have been governing together again, based on a co-operation agreement covering 46 policy areas. Housing is central to this agreement, and the government is increasing the council tax premium which local authorities can charge on second homes from 100 to 300 per cent. Welsh Labour wants to do more than merely constrain the dominance of Westminster: it is now committed to radical federalism, arguing for recognition of the sovereignty of each of the four nations and a reformulated Union.

Although the mortality rate for deaths involving Covid is no different for Wales than for England, Wales has come out of the pandemic more united, and with much higher levels of trust in its political leadership, probably because its politicians have not been partying and dishing out PPE contracts to cronies. In an opinion poll earlier this year, only 31 per cent of English respondents preferred their own government’s approach to Covid restrictions to that of Wales, compared with 60 per cent of Welsh respondents who preferred theirs to England’s. Ron Davies’s painstaking work to plan and win a Senedd that was inclusive, elected using a form of PR and focused from the outset on sustainability, has proved a success. Especially under the current first minister, Mark Drakeford, Labour has been a popular and effective political force within the devolved system.

Why,​ then, were so many Welsh Labour politicians hostile to devolution for so long? One reason was a rather unattractive feeling that Wales was quite simply Labour’s patch. Another was a more noble belief in the shared interests of the working classes everywhere in Britain, and a commitment to internationalism. Kinnock articulates this position when he tells King that nationalists are ‘people who think with their blood’. Some of King’s interviews bear this out. John Barnard Jenkins, the leader of Mudiad Amddiffyn Cymru, who was eventually imprisoned for his role in the bombings of the 1960s, recalls:

On Christmas Eve 1972 I underwent one of the most emotional and intense experiences in my entire life, which convinced me finally of the existence of race memory, instinct and the strong compelling ties between those who unite in love of country and people. I was sitting down in my little cell, after looking out the bars at the moon shining … I was happy for I was not alone. There were others looking at the same moon who were, like me, in prison for Cymru Rydd a Cymraeg [A Free Welsh-Speaking Wales] and others fasting for Christmas, and I was linked to them all in a way unaffected by walls and wire.

At that instant, as I became aware of this, it was as though my thought had completed a circuit which channelled and directed our united love and energy … I knew beyond doubt, at that moment, the terrible power of the love which had motivated our fighting ancestors such as Caradoc, Buddug, Arthur, Glyndŵr, Llywelyn; my blood was singing to me of a long race memory of dungeons and death for a cause, and I was so submerged in the compelling ecstasy of sacrifice that I would have welcomed pain with joy.

It would be hard to come by a more fulsome statement of ethnonationalism. But then the academic Charlotte Williams tells King that, growing up, ‘Welshness couldn’t be assumed for a person of colour like myself, despite having been brought up in Wales, having received my entire education in Wales, having a Welsh-speaking mother.’ So is Kinnock right?

Williams would say no: despite the opposition she’s faced, she insists on her claim to Welshness. Like many of King’s interviewees, she imagines a Welsh identity that is not based on ‘land, language, lineage’ but is progressive, open and diverse. This is King’s project too, and his book is an attempt to construct a genealogy for a progressive Welsh nationalism. Although he includes blood-and-soil nationalists like Jenkins, and opponents of nationalism like Kinnock, most of the voices in his book belong to people like Charlotte Williams or Ron Davies: people who are critical of exclusionary forms of nationalism but who believe in the possibility of an inclusive civic nationalism, and in the idea that self-government is better for Wales than Westminster government. And who’s to say that one version of Welsh nationalism is more ‘true’ than any other? The claim that ‘Wales is a nation’ isn’t a descriptive statement: it is – or aspires to be – an illocutionary act. Nations are all imagined communities, in Benedict Anderson’s phrase, and they can be imagined in different ways. The question is how many people can be persuaded to imagine the community in the same way.

King wants his interviewees to be ‘heard on their own terms and by their own authority’, and for the ‘grain of the voice’ to come through. The result is a polyphony of voices from a range of movements, but the technique has drawbacks: sometimes a bit of authorial clarification or analysis would help the reader understand the significance of what King’s subjects are saying. Here, for instance, is Ken Smith, an activist in the miners’ strike:

If you look at the political development at the time, particularly around the election [of 1983] and Neil Kinnock as Labour leader, it was the advent of New Labour. New Realism was the phrase that was used … I remember the examples being given to justify that thinking and saying about how miners would never go on strike again because they all had videos, they all had nice cars, they had foreign holidays.

It isn’t entirely clear here – though it might be in the audio version of the interview – how Smith evaluates the political shift he’s describing, and, to readers unfamiliar with Labour’s doctrinal struggles in the 1980s, it may not even be particularly clear what the shift was. Smith’s references are also left unexplained (Eric Hobsbawm’s 1978 essay ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted?’ and Kinnock’s 1987 Labour Party Conference speech, during which he asked: ‘What do you say to a docker who earns £400 a week, owns his house, a new car, a microwave and a video, as well as a small place near Marbella? You do not say … let me take you out of your misery, brother’).

Some of King’s interviewees make statements that are inaccurate or exaggerated. One suggests that the frequently employed government tactic of bringing in police from other parts of the country to intimidate the miners isn’t ‘in any records’ – in fact, it’s widely documented. Another says that Arthur Scargill ‘wanted to keep this as a miners’ strike, which was fatal’ – in fact, Scargill was eager for the support of other trade unions, which led to his victory at the Battle of Saltley Gate in the miners’ strike of 1972. One Cymdeithas member involved in supporting the strike told King that Siân James, who later became Labour MP for Swansea East, was ‘a housewife at the time, and the strike galvanised her, and she became another person: she became emancipated by the strike.’

But James tells her own story to King. In 1984, when she started actively supporting the miners, she wasn’t just a ‘housewife’: she was also a longstanding member of the Labour Party and of CND. The idea that the women’s support movement was made up of meek housewives who had never left the kitchen sink was prominent at the time, partly because it was a story told by the women themselves, even those who were seasoned Labour or Communist Party activists. It played well in the national and feminist press, but its persistence as a narrative even now – as in the film Pride (2014) – still distorts the way miners’ wives are seen.

The recollections that make up this book need to be seen as vocalisations of collective memory, rather than statements of fact. This isn’t necessarily a problem: national traditions are built out of collective memory. As the oral historian Alessandro Portelli has said, ‘errors, inventions and myths lead us through and beyond facts to their meanings.’ But someone has to guide us through the thickets of fact, myth and invention to make sense of those meanings. That’s what historians are for, and we need one here.

Listen to Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite discuss this piece with Thomas Jones on the LRB Podcast.

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Vol. 44 No. 8 · 21 April 2022

I was surprised to read Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite’s cheery account of Welsh devolution, in particular her suggestion that a ‘radical’ economic approach has been undertaken by Welsh Labour (LRB, 7 April). This seems at odds with reality. Child poverty has worsened in recent years, so that one in three Welsh children now live in poverty, the highest rate in the UK. Educational attainment remains very low, with less than a third of pupils eligible for free school meals achieving five or more A*-C grades at GCSE. In the year to March 2020, homelessness in Wales was at its highest level since records began, with more than thirty thousand households applying for homelessness assistance. It is strange to see a country undergoing such a sustained period of economic decline celebrated as a beacon of radicalism.

Joe Waters

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