Modern Wales

Rosalind Mitchison

  • Rebirth of a Nation: Wales 1880-1980 by Kenneth O. Morgan
    Oxford, 463 pp, £15.00, March 1981, ISBN 0 19 821736 6

This is Volume VI of the new history of Wales, under the general editorship of Professor Glanmor Williams. It presents general history as general history ought to be – which means that though the main emphasis lies on the changing world of politics, this is related closely to the basic economy and to alterations in the values of the society, particularly in religion, literature and national sentiment. In a truly admirable way it takes on the task of communicating the full range of development in a whole country.

The expansion of the Welsh economy in the 19th century, which was based on a rapid expansion of coal mining, led to a rapid growth of population in the south. Some of the miners in the valleys and the industrial workers in the cities came from rural Wales, others from England. We have accounts of families trekking to Wales to participate in the great exploitation of coal when industry elsewhere was failing to expand. Such families brought more than their labour to Wales: they brought their language, and they, the urbanised Welsh, and the Education Act of 1870, jointly account for the development of a monoglot English-speaking population. This population was a minority, though only just, of the population of Wales in the late 19th century, but in recent censuses has been shown to contain the greater part of the country’s population. These people are the ‘Anglo-Welsh’. They now comprise most of the industrial and urban population, and much of the rural population, too, in particular areas. Dr Morgan sums up the effect of the growth of this section: ‘Every major Welsh political movement in the last hundred years, from Cymru Fydd in the 1890s down to Plaid Cymru in the 1970s, found difficulty in reconciling its industrial and rural wings. Invariably, the Welsh language has appeared to be the main source of division and of the gulf between divergent societies.’ Yet he also argues that before 1914, when the two linguistic groups were fairly evenly matched, welsh politics were harmonious. This was partly because all significant elements united in opposing conservatism and landlordism, focusing especially on hostility to the Established Anglican Church. Until the Church in Wales was disestablished, this token issue provided an immediate political point of application and kept things quiet.

Quietness and the unanimity or near-unani-mity over the church issue allowed a cultural dominance by the chapels which their numerical support did not justify. ‘Nonconformity’, says Dr Morgan, was responsible for ‘almost every significant and worthwhile aspect of social and cultural activity in late 19th-century Wales’, though some of this responsibility took the form of promoting opposition. Even more than the Scots, the Welsh have suffered from the overbearing presence and behaviour of the ‘unco guid’. Demotic Nonconformity dominated Welsh religious life in the 19th century – puritanical, sombre, and in its own way excruciatingly conformist. The only element of variety and exuberance encouraged by this ethos seems to have lain in the architecture it promoted. The chapels acted entirely through the Welsh language, and so made it difficult for their members to profit culturally from developments elsewhere in the United Kingdom. In any case, many of these developments – for instance, theories of evolution or Biblical criticism, artistic or literary experimentation, the expanding opportunities deemed appropriate for women – were strenuously disapproved of by the chapels. Equal disapproval was directed at certain proletarian developments, but these could not be so easily ignored or repressed as the more élitist movements. Rugby and boxing were frowned on by the chapels, but expanded to provide grounds for working-class self-esteem and hero worship. The chapels plugged teetotalism and the closure or banning of public houses. The working-class clubs expanded to provide opportunities for drink and drunkenness, which were particularly satisfactory to national feeling through being unavailable to visitors. From the 1881 passing of the Welsh Sunday Closing Act, only natives could tipple on the Sabbath.

It was inevitable, even without the existence of a language divide, that there would have to be painful adjustments in the 20th century. Wales had been thirled to Liberalism and the Liberals were in political eclipse after 1916. An economy that was based on coal was in for trouble when the coal industry faced the need to cut back drastically after 1920. The Welsh rural scene suffered first from the low prices of primary products inter-war, and then from the depopulation which followed on mechanisation. Radio and later television gave an impulse to English-speaking. Urbanisation forced adjustment away from a culture founded in peasant society. Improved communications and a larger scale of production made it increasingly difficult to keep alive journals or newspapers with a minority interest, and so the great expansion of Welsh culture in the 19th century was in danger of reversal. Some aspects of this culture, though, managed to create particular institutional shells which kept it effective. The Welsh Intermediate Education Act of 1889 did something to counteract the effect of the creation of the elementary school system in 1870 by securing an exceptionally high investment in secondary education. This kept many of the common people in contact with the culture of their intellectual leaders, and also offered a few years of alternative activity to unemployment for much of the young in the disastrous inter-was period. In harness with this came the founding and expansion of the University of Wales, which has had a big hand in the promotion of Welsh history and literature. The eisteddfodau a focus for Welsh poetry as well as for Welsh-speaking backwoodsmen and fancy-dress enthusiasts.

In a sense, the Welsh story, of rediscovery or re-emphasis of nationhood, is a part of the general history of England’s Celtic or semi-Celtic fringe. Ireland, Scotland and Wales were the areas which made possible Liberal governments, but only with Ireland was the sense of nationality one which the Liberal Party had to recognise. Wales and Scotland could be neglected by the party because their citizens predominantly saw their national identity as satisfied or capable of satisfaction within the bounds of British citizenship. The Irish, for the most part, did not. Whereas for Scotland national identity has been emphasised and preserved by formal governmental and legal structures, in Wales these have had to be created and have mostly not been permanent. Welshmen, perhaps because of this lack, have regarded the language as the core of national identity. Welshmen were Welsh because they participated in Welsh language and culture. This was the reverse of the Irish position, where, largely to its damage, the Irish language was fostered by nationalist sentiment, as an assertion of an existing nationalism.

There are several paradoxes in the Welsh situation. Liberalism did very little in the 19th century for either of its voting bases, Scotland and Wales, and it was entirely justifiable for these countries to transfer allegiance to Labour in the 20th century. But it is doubtful whether Labour has been any more successful in putting forward a social and economic policy appropriate to their needs. For many, particularly in Wales, this gap has been supplied from Marxism. In the case of Wales, Labour’s intellectual weakness was to a large degree the fault of the Welsh themselves, as Dr Morgan shows. Wales sent in as Members of Parliament either stalwart trade-union figures, usually silent voting fodder elected as a reward for good service rather than in the hope of ideas or leadership, or leading politicians who has only limited concern for things Welsh. Aneurin Bevan followed Lloyd George’s example in having little time for the Welsh dimension, though the suffering of the mining valleys between the wars was the source of his whole social philosophy. Labour has stood for state intervention in the economy only in centralised terms, and was grudging over regional needs. That is, of course, why Scotlanddestroyed the Labour Government in 1979. The Welsh variety of the 19th-century revival of nationalism has followed a different path from the Scottish because of internal differences, and this is shown in the failure of the devolution issue there. At the same time that Wales has felt an increase in the passion with which its language and literature are held to, those who can experience these directly have become, not just a minority, but a small minority. The 20 percent of Welsh who enjoy two native languages have claimed the right to dictate the typed and degree of Welshness owned by the other 80 per cent. Dr Morgan quotes without apparent dissent the comment of Glyn Jones, a Welsh-speaker who has chosen to write in English, that ‘the only thing English about an Anglo-Welsh writer ought to be his language,’ and repeats the attack by Bobi Jones, a learner of Welsh, on Dylan Thomas for ‘importing and adapting culture from an uninteresting and impoverished England’. In both statements Welsh-speakers are not only claiming what is certainly their right and privilege, to prefer one culture to another: they are also seeking to limit the cultural experience of the Anglo-Welsh. If English culture were so impoverished and uninteresting, it is unlikely that it would have proved so successfully invasive, and there is something puritanical and disagreeably aggressive in the claim of a minority to define the experience and activities of the majority.

But even if the Anglo-Welsh can experience Welsh literary culture only at second hand, it seems to have enriched them, and been a beneficial influence. At least the writings of Caradoc Evans show no signs of the mawkish nastiness displayed by the Kailyard school in Scotland. But Welsh-speaking enthusiasts, like Gaelic-speakers in Scotland, were slow to realise that culture belongs to the scene of work as well as recreation, and, in particular, that the language would survive only if it could be used in teaching. Welsh-medium schools have been a late creation, and it is doubtful even now, with a considerable scholarly input into materials, if they can keep up with modern thought. Still, they have made for close links between the intellectual world of Welsh-speakers and the teachers. The work of professional historians, and the demolition of historical myths, have been accepted more readily in Welsh schools than in Scottish.

The history of modern Wales, its absorption into Britain, and the reactions there have been to the assertions of national identity which this has produced, bring out the general problem of the nature and strength of popular culture today. Those who promoted their own learned culture in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – in the Welsh case, by founding societies and journals, writing dictionaries and poetry – and who pressed for greater opportunities for education, did so in the belief that the culture of middle-class intellectuals would be attractive to the masses. It is difficult to think that present-day facts support this idea, though it is possible that the Welsh choirs are an example of a real linkage between élitist and popular cultures. The transformation of political and social authority has not truly meant the democratisation of intellectual culture because many of the non-intellectuals was none of it. We may still be living through the reaction to the 19th-century pattern of middle-class attempts to impose on those below patterns of recreation which were docile, rational and not self-destructive, to wean them from drink and badger-baiting to Mechanics’ Institutes and public parks. Anyway, so far as any degree of rapprochement between the two cultures must involve frankness and self-criticism by the élite culture, this book is a great step forward. Its monumental scale, candour and seriousness are all conducive to a more united national consciousness in Wales.