Tue. Jun 18th, 2019

Why Wales Never Was – a review

As a teenager I was strongly influenced by the late, great Professor Gwyn Alf Williams; initially as a result of his contribution to “The Dragon has Two Tongues,” the iconic HTV history programme from 1985 which he co-presented with Wynford Vaughan-Thomas, and then even more so through the book he wrote to accompany the series: entitled “When Was Wales?” I’ve never shared his politics, but oh, for an ounce of his passion! Even so, he didn’t give a satisfactory answer to his own question, and ended his book as bleakly as only a Marxist writing at the peak of Mrs. Thatcher’s popularity could.

Wynford Vaughan Thomas and Gwyn Alf Williams, two equally distinguished but very different Welshmen

John Davies, writing his monumental History of Wales five years later, quoted Williams and concluded his work with “this book is written in the faith and confidence that the nation in its fullness is yet to be”.

It’s a little surprising, then, then it has taken 25 years for anyone seriously to address the question “well, why not?”, and to his great credit Simon Brooks has grasped the nettle and done exactly that.

Brooks’s work, first published in 2015, is available in English as “Why Wales Never Was” and in Welsh as “Pam Na Fu Cymru.” This review is based on the Welsh version, but I assume the English text comes to the same conclusions.

A question that should have been asked sooner

Ljubljana, capital of Slovenia; a sleepy backwater in Austria-Hungary at a time when Wales was one of the richest parts of the British Empire

In sharp contrast to Williams’s book or even Davies’s, this is not a page-turning popular history book but (despite its modest length of 195 pages) an academic tome, thick with references to 18th and 19th Century German philosophers – such as Johann Gottfried von Herder – whom I had not previously encountered. But the German-speaking dimension is very relevant, since his main area of interest is to compare and contrast 19th Century Wales with central and eastern Europe during the same period. Why, he asks, were previously-downtrodden nations such as the Czechs, Slovaks, Slovenes, Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians able to build strong national and linguistic movements in the 19th Century?  How did they go on to achieve independence in the 20th Century and astonishing prosperity in the 21st, whilst Wales failed to do any of this despite everything having been apparently in its favour?

The Culprit

Brooks’s answer, in a nutshell, is Liberalism; 19th Century Wales swallowed hook, line and sinker a political philosophy which placed individual freedom and opportunity far above any sort of national and community cohesion. This left little place for any concept of a distinctive national identity. Far from being downtrodden, every Welshman was offered the full privileges of being a citizen of the British Empire with all the opportunities that entailed – if only he would forget his allegiance to Wales and become to all intents and purposes a good Englishman. Very, very many chose to do just that. Whereas in the east of Europe there were no such privileges on offer and people saw their path to emancipation corporately, as communities and nations, in Wales the ambitious youngster had every incentive to put Wales behind him and become a citizen of the world, or at least of the Empire.

Meanwhile, those who sought to consign the Welsh language to history genuinely thought that, far from oppressing the Welsh, they were liberating them by bestowing upon them all the privileges of becoming an Englishman. All too many of the Welsh agreed wholeheartedly with them.

An unexpected twist

Simon Brooks, currently an Associate Professor at Swansea Business School

In an era when in academia, politics and the media we are used to hearing Welsh life critiqued from the Left, having set out his stall Brooks then throws a curveball by establishing his position firmly on the Right. He rightly draws attention to the often-neglected patriots whose affiliation has been with the Conservative party, such as the circle around Lady Charlotte Guest in Llanofer, John Arthur Price (a close associate of Emrys ap Iwan), and even the founder of Plaid Cymru, Saunders Lewis. He could have added Lewis’s co-founder, Ambrose Bebb (whose grandson now sits as the Conservative MP for Aberconwy) and Capt. Richard Williams, to whom R. Williams Parry dedicated an englyn and added the comment “he is a warm-hearted Welshman, and a member of the Church of England; a member of the Church of England and the Urdd. A member of the Urdd and an army officer. An army officer and a passionate Welshman. Fearfully and wonderfully made.”

Brooks sees a smooth continuity between the Liberal Party of the 19th Century and the Labour Party of the 20th, excoriating the latter by pointing out that “by the end of the 20th Century, the Labour Party had been more responsible for undermining the Welsh people’s national and language rights than any other institution in the whole of Welsh history.”

Unsurprisingly, he views the current alignment of Plaid Cymru with the political Left, which was at its most explicit under Leanne Wood at the time he was writing, as a historic mistake which will render Plaid Cymru unable to deliver real progress for Wales – any more than Labour ever has. He argues that Liberalism, in any form, will never be able to safeguard the rights of any minority that wishes to retain a degree of distinctiveness, since all its instincts are towards imposing a uniformity of thought and attitude – which inevitably ends up reflecting the thoughts and attitudes of those who already have power.

A response

What is one to make of all this? Brooks is surely right about his main point. Liberalism, in the form of the 19th Century Liberal Party, the 20th Century Labour Party or the 21st Century ‘equality and diversity’ movement, offers a Grand Bargain: “lay aside everything that makes you distinctive, join us (the Empire/the Workers’ Struggle/the bien pensants/the Woke) and we’ll see you right”. You don’t have to spend long looking around Wales today to see how that promise has been delivered so far: despite having suffered two centuries of dilution of our own culture, traditions and values, we are far poorer relative to the rest of the UK than we have ever been.

Yet it’s important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Economic liberalism – free markets, low trade barriers, the rule of law – remains the most powerful engine of wealth creation, and elimination of inequality, that the world has ever seen. It has lifted billions out of grinding poverty within our own lifetimes. It’s social liberalism, with its tendency to impose uniformity even while it claims to celebrate diversity, that does the damage.

I think that part of the problem is that it fails to put a proper economic value on distinctiveness, and how important it is for people to be true to themselves and their heritage rather than being beaten down to a dull uniformity. I don’t know anyone who has articulated this better than C.S. Lewis.

C. S. Lewis, author of the Narnia books and much else besides.

Lewis is often thought of as a quintessential Englishman, what with his distinguished Oxbridge career and assured place in the canon of 20th Century English literature, but in fact he was a proud Ulsterman with Welsh roots – he was brought up in Belfast, where his grandfather lived a stone’s throw from the Harland and Wolff shipyard in a house named “Tŷ Isa”; I visited there last summer. In his 1960 philosophical treatise “The Four Loves”, he has this to say about love of country:

“Note that at its largest this is, for us, a love of England, Wales, Scotland, or Ulster. Only foreigners and politicians talk about “Britain”. With this love for the place there goes a love for the way of life; for beer and tea and open fires, trains with compartments in them and an unarmed police force and all the rest of it; for the local dialect and (a shade less) for our native language. As Chesterton says, a man’s reasons for not wanting his country to be ruled by foreigners are very like his reasons for not wanting his house to be burned down; because he “could not even begin” to enumerate all the things he would miss.

“Of course patriotism of this kind is not in the least aggressive. It asks only to be let alone. It becomes militant only to protect what it loves. In any mind which has a pennyworth of imagination it produces a good attitude towards foreigners. How can I love my home without coming to realise that other men, no less rightly, love theirs? Once you have realised that the Frenchmen like café complet just as we like bacon and eggs–why, good luck to them and let them have it. The last thing we want is to make everywhere else just like our own home. It would not be home unless it were different.”

Where Liberalism fails is that it sets no value on “all the things he would miss.”

Making a market

Towards the end of his book, Brooks makes this very perceptive point: “The Welsh language as a right for individuals creates a market, and is encouraged; the Welsh language as a right for communities hinders the market, and is not tolerated”. That hits the nail on the head, but the problem is not that there’s a market per se but that the market is not working properly: the value that everyone derives from living in their own community, and that they lose when that community is taken from them, is not being priced in.

The political challenge is to redress that deficiency, something which cannot be done (as far as I can see) in a situation where all the levers of the market are controlled, not by communities, but by ideologies that originate far away and are relentlessly foisted upon us by every level from the United Nations downwards. For this to happen, Welsh citizens need to understand the extent to which first the Liberals and then the Labour party have sold us a pup; we need decisively to reject being part of a UK-wide or even EU-wide continuum and assert our national distinctiveness. As C.S. Lewis so eloquently put it, far from making us aggressive nativists it will make us what we ought to have been for centuries by now: a nation which is comfortable in its own skin, at ease with itself and its neighbours, and showing as clearly as the Czechs or Estonians do that there is no conflict between being successful and being ourselves.

4 thoughts on “Why Wales Never Was – a review

  1. Hi,

    Thanks for a thought provoking review – I’ll get a hold of a copy of this book and read it myself.

    I liked the thrust of your argument, but just wanted to point out that your example at the end contradicts your earlier points. You mention that Wales should reject being part of a UK wide and EU-wide continuum.

    But your examples of oppressed countries that have decisively thrown off the shackles of an imperial past are the Czech republic and Estonia – Two countries that threw off communism and jumped (relatively) straight in to membership of the EU. How much of their current prosperity is from membership of the EU? And dont these examples teach us that it is not membership of a club thats important, but WHICH club. All countries belong to something bigger than themselves – even the current world empire, America, belongs to NATO and Nafta2.0

    We are being pulled out of the UK based on English exceptionalism – and our close neighbours hankering after empire and their past. Surely now is the time to once again make the case for an independent Wales as part of the EU – a club that has never insisted on cultural uniformity, like the british and american empires have done in the past.

  2. Thank you for your comment, elf.

    You’re right that all the examples I cite are small countries now in the EU; I chose those because they’re the ones that Brooks mentions in his book. I could have found other examples outside the EU, such as Norway (which didn’t become independent from Sweden till the early 20th Century) or Singapore (which became independent from Malaysia in the 1960s).

    I’ve blogged elsewhere about the role of the EU in promoting the economic growth of former Eastern Bloc countries. See here: https://nation.cymru/opinion/wales-poland/. My main point there is that the EU’s main contribution was to provide a ready-made set of institutions and to guarantee stability and the rule of law: one of the key foundational elements of Economic Liberalism. This was very helpful in the case of countries which communism had stripped of any such institutions of their own, but I don’t see that as being so relevant for countries such as Wales.

    More to the point, whereas the EU has certainly embraced new independent countries from the former Communist bloc, it has proved itself extremely antagonistic to the aspirations of small countries seeking independence from existing EU member states. It set itself firmly against independence for Scotland, and its disgraceful treatment of Catalonia (or at least, it’s support of the Spanish state as it has done things that ought to be considered unacceptable in any modern democracy) proves that an independently-minded Wales would look in vain for any support from the EU. My own view is that independence for Wales will be much easier to obtain from a UK outside the EU than inside it. Whether we’d then choose to rejoin the EU is a completely separate question, though I personally think it unlikely to be attractive.

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