The impact of the Second World War on the people of Wales and England up to 1951

Resource for WJEC History A Level Unit 1, Option 4
POLITICS, PEOPLE AND PROGRESS: WALES AND ENGLAND c.1880-1980

Debate the impact that the Second World War had on the people of Wales and England up to 1951

All wars have significant social and economic impacts but this is especially so in the case of the First and Second World Wars. Their impact was very different to previous European conflicts that Britain had been involved in because of their scale, the involvement of the civilian population, and the extended powers and actions of the state. Because the state operated at a British level, many of the war’s impacts did not differ between England and Wales. However, the war did heightened Welsh national consciousness, despite the power of popular and political Britishness. Yet this was actually an existing long-term process and many of the impacts of the war were a quickening of trends already taking place.

Conscription and the Armed Forces

Conscription was introduced for all British men between the ages of 18 and 41 from the outbreak of war. Some men were exempt because they were in ‘reserved occupations’ which were important for the war effort. This was particularly common in the south Wales valleys where the coal industry dominated employment. The scale of mobilisation meant it might be months before some men were actually called up. This added to the sense of the early months of the conflict as a ‘phoney war’, where little was happening.

By the end of the war, some 5 million British men and women were in uniform. Of these, perhaps 300,000 were Welsh, although there was never any attempt to come up with an official number. This in itself was a sign of how the war effort was perceived as a British one.

Only a minority of men in the armed forces actually saw combat. For those who did and survived, the experience could be frightening but it also often created a deep camaraderie and it was sometimes even seen as exhilarating. That camaraderie deepened the sense of loss felt when comrades were killed. Over the course of the war, almost 300,000 British members of the armed forces and merchant navy lost their lives. Estimates of the number of Welshmen killed are around 15,000.

Whatever their experience, service in the armed forces usually left a profound mark on men and women that stayed with them for the rest of their lives. For some it was a proud time when they had contributed to something that changed the world for better. Others, however, were frustrated at the routine, the discipline and the disruption it brought to their lives and plans.

The Home Front

The war affected every aspect of daily life, and not always in negative ways. Wages increased and unemployment virtually disappeared.  But that was small compensation for the hardships and sacrifices everyone endured. Working hours grew longer, entertainments were curtailed, the blackout cast a gloom over the evenings and there were shortages of everything from food and clothes to beer and paper. People’s weariness with these hardships was as much a threat to popular morale as the very real physical dangers of war. 67,635 civilians were killed in air raids on Britain, 984 of whom were in Wales.

One hardship that touched everyone was rationing, although it was stoically accepted by most, no matter how much they grumbled. Wartime diets were limited in quantity and rather plain and tedious. Nonetheless, rationing and price controls meant much of the working class actually saw their diets improve after the interwar years of unemployment and poverty.  The fact that rationing affected everyone also created a sense of shared sacrifice that cut across class lines. However eating at restaurants was not rationed at first, and thus those with money had access to more food, an example of how there was a more complex reality beneath the veneer of national unity.

The combination of everyday austerity, the worry over friends and family serving abroad, and, early in the war, the fear of invasion, meant that small pleasures like a pint, a dance, a film or a kiss became all the more important to people. The cinema, in particular, saw its position as the central pastime of the people enhanced. It also developed a new role as a medium of propaganda. A steady stream of films of varying quality tried to convince viewers of the righteousness of the British cause and the importance of everyone all pulling together in its pursuit. Audiences were not always impressed and there was a general skepticism about anything too overtly propaganda-like. Such things were felt unBritish and more appropriate for the fascist countries being fought.

Women

Propaganda encouraged women to join the war effort in factories, farms and the forces and they were conscripted to do so from 1942. Equally important was their role as mothers, housewives and volunteers, helping with everything from dealing with air raids and evacuees to cooking and cleaning for the troops. Indeed, during the war, there were more women in Britain who were housewives than there were in full-time paid employment.

The biggest demand for female labour came from the new munitions factories. In Wales the largest such factories were in Hirwaun, Glascoed and Bridgend which employed over 60,000 people between them, the majority of whom were women. There was patriotism in the factories and women were sustained by the knowledge they were doing something that contributed to victory. Factory work also paid well and many of the early volunteers were motivated by the desire to earn money. This was especially true for women from the south Wales valleys who had shouldered the burden of running a home during the inter-war years of mass unemployment.

Despite the extra money, the experience of working was not all positive. Leaving home could be traumatic, especially for Welsh-speakers sent to English factories. Munitions work could turn women’s hair and skin yellow. Factory hours were long, the commuting tedious, and the work itself monotonous. Many still had domestic commitments and finding time for shopping became a particular cause of complaint. The ‘land girls’, women sent to work on farms, also often endured a difficult war. Long hours, poor food, hard physical work and the isolation of rural farms were all common complaints.

Men were also not always happy with their women working. Some husbands could no longer expect dinner on the table when they got home.  There was indignity among some miners when they discovered that they were earning less than their wives or daughters. There were also accusations that the children of factory workers were being fed from tins and not disciplined properly.

Coping with the problems of war work was made much easier by the camaraderie that existed in all spheres of employment. Female workers also had money to spend in a climate where the social rules on what women could do were changing. The cinema, the dance hall and even the pub were all important places where women could relax. To cope with the hardships and tragedies of war, many women adopted a philosophy of living for today, spending freely and worrying less about what others thought and what the future held. One result was, at least according to some disapproving voices, a slackening of sexual morals. What was certainly happening was that gender was no longer quite as constraining as it once had been, although the fact that not all approved showed the limits of this shift. Moreover, the post-war aspirations of most women remained overwhelmingly traditional: a nice home, a good husband and healthy children.

National identities

Many of the experiences of everyday life during the war crossed regional, cultural and class barriers in Britain and created a strong shared sense of purpose and experience. Rationing, bombing, conscription, the loss of a son or husband – all these trials and tribulations fell on rich and poor, Welsh and English alike. Money and social position still mattered in civilian life and the armed forces, but the sense of solidarity and mutual-interest across Britain was strong, even if it was not always matched by reality.

Central to the idea of the united British nation was the BBC. Its news service, prime ministerial broadcasts and comedies all attracted huge audiences and were key parts of the shared British wartime experience. However, there were still many, especially in rural Wales, without radios. There were also over 40,000 Welsh people who could not speak English. The BBC did broadcast some twenty minutes a day in Welsh. This helped ease some of the annoyance caused by the BBC broadcasters who sometimes spoke of England’s rather than Britain’s war.

Such rhetoric again illustrates how the idea of British solidarity was often stronger than the reality. It also shows how Welsh identity remained important within a wider Britishness.  Those conscripted into the forces or English factories were often nicknamed ‘Taffy’, heightening their sense of difference to the English. But it also probably showed people that the actual cultural differences between the Welsh and English were relatively minor. In this sense, the armed forces both strengthened and undermined popular Britishness. Something similar happened with class. Increased contact between peoples of different backgrounds simultaneously broke down social barriers and heightened an awareness of them.

Not all the Welsh people saw British and Welsh identities as compatible. There was a small but vocal group of Welsh nationalists who thought the British war effort was destroying Welsh nationhood. They complained about evacuees introducing English manners and the English language into rural Wales. They bemoaned the conscription of Welsh girls into English factories and were horrified at the forced eviction of a Welsh-speaking community in Breconshire after the War Office requisitioned the land. But these were the views of a small minority. During and after the war, Nazism was widely seen as evidence that all nationalism was dangerous.

Looking to the future

The war created a strong desire to build a better world, where everyone had access to a job, healthcare and education, a future where the war’s solidarity and spirit of cooperation continued. The practical consequence of this was a landslide victory for Labour in the 1945 general election. The party promised to deliver a fairer society based on the principles of the 1942 Beveridge report which stressed the role of the state in supporting citizens from cradle to grave. The fact that the report had been commissioned at all was a sign of the wartime coalition government’s awareness of the need and popular desire for change and, although Churchill’s interest in welfare was rather minimal, the Conservatives would also have implemented a programme of social reform had they won.

However the Conservatives had dominated government during the economic problems of the 1930s and they were also blamed by some for the appeasement policies that had allowed Hitler’s expansionism. Their election campaign was lacklustre and concentrated on the leadership of Churchill and the apparent dangers of socialism. In contrast, Labour were forward looking and optimistic, concentrating on how a fairer society could emerge from the sacrifices of war.  This message was extremely popular with the working classes and those who had served in the armed forces but it also won support from some middle-class individuals across Britain who had previously lent towards the Conservatives but now felt a new social obligation and a need for things to change. Their votes were key to the scale of Labour’s victory.

It is important not to exaggerate the extent to which the war had moved the British people to the left. The Conservatives still won 36 percent of the British vote. Many of these voters were middle class and they, like parts of the British press, greeted Labour’s victory with suspicion and nervousness. The war may have boosted the British reputation of the USSR but there remained a fear that socialism would deny people their freedoms and property.

In contrast, much of the working class was already committed to Labour before the war. This was especially true in heavy industrial areas such as the south Wales coalfield where Labour’s representatives had earned reputations for standing up for their communities against the blights of unemployment and government indifference.  In such areas, the 1945 election was merely a continuation of long-standing commitments to Labour rather than any kind of political or social earthquake brought about by the war.

Other parts of Wales were also testimony to the limits of any shift to the left brought about by the war. The Conservatives won a quarter of the Welsh vote in 1945. The tradition of voting Liberal remained strong in Welsh-speaking rural areas demonstrating that the war had not eradicated the conservative chapel culture that the party was rooted in.

Whether or not the war had created a new widespread desire for social and economic change, the new government did try to deliver that. It implemented a generous new welfare state, with universal free healthcare at its heart, that would gradually raise living standards and take away the fear of sickness and unemployment. It also nationalised key industries, sought to revitalise the economies of traditional industrial areas, and put full employment at the centre of its goals. This all became political orthodoxy until the 1970s and was made possible by the new political circumstances delivered by war.

Back home

For six long years had people coped with the daily hardships of war, as well as the constant fear for the safety of their loved ones who were serving abroad. When it all ended and the soldiers, sailors and airmen returned home, often looking tanned and well fed, there was even some resentment that those in the forces did not understand how hard life on the Home Front had been. Many, though not all, women left the workforce, not always of their freewill, as the economy adapted to peacetime and military production came to an end.  In some cases, men struggled to accept the new freedoms and confidence that their wives had gained while they had been away. It was little wonder then that some families did not survive and divorce rates would have been higher still had there not been some stigma around it, especially in Wales where the chapel morality remained powerful.

To make things worse, rationing got stricter before it got better, there was a devastatingly bitter winter in 1947 and the nationalisation of the coal industry did not prevent the closure of small mines or bring any immediate improvement in miners’ day-to-day conditions. Added to this was the fear of another war, this time fought with atomic bombs against the USSR. Thus the optimism that had greeted Labour’s victory in 1945 was quickly tempered by cynicism and a fear that the promises had been too good to be true.

Legacies

The impact of the war on people across England and Wales was significant but varied. There were huge personal costs but also new freedoms and a sense of purpose.  For all the talk of a people’s war where everyone pulled together, there was no gender or class revolution. Nor was Wales’ position in the UK altered in any significant way, despite a growing awareness of the ways Wales was both different and similar to England. The structures of society remained in place and the social reforms of the new Labour government did not change that or even attempt to, despite the new security they offered to the working class. The UK remained deeply unequal, with privilege ingrained in its political and social character.

Yet the lack of any kind of social revolution does not mean the war did not change things. Families saw their makeup and dynamics shift. Personalities and outlooks were altered. Even those who sought to return to pre-war normalities could not simply forget what had happened. This was all a very individualised phenomenon and generalizations about the precise personal impacts of war are impossible.

It was not always apparent to people at the time, but the war’s biggest legacy for Wales and England was  probably the welfare state that emerged out of it. It was certainly far from perfect, and right-wing historians argue it damaged the economy with its expense, but it did take away the worst of the fear and realities of interwar poverty with a security blanket for the most vulnerable and a healthcare system that benefited nearly everyone. The pre-war state may have already begun intervening to improve living conditions and fight unemployment but it was the political and personal disruption of the war that enabled it to act so quickly once the conflict was over.

The Welsh devolution referendum, 1 March 1979

It’s forty years since the 1979 referendum on devolution, one of the defining moments in modern Welsh history. This account is taken from my book Wales since 1939 (2012), where it is preceded by a discussion of earlier calls for devolution. The references have been removed but can be found in the book. 

When devolution became a serious political proposition after 1974, many of the arguments against it focused on its economic impact. Neil Kinnock was one of six Labour MPs in Wales who campaigned against devolution and his arguments centred on a belief that it would harm the interests of his working-class constituents. Kinnock told Parliament in 1976 that the £12 million annual running cost would pay for four hospitals, ten comprehensive schools, ten miles of motorway or two Welsh-language television channels. He argued, ‘We do not need an Assembly to prove our nationality or our pride. This is a matter of hearts and minds, not bricks, committees and bureaucrats.’ He maintained that his opposition came not from being anti-Welsh but ‘fundamentally because we are Welsh’ and want to protect Welsh interests.

But such arguments did not stop the reappearance of the old divisions over what being Welsh actually meant. As the devolution bill passed through Parliament, Kinnock claimed (wrongly) that children in Anglesey were being prevented from going to the toilet unless they asked in Welsh. Leo Abse argued that an Assembly would represent ‘xenophobia and nineteenth century nationalism’. He spoke of ‘a packed gravy train’ steaming out of Cardiff, with the ‘first-class coaches marked “For Welsh speakers only”’.

Others used more mundane arguments. Tom Hooson, the prospective Tory candidate for Brecon and Radnor, announced in the press that an Assembly would not only take power further from the people but lead to more dangerous rural roads in the winter. Aware that defeat was a real possibility, the government chose St David’s Day 1979 for the referendum, which Nicholas Edwards MP (Conservative, Pembroke) suggested was intended ‘to build up an Arms Park atmosphere and to smother fact and argument in a simple appeal to Welsh loyalty’. In response, opponents played on British patriotism. ‘Keep Wales united with Britain’, declared a full-page advert from the ‘no’ campaign in most of the Welsh papers on the day of the vote.

Political and cultural nationalists were uncertain what to do. The Welsh-language press was supportive of the measure but Dafydd Wigley MP (Plaid Cymru, Caernarfon) thought there was a lack of leadership on the issue, claiming ‘At the dawn of one of the most important milestones in Welsh history, the nationalist movement is unsure of itself, is afraid and nervous. It is like a child preparing for an important exam, but refusing to acknowledge its importance in case he fails it.’ Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg decided not to campaign for a ‘yes’ vote, noting the absence of any provision for the use of Welsh in the Assembly. Indeed, Angharad Tomos, one of its prominent members, thought the scheme ‘a Labour conspiracy’ to tame nationalists.  Saunders Lewis did weigh in with a letter to the Western Mail that argued the question was really whether Wales was a nation or not. He pointed out, perceptively as it turned out, that if the answer was ‘no’ a general election would follow and the government would try to tackle inflation. This mattered because ‘In Wales there are coal mines that work at a loss; there are steelworks what are judged superfluous, there are still valleys convenient for submersion. And there will be no Welsh defence.’

Amid all the arguments there appeared to be widespread apathy and some confusion. Once the details of the exact form of devolution being proposed were known, opinion polls never showed support for an Assembly at higher than 34 per cent. Things were perhaps not helped by the fact that, unlike Scotland, Wales was being offered an assembly with no legislative powers. There was no rationale for this differentiation beyond the need to placate the nationalists and the tradition of administrative devolution both being stronger in Scotland. In Abergele the Daily Post found ‘a tidal wave of indifference’. A bricklayer from Ely (Cardiff) told a writer, ‘I don’t know what it’s all about. I’m not really interested. It’ll make no bloody difference to me one way or the other. I hear some of them talking Welsh in the other bar and it means nothing to me. They’re foreigners to me.’  Not a single elector attended one devolution meeting in Merthyr during the campaign. The hostile South Wales Echo noted on the day before the vote: ‘There are many people in Wales who are thoroughly sick of being bombarded with the views and counter-views. After all, it was an issue that the Welsh did not want in the first place.’

Apart from lukewarm support from the Western Mail, which saw devolution as an issue of democracy and accountability rather than cost, language and separation, ‘yes’ campaigners found little support from the press in Wales. The South Wales Echo played the fear card throughout the campaign, with editorials claiming that a majority of people would vote ‘no’ because ‘they are afraid of being hived off from the rest of the country. They are right to be afraid.’ The Daily Post, meanwhile, played on north–south tensions, claiming in its referendum-day editorial that Wales ‘deserves better than this half-baked folly … a pretentious little super council, housed in a Cardiff backwater, trifling endlessly with minor governmental issues and failing to achieve anything of primary importance’.

The most widely read papers, however, were based in London (the Sun and the Daily Mirror alone accounted for over 40 per cent of all English-language newspapers sold in Wales) and they paid scant attention to the vote, thus contributing directly to the confusion and apathy. Television was not much more helpful considering perhaps 35 per cent of people tuned to English rather than Welsh transmitters and both the BBC and ITV refused to broadcast the Welsh devolution programming on those English transmitters.

At the end of a decade when Welsh rugby had suggested a confident, even aggressive national identity, only 11.8 per cent of the electorate voted in favour of the creation of a Welsh Assembly

 Results of the 1 March 1979 referendum on Welsh devolution

  Percentage of electorate voting ‘yes’ (percentage of turnout) Percentage of electorate voting ‘no’ (percentage of turnout)
Clwyd 11.0 (21.6) 40.1 (78.4)
Gwynedd 21.8 (34.4) 41.6 (65.6)
Dyfed 18.1 (28.1) 46.5 (71.9)
Powys 12.2 (18.5) 53.8 (81.5)
West Glamorgan 10.8 (18.7) 46.7 (81.3)
Mid Glamorgan 11.8 (20.2) 46.7 (79.8)
South Glamorgan 7.7 (13.1) 51.0 (86.9)
Gwent 6.7 (12.1) 48.7 (87.9)

‘Yes’ votes: 243,048 (20.3 per cent of turnout; 11.8 per cent of electorate).

‘No’ votes: 956,330 (79.7 per cent of turnout; 46.5 per cent of electorate).

Turnout: 58.3 per cent.

It was an emphatic result or, as John Morris, the secretary of state, put it: ‘When you see an elephant on your doorstep, you know it is there.’

Whereas just under 12 per cent of the electorate actually voted ‘yes’, from 1975 to 1978 opinion polls had consistently showed at least 27 per cent of people said they would vote that way. By the time of the actual referendum, political circumstances had swung firmly against a ‘yes’ vote. Devolution was being proposed by a struggling Labour government that seemed to have lost control of the unions and the country. It came at the end of a ‘winter of discontent’, when strikes seemed to have crippled the nation. In the background were lingering doubts about the quality of Labour politicians likely to dominate an Assembly and continued fears about levels of public spending in an inflation-ridden economy. Moreover, the government seemed unenthusiastic and it had not produced its own campaign literature. One poll a couple of weeks before the vote even suggested that 12 per cent of Plaid Cymru voters were going to vote ‘no’.

Although the result was a comment on the political circumstances of the day, it was also unavoidably about nationality. In an opinion poll the week before the vote, 61 per cent of ‘no’ voters said they were motivated by the Assembly’s cost, 43 per cent by the fear of another level of bureaucracy and 40 per cent by wanting to preserve the union. The ‘no’ campaign’s arguments that devolution would mean the southern English-speaking majority being ruled by a Welsh-speaking clique from the north and that it would ultimately lead to the breakup of the United Kingdom hit home. One writer of a letter to the press feared, ‘It’s another case of jobs for the boys, with higher rates and taxes when England pulls out.’ After the result, a cartoon on the front page of the South Wales Echo showed a lady sitting down with a map of Britain on her wall, saying, ‘There’s lovely – still in one piece’. Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg’s magazine concluded that the referendum had ‘shown clearly that this last decade has not resulted in any loosening of the British knot in Wales’.

Thus, despite the specific political issues of the day, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the 1979 referendum also marked the majority of Wales asserting its satisfaction with remaining within the UK, even among those whose sense of Welshness overrode any feeling of being British. In the 1979 Welsh Election Survey, 59 per cent of respondents said they were Welsh rather than British or English but only 22 per cent of this group voted ‘yes’, while 42 per cent voted ‘no’. Those with a higher involvement in Welsh culture – be it through language, chapel, schooling or using the Welsh media – were most likely to have voted ‘yes’. This explained why the ‘yes’ vote was highest in rural areas but everywhere in Wales, despite, and perhaps because of, the mess that Britain seemed to be in, there was little widespread appetite for leaving it.

 

Welsh history in Welsh schools before the National Curriculum

An extract from Martin Johnes, ‘History and the Making and Remaking of Wales’, History, 100, 343 (2015), 667-84. https://doi.org/10.1111/1468-229X.12141 

Nationalists were prone to blame the education system for the apathy of many Welsh people to their cause.  In their view, education had been a tool of a foreign state, designed to destroy Welsh culture.  They dated this back to the 1847 Blue Books, an education report that claimed that the Welsh language was uncivilized and holding Wales back.  However, such views were not entirely fair given how decentralized education in England and Wales was before the Second World War.  With teachers fairly free to teach what they liked, a patriotic master could easily pass on his or her enthusiasm for Welsh history.

Moreover, there were a number of very popular and very patriotic school texts on Welsh history for them to draw upon. Even in Anglicized Cardiff, the School Board explicitly saw teaching Welsh history as a way of making ‘all the inhabitants of Wales loyal to Wales’.  Dannie Abse, born in 1923, remembered:

At my elementary school in Cardiff I was taught to sing Welsh songs and revere Welsh heroes.  I see myself now, ten years old, sitting at a desk listening to our teacher Mr Williams: ‘The grave of our own Owain Glyndwr, princely Owain, who took up his sword in defence of justice and liberty, is not one visible, boys, but it’s known.  Known. Oh aye, you’ll not find it in any old churchyard, no old tomb of his under the shadow of a yew.  No stone tablet do bear his name. So where is it? I’ll tell you where it is – in the heart and in the noble soul of every true Cymro.

This was a reference to a passage from Owen Rhoscomyl’s Flame Bearers of Welsh History (1905). Rhoscomyl was perhaps the most over the top of writers of such texts but more sober books shared that ability to explicitly draw connections between past and present.  G. P. Ambrose’s The History of Wales (1947), for example, finished by declaring ‘The survival of her national life through the crises of centuries is due to efforts of her best men and women to cherish a worthy heritage. Only by similar efforts will this be preserved in the future.’

Such lessons were not always popular and the existence of patriotic textbooks is no guide to how widely they were used.  One Wrexham man remembered being ‘force-fed’ Welsh history at his grammar school in the late 1940s and early 1950s: ‘it had seemed so impossible to disentangle, so difficult to absorb, what with all those names of squabbling Welsh princes, long-vanished principalities, and odd cantrefs’.   In 1952, the Welsh department of the Ministry of Education issued a report which argued that in secondary schools ‘Too frequently … the history of Wales is relegated to the background, and local history, if it is included at all, is treated cursorily and inadequately.’  It thus called for ‘radical revision’, suggesting:

a knowledge of the history of Wales is the birthright of the children of Wales… the future of the nation – of the community inhabiting the country, both those who speak Welsh and those who do not – depends to no small degree upon the extent to which the children are rooted in their native soil and are made aware of their national heritage.

 Although knowing exactly how history was taught and what influence it had is impossible, it is not unreasonable to suggest that the lack of Welsh history in schools contributed to the weaknesses in Welsh identity at the start of the post-war period.

In response to the 1952 report, and allied to the slow strengthening of Welsh identity in general, the teaching of Welsh history did grow in the 1950s and 60s.  The editorial of the first ever issue of the Welsh History Review noted in 1960 that Welsh history was ‘given considerable attention’ in A Level work in grammar schools. In Flintshire, the Director of Education was very forthright in promoting Welsh history.  He told The Observer in 1959: ‘I don’t see any merit at all in the kings and queens of England.’  But his policy was subject to criticism and he claimed ‘They fear that you are creating in the mind of a child an awareness that there is such a concept as the Welsh nation.’

Thus the teaching of Welsh history remained limited and in 1967 another report on primary education found that teachers often disregarded it in favour of English history. Yet, the hopes that history that could inspire the young remained explicit in the new books being written to support Welsh history.  Children who read a 1960 secondary-schools textbook were told: ‘if Welsh culture is to perish, it will be through the apathy and indifference of her own people.  But the future is big with possibilities provided there is the will to maintain and to further all that is best in Welsh national life.’

Welsh history in schools was also boosted by its growth in universities from the 1960s onwards. This produced a new generation of teachers better able and more likely to go on to teach Welsh history.  The growth was slow and incremental and an Anglo-centric form of British history still dominated.  By the 1980s, Welsh history was still unusual in primary schools, while at secondary level it could be avoided altogether in O Level history.  There was a compulsory Welsh question on the Welsh Joint Education Committee’s British history course, but this was sometimes badly taught and reliant on 1950s textbooks.

Nor had the critics disappeared.  In 1984, one Cardiff teacher complained those against ‘compulsory Welsh History are anti-Welsh, anglicised rascals’.  Criticism was not surprising given that the increasingly vocal supporters of Welsh history in schools consciously saw it as having a utilitarian purpose.  In 1984, the educationalist David Egan wrote, ‘For too long Welsh history in our schools has hidden in the shadows. It is now emerging but somewhat pale from lack of light.  If it finds the place in the sun it deserves, the whole future of Welsh consciousness and nationality is likely to be radically affected.’

That place in the sun was realised with the new national curriculum that was established for all subjects in England and Wales.  Thanks to lobbying from teachers and others, history was the only subject (apart from Welsh) with a separate committee to advise the Welsh Office on curriculum content and its recommendations led to Welsh history becoming a core subject for both primary and secondary children. Although it placed Wales firmly within an international context, the new curriculum was designed to foster a sense of a distinct Welsh past which was connected to the present. They were perhaps pushing at something of an open door because in England too there were intentions to use history to develop a sense of citizenship. Although there was some criticism that it was nostalgic and the medieval conquest of Wales was notable for its absence, unlike in England, this utilization of Welsh history for citizenship was uncontroversial. This in itself was a marker of how far Welsh identity had developed since the Second World War.

The extent to which school history lessons actually foster national identity is not a question for which definitive empirical evidence exists but studies in other parts of Britain do indicate it has an influence.  It is thus not unreasonable to suggest that schools must have had some impact on Welsh national identity, but the new history curriculum in Wales did not meet the aspirations of its foundation.  The preferences of teachers and pupils meant Welsh history was simply never taught as much as the National Curriculum implied it should be.  This was enabled by the fact that the curriculum was never as prescriptive as it first seemed and had intended to be but Welsh history’s weakness was also fed by attitudes in the classroom.  A survey of pupils in the late 1990s suggested that while only a minority actively disliked the idea of studying Welsh history, few seemed enthusiastic about the subject, often perceiving it to be less interesting than ‘mainstream’ history.  The survey also found that schools in Monmouthshire were unenthusiastic about teaching Welsh history because their catchment areas stretched into England and there was little sense of Welsh identity amongst pupils.

England’s Colony? A new BBC series

Press release

BBC WALES TO BROADCAST MAJOR NEW SERIES EXPLORING WALES’ RELATIONSHIP WITH ENGLAND

Presented and written by historian Professor Martin Johnes, Wales: England’s Colony? will challenge some of the most fundamental ideas about Wales’ historical relationship with England and its place in the world.

The two-part series, broadcast on 11 and 18 March at 9pm on BBC Two Wales, is designed to stimulate debate about the past story of Wales, and will also challenge the audience to think afresh about some of the future constitutional choices facing Wales as it leaves the European Union.

Focussing on how Wales’ relationship with England has shaped both the nation’s development and how Wales sees itself, the programmes will tell the story of an uneasy and unequal relationship between two nations living side-by-side. It examines Wales’ story from its creation to the present day, examining key moments such as medieval conquest, industrial exploitation, the Blue Books, the 1919 race riots and the flooding of Cwm Tryweryn.

Johnes argues that the conquest and oppression of the medieval period meant Wales was England’s first colony but that gradually over time the Welsh reconciled themselves to this position and became partners in and beneficiaries of the British Empire. The union of England of Wales was never an equal one but in a democracy Wales has the freedom to choose whether it wishes to remain in the United Kingdom or not.

Professor Martin Johnes says: “History has shaped how we think of Wales but our past is more complicated than we often understand. Part of Wales’ current problem lies in believing that we are, and always have been, victims, powerless to act on our own and to choose our own future.”

The series is part of The Changing Face of Wales season across BBC Wales television, radio and online – looking at what it means to live in Wales and to be Welsh at a time of unprecedented change.

This spring, BBC Wales will launch a series of history podcasts where Professor Martin Johnes will be joined by guests to discuss some key questions in Welsh history such as whether Wales was ever an independent nation, and were the Welsh miners truly radical?

Ends

Issued by BBC Wales Communications

History and the politics of Welshness

History can be very emotive. The destruction of an iconic piece of graffiti has upset many in Wales this week. It has led to assertions that this is the result of an ignorance of Welsh history. Some claim this ignorance is deliberately imposed on Wales. There are calls for Welsh perspectives on the past. There are demands that children learn more about medieval conquests and rebellions, the Tudor annexation of Wales, and the suppression of the Welsh language. The hope is that this will bolster people’s sense of a political Welshness.

While in Wales there are calls for more Welsh history to be taught, in England there are calls for more British history in schools. These are sometimes grounded in patriotism but they are also sometimes rooted in the hope that it will curtail the kind of Britishness that can lead to xenophobia, exceptionalism, and arrogance. The British patriots want more tales about contributions to science, the defeat of fascism, and the benefits of imperialism. Their critics on the left want more appreciation of the evils of imperialism, the role of immigration in building British society, and the long roots of European connections.

What this debate should remind us in Wales of is that history is complicated and can be interpreted in multiple ways. It should remind us that there is no single Welsh point of view that can replace the British perspective that is so often disliked. The refusal of the local council to oppose the flooding of Cwm Tryweryn is a reminder of how divided Wales can be.  Just as Wales was not united in its opposition to Tryweryn, nor was it united in supporting Glyndŵr’s rebellion or in its desire to preserve the Welsh language. Indeed, there have been times when the British state was more progressive in its attitudes to Welsh than large chunks of the Welsh people.

That is partly because some of the people running the state were Welsh. British history is Welsh history too. The tragedies and achievements of the First and Second World Wars, the building of a global empire on the back of the exploitation of others, the beliefs in racial and gender hierarchies, and the legal and cultural advances towards equality are all parts of Wales’ history. Yet people who studied some of these things at school still say they were taught no Welsh history.

History will always be political. It will always be used and abused. But the task for the historian is to try to challenge that, to raise, as another historian put it, awkward truths. And most of those awkward truths are also far from simple. Churchill was both a racist and a good war leader. The Welsh have been both oppressed and oppressed others. Glyndŵr was both a rebel that did significant damage to his own people and a freedom fighter who helped his nation survive. Tryweryn was both a national injustice and typical of the way English and Welsh people were treated when their homes stood in the way of a reservoir, a road or a slum clearance.

We should teach more Welsh history, not because it will boost Welsh patriotism, but because it will help us understand who we are. It won’t give us simple answers but it will tell us why we should be asking the question. This may well end up boosting a sense of political Welshness but that should not be the primary purpose of teaching Welsh history.

On dissertation supervision

Today, I met my current crop of undergraduate dissertation students to discuss their projects and what they have been up to over the summer.

This year’s topics are fairly varied and include popular reactions to the 1947 Royal Wedding, the British state’s attitude to Welsh nationalism during the Second World War, the history of recording studios and the logistics of Operation Market Garden. I might have nudged some of the students in certain directions but they are their projects.

Dissertation supervision is labour intensive but it’s my favourite part of teaching. It’s great seeing and hearing students’ enthusiasm for a topic grow, their excitement at what they find, and even how it can lead different generations of a family to share memories and experiences.

As a supervisor, you learn not only from a student’s findings but also from their techniques, mistakes and problem solving. As the deadline approaches, you feel their stress.  At their final-year vivas, you feel proud of them. If they don’t do well, you feel partly responsible. The students might not always realise it but it’s a shared journey.

When so much of university life can involve working to prescriptions and formulas, the dissertation is a rare moment of creativity and freedom that teaches students about themselves, research, time management, planning, communication, and, of course, the past. You just can’t capture that in a league table or a Teaching Evaluation Framework.

 

The Welsh independence campaign

logo-yescymruTonight I went to a public talk by the chair of Yes Cymru, the grassroots movement for Welsh independence. Personally, I’m sympathetic but undecided on the issue and these are some brief reflections on the challenges the campaign faces.

For me, Welsh independence has certainly become more visible since Brexit but, in an age of social media echo chambers, it’s difficult to know how representative this is.  I follow a lot of Welsh politicians and academics on Twitter so I see stuff about Welsh independence all the time. However, I have never once heard anyone in my social life bring the issue up. Tonight’s meeting seemed to be mostly converts or people sympathetic.

The challenge is reaching a wider audience. Social media, memes and the like can only go so far. Social media may have helped Corbyn but he lost the general election. It may have helped the Scottish independence campaign but that lost too. It may have helped Brexit but the strongest leave vote came amongst older voters, those who use social media the least. It’s easy to forget that the Leave vote was the culmination of a long and fragmented campaign, which in many ways spent more time convincing politicians than voters. Grassroots alone is not enough.

The Brexit campaign also won because it had a simple, emotional message: take back control. It was simple enough that it could mean anything people wanted it to. It was interpreted as sovereignty, immigration or cash, and probably other things too. With the exception of £350m for the NHS, the Leavers certainly never defined too closely what it meant. They were, in effect, promising everything and nothing. They played on people’s emotions, hopes and fears.

Tonight’s speaker was at his most effective in the Q&A when he spoke from the heart about how he genuinely believed independence would make Wales a better place. He was emotive and clearly believed this. This made him convincing; no one could possibly doubt his sincerity. The Yes Cymru case will be at its strongest when it moves away from specifics and appeals to the  emotional patriotism of the people of Wales. It needs to speak from the heart more.

The campaign does have a message. Wales is the poorest part of the UK; we are governed by a remote London government and by a Cardiff government hamstrung by the lack of power it is given. This bit is factual but it only gets you so far. The emotional part of the Yes Cymru message is that we could do better if we took control of our lives, our communities, and our nation. That’s the bit that can convince doubters. That’s what the Brexiteers played on.

Yet Brexit is now a dog’s dinner because behind its emotional rhetoric of taking back control was nothing of any substance. You might win the battle with emotion but you don’t win the war. (And Brexit will ultimately fail. We may leave the EU in the short term but the next generation will take us back.)

Yes Cymru have to learn from that dog’s dinner. There has to be some substance and some plan. You can only get so far saying the campaign is non-political and it’s for parties to work out what independence would mean in practice. To be fair, there was some detail and the potential of independence to rethink how the economy and our society function is persuasive. And there’s nothing wrong with admitting there are risks and it won’t be easy.

The key lesson of Brexit is that breaking up a political and economic union is not easy. Quickly unravelling forty-odd years of union without destroying the economy is proving impossible. Doing the same to a union of 500-odd years will be even more so.

If independence is to happen without huge economic turmoil, it will have to be a gradual process rather than event. It might even take decades. Indeed, no nation is entirely independent in a world where trade, the environment, human rights and so forth are internationally regulated. Making claims of independence giving Wales the freedom to do anything is misleading.

The break up of the UK is probably coming but if it is not to be an economic catastrophe then those seeking it in Wales and Scotland have to accept that the hashtags calling for the immediate dissolution of the union are just as misguided as the Leavers who promised Brexit would be easy. A federal UK should be the next step they are aiming for.  That doesn’t mean abandoning an independence campaign. It doesn’t mean not pulling on the heart strings of patriotism. But it does give people time to work out the practicalities and to avoid the backlash heading the way of Farage, Boris and co, when the electorate realise they were sold a lie.

Of course, for some leaving the EU at any cost is important. Similarly, for some, a poorer independent Wales would be better than what we have now. But for me, and I suspect the majority of the people of Wales, independence is only worth seeking if it will improve our society and our lives. This is not a given. As the UK will soon find out, if you don’t work out the details first, significant constitutional change can make things far worse rather than far better.

 

 

 

 

 

Devolution in retrospect

Extract from Martin Johnes, Wales since 1939 (Manchester University Press, 2012).

An extract from the ending of my book, written in early 2011. It’s a bit optimistic in terms of whether arguments over what Wales is have really disappeared but in today’s social media world small things are amplified giving a false impression of their frequency and significance. The basic argument still holds good I think. Devolution is a product and signal of a change in Welsh identity.

In such an outward-looking context, the National Assembly for Wales (NAW) was always going to struggle to engage and involve the Welsh people, a majority of whom chose to not even vote in its elections.  Much of Welsh politics thus resembled a private game, carried on in corridors and on websites inhabited and read by a few, overlooked even by the mass of Wales’ own media.  Post-devolution, most people’s lives in Wales simply carried on much as before.  The NAW existed on the peripheries of their vision, coming into focus only at certain times, such as when their son or daughter went off to university or when an election leaflet dropped through their letterbox, although even then it might go straight in the bin.

Before the advent of devolution, Ron Davies, its key architect, had argued that it would ‘only succeed if it can deliver a better quality of life and higher standards of living’. He was wrong.  For all the limited impacts of its policies and the general apathy that surrounded its workings, with astonishing speed devolution became an accepted part of Wales and a symbol of Welsh nationhood, one that stepped into void left by the disappearance of older symbols like coal and religion.

Moreover, the popular legitimacy that the NAW gained was remarkable when set in the context of post-war history.  Gone were the old arguments over what Wales meant or whether the language mattered or even whether Wales could enjoy a modicum of self-government and still survive.  Some of this may have been at the expense of Wales’s cultural uniqueness but it was to the benefit of Wales’s nationhood and more of the Welsh people felt Welsher than ever before.

But that did not mean the nation meant the same thing to everyone.  It was still a very personalized identity, based on individual experiences and outlooks, but it was much easier to feel part of a nation that was not too closely defined or indeed defined at all.  The Welsh nation was still part of a wider British and global civic and cultural space, but it was a nation in its own right too.

In the twenty-first century that might seem a rather odd thing to say but set against the previous seventy years of history Wales’s survival could not always be taken for granted.  Moreover, Wales now had a political function and a political meaning as the creation of the NAW gave everyone in Wales a democratic citizenship.  They might not have noticed or have even cared but it happened all the same.