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.

Author: HanesCymru

I teach history at Swansea University.

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