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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Tonight 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.
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.
On 18 September 1997, the Welsh electorate narrowly voted ‘Yes’ on the question: “Do you agree that there should be a Welsh Assembly as proposed by the Government?” The turnout was 50.1%. The Yes majority was 6,721.
At the time, I was a student in Cardiff and very excited by the prospect of devolution. It was a chance to recognise Welsh nationality and form a different kind of democracy after 18 years of Conservative government. Like the election of Tony Blair earlier in the year, it seemed to offer a new beginning and I took the opportunity to speak to as many people as possible about it.
My overriding memory of the time, however, is the indifference of most people I knew. Some were clearly in the Yes camp, especially if they spoke Welsh and/or supported Plaid Cymru. My friends who had voted Labour a few months before were far less enthusiastic. Indeed, many of those who were English seemed to regard the issue as nothing really to do with them. Some actually stated it should be a decision for those who were Welsh rather than living in Wales.
Even amongst those who were Welsh, there was sometimes a sense that somehow this was a vote on whether Wales’s future should be in the UK. One friend from a Valleys town was distrustful of my arguments because she said I was too “into the Welsh thing”. Others seemed to feel it was too soon after the election of a new government to make such a decision. The Tories had been in power nearly all our lives and some people seemed to want to see how government by New Labour would pan out first. Few such people probably voted ‘No’ but not many voted ‘Yes’ either.
There may have been little enthusiasm but there was also little active hostility. Only one person told me he was voting No because he wanted less government, not more.
Looking back, I can’t remember why I did not get involved in the Yes campaign. Perhaps I did not know how at a time when the internet was in its infancy. I did get a Yes poster from somewhere and put it up in the window. It was the only poster on our street.
Despite my numerous conversations, it never occurred to me that the Yes campaign might not win. Just as during the EU referendum, I was assuming that common sense would win out, despite the conversations I was having with people who thought otherwise. As results night progressed, and it looked like No would win, I got depressed, as much with my own misreading of the situation as with the situation itself.
When Carmarthen, the last county to declare, swung the result, I was ecstatic. I felt I should go onto the streets to celebrate this momentous occasion of national importance. But I knew no one else would be there. I did open the door but it was raining.
Instead, I watched television pictures of a party somewhere. In the background, I noticed the woman who lived next door. I had never spoken to her and felt a moment of guilt about the lack of community on our street. I wondered why she had not put up a poster in her window.
The next day, no one seemed that excited. A friend who I had persuaded to vote Yes told me she had meant to but the rain had deterred her. I’d like to think the margin would have been better had the sun been out but that would another delusion. 1997 changed Wales forever but it did so on the back of little widespread enthusiasm.
It is unimaginable that people could look on at a game of football and forget themselves in the ecstasy of a winning goal at the moment when their comrades, maybe brothers, are making gallant and stupendous efforts at the front, even sacrificing their lives for the life of the nation.
Letter to South Wales Daily News, 3 September 1914
In August 1914, war broke out in Europe, driving Britain into a patriotic frenzy. WVery quickly, all rugby matches in England and Wales were suspended to help the nation to concentrate on the push for victory. There was no similar official suspension in junior and amateur soccer but, with so many players joining up, many competitions were abandoned anyway. By December 1914, 1,217 players affiliated to the South Wales and Monmouthshire FA had enlisted and nearly a hundred clubs had disbanded. At the end of the season, there were just seventy affiliated clubs still active, 325 fewer than the previous year
The press looked to professional soccer’s authorities to follow rugby’s moral lead but, fearing financial losses and expecting it all to be over by Christmas, the FA and Football League decided to play on. The FAW followed suit with its president claiming that to interfere with football would be nothing short of ‘panic legislation’. He argued that soccer fulfilled a large place in the organized life of the nation and that its discontinuation would only produce undesirable results. Although many professional players had already enlisted, and some of the smaller professional teams disbanded, those clubs that did play on faced a battle of their own.
The government and the War Office may have supported the continuation of professional soccer but elements of the public and press saw things rather differently. The first two months of war saw letters and editorials in south Wales and national newspapers denouncing the playing of soccer during a time of crisis. It was felt that since footballers were fit young men looked up to by much of the public, they should be setting an example by enlisting. Some critics believed that playing and watching the game were not necessarily wrong if the players and spectators were too young or too old to enlist. They accepted that sport had a role in relieving public tension and anxiety. However, the more extreme antagonists felt that the whole concept of spectatorism was wrong in a time of war and the sight of thousands of young and able men enjoying themselves at matches during wartime sickened them.
Celebrating rugby’s war contribution: Sporting News (Swansea), 5 September 1914.
Celebrating rugby’s war contribution: Sporting News (Swansea), 19 September 1914.
The south Wales press printed lists and pictures of famous, and not so famous, rugby players who had joined up, thus indirectly criticising professional soccer. The decision of Swansea Town’s directors to contest the military’s decision to requisition the Vetch Field was subtly criticised after one member of the board suggested that the War Office could have the ground if it took over the club’s liabilities. The implication that the club and the game were putting their own finances before the nation’s needs was made clear by the press article then moving on to look at new recruits from the town’s rugby fraternity.
In an effort to make a stand against the continuation of soccer, the South Wales Argus announced that it would not report any football news for the duration of the war. The South Wales Daily News also chose not to print match reports in the first few weeks of the 1914-15 season but, as attendances showed that the public were still interested in professional soccer, the paper slowly increased the coverage it gave to the game.
Other papers also reversed their stance and made it clear that sport was acceptable during the war.
Sporting News reports on Swansea Town v Blackburn Rovers in the FA Cup, 9 Jan. 1915
Despite the allegations that professional soccer was unpatriotic, the game was helping the war effort. Grounds were made available to the military for drill or training at any time other than Saturday afternoons, most clubs gave their players rifle practice, and some even paid them in advance for the 1914-15 season to allow them to enlist. On occasion, soldiers were let into matches half-price in an effort to show that the game was doing its bit, while spectators regularly found themselves the target of enlistment campaigns. The 7,000 spectators at a Welsh League match between Swansea Town and Llanelly in 1914, a third of whom were eligible for service according to a self-righteous reporter, were addressed by six different speakers, including the mayor and club chairman, on the virtues of enlistment.
The immediate impact of such appeals was limited in south Wales. The Times used the fact that only six recruits came forward after appeals at a Cardiff City match as an example of the selfishness of the game and its followers. However, as the club pointed out, hundreds of its supporters had enlisted, while the majority of the rest were involved in the coal and rail industries, integral parts of the war effort.
Nationally, soccer gave the state easy access to large numbers of potential recruits from working-class communities and thus became an important vehicle in the recruitment campaign. The wartime hostility towards soccer in England was not widespread and actually represented the resentment of exponents of amateurism at the usurpation of the game by professionalism and the working classes.
In south Wales, antipathy towards soccer was even less common and given disproportionately large publicity by a patriotic press.
Restrictions on rail travel and a ban on mid-week games played havoc with fixture lists and soccer found it harder and harder, in both financial and practical terms, to continue. In November 1914, the FA estimated that, on average, attendances had fallen by approximately fifty per cent. Cardiff City’s average in the Southern League dropped from approximately 11,700 to around 9,300. Other clubs, like Mardy AFC of the Southern League, already operating on tight budgets, suffered critical declines in their gates and closed before 1914 was out. The soccer authorities’ restrictions on players’ wages caused further tensions within clubs. Cardiff City players threatened to go on strike in 1915 over the issue of their benefits.
By the end of the 1914-15 season, it was clear that the war was going to be a long affair and the FA decided to suspend league and cup programmes. Falling attendances and practical problems had achieved what the anti-soccer agitators could not. A new makeshift league involving Cardiff City, Newport County and teams from south-west England lasted just a season because of low gates and rail restrictions. Cardiff City’s average attendance during the season was a meagre 1,700.
Sporting News, 24 July 1915
1916 saw the introduction of conscription and the call up of most of the eligible professional players who had not enlisted voluntarily. Junior leagues did continue throughout the war, offering light relief from the hardships of the home and overseas fronts, but professional clubs spent the rest of the war playing the occasional friendly with teams of amateurs and guest professionals. Without the regular income of popular matches, the expense of paying rent and ground maintenance proved difficult. Cardiff City, Merthyr Town and Swansea Town survived the war but few other clubs were so fortunate. Yet the real loss was the 35,000 to 40,000 Welshmen killed in the war, among them a host of amateur, professional and international players.
For those who returned, the war was a watershed in their personal lives. Fred Keenor of Cardiff City served alongside other professional players in the 17th Middlesex (Footballers’) Battalion and a leg wound threatened to end his footballing career before it had really started. In later years, he mostly refused to speak of his experiences on the Western Front. As his son put it, ‘Dad blotted it out. He had lost too many friends. He often said that he was one of the lucky ones who came back’. On being demobbed, the ‘land fit for heroes’ was no more immediately apparent to Keenor than it was to most other returning soldiers. He found work in a gasworks and on a milk round before rejoining Cardiff City when professional football resumed in 1919 amidst much excitement.
Martin Johnes and Iain McLean
On Friday, 21 October 1966 a coal tip slid down a mountainside into the mining village of Aberfan in the South Wales valleys. The slide engulfed a farm, around twenty houses and part of the local junior school before coming to rest. The disaster claimed the lives of 144 people, 116 of whom were school children. The horror felt around the world was made all the more poignant as news emerged of previous slides and brushed aside warnings. Such was the widespread sympathy that was felt that a fund set up to help the village raised £1,750,000.
A terrifying tale of bungling ineptitude
In the days after the disaster, Lord Robens, chairman of the National Coal Board (NCB), attributed the tragedy to ‘natural unknown springs’ beneath the tip. This was known by all the local people to be incorrect. The NCB had been tipping on top of springs that are shown on maps of the neighbourhood and in which village schoolboys had played. The government immediately appointed a Tribunal of Inquiry. Its report was unsparing:
Blame for the disaster rests upon the National Coal Board … The legal liability of the National Coal Board to pay compensation for the personal injuries (fatal or otherwise) and damage to property is incontestable and uncontested.
These dry conclusions belie the passion of the preceding text. The Tribunal was appalled by the behaviour of the NCB and some of its employees, both before and after the disaster:
the Aberfan disaster is a terrifying tale of bungling ineptitude by many men charged with tasks for which they were totally unfitted, of failure to heed clear warnings, and of total lack of direction from above
Colliery engineers at all levels concentrated only on conditions underground. In one of its most memorable phrases, the Report described them as ‘like moles being asked about the habits of birds’.
The Tribunal endorsed the comment of Desmond Ackner QC, counsel for the Aberfan Parents’ and Residents’ Association, that coal board witnesses had tried to give the impression that ‘the Board had no more blameworthy connection with this disaster than, say, the Gas Board’. It devoted a section of its report to ‘the attitude’ of the NCB and of Robens and forthrightly condemned both.
In the face of the report, it now seems surprising that nobody was prosecuted, dismissed, or demoted or even said sorry.
It is also surprising that Robens’ offer to resign as NCB chairman, which even at the time was seen as perfunctory, was rejected. Public records released under the thirty year rule, show that he had advance sight of the tribunal report and his private office ran a media campaign to keep himself in place. Through very public attacks on government fuel policy, he was able to portray himself as a defender of the industry and win the support of the unions. This was not a new line for him to take but Robens was a great PR manipulator and he knew that he was securing his position. Ministers let him stay, despite disliking him, because they thought he was the only man who could manage the decline of the coal industry and avoid strike action. In effect, Robens’ behaviour after Aberfan became irrelevant to whether he kept his job or not. Rather, political expediency was the name of the game.
Nobody suggested that Robens himself was to blame for the disaster but he was the head of the organisation that clearly was. The extent of mismanagement revealed by the Tribunal was such that the question of prosecution arose in Aberfan and the media. However the NCB itself avoided prosecution because the concept of corporate manslaughter was very much on the fringes of legal procedures. Mining was a dangerous industry where accidents were normalised as an almost inevitable part of operations. This is not to say that they were taken lightly but rather that they were seen as just that, accidents.
Accidents might be the product of individuals’ errors maybe but the idea that those errors could be fostered by a wider corporate culture that amounted to criminal negligence was simply not part of the contemporary agenda. When the question of manslaughter charges was raised it was with regard to individual employees not the NCB itself. Concepts of corporate responsibility, in and outside the coal industry, were essentially under developed. Thus, despite the evidence to the contrary, the Aberfan disaster did nothing to challenge the picture of disasters as tragic accidents rather than criminal negligence.
A catalogue of self-serving episodes
Other events that now seem surprising followed Aberfan. In August 1968, the government forced the trustees of the disaster fund to contribute £150,000 to the cost of removing the remaining NCB tips from above the village. These tips were in a place and condition in which, according to the NCB’s own technical literature, they should never have been. Yet the board refused to pay and even undermined the efforts of a rival firm offering to remove the tips for less money that the NCB thought it would cost.
The contribution was bitterly controversial. Some people wrote to ministers to complain that it was inconsistent with the charitable objectives of the fund; ministers’ replies did not address the point. The Charity Commission failed to intervene or even query the debatable point on whether such a contribution was legal. In contrast, it asked the disaster fund to ensure that parents were ‘close’ to their children before making any payment to them for mental suffering.
The villagers of Aberfan were traumatised beyond the comprehension of outsiders who could see only their ‘unpredictable emotions and reactions’. The trustees of Bethania chapel, which was used as the mortuary after the disaster, pleaded with George Thomas, the Secretary of State for Wales, to get the NCB to pay for it to be demolished and rebuilt, on the grounds that its members could not longer bear to worship there. Thomas passed the plea on to Lord Robens, who rejected it. Eventually it was rebuilt but at the expense of the disaster fund not the NCB.
The NCB paid just £500-a-head compensation to the bereaved parents. To some parents this was insultingly low. Coal board lawyers, however, regarded it as ‘a generous settlement’ and it was not at odds with other contemporary payments of loss of life by a child. Even as insurers wrangled, the ruins of the school and empty houses remained for a year.
For those in Aberfan, the legacy of this catalogue of self-serving episodes was a deep feeling of being let down and injustice. The result is a lingering mistrust of authority. It has also made the closure process difficult and undoubtedly hindered the healing process in the local community. Subsequent events served to exacerbate that feeling. In October 1998 the village suffered severe flooding. An independent inquiry showed that the flooding was exacerbated by dumped spoil from the removed tips. One survivor of the disaster and victims of the flooding said ‘I was buried alive in that tip in the disaster. Now it’s the same tip again dumped outside my door. It’s no wonder I am angry.’
A community on the periphery
George Thomas, Secretary of State for Wales and originally a teacher from the Rhondda, did initially protest at the decision to encourage the disaster fund to contribute to the payment of the removal of the tips. But his lone voice in the cabinet was not sufficient and in the end he acquiesced in the plan and placed strong moral pressure on the disaster fund to ensure it too gave in.
There was considerable local anger but the South Wales valleys consisted of safe Labour seats. All the major Labour figures knew that the rising Plaid Cymru support in the valleys was essentially just a protest that would pass. The Labour hegemony thus condemned Aberfan to the margins. In contrast, Robens’ ability to avert a coal strike was very much the concern of government and he kept his job as chairman of the NCB.
Gwynfor Evans, leader of Plaid Cymru, complained in the parliamentary debate on the disaster that if the tips had been at Hampstead or Eton, the Government would have taken more notice. Aberfan was a small working-class community isolated from the heart of UK politics. The government’s decision to grant legal aid to the Aberfan Parents and Residents’ Association at the Tribunal of Inquiry did mean they were able to afford the best ‘silk’ of the day. The fearsome Desmond Ackner triumphed over the NCB at the Tribunal. But in the aftermath of the disaster, a Labour government, whose support across South Wales was secure, ignored Aberfan’s interests.
The disaster itself, of course, was not marginalised. The London media, Royalty, and the Prime Minister all travelled to Aberfan to see the horror for themselves. It was only a few hours drive away or an even shorter flight. Even Lord Robens got there, 36 hours later. Politicians were undoubtedly personally touched by the disaster. Harold Wilson noted that when he visited a Cornish school less than eight days after the disaster, he felt ‘almost a sense of resentment at these happy innocent children, with all they had to look forward to, compared with the children of that Welsh valley, who had no future.’ Intensive media coverage, particularly television, ensured that the disaster was seen as a national one.
Yet this was not enough to overcome the residents of Aberfan’s position on the political periphery, something that had contributed to the causes of the disaster and intensified the injustices after it. The disaster simply would not have happened had the NCB taken local fears about the tips more seriously or enforced its own rules on tip safety. But it was an organization hampered by mismanagement yet protected from market and political pressure by being part of the state and a dominant local employer.
Before the disaster, the NCB’s economic and local political power meant no one, including the small local authority in Merthyr, was able to challenge it to do more about fears on tip safety. After the disaster, the NCB’s economic and national power meant its interests took precedent over those whose children it had killed.
Martin Johnes and Iain McLean are the authors of Aberfan: Government and Disasters (Welsh Academic Press, Cardiff, 2000). Further details of this book and other aspects of the disaster can be found at www.nuff.ox.ac.uk/politics/aberfan/home.htm A second edition will be published in 2017.
It’s 50 years since the Welsh Office was created. Here’s an extract from my book Wales since 1939 that outlines the background behind its creation and the growth of Welsh administrative devolution.
Fears about the economic future in the late 1940s and early 1950s had also created demands within the Labour Party for some official recognition of distinct Welsh needs and a distinct Welsh identity. In an acknowledgement that Wales did at least exist as an economic, administrative and cultural unit, a Council for Wales and Monmouthshire had been set up in 1949 as a non-elected advisory body to the government. It came under the chairmanship of Huw T. Edwards, a Caernarfonshire trade unionist whose profile through the 1950s saw him dubbed the ‘unofficial prime minister of Wales’. Looking back in 1958, a civil servant argued that the council had probably be intended as ‘relatively meaningless sop’ but Edwards’ personality had seen it gain a good deal of importance. Through the 1950s the Council did keep up the pressure on the government to create a Welsh Office and Secretary of State, framing its demands more in terms of effective government than national recognition. The Council was taken seriously by government but Edwards resigned in 1958 after it became apparent that it was not going introduce a Secretary of State. The government interpreted the Council’s demands as a desire for parity with Scotland but feared that should that be granted then Scotland might demand further devolution. Given that Wales was operating under the same legal system, it foresaw that any Secretary of State would have to follow different policies to England in order not to make the position superfluous. This, it feared, would be difficult to explain and would lead to inequalities that would be especially manifest in the Marches where social and economic ties crossed the border. It also worried about the costs and administrative complexity of forming yet another department and feared controversy over the position of Monmouthshire, which it regarded as an English county but one that by tradition would have to be included in Welsh administration.
There was some popular support for devolving some powers from London. In 1956 the Parliament for Wales campaign presented a petition with 240,652 signatures, representing some fourteen percent of the Welsh electorate. Gwynfor Evans estimated that 80 percent of the people asked had signed it. This was the culmination of a six-year campaign that had included leading figures from Labour, the Liberals and Plaid Cymru. But it won no sympathy with the government or most of the press. The Cardiff Labour MP George Thomas thought the Welsh people needed saving from themselves, while David Llewellyn, a Tory MP in the same city, even drew parallels between the campaign and Mein Kampf. The lack of specificity in the campaign’s claims probably made it easier to collect signatures but the internal disagreements within the campaign over what Wales’ problems actually were and how a parliament would solve them undermined its political influence. At the end of 1956, one of the leading figures in the campaign reflected ‘All the petition’s papers are now in cardboard boxes, one on top of each other, rotting through dampness’. The campaign did help raise the profile of Plaid Cymru and was another step towards the gradual construction of a proto-Welsh state but ultimately its failure marked a widespread satisfaction with the status quo. This was clear when the South Wales area of the NUM voted against the campaign, fearing it would undermine the UK bargaining position of the union.
The Tryweryn revolt, the reports of the Council for Wales and the Parliament for Wales campaign may not have secured their immediate objectives but cumulatively they encouraged government to take specifically Welsh interests seriously. In 1958, civil servants anticipated that Plaid Cymru could grow if Welsh feelings were ‘handled tactlessly’ and if there was a fusion between the party and elements within Labour that were ‘more Welsh than Socialist’. The key to avoiding this, they felt, lay in persuading Wales that the government was taking its economic welfare seriously and dispelling the ‘widespread notion that people in England neither know nor care whether the Welsh and Welsh culture fare well or ill’. Seven months earlier the Prime Minister had told his cabinet, “There is a general feeling among Welsh people that their particular interests are not receiving the attention which they should and we shall need to be specially careful and sympathetic in our handling of Welsh affairs at the present time if we are to prevent the Welsh Nationalist movement from gaining ground.”
In response to pressure from Welsh MPs for a Secretary for State for Wales, the Conservatives had already introduced a Minister of Welsh Affairs in 1951, a post held by an existing Cabinet member with a different portfolio. Although the minister did not have a government department, the position did ensure someone within the Cabinet with a specific remit to look after and act on Welsh interests. The first holder was the Home Secretary Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, a Scottish lawyer, who tried to defuse criticism that he was not Welsh by claiming that that one of his ancestors had led an army from Scotland which tried to join Owain Glyndwr. He proved the worth of the post by shelving unpopular forestry and military plans for Welsh land. Although there were still the occasional controversy – such as the government’s 1960 appointment of a non-Welsh speaker as National Governor of the BBC in Wales – there were significant signs of increased sensitivity to Wales. In 1958, a Festival of Wales was held under the government’s auspices. It culminated in the holding of the Commonwealth Games in Cardiff and the announcement by the Queen that Charles would be made Prince of Wales. The introduction of county rather than national referenda on Sunday opening in 1961 was a concession for rural Wales, as was the main Mid Wales railway line’s survival of the Beeching cut. The government began giving financial support for the publishing of Welsh-language school books in 1954, and the 1959 Eisteddfod Act allowed local authorities to support financially the National Eisteddfod. In 1958, a new steel development went to Llanwern rather than Scotland after anger in Wales that the Forth Bridge had been given priority over the Severn Bridge, despite the Minister for Welsh Affairs arguing the Severn’s case to combat the ‘wide and deep distrust of the Government’s attitude towards Wales’. Cardiff was made the official capital of Wales in 1955 and four years later government pressure on Buckingham Palace led to the Red Dragon being declared the official national flag. These Conservative concessions were the result of external pressure on the party but they also show how the existence of a minister for Wales and then sensitivity over Tryweryn increased the influence of Welsh interests in government.
In contrast, internal pressure from Labour MPs, not least James Griffiths, led that party to finally commit itself to creating a Secretary of State for Wales, a promise which it honoured when it returned to power in 1964. Not everyone in government was enamoured. In his diary, Richard Crossman called the Welsh Office an ‘idiotic creation’ and ‘completely artificial’. There was also some concern in the north that Wales’s voice in Cabinet would actually diminish because the post meant Welsh affairs would be treated separately after England had been looked at. The Secretary of State would be ‘a lone voice, and one can only hope for the best’ one paper surmised. But one immediate benefit was felt. The new department took the importance of expanding the M4 far more seriously than the Ministry of Transport and plans were quickly put in place for a series of new sections that would open through the 1970s.
The full and referenced version of this text can be found in Martin Johnes, Wales since 1939 (Manchester University Press, 2012), available in paperback, hardback and on Kindle.