Anglo-Welsh football relations: a history

This article was first published in Tom Gibbons & Dominic Malcolm (eds), Sport and English National Identity in a ‘Disunited Kingdom’ (Routledge, 2017)

All national identities owe something to relations with an ‘other’.  As Linda Colley (1994: 6) put it, ‘men and women decide who they are by reference to who and what they are not’. In small nations like Wales, lacking the apparatus of statehood and complicated by internal divisions, a permeable border and conquest by a much larger neighbour, this is particularly true. Indeed, it is impossible to understand Wales without reference to England.  The dynamics of Wales’ culture, politics and especially its economy have all been shaped by the perceptions and realities of its relationship with its neighbour. As this chapter explores, football, from the nineteenth century to the present day, has been no different.  Football has been a powerful expression of Welsh identity and this has often been expressed in terms of difference to England.  Yet, like the majority of wider Welsh opinion, that sense of difference has existed within a British framework and completion separation from England has rarely been a goal for the Welsh football communities, even when they felt ignored or hard done by England. 

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries 

By the time modern football developed in the mid-Victorian period, cultural assimilation between Wales and England was far advanced.  In the rural west, the Welsh language remained the dominant mode of communication but, in the industrialising south and north-east, a cosmopolitan culture was evolving where the experience of work and an emerging class consciousness were uniting immigrants from England and rural Wales. Compulsory education and the associated decline of the Welsh language furthered Welsh integration into a popular Britishness. Indeed, in both rural and industrial areas, the Welsh tended to regard England and the English as more sophisticated and more modern than their own identity and culture. Some individual families stopped speaking Welsh at home in order to raise their children in English, the language of social progress.  By 1911, just 8 percent of the Welsh population were unable to speak English (Jenkins et al, 2000).   

Football’s origins in Wales show how closely related the two nations were. The modern game first developed in Wales in the north-east, where it owed something to the influence of old boys from Shrewsbury School.  Football’s early history here was shaped by the regularity and frequency of personal, economic and cultural cross-border ties, highlighting how the significance of Welsh national identity was based more on symbolism than lived differences and boundaries.  Indeed, by 1890, 37 of the 125 men with Welsh caps had not been born in the country. Yet the game also became a symbol of nationality itself.  Despite, and to some extent in reaction to, assimilation with the British state and culture, Welsh nationality experienced a resurgence at the end of the nineteenth century. This was underpinned by the wealth and confidence that industrialisation created and promoted by a middle class that saw itself as different to the English, not just because of history and the Welsh language but also because of the contemporary relevance of Nonconformity and a Liberal Party that recognised that the United Kingdom was a multinational state.  Of course, not everyone in Wales spoke Welsh, went to chapel or voted Liberal but sport offered a more inclusive vehicle for Welsh nationhood. A speaker at a Football Association of Wales (FAW) dinner even argued in 1879 that football ‘united together in a closer bond the different counties and towns of Wales’ and maintained that the association ‘bound Welshmen to Welshmen’ (Wrexham Advertiser, 22 February 1879).  The FAW, founded in 1876, was one of a host of new national institutions whose establishment meant that the reawakening of Welsh nationhood in the late nineteenth century was more than just an idea afloat on a sea of cultural and economic ties with England; through its national institutions, Wales became a tangible nation (Johnes & Garland, 2004; Jones, 1992).   

For all the national pride in Wales that the period witnessed, the nation that it represented was a complex, fragmented and perhaps contradictory entity.  The national reawakening may have been symbolised and embodied by the establishment of a national team, competition and association for football but the cultural and economic networks of north-east Wales meant people from just over the English border were incorporated into football’s new national institutions, while representatives of south Wales were absent.  In the south, different patterns of migration and the influence of public schools where a handling game was favoured, meant that it was rugby that initially became the region’s mass sport and outlet for a popular Welsh patriotism (Smith & Williams, 1980).  When a North versus South football match took place in 1884, the most southerly players involved were from Welshpool and Oswestry, which is actually in England. It was not until 1901 that a player from the South Wales League was picked for the Welsh national football team.  

Football was played in Victorian south Wales and the first international match to be hosted there took place in Swansea in 1894.  Such was the infancy of the game in the south at the time that one local paper printed a plan of the pitch before the game (Lile and Farmer, 1984).  It was in the Edwardian period that football really took off in the region and this owed more to the influence of relations with England than north Wales. The booming coal industry saw 220,000 people move from England into the Glamorganshire coalfield between 1871 and 1911.  Many of them were already familiar with the dribbling code, providing it both with new supporters and men looking to establish new teams. These migrants were quickly absorbed into a new Welsh community, apparently with little difficulty. A common lived experience based on class, work and community was key to that but sport was probably part of the process of cultural assimilation too since it allowed people to vocalize and demonstrate their attachment to their new home.  It was also approaches from the English Southern League that encouraged the establishment of larger clubs in the south to compete in professional competitions against English towns and cities (Johnes, 2002). 

One of those clubs, Cardiff City, founded in 1910, quickly established itself as a force in British football and by 1921 it was with the game’s elite in the Football League’s first division.  The club almost won the league in 1924 and in 1927 it did win the FA Cup.  The patriotic celebrations of such sporting successes demonstrated how class consciousness and the dominance of the English language had not blunted a popular Welsh pride and a sense of symbolic difference to England.  This was especially clear at the 1927 FA Cup final. An estimated 40,000 people travelled to London from all over Wales to support Cardiff City.  As the newspapers of the day remarked, this was not just Cardiff City against Arsenal, it was Wales against England.  Over-excited reporters on both sides of the border spoke of Celtic invasions and Welsh warriors come to take the English cup away.  Fans wore leeks (so many people bought them that Covent Garden tripled the price of the vegetable for the day), sang the national anthem and made sure that London knew the Welsh were in town (Johnes, 2002). Afterwards, even the front-page headline of a Swansea newspaper declared that the cup had come to Wales (Sporting News, 23 April 1927). 

In the 1920s, international football never quite matched the patriotic rhetoric that accompanied club football and international rugby. Not only was it overshadowed by the achievements of Cardiff City and south Wales’ other Football League teams but there was also the fact that nearly two-thirds of Welsh international players were with English or north Wales clubs.  As the press often pointed out, international soccer in south Wales was hindered by this because it was in the south that the majority of Welsh people lived and the majority of Welsh matches were held. Players who had left the region became more associated with their clubs than country. This meant that there was not the same relationship between fans and players in the Welsh national team that existed at club matches or rugby internationals. This is not to say that the players were unpopular or unknown but it was difficult to fully revel in a shared national identity with players based in England (Johnes, 2002: 177-93). Yet the players themselves still spoke of their pride in pulling on the red shirt of Wales and a comment by former Welsh captain Fred Keenor in 1934 reveals how Welsh identity was entwined with the relationship with England: ‘We Welshmen do not mind much if we have to bow the knee to Scotland or Ireland but we do take a special delight in whacking England’ (South Wales Football Echo, 22 September 1934). 

International football did reach new peaks in the 1930s, when success on the pitch brought the biggest crowds Welsh international soccer had ever enjoyed. With local clubs failing to bring success or top-quality soccer to south Wales and international Welsh rugby in dire straits, the public was eager to witness high-class matches. Attendances of over 40,000 were seen at the Ninian Park internationals, a figure comparable with rugby internationals. Yet, after the excitement had died down, the fact that the majority of the players played over the border again brought out a sense of sadness. For all the leeks on display and the Welsh songs ringing through the air, Welsh international football was a symbol of how Welshmen had to leave for England to succeed or even just find a job amidst the devastation of the interwar depression. Between the wars, nearly 400,000 people moved away from the economic ruins of Wales (Johnes, 2002: 191; Davies, 1994: 578). 

Yet, for all its insecurities, in both sport and wider culture, Welsh national pride was easily offended when not taken seriously by the English.  Welsh clubs and the FAW both felt poorly treated by the English football authorities and there were significant inter-war tensions over the release of players and the status of Welsh clubs in English competitions (Johnes, 2002: 190, 197-99). More seriously, there was widespread umbrage amongst Welsh speakers at the 1936 decision to move the trial of three nationalists who had burnt down part of a RAF bombing school to the Old Bailey after a Caernarfon jury had failed to reach a verdict.  Few might have agreed with the crime but offence was taken at the implication that the Welsh could not try their own (Jenkins, 1998).  Yet the political implications of this were minimal.  Plaid Cymru, formed in 1925 by a small group of Welsh-speaking intellectuals worried about the retraction of traditional Welsh culture, was more a marginal pressure group rather than a political party.  For the vast majority of the Welsh people, England was a partner, not an enemy, something that became only too evident during the Second World War.  Then there were occasional tensions over whether Wales’ role in the war effort was being given enough recognition and nationalists worried about the impact of conscription and English evacuees on Welsh-speaking communities but the dominant tone was of the British nations standing together. Wales, whether in sporting or wider circles, simply wanted recognition that it was an equal partner (Johnes, 2012: 7-34). 

After the Second World War 

The post-war settlement reaffirmed this idea.  There was little Welsh dimension to economic planning or the structures of the new Welfare State.  This annoyed some MPs who feared that Welsh interests were not properly being considered by the government in London (Johnes, 2012: 35-64).  That began a process of attempts to get Welsh national identity recognized, something which the government was generally willing to accept.  Thus a Ministry for Welsh Affairs was created in 1951, Cardiff was declared the capital city in 1955, financial support was given to Welsh-language publishing and the National Eisteddfod and even the Red Dragon was finally recognized as the official flag in 1960.  That the British government was becoming increasing sensitive to Welsh interests owed much to the furore that surrounded its decision to allow the flooding of the Tryweryn Valley to create a reservoir for Liverpool, an event which angered Welsh and English speakers alike and drew parallels with historic injustices done to Wales from the Blue Books to the Welsh Not.i  Indeed, for many, the key issue that rankled was not so much the destruction of a Welsh-speaking community but that it was done to supply England with water (Johnes, 2012: 178-244). 

Yet the old insecurities remained and they were fed by how images as diverse as the Ealing comedy Run for your Money (1949) and Ivor the Engine (1959-64, and 1976-77) reinforced an impression that the Welsh were a rather comic people.  It was no wonder then that some were keen to leave Wales or at least play down their Welshness.  One of the easiest ways of doing this was ‘speaking nice’, by avoiding the grammatical oddities of Welsh English and dropping or moderating the Welsh accent.  The popularity of elocution lessons in 1950s and 60s Wales was partly old-fashioned snobbery but it was also rooted in how many older Welsh people had a rather poor regard of their own nation, however much some of their compatriots were beginning to complain that England mistreated or ignored Wales (Johnes, 178-210).   

At this time, international football was slowly emerging as vehicle for expressing Welsh and other British national identities outside the UK.  1958 saw Wales qualify for the World Cup for the first and as yet the only time. Yet, nowhere in the UK, had it taken on any real popular significance and the minimal television coverage given to the 1950 and 1954 tournaments meant the World Cup still had something of an exotic quality to it.  European television stations shared broadcasts rather than making their own selections of matches to show and the result of this was that only one of Wales’ 1958 World Cup matches was televised and even the quarterfinal against Brazil was not broadcast, with British television instead showing Sweden v USSR.  In the press, too, there was not extensive coverage of the tournament and one player told the story that on his return to Swansea with his suitcases he was asked by the ticket conductor if he had been on holiday (Risoli, 1998: 138). The rest of the world was not always much more knowledgeable about Wales either. In 1965 a World Cup qualifier against the USSR saw the state media refer to Wales as ‘a small corner of England’ (Quoted in Stead, 2012: 191). 

It was the 1966 World Cup that saw the profile of international football within the UK grow. The tournament was extensively televised in the United Kingdom and attracted very large audiences (Chisari, 2004).  Unlike in Scotland (Mason, 2006: 92), there is no evidence of any hostile reception to England’s campaign and victory. An editorial in the Western Mail (1 August 1966), the self-imagined national newspaper of Wales, proclaimed England’s ‘superb victory’ as an achievement which ‘the whole of Britain can feel proud of’ and which ‘belongs to British football as a whole’.  The final attached a record British audience of 30.5m, some of whom were in Wales.  In the Rhondda, a local newspaper remarked that ‘Practically everything stopped’ for the final (Rhondda Fach Observer, Leader & Fress Press, 5 August 1966).  In Trermerchion in Denbighshire, attendance at the flower show and gymkhana were reported to be down to a trickle because of rain and the final (Liverpool Daily Post, 7 August 1966). Yet the final did not sweep all before it.  In Ferryside, in rural Carmarthenshire, the local carnival and sports day attracted hundreds, despite clashing with the final (Carmarthen Journal, 5 August 1966).  It also came two weeks after Gwynfor Evans became the first Welsh nationalist MP, an event that had unsettled parts of the establishment, and there were those in Wales who were keen to point out that reactions to the World Cup were a form of nationalism too. A columnist in the Welsh-language magazine Barn (August, 1966) noted that if the type of nationalism of the World Cup was accepted there could be a world of peaceful co-operation where nations lived inside their boundaries but still developed. 

The experience of international football within the UK certainly showed that sporting patriotism did not have to be aggressive or detrimental. Matches between Wales and England in the 1950s and 1960s remained imbued with a friendly rather than hostile rivalry, however much newsreel coverage might speak of the Welsh wanting to beat the ‘old enemy’ (for example, British Pathe, 1962).  Qualification rules were also changing and further illustrated a lack of hostility towards England. The FAW decided to allow players to qualify through their parents and in 1971 Trevor Hockey from Yorkshire made his debut for Wales, the first Englishman to play for the land of his father (Stead, 2012: 205). 

Yet football was again providing evidence that England did not always respect Welsh national identity.  In 1971, the FAW had to resort to lobbying the Minister of Sport to ensure English clubs released Welsh players for internationals. In 1971, Merthyr-born reporter Ken Jones even wrote in the Daily Mirror (25 October 1971) that maybe it was time to give up fighting for the release of Welsh players and join the two national teams.  A year later, an English MP went as far as asking the Minister for Sport to lobby for the formation of a British team to replace the faltering English side. The Minister had the good sense to reply: ‘I am not sure that Scottish or Welsh football supporters would rejoice to see their national teams losing their identity in order to rescue England from its difficulties’ (House of Commons Debate, 17 May 1972, Hansard, vol. 837 cc. 500-2). 

By then, football fan culture was changing too, as generational shifts gave it a more aggressive and crude edge.  The shared regional identities that had seen fans of local and regional rivals have soft spots for each other began to fade (Mellor 1999). In their place, emerged regional rivalries, where fans of such teams began to sing and chant about hating each other.  Indeed, these rivalries became defining features of many clubs’ fandoms and sometimes this spilled over into violence. By 1969, Cardiff fans on their way back from a derby with Swansea were wrecking trains. By the 1970s they were fighting each other.  The late 1960s onwards also saw a more forceful Welsh identity emerge in reaction to the decline of traditional Welsh culture and the apparent indifference of the British state. This more confident, youthful and forceful sense of Welshness was embodied by the non-violent direction action protests of Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (the Welsh Language Society). But their anger at the lack of legal status bestowed on the Welsh language was soon overshadowed by a more virulent anti-Englishness that was rooted in the growing immigration from England into rural Wales.  At first, such people were a curiosity but as their numbers swelled they became seen as a threat to traditional Welsh culture, a culture now very obviously in danger as every census and chapel closure decried.  Personal relations tended to be harmonious but as a group English immigrants were unpopular and blamed for everything from rising house prices to having the wrong kind of curtains.  Part of this was a classic rural-urban divide but the impact of migration on the language gave the issue a more emotional resonance and led to talk of the English carrying out cultural genocide.  Some retaliated with violence and between 1979 and 1992 there were 197 arson attacks on estate agents and properties belonging to English incomers (Johnes, 2012, ch. 13; Humphries, 2008).  

The antagonism towards the English in rural Wales was beginning to be mirrored by a smaller degree of antagonism towards England (rather than the English) in urban areas.  The winding down of traditional heavy industry in Wales had been going on since the 1950s but not until the 1970s did it become a source of widespread resentment as alternative employment began to dry up.  By the 1980s that resentment was clearly beginning to adopt something of a national angle, especially since it was easy to see the Tories as a government imposed on Wales by the choices of an English electorate. As graffiti in Caerphilly declared after the 1987 general election: ‘we voted Labour, we got Thatcher’ (Davies, 1999: 4). On 22 July 1980, The Times reported a growing ‘bloody English’ attitude towards London-based decision makers amongst Welsh steelworkers who felt that Wales had been singled out for redundancies.  It claimed their ‘bitterness and anger’ was ‘nurturing a new brand of awakened identity’.  A sense of being Welsh also developed in the National Union of Mineworkers during its 1984-5 strike and Welsh iconography, from dragons to Welsh ladies, was common on the union’s banners and posters.  Moreover, even if the rest of Wales did little about it beyond putting loose change in collecting buckets, many compatriots did watch on aghast as the government strove to apparently not just beat but destroy the miners.  England now seemed to offer not the economic safety net it had in the past but a threat to the future of Welsh communities (Johnes, 2012). 

In sport this more pronounced national identity became entangled with the aggressive fan culture that had produced football hooliganism. One hooligan memoir claimed that ‘It’s a well known fact among older people round here that in the 70s and especially the 80s, if you walked around here in any English football top you would have been harassed in the streets and even attacked’ (Marsh, 2009).  But it was the loud and routine booing of the God Save the Queen, the national anthem of both the English and the British, that was most the obvious sign of a more concerted 1970s nationalism.  It had traditionally been played after Hen Wlad fy Nhadau at Welsh home internationals but the booing became embarrassing. In 1975 the Welsh Rugby Union dropped it when it was not the visitors’ requested anthem and football followed suit in 1977.  Both football and rugby also struggled to get Hen Wlad fy Nhadau recognised by other countries as the Welsh national anthem. The French began playing it for Welsh rugby visits in 1971 but the English were less accommodating. In 1974 the RFU refused to play it at Twickenham and the FA turned down the FAW’s 1975 and 1977 official requests for the Welsh anthem to be played at Wembley.  In 1977, the FA claimed its playing might embarrass the Royal Family and instead offered to make it part of a pre-match medley, to which the FAW Secretary replied, ‘If the Welsh anthem cannot be given full recognition and played immediately prior to the playing of the national anthem then please don’t play at all’. In protest at the FA, the Welsh players stayed lined up after God Save the Queen, waiting for their own anthem which they knew was not coming  (Johnes, 2008; Stead 2012: 217-9, 227; The Times, 30 April, 24 May 1977). 

The kind of anti-Englishness that such obstinacy could engender also found its way into the club game from the 1970s onwards.  This was clear in the songs sung at Swansea’s Vetch Field and Cardiff’s Ninian Park.  Some were simply antagonistic (such as ‘England’s full of shit’), while others directly aligned a passion for a club and Wales with a dislike of England (‘We are the England haters – Swansea!’ or ‘We’ll never be mastered by no English bastard, Wales, Wales, Wales’).  Some Welsh fans worried that such songs were racist. Yet others disagreed because of their historical understanding of England as the dominant nation within the UK (Johnes, 2008b). As one fan put it in a 2000 online debate: 

Racism??? Don’t make me laugh!! The English are hardly an oppressed ethnic minority are they!! on the contrary they’ve spent the last 500 years raping, pillaging and suppressing their way around the globe and once they’d finished their wham bam thank you maam routine it was off home leaving the unfortunate country usually bankrupt…Wales is a perfect example. ( guestbook entry, 10 February 2000). 

The definition of Welshness as something oppositional to England was sometimes very keenly felt by fans. A hooligan memoir has claimed ‘This hatred is so endemic’ that it inevitably comes out when Welsh teams play English ones (Marsh, 2008).  It could also be rooted in personal experience, as one supporter living in England pointed out in an online discussion: 

I have worked in London for 10 years now and have had to endure sheep-sh***ing, leek-crunching, coal-chomping, sister-worrying, in-breeding, close-harmony singing, rugby-playing, chip-eating, lavabread munching, “does Wales have a football team then?”, “Not even good at rugby anymore are you?” etc. etc. jokes and generalisations on a constant basis. …  For those of you who have not had the pleasure of living in this bastion of ill-founded sporting smugness and arrogance let me be your education and your guide. You can never read, watch or listen to anything before, during or after an England footy game even if it is against a Maltese fifth division B team without constant references to 1966, Bobby Moore, blah blah f***ing blah! … [I]t is with great satisfaction then that to misquote that famous poem, every away game “There is a corner of an English football ground that for 90 minutes is forever Wales” and I take great pleasure in singing “England’s full of s**t”, “Argentina”, “You can stick your chariot up your a**e”, “We hate England, and we..” and anything else that springs to mind cos if their pathetic mute fans had anything like our passion then they’d be singing it back to us!! ( guestbook entry, 10 February 2000). 

Welshness, in and outside the football ground, may have been  becoming politicized but there were clear limits to what was happening. In 1979, the nationalist threat to the union in Scotland and Wales led to referendums on devolution but just a fifth of the Welsh turnout voted for the measure on offer and over forty percent of the electorate did not bother voting at all. The resentment of the 1980s economic dislocation changed some people’s minds however. In 1997, a second referendum on devolution produced a very narrow Yes majority. Only a quarter of the Welsh electorate had actually voted for devolution but that was still more than twice the number that had voted for it in 1979.  Research by political scientists suggested that the significant shift had come amongst Labour voters who saw themselves as Welsh but did not speak Welsh (Taylor & Thomson, 1999).  This was the same group who had been worst affected by the decline of traditional industry under Thatcherism.  The disregard of a London government for the social impact of its economic policies had furthered the politicization of Welshness. What had emerged in the 1980s and 90s, and what grew rapidly in the early 21st century, was not a Welsh identity based on any support for separation but one in which the very concept of Wales had a political legitimacy. It became the accepted wisdom amongst the majority that decisions about Wales should be taken in Wales (Johnes, 2012; Scully and Wyn Jones, 2015). 

Just as this shift did not signal any desire to leave the union or any real hostility towards England, Wales’ biggest clubs remained committed to playing in the English league structure. A League of Wales (now known as the Welsh Premier League) was formed in 1992 by the FAW, who was concerned that Wales’ position as a full member of FIFA was under threat from other national associations who resented a non-nation state not only having its own national team but also a permanent place on the organization that decided the game’s rules.  Eight of Wales’s leading semi-professional initially refused to join the new competition, and two of those teams continue to remain outside it more than twenty years later. In a recognition of the realities of the professional game’s economics, no real effort was made to persuade the country’s Football League teams to take part. Wales’ leading clubs thus remained in the English pyramid and their fans were perfectly happy with that. Indeed, we should be weary of reading too much into the chants of these fans. For some they were rooted in understandings of history and politics, but for most they were football-only gesture, a ritualized piece of fun that was not to be taken literally (Johnes, 2008b). As one supporter of such songs put it, ‘I am not in any way advocating the idea of fostering Anglophobic over-indulgence … but do GET A GRIP! Are we all going to sing anti-English chants, then go on the rampage burning every cross of St George we can find following the final whistle? No!’ ( guestbook, 8 February 2000). Thus, like the anti-Welsh taunts sung at Welsh fans, anti-English songs were not intended as literal expressions of identity and sentiment.  They were (and remain) banal rather than political expressions of identity and even the most aggressive anti-English assertions of fans have to be taken with a pinch of salt. They owe more to banter and play than the politics of identity (Johnes, 2008b). Wales-England differences are real and felt but they rarely translate into lived discrimination.   Even in rural Welsh-speaking communities, most English incomers report being accepted as individuals, although they were aware of a sense of difference between themselves and locals (Day, Drakakis-Smith & Davis, 2008). 

Moreover, those who sang these songs at club and international games were probably not representative of all football fans in Wales, let alone the wider Welsh population. Instead, there appears to be in Wales widespread interest and even sometimes sympathy for English football. There is no clear evidence but it is not unreasonable to suggest that until the rise of Swansea City into the English Premier League, that competition’s big English clubs drew upon more support in both north and south Wales than any Welsh club or even, at times, the national team. Although there was a brief period at the start of the 21st century when Welsh internationals were attracting gates of more than 70,000, for most of the last thirty years attendances at Wales games have been far more modest.  In 1991, as few as 3,656 turned up for a friendly against Iceland at the national stadium.  A lack of success and a lack of high-profile players have meant that some football fans in Wales were quite simply not that interested in the national team. In contrast, the obsessions of the London media made it difficult for Welsh fans to ignore the English national side.  Since maybe the 1970s, the regular followers of the Welsh national team and Welsh clubs probably generally wanted England to lose but the Welsh population runs far wider than these groups and there is not a universal ‘Anyone But England’ feeling in Wales during major football tournaments.  Quite apart from Welsh people happy to support a fellow British team in a major match, especially if they support an English club, there are people in Wales who are not Welsh. Throughout the twentieth century, a significant proportion of the Welsh population has been born in England. By 2011, the figure had reached 636,266 people, a fifth of the entire population. In that year’s census, 390,000 people in Wales recorded their national identity as ‘English’ or ‘English and British’.  If more than one in ten people in Wales label themselves ‘English’ then it is hardly surprising that St George’s flags can be seen during in Wales during major football tournaments. 

Such cross border movements are also important to the strength of Britishness within Wales. Yet for the majority of the Welsh, a British identity is as much about pragmatism as emotion. the majority of fans seem to either support an English team or want to see their Welsh club play in the English league system.  This is not to suggest that Welsh identity is weak or any way secondary but rather than it exists within and alongside a British context. This is also evident in 21st-century opinion polls that ask about national identity and, rightly, give people the opportunity of choosing more than one. Typically, only around a fifth of people select the ‘Welsh not British’ answer, whereas half tend to go for ‘More Welsh than British’ or ‘Equally Welsh and British’. Polls also suggest that support for Welsh independence is only around ten percent, which implies that maybe half of Welsh people who do regard themselves as British also do not want to leave the United Kingdom. This reminds us of the importance of context to identity. Which identity is to the fore and what identity means depends very much on the context. Football again is a powerful illustrator of this and there is very little active support in Wales for a UK team that could compete in the Olympics.  Feeling British is one thing but supporting a British national football team would be something altogether different.  


In the second decade of the 21st century, a better Wales team was slowly emerging and in 2016 it not only qualified for the finals of a major tournament for the first time since 1958 but also reached the semi-finals.  A patriotic media, always a key component in promoting and defining Welsh identity after the war, celebrated that team’s achievements and the event created what seemed to be a genuine feel-good factor across the nation, including amongst those who had shown little interest in the game before.  Key to that were a clever marketing strategy by the FAW, which embraced the Welsh language, national history and messages of social unity, and the fact that the squad seemed a genuine reflection of the nation it represented: it contained players of white, black and Asian heritage, Welsh learners and first-language speakers and nine English-born members. However, Euro 2016 also saw a recurrence of what had annoyed many people in Wales about previous major football tournaments: a seeming assumption in what was supposed to be a British media that it was how England did that mattered most. Just as it is too easy for news reports to forget to highlight the fact that issues like health and education are devolved, it is easy for people on the BBC and in the press to skip into the language of ‘we’ when discussing England.  People’s annoyance at this was then compounded by advertising campaigns when UK companies promoted the England team in Welsh media and even inside Welsh shops.  

Complaining about this might seem a little trivial, another example of a chip on the Welsh shoulder, but Welsh attitudes towards England have always intertwined with issues of class and power.  When resentment of England did rise in the twentieth century, it was because of feelings that Wales and the Welsh were not being accorded equal treatment, status and respect. The growth of a politicized sense of Welshness in the last fifty years has been directly rooted in perceptions of the English treatment of Wales.  Yet the reality was that much of England was not hostile but rather oblivious to the existence of Wales. That was what made sport so important to Anglo-Welsh relations.  It afforded the Welsh both an opportunity to remind England that Britain was a multinational state and to show that Wales was an equal partner in that entity.  That might mean obscene chanting about England rather than beating them on their pitch.  It rarely meant wanting Welsh football to be divorced from the English pyramid structure.  Just as in politics, a minority of the Welsh people may have wanted to break free from England but the majority were simply interested in receiving that most Welsh of sayings, ‘fair play’.   


  • British Pathe (1962). ‘England beat Wales’. Newsreel available online at  
  • Chisari, F. (2004). ‘‘Shouting Houswives!’: the 1966 World Cup and British television’. Sport in History, 24 (1), 94-108. 
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10 classic novels from the ‘Welsh Century’

Every year on my module The Welsh Century 1847-1947 I encourage students to read fiction from the period. Here are the ones I suggest.

These novels have been selected  because I like them rather than because of any particular literary merit they might have. However, all are vivid illustrations of life during this period, or at least how some people liked to imagine life. Some of the books were published later than the timeframe of the module but they draw on their authors’ own experiences of the period.

  1. Jeremy Brooks, Jampot Smith (1960).

A comic story of teenage English immigrants in Llandudno who are more concerned with girls than the ongoing Second World War. The English middle class may not be a fashionable topic in Welsh history but they are part of the nation’s story.

  1. Islwyn Ffowc Elis, Cysgod y Cryman (1953). Published in English as Shadow of the Sickle

You may want to throttle several of the sanctimonious characters but a great story nonetheless and an important depiction of the tensions within rural Wales just after the Second World War. The book was important in taking Welsh-language novels to a younger audience.

  1. Caradoc Evans, My People (1915)

A collection of short stories that give an unsympathetic view of the people of rural Wales and which made its author rather notorious.  The characters are devious, hypocritical, lustful, greedy and not always very intelligent.  It’s all a little over the top but great fun.

  1. Jack Jones, Rhondda Roundabout (1934)

A disjointed but vivid and entertaining picture of the vitality of life in mining communities. The perfect antidote to any idea of Welsh miners as downtrodden, bored, overly pious or sober.

  1. Lewis Jones, Cwmardy (1937)

Celebrated for its picture of politics and exploitation in the south Wales valleys but it’s ‘Big Jim’ and the other characters that make it such a great read and much more than the Communist propaganda that it was intended as.

  1. Stead Jones, Make Room for the Jester (1964)

Rather obscure and probably the least successful book on the list. But it is full of teenage angst, repressed sexuality and adult alcoholism in 1939 Pwllheli.

  1. Richard Llewellyn, How Green was my Valley (1939)

 Often derided for its Welsh clichés (lots of singing and talking funny) and poor sense of history (the decline of the valleys is all the fault of the unions and immigrants apparently) but it doesn’t deserve to cast aside.  A gripping story, appealing characters and lots of sentimentality made it hugely popular everywhere, including in the south Wales it misrepresents. 

  1. Caradog Pritchard, Un Nos Ola Leuad (1961). Published in English as One Moonlit Night.

Sometimes regarded as the greatest Welsh-language novel ever.  Set in a north Wales quarrying community, it’s more poverty and child abuse than hymns and eisteddfodau.  It’s hard not to be touched by the tragic life of the young narrator. The book dispels the romantic pictures of early twentieth-century Welsh rural society that characterise some autobiographies of Welsh-speaking intellectuals. The book is spoiled only by some surreal passages of biblical visions. 

  1. Kate Roberts, Traed Mewn Cyffion (1936). Published in English as Feet in Chains

Another rather bleak and depressing but vivid depiction of life in a slate quarrying community in early 20th-century Caernarfonshire. Will stop any doubt over which gender had the roughest deal.

  1. Dylan Thomas, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog (1940).

A collection of short stories that show Wales’ most famous writer at his best. Very funny, slightly surreal and often irreverent. A rather different inter-war Wales to the one found in mining novels.







The genesis of the Millennium Stadium

Photo via <a href=””>Good Free Photos</a>

By the 1990s South Glamorgan County Council (SGCC) wanted to turn Cardiff into a European city of the stature of Cologne, Copenhagen, Seville or Barcelona through a long-term strategy known as Euro-Capital 2020.  The aspiration was to develop Cardiff into a city that could compete for investment on a European platform by raising its international profile and creating a quality of life comparable with Europe’s most desirable cities. The policy was an attempt to embrace the move towards a single European market, to be prepared for the possible advent of devolution under a future Labour government, and to encourage the people of South Glamorgan to share in the vision.

Becoming a city of European worth meant developing the cultural, environmental and physical characteristics of continental cities.  A first step was the redevelopment of Mill Lane, a downmarket street at the bottom of the central shopping district.  Although Wales does not enjoy the same weather conditions as southern Europe, the street was transformed, with SGCC’s aid, into a café quarter, complete with fashionable restaurants and pavement tables.  This was a popular and commercially-successfully project, but it was far too small to promote Cardiff into the European league of capitals.  Instead, the central tenet of the 2020 project became the Millennium stadium. This was a project whose genesis owed more to external factors that the European capital vision, but it did give Cardiff a facility of true world-class quality.

In 1992 Barcelona hosted the Olympics and the event was perceived to have been central to the city’s successful regeneration. It became something of an inspiration to Cardiff and other cities across Europe and longterm ideas of sport as a major driver of urban renewal began to seem more concrete. Cardiff had already unsuccessfully bid to host the 1986 Commonwealth games.  Although the near-corrupt practices of that process had disillusioned South Glamorgan County Council, sport remained in the council’s thinking as it looked to promote Cardiff as a vibrant capital city of European status.

The initial impetus for a new stadium came from the Welsh Rugby Union’s plans to bid to host the 1999 rugby world cup.  The SGCC leadership supported the planned bid, not only because its leader Russell Goodway was a rugby fan, but also because such an event offered an opportunity to promote Cardiff on the world stage.  Yet the WRU also had plans for a new stadium in Bridgend. This would have undermined the benefits for Cardiff of both a world cup and rugby internationals more generally. The council thus suggested taking the idea forward by building a brand new state-of the-art stadium on the site of Cardiff Arms Park with funding from the lottery’s Millennium Commission.  This idea was an opportunity to ensure that, in the economic and environmental modernisation of Cardiff, the centre was not left behind the fast changing Bay.

It was also an idea that was very firmly rooted in political opportunism.  In Cardiff Bay, there were ongoing plans to build an opera house that were running into controversy, not least over design and match funding, in the quest for support from the Millennium Commission.  With a public outcry over the spiralling cost of the Covent Garden opera house in London, the government was reluctant to see another costly, high-culture project given a large sum of public cash.  In contrast, a new stadium was clearly populist, and offered the government a way of rejecting the Cardiff opera house bid without being seen to snub Wales or its capital.

The sceptical WRU was won over to the cause of a new stadium but its first, rather thrown together, bid for lottery funding from the Millennium Commission failed.  This led SGCC to essentially take over, preparing a successful second bid.  Securing the money became something of a personal priority for Goodway and considerable SGCC time and resources were pumped into the project.  The WRU has since been given much of the credit for the stadium but initially it seemed rather conservative in both its ambitions and plans.  Individuals within SGCC were instrumental in persuading the WRU of the need for a retractable roof and removable pitch, both of which were crucial to making the stadium financially viable by diversifying its possible uses.

The economic hope placed in the new stadium was considerable.  Goodway claimed it could ‘be the engine house of prosperity for the next 50 years, attracting investment and tens of thousands of visitors to Cardiff and Wales, helping regenerate large areas of the heart of the Welsh capital.’  By being a national stadium, its importance and significance stretched beyond South Glamorgan and into Wales as a whole.  Here was Cardiff acting as a capital by providing the rest of the nation with a landmark building, that was not only economically important but that could also act as a focal point for Welsh patriotism.

Given the importance of sport in Welsh national identity, the impact of the stadium here should not be underestimated.  It was envisaged that it would be a symbol of hope, progress and pride for Cardiff and Wales. Implicit in this was the modernity of the project.  The stadium’s marketing made clear how it was one of the finest stadiums in the world, whilst in its retractable roof, it had a feature that was hi-tech, progressive and (in Europe) unique.  Even the stadium’s very name suggested something for the future (although this was coincidental since it was rooted in the stadium’s primary funders).  Thus it was hoped that the stadium would be far more than just a contributor to the economic well being of Cardiff, South Glamorgan and Wales; it was intended as a symbol of what sort of places they were, or at least wanted to be.

In many ways, the stadium has become one of the few genuine success stories in the recent history of Wales. It is also a sign that local governments can make a difference.

The stories that bind us: history and the new curriculum

This weekend I attended an excellent event put on by the Cardiff Story museum about the 1919 race riots. The speakers included artists and activists from the Butetown community that was the victim of the 1919 racist attacks. There was a clear desire among both speakers and the audience that the riots be remembered and that the community be allowed to tell its own history.

Theatre events, poetry and art are allowing the riots to be remembered now, but ensuring the memory lives on beyond its centenary is less straightforward. There was  a clear ambition voiced at the event to see the riots, and black history more generally, placed on the Welsh national curriculum.

The national curriculum in Wales is currently undergoing a radical redesign but it will be based around specific skills rather than specific knowledge. Thus in history there will be no requirement that any particular event or person is taught. Similarly, in English and Welsh literature, there will be no poet or novelist who is required reading.

Teachers and schools already have some choice about what they teach but now they will be given free rein to use whatever content they like to meet the curriculum’s overall requirements of ensuring pupils are

  • informed citizens of Wales and the world
  • ambitious and capable learners
  • enterprising and creative contributors to society
  • healthy and confident individuals.

The curriculum also requires that the Welsh context in which pupils live should be central to all these ambitions.

Teaching pupils about the race riots of 1919 would certainly fit with the curriculum’s ambitions and there would be nothing to stop schools using it as a way of both teaching about the past and encouraging thinking about the dynamics of race today. However, the new curriculum will not allow this to be a requirement. If it happens, it will have to be the choice of individual teachers and schools.

As someone in the audience at the 1919 event stated, this means that there is no guarantee that children will learn about the riots and the racism they involved. It may be, it was suggested, that some white teachers will not see ensuring such things are taught as important.

The same fears exist among those who want every child to learn about other specific events that are central to the history of Wales. There is no guarantee that any pupil will learn about medieval conquest, the flooding of Tryweryn, the Second World War, the struggles for civil rights, or the rise of democracy.  Some children will learn about all these things but future citizens’ knowledge of history could vary significantly according to which school they attend.

This has implications for the very nature of Welsh society. The curriculum is intended to foster a sense of Welsh citizenship and to put that in a global context. The question is whether that can be achieved when every child is learning about Wales through different sets of knowledge.

Wales is a diverse place and Welshness means many different things. A curriculum that reflects this, and a nation that is comfortable with a plurality of knowledge, is a mature one. A curriculum that demands every child learn the same ‘national story’ is perhaps something that only a country unsure of itself would produce. Such a story would also inevitably lead to considerable controversy about what it should include. And that is before any consideration of how events should be interpreted.

No historian would argue that there is a single simple Welsh story that could be taught. The past is both vast and complex. Deciding what matters is a political decision. So, too, is explaining why something matters. Giving power to schools and teachers does not overcome that but it does at least free the curriculum from the kind of government interference Michael Gove tried to enact in England in 2013 with his plans for a revised patriotic history curriculum.

Yet teachers are political too, and they do not operate in value-free environments. Their own interests and experiences will influence what they decide to teach. They will, inevitably, reproduce some of the existing outlooks instilled in them by their own education.

Thus those who hope the new curriculum will lead to a flourishing of Welsh history may find it doesn’t because of the existing lack of Welsh history taught in schools and universities. Those who hope it will lead to more teaching about the diversity of Wales may find it does not because that diversity is so often invisible in existing practices. Where teachers come from, where they go to university and who they are will have profound influences on the evolution of the new curriculum.

The freedom the curriculum gives teachers is both its strength and its weakness. It should allow teachers to tell the stories of their own communities and to give them and their pupils a sense of ownership over those histories. It is certainly a recognition of teachers’ professional standing and experience. It should give them the opportunity to innovate and develop exciting programmes that inspire our children.

But it will also be up against the challenges of time and resource that teachers face. It will be up against the real socio-economic inequalities which exist and which challenge teachers in their daily working lives. It will be easier to develop innovative curricula in schools where teachers are not dealing with the extra demands of kids who have missed breakfast or who have difficult home lives. The very real danger of the new curriculum is that it will exacerbate the already significant difference between schools in affluent areas and schools that are not.

The age of devolution has seen too many excellent policies flounder because of how they were (or were not) implemented. There will be an onus on government to ensure that schools are not cast adrift and left to work out things for themselves.  They need support and, I suspect, a whole host of exemplar programmes to show the curriculum can work in practice. If those exemplars are of high enough quality, schools will adopt them. It is through such exemplars and resources that there is the best opportunity to ensure the important themes and events in our history are taught in our schools.

In Game of Thrones, Tyrion Lannister claims that it is stories that bind people together. He is right. History’s stories can inspire, empower, liberate and unite us. It is not necessary that everyone knows all the stories. It will be impossible to agree which stories matter most and how they should be taught. There is nothing wrong with empowering the storytellers to make those decisions. This makes political and pedagogical sense.

But I also cannot help worrying that the new curriculum might further fragment society.  Despite my belief that all histories are equally valid, I cannot escape a nagging doubt that it would be wrong if children did not what know the basics of what happened in the Second World War or that people of colour have a long and rich history in Wales. 1919 is a reminder of what can happen when societies are not bound together. It should not be forgotten. 





The march for Welsh independence and dreaming of a better, fairer world

35,35,199,213.041809Like the political meetings of old, yesterday’s March for Welsh Independence was a mix of the serious and the theatrical.  With the sun shining, there was a joyous and good-humoured mood amongst the crowd. A few had come up in fancy dress and far more had brought flags. Alongside the Red Dragon and the logo of Yes Cymru (the umbrella movement for Welsh independence), were the banners of Glyndŵr, Scotland, Cornwall and Catalonia. There was singing and chanting that any football crowd would have been proud of.

There was even some pantomime booing of the representative of Welsh Labour. But of all the speeches, he made one of the most important points. If Welsh independence is going to happen, it needs the support of people who vote Labour. The turnout and atmosphere at the march may have been uplifting but it does not change the fact that Welsh independence remains very much a minority position. An opinion poll this month had support for it standing at 12%.

This owes something to perceptions that Wales is too small or too poor but it also owes something to how nationalism is perceived. Although the vast majority of people across Europe are nationalists in the sense they believe in nation states, nationalism remains a word that a great many people find uncomfortable because of its historical associations with arrogance, racial hatred, and conflict. The Second World War looms large in the popular cultures of the UK and Europe.

That was not the kind of nationalism that was on display yesterday. The speakers emphasised that Wales is a country that belongs to everyone who lives here. They spoke of social justice, equality, the environment, feminism, and internationalism. They spoke of a Wales that welcomes people rather than shuts them out. It was a vision of a better world.

The current economic and political model that dominates the UK and much of the western world is broken. It prioritises economic growth and works on the assumption that wealth will trickle downwards from large corporations and the well off. It fails to understand that wealth is finite because the physical resources that generate wealth are finite. It fails to understand that communities and economies work better when built from the bottom rather than the top.

Those who support our current economic and political model understand that inequality is the source of most of the discontent that exists in the world. Yet they fail to do anything radical to tackle that and remained wedded to the very model that has created the inequality. That model needs discarding. As more and more economists are arguing, there is a need to replace targets of growth with ones based around sustainability, redistribution and well being. This requires a change in mindset as much as policy.

The United Kingdom is probably incapable of making this shift, at least in the short and medium term. But the longer nothing happens, the greater inequality becomes, the longer people carry on living in poverty, and the greater the damage done to the only planet we have.

A new Wales is an opportunity for a new economy and a new society built around principles of sustainability, equality and well being.  It is an opportunity to rethink our core principles and to start again. Even having a debate about independence can help deliver change because it challenges us to ask big questions and to reconsider the very way we organise our world.

Of course, not every supporter of Welsh independence would agree with the vision outlined by the new generation of economic thinkers or yesterday’s speakers. There are supporters of independence on the right who have a very different vision for Wales. There are also others who might agree with the ideas of social justice that independence could deliver but who are primarily motivated by the principle of Welsh independence. There were elements of that visible yesterday in calls and chants for a Free Wales.

The case for Welsh independence will never be won by such calls. Yesterday morning I told a friend I was going to a march for Welsh independence and she asked ‘independent from what?’ The majority of people in Wales simply do not regard themselves as living in an unfree country; they do not see the British state as an alien imposition. Survey after survey shows most people in Wales regard themselves as British as well as Welsh.

This is not false consciousness or Stockholm Syndrome. National identity is subjective, personal and emotional. Feeling British is no more ‘wrong’ than feeling Welsh is. Feeling Welsh and British is no more illogical than feeling Welsh and European. It is perfectly possible to feel you belong to more than one place. The movement for Welsh independence seems to be led (quite understandably) by people who do not regard themselves as British but electoral numbers mean it cannot be won without those who do consider themselves British.

For all the patriotism displayed yesterday, this is not what will deliver Welsh independence. What could deliver it is the speakers’ vision of a society that puts social justice first and it is the potential for independence to deliver a better, fairer world that makes it worth discussing at the very least, regardless of any question of nationality.

Yesterday was about optimism and looking forward. It was about imagining better ways of doing things. That is a message that has loud resonance and which can overcome doubts and fears about nationalism. It can win over people regardless of how they label themselves.  Whatever happens to Wales’ constitutional status, our society and our politics needs more optimism and the confidence to not just dream of a better world but to deliver one too. For our small corner of the globe, yesterday was a small but significant step in that direction.




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

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.

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.


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. 

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


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?


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.