From militant action to marches, part one: Ant Heald interviews historian and author Wyn Thomas
In Hands Off Wales, recently republished by Y Lolfa after selling out its original print-run, Dr Wyn Thomas produced the definitive account of militant Welsh nationalist activity in the 1960s, and the same publisher will later this year publish his account of the events that precipitated that phase of nationalist activity, and which forms a central part of the iconography of current Welsh nationalism, in Tryweryn: New Dawn?
In a lengthy and stimulating conversation on Zoom I was able to talk to Dr Thomas, about his life and work.
Hands Off Wales is an exhilarating, if at times rather tricky read. Unlike most books that emerge from a PhD thesis, the book has a strong narrative thread, a fascinating cast of characters, and because it deals with events that have been largely lost from public consciousness for many readers, me included, it contains surprises and plot-twists that would grace any ‘whodunnit’.
However, a large proportion of the book consists of footnotes, often several to each page, many of which recount fascinating details and character sketches, and accounts of extensive correspondence and countless telephone interviews that, along with exhaustive analysis of documentary evidence, all meticulously referenced, give this study its weight and authority.
In the book, Thomas addresses the neglect of the bombing campaign of Mudiad Amddiffyn Cymru (MAC) and the ‘propaganda campaign’ of the Free Wales Army, suggesting that “neither group would have materialised had ‘the party of Wales’ [Plaid Cymru] taken a more determined stance when first confronted with the proposal to flood Cwm Tryweryn,” and he asserts, “this scant historical attention serves only to convince many linked to the nationalist cause that there is a deliberate policy of academic and media indifference.”
In email correspondence prior to our interview, Thomas was keen to ensure I understood his view that “issues as emotionally charged as national identity are routinely difficult to resolve through dialogue, discourse and a policy of compromise”, but that such an approach should be used from the outset and pursued to exhaustion, because “lives are invariably ruined or tarnished by militant action.” He also believes that “what the book tells us more than anything is that Wales’s unique cultural identity is worth preserving; so too, that Wales is richly blessed in so many ways.”
On the face of it, these clearly expressed opinions seem to contradict Thomas’s views in background notes he had sent to me in which he quotes French historian Marc Bloch’s declaration that ‘the historian’s sole duty is to understand’ not ‘pass judgement’ and Richard J Evans view that ‘The historian’s job is to explain; it is for others to judge.’
I begin our conversation by asking Thomas to elaborate on the extent to which it is possible to present such an objective and neutral view of historical events.
He responds, not with an argument about academic theory, or historical method, but by launching into an anecdote from his youth, when he was devouring history books and protest songs, and learning at home about a history that formal schooling, from which he felt disaffected, had ignored.
He tells me of reading Roy Clews’ To Dream of Freedom, a sympathetically partisan account of the MAC and FWA era, written at the height of the Meibion Glyndŵr arson campaign of the 1970s.
At the time he was sympathetic to their aims and methods. “I was quite proud of this as a young Welshman impassioned about the need to protect our cultural heritage, and I said to my mother ‘this is fantastic, these boys tried to blow up the pipeline at Crossgates’ which is about five miles from where we lived, and she said ‘It’s all very well you saying that, but your father was out patrolling those pipelines and I was worried sick about what might happen to him, with me at home and three young sons to bring up.’
“I remember being quite shocked by that, and feeling the pressure on us as a family with my father being a policeman. And what I’m taking from it is that there’s got to be balance there. You’ve got to be objective – as much as you can be. You’ve got to try and keep your own thoughts and feelings out of it, even if you provide them in a way which, despite your best efforts to be impartial, suggests your sympathies might lie in a certain direction.”
It becomes obvious that Wyn Thomas’s sympathies do lie broadly in the direction of Welsh nationalism, but that his intention is to present clearly and comprehensively all the evidence he encounters and uncovers, regardless of whether it supports or undermines that cause.
Nevertheless, how material is selected and presented, and the relative weight given to different elements, inevitably steers the reader in one direction rather than another.
Reading Hands Off Wales, I couldn’t help wondering, for example, if I was getting a more sympathetic picture of the leader of MAC, John Jenkins, than perhaps he deserved. A significant proportion of the book is derived from interviews with Jenkins, and indeed Thomas went on to write John Jenkins: The Reluctant Revolutionary?, promoted as an ‘authorised biography’ and with a foreword from Jenkins himself. Did he, I wonder, become too close to Jenkins to have the dispassionate historian’s view that he aspires to?
Certainly, he allows Jenkins perception of himself as a passionate but rational individual who claimed that “MAC were ‘peaceful men’ akin to an ‘enraged father’” to be presented in a way that seemed to me thematically central. But as I read Hands Off Wales, there were far less savoury elements that emerged in a way that seemed incidental to the main narrative but that struck me with particular force, and I was keen to delve farther into what Thomas’s personal thoughts are about some of the more potentially emotive material that is presented in his characteristically dispassionate way.
In particular, there is a witness statement from one of Jenkins’ MAC colleagues that describes Jenkins discussing MAC’s strategy for achieving Home Rule for Wales, which included a plan to escalate the militant campaign, and then “as a means of ‘antagonising the local populace’, Welsh women were to be raped by MAC personnel wearing British army uniforms.” Jenkins admitted that “sexual assault on Welsh women had been discussed at senior MAC level, but it had been rejected as immoral and counterproductive.”
When I suggest that the idea of even hatching and discussing such an appalling plan, even though not carried through, suggests something rotten at the heart of the movement and its leader, Thomas returns first to the clear judgement with which he ends the book, insisting that “playing with lives of innocents is a very dangerous game” which would lead to “spiralling chaos that would help no-one, not to mention the repugnance of it.”
He goes on to wrestle with what are clearly conflicted feelings about the militant campaign and its leader, insisting that Jenkins was “a very caring, compassionate man and I don’t see him endorsing that policy.” But he also recalls that Jenkins was capable of “a detached view” and would have sanctioned the killing of Prince Charles at his investiture as Prince of Wales if he’d been convinced it would have advanced the cause of Welsh independence. “I was driving away from the interview,” Thomas continues, “thinking ‘what have I just heard?’”
His feelings emerge freely in a way he excludes from his scholarly writing, as he continues, “I mean, I’ve got two daughters, and I just think, ‘what the…?’ All this says is that this is a campaign that’s lost its moral compass.”
As I come to better understand Wyn Thomas’s personal feelings about the issues, events and personalities he has written about, the more sympathetic I become towards his approach as a historian. Even if I remain sceptical of the idea of objective, value-free historical understanding and explanation, it is clear that what Thomas seeks to do, and I think succeeds in doing, is to allow complexity and nuance to emerge, resisting the temptation to offer a simplistic narrative and definitive conclusions.
And it occurs to me that we need much more of this. In what seems to be an increasingly shrill and polarised world, a willingness to resist simplistic binaries seems increasingly rare but all the more essential. We need to recognise that there is more to people than either their best or worst actions and attitudes; at the same time, we surely need to have ways of charting a course towards goals we believe to be laudable, and of identifying lines that should not be crossed in order to get there.
This leads us on to discussion of the ideology behind the militant Welsh nationalists. After moving to Llanelli, I had witnessed a march commemorating the 1911 railway strike, and the shooting dead of two bystanders by British troops. I was disturbed to see what looked to me like a ‘fascistic’ emblem on a flag carried by a small group wearing what looked paramilitary uniforms and regalia. I later found that the emblem was that of the Free Welsh Army — the stylised eagle of Eryri — designed by Swansea poet Harri Webb. This was my first introduction to the existence of militant activity of the 1960s, and seeing even a small representation of what looked visually like far-right iconography made me uneasy.
In the absence of much detail in Hands Off Wales about the social and political outcomes the militants were seeking beyond the immediate goal of independence, I ask Wyn what he thought they were fighting for. He was keen to emphasise that Harri Webb’s eagle of Snowdonia symbol was not intended to be fascistic, but again he shifts swiftly into a very personal and impassioned recollection of watching television news coverage in the early 1990s of a memorial gathering for the two men who were killed by a bomb they were planting in Abergele on the eve of the investiture of Prince Charles, and feeling repulsed by the presence of some attendees replicating the militant style with berets and dark glasses. “That paramilitary aspect is not what Welsh nationalism is about,” he insists, “it’s the opposite of what we want.”
That ‘we’ is telling. It is clear that Wyn Thomas, for all that his writing as a historian seeks to lay out the facts, to understand and to explain, leaving the reader to judge, does have very clear and strident views about the subject matter of his work: that Wales and its culture are threatened and need defending, but that defence must stop short of violence.
“What really brought it home to me,” he says, “was interviewing Jennie Taylor.” The daughter of George Taylor, one of those killed in the Abergele blast, has always insisted that her father was innocent and was trying to prevent MAC operative Alwyn Jones from planting the bomb. Hearing at first hand from Jennie how her family’s life had been turned upside down by the violence had clearly affected Thomas.
In addition to the loss of a loving husband and father, the family were shunned by many in the community, had excrement pushed through their door, and one of the many footnotes in Hands Off Wales that contain details every bit as compelling as the main body of the text, Thomas reveals that Jennie was “systematically bullied by her head teacher” and when a new pupil or member of staff arrived was “forced to stand on a chair and inform the new arrival that her father had ‘tried to kill the Prince of Wales.’”
Such details are a reminder that Wales was, and remains, divided on the relationship of Wales to the wider United Kingdom and its institutions, and that opposition to the militant nationalists was not only to their methods, but for many, also to the very project of distancing Wales from the United Kingdom. Again, however, Thomas is keen to avoid polarised binaries, noting that it was perfectly possible to be opposed to the flooding of Cwm Tryweryn to supply water to Liverpool, and opposed to Welsh independence.
Part two will continue tomorrow.
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