Review: Wales – England’s Colony?

The book (left) and Martin Johnes (right)

Ifan Morgan Jones

This is a review and discussion of the book Wales – England’s Colony?, rather than the two part TV series that will screen on BBC2 Wales tomorrow night (Monday) at 9pm.

Although I would presumes of course that the argument put forth by Professor of History at Swansea University, Martin Johnes, will be the same in both book and series, so it may well be a kind of a review of both.

It’s something of a feature of books about Welsh history, that they have a lot of questions marks in their titles.

We’ve had When Was Wales? by Gwyn Alf, Wales! Wales? by Dai Smith, and now this. I suppose it does reflect the ambiguous, half-way house nature of Welsh nationhood.

And one of the key questions that Welsh historians have grappled with – most notably and influentially perhaps in Michael Hechter’s book Internal Colonialism – is whether or not Wales is a colony of England.

This question has in the past tended to concentrate on the issue of 19th and 20th-century economics.

For instance, some have argued that Wales’ economy was and is extractive while others claims that the placement of key harbours within Wales suggests rather that Wales was a central part of a wider British economy and has benefitted from its wealth.

Others have concentrated on the politics, suggesting that the ‘colony’ narrative came to such prominence because it was a simple way of unifying Welsh cultural nationalism with the labour movement.

Martin Johnes’ argument is that Wales certainly became an English colony through conquest. But the answer since then is very much like a Facebook relationship status update: ‘It’s complicated.’

There is no doubt that some evidence of colonialism can be found in England’s relationship with Wales, but there is a danger of looking back through the prism of today’s politics and our own views and finding what we want to find, he says.

After all, there are a thousand years of history between Wales and England and if we rummage around we’re sure to find what we want there.

The difficulty as he points out is that national identity is something that is created and recreated all the time, and part of that process is to recreate the past.

Martin Johnes points out a number of inconvenient facts which challenge our selective interpretation. Llywelyn Fawr and Owain Glyndŵr both served in English armies.

England has never made a concerted attempt to exterminate Welsh culture as many other modern nation-states have the minority languages and cultures within their own borders.

The Welsh were also very enthusiastic partners in the British Empire.

Martin also makes the important point that national identity as we know it today is largely a modern creation. The literate elites of the past may have spoken of Wales and England, but before the industrial revolution got going, for much of the peasantry their world began and ended within the narrow confines of the valley where they lived.

Popular

So far I don’t think any authority on Welsh history or culture would really disagree with much of what he has to say here. But likely to be more controversial is that he challenges the argument that a postcolonial mindset remains in Wales to this day.

Martin dismissed the idea, suggested by many Welsh academics, that the Britishness to which the Welsh are loyal is a form of false consciousness – a hangover from the country’s colonial past.

I broadly agree with him but think he does perhaps go too far in the other direction at times in arguing that the Welsh had a choice in everything that happened to them. “Both cultural and political changes [in Wales] were the outcomes of people’s choices,” he says.

This in my mind ignores the way the industrial revolution, in particular, simply swept Welsh people into a different political and cultural world “without a sail or an oar” as Richard Wyn Jones once memorably put it.

There were socio-economic factors at work here that most Welsh people, transported from a medieval to an industrial world at breakneck speed, really did have not much real control over.

Neither do I entirely agree with the implication that the growth in political power for Wales is some kind of replacement for its distinctive culture.

The growth in Welsh political institutions, in my opinion, grew out of the fertile compost of religious cultural nationalism in the latter half of the 19th century and linguistic nationalism in the latter half of the 20th century.

But perhaps it’s not particularly fair to split academic hairs with a book that is meant to be popular rather than academic, and engage a broader audience in this interesting debate.

The main value of this book for the bulk of its readers will be to introduce them to large parts of Welsh history that they do not know about.

Blame

The irony with any discussion on national identity is that it’s a bit like the observer effect in physics. Because the interpretation of history is such a key part of national identity, it’s difficult for a historian to discuss a nation’s history without influencing its identity in some way.

Martin Johnes says: “The reality is that there are no clear lessons from the past, only tantalising hints to be plundered and moulded to suit pre-existing political beliefs.”

And he does plunder one key lesson here, which is very difficult to disagree with.

Which is that it’s generally “much easier to blame England for everything that is wrong with Wales” rather than take control of our own future.

“The lack of national confidence that is so often bemoaned in Wales can be attributed to this present-day perception of national victimhood more than any actual historical oppression,” he argues.

So, while I don’t fully agree that colonial oppression has been completely consigned to the past, I think the lesson that Martin has fished out of that past does have a lot of practical use in the present.

If only we can get past blaming England – and an obsessive need to beat them at rugby – and realise that we the Welsh people have the power to control our own destiny now, we’ll be in a better place.

Perhaps the reinterpretation of the past as one where Wales has not been a colony for much of its history is a key stage in getting over the post-colonial mindset which continues to afflict us.

Who said history and national identity were complicated?

This is an engaging and thought-provoking book that’s definitely worth a read and I have no doubt that the TV series will be worth a watch too.

Wales – England’s Colony? is published by Parthian Books and costs £8.99. It can be bought here.


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