Why Wales Never Was – A Review

As a teenager I was strongly influenced by the late, great Professor Gwyn Alf Williams; initially as a result of his contribution to “The Dragon has Two Tongues,” the iconic HTV history programme from 1985 which he co-presented with Wynford Vaughan-Thomas. Later, the influence became even stronger through the book he wrote to accompany the series: entitled “When Was Wales?” I’ve never shared his politics, but oh, for an ounce of his passion! Even so, he didn’t give a satisfactory answer to his own question, and ended his book as bleakly as only a Marxist writing at the peak of Mrs. Thatcher’s popularity could.

Wynford Vaughan Thomas and Gwyn Alf Williams, two equally distinguished but very different Welshmen

John Davies, writing his monumental History of Wales five years later, quoted Williams and concluded his work with “this book is written in the faith and confidence that the nation in its fullness is yet to be”.

It’s a little surprising, then, that it has taken 25 years for anyone seriously to address the question “well, why not?”, and to his great credit Simon Brooks has grasped the nettle and done exactly that.

Brooks’s work, first published in 2015, is available in English as “Why Wales Never Was” and in Welsh as “Pam Na Fu Cymru.” This review is based on the Welsh version, but I assume the English text comes to the same conclusions.

A question that should have been asked sooner

Ljubljana, capital of Slovenia; a sleepy backwater in Austria-Hungary at a time when Wales was one of the richest parts of the British Empire

In sharp contrast to Williams’s book or even Davies’s, this is not a page-turning popular history book but (despite its modest length of 195 pages) an academic tome, thick with references to 18th and 19th Century German philosophers – such as Johann Gottfried von Herder – whom I had not previously encountered. But the German-speaking dimension is very relevant, since his main area of interest is to compare and contrast 19th Century Wales with central and eastern Europe during the same period. Why, he asks, were previously-downtrodden nations such as the Czechs, Slovaks, Slovenes, Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians able to build strong national and linguistic movements in the 19th Century?  How did they go on to achieve independence in the 20th Century and astonishing prosperity in the 21st, whilst Wales failed to do any of this despite everything having been apparently in its favour?

The Culprit

Brooks’s answer, in a nutshell, is Liberalism; 19th Century Wales swallowed hook, line and sinker a political philosophy which placed individual freedom and opportunity far above any sort of national and community cohesion. This left little place for any concept of a distinctive national identity. Far from being downtrodden, every Welshman was offered the full privileges of being a citizen of the British Empire with all the opportunities that entailed – if only he would forget his allegiance to Wales and become to all intents and purposes a good Englishman. Very, very many chose to do just that. Whereas in the east of Europe there were no such privileges on offer and people saw their path to emancipation corporately, as communities and nations, in Wales the ambitious youngster had every incentive to put Wales behind him and become a citizen of the world, or at least of the Empire.

Meanwhile, those who sought to consign the Welsh language to history genuinely thought that, far from oppressing the Welsh, they were liberating them by bestowing upon them all the privileges of becoming an Englishman. All too many of the Welsh agreed wholeheartedly with them.

An unexpected twist

Simon Brooks, currently an Associate Professor at Swansea Business School

In an era when in academia, politics and the media we are used to hearing Welsh life critiqued from the Left, having set out his stall Brooks then throws a curveball by establishing his position firmly on the Right. He rightly draws attention to the often-neglected patriots whose affiliation has been with the Conservative party, such as the circle around Lady Charlotte Guest in Llanofer, John Arthur Price (a close associate of Emrys ap Iwan), and even the founder of Plaid Cymru, Saunders Lewis. He could have added Lewis’s co-founder, Ambrose Bebb (whose grandson now sits as the Conservative MP for Aberconwy) and Capt. Richard Williams, to whom R. Williams Parry dedicated an englyn and added the comment “he is a warm-hearted Welshman, and a member of the Church of England; a member of the Church of England and the Urdd. A member of the Urdd and an army officer. An army officer and a passionate Welshman. Fearfully and wonderfully made.”

Brooks sees a smooth continuity between the Liberal Party of the 19th Century and the Labour Party of the 20th, excoriating the latter by pointing out that “by the end of the 20th Century, the Labour Party had been more responsible for undermining the Welsh people’s national and language rights than any other institution in the whole of Welsh history.”

Unsurprisingly, he views the current alignment of Plaid Cymru with the political Left, which was at its most explicit under Leanne Wood at the time he was writing, as a historic mistake which will render Plaid Cymru unable to deliver real progress for Wales – any more than Labour ever has. He argues that Liberalism, in any form, will never be able to safeguard the rights of any minority that wishes to retain a degree of distinctiveness, since all its instincts are towards imposing a uniformity of thought and attitude – which inevitably ends up reflecting the thoughts and attitudes of those who already have power.

A response

What is one to make of all this? Brooks is surely right about his main point. Liberalism, in the form of the 19th Century Liberal Party, the 20th Century Labour Party or the 21st Century ‘equality and diversity’ movement, offers a Grand Bargain: “lay aside everything that makes you distinctive, join us (the Empire/the Workers’ Struggle/the bien pensants/the Woke) and we’ll see you right”. You don’t have to spend long looking around Wales today to see how that promise has been delivered so far: despite having suffered two centuries of dilution of our own culture, traditions and values, we are far poorer relative to the rest of the UK than we have ever been.

Yet it’s important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Economic liberalism – free markets, low trade barriers, the rule of law – remains the most powerful engine of wealth creation, and elimination of inequality, that the world has ever seen. It has lifted billions out of grinding poverty within our own lifetimes. It’s social liberalism, with its tendency to impose uniformity even while it claims to celebrate diversity, that does the damage.

I think that part of the problem is that it fails to put a proper economic value on distinctiveness, and how important it is for people to be true to themselves and their heritage rather than being beaten down to a dull uniformity. I don’t know anyone who has articulated this better than C.S. Lewis.

Lewis is often thought of as a quintessential Englishman, what with his distinguished Oxbridge career and assured place in the canon of 20th Century English literature, but in fact he was a proud Ulsterman with Welsh roots – he was brought up in Belfast, where his grandfather lived a stone’s throw from the Harland and Wolff shipyard in a house named “Tŷ Isa”; I visited there last summer. In his 1960 philosophical treatise “The Four Loves”, he has this to say about love of country:

C. S. Lewis, author of the Narnia books and much else besides.

“Note that at its largest this is, for us, a love of England, Wales, Scotland, or Ulster. Only foreigners and politicians talk about “Britain”. With this love for the place there goes a love for the way of life; for beer and tea and open fires, trains with compartments in them and an unarmed police force and all the rest of it; for the local dialect and (a shade less) for our native language. As Chesterton says, a man’s reasons for not wanting his country to be ruled by foreigners are very like his reasons for not wanting his house to be burned down; because he “could not even begin” to enumerate all the things he would miss.

“Of course patriotism of this kind is not in the least aggressive. It asks only to be let alone. It becomes militant only to protect what it loves. In any mind which has a pennyworth of imagination it produces a good attitude towards foreigners. How can I love my home without coming to realise that other men, no less rightly, love theirs? Once you have realised that the Frenchmen like café complet just as we like bacon and eggs – why, good luck to them and let them have it. The last thing we want is to make everywhere else just like our own home. It would not be home unless it were different.”

Where Liberalism fails is that it sets no value on “all the things he would miss.”

Making a market

Towards the end of his book, Brooks makes this very perceptive point: “The Welsh language as a right for individuals creates a market, and is encouraged; the Welsh language as a right for communities hinders the market, and is not tolerated”. That hits the nail on the head, but the problem is not that there’s a market per se but that the market is not working properly: the value that everyone derives from living in their own community, and that they lose when that community is taken from them, is not being priced in.

The political challenge is to redress that deficiency, something which cannot be done (as far as I can see) in a situation where all the levers of the market are controlled, not by communities, but by ideologies that originate far away and are relentlessly foisted upon us by every level from the United Nations downwards. For this to happen, Welsh citizens need to understand the extent to which first the Liberals and then the Labour party have sold us a pup; we need decisively to reject being part of a UK-wide or even EU-wide continuum and assert our national distinctiveness. As C.S. Lewis so eloquently put it, far from making us aggressive nativists it will make us what we ought to have been for centuries by now: a nation which is comfortable in its own skin, at ease with itself and its neighbours, and showing as clearly as the Czechs or Estonians do that there is no conflict between being successful and being ourselves.

2 thoughts on “Why Wales Never Was – A Review

  1. The central points of the argument as I understand it:

    “the problem is not that there’s a market per se but that the market is not working properly: the value that everyone derives from living in their own community, and that they lose when that community is taken from them, is not being priced in.” … “all the levers of the market are controlled, not by communities, but by ideologies that originate far away” …

    “we need decisively to reject being part of a UK-wide or even EU-wide continuum and assert our national distinctiveness.”

    As Richard Douthwaite (The Growth Illusion, Short Circuit, The Ecology of Money) once observed, when the EU makes funds available for some infrastructure project to remote communities (he used a bridge to an island on the Irish west cost as an example) it is sold as a project to benefit the community yet its real purpose is to extend EU / multinational corporate access and control into that community. The result is a degradation of the local economy and self-sufficiency and increased dependency of forces outside the community’s control – all sold under the false promise of greater prosperity, opportunities, efficiency, and so on.

    So, this article begs the question – how do we turn this around? How do we build a more national, community-focused market economy that serves the people first rather than international capital that undermines community and heritage in the never ending search for profits and/or remain solvent?

    Saying that we need to do things differently is correct, but how to we get from here to there? Where is the bridge? I disagree that we are being controlled by ‘far away ideologies’. It’s not so much ‘ideologies’ that are the problem. The driving force that shapes the world we live in the money system. As Bernard Lietaer (The Future of Money) once wrote (something like): Money for people is like water to fish – it’s the medium in which we exist yet its nature remains unknown.

    It is the money system more than Liberal ideology that continues to denigrate Welsh national life. One could even make the argument that Liberal ideology is a product of the money system, not vice versa. In the same respect, hyper-destructive neo-liberalism is the consequences of removing the gold standard in 1971 and shifting to a deregulated takeover of the money system by commercial banks via bank credit/loans. So, what can we do?

    As the famous quote of Buckminster Fuller goes: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” This, I believe is the key. Remember the co-operative movement got its start in Wales. It’s still part of our social fabric. It’s time to start envisioning and building a new model. We are ready for it.

  2. If you haven’t chanced across it already, Simon, there’s a series of four articles elsewhere on this blog discussing the monetary system and the choices facing an independent Wales. Here’s a link to the first of them, and they’re all in sequence:


    I fear you may find us a little conventional, since for my part I don’t subscribe to either a return to the Gold Standard nor to ‘Sovereign money’ – I think the currency system we’ve got is probably the best available to us, and the problem is not so much how it’s structured but how it’s used i.e. holding interest rates excessively low to avoid deflation even in those parts of the economy which would benefit from it, at the price of excessive inflation in asset prices.

    Though the possibilities offered by cryptocurrencies are intriguing, and the monetary landscape could possibly look quite different a generation from now.

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