The creation of the Welsh Office…

It’s 50 years since the Welsh Office was created. Here’s an extract from my book Wales since 1939 that outlines the background behind its creation and the growth of Welsh administrative devolution.

Fears about the economic future in the late 1940s and early 1950s had also created demands within the Labour Party for some official recognition of distinct Welsh needs and a distinct Welsh identity.  In an acknowledgement that Wales did at least exist as an economic, administrative and cultural unit, a Council for Wales and Monmouthshire had been set up in 1949 as a non-elected advisory body to the government.  It came under the chairmanship of Huw T. Edwards, a Caernarfonshire trade unionist whose profile through the 1950s saw him dubbed the ‘unofficial prime minister of Wales’.  Looking back in 1958, a civil servant argued that the council had probably be intended as ‘relatively meaningless sop’ but Edwards’ personality had seen it gain a good deal of importance.  Through the 1950s the Council did keep up the pressure on the government to create a Welsh Office and Secretary of State, framing its demands more in terms of effective government than national recognition.  The Council was taken seriously by government but Edwards resigned in 1958 after it became apparent that it was not going introduce a Secretary of State. The government interpreted the Council’s demands as a desire for parity with Scotland but feared that should that be granted then Scotland might demand further devolution.  Given that Wales was operating under the same legal system, it foresaw that any Secretary of State would have to follow different policies to England in order not to make the position superfluous.  This, it feared, would be difficult to explain and would lead to inequalities that would be especially manifest in the Marches where social and economic ties crossed the border.  It also worried about the costs and administrative complexity of forming yet another department and feared controversy over the position of Monmouthshire, which it regarded as an English county but one that by tradition would have to be included in Welsh administration.

There was some popular support for devolving some powers from London.  In 1956 the Parliament for Wales campaign presented a petition with 240,652 signatures, representing some fourteen percent of the Welsh electorate.  Gwynfor Evans estimated that 80 percent of the people asked had signed it.  This was the culmination of a six-year campaign that had included leading figures from Labour, the Liberals and Plaid Cymru.  But it won no sympathy with the government or most of the press.  The Cardiff Labour MP George Thomas thought the Welsh people needed saving from themselves, while David Llewellyn, a Tory MP in the same city, even drew parallels between the campaign and Mein Kampf.  The lack of specificity in the campaign’s claims probably made it easier to collect signatures but the internal disagreements within the campaign over what Wales’ problems actually were and how a parliament would solve them undermined its political influence.  At the end of 1956, one of the leading figures in the campaign reflected ‘All the petition’s papers are now in cardboard boxes, one on top of each other, rotting through dampness’. The campaign did help raise the profile of Plaid Cymru and was another step towards the gradual construction of a proto-Welsh state but ultimately its failure marked a widespread satisfaction with the status quo.  This was clear when the South Wales area of the NUM voted against the campaign, fearing it would undermine the UK bargaining position of the union.

The Tryweryn revolt, the reports of the Council for Wales and the Parliament for Wales campaign may not have secured their immediate objectives but cumulatively they encouraged government to take specifically Welsh interests seriously.  In 1958, civil servants anticipated that Plaid Cymru could grow if Welsh feelings were ‘handled tactlessly’ and if there was a fusion between the party and elements within Labour that were ‘more Welsh than Socialist’.  The key to avoiding this, they felt, lay in persuading Wales that the government was taking its economic welfare seriously and dispelling the ‘widespread notion that people in England neither know nor care whether the Welsh and Welsh culture fare well or ill’.  Seven months earlier the Prime Minister had told his cabinet, “There is a general feeling among Welsh people that their particular interests are not receiving the attention which they should and we shall need to be specially careful and sympathetic in our handling of Welsh affairs at the present time if we are to prevent the Welsh Nationalist movement from gaining ground.”

In response to pressure from Welsh MPs for a Secretary for State for Wales, the Conservatives had already introduced a Minister of Welsh Affairs in 1951, a post held by an existing Cabinet member with a different portfolio.  Although the minister did not have a government department, the position did ensure someone within the Cabinet with a specific remit to look after and act on Welsh interests.  The first holder was the Home Secretary Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, a Scottish lawyer, who tried to defuse criticism that he was not Welsh by claiming that that one of his ancestors had led an army from Scotland which tried to join Owain Glyndwr.  He proved the worth of the post by shelving unpopular forestry and military plans for Welsh land. Although there were still the occasional controversy – such as the government’s 1960 appointment of a non-Welsh speaker as National Governor of the BBC in Wales – there were significant signs of increased sensitivity to Wales.  In 1958, a Festival of Wales was held under the government’s auspices. It culminated in the holding of the Commonwealth Games in Cardiff and the announcement by the Queen that Charles would be made Prince of Wales.  The introduction of county rather than national referenda on Sunday opening in 1961 was a concession for rural Wales, as was the main Mid Wales railway line’s survival of the Beeching cut. The government began giving financial support for the publishing of Welsh-language school books in 1954, and the 1959 Eisteddfod Act allowed local authorities to support financially the National Eisteddfod.  In 1958, a new steel development went to Llanwern rather than Scotland after anger in Wales that the Forth Bridge had been given priority over the Severn Bridge, despite the Minister for Welsh Affairs arguing the Severn’s case to combat the ‘wide and deep distrust of the Government’s attitude towards Wales’. Cardiff was made the official capital of Wales in 1955 and four years later government pressure on Buckingham Palace led to the Red Dragon being declared the official national flag.  These Conservative concessions were the result of external pressure on the party but they also show how the existence of a minister for Wales and then sensitivity over Tryweryn increased the influence of Welsh interests in government.

In contrast, internal pressure from Labour MPs, not least James Griffiths, led that party to finally commit itself to creating a Secretary of State for Wales, a promise which it honoured when it returned to power in 1964.  Not everyone in government was enamoured.  In his diary, Richard Crossman called the Welsh Office an ‘idiotic creation’ and ‘completely artificial’.  There was also some concern in the north that Wales’s voice in Cabinet would actually diminish because the post meant Welsh affairs would be treated separately after England had been looked at.  The Secretary of State would be ‘a lone voice, and one can only hope for the best’ one paper surmised.  But one immediate benefit was felt.  The new department took the importance of expanding the M4 far more seriously than the Ministry of Transport and plans were quickly put in place for a series of new sections that would open through the 1970s.

The full and referenced version of this text can be found in Martin Johnes, Wales since 1939 (Manchester University Press, 2012), available in paperback, hardback and on Kindle.

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Disco for the Eyes: NME’s review of Star Wars

I stumbled on this last week whilst reading through the NME’s incessant hatred of Christmas songs. The NME thought it was far too cool for its own good but this is unusually perceptive.

“Star Wars is the only movie I’ve ever seen which captures the unique feeling of reading comic books while stoned. … The ‘70s are a time of coping with psychic defeats and the deadening of our collective nerve ends, and Star Wars is an entertainment built around spectacle: it tickles, dazzles and delights the senses while leaving the intellect and the emotions as undisturbed as possible. Finally, it’s disco for the eyes.”

New Musical Express 24 December 1977

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What next? Some back of the envelope thinking

It was nowhere near as close as many hoped or feared but 1.6m UK citizens still said they wanted out. The prime minister has reaffirmed his commitment to the vague devo-max promises made late in the day.  Fearing the rise of UKIP, his backbenchers insist that the ‘English question’ needs sorting too. Despite the uncertainties, constitutional change is coming.

Scotland will sort itself out I’m sure. The backlash would be too great if they did not get something acceptable to the Scottish government.  The Tory  backbenchers would no doubt like to see public spending in Scotland brought into line with England but the PM seems to have committed to the Barnett formula that allows higher Scottish spending, while oil revenues offer him a justification to defend that.

The problem with committing to Barnett is that it hurts Wales. Unlike Scotland, Wales gets more from the public purse than it pays in (maybe £12billion a year) but  if its block grant was funded on the same basis as Scotland it would get another £300m a year.  (I’m simplifying but that’s basically the case).

The UK government could of course just change the Barnett formula so Wales and Scotland were treated equitably. However, a greater ‘hand out’ to Wales will not go down well with the backbenchers or the English nationalist party that masquerades as UKIP. It might also mean less cash for Scotland. A future Labour UK government does appear to have promised some sort of Barnett reform  but the details are vague and, anyway, they’re not in power.

Cameron has to face up to solving the Barnett issue because without doing that he can’t deliver “English votes for English issues”. At the moment, the level of public spending in England helps determine the size of the Welsh and Scottish block grants. Thus any vote on, say, English education that involves a change to spending levels is not an England-only issue because it affects the Welsh and Scottish budgets.  Welsh and Scottish MPs will continue to be justified in voting on English issues for as long as Barnett continues.

Thus any constitutional reform of England has to first address how Wales and Scotland are funded.  But it is surely not impossible to come up with a new formula that calculates the Welsh and Scottish block grants based on an equitable assessment of their needs (i.e. the extent of deprivation there and the cost of delivering services).

Once you have a new formula there is nothing to stop a federal parliamentary system for the UK, the ‘home rule for all’ option. Here the Commons becomes the English Parliament and the parliaments of all four nations have fiscal and domestic responsibilities. The Lords, meanwhile, is replaced with a UK-wide new elected chamber that deals with defence and other UK-wide issues. England has a first minister. The UK has a prime minister. They might belong to different parties.

There might need to be some policy alignments between the nations or a retention of some UK-wide domestic issues.  For example, significantly different levels of unemployment benefit and state pensions could lead to some awkward population movements.  But you could leave welfare payments (except housing benefit which is ultimately a local issue) at a UK level.

Most importantly, a federal UK could only work if there was some form of wealth redistribution between the nations. This happens within the EU and would be the cost of retaining some form of political unity and collective safety. In essence what would happen is that Wales and Northern Ireland, using whatever replaced Barnett, would get a subsidy from England, plugging the hole in their finances. If they wanted to spend beyond that they would have to use their tax and borrowing powers.

UKIP would moan but surely would not be in an electoral position to do much about it now the England question is solved.  (The EU issue would still be there but I have enough faith in the English electorate to vote to stay in any European referendum .) Labour would lose some influence in England but not in the UK. They won’t like that but democracy means it is unfair for them to govern England unless they can get a majority there. The Tories would be happy because they  had saved the union, increased their influence in England and hurt UKIP.  National identity in the four nations would be recognized.

The biggest question mark would be whether the English electorate would accept the subsidy of Wales and Northern Ireland.  But that already exists and polls say they want to keep the union and believe in social justice. This is the cost.

I’m sure the devil is in the detail but I’ve put the same level of thought into this as the back of the envelope vows made by the UK parties just before the referendum.

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A personal (and Welsh) view of the referendum

If Scotland votes Yes my wife would be entitled to a new passport. Although it’s two decades since she’s lived there, I suspect she’d take one and I would be married to a foreign citizen. A trip to see her family would still be a long way but would now involve crossing an international boundary.

In this small way my life would change but, less obviously and far more substantively, other things would happen too. The political system that governs my country and the resources at its disposal will change. In some indirect but important fashion this will influence my health care, my job, my commute and my kids’ education.

But I don’t know how things will change and whether they will for better or worse.  The UK economy might plummet at the hands of international monetary forces. But it probably won’t. Wales should get to renegotiate the Barnett formula that has underfunded its public services for more than three decades. But that will be the low on the priorities of a London government trying to figure out how to disentangle two nations that have been one state for more than 300 years.

Indeed, amidst the political fallout and bickering, it may be that Wales and its needs doesn’t get heard at all. It would be nice to think that the London government suddenly gave Wales and Northern Ireland more attention and more resources in order to keep us in the family but I suspect that won’t happen because too much of the English electorate doesn’t care about having us.

My gut instinct is that Scottish independence will leave Wales worse off but I don’t know that. Nor does anyone else and the certainty with which some Welsh nationalists are declaring a Yes vote will be good for us is no more than a hopeful guess.  It’s not that I fear the economy being damaged; it’s more I fear Welsh politicians spending the next two decades gazing at their constitutional navals rather than working at fixing the inequalities and poverty on their doorsteps.

That should leave me wanting a No vote but the speed with which the Westminster elite is starting to wake up to the consequences of its introspection and London-centricism is far too welcome to want it to go away. Indeed, it’s actually funny seeing panic setting in amongst politicians who have been too smug for their own and our good. A Yes vote would give them a kicking they would never be the same again after.

I suspect it’s such feelings that are driving the Scottish Yes vote forward. The arguments on the economics of it all are so complex and so uncertain that neither side can actually win that fight. As long as the No camp keep on patronising the Scots and insulting their sense of nationhood (“we’re too wee to stand alone…”) then people will keep switching to the Yes side. They know it’s an economic risk but there’s enough sense in the Yes arguments to make it worth taking, especially when it means sticking two fingers up to a political elite that hasn’t cared much for years what they think.

These are interesting times as the saying goes. They will become even more interesting if Scotland votes Yes. If they do, I hope it works out for them. I hope even more it works out for Wales. But I suspect what’s good for Scotland, won’t be good for us.

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A Supporters’ History of the South Wales Derby

1912In 1912, Swansea Town played its first ever professional match, a Southern League game against Cardiff City. Although 12,000 people attended the 1-1 draw, it was a match that drew very little attention in the wider world. Professional football was still in its infancy and new clubs were being set up across the UK.  There was no guarantee that any of them would last. 

But last they did and, after the Great War, football’s popularity in south Wales soared.  Cardiff and Swansea both joined the Football League and Cardiff quickly rose to its first division, becoming one of the most famous clubs in Britain.  Its elevation meant derbies were not common but 1929 saw Cardiff slip out of the first division, bringing the first Football League match between the two clubs. Special trains and buses were put on to the game from across south Wales. Such was the interest that Merthyr Town even rearranged a match to avoid a clash.

The game mattered to Swansea more. In 1925, the Swansea chairman had suggested that a league match between the two clubs might help decide the ‘vexed question’ of the capital of Wales.  Although it was not until 1955 that Cardiff was officially declared the capital, Swansea still felt in the shadow of its larger neighbour, especially since Cardiff was a city and Swansea was not.  Moreover, there was some feeling that Cardiff’s claim to capital status was unfair because the city was more anglicized than Swansea. Football matches between the two clubs thus offered the Swans the opportunity to prove their equality with their larger neighbour.

Cardiff’s lesser interest in the derby was illustrated by a 1925 fifth-round Welsh Cup match between the two.  Feeling the league and its imminent FA Cup final more important, Cardiff City appeared to deliberately play badly, indulging in, according to one Swansea newspaper, ‘childish methods’ and ‘pompous swank’.  Despite winning 4-0, Swansea Town had missed out on an opportunity to secure a meaningful victory over its rival and its supporters felt insulted.

The proximity of the two clubs did, however, mean attendances at the derby were very high. In 1949, there were 60,855 at NinianPark for a Division 2 match between the two teams, a record for the derby that will probably never be broken. Fans remember the derbies of the 1940s and 50s as having a friendly atmosphere. There was certainly banter between the unsegregated supporters but nothing worse.  Indeed, both sets of fans were happy to see the other do well, bound by a common south Walian identity.

Some supporters, particularly those who lived somewhere between Cardiff and Swansea, were also willing to pay to see whichever of the two clubs had the most attractive fixtures or was playing the best football. In 1952, the Swansea Town manager asked the league if home games could be scheduled when first-division Cardiff City were playing away. He feared Swans fans would prefer watching the better standard of football forty miles away.

A hint of a more bitter rivalry emerged in 1960, when Cardiff, angry at the scheduling of the match, fielded a reserve side for a Welsh Cup fixture between the two teams. This brought a 350 guinea fine and a rebuke from the Football Association of Wales, who told the capital’s club to show the competition more respect. Swansea’s directors were also insulted by their Cardiff counterparts refusing to join them in the boardroom. It was a bad tempered match that saw three players sent off.

Football crowds were in decline by this time. Standing on a cold terrace was less appealing than watching television, doing DIY or taking the family out for a spin, all pursuits enabled by the new post-war working-class affluence. Many family men thus stopped going to matches.  Crowds grew younger and began to take on the characteristics of the modern youth culture that emerged in the 1950s. With their confidence and opportunities boosted by rising wages and near full employment, boys and men in their teens and early twenties travelled to away matches in large numbers, adopted fashions that made them stand out, drank more than earlier generations and acted more aggressively. The result was that fighting, swearing and obscene chanting all became relatively common at football matches in the 1960s and the sport gave young men a fun outlet for proving their masculinity.

Alongside these changes, patterns of regional support declined. This was a reaction to the rise of the televised game and more affordable travel, which both contributed to the biggest clubs drawing more and more supporters from outside their traditional catchment areas. For younger supporters who stayed with their local teams, there appears to have been resentment about people following other teams and regional rivalries began to replace regional identities.

The relationship between the two sets of fans thus changed and many began wanting their local rivals to lose. By 1969, this had spilled over into the first crowd trouble at the south Wales derby. In a two-leg Welsh Cup final, Cardiff fans vandalised a train on their return home and then, at the second leg at Ninian Park, they attacked two coaches carrying Swansea fans, smashing windows and denting the sides.

There was no league derby between the two sides between 1965 and 1980 and that held back the derby from becoming too embroiled in the growing football hooligan culture.  But the 1980 derby inevitably saw trouble and two weeks later fans clashed again after a bizarre decision to hold an FA Cup replay between Swansea and Crystal Palace at Ninian Park. There was considerable fighting on the terraces between Swansea supporters and Cardiff fans who had either turned up to see the match or perhaps just to enjoy a scuffle. The low point came outside the ground when a Swansea fan was stabbed to death in a fight with Palace supporters.

It was the 1980s that really saw the tensions intensify. Football hooliganism was peaking everywhere in Britain and south Wales was no different. Cardiff fans, however, had a new reason to dislike their neighbours down the M4.  In 1981, Swansea were promoted to the first division and their manager was John Toshack, a former Cardiff City cult hero. This created not just jealousy but a feeling that the natural order of things had been turned upside down. In a derby in Swansea’s promotion season, their fans threw bricks at cars and houses. At the 1982 Welsh Cup final, it was golf balls that were exchanged between the two fans and a policeman was hospitalized by a dart.

As both clubs fell on hard times, the extent of the rivalry became something of a badge of honour. Some fans looked at it as something that put their teams on the map. They might not be able to compete with the big boys on the pitch but south Wales had a derby to rival anywhere. It was gaining its own legends and language too. Swansea fans became ‘Gypos’, in reference to the perceived poverty of Wales’s second city. Cardiff fans were greeted by breast-stroking players and supporters who sang ‘swimaway, swimaway’, a reference to a group of teenage Cardiff fans being chased into the sea at a 1988 derby.

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The climax of trouble came at the 1993 ‘Battle of Ninian Park’. Swansea fans ripped up seats and hurled them at rival fans, which prompted a pitch invasion. Mounted police and dogs had to clear the pitch and control the situation. The game was delayed by forty minutes, eight fans were hospitalized and nine were arrested.

It was a turning point. CardiffCity chairman Rick Wright announced ‘If we allow these savages to enter our stadia and take their money, we cannot hold anyone else responsible for the scenes of carnage they create. It is all too easy for Cardiff to blame Swansea, for Swansea to blame Cardiff, for Cardiff and Swansea to blame the police. But the responsibility lies with the clubs.’

The result of the new determination to do something was the banning of away fans from the fixture. But the damage had been done and the next time the two clubs met in 1994, just 3,711 turned up to the Vetch. For many supporters, the derby had become something to avoid rather than get excited about.

Although hooliganism was a problem at most clubs, and Welsh fans were certainly playing up to the expectations of the time, there were some unique factors to the south Wales derby. In Swansea, there was some feeling that the BBC was too Cardiff-centric and that the club’s rise up through the divisions had not been given adequate coverage. Accusations of a Welsh media bias towards the capital grew and extended from the BBC to HTV Wales and the Western Mail. The size, extent and placing of coverage were all carefully scrutinized and Swansea fans could be quick to take offence at both real and imagined inequalities.

The regeneration of Cardiff Bay in the 1990s, funded by millions of pounds of central government money, threw another source of resentment into the mix. There was little surprise when the National Assembly was located in the capital but there was bitterness over how Swansea had been given the impression that it could win a farce of a competition over where to locate the new home of Welsh democracy.

Things did get better. Hooliganism went out of fashion. Policing and stewarding became better organised and managed. Both clubs got new all-seater stadiums that were closely monitored by CCTV. It was easier to identify troublemakers but people were also simply less likely to cause problems if they were sitting down.  When away fans returned to the fixture in 1997, they were herded in and out of the ground in police-escorted convoys. There was little opportunity to get anywhere near a rival fan, although that did not stop some vandalism of their rivals’ stadium or a few minor skirmishes with police.

Of course, not all fans have shared in the hatred. There were many on both sides who saw it as a bit childish or who were quite happy to see a fellow Welsh team doing well. Many Swansea fans have certainly welcomed Cardiff’s promotion to Premier League because it was an opportunity to have a derby again. There is even at least one person who has season tickets for both clubs.

Saturday’s derby will be a long way removed from the first match between the two clubs in 1912. The audience will be global and the atmosphere far more hostile.  No doubt there will be some songs sung and gestures made that would shock the supporter of a hundred years ago and will confuse the modern foreign audiences watching.  But, however much local pride is at stake, one thing hasn’t changed. You do not get more points for beating your neighbour than you do for beating any other team in the division. In that sense at least, even if in no other, it’s just another game.

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The Alarm: 1980s Wales in a Band


Alarm_kalvoya_01071984_10_500The Alarm sold 5 million records but they were never cool.  Even in the early 1980s, when they were singing punkish rebellion songs like 68 Guns, the band never won the critical acclaim of the music press.  Instead, they were derided as pretentious and inferior imitators of U2.  Even their big hair was mocked.

Perhaps it was just easier to be cool if you came from Dublin rather than Rhyl but even in Wales those who take their rock and pop music seriously have not accorded The Alarm much credit.  Books on Welsh music history overlook or deride them (although David Owens’ Cerys, Catatonia and The Rise Of Welsh Pop is a notable exception).  The contrasts with the feting and celebrations of the Manic Street Preachers could not be greater.

The Alarm released five studio albums between 1984 and 1991, although the name was revived by singer Mike Peters in 2000 and he continues to tour and record under it.  Peters’ health problems and his continuing musical and charitable work mean that the band continue to have some profile in Wales at least.  The derision that was sometimes aimed their way has faded but it has not been replaced with popular affection or admiration.

The Alarm, however, do deserve some recognition and even analysis.  Music does not have to be original or innovative to say something and touch people and the Alarm did both.  Their popularity alone means they deserve a mention in the contemporary history of Wales.  But more than that, The Alarm also offer a window into wider trends in that history, not just in what they did but also in how they ran against contemporary currents.

The band’s early albums captured the anger and frustrations felt by so many young people in a period of mass unemployment.  Most young people may not have been rioting or even been particularly politicized but there was a certainly a resentful sense that affluence and opportunity were not being equally shared out.  As The Alarm sang in Father to Son (1985) ‘How many years must I waste? Today I can’t find nothing nowhere. Tomorrow I might find something somewhere. Give me a future now. I need it so badly now.’

Much of the associated blame and anger was aimed was aimed at Mrs Thatcher, who became hated by many people in a way that no previous Prime Minister had.  The Alarm’s Marching On (1984) did not name her but its angry accusations seemed to be aimed at her and it demanded ‘You’d better look at what you have created and think of all the people who hate you’. This may not have been poetic or subtle but it did sum up how many felt.

Yet rock bands like The Alarm were a minority taste.  Far more popular in the 1980s were catchy pop songs that were an antidote to rather than comment on hard times.  One purveyor of such tunes was Shakin’ Stevens, one of Wales’ most successful modern musicians.  Although he came from a deprived Cardiff council estate, his most popular songs were ditties about love, a green door, and Christmas.  In this, he was more in tune with popular sentiment than The Alarm and others whose anger was politicized.  Indeed, overt faith in the political system was fading and being replaced by apathy and cynicism.

While some turned their backs on party politics, others began to weave a sense of nation into their political views.  This was significant because Welshness had largely been a matter of sentiment rather than politics in working-class urban Wales.  The changing attitudes were evident in the Welsh iconography of banners at the 1984-5 miners’ strike.  One social scientist claimed that Welshness was stepping into a void left by a fragmenting sense of class consciousness.

The_Alarm_Change_BackTheses shifting attitudes to Wales were evident in the output of The Alarm. In 1989, they moved away from their class-based lyrics and released Change, an album inspired by the lead singer’s new found sense of national identity.

Peters learnt Welsh and a version of the record was also released in that language, making it probably the first fully bilingual album.  Change brimmed with a sense of anger and frustration at the state of Wales: ‘I saw a land standing at a crossroads, I saw her wrath in a burned out home, saw her tears, in rivers running cold, her tragedy waiting to explode’ and ‘I see the proud black mountain, beneath an angry sun, under drowning valleys, our disappearing tongue, how many battles must we fight, before we start a war? How many wounds will open before the first blood falls?’

This open sense of Welshness did not help the band’s image outside Wales and their use of a male voice choir on the track New South Wales drew some mirth.  Even in Wales, it left the band vulnerable to accusations of clichés.  But to me, a teenager at the time, this was all heady stuff and it gave my sense of nationality a distinctly political twist.  I surely was not alone.

The Alarm still sounded indistinguishable from so much of western rock music, even with the new lyrics about Wales.  Yet that is no reason to dismiss them as part of Welsh culture. Understanding those facets of our culture that are shared with other nations is just as important as appreciating what marks us out as different. Besides, ultimately, there is little in Welsh popular culture that is unique to Wales.  When The Alarm sang about the pull of Merseyside, they spoke for the Welsh majority whose cultural inspirations and aspirations did not stop at the border.

Popular music is a powerful social force.  It can entertain, inspire and anger. But sometimes it’s nothing more than part of the humdrum of everyday life, something in the background, barely heard or noticed. The Alarm were all this.  Yet, whether they were singing about social trends or were just another tune on the radio, the band are a part of the story of modern Wales.

Martin Johnes teaches history at Swansea University and is the author of Wales since 1939.

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Television, comedy and the historian

ImageI’m writing a book about Christmas since 1914 so I’ve been watching a lot of Christmas specials from the 1970s and 80s recently. Television has been rather underused as a source by contemporary historians because old programmes have always been difficult to get hold of.  However, the growth of people using Youtube to share things they buy on DVD or find on old VHS tapes (and television companies’ apparent willingness to overlook the copyright infringement) mean there is now online a wealth of ephemera from the small screen.

Just as with novels, the historical riches come not from the highbrow but from the popular.  The light entertainment of the past is an important source because it says so much about what people found funny and their everyday attitudes. It also reminds us just how much these attitudes have changed. The 1970s and 80s doesn’t seem that long ago but watching its television shows is a reminder of a world where sexism and racism were rife; pretty girls were there to be openly leered at and jokes about buses being like Calcutta were funny.

Humour is a complex phenomenon to study. Just because a script writer thought a joke was worth telling and a studio audience subsequently laughed doesn’t mean the audience at home reacted that way. Nor should we just accept viewing figures as measures of which shows reflected popular tastes. In a world of three channels, there wasn’t exactly much choice and many a person found themselves forced to watch something at Christmas to compromise or to keep the peace.

Then there’s the issue of how we escape our own tastes and, in the case of recent television, our own memories.  I did not find a 1970s Tommy Cooper Christmas special remotely funny. But was that me or was it always very silly? In contrast, the Good Life and the Two Ronnies have held up well and made me laugh. But then they did in the 80s too.

In contrast, as a kid I never liked repeats of Steptoe and Son. It’s still not very funny but it’s been far the most interesting watch in my research because it’s full of sociological comment. Yet interpreting that is not easy. When Albert sings ‘Enoch’s dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones he used to know’, are people laughing at or with Powell’s racism? In a society where race was a divisive issue, it was probably both.

Alas, I’m not sure that I’ve learnt too much about Christmas itself from these programmes but they were an integral part of the Christmas experience for the majority of the population. The research is thus probably more about getting into the mentality of the past rather than about finding out specifics, even if that does mean I need to try to lose the traces of that mentality that still exist in my memory.   If nothing else, I’m learning why light entertainment was so important on Christmas day.  At its best, it was very funny but it also enabled people to escape the kind of domestic quarrels that they were watching depicted on screen.  And in some families that was probably worth putting up with a bit of Tommy Cooper.

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Ought we to feel bitter against the English now? (1910)

If you and I had lived in the time of Llywelyn the last, no doubt we should have felt very bitter, when we saw our friends killed, our lands torn from us, and our families cruelly treated by a nation that could not excuse themselves by saying they were bringing us the gifts of civilization.

Ought we to feel bitter against the English now? If you will think of this carefully, you will see the answer is “No.” Englishmen are no longer free to harm our friends, or take away our lands, or treat our families cruelly. The law protects a Welshman from a bad Englishman in exactly the same way as it protects an Englishman from a bad Welshman. In law, Welshmen and Englishmen are equal.

William Glover, Stories from Welsh History (1910).

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Wasn’t she a tyrant ten times worse than Miraz?

While reading my kids a bedtime story tonight I came across this passage. It seems rather apt for recent events.

“They say she ruled for a hundred years: a hundred years of winter. There’s power, if you like. There’s something practical.”

“But, heaven and earth!” said the King, “haven’t we always  been told that she was the worst enemy of all? Wasn’t she a tyrant ten times worse than Miraz?”

“Perhaps,” said Nikabrik in a cold voice. “Perhaps she was for you humans, if there were any of you in those days. Perhaps she was for some of the beasts. She stamped out the Beavers, I dare say; at least there are none of them in Narnia now. But she got on all right with us Dwarfs. I’m a Dwarf and I stand by my own people. We’re not afraid of the Witch.”

C. S. Lewis, Prince Caspian (1951)

In Narnia there were more beasts than dwarfs.

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It’s 50 years since the ‘Beeching cut’ decimated the railway system across the UK. This brief extract from my book Wales since 1939 (Manchester Unievrsity Press, 2012) looks at the cut in Wales.

The 1963 Beeching inquiry responded to the impact of the car on rail lines by proposing drastic closures. Welsh local government, trade unions and political groups feared the cuts would result in ‘irreparable damage’ to Wales’ social and economic life, exacerbating unemployment and depopulation and hitting trade and commerce. However, as early as 1951, only six of the twenty-four stations in Breconshire had an average of more than five passengers using a train and five stations had an average of less than one passenger per train. By the time of its closure, one of the lines in Breconshire was costing the taxpayer £400 a year for every passenger who used the service. The ‘Beeching axe’ saw 190 stations and sixteen lines close in Wales, while another six lines had services reduced. As the Welsh Office concluded, Wales was ‘particularly hard hit’ but it was not being singled out: it just had a lot of little-used lines.[1] Indeed, things might have been worse. The closure of the Aberystwyth to Shrewsbury line had been muted and the mid-Wales line that linked Shrewsbury and Swansea might have gone too but for the fact that it passed through six marginal constituencies.[2] But that did not change the feeling that railway cuts were dealing rural Wales yet another harsh blow.


[1] Breconshire County Council, County Development Plan: Report of Survey (1954), 71. Railways in Wales, NA, PREM 11/4596.

[2] K. O. Morgan, Rebirth of a Nation: Wales, 1880–1980 (1981), 329.

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