Writing Welsh History

This short essay was originally published on a website called WalesHome. That site is currently not available so I have reproduced the piece here.

Writing history isn’t easy.  It can be like doing a jigsaw when you don’t know what the picture is, half the pieces are missing and those that are left can be put together in a variety of quite different ways. Thus the story told ends up owing as much as to the historian as to what actually happened. This isn’t to say that the history is made up, just that it could have been made to look very different.

I have just published a book called Wales since 1939. At more than 200,000 words, it’s a rather long and it covers a lot of ground. It includes material not just on the expected topics of devolution, miners and rugby but also on themes less commonly found in books on Welsh history such as youth culture, house prices and shopping. It’s a book that features the Beatles, the Queen and Churchill, as well as Gwynfor, Nye and Rhodri.

Even then the picture painted of Wales is only partial. Much has been left out or skimmed over.  People interested in classical music, the theatre or even the Liberal Party may feel their pet topic has been given short thrift. Others, however, may get upset, not so much because their interest has not been given due attention but because they don’t like what’s said about it.

Historians of older periods have the luxury that the people they write about can’t answer back. For those of us who write about more recent times, being told we’ve got it wrong is an occupational hazard.  A member of the audience saying something along the lines of ‘it wasn’t like that’ has been a feature of probably every public contemporary history talk I have ever given.  One woman’s comment was simply to point out that she was actually there. It was unclear whether the implication was that the analysis given was wrong or that history should only be discussed by first-hand witnesses.

Writing about the nature of Wales exacerbates these problems because people hold very deep-held views about what the answer is.  As the comment pages of WalesHome illustrate, questions of nationalism, politics and language are not always debated very calmly or rationally.  Some will disagree with my book not because of the evidence I present but because they don’t like the answers I’ve come up with. I doubt any evidential base or any form of argument would have persuaded them otherwise.

Moreover, I expect I will at times get attacked from all sides because the book is sometimes nice and sometimes critical about both nationalism and the Labour movement. It acknowledges both the importance of the Welsh language and how at times it has alienated people. It even points out that there are many Tories in Wales and some of them have made important contributions to their nation. In the past my writings have led to me being called both a Welsh nationalist and anti-Welsh.

The trick to writing a history of a nation is not so much coming up with one definition of that nation but acknowledging that modern nations are comprised of different peoples, with different ideas, experiences and outlooks.  Many of these are wholly incompatible and very contradictory. The task of the historian is to make sense of them and put them in some form of order that acknowledges the plurality of experiences but does not lose sight of the totality of the parts.

Doing that is easier said than done when the historian has been a witness and participant in some of the events and trends under discussion. No matter how hard we try we can never be neutral but try we must. I have certainly tried to stop my background and my politics from colouring the answers I have come up with but they have shaped the questions I have asked.  That is evident in how themes of national identity are central to my work. Having grown up in an English-speaking family in a Welsh-speaking community, such questions have mattered in my life.

Yet it is far too simple to just say that historians write histories that are coloured by who they are.  Historians change their minds, especially as the optimism and anger of youth gets tempered by the weariness and pragmatism of later years. Moreover, the actual experience of researching and writing history itself impacts on the historian’s views.  It encourages us to see the world in more nuanced, qualified and complex terms.  Having researched contemporaryWalesI better appreciate how resilient Welsh identity has been but also how for the majority it is not quite the issue that it has been in my life.

It is the final chapter that looks at Wales after 1997, that will probably draw the most criticism. For earlier periods I can claim that the interpretations are the basis of reasoned and sustained judgement. But for the very recent past this is more difficult because events are still evolving. I started writing the book at a time when most people considered we were living in a relatively stable economy; I finished writing it at a time of significant problems and only time can tell whether this is the beginning of a long period of austerity or just another cyclical downturn. Similarly, it’s simply too early to make any sound judgement on how devolution had changed the structure of the Welsh economy and society.  It’s probably unfair to even ask the question given how limited the Welsh government’s powers have been.  Moreover, who knows how future events might make my judgements on the last decade look hopelessly naive or outdated.

The Wales I describe in my book is a place divided by class, culture, age, gender, region and ethnicity. But it’s also a place where people felt something in common too, whether that was based on a shared sense of history, national identity, economic experience or even just watching the same television programmes. The Wales I see in the past is a place people have both died for and thought irrelevant, a place that has stirred both passion and apathy.

It is a place with much in common with England but different too.  It is a place that deserves understanding on its own terms but that cannot be understood without acknowledging that the outside world helped shape it.  My history of Wales includes war, racism and the British Empire.

I could have painted a different picture of Wales. I could have told the story of a people oppressed and ignored by foreign rule or greedy capitalists. But the Wales I see is a more complicated and perhaps boring place. It’s a place where many people were more interested in shopping, sport and soap operas than the politics of class and nation. That’s neither a criticism nor a universal truth. And it makes devolution and the rise in a popular Welsh patriotism over the last 70 odd years, no less important but certainly more remarkable.

Wales since 1939 is published by Manchester University Press and retails at £16.99 or less.  Further details, including an outline of the chapters, can be found at www.hanescymru.com


Author: HanesCymru

I teach history at Swansea University.