Theatre in Wales

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“Devolution since 1999 has delivered a series of disasters...”

A Political Diary

Simon Brooks- Why Wales Never Was , University of Wales Press , March 10, 2021
A Political Diary by Simon Brooks- Why Wales Never Was The deadly weeks of the winter lock-down run on. If it has taken away our social existence it has made a time for books. A book is both social sharing and private experience. It has made a time to remember writers who deserve to be remembered.

Books on the density of ideas in, and acting on, culture in Wales are not many. Simon Brooks’ book was first published in 2015 as “Pam Na Fu Cymru”. “Why Wales Never Was” was published in 2017. As expected from a university publisher it comes with an index, forty-two pages of notes and a density of argument.

The subtitle is “The Failure of Welsh Nationalism” and its thesis is rooted in the nineteenth century. Giants from intellectual history proliferate: Herder, Kant, Arnold, Mill, Henry Richard, Gwilym Hiraethog, Samuel Roberts Llanbrynmair. As a book of political writing it is pointed, pungent, polemical, and- crucially- persuasive.

The book's research, says the foreword, took place in Wales, Germany, the Czech Republic, Austria and Slovenia. It has also some differences from a customary scholarly book. “Pam na fu Cymru”, recalls the author, “was written on the dole in Porthmadog. I wrote it in cafes, I wrote it in pubs and I wrote it on the street.”

The authorial view on contemporary Wales is also distinctive. “Devolution since 1999 has delivered a series of disasters...north Wales turned into an internal colony of Cardiff...the collapse of Welsh as a community language everywhere outside Gwynedd.” Chapter four of five ends: “Some provincial, post-national half-life awaits the new Wales, a ghost like that of the Cornish spectre.”

The opening sentence sets the enquiry: “Why isn't Wales a Welsh-speaking country today? Why isn't Wales independent?” Brooks makes the comparison with the position of the Czech language 170 years ago. Welsh in the mid-19thcentury was more entrenched than languages that now belong to fully-fledged European Union members. In 1848 the dominant German-language press mocked the language campaigner Karel Havlíček Borovský.

Brooks follows the course of other small-nation languages like Slovenian and Estonian. Deeply read in European scholarship he cites a strong guide to the experience of Wales in Miroslav Hroch's “Die Vorkämpfer der nationalen Bewegungen bei den kleinen Völkern Europas” published in Prague in 1968.

Wales presents a contradiction. The industrialisation of Bohemia grounded Czech nationalism. By rights, say historians of calibre of the era like Gellner and Hobsbawm, something similar should have been seen in Merthyr. The fact of it not being similar lay paradoxically in success.

The liberal state produced voting and education reform. A Welsh press flourished for a readership with no English but Welsh liberalism was opposed to nationalism. The Education Acts of 1870 and 1889 might have grounded Welsh in the regions of high immigration but did not. The contrast is described: “In Prague, Trieste and Riga- all cities with a multi-ethnic working-class- population mix did not lead to language shift form Czech, Slovene and Latvian to German and Russian.”

An explanation may be found in the nature of industrialisation. Extractive industry does not generate a bourgeoisie of size. Intellectual life is fuelled in an urban setting. Brooks identifies the first generation of nationalists from Finland to Bosnia as being born in towns. He locates centres of debate in Rhuthun and Bala- “places too small to set the political agenda for a nation whose economic heart beat in the south.”

The twenty-page chapter on language starts with Herder. Herder's supposition of ethno-linguistic community took root in Europe in a way that did not occur in Britain. Kant was well-received in Wales- Lewis Edwards wrote on him and Goethe in “Y Traethodydd”- but Hegel never took root. “The Hegelian “Volksgeist” was one of the trumpets of national revival”, he says, “But in Wales Hegelianism and nationalism were decoupled.”

This line of decoupling follows a trail that leads to the Llanover Group, Cymru Fydd, and the triumph of non-conformism. Its invalidation of patriotic conservatism had an effect. “R T Jenkins, the greatest Welsh historian of his generation, had it about right. With the “divorce between Methodism and Toryism” the road was open for the Welsh nation to be recast in a British mould.”

The liberal state ascended and so its intellectual grounding. J S Mill applauded self-determination in revolutionary Italy but not for the territories of Celtic grouping. Engels called Welsh independence “an absurdity, got up in popular dress in order to throw dust in shallow people's eyes.” In the liberalism-nationalism clash “the ideal of a common language is the litmus paper of liberalism; it shows clearly the importance of inclusivity as a political principle.”

Politics ever struggles between universalism and particularism. “In political theory, the obverse of liberalism is communitarianism.” In Parliament in the 1890s thirty-one Welsh members might have held the balance of power but supported Gladstone. “Ellis grasped the Saxon gold” said John Arthur Price of the member for Meirionnydd.

“Why Wales Never Was” is not an easy read, neither for its density of ideas nor for its conclusions. “Saunders Lewis was no Martin Heidegger but he approximates to such a figure in Welsh-speaking culture.” “The Welsh nation was murdered by its own left wing.”

Brooks writes of Gwilym Hiraethog “His argument contains a twist that undermines Welsh nationalism entirely. Acquiescence in the face of subjugation is proof of self-respect. Wales is “the quietest province and the most faithful to the Crown of all which belong to her.” Culture endures. In the most recent popular history “the Story of Wales” Jon Gower recorded “More street parties were held in celebration of 2011’s royal wedding than in any English region outside London.”

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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