Skip to content

Response to Review of Wales since 1939

There is always a danger that Welsh historians can sound paranoid when they complain that Wales does not get due attention in British history.  But, to paraphrase the old saying, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that they aren’t ignoring you. Indeed, a recent referee for a journal appeared to wonder why I was writing about Wales when I could have been writing about interesting things like Bristol.

With Wales since 1939, I wanted to write something that was both a national history of Wales but also relevant to wider British history. This is as much a book about social change, class, community, rural and urban tensions, consumerism, popular culture and governance as it is about Welsh identity. The book is meant to be British as well as Welsh history. At the risk of replying to a different review of a different piece of writing, I hope this book has something to say to those that think that Bristol is more interesting and important than Wales. To achieve that, as Dr William notes, I have tried to weave together the social, political and the cultural. I tried to portray Wales and its place in the world in all its complexity. But the focus of the book’s big ideas and arguments on national identity might mean that the other material does not stand out.

The downside of doing so much is that nothing is ever covered in quite the way you initially intended. Indeed, I found that writing a national history was too often an exercise in compromise. Writing historical overviews always involves condensing complex topics and leaving others out altogether and thus it is gratifying when reviewers acknowledge that a lack of detail here and there is unavoidable if word limits are to be met.  I’m not sure though that, with more words, I would have spent more time looking specifically at theoretical ideas. As happened in Wales with the concept of ‘internal colonialism’ in the 1970s and 80s, it can be very easy for fields to get sidetracked in debates whose relevance and horizons shrink into introspection.

Dr William notes that the final chapter requires more historical contextualization. I always imagined that this chapter would be one that people found the most to disagree with, although I was rather pleased with it given how hard it was to write.  Its challenges were made more difficult by the fact that it charts processes that are still ongoing and thus difficult to untangle and interpret. Living in the context that is being discussed does not help either but historians should not leave the very recent past to social scientists who can be prone to lose sight of the continuities in their bid to explain changes.  Ultimately, however, I suspect that people’s views of the final chapter will depend on their own politics and perspectives rather than my employment of historical evidence.(1)

It was pleasing that Dr William thought the book very readable. I did not want to write a book that was just for academics.  Popular Welsh history is so full of myth and misunderstanding that there is a danger that the current debates on the future of the United Kingdom will be distorted. I wanted to play my own small part in those debates by exploring the shifting relationship between Wales and Britishness and by demonstrating that, although there have been tensions and conflicting interests, there have also been more positive and fruitful connections. It is something of a miracle that Welsh identity has survived at all in the modern period and one reason for that is how it has been fostered by the British state. However, another reason is the reaction of people when Wales has not been treated equitably. Understanding the occasionally angry nationalism in Wales means understanding the relationship between Wales and London.

Dr William is right that the post-war period is very much understudied in Wales. The possibilities are almost endless. The Conservatives have been shamefully marginalized by historians of Wales of all periods. A history of Welsh ministers and vicars would be fascinating. They were a sector of society who, together with their children, wielded a very disproportionate influence on Welsh public life.  The public discourse of Wales and Welshness owes much to the manse and to the sons of the manse. Also fascinating would be a study of post-war tourism. It would have much to say about rural communities, economics and internal and external perceptions of Wales. A wider study of English views of Wales would also be worthwhile. My book discusses English in-migrants into Wales, as well as the attitude of some politicians, but there is so much more to say and the attitudes of historians themselves could be an important part of that.

However the post-war history of Wales is taken forward, I hope that other historians will find my book a useful starting point. If they agree with Dr William’s kind views of it then all the better.

Notes

  1. For a further exploration of this see Martin Johnes, ‘On writing contemporary history’, North American Journal of Welsh Studies, 6, 1 (2011) <http://welshstudiesjournal.org/article/view/11/7> [accessed 5 September 2012].Back to (1)