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Simon Jenkins: "Wales needs to get over England and be Wales again"

Simon Jenkins, presenter of a new Radio 4 documentary on Wales in the 20th century, talks to Elinor Evans about a period that, he argues, was dominated by resentment and decline

Millennium Centre, Cardiff. (Photo by Dreamstime)
Published: February 20, 2020 at 4:05 pm
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Elinor Evans: Your programme Wales: A Twentieth-Century Tragedy explores what you frame as the decline of Wales over the past 100 years. Why do you describe it as a “tragedy”?


Simon Jenkins: I think what I mean by this rather controversial title is that Wales – which is the land of my father – was, through much of its history, right back to the Middle Ages, a very prosperous part of the British Isles. It had extraordinary natural resources throughout the 20th century and benefited from them. It was far less poor than Ireland and Scotland, or much of the north and west of England. It had sheep, fertile valleys and uplands; it supplied England with milk. It also had slate, iron, lead, zinc, all these minerals, which it exploited successfully. And then coal. It had a very lively fabric industry and a lot of tourism, it was a beautiful place. Nothing in Wales, with the possible exception of the coal, needed to collapse. Why is it not that way today? That’s what fascinates me.

EE: Why was coal so important to Wales at the beginning of the 20th century?

SJ: The entire world needed coal. It was simply black gold, produced by huge areas of Glamorgan. In fact, Glamorgan was, for probably as many as 80 years, by far the richest county in Britain. The civic centre of Cardiff – the valleys, the ports and docks – were all centres of wealth. The English didn’t steal this wealth; it was Welsh wealth, and most of it stayed in Wales. My father’s streets, in the village of Dowlais in Merthyr, were infinitely more substantial, well­built and nice to live in than the ones he went to in Bradford or Lancashire, for instance, where he was appalled at the living conditions of the working class. Wales really was a classy place, and I think, in many ways, the Welsh forget that because they spend so much time moaning.

EE: When you say that Wales “forgets” what a classy place it was, what do you mean?

SJ:I’ve read the figures. I can see that Wales is now one of the poorest regions of the British Isles, and dependent on central government.

Undoubtedly Welsh politics has developed an ingrained language of resentment and grievance. I wouldn’t go quite as far as RS Thomas’s line “worrying the carcase of an old song” [where the Welsh poet expresses the idea of there being no present and no future – only a past], but there’s something about that phrase that does apply to Welsh politics. Time and again, the Welsh component is simply: “Give us a grant.” That phrase should be the motto of the Welsh dragon.

It’s bad news. It doesn’t do you good; it ultimately makes you dependent. And of course, when you don’t get the grant, it means the colonial power is against you. This whole psychology, I think, is very unhelpful. I believe that if Wales is to prosper – as I still think it can, because it has so many advantages – it’s got to snap out of that sense of grievance and dependency.

My father’s streets in the village of Dowlais, Merthyr were infinitely nicer to live in than the ones he saw in northern England

EE: How did these resentments play out politically in the 20th century?

SJ: Welsh nationalism was largely cultural and bred of Saunders Lewis [Welsh writer and a founder of the party later known as Plaid Cymru] and people like that. It sprang from a discovery – a rediscovery in many ways – of Welsh linguistic culture and literary culture. And that was splendid and wonderful, and no problem.

The trouble began, I think, with the Depression. This hit Wales hard because the price of coal collapsed. Coal and related industries in the late 19th century employed as much as half the working population of Wales. It was gigantic. But it was no different from wool in Yorkshire or cotton in Lancashire, or fish in Grimsby. The concept of a one ­industry region is not unique to Wales. What was unique to Wales was its difficulty in overcoming its decline – and there can be no denying that the decline of coal was dramatic and traumatic.

Flying the flag: 'Yes' campaigners celebrate victory in a pre-legislative referendum on Welsh devolution in 1997. (Photo by Western Mail Archive/Mirrorpix/Getty Images)
Flying the flag: 'Yes' campaigners celebrate victory in a pre-legislative referendum on Welsh devolution in 1997. (Photo by Western Mail Archive/Mirrorpix/Getty Images)

One consequence in Wales, a highly controversial one, was that bright people fled – my father being one of them. It was a source of pride to my grandfather that almost all of his children “got out”. Left behind was a sense of resentment and failure, covering not just individual families or villages and towns but a political community that never let it go. The result of that was a complaint that you hear all the time: “It’s unfair, we’re maltreated, we’re oppressed.” You don’t hear this phraseology in Liverpool or Newcastle or Southampton. And it’s overlaid with a sense of national insecurity.

In 1998, the new government agreed to give the Scots, the Northern Irish and the Welsh a degree of autonomy. Devolution was a great step forward for Wales, a moment of what should have been huge pride. I still think it was a good idea; Welsh politics was transformed by it. And it did stop people complaining so much and made them more self­reliant. The political identity that emerged from devolution is still there, ready and waiting.

But devolution was not translated into what it should have become, which was a beacon of good, decentralised government on the west coast of Britain.

EE: What are the historical reasons for this “national insecurity”?

SJ: I think it’s probably natural. I’ve tried to study roughly equivalent groups across Europe, such as the Basques, the Catalans, the Bretons, the Walloons in Belgium – groups who, for some reason, feel they’ve never got a fair crack of the whip from some confederacy, which is what the United Kingdom is. The complication is always that the best people in these communities tend to drift away to the more successful other end. There are endless studies of rail and transport links. Whom do they benefit? They always benefit the more powerful end of the link – they always disadvantage the least powerful end. TGV in France, in every case, is shown as having benefited Paris. HS2 will benefit London, whatever anyone says. Dr Samuel Johnson said: “The noblest prospect which a Scotch­man ever sees is the high road that leads him to England!” I’m afraid the same is true in Wales.

In communities I know reasonably well, the successful, bright people have left. It’s heartbreaking to say so, but it’s true, and they’ve got to find a way of getting them back or replacing them. To get them back will be very difficult. But the new blood – and this certainly applies to rural Wales – has got to come from newcomers, and those newcomers will mostly be English. They’ve got to welcome them, make them feel at home, make them feel they’re going to make some money there. I just think it’s critical.

EE: In 1916, David Lloyd George became the UK’s first Welsh prime minister. Surely that appointment was a sign that Wales was central to the union’s progress?

SJ: I don’t think that Lloyd George is very relevant to it. I mean, he left Wales and went back when dying. In many ways, Lloyd George was a classic Welshman, but no different from how Gladstone was a classic Lancastrian. These men came from the provinces to London and did very well. The question for these provinces is: how do you get them back? You need to find a reason for people not to leave.

EE: So far, you’ve predominantly talked about politics and economics. But what about Welsh culture. How key is that to the nation’s prosperity?

SJ: There are two sides to Welsh culture. On the one hand, the Welsh language is splendid. It’s one of the great Celtic cultures of Europe and it’s alive. You do sense a specialness about it. I love listening to the penillion [Welsh folk singing]. Where I’m alarmed is at its imposition on people who are just not a part of it. I mean, it’s exactly what they claim the English did when they invaded Wales. It’s the element of compulsion – tricks like printing official documents in which the Welsh is in black text and the English is in red. Things like that divide people and deter outsiders from coming in. I just think it’s economically a bad idea, even if it’s culturally a good idea.

I think nothing would work better for Welsh culture than the revival of the Welsh economy, a confidence in Welsh towns and cities that have a viable economic future, and people flocking to Wales because they want to be there.

I think the culture of Wales, which is one of its most unique characteristics, is absolutely safe; it will not die out. The only thing that will make it die out is if it’s compulsory. I once said that I honestly think the best thing for the Welsh language is to ban it. Then it will flourish.

EE: How do you think England perceives Wales at the moment?

SJ: I did a book on English history five years ago. Complaints came in: “Why have you done it on England and not Wales and Scotland, for that matter?” And I said: “Because it happens to be a history of England.” And they said: “Well, can’t you be more broad-minded?” No, it’s a history book about England.

I’ll tell you one thing: English people are not the slightest bit interested in Wales. They’re mildly interested in Scotland, largely because of Mary, Queen of Scots and Macbeth. No one has a clue about Wales. How many English people know about Hywel Dda? How many really know about Llywelyn the Great? They might as well be in Arabia.

How many English people know about Hywel Dda? How many really know about Llywelyn the Great? They might as well be in Arabia

Now, that’s the fault of English education, but it is also the case that this is a very unknown territory. And I think it’s one reason why, for instance, English tourists don’t go to Wales as much as they should. It is an unknown country. And I think that’s why, at its most crude, house prices are so much lower than they are in England. There is no big demand. I’m afraid the answer to your question is: England is not very interested in Wales.

EE: In your view, what does Wales most need to ‘get over’ in order to move forward?

SJ: I think Wales has to get over England – it really has to. England treated it terribly, but that was in the 13th century. I was once talking to the Welsh minister of culture about how undersold I thought the great castles of Wales were – they’re the greatest collection of castles in Europe. He looked at me incredulously and said: “Why should we give publicity to English castles?” I could not believe I was hearing this from someone in charge of tourism. That’s the problem. If you hate your neighbour that much, you aren’t going to get any help from them in the long term. And I think if Wales could get over England and become Wales again, it would do it nothing but good.

Sir Simon Jenkins is a former editor of the Evening Standard and The Times. From 2008–14 he chaired the National Trust. His BBC Radio 4 documentary Wales: A Twentieth-Century Tragedy is due to air in March

This article was first published in the March 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine


Wales: From conquest to devolution

● 13th century: Edward’s conquest

Until the 1270s, Wales is ruled by Anglo-Norman ‘marcher lords’ (rulers of the borders) and native Welsh princes. But then, in 1277, Edward I of England leads a campaign to crush rebellion. Wales is brought under English law and Edward installs his son as the first English Prince of Wales in 1301.

● 15th century: The rise of Glyndŵr

In 1400, native resentment explodes into a rebellion under a descendant of the princes of northern Powys, Owain Glyndŵr. Any hope stirred by this short-lived movement is crushed by 1408, resulting in violent retaliations across Wales.

● 16th century: Acts of union

Two acts of union in 1536 and 1542–43, during the reign of Henry VIII, abolish any legal difference between Wales and England. The first act also lays down that English is to be the only language of the courts of Wales, and those using the Welsh language are not to receive public office.

● Late 18th century: A coal revolution

The industrial revolution brings wealth and urbanisation to Wales as iron and coal-mining transform the region. The explosion of industry also brings huge population growth: between 1861 and 1911, more than 227,000 people move from England to the south Wales coalfields.

● 1920s–1930s: The collapse of coal

The Depression of the 1920s and 1930s, and a coal market recession, lead to mass migration out of Wales. By 1936, south Wales has lost 241 mines.

● 1950–60s: A renewed identity

A Minister for Welsh Affairs is created in 1951 and Cardiff is declared capital in 1955. Events including the destruction of Capel Celyn – a Welsh-speaking community – to create a reservoir for Liverpool in 1965 lead to significant anger in the country.

● 1980s: The end for ‘black gold’

As more British mines become unprofitable, miners go on strike to save an industry that was once the biggest employer in Wales. The ensuing deprivation is the death knell for many communities. The industry is finally privatised in 1994.

● 1990s: The road to devolution


Following Labour’s victory under Tony Blair in 1997, Wales is promised devolved power. In May 1999, the new Welsh assembly is officially opened.


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