England and Wales: best of enemies?

With the Six Nations about to pit England against Wales in rugby again, Martin Johnes explains how Anglo-Welsh relations in recent history have been shaped by migration, industrial decline, global conflict and sport

A Cardiff City player shakes hands with an Arsenal player before the kick off of the 1927 FA Cup final. (Photo by H. F. Davis/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

In Mold in 1869, anger over inequalities in wages between Welsh and imported English miners escalated into violence. A crowd stoned a military escort taking two Welsh miners to prison for assaulting an English manager. The soldiers returned fire, killing two colliers and two women. A coroner’s jury declared the deaths “justifiable homicide” and the local press and authorities supported the military’s action. However, wider reactions demonstrated some of the hostility towards the Welsh that had helped spark the tensions in the first place. Denbighshire was portrayed in the English press as an unlawful place and the Saturday Review even claimed the Welsh language resembled “the growl of animals more than the articulate speech of civilised men”.

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In subsequent decades the presence of English workers in Wales grew but hostility towards them became less common. Between 1861 and 1911 more than 227,000 people moved from England to the south Wales coalfields. Unlike 1860s Mold, there was no separating out of Welsh and English workers and no pattern of employers importing English managers or paying English labour better wages. Instead, a cosmopolitan culture evolved where the experience of work united immigrants from England and rural Wales to such an extent that Englishmen were even elected as union leaders for this new class-conscious society.

Assimilation was enabled by, but also fed, the decline of the Welsh language in industrial areas. By 1911, just eight per cent of the Welsh population were unable to speak English, and language increasingly receded as a barrier in local relations. Indeed, some individual families actually stopped speaking Welsh at home in order to raise their children in English, the language of social progress. In such circumstances it is unsurprising that incoming English workers rarely experienced any hostility from the native Welsh. Far more common was for the Welsh themselves to regard England and the English as more sophisticated and more modern.

National pride

Nonetheless, the patriotic celebrations of sporting successes, such as Wales beating New Zealand in 1905 and Cardiff City’s victory in the 1927 FA Cup final, demonstrated how class consciousness had not blunted a popular national pride, even if it had little relevance in everyday life.

Moreover, that national identity was inclusive and it incorporated rather than excluded those who came to Wales. As the mayor of Merthyr put it after the 1927 Cup final, anyone who played for a Welsh club became a Welshman whether they liked it or not.

This national pride was also easily offended when not taken seriously by England. There was widespread umbrage among Welsh speakers at the 1936 decision to move the trial of three nationalists who had burnt down part of an RAF bombing school to the Old Bailey after a Caernarfon jury had failed to reach a verdict. Few might have agreed with the crime but many took offence at the implication that the Welsh could not try their own.

Yet the political implications of this were minimal. Plaid Genedlaethol Cymru, formed in 1925 by a small group of Welsh-speaking intellectuals worried about the retraction of traditional Welsh culture, was more a marginal pressure group than a political party. For the vast majority of the Welsh people, England was a partner, not an enemy, something that became only too evident during the Second World War.

There were tensions over whether Wales’s role in the war effort was being given enough recognition, and nationalists worried about the impact of conscription and English evacuees on Welsh-speaking communities. However, the dominant tone was of the British nations standing together.

The postwar settlement reaffirmed this idea. There was little Welsh dimension to economic planning or the structures of the new welfare state. This annoyed some MPs who feared that Welsh interests were not being properly considered by the government in London. That began a process of attempts to get Welsh national identity recognised, something which the government was generally willing to accept. Thus a Ministry for Welsh Affairs was created in 1951, Cardiff was declared the capital in 1955, financial support was given to Welsh-language publishing and the National Eisteddfod, and even the Red Dragon was finally recognised as the official flag in 1959.

The British government’s growing sensitivity to Welsh interests owed much to the furore that surrounded its decision to allow the flooding of the Tryweryn Valley to create a reservoir for Liverpool, an event that angered Welsh and English speakers alike. Indeed, for many, the issue that rankled was not so much the destruction of a Welsh-speaking community but that it was done to supply England with water.

Yet the old insecurities remained, and they were fed by images as diverse as the Ealing comedy A Run for your Money (1949) and Ivor the Engine (1959–64, and 1976–77), all of which reinforced an impression that the Welsh were a rather comic people. No wonder then that some were keen to leave Wales or at least play down their Welshness.

One of the easiest ways of doing this was ‘speaking nice’, by avoiding the grammatical oddities of Welsh English and dropping or moderating the Welsh accent. The popularity of elocution lessons in 1950s and 60s Wales was partly driven by old-fashioned snobbery but it was also rooted in the fact that many older Welsh people had a rather poor regard of their own nation – however much some of their compatriots were complaining that England mistreated or ignored Wales.

The first decades after the Second World War saw the resumption of significant immigration from England. The number of people in Wales who were born in England rose from 360,688 in 1951 to 415,305 in 1971. Local and central government were encouraging English firms to move to Wales and take their executives with them. They did not seem to face any hostility when they arrived but not all came enthusiastically. As one chemist who settled in Swansea put it: “We were more than dubious at first… we expected [it] to be very drab and ‘How Green is my Valley’”.

By the 1960s, the beauty and tranquillity of the landscape and the availability of cheap housing were bringing migrants to the countryside too. At first they were a curiosity but as their numbers swelled they came to be seen as a threat to Welsh culture, a culture now very obviously in danger as every census and chapel closure decried. Personal relations tended to be harmonious but, as a group, English immigrants were unpopular and blamed for everything from rising house prices to having the wrong kind of curtains.

This antagonism was partly fuelled by a classic rural-urban divide but the impact of migration on the language gave the issue a more emotional resonance and even led to talk of the English carrying out cultural genocide. Some retaliated with violence and between 1979 and 1992 there were 197 arson attacks on estate agents and properties belonging to English incomers. This drew allegations of racism from the English migrants themselves, allegations which were vehemently denied by Welsh-language and nationalist bodies. Yet the same individuals who denied that their own anti-Englishness was racist were still happy to cry racism when the Welsh were attacked by the English.

The antagonism towards the English in rural Wales was beginning to be mirrored by a smaller degree of antagonism towards England (rather than the English) in urban areas. The winding down of traditional heavy industry in Wales had been going on since the 1950s but not until the 1970s did it become a source of widespread resentment as alternative jobs began to dry up. By the 1980s that resentment had adopted something of a national angle, especially since it was easy to see the Tories as a government imposed on Wales by the choices of an English electorate. As graffiti in Caerphilly declared after the 1987 general election: “We voted Labour, we got Thatcher”. In 1980, amid fears for the future of the steel industry, The Times reported a growing ‘bloody English’ attitude towards London-based decision-makers. Workers felt Wales was being singled out for redundancies and their anger was “nurturing a new brand of awakened identity”. One union organiser at Port Talbot argued that the steel closures were “an anti-Welsh decision aimed against the Welsh people and they won’t stand for it”.

A sense of being Welsh also came to the fore in the National Union of Mineworkers during the 1984–85 miners’ strike, when Welsh iconography – from dragons to Welsh ladies – became a common sight on the union’s banners and posters. Moreover, even if the rest of Wales did little about it beyond putting loose change in collection buckets, many compatriots did watch on aghast as the government strove to apparently not just beat but destroy the miners. England now seemed to offer not the economic safety net it had in the past but a threat to the future of Welsh communities.

The irony was that senior figures in Thatcher’s government had grown up in those communities. Neither Michael Heseltine nor Geoffrey Howe sounded Welsh but the leader of the opposition did. Canvassing suggested this counted against Neil Kinnock in southern England and he was the victim of sustained attacks on his abilities and his accent by much of the London press.

Kinnock could be verbose but repeatedly calling him a ‘Welsh windbag’ or ‘bumbling boyo’ seemed to suggest that his Welshness was a personal flaw. And the London media were quick to supply other examples of English prejudices. Bernard Levin, writing in The Times in 1990, thought the modern terms inserted into Welsh were absurd and that public bilingualism was “comic” and “idiocy”. He suggested that Welsh-medium education would turn Wales into “a kind of Third World satrapy”.

For those who did not read broadsheets there were comedy characters like Siadwell on Naked Video (BBC, 1986–91) or Denzil and Gwynedd on Absolutely (Channel 4, 1989–93) to suggest that the Welsh were still seen by outsiders as bumbling idiots, and that maybe it was time to reconsider how Wales was governed. Only a quarter of the Welsh electorate took that option by voting yes in the 1997 referendum on devolution but that was still more than twice the number that had voted for it in 1979.

From the Mold riots of 1869 to the 1997 referendum, Welsh attitudes towards England were always intertwined with issues of class and power. When resentment did rise it was rooted in a feeling that Wales and the Welsh were not being accorded equal treatment, status and respect.

Yet the reality was that much of England was not hostile but rather oblivious to the existence of Wales. That was what made sport – especially the annual clash in the Five (later to become Six) Nations rugby championship – so important to Anglo-Welsh relations. It afforded the Welsh both an opportunity to remind England that Britain was a multinational country and to show that Wales was an equal partner in that country. A minority of the Welsh people may have wanted to break free from England but the majority were simply interested in receiving that most Welsh of sayings, ‘fair play’.


Anglo-Welsh relations: the highs and lows

From John Redwood’s miming gaffe and the 1979 rejection of self-governance, to solidarity in war

‘Treason of the Blue Books’, 1847

This was the term used to describe a report into education in Wales that deeply angered people by portraying the Welsh as lazy, barbaric, dirty and immoral. The Welsh language and Nonconformity were held to blame for many of these failings but the investigating commissioners did not speak Welsh and failed to understand the culture they denounced. The report helped develop a defensive but strong sense of Welshness.

The flooding of Tryweryn

A 1957 act of parliament sanctioned the flooding of the Tryweryn Valley to create a reservoir to supply Liverpool with water. The inhabitants of the village of Capel Celyn were forced to move and the event remains an iconic symbol of English indifference and a rallying call for Welsh nationalists.

The 1979 referendum on devolution

The electorate’s overwhelming rejection of a degree of self-government was a devastating blow to Welsh nationalism. This was one strike at the concept of a free-standing Welsh nation that could not be blamed on the English and it led to deep trauma among many cultural and political nationalists. Although there were good political and practical reasons for the no vote, it was also, undeniably, a vote for the British status quo.

The Welsh Not

The Welsh Not was a wooden or slate board which 19th-century children were made to wear as punishment for speaking Welsh at school. Quite how common the practice was is unclear but it was never an official policy after the introduction of compulsory education in 1880. Nonetheless, the popular memory became that this was a prime example of the English oppression of the Welsh language.

The two world wars

Both world wars brought the English and Welsh together in often trying and horrific circumstances. At one level this enhanced an awareness of Welsh difference but the wars were also shared experiences that bound the two nations together, demonstrating how their fates were entwined.

John Redwood’s rendition of Hen Wlad fy Nhadau, 1993

John Redwood, the MP for Wokingham and secretary of state for Wales, was caught on camera trying to mime along to the Welsh national anthem when he clearly had no idea of the words. At one level it was just funny but, for many people, it summed up the perversity of Wales being governed by outsiders from England.

Martin Johnes teaches courses on modern Wales and sport in Britain at Swansea University. His book Wales Since 1939 will be published by Manchester University Press later this year.

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This article was first published in the February 2011 edition of BBC History Magazine