A Note on Welsh History and Politics

t had been on my mind for a while to write a more extended piece on Welsh history, simply by virtue of the fact that the job has yet to be done satisfactorily: the problem of Welsh history is the same as that of any history, that it has been by and large written by the bourgeoisie. But in addition to this, where it has been written by radical historians, they either reflect a British chauvinist disregard for Welsh specificities, or they reflect a nationalist disregard for class specificities. This gap has yet to be bridged, and it is not going to be bridged here either, even though I am going to offer a few pointers.
I need to say here that – as is normal – my thinking is the product of dialogue and collaboration with others. In particular, the person who had the best grasp of Welsh history and politics that I know of – more than the rest of the experts put together – was my very close friend and comrade Ceri Evans: my sadness is that he died this past August. In good part, then, in what follows, I am not only speaking for myself, but on his behalf too. I hope he would have liked what I am about to say.

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The first point is that I think we need to be wary of characterisations of Wales as a ‘colonial nation’, or of talk of ‘occupation’. If it is fundamental to understand that Wales is not England, it is also of equal importance to grasp that it is not Ireland either – the historical experience is in fact completely different: specifically, the Acts of Union of 1536, which formalised the incorporation of Wales into England, precisely did not make Wales a formal colony of England:

If colonialism is understood to be a specific, political relationship between two states, then quite the opposite [happened] in fact. […] As Gwyn Alf Williams has pointed out, it actually rescued us from colonialism. From being a disenfranchised and colonised people, the Welsh, or at least their ruling class, were made politically equal to their English counterparts.

There is nothing in Welsh history that compares with, for example, Ireland: to take one example, the land
question, as in the rest of the British state was reduced to bringing landlord and gentry under the control of the bourgeoisie, rather than having to deal with absentee landlordism, catastrophic famine, massive emigration, foreign domination, etc.

More (pdf: 82KB): Notes on Welsh History and Politics

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Picking Over the Ruins: Political and Economic Trends in Wales

Thatcherism in Wales

Thatcherism emerged in the mid 1970s as a response by sections of the ruling class to the structural deficiencies of British capitalism, which had been exacerbated to breaking point by the long term ‘retreat from empire’ and the end of the post war boom. It also presented itself as a solution to the decline of the Tory Party, whose electoral support had been on a long term declining trend for fifty years and which from 1964 to 1979 had lost four general elections out of five. Thatcherism was a populist attempt to effect a qualitative break from the post-war political consensus to the benefit of capital.

In government, Thatcherism crashed domestic manufacturing in order to improve profitability and competitiveness by eliminating relatively unproductive capacity. Inflation was to be controlled through tight control of the money supply. Capital investment was increasingly diverted abroad. Many sectors experienced a driving down of real wages and speed-ups in production. Wholesale cuts in public expenditure were combined with a drive towards privatisation, both of state-run industries and of public services. Alongside this, and necessary to it, came a thorough-going mediation of trade union power (and increasingly other forms of popular resistance), both through legal restrictions and through the weapon of mass unemployment.

In Wales, the historic centrality of core extractive and manufacturing industry (steel, coal) coupled with the post war strategic importance of the public sector meant that the Thatcherite project had a particularly deleterious effect. The 1980s saw a dramatic shedding of jobs in the old basic industries: by 1990 steel and coal, the latter already in a long term cycle of decline before the 1970s, accounted for a mere two and a half per cent of the total workforce. In 1989 employment in services comprised 65 per cent of the total workforce (compared to 55 per cent in 1979), with the total manufacturing workforce standing at 25 per cent (compared to 30 per cent in 1979). Unemployment fell between 1986 and 1989 but increased again on a rising trend in 1990: new ventures did not replace the jobs lost in the early 1980s. This was paralleled by a fall in real wages, especially since 1985. Despite the better rates of growth of GDP (which anyway indicates economic activity rather than wealth) Wales has remained a low output and low-income region of Britain. In 1992 Wales had the highest rate of household income from social security in Britain.

More (pdf: 112KB): Picking Over the Ruins