In the two previous articles in this series of three, I discussed the weaknesses of the political order in Wales. The first analysed the quietism of our political culture under the shadow of partisanship, and the second discussed the underlying trends that render our politicians so averse in practice to the radicalism they preach. In this third essay I would like to try to shed light on the hinterland of these discussions, namely the relationship between Wales and Britain, and particularly with our neighbour, England. A well-worn observation is that Wales cannot be understood without this context. But a more immediate motivation for these reflections is the fact that the current political crisis, which can be traced back to 2008, has convinced a significant percentage of the Welsh people that bringing this relationship to an end is the only way to move forward. In some senses, independence is increasingly being seen as the most likely way out of our current political malaise.
It would not be a straightforward break-up, of course, as Gareth Leaman and Simon Brooks have both suggested, from very different perspectives — one with a sweeping analysis of the modern British myth that ‘recuperates’ the power and hold of the capitalist state, the other discussing the hold that ‘The Idea of Britain’ has on the psyche of so many Welsh people, an idea with its roots in the Brythonic Britain that remains part of the Welsh imaginary. Both argue that this bond must be dealt with if we are to move forward. But where Leaman discloses an oppressive British force, Brooks suggests a form of dependence between Wales and the wider entity of which it is a part. In this article, I want to turn this idea on its head: what if the deepest dependency is on England’s part, and it is not the Welsh but the English who have the most to lose? It is imperative to consider the issue from an English perspective, and the challenge it faces in a broken Britain — not least because such considerations suggest that England (or more specifically the English ruling class) are unlikely to allow for a painless parting of ways.
A Welsh England
We can return to a key period in the history of the Welsh and English to reflect on this intuition. This was the period when the English state came into being under the Tudors — and which saw the commencement of modern Britishness. By analysing what was at stake then, and the Tudor efforts to establish the English state, we discover a very revealing period in terms of the situation of Wales, today. In short, the Welsh were as integral to the establishment of England as the English. We see that the oppressors evolved an identity that borrowed from the identity of those they had defeated, a people who in turn fought hard for their place within the new state; this dynamic resulted in the weaving of a pattern of interdependence from the beginning.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the fragile and tired souls of the Welsh wanted dearly to believe in Henry VII after the failure of Glyndŵr, and the period of retaliation that came with it. Indeed, for the poets and the moral leaders of the period, Henry was the true Mab Darogan who proved that Glyndŵr had misunderstood the prophecies. The Welsh craved a saviour, while Henry needed their support. The Bards began to sing his praises, and by the time he reached the shores of Milford Haven in 1485 the Welsh were ready to escort him to their English allies. In the victorious battle at Bosworth, the Red Dragon was famously held aloft, and the prophecy was fulfilled with the baptism of his son, Arthur. The Britons had once again been elevated to the throne of Ynys y Cedyrn.
This was not just a prophecy that would lie in the imagination of the Bards. There were some temporary gains for the Welsh in the new King’s court. Over time, and through their intellectuals in particular, the Welsh took a leading role in the formation and then development of the seminal Anglo-British identity. According to Gwyn Alf Williams, for Henry VIII’s Protestant state it was a necessity to create an identity that distanced it from the grasp of Rome, and it was the Brythonic mythology that facilitated this. This constituted the borrowing by the English state of the Brythoneg/Cymreig mythology in order to validate and strengthen itself — but the political reality of this cultural marriage was the assimilation of Wales into the English regime through the Laws of Union. There was a cultural cost to this representation in Parliament and the new legal arrangements of course, namely the annexation of the Brythonic tongue from the emerging civic sphere.
16th Century Culture Wars
The ‘culture war’ (to use an anachronistic phrase) between the English and Welsh identity in this period is illustrated in the history of one of the sons of the Renaissance in Wales, Elis Gruffydd, the ‘Soldier of Calais’. He was one of the first and best known, and in his work provides an interesting case study of the tension. Defending the ‘Welsh mind’ was at the heart of his intellectual activity, whilst he professed a very particular critique of English scholarly activity.
He served the English army during those years in Calais, as a Welshman, Brit, and even an Englishman, and reflected the trends of his time with his thorough, lengthy work, which aimed at the ideals of the era through the priorities of caution, balance and complexity. This was the use of the logic of the Renaissance in his long chronicle of world history, in contrast to many of the English, ‘England-centric’ chronicles of the period, which had been written to complement and buttress the nationalism of the new state.
According to Jerry Hunter in Soffestri’r Saeson (2000) Gruffydd’s scripts are littered with references to ethnicity and the suggestion that identity affects the writing of history — and that the English are guilty of ‘sophistry’ in their writing, with the use of misleading or deceptive discussion and abuses of scholarship, all in an attempt to mislead the Welsh and serve the English state. This is what the creatures of the twentieth century may have called ideological warfare, and where the value and validity of Gruffydd’s responses rested on the best standards of the period.
He says plainly that it was the intention of the English to eliminate difference, to ensure that the Welsh thought and believed in the same way, and that they inherited a worldview that was entirely anglicized. These were the first attempts to deracinate the Welsh mind within the British regime. Gruffydd’s intention was to use the scholarly logic of the era to buttress the Welsh traditions, and therefore maintain its history and identity. In this spirit he would validate the prophecies as historical objects of substance (as Gwyn Alf himself would later do in Madoc) — because they belonged to the way the Welsh people understood their history.
Despite the attempts of the English in the era of Henry VIII, the Welsh intellectual-historical universe was maintained, to the extent that Elizabeth’s court was immersed in it. There would be a real enough surge in the ‘Welshness’ of this new state under her leadership. By then the wave of leading Welshmen venturing under the new regime had reached its high point, with not only aristocrats and traders in the capital, but lawyers, academics and servants — chief among them Blanche Parry, the Queen’s personal contact with these wider circles. The belief that the Welsh people had been resurrected as leaders of the new state was not going to fade easily, as this bold class of people set about trying to form this new England in a Welsh guise. It must also be stressed that the identity they created was an essentially Imperial one, as the new state fought for its place in the world. The London-Welshman Dr John Dee used Humphrey Lhuyd’s term ‘The British Empire’, in bringing to bear Welsh mythology on the architecture of Elizabeth’s imperial foundation — including a justification for claiming the lands of America on the basis of Prince Madoc’s ‘discovery’ centuries earlier.
There is some irony, sadly, in the fact that a colonized people attempted to restore their identity partly through a project that colonized others. But it was not only by appealing to a triumphant future that they tried to restore the Welsh — these humanists, in their sweeping European universe, wanted to see the poets, for example, restore the dignity and status of the Bards of pre-Roman Briton, as guardians of civilization.
The Welsh Bible
However, it was of course towards the translation of the Bible that a large part of their energies were directed, an accomplishment that ensured their efforts would not be in vain, despite the slow assimilation of the Welsh.
Indeed, in a manner reminiscent of JR Jones’s Prydeindod one might claim that it was not political rights or formal equality that saved the Welsh as a people, but rather this act of ethnic insistence that would maintain their identity and apartness. The story of the Bible’s translation can be told in terms of Protestants trying to win their people to their faith — and there is certainly much to this narrative — but it seems difficult to deny that they were motivated as much by the survival of their people as they were their faith. This was a key chapter which ensured that, despite the loss of the cultural and political battle, the Welsh spirit would live on.
An elective affinity that worked in favour of the Welsh language was the fact that the essential message of the new faith was the importance of the direct relationship between the believer and God. Crucial to that was to ensure that the scripture was heard by them in their own language. As Gwynn Matthews has noted, the ear more than the eye would be crucial to the faith in this period with so few literate people, and for that reason, it must be remembered that the Book of Prayer was equally, if not more important in ensuring that Protestantism struck roots and that the Welsh worshipped in their native language. It was these needs, and his enthusiasm for the cause that led Williams Salesbury to translate both books and ensure their printing and distribution across Wales. And it was a battle, with opposition from all fronts, including, of course, those Welsh people who regarded the language as secondary and a waste of time, and others who were unhappy with the standard of Salesbury’s language (plus ça change). In order to guarantee the necessary will and resources, a law was eventually pushed through Parliament under the name of Elizabeth.
Salesbury did not work alone, and his main partner in the initiative was the Bishop of St David’s, Richard Davies, who like his collaborator was brought up on the outskirts of Llanrwst. He took an active part in the House of Lords and was a friend and adviser on Welsh affairs to Archbishop Matthew Parker. This status and influence was of great importance in creating the conditions that would enable Salesbury to proceed with the translations, ensuring that the act passed in 1563, ordering the Bishops of Wales and Hereford to arrange the translations. While Davies secured a successful passage through the House of Lords, that other great Welshman from Denbighshire, Humphrey Lhuyd, introduced the act into the House of Commons as a Member of Parliament. Davies himself worked on the text, translating the Epistols, and the books of Timothy, the Hebrews, James and part of the Book of Peter. Along with the prayer book and the psalms the New Testament was published in 1567, a turning point in the history of the language and the nation, although the Bible would not reach the hands of the laity until the publication of the Beibl Bach in 1630.
More significantly than the translation, Davies’s contribution in terms of a preface to the New Testament is notable today. This is a text that offers us a glimpse of the period, and the hopes and purpose of both as they achieved their objective. Davies offers a short history of Christianity in Wales which at times appears as pure fiction; it would certainly not be unfair to suggest that it is a piece of powerful propaganda, with the main intention of persuading the reader that the Protestant church is synonymous, not with a new beginning, but rather the recovery of the old faith of the Britons. The true Christianity of the Welsh was at stake, and the salvation of souls. This was another expression of the age-old relationship (which seems to be coming rapidly to an end) between the identity and faith of the Welsh people.
Davies based his claims on the legend that developed in the 12th century around Joseph of Arimathea, as the person known for burying Jesus was brought into Arthur’s circle, apparently reaching the shores of the old Britain with the Holy Grail and then being established as the first bishop of the kingdom. From this story the belief developed in the early Christianity of the Britons, who were later threatened and corrupted not only by the Anglo-Saxons, but also by Rome and bishop Augustin who was sent to ‘turn’ those Pagans. Another subject of censure by Bishop Davies, inevitably, was the bogeyman of the Church, Pelagius the Briton — or the Principal of Bangor Cathedral, as Richard Davies himself refers to him (another historical example, one might suggest, of the Welsh slighting themselves in an attempt to curry favour with those beyond our borders).
The foreword as a whole speaks volumes in terms of Davies, Salesbury and others’ efforts to try to elevate Wales in this new era, despite the fact that it was entirely assimilated by the English governmental regime. We must therefore ensure we do not regard the story that revolves around translation of the New Testament in a vacuum. This was an effort to turn Wales Protestant, but it was also part of the culture wars in a period where it seems that the hope of the Welsh was to establish the English state as a bi-ethnic one, where the Welsh and English identity would sit alongside each other. But of course, in time, the Welsh would be assimilated as well as alienated by that very same state; from that point onwards Wales and the Welsh would have to realise themselves within a thoroughgoing Anglophone structure.
Tracing the establishment of the English state, and recognising the role of Welsh mythology in the ‘creation myth’ of that state, is an opportunity to reflect anew on our perception of the relationship between England, Britain and Wales today. This issue is particularly current in light of the recent tribulations of the British state, in which context the Welsh tend to consider their future in relation to neighbouring events, particularly the question of Scotland quiting the union. It is the increasing likelihood of this happening that has forced those who would not otherwise consider independence to think further about the possibility of an independent Wales. It is not only the traditional nationalist who fears being Montenegro to England’s Serbia (especially with echoes in England’s politics of the sort of nationalist rhetoric invoked by characters such as Serbia’s Milošević). A future for Wales bound to a predominantly hard-right England should be troubling enough for any Welsh social democrat worth their salt. Strikingly, this conversation often leads to the suggestion that England would be content for us to leave - walking backwards into independence as we are - on the basis that we are somewhat inconsequential in their eyes, and that we may be perceived as an unnecessary financial burden.
As someone who has spent some time in recent years discussing J R Jones, one can recognise this type of argument in another form. The essence of the British state, according to his analysis, was that it was in its initial formation the English state, established to protect the English territory, people and language, but then extended to its neighbours through the ideology of Britishness — Prydeindod.
We have therefore reached a historic point where that English state now seems in a condition of overreach, where retreating back to its ‘original’ people and land around which it was established is the obvious resolution.
But the history of the creation of the English state suggests more complexity than Jones’s analysis allows; as we have seen, one aspect of this history is the fact that the Welsh played an active role in the formation of the English state, and indeed that aspects of Welsh identity were a formative part of that state. Therefore the essence of J R Jones’s critique of Britishness — that the British state is in fact an extension of the English state, formed to guard and nurture only the English people — does not fit the historical facts in such a clear cut way.
The complexity of the historical situation is that the Welsh were an integral part of that formation, and indeed that it was the Welsh who offered the support and justification for that state, and that the injection of Welshness was a predicate of the modern British state, established through the Union and the use of Brythonic mythology. This was not a straightforward matter of assimilating Wales after the formation of the English state, but rather the Welsh being in at least some respect a formative part of that state.
This complex, close relationship needs to be borne in mind in terms of trying to understand contemporary dynamics. In this respect, I suspect that the English ruling class will not be so indifferent about letting us ‘leave’ quietly, and that it will be a much more challenging psychological process on both sides. Firstly, one can recognise the difference with respect to the relationship between England and Scotland, simply by noting the language used on both the English right and left in relation to Wales, encapsulated in the constant suggestion that Wales is an English region, a Principality at best — a pretty enough, even exotic addendum that is a place upon which all sorts of projects and ideals can be projected: a place for seaside holidays, a destination for the good life, a holiday playground, wasted land to re-wild, and now in some parts an escape from Covid — and so on. We may apparently be somewhat insignificant, economically redundant, or a bit uppity about the old lingo, but the reality is that we, in the eyes of a large number of our neighbours, are a part of them.
Independence would not be a matter of divorce, in the same way as Scotland, but an abandoning of a part of the self. And it’s no small matter for one to dispose of a piece of one’s body, even if it’s an apparently pointless addendum such as the appendix. It is not too hubristic to suggest, however, that Wales is a somewhat more significant part of the English anatomy in the eyes of some.
The Internal ‘Other’
Some philosophical speculation may provide more detail for this illustration — specifically a concept used by Hegel in his discussion of the development of human consciousness across the ages, which provides a suggestive heuristic. The concept of the ‘other’ that is referenced in so many political discussions of the era, is elucidated in one of its earliest instantiations by Hegel, primarily because of the importance of the ‘other’ with respect to the development of what he called the Geist — an idea that might be understood by the term consciousness (Gwyn Matthews suggests he could have equally translated the term as ‘meddwl’ rather than ‘ysbryd’— mind rather then spirit).
In his introductory book on Hegel Matthews emphasizes that it is the contrast between oneself and the ‘other’ that allows the self to develop self-consciousness. In basic terms, we can’t know who we are without knowing the other first. The most famous example of Hegel treatment of this idea is what is often referred to in English as the master-slave dialectic (although Lord and Serf would likely be a more accurate translation of the original German). In order for each other to receive the recognition from the other, that is vital to the sense of self, they must find a way to live with each other. However, their conditions are somewhat different: the Master is independent and its essence is that it exists for itself, whilst the servant is dependent, and its essence is to live or be for the sake of the other. Yet, in spite of the independence of the master, it cannot exist without this other.
With Matthews’ treatment of this relationship, in the current climate it is difficult not to allow the mind to stray to aspects of the relationship between England and Wales, notably the idea that the master regards the other as a vehicle for confirmation of his awareness of his identity.
There is no recognition of any particular value in ‘the other’ — they are there only to confirm the existence and status of the master. But there is also an element of spiritual emptiness for the master: because the other has been subdued, he has also lost, in as much as the recognition received from the other is worth less than the recognition of an equal. So much better is the condition of the serf, it is suggested, because they realise their identity not just through recognition of a superior other, but also because though their labour they leave an impression on the world — objective evidence of their existence. Moreover, under a master, one knows what fear is for loss of life and livelihood (or language, we might suggest), which ensures a vivid awareness of identity.
In reflecting on this description of the need for recognition by ‘the other’ in order to achieve self-awareness and develop one’s identity, there are considerations that appear directly relevant to the condition of the United Kingdom at present and the ties that are unravelling. As Anthony Barnett argues, the essence of Brexit is the crisis of the English identity: as the long retreat from Empire comes to an end, the Britishness they have relied upon is now devoid of the status and (perceived) dignity of the past- and Barnett argues that the tragedy of Iraq and Britain’s diplomatic failure in the world was a final nail in the coffin. Britain is no longer worthy of the recognition of those with which it was previously equal. Brexit has been a futile attempt to restore the previous status of parity with the great powers, and to achieve a recognition in the international sphere by returning to Edwardian Splendid Isolation.
With that futile effort, the truth has become clear, namely that Britishness was an expression of Englishness for so many, and this appears to be borne out in the willingness of many to part from Scotland and Northern Ireland on the altar of a Brexit that will apparently regain them their lost status. However, ‘little’ England may soon feel this has been a mistake when a lack of recognition and esteem is forthcoming, not only from world powers, but even its former partner. At that point, the prospect of losing the internal other, the other self that gave England a part of itself in order to secure its formation, the faithful servant who will represent the only hope of recognition, will quite possibly be too much. Better recognition from an ‘inferior’ than no recognition at all. Because without that recognition, and the attendant opportunity to express superiority over another, England may be in danger of losing all sight of itself.
We all know that the historical relationship between England and Wales is complex, and by considering only some of it here, we understand that this complexity is integral to the relationship — particularly the formation of the English state and the place of the Welsh within that formation. Salesbury and Davies took advantage of that Welshness - which was in fact very important to the success of Henry Tudor and the establishment of the Protestant English state under Henry VIII — to ensure that the state had to make some room for the Welsh, its language and culture, under Elizabeth’s reign. As Glanmor Williams pointed out, they understood what was at stake, and that this would be the only opportunity to save them from following the path of Cornwall and the Isle of Man. Men from a battleground that had long lived under the threat of the English, and understood the need for resilience and strategy, were the leading knights in the cultural struggle.
But despite this heroic effort, the Welsh formed themselves as the internal other, within a state that established itself partly by displacing or even oppressing the Welsh identity. Consequently we the Welsh, in our place within this wider state, have for many centuries defined ourselves in the first instance not against various others but rather against the English. It’s an age-old and familiar habit of comparing everything we do first of all against what England does. Witness also our awareness of this situation and the other side of the coin, namely our relentless efforts to try to define ourselves as a nation of ‘international’ and ‘global’ horizons, aspiring for recognition by the big world beyond. How grateful we are for some crumb of recognition from some foreign press, and you will remember well the ecstasy that arose from the Welsh team’s successes in Euro 2016, with that feeling that the world was seeing us for the first time.
As with Hegel’s master and servant, therefore, the dependency goes in both directions. With our recognition denied, in effect, on the international level — with the exception of a few chapters in the world of sport — the need for recognition falls on our neighbours, and so when we hear the claim that we rely upon England for our existence, it is not just an economic statement. It may also be understood as a psychological, existential statement, so great is our interdependence as countries. Is not the talk of being too small, too poor, and an economic failure simply a proxy for an existential psychological dependence? At the same, it must also be asked whether the English ruling class would be willing to ‘liberate’ a country they consider to be an extended part of themselves, and which serves very particular purposes in terms of their own image and identity. The internal other can always be relied upon to ensure recognition, to express one’s uniqueness and one’s place in the world — a superior place at that. Indeed, in recent years it has increasingly felt that when he has lost all standing in the world, the last preserve of self-respect for the Englishman is to put the Welshman in his place. Allowing the other to seek its independence would be to forego England’s dependency on Wales as its first and ultimate source of self-expression and self-assurance.
In conclusion, I would like to note two further suggestions, or perhaps political considerations. The first of them is an important fact about William Salesbury, one he shared with Humphrey Lhuyd who had been so important in taking the Act for the Welsh Bible through Parliament: that both of these Welsh heroes were of English origin. It is almost unnecessary to say this, or to comment on the fact, however not only because of the tone of politics in general, but also because of where discussions around Welsh politics can inevitably lead, it is worth us remembering that the story of the Welsh language is one that has two immigrant families at its heart.
The second comment is that Salesbury and Davies were driven by their patriotism, but they also had higher principles than nationalism, namely their Christian faith. Within the divine order the Welsh were to exist, and these two, and the other humanists of the era, worked to promote the nation so that they took their place within that order. Patriotism was tied to overt principles that provided motivations, purposes and a goal. This was not patriotism for its own sake. I am not the first to suggest that we should ask ourselves whether a desire for national recognition is sufficient to drive and motivate the kind of radical and epochal transformation that would be at the heart of the conversion to an independent Wales. However, is it not self-evident that there will be more belief, more faith, and more purpose to such a movement that places national liberation within a wider overarching framework? For me, at least, only one such framework can offer any hope of success, and justify the effort — but that is for another essay.
This essay was originally published in O’r Pedwar Gwynt and is a version of a lecture delivered in the 2019 Eisteddfod in Llanrwst.