Hands off Wales by Wyn Thomas

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The teaching of history, once a simple tale of monarchs and battles, is itself now a battlefield. The tussle between chronological and conceptual approaches ricochets right up to ministerial level. Getting its history wrong, wrote Ernst Renan, is part of being a nation. In Britain, the syllabus has long been under the sway of the Schools History Project. Its supporters declare of history that it ‘is not a body of knowledge’ but ‘a heap of materials which survives from the past.’

Hands Off Wales has forty-four pages that follow its main body of text. Apart from index and bibliography, Wyn Thomas has provided a biographical register of ninety-seven principal actors. A timeline begins in 1888 with the flooding of Cwm Llanwddyn, lists every political shift and explosion of the 1960s, and runs through to the referendum of 2011. The body of the book contains footnotes on every page; the bulk of these are primary research in the form of the author’s personal interviews. The result is a monument of a study, which may be augmented with time, but is unlikely to be superseded.

Hands off Wales review
Hands off Wales
by Wyn Thomas
424pp, Gomer

A part of the art in history’s writing is literary prowess, the authorial ability to evoke a scene. It is the feature that distinguishes book from journal article. Wyn Thomas describes a Free Wales Army march through Machynlleth, Dennis Coslett in the lead with stave and Alsatian. Media interest is high, but the event attracts just thirty participants, later in the day heckled by the town’s Saturday drinkers. At an earlier march, a footnote reveals, Liverpudlians threw rotten tomatoes at the protesting Welsh. Veteran Liverpool politician Bessie Braddock is remembered as ‘vile, really nasty’ saying ‘some horrible things’ to the protestors.

A night drive over the mountains near Cerrigydrudion is a drama that might have come from a film script. Blood streams from a cut to Emyr Llywelyn Jones’ knee. The car hits a snowdrift. A handkerchief spattered with blood is left behind. To cap it all, a police car follows them most of the way from Bala to Dolgellau, eventually turning away, unaware of the unused detonators on the back seat.

Julian Cayo Evans makes his first appearance on a bar stool playing ‘Irish rebel songs’ on his accordion. Ireland haunts Thomas’ narrative, although the reader sees it with a knowing hindsight. In 1962, the IRA is reported as ‘dead, defunct and inoperative’. Thomas records that Pedr Lewis spent eighteen months in prison with two prominent Republicans. But, in tribute to the slipperiness of history, he writes ‘the exact nature of the association between Welsh militants and the IRA at this point is open to speculation.’

Some of the past is verifiable and Hands Off Wales is part-record of a truly distant period. At the time of the Investiture, the BBC reports from Caernarfon that ‘many of the town’s terraced houses’ are ‘without bathrooms, indoor toilets, electricity, hot water, or even a cold tap outside.’ The author describes his own politics, which are both eclectic and likeable, on his website, but Hands Off Wales does not eschew the unpalatable. Dennis Coslett is angry over recently ‘enforced’ legislation on homosexuality, believes Mein Kampf ‘a great book’ and its author as ‘having all the answers’. Thomas records Cayo Evans as stating German defeat in 1945 to be a ‘sad day for Wales’.

Thomas also follows the actions of authority, in an unfolding of events which would be inconceivable today. His own father regularly paced a Radnorshire part of the Elan pipeline to check for devices. Police interrogation tactics in the 1960s include leading a suspect to an upstairs window. There he looks across at officers holding up his frightened, crying children. 

The identity of every Free Wales Army member was apparently known to the authorities, but the State had a fraction of the powers, which have accrued for our century. The ‘security network emerged from the fight’ in Thomas’ view as ‘bloodied and exposed as hopelessly ill-equipped to meet a dogged, determined and intelligent opponent.’ In an age where an off-guard tweet can earn a custodial sentence, it reads as extraordinary that the Western Mail could once cite an interviewee stating possession of an atom bomb and the means to discharge it over the new Severn Crossing. On The Frost Programme of 25 October 1967, confession is made of ‘plastics’ placed on the pipelines of ‘the establishment’ and ‘blasting away’.

Politics surges through Hands Off Wales.  In 1957 the Editor of the Western Mail is already writing to the Minister that the ‘seeds of an Irish problem’ are being sown in Wales. Gwynfor Evans knows that Liberal mid-Wales is his party’s best target, but that rural chapel-goers are precisely those most likely to be repelled by direct action. This approach of constitutionalism wins small nationalist or electoral support until the drama of Carmarthen in 1966.

In London, a Welsh Home Secretary is in power for much of the period. In 1968, George Thomas displaces Cledwyn Hughes in the Cabinet. Wyn Thomas reports that Western Mail and Liverpool Daily Post are united. ‘A more dynamic, scintillating and dynamic course was needed’ they claimed, ‘and George Thomas fitted the bill.’ Certainly, in May of that year, Hansard records Thomas rebuking the opposition benches for their apparent amusement over the government’s reaction to events in Wales.

Wyn Thomas’ last line runs ‘It belongs to history. It belongs in the 60s.’ His final pages ask the question whether direct campaigns work, or are justified. It is a vast subject, and probably unanswerable. History’s outcomes are multiple in cause, and it is imponderable whether the absence of one factor may prevent the occurrence of a later one.

Richard Crossman features in the bibliography, although not in the book. At one point, The Crossman Diaries record Willie Ross, Secretary of State, as being ‘very depressed’ and on the point of resignation. ‘Recently all the dispersal decisions have favoured Wales,’ writes Crossman. But Scotland gets to decide in September 2014. It is not in Thomas’ book, but direct action by Scots never went beyond a campaign in the spring and summer of 1952 in which pillar-boxes with the mark EIIR were set alight.

These short pages of comparison and summing-up give an impression of hurry. The book disagrees with Bruce Hoffman, one of the academic leaders in the field. Response to direct action is critically dependent on awareness and publicity. The Economist’s Lexington, for example, declares that detonations and explosions in China have run into the hundreds, but journalistic attention has been scant.  

 The fourteen hundred plus footnotes to Hands off Wales provide a seam of additional comment. They record that the more remote Llyn Brianne was eventually created in place of Cwm Gwendraeth Fach with its location much closer to Swansea. In 1971, the Usk River Authority swiftly withdrew after residents of Cwm Senni denied access to their surveyors.   

Hands Off Wales is based on exhaustive primary research and executed with a writer’s skill. Remarkably, Wyn Thomas left school at sixteen with no qualifications: ‘not a educational directional course I would recommend.’  The degree of detail and finish should ensure the book has a life for years to come. Future release of papers may add further material but as periphery to the main narrative.    

Apart from the prose of a good writer, Hands Off Wales is ripe with quotation. Liverpool, surprisingly, as Manon Eames revealed in her dramatisation Porth y Byddar, was engaged in a bit of municipal capitalism. Activist Dafydd Alun Jones diligently trawled the records of the city’s Water Committee back to 1865. The water from Lake Vyrnwy already exceeded consumption needs, and the city also had extraction rights from the Dee. These claims of need went unexamined by authority. With fellow Britons in need of water, Henry Brooke in the Commons declared that he could not ‘believe that the Welsh people, of all people’ wanted ‘to stand outside the brotherhood of man.’