Wales Since 1939 by Martin Johnes


The period since the Second World War has been covered in recent years by a number of histories that have enjoyed both critical and popular success. Martin Johnes has provided a seven-decades’ narrative for Wales that is the equivalent of the books for Britain by David Kynaston, Dominic Sandbrook and Andy Beckett. Within the Attlee government, for example, Ernest Bevin goes unmentioned in favour of James Griffiths who held responsibility for national insurance. Wales Since 1939 is a powerfully centred narrative of a progress, albeit fitful and contradictory, towards the forming of a political entity.

The art in writing history is that easy swing between high affairs of state and the telling details of real lives lived. From the perspective of 2012 it is difficult to conceive quite how far away is that world of just a handful of decades ago. Snobbery may be innate in human affairs but Johnes describes an age where it is rampant. The head of Swansea University objects to professors and lecturers featuring on the same radio programme. It is, he says, akin to the mixing of officers and men. He himself is naturally a socialist but his children are sent to Eton.

The films of the period are now a fascinating lens into the sheer greyness and drabness of the urban landscape. At the end of 1960’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning the young couple discuss where to live. Arthur says, ‘I wouldn’t mind living in an old house.’ To which Doreen replies, ‘I would. I want a bathroom and all that.’ In 1950 less than a half of Welsh homes has a bath. Two-thirds have neither sink nor stove. In 1955 in Holyhead a quarter of homes are deemed unfit for habitation. The availability of electricity gradually spreads. But even in 1961 Carmarthenshire has a couple of schools without power. Even so, its use for this first generation is accompanied by worry about cost.

But inexorably the foundations of the world of the next century are being laid down. In 1960 Swansea possesses a single coffee and milk bar. The students at Aberystwyth go on strike at the refusal of the university to permit a student bar. This is 1964. The Archdruid is banning attempts to infiltrate skiffle into the Eisteddfod. Television is becoming near omnipresent. ‘An anti-culture, which is alien to almost everybody, persistently hostile to art and intellectual activity…given over to exploiting indifference, lack of feeling, frustration and hatred’ is the view of Raymond Williams.

Wales Since 1939 by Martin Johnes 465pp, Manchester University Press, £16.99
Wales Since 1939
by Martin Johnes
Manchester University Press, £16.99

The deep changes of modernity are underway, even if D J Williams sees ‘moral turpitude and soul-rotting materialism’ in his fellow citizens. Agricultural employment plummets. Within a generation twelve thousand milk producers become two thousand. The sheep population near doubles, then drops again by a quarter. The trend towards wet silage affects field mice which in turn reduces the owl population. The hollowing out of the population in Mid and West Wales reaches a height at Talyllyn in Merioneth with a population decline of a quarter between 1961 and 1971.

If history records broad underlying movements, it is ever untidy in its details. Economic vitality is always dependent on currents outside the borders of Wales. War material production may employ one hundred and thirty thousand, with thirty-five thousand in Bridgend’s vast ordnance system alone, but by February 1946 unemployment in Wales is back at ten per cent.

Social mobility sends post-war divorce rates soaring. Affluence brings insecurity in its wake. On one hand the suicide numbers rise, but men spend more time with their children than has ever been known before. While the scope of state action expands massively it brings disillusion in its wake. ‘The state also became a scapegoat for many of the social ills people saw around them…the rises in crime and the fading of the Welsh way of life.’ Crime doesn’t even feature as a political issue until the 1970s.

In 1958 the president of the governors of the National Museum of Wales writes an article declaring that Welsh is used to degrade scholarship, worsen public sector performance and ‘worst of all, to create enmity where none existed.’  Leo Abse speaks of ‘a packed gravy train’ with its first class carriages marked ‘For Welsh speakers only.’ Even so official attitudes as well as popular are ambivalent. In 1972 a Cardiff court gives absolute discharges to two protesting non-payers of television licences. The 1969 Investiture prompts sit-ins and demonstrations, but, come the Silver Jubilee, Wales hosts more street parties than anywhere outside London. It is too topical for Johnes’ book but the reception of the royal visits after the floods of this Spring would break the heart of aspirant republicans.

Johnes opens with ‘the place called Wales and the idea called Wales were not always quite the same thing.’ He concludes of this great age of transition. ‘Wales was thus a curious mix of the confident and the insecure, although the scales were tipping in the direction of confidence.’  A good historian digs out the facts even if uncomfortable. Rancour breaks out over housing priority for the newcomers moving to factories built by centralised diktat. Tryweryn at the time is less of a universal rallying call than memory has it. Bala Town Council does not support protest. Merioneth does closely but only after a second vote. MPs abstain. Johnes cites at length the views of a farmer of fifty years’ experience.

The paradox of prosperity is that ‘Wales, like the rest of Britain, may have been better off, stable…but it was not content.’ In Rhyl forty-seven per cent of the population aged sixteen to seventy-four possesses no qualifications. Nothing emerges to replace the extractive industries. ‘The Welsh economy,’ he writes dourly, ‘was so entwined with the rest of the UK that it could be questioned whether it existed at all.’

He punctures any nostalgia. In 1952 a slate quarry manager has as much difficulty finding local employees as the fruit farmers of Herefordshire do today. A man who starts work at the Ebbw Vale plant records ‘the place was huge, shambling, spectacular, filthy and frightening. Only more filthy and more frightening than I had thought possible.’ The 1984 strike is given the same even-handed, albeit uncomfortable treatment.

The book has the finish, the notes and index that befit a university press. Ambrose Bebb may have publicly admired Action Francaise but the text includes, ‘One historian has claimed, rather dubiously, that Plaid Cymru sent an official delegation to Berlin to offer support for a Nazi England in return for an independent Wales.’ It seems unlikely, given the draconian powers that the war-time coalition possessed. As a story it ranks alongside fables, not in this book, of Cardi farmers selling rare rationed eggs and butter to U-boats surfacing in lonely West Wales coves. The source is Richard Weight’s 2002 Patriots. That book as a source lacks corroborative reference or footnote for a serious accusation.

Trefechan Bridge is dated as taking place eleven days before the broadcast of ‘Tynged yr Iaith’, instead of in February the following year.  These small points aside, open Wales Since 1939 at any page and rich detail jumps out. In the age of austerity NHS bandages, free and plentiful, are diverted for the making of curtains. At one time the War Office has an intention to use one-tenth of Wales’ landmass for military purposes. Sixteen thousand acres of the Preselis are eyed up for a tank range.

George Thomas is here telling his Prime Minister that the citizens of Aberfan have ‘worked themselves into an irrational state of mind on this issue.’ A later prime minister, in a cabinet with three senior Welsh ministers, is of the opinion, ‘What dreadful people, we are really wasting our time – what is the point of all your efforts if they appreciate them so little.’

Histories of Wales are numerous. Read John Davies for breadth, Kenneth Morgan and Gwyn Alf Williams for fine accounts from a particular point in time. Martin Johnes should be the standard narrative for some time of the forces that have combined to make the Wales of the new century’s second decade.