Why Wales Never Was

Why Wales Never Was | Books

Finding himself with more reading time in lockdown, Adam Somerset took the opportunity to look back at Simon Brooks’ Why Wales Never Was. Here, he considers some of the text’s most important points – from the rise of nationalism in Europe to how liberalism was positioned against a nationalist agenda in Wales.

If the lockdowns of the last 18 months took away from our social lives, they at least made more time for books and the examination of those writers and writings that really deserve to be remembered. One such work is Why Wales Never Was, Simon Brooks’ analysis of the Welsh nationalist movement since the nineteenth century. An English adaption of 2015’s Pam Na Fu Cymru, Brooks’ original version was on the non-fiction shortlist for the Wales Book of the Year award in 2016.

Why Wales Never Was is published by the University of Wales press, and as you would expect from an academic publisher, the book comes equipped with an index, 42 pages of notes and a density of argument. The book’s subtitle is “The Failure of Welsh Nationalism,” and its thesis is firmly rooted in nineteenth century Europe, where “small-nation” nationalism first blossomed.

Researching the book took Brooks to Germany, the Czech Republic, Austria and Slovenia. Not your typical academic text, “Pam Na Fu Cymru,” the author recalls, “was written on the dole in Porthmadog. I wrote it in cafes, I wrote it in pubs, and I wrote it on the street”.

As a book of political writing, Why Wales Never Was is pointed, pungent, polemic and persuasive. Names from intellectual history proliferate this book’s pages: Herder, Kant, Arnold, Mill, Henry Richard, Gwilym Hiraethog, Samuel Roberts Llanbrynmair. The author’s view on contemporary Wales is distinctive and pulls no punches. Brooks asserts that devolution has delivered a “series of disasters”, turned north Wales into an “internal colony of Cardiff” and hastened the “collapse of Welsh as a community language everywhere outside Gwynedd”.

As well as looking to the past for historical context, Brooks casts his eye forward to an even bleaker future. He warns that “some provincial, post-national half-life awaits the new Wales, a ghost like that of the Cornish spectre”.

This tone is set from the very opening sentence: “Why isn’t Wales a Welsh-speaking country today? Why isn’t Wales independent?” Brooks compares the development of the Welsh language to that of Czech, Slovenian and Estonian, noting that in the mid-nineteenth century, Welsh was far more entrenched than what are now official languages of fully-fledged EU member states.

Deeply read in European scholarship, Brooks cites a strong guide to the experience of Wales in Miroslav Hroch’s Die Vorkämpfer der nationalen Bewegungen bei den kleinen Völkern Europa, published in Prague in 1968.

It is in this context that Wales presents a contradiction. The industrialisation of Bohemia provided a basis for Czech nationalism to flourish. By rights, according to historians of the era like Gellner and Hobsbawm, something similar should have happened in Merthyr. The fact that this did not happen lies paradoxically in the advancement of civil liberties in Wales; the liberal state produced voting, education reform was enacted, and the Welsh language press flourished. However, Welsh liberalism was opposed to nationalism; the Education Acts of 1870 and 1899 might have had the effect of grounding Welsh in regions of high immigration, but this did not materialize. The contrast is described: “In Prague, Trieste and Riga – a multi-ethnic working-class population mix did not lead to language shift from Czech, Slovene and Latvian to German and Russian.”

An explanation may be found in the nature of Welsh industrialisation. Brooks states that extractive industry does not generate a bourgeoisie of size, and that intellectual life has historically been fuelled in an urban setting. He identifies the first generation of nationalists from as far as Finland to Bosnia as being born in towns, and while he locates centres of debate in Rhuthun and Bala, he suggests that these were “places too small to set the political agenda for a nation whose economic heart beat in the south”.

The 20-page chapter on language starts with Johan Gottfried Herder’s supposition that ethno-linguistic community took root in Europe in a way that did not occur in Britain. While Kant was well received in Wales, his contemporary Hegel and his idea of “Volksgeist” (national spirit) never took hold – Brooks states that “in Wales, Hegelianism and nationalism were decoupled”.

This line of decoupling follows a trail that leads to the Llanover Group, Cymru Fydd, and the triumph of non-conformism. Its invalidation of patriotic conservatism had an effect. Brooks writes: “R.T.  Jenkins, the greatest Welsh historian of his generation, had it about right. With the ‘divorce between Methodism and Toryism’ the road was open for the Welsh nation to be recast in a British mould.”

The liberal state ascended and so too its intellectual grounding. J.S. Mill applauded self-determination in revolutionary Italy but not in Celtic territories. Engels called Welsh independence “an absurdity, got up in popular dress in order to throw dust in shallow people’s eyes”. In the liberalism-nationalism clash, “the ideal of a common language is the litmus paper of liberalism; it shows clearly the importance of inclusivity as a political principle”.

Why Wales Never Was is not an easy read, neither for its density of ideas nor for its conclusions, the essence being: “Nationalism was slain in Wales by liberalism, rather than conservatism […] the Welsh nation was murdered by its own left-wing”.

Brooks writes of Gwilym Hiraethog: “His argument contains a twist that undermines Welsh nationalism entirely. Acquiescence in the face of subjugation is proof of self-respect. Wales is ‘the quietest province and the most faithful to the Crown of all which belong to her”. It is this culture that has endured; in 2012’s The Story of Wales, Jon Gower recorded that in Wales “more street parties were held in celebration of 2011’s royal wedding than in any English region outside London”.


Why Wales Never Was: The Failure of Welsh Nationalism is available via University of Wales Press.