October 24, 2006

The Welsh Extremist (1973)

Ned Thomas, The Welsh Extremist: Modern Welsh Politics, Literature and Society, repr. 1994 (Talybont: Y Lolfa, 1973).


Thomas begins the first chapter, ‘The Welsh Extremist’, with a comparison:

I had grown up with the word extremist almost constantly in my newspaper—Kenya, Cyprus, Malaya, Adan; very often the word changed to terrorist and then one day the word would disappear and the head of a new independent state would arrive in England to meet the Queen. (9)

Thomas begins by thinking about extremism abroad and he notes this definition of that state: ‘ Extremist put them all beyond the pale, or rather asserted that they had put themselves outside the community of reasonable men’(9). This word, says Thomas, was also used about the Welsh (and we must remember that he is writing in the 1970s when the Free Wales Army were burning down English homes in Wales etc.). Thomas describes the rise of Welsh Nationalism and how when he returned to Wales, ritual sparring had been superseded by, ‘total politics as I had observed it in years of living in Spain and the Soviet Union, politics in which the control of institutions was all-important, politics which made people conceal their allegiance lest they suffer in their jobs, or else use their jobs in a political way’ (10).

Wales’ politics are supposedly different from England’s situation. For Thomas, England is ‘a technologically mature, socially humane society, held up with minor variations by both the Conservative and Labour parties’ (10-11) while Wales is ‘a country where the unemployment remains well above average, and where the more or less static population figures conceal the fact that in every generation the young and talented have to leave to find a job, while their places are taken by retired people moving to the coastal resorts; people who may come from any part of Britain and have no identification with the local community’ (11). This anxiety about outsiders coming in seems rather old-fashioned in today’s climate of globalisation, yet for Thomas and for writers like R.S. Thomas it was a serious concern. This is something that Wales has had to reconcile within itself.

Thomas describes the corruption of Welsh tradition and he notes that the Welsh do not feel themselves to be British: ‘If they could be made to feel British and not Welsh, if they could believe the changes were being forced on them in the name of a better and juster society, they would not need to feel disgruntled’ (12). For Thomas, the most passionate protest about the state of Wales has been in the language of Welsh, which I will refer to henceforth in its Welsh name, Cymraeg. Literature plays an important part because, ‘it holds up the ideal of a civilized and humane society, which is an ideal for people in other places’ (13). Thomas wonders whether a ‘small community […] can go on existing in these islands’ (13). It is for this cause that Welsh people protest and it is this cause that creates extremism. Thomas makes a comparison again at this point:

When it is negro[dodgy terminology here] violence in the United States we see the conflict in terms if historical cause and socio-economic pattern; the same in Northern Ireland. So far in Wales we have been talking as if there were a handful of people practising or advocating violence who constituted a wholly isolated current of thought, and no general social significance. (15)

Thomas describes the case of two men, who before the Investiture of the Prince of Wales, blew themselves up when trying to lay an explosive charge at government offices in Abergele. Thomas describes how the new story was suppressed and many had sympathy with the story because it symbolised something about the state of Wales. This is one aspect of what Thomas would think of as the Cymraeg community, yet there are as many attitudes within its as there are people. Violence is one option open to protesters, but Thomas suggests that civil disobedience is more fruitful and worth while.

Altogether this chapter is a mixture of good and bad aspects of Welsh political writing: good in its socialist outlook and its awareness of other minor cultures; but bad in its fear of outsiders and its feeling of insecurity where Welsh traditions are concerned. The bad aspect emerges in later chapters, particularly in the section on the ‘Anglo-Welsh’ (a term that I dislike intensely).

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