2007 - 2021

The Dragon Has Two Tongues Again

As a Welsh history war hots up, Rob Brown finds Plaid Cymru’s new leader has launching an assault on English colonialism – still stoutly defended by the BBC, of course.

Back in its fearless infancy, Channel 4 did something few beyond Offa’s Dyke would ever have thought possible: it made a 13-part television history of Wales riveting viewing throughout Thatcher’s Britain. I used to count down the days to the next episode – and not just because I was studying journalism in Cardiff.

Transmitted in 1985, The Dragon Has Two Tongues broke the mould of this previously bland and predictable TV genre. It did so by pitching two diametrically opposed historians against each other in a prolonged slugging match waged everywhere from the summit of Snowdonia to the valleys of South Wales.

Wynford Vaughan Thomas provided the plummy Anglo-Welsh perspective while the pugnacious radical scholar Gyn Alf Williams danced effortlessly, despite his slight stutter, from the Merthyr Rising to the thoughts of Antonio Gramsci.

“A Marxist magpie,” Thomas called him at one point. He was getting exasperated because he knew Williams was winning hands down.
The pompous windbag later penned an article headlined ‘On being a reactionary’ to describe his frustration at being outflanked on the left.

Thomas’s intellectual humiliation came as no surprise to me since I had already witnessed Gwyn Alf delivering a searing emotional speech to the doomed miners at Maerdy Colliery in the Rhondda Valley. Tears were streaming down his face – and mine too – by the end of it.

Far cooler and composed is Adam Price, the new leader of the welsh nationalist party Paid Cymru. He is even, dare I say it, a bit Blairite in his smooth and jocular connection with the crowds. But he seems just as cerebrally passionate as Gwyn Alf about bringing back dignity and social justice to the Welsh people.

Intellectually head and shoulders above anyone in the upper echelons of the SNP, Price clearly understands the key Gramscian concept of hegemony. He also comprehends the meaning of that crucially important line in Orwell’s 1984: “Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.”
Consequently, one of the first things he has done since forcing a leadership contest (which he won hands down) is to challenge his compatriots to think deeply about what has been inflicted upon the Welsh people throughout their history – and what could be inflicted upon them in the near future if they don’t take back control of their country.

Wales: The First & Final Colony is the title of a collection of speeches Price has delivered to audiences on both sides of the Atlantic (including the commencement address at Harvard University when he was at the Kennedy School of Government there). Its overarching theme could not be bolder or more subversive:
“Post-devolution, we’re a post-colonial country still waiting to be decolonised.”

Originally delivered to the Institute of Welsh Politics at Aberystwyth, the core chapter is unabashedly didactic, seeking to drive home three potentially revolutionary propositions: the longue durée of English imperialism began in Wales; the deepest legacy it has left is psychological; national liberation, if it is to mean anything, must be a liberation of the mind.

Failure to achieve emancipation pretty damn fast, Price concludes “will be condemning ourselves to be not just the first but also the final colony.”

Sadly, but all too predictably, one potent colonising influence Welsh nationalists are still up against is the BBC. As if delivered on cue to discredit the Plaid Cymru leader’s intellectual rallying cry, good old Auntie has just baked a brand-new Welsh history series entitled (would you believe it) – Wales: An English Colony?

Its answer, you’ve doubtless already guessed, is: No, it’s not! A verdict delivered to us with smug assurance by its sole presenter, Professor Martin Johnes of Swansea University.

Don’t get me wrong, this two-part series is most engaging and educational, (particularly for those of us who aren’t Welsh). I learned a lot about Owain Glyndŵr and the guerrilla war he waged in vain to end England’s subjugation of Wales. Also got a fascinating Hello magazine-style peek inside one of the many ostentatious mansions built in Cardiff by the coal and steel barons.

But that good stuff is soon forgotten when the final segment descends into a weasely party political broadcast on behalf of anyone opposed to Plaid Cymru. Professor Johnes, dwarfed by an oversized blue cap, delivers a stern lecture to viewers with an astonishingly impartial sign-off: “England is no longer a coloniser!”

Later, leaning his stubbly face into the camera for the umpteenth time, he sneers: “Some still carry a sense of oppression, but the truth is we’ve not been oppressed for centuries and thinking we are, seeing ourselves as victims, takes away our sense of power.”

The same unionist propaganda was imparted (albeit more silkily and subtly) by Huw Edwards when he slipped off his news anchor a few years back to front a five-part series entitled The Story of Wales. “Time and again, our country has shown its canny ability to change and adapt,” he rhapsodised in the accompanying coffee table book.

“It is still doing so today. Wales in the early twenty-first century is once more a country in the tumult of rejuvenation. The Welsh people, more culturally and ethnically diverse than ever before, are a nation in renewal…There has never been a more exciting time to be Welsh.”

I’m sure that is the case if you’re jammy enough to be in monthly receipt of the obscene amount the BBC lavishes (at license-payers expense) upon its newsroom divas and managerial directors. Or, for that matter, if you’re on a professorial salary at Swansea University.

But try telling that to the inhabitants of Cardiff’s Tiger Bay who must fight like tigers to get their first measly universal credit payment. Or the council tax payers in Blaenau Gwent who are now dreading their streetlights getting permanently switched off in the latest round of austerity. Life is a lot darker for them.

The truth is Wales is a wealthy country – a wealthy country in which too many of its people (like ours) live in poverty. Adam Price summed the state of the nation at his party’s spring conference in Llangollen last year:

“The paradox of Wales is that we are a rich country, in both material and non-material terms, which has been condemned to poverty of circumstance and of ambition; a rich country that has learned to be poor with a legacy of sickness, under-achievement, under-investment and a lack of self-confidence in the very existence of our nation.” (Sound familiar?)

Whatever ways the British state broadcasting service might seek to defend and justify internal colonialism, thankfully the digital revolution means the dragon has two tongues again. Plenty other platforms exist in cyberspace – including the ever-excellent Planet magazine – upon which Plaid Cymru can advance the intellectual case for independence.

Comments (28)

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  1. Jim Bennett says:

    Good article: the first by the author on Bella that I have uncritically enjoyed. Thank you!

    1. Rob Brown says:

      Ah Jim, you see, I bring everyone round to my way of thinking in the end.

  2. Richard says:

    I laughed at the way Johnes said that it wasn’t colonialism that did for Wales, but capitalism – as though the two concepts are mutually exclusive!

    1. Martin Johnes says:

      Colonialism nearly always involves capitalism but capitalism does not always involve colonialism.

      1. Alasdair Galloway says:

        If I might say so Professor I think you have a limited understanding of what it is to be colonised. Certainly there is the most common view of concerns the classical 19th century colonial adventures of the European powers, and the doings of the Americans (in particular) more recently. But if you consider the work of someone like Fanon, you would discover the colonialism is about more than taking control of the country and its resources (which is what capitalism is after) but also the minds of the oppressed population. Subjugation, as Habermas makes clear in his work on colonization of the lifeword (in for instance “Theory of Communicative Action”) involves the ideas and means of making sense of the world being subjugated as well. Thus, I would suggest you are wrong – colonialism does usually involve capitalism (I think we can agree that), but capitalism has its own form of colonialism.

  3. Huw Roberts says:

    Congratulations Rob this is a fantastic piece. I found myself shaking my head in disbelief at Martin Johnes’s conclusion that we are not a colony.

    1. Rob Brown says:

      Thank you Huw for your kind compliment. Not sure I’d get that from Huw Edwards!

  4. Welsh Sion says:

    Yes, Adam Price is a far-seeing, intelligent and passionate Cymro, who pulls no punches. I am proud to have him as the Leader of one of my national parties. (Note to author: Don’t fall for the same trap that the mainstream media play with both our countries’ national parties and call PC and SNP ‘nationalist parties’.) Adam has mooted that the Party should change its name – New Wales Party, perhaps, although there way be shades of Blair’s New Labour to that. A root and branch review of Party organisation is going on – and there is much input from Angus Robertson on this. I found it surprising that in Scottish blog that no mention was made of Angus’s involvement on this.

    Further, and a point I have attempted to raise with Scots on various pro-indy blogs and personally – and again sadly missing in this piece – is the realisation that they/you and me can join Plaid Cymru, even if you are also a Member of the SNP. I know, as I have been since 2011 and have met others who have been joint-SNPers and PCers for decades longer than that. You don’t have to speak Welsh – another important point to get across. Mainstream media won’t hesitate in spreading this (and any other lie) to discredit the national Party of my home country.

    Here’s the link:


    As for Prof. Johnes, he already has (at least one) book(s) out where he delivers his usual anti-Plaid diatribes. He’s a confirmed right winger historian, if not a Thatcherite. His reputation goes before him and (surprise, surprise!) can not be considered to use scholarly objectivity in his historical analyses. You’d be better off reading “A History of Wales” by the late, great Dr John Davies, published by Penguin Books. (More info. on request.

    Gwyn Alf was essentially a Marxist so his sympathy for the coal miners comes as no surprise. However, his knowledge of matters ‘north of the Valleys’ was rather sparse. As for Vaughan Thomas, you could easily classify him as a Welshman manqué but re-invented himself as a sort of benign patriarchan squire/tweedy type, a ‘safe’ Welshman who the English/British Establishment could rely on to speak well of them and denigrate his fellow Cymry. (As for Huw Edwards, I’d say his father is turning in his grave at how his son has taken the English/British Establishment’s shilling … And his book referred to above is full of errors and typos.)

    Which brings us back to Adam who when he was 8, the story goes, protested against the then Prime Minister, Jim Callaghan who said to him,

    “You want my job, don’t you?”

    “No,” replied Adam. “I want to be Prime Minister of an independent Wales.”

    This is the man to be our next First Minister. And he promises to be an effective, radical and good one.

    Tros Gymru / For Scotland.

    1. Rob Brown says:

      Thanks for all that interesting additional information Sion, although I won’t be taking you up on your two-for-the-price of one membership deal on Britain’s two nationalist parties as I’m no longer in the the SNP. Scotland desperately needs a far-seeing, intelligent and passionate leader on a par with Adam Price if we are ever to achieve any form of independence worth struggling for. No one of that calbre exists in the SNP’s current high command.

  5. Martin Johnes says:

    I’ll bite….

    Although a few in Wales interpreted the series in the way this article does, most of the feedback was the quite opposite. There were complaints and complements that it was anti-English and Welsh nationalist. The ending does argue that modern Wales is not a colony (although the ‘quote ‘ given by the article above is not from the series) but it also argues that the union is deeply unequal, that devolution has not solved our economic problems, and that Wales needs to asks questions about its future relationship with England. The social media response suggest that message hit home.

    I agree with the quote from Price at the end. Wales suffers from a lack of self-confidence. One reason for that lack of self confidence is a tendency to blame England for everything and to forget that in a democracy we can choose our own future. Thinking ourselves a colony ruled by another country is the route to staying part of the union. Remembering we have choices is power.

    The series can be watched here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m0003c79

    There’s a book too: https://www.parthianbooks.com/collections/new-releases/products/wales-englands-colony

    1. Me Bungo Pony says:

      Wow! A TV celebrity on the thread! Its like Hollywood n’ stuff! 😉

      But seriously, its hard to claim you are not being colonised when the “Welsh” are becoming harder to find outside Glamorgan. The Welsh are a minority in vast tracts of Wales with many of the “prettier” parts now almost wholly “English”. You can talk about independence of mind and spirit all you like but, eventually, geography has to be taken into account. Is Wales to be simply a dod of land on a map of the UK (like Northumbria, East Anglia and Mercia), the remaining area populated by “Welsh” people (increasingly just Cardiff, Swansea and the mining valleys) or just a personal “state of mind” with no geographical significance at all?

      With independence, the national identity of Wales would be guaranteed. Without it, Wales is almost certainly going to become just another region of the Kingdom of England sooner or later. Maybe the Welsh are okay with that. Maybe it doesn’t bother them. Personally, I think it may already be too late if they aren’t. I think a tipping point may have already been passed where-by Wales and “Welshness” will eventually be no more significant than Northumbria and “Geordieness”. A local identity within an anglified UK, not a national one. Hopefully Scotland can escape that fate.

    2. Rob Brown says:

      Many thanks, Martin. I’m impressed by the fact you can not only give it out but take it – and then strike back again.
      Glad also you provided the links to both your programmes and the accompanying book. As I acknowledged in my article, as there is a lot to like (and learn from) them.
      If only your highly impartial conclusion had ended upon on the cutting room floor – and you hadn’t worn that oversized blue cap throughout (very distracting).

    3. Alf Baird says:

      Great article Rob. As for being a colony or not Scotland appears to fit the definition only too well and Wales seems no different, as was Ireland until it managed to free itself and with the UN subsequently describing Ireland as a ‘former colony’. Only colonies would be given devolved assemblies by an ‘administrative Power’? https://newsnet.scot/archive/brexit-vote-underline-scotland-not-country-colony/

  6. Gerry Thom says:

    ” Intellectually head and shoulders above anyone in the upper echelons of the SNP”. I’m sure Nicola Sturgeon, Mike Russell, Ian Blackford and a regiment of others might take umbrage at that sweeping statement.

    1. Rob Brown says:

      Not if any of this trio had taken the time to read the transcript of Adam Price’s address to the Institute of Welsh Politics – which I’m pretty sure none of them have. Certainly neither Sturgeon nor Blackford could ever begin to match it.
      Mike Russell did try to make an intellectual case for independence in his book Grasping the Thistle: How Scotland Must React to the Three Key Challenges of the Twenty First Century. But he was ordered to crawl back under a boulder when Alex Salmond got sight of the neoliberal nostrums he was seeking to promulgate (and has never recanted, incidentally).
      I accept Scotland’s national freedom cannot be regained solely through high-brow lectures. It requires a range of gifts and aptitudes. Plaid Cymru was maybe smart to call upon Angus Robertson to advise them on building up a stronger membership base (although I do hope he’s not submitting an expenses claim to them for his efforts!)
      Seriously, Scotland desperately needs its own Adam Price and I cannot spot anyone in the SNP’s command (or its wider ranks) who comes close to him. Maybe Angus’s new polling outfit Progress Scotland will fulfil its promise to “provide insight and analysis on what is needed to persuade people on the case for Scotland”. But, if the SNP ever pulls off that trick, please don’t anyone delude themselves that they’ll soon be residing in a truly progressive Scotland. Nation-building (or rebuilding) is much more than just a smooth persuasion job. Spinmeisters are usually shysters!

      1. Martin Williams says:

        I’ll keep it brief.I’m Welsh.Live in Cymru.Want to see my country become a better place.Vote Plaid Cymru.
        Have bought the Wales on Sunday a few times.The Sunday National is far more interesting.It’s great buying a paper copy of The National when up in Scotland.
        Don’t want to slate my own country but FRANKLY Scotland can sometimes feel a more grown up nation.
        Am basically asking AP and his fellow Pleidwyr to try to strengthen Welsh print press.In both English and Cymraeg.
        Lively discourse,circulations…A constructive press.It’s not about agreeing with everybody else like a person with no independent thought process.Just being constructive and answering:how can Wales become a better country?
        Is Wales a colony?Haven’t watched the programme. Maybe yes and no. It’s a state of mind I suppose. If Adam Price can spark a more positive attitude in Wales then great. Asking politicians to strengthen print press with public £ is not ideal.Circulation is important.A critical mass of discourse.
        Ideally a Welsh patriot would use his or her £ to create a popular publication. Philanthropy.
        But since Wales is quite poor a bit of public money is needed I suppose.Not a hand out.Just sensible help.
        Wales needs to be ambitious.It makes sense to vote PC.
        I have no real interest in slating Welsh politicians in other parties.Many can be well meaning I suppose Except for UKIP. who are a negative joke of a party.But for a more ambituous Wales:vote Plaid.We have great potential just like any other nation.
        Welsh language,lack of evening buses,expensive train faires,litter,dog poo,weak economy,lack of lively sensible national debate,people sleeping rough-in a better country nobody would sleep rough especially in shit weather,loosing to many of our brightest to Cardiff and across the border to England. Things need to be better.PC will never (obvs)create a perfect Wales.But there’s always a chance that PC can spark improvements.Just more ambition basically.A can do attitude.

  7. Jo says:

    Wonderful read.

  8. Tam Black says:

    Interesting article Rob. As a Scot, I’ve been meaning to brush up on my Welsh history and understanding of the independence/national movement in Wales . ‘The Dragon Has Two Tongues’ is at least partly available on youtube.com. (Dinnae fash, I’ll gie yours a bash an aw ProfessorJohnes)

    A key difference between Wales and Scotland in terms of self-perception and interpretation of the world is surely the existence of multiple national Scottish newspapers. I presume that underpins why Wales (which was doing well from EU membership (if not UK membership)) voted for Brexit whilst Scotland and Northern Ireland did not? Is it fair to say that people in Wales are basically reading 90% English news media, as if people in Scotland were only reading the Guardian/Times/Daily Mail Scotland Edition – with a tiny fraction of bespoke articles and the rest prioritised and framed in London.

    A second comment: I wonder if Adam Price is right that Wales rather than Cornwall is the first and final colony of England. Professor Johnes – perhaps you could do a follow-up documentary called “Cornwall: A cultural genocide?” 🙂 Those are the words (‘cultural genocide’) of English historian Norman Davies in his recent book Beneath Another Sky in which he gives a brief account of the history of Cornwall. To be fair he rolls them back a bit, saying it’s problematic the UN use the same words for the intentional erasure of culture vs people, and applying modern concepts to historical processes has it’s pitfalls etc., but it is a fascinating perspective that I expect a tiny fraction of English people would be aware off: Cornwall as a model of what long term colonial processes will do to a people and culture.

    It will be interesting to see what happens there: They’ve re-vived and partially re-invented Kernewek, they’ve been officially recognised as a national minority, the campaign for a Cornish tick box to sit alongside English/Welsh/Scottish/Irish/British on the census continues… that would be a substantial boost to the Cornish national movement.

    1. Tam says:

      I shouldn’t say ‘As a Scot’ that’s a bit “As a mother”… I meant something more like: A Scot, I’ve been meaning… 🙂

    2. Welsh Sion says:

      Tam Black and others,

      If you read Adam’s book, you’ll see that he addresses the issue of Kernow not being the 1st colony of England, in that he states that England was not fully formed/created at the time it was taken over. I don’t have the page reference to hand (but I know its there). Up to you if you agree with him or not.

      And, yes, it’s true to say, there is very little ‘independent’ media in Cymru as opposed to the ex-Fleet Street newspapers. No Welsh editions thereof – and the short-lived Welsh Mirror was full of bile against the national movement and the language. These may have been contributing factors in a yes vote to Brexit – altho not ALL unitary authorities, such as Gwynedd, agreed. There are a few Welsh language magazines, but despite reservations about Scottish newspapers, at least Scots can say they have them. A proposed Welsh national language newspaper was pulled by the National Assembly.

      I hope this helps. (And that supporters of independence will buy my book, too! )

      1. Tam says:

        Thanks for your comments Welsh Sion… very interesting context. Hopefully they’ll revisit that decision on the Welsh language newspaper (perhaps it requires a 10-year wait for no independent alternative to crop up!). What was the name of your book?

    3. Rob Brown says:

      Having headed up the journalism school at Falmouth University from 2014 – 2018, I do want to put Cornwall in a comparative Celtic context so will definitely check out these suggested readings for historical background. Very helpful, thanks.

  9. Kenny Smith says:

    Can I ask a legitimate question please? I really hope not to offend any Welsh people here it is only as a fact finding debating point. Although many are against the idea that the treaty of 1707 and subsequent acts repealed and dissolved in order to free Scotland it is an avenue that many have argued as a route out of the Union. I’m no constitutional lawyer but Wales doesn’t have anything like a treaty and is not seen as a nation in international law as far as I’m aware. Scotland on paper at least was a willing signatory to a political union so in theory should be able to leave one way or another. How does Wales argue it is a nation and not a principality? Again I’m not saying Wales or the Welsh don’t deserve that status I’m all for the break up of this unequal union but Scotland has the claim of right it’s own legal process etc. Just some food for thought how it could actually be achieved. As we Scots are having a hard time as it is would it be even harder for the Welsh? Any opinions would be welcome

    1. Welsh Sion says:

      For you, Kenny Smith:


      Also, our so-called “Acts of Union” (a 20th century appellation) refer to the “Laws in Wales Acts 1535 and 1542” which were used to annex Wales into England. Henceforth, until 1967, any Westminster legislation referring to “England” also covered “Wales” (unless mentioned otherwise, e.g. Sunday Closing (Wales) Act 1881).

      The Laws in Wales Acts (our “Union” with England) were abolished by virtue of the Welsh Language Act 1993 Schedule 2.


    2. Welsh Sion says:

      For you, Kenny Smith:


      Also, our so-called “Acts of Union” (a 20th century appellation) refer to the “Laws in Wales Acts 1535 and 1542” which were used to annex Wales into England. Henceforth, until 1967, any Westminster legislation referring to “England” also covered “Wales” (unless mentioned otherwise, e.g. Sunday Closing (Wales) Act 1881).

      The Laws in Wales Acts (our “Union” with England) were abolished by virtue of the Welsh Language Act 1993 Schedule 2.

      1. Kenny Smith says:

        Thanks mate, I’m grateful for the info. I’m sure others will be interested too.

        1. Welsh Sion says:

          Happy to help. Spread the message and feel free to ask more questions about my home country.

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