In 1926, the literary and political icon Saunders Lewis argued that Wales needed to focus on developing its own distinct civilisation rather than on independence. As a part of that, he called for the complete deindustrialisation of South Wales. That must have sounded preposterous at the time, and his contemporaries focused instead on the political struggle.
And yet, just short of a century later, Lewis has been vindicated. Wales is still not independent, but it has indeed experienced deindustrialisation. In the meantime, Welsh thinkers adopted a model developed by Michael Hechter and popularised by Gwynfor Evans: Wales as a colony of England. It remains a useful framework as we experience intense global change, because it helps us to understand that we’ve faced collapse before – and we can learn important lessons from that.
The Groans of the Britons
Sometime around 450CE, the leaders of Roman Britain sent a desperate appeal for assistance – the ‘Groans of the Britons’ – to Flavius Aetius, commander of imperial forces in Europe. Britain was being assaulted by barbarian raiders, but the last legions had been withdrawn to the continent decades earlier. Aetius couldn’t help them: the Roman empire in the west was collapsing, overrun by nomadic Huns and Germanic tribes.
The emperor, Valentian III, could only try to stem the chaos and restore some temporary stability. Imperial resources were at breaking point and Britain wasn’t worth the investment needed to keep it. Aetius replied that the Britons were on their own, and must organise their own defence. Their centuries of living as part of a vast empire were over. From now on they would have to depend on whatever skills and resources they had locally.
The Age of Arthur had begun. Unable to cooperate and weakened by internal struggles, the Britons lost their lands, until finally they united and became the Cymry, hanging on in the west. As Rome’s vast factories and open trade routes faded into history, the Welsh wouldn’t have a standard of living equal to that of their Romano-British ancestors for many, many centuries.
History moves in cycles. Empires and civilisations rise, fall, and sometimes rise again in a new form. Languages and cultures ebb and flow. Nothing has an inherent right to endure forever. We’re once again at the end of a cycle of history, and on the cusp of another.
The deindustrialisation of Wales
The industrialisation of Wales is comparatively recent in historical terms. It created an entirely new English-speaking society on foundations of coal and steel: one which has existed for about the same length of time as the Tudor dynasty. The Tudors died out. The coal industry vanished decades ago and today, with the steelworks in Port Talbot soon to diminish, we are seeing the tail end of an economy which began in the late 18th century but only really took its modern form in the 19th century.
Without coal and steel, what future does Anglo-Welsh society have? The trends since the 1980s aren’t encouraging. We need to ask such difficult questions and come up with answers very quickly now.
It seems that when the news about Port Talbot broke, First Minister Mark Drakeford tried to speak to Rishi Sunak – and was curtly informed that the Prime Minister was not available. Aetius at least wrote back to the Britons.
Comparing the Rome of 450CE to today’s UK is useful, because Britain is still an imperial system in many ways. The industrial revolution that created the coal and steel communities also created the launchpad for Europe’s empires. As our own mineral reserves were depleted, we used materials from the colonies to keep our industries going, obtained cheaply because we could impose the terms. Even after those colonies became politically independent, the old imperial centres remained economically dominant and the relationship extractive.
Panic in Westminster
That’s changing, though, as ancient civilisations rise again. For most of history China, India, and Persia (Iran) have been the most powerful and wealthy parts of the world. Today we see them resuming this historical role, joined by Russia as a new Eurasian power, and collaborating via partnerships such as the Brics group. As they rise, other nations are gravitating towards their diplomatic and economic influence. Not least because they think they can get a better deal than the West has given them, as recent events in west and central Africa show.
Economies need raw materials, and they need energy. The UK is now in trouble on both fronts. Booming economies in the global south increase demand and push up prices. Producer nations demand fair compensation for their commodities and, increasingly, keep processing (such as with steel production) for themselves, increasing prices even more.
Worse, the global reserves of the most important resources, particularly oil, are in decline. It’s now believed that global demand for oil will permanently outstrip supply from 2025 onwards: that’s next year. Prices will reach previously unimaginable levels, which is very bad news for the energy-intensive economy of the UK as its North Sea reserves decline. The cost of energy is already collapsing industrial production in the former European powerhouses of Germany and Italy.
There are signs that this is causing panic in Westminster. Former secretary general of NATO George Robertson warns that the west must overcome Russia to maintain dominance over the world order. Energy secretary Claire Coutinho fears that, once the UK depends on energy bought from overseas, we will become “subservient to foreign regimes”. Brexit negotiator Lord Frost declared that London must maintain its rule over Wales and Scotland or face “massive national humiliation”.
It’s up to us
This means very hard times for Wales. London will do everything it can to keep control; it needs our water and our potential for renewable energy. We should expect further efforts to undermine devolution and such political autonomy as we have. And we must understand that all available resources will be reserved for the imperial core, even as the cost of living escalates beyond our worst nightmare.
Think of the funds taken for HS2, and the refusal to fund work on hundreds of unsafe coal tips. We can expect London to engage in ever more desperate military adventures to look strong, even as the UK’s armed forces collapse in size and strength.
The Welsh must understand that we stand alone. That the way of life we are used to has gone forever. And we will only survive if we unite and face the reality of our situation with clear eyes and no illusions. Aetius and his legions are not coming to help us. Nor are outside investors, multinational corporations – or Westminster.
For two generations we lived in a global, borderless economy which brought us cheap goods, cheap energy, and cheap food. That time is over. We need to accept it and deal with it, just as the citizens of Britannia had to accept that Rome had cut them loose.
As Wales comes to terms with its deindustrialisation, and our communities lose their economic reasons to exist, we must stop reacting to events. Rather, we must establish a clear image of who we want to be as a nation and be single-minded – and united – in creating it ourselves. Nobody is coming to help us. It’s up to us now.