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Britain, Ireland and Europe, 1994-99: Peace, Devolution & Development.   Leave a comment

LSF (1947) Nobel Peace Prize obv

Unionists & Nationalists – The Shape of Things to Come:

In Northern Ireland, optimism was the only real force behind the peace process. Too often, this is remembered by one of Blair’s greatest soundbites as the talks reached their climax: This is no time for soundbites … I feel the hand of history on my shoulder. Despite the comic nature of this remark, it would be churlish not to acknowledge this as one of his greatest achievements. Following the tenacious efforts of John Major to bring Republicans and Unionists to the table, which had resulted in a stalemate. Tony Blair had already decided in Opposition that an Irish peace settlement would be one of his top priorities in government. He went to the province as his first visit after winning power and focused Number Ten on the negotiations as soon as the IRA, sensing a fresh opportunity, announced a further ceasefire. In Mo Mowlem, Blair’s brave new Northern Ireland Secretary, he had someone who was prepared to be tough in negotiations with the Unionists and encouraging towards Sinn Feiners in order to secure a deal. Not surprisingly, the Ulster Unionist politicians soon found her to be too much of a ‘Green’. She concentrated her charm and bullying on the Republicans, while a Number Ten team dealt with the Unionists. Blair emphasised his familial links with Unionism in order to win their trust.

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There were also direct talks between the Northern Irish political parties, aimed at producing a return of power-sharing in the form of an assembly in which they could all sit. These were chaired by former US Senator George Mitchell and were the toughest part. There were also talks between the Northern Irish parties and the British and Irish governments about the border and the constitutional position of Northern Ireland in the future. Finally, there were direct talks between London and Dublin on the wider constitutional and security settlement. This tripartite process was long and intensely difficult for all concerned, which appeared to have broken down at numerous points and was kept going mainly thanks to Blair himself. He took big personal risks, such as when he invited Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein-IRA to Downing Street. Some in the Northern Ireland office still believe that Blair gave too much away to the Republicans, particularly over the release of terrorist prisoners and the amnesty which indemnified known terrorists, like those responsible for the Birmingham bombings in 1974, from prosecution. At one point, when talks had broken down again over these issues, Mo Mowlem made the astonishing personal decision to go into the notorious Maze prison herself and talk to both Republican and Loyalist terrorist prisoners. Hiding behind their politicians, the hard men still saw themselves as being in charge of their ‘sides’ in the sectarian conflict. But Blair spent most of his time trying to keep the constitutional Unionists ‘on board’, having moved Labour policy away from support for Irish unification. In Washington, Blair was seen as being too Unionist.

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Given a deadline of Easter 1998, a deal was finally struck, just in time, on Good Friday, hence the alternative name of ‘the Belfast Agreement’. Northern Ireland would stay part of the United Kingdom for as long as the majority in the province wished it so. The Republic of Ireland would give up its territorial claim to the North, amending its constitution to this effect. The parties would combine in a power-sharing executive, based on a newly elected assembly. There would also be a North-South body knitting the two political parts of the island together for various practical purposes and mundane matters. The paramilitary organisations would surrender or destroy their weapons, monitored by an independent body. Prisoners would be released and the policing of Northern Ireland would be made non-sectarian by the setting up of a new police force to replace the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), whose bias towards the Unionist community had long been a sore point for Nationalists. The deal involved a great deal of pain, particularly for the Unionists. It was only the start of a true peace and would be threatened frequently afterwards, such as when the centre of Omagh was bombed only a few months after its signing by a renegade splinter group of the IRA calling itself ‘the Real IRA’ (see the photo below). It murdered twenty-nine people and injured two hundred. Yet this time the violent extremists were unable to stop the rest from talking.

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Once the agreement had been ratified on both sides of the border, the decommissioning of arms proved a seemingly endless and wearisome game of bluff. Though the two leaders of the moderate parties in Northern Ireland, David Trimble of the Ulster Unionists and John Hume of the Nationalist SDLP, won the Nobel Prize for Peace, both these parties were soon replaced in elections by the harder-line Democratic Unionist Party led by Rev. Dr Ian Paisley, and by Sinn Fein, under Adams and McGuinness. Initially, this made it harder to set up an effective power-sharing executive at Stormont (pictured below). Yet to almost everyone’s surprise, Paisley and McGuinness sat down together and formed a good working relationship. The thuggery and crime attendant on years of paramilitary activity took another decade to disappear. Yet because of the agreement hundreds more people are still alive who would have died had the ‘troubles’ continued. They are living in relatively peaceful times. Investment has returned and Belfast has been transformed into a busier, more confident city. Large businesses increasingly work on an all-Ireland basis, despite the continued existence of two currencies and a border. The fact that both territories are within the European Union enables this to happen without friction at present, though this may change when the UK leaves the EU and the Republic becomes a ‘foreign country’ to it for the first time since the Norman Conquest. Tony Blair can take a sizeable slice of credit for this agreement. As one of his biographers has written:

He was exploring his own ability to take a deep-seated problem and deal with it. It was a life-changing experience for him.

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If the Good Friday Agreement changed the future relationship of the UK and Ireland, Scottish and Welsh devolution changed the future political shape of Great Britain. The relative indifference of the eighteen-year Tory ascendancy to the plight of the industrial areas of Scotland and Wales had transformed the prospects of the nationalist parties in both countries. Through the years of Tory rule, the case for a Scottish parliament had been bubbling under north of the border. Margaret Thatcher had been viewed as a conspicuously English figure imposing harsh economic penalties on Scotland, which had always considered itself to be inherently more egalitarian and democratic. The Tories, who had successfully played the Scottish card against centralising Labour in 1951, had themselves become labelled as a centralising and purely English party. Local government had already been reorganised in Britain and Northern Ireland in the early 1990s with the introduction of ‘unitary’ authorities.

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Scotland had a public culture further to the left than that of southern England, and therefore the initiatives on devolution came from the respectable middle-classes. A group of pro-devolution activists, including SNP, Labour and Liberal supporters, churchmen, former civil servants and trade unionists to found the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly. In due course, this produced a Constitutional Convention meant to bring in a wider cross-section of Scottish life behind their ‘Claim of Right’. It argued that if Scots were to stand on their own two feet as Mrs Thatcher had insisted, they needed control over their own affairs. Momentum increased when the Scottish Tories lost half their remaining seats in the 1987 election, and, following the poll tax rebellion, the Convention got going in March 1989, after Donald Dewar, Labour’s leader in Scotland, decided to work with other parties. The Convention brought together the vast majority of Scottish MPs, all but two of Scotland’s regional, district and island councils, the trade unions, churches, charities and many other organisations, in fact almost everyone except the Conservatives, who were sticking with the original Union, and the SNP, who wanted full independence.

Scottish Tories, finding themselves increasingly isolated, fought back vainly. They pointed out that if a Tory government, based on English votes, was regarded as illegitimate by the Scots, then in future a Labour government based on Scottish votes might be regarded as illegitimate by the English. In a 1992 poll in Scotland, fifty per cent of those asked said they were in favour of independence within the European Union. In the 1992 election, John Major had made an impassioned appeal for the survival of the Union. Had the four countries never come together, he argued, their joint history would have never been as great: Are we, in our generation, to throw all that away?  He won back a single Scottish seat. Various minor sops were offered to the Scots during his years in office, including the return of the Stone of Destiny, with much ceremony. However, the minor Tory recovery in 1992 was wiped out in the Labour landslide of 1997, when all the Conservatives seats north of the border, where they had once held the majority of them, were lost, as they were in Wales. Formerly just contestants in middle-class, rural and intellectual constituencies, in 1997 Scottish and Welsh nationalists now made huge inroads into former Conservative areas, and even into the Labour heartlands, and the latter despite the Labour leadership being held consecutively by a Welshman and a Scot.

By the time Tony Blair became the party leader, Labour’s commitment to devolution was long-standing. Unlike his predecessor, he was not much interested in devolution or impressed by it, particularly not for Wales, where support had been far more muted. The only thing he could do by this stage was to insist that a Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly would only be set up after referenda in the two countries, which in Scotland’s case would include a second question as to whether the parliament should be given the power to vary the rate of income tax by 3p in the pound. In September 1997, Scotland voted by three to one for the new Parliament, and by nearly two to one to give it tax-varying powers. The vote for the Welsh Assembly was far closer, with a wafer-thin majority secured by the final constituency to declare, that of Carmarthen. The Edinburgh parliament would have clearly defined authority over a wide range of public services – education, health, welfare, local government, transport and housing – while Westminster kept control over taxation, defence, foreign affairs and some lesser matters. The Welsh assembly in Cardiff would have fewer powers and no tax-raising powers. The Republic of Ireland was similarly divided between two regional assemblies but unlike the assemblies in the UK, these were not elected.

In 1999, therefore, devolved governments, with varying powers, were introduced in Scotland, Wales and, following the ratification referendum on the Belfast Agreement, in Northern Ireland. After nearly three hundred years, Scotland got its parliament with 129 MSPs, and Wales got its assembly with sixty members. Both were elected by proportional representation, making coalition governments almost inevitable. In Scotland, Labour provided the first ‘first minister’ in Donald Dewar, a much-loved intellectual, who took charge of a small group of Labour and Liberal Democrat ministers. To begin with, Scotland was governed from the Church of Scotland’s general assembly buildings. The devolution promised by John Smith and instituted by Tony Blair’s new Labour government in the late 1990s did, initially, seem to take some of the momentum out of the nationalist fervour, but apparently at the expense of stoking the fires of English nationalism, resentful at having Scottish and Welsh MPs represented in their own assemblies as well as in Westminster. But there was no early crisis at Westminster because of the unfairness of Scottish and Welsh MPs being able to vote on England-only business, the so-called Midlothian Question, particularly when the cabinet was so dominated by Scots. But despite these unresolved issues, the historic constitutional changes brought about by devolution and the Irish peace process reshaped both Britain and Ireland, producing irrevocable results. In his television series A History of Britain, first broadcast on the BBC in 2000, Simon Schama argued that…

Histories of Modern Britain these days come not to praise it but to bury it, celebrating the denationalization of Britain, urging on the dissolution of ‘Ukania’ into the constituent European nationalities of Scotland, Wales and England (which would probably tell the Ulster Irish either to absorb themselves into a single European Ireland or to find a home somewhere else – say the Isle of Man). If the colossal asset of the empire allowed Britain, in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, to exist as a genuine national community ruled by Welsh, Irish and (astonishingly often) Scots, both in Downing Street and in the remote corners of the empire, the end of that imperial enterprise, the theory goes, ought also to mean the decent, orderly liquidation of Britannia Inc. The old thing never meant anything anyway, it is argued; it was just a spurious invention designed to seduce the Celts into swallowing English domination where once they had been coerced into it, and to persuade the English themselves that they would be deeply adored on the grouse moors of the Trossachs as in the apple orchards of the Weald. The virtue of Britain’s fall from imperial grace, the necessity of its European membership if only to avoid servility to the United States, is that it forces ‘the isles’ to face the truth: that they are many nations, not one.

However, in such a reduction of false British national consciousness to the ‘true’ identities and entities of Scotland, Wales and England, he argued, self-determination could go beyond the ‘sub-nations’, each of which was just as much an invention, or a re-invention, as was Britain. Therefore an independent Scotland would not be able to resist the rights to autonomy of the Orkney and Shetland islands, with their Nordic heritage, or the remaining Gallic-speaking isles of the Outer Hebrides. Similarly, the still primarily Anglophone urban south-Walians and the inhabitants of the Welsh borders and south coast of Pembrokeshire might in future wish to assert their linguistic and cultural differences from the Welsh-speakers of the rural Welsh-speakers of West and North Wales. With the revival of their Celtic culture, the Cornish might also wish to seek devolution from a country from which all other Celts have retreated into their ethnolinguistic heartlands. Why shouldn’t post-imperial Britain undergo a process of ‘balkanization’ like that of the Former Yugoslavia?

LSF RSF Lets build a culture of peace LR

Well, many like Schama seemed to answer at that time, and still do today, precisely because of what happened due to ethnonationalism in the Balkans, especially in Bosnia and Kosovo, where the conflicts were only just, in 1999, being brought to an end by air-strikes and the creation of tides of refugees escaping brutal ethnic cleansing. The breaking up of Britain into ever smaller and purer units of pure white ethnic groups was to be resisted. Instead, a multi-national, multi-ethnic and multi-cultural Britain was coming into being through a gradual and peaceful process of devolution of power to the various national, ethnic and regional groups and a more equal re-integration of them into a ‘mongrel’ British nation within a renewed United Kingdom.

Economic Development, the Regions of Britain & Ireland and the Impact of the EU:

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The late twentieth century saw the transformation of the former docklands of London into offices and fashionable modern residential developments, with a new focus on the huge Canary Wharf scheme (pictured above) to the east of the city. The migration of some financial services and much of the national press to the major new developments in London’s Docklands prompted the development of the Docklands Light Railway and the Jubilee line extension. The accompanying modernisation of the London Underground was hugely expensive in legal fees and hugely complex in contracts. Outside of London, improvements in public transport networks were largely confined to urban and suburban centres with light railway networks developed in Manchester, Sheffield and Croydon.

Beyond Canary Wharf to the east, the Millennium Dome, which Blair’s government inherited from the Tories, was a billion pound gamble which Peter Mandelson and ‘Tony’s cronies’ decided to push ahead with, despite cabinet opposition. Architecturally, the dome was striking and elegant, a landmark for London which can be seen from by air passengers arriving in the capital. The millennium was certainly worth celebrating but the conundrum ministers and their advisers faced was what to put in their ‘pleasure’ Dome. It would be magnificent, unique, a tribute to British daring and ‘can-do’. Blair himself said that it would provide the first paragraph of his next election manifesto. But this did not answer the current question of what it was for, exactly. When the Dome finally opened at New Year, the Queen, Prime Minister and celebrities were treated to a mish-mash of a show which embarrassed many of them. When it opened to the public, the range of mildly interesting exhibits was greeted as a huge disappointment. Optimism and daring, it seemed, were not enough to fill the people’s expectations. Later that year, Londoners were given a greater gift in the form of a mayor and regional assembly with powers over local planning and transport. This new authority in part replaced the Greater London Council abolished by the Thatcher government in 1986.

However, there were no signs that the other conurbations in the regions of England wanted regionalisation, except for some stirrings in the Northeast and Cornwall. The creation of nine Regional Development Agencies in England in 1998-99 did not seek to meet a regionalist agenda. In fact, these new bodies to a large extent matched the existing structures set up since the 1960s for administrative convenience and to encourage inward investment. Improving transport links were seen as an important means of stimulating regional development and combating congestion. Major Road developments in the 1990s included the completion of the M25 orbital motorway around London and the M40 link between London and Birmingham. However, despite this construction programme, congestion remained a problem: the M25, for example, became the butt of jokes labelling it as the largest car park on the planet, while traffic speeds in central London continued to fall, reaching fifteen kilometres per hour by 1997, about the same as they had been in 1907. Congestion was not the only problem, however, as environmental protests led to much of the road-building programme begun by the Tory governments being shelved after 1997. The late nineties also saw the development of some of the most expensive urban motorways in Europe.

In the Sottish Highlands and Islands, the new Skye road bridge connected the Isle of Skye to the mainland. A group led by the Bank of America built and ran the new bridge. It was one of the first projects built under a ‘public finance initiative’, or PFI, which had started life under Tory Chancellor Norman Lamont, five years before Labour came to power when he experimented with privatising public projects and allowing private companies to run them, keeping the revenue. Although the basic idea was simple enough, this represented a major change in how government schemes were working, big enough to arouse worry even outside the tribes of political obsessives. There were outraged protests from some islanders about paying tolls to a private consortium and eventually the Scottish Executive bought the bridge back. At the opposite corner of the country, the Queen Elizabeth II road bridge was built joining Kent and Essex across the Thames at Dartford, easing congestion on both sides of the Dartford tunnel. It was the first bridge across the river in a new place for more than half a century and was run by a company called ‘Le Crossing’, successfully taking tolls from motorists.

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Undoubtedly the most important transport development was the Channel Tunnel rail link to France, completed in 1994. It was highly symbolic of Britain’s commitment to European integration, and millions of people and vehicles had travelled from London to Paris in under three hours by the end of the century. The town of Ashford in Kent was one of the major beneficiaries of the ‘Chunnel’ rail link, making use of railway links running through the town. Its population grew by over ten per cent in the 1990s. By the end of that decade, the town had an international catchment area of some eighty-five million people within a single day’s journey. This and the opening of Ashford International railway station as the main terminal in the rail link to the continent attracted a range of engineering, financial, distribution and manufacturing companies to the town. In addition to the fourteen business parks that were established in the town, new retail parks were opened. Four green-field sites were also opened on the outskirts of the town, including a science park owned by Trinity College, Cambridge. Ashford became closer to Paris and Brussels than it was to Manchester and Liverpool, as can be seen on the map below. In addition to its international rail link, the town’s position at the hub of a huge motorway network was in a position to be an integral part of a truly international transport system.

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Modern-day affluence at the turn of the century was reflected in the variety of goods and services concentrated in shopping malls. They are now often built on major roads outside towns and cities to make them accessible to the maximum number of people in a region.

Economic change was most dramatic in the Irish Republic, which enjoyed the highest growth rates in Europe in the 1990s. The so-called ‘Celtic Tiger’ economy boomed, aided by inward investment so that by the end of the decade GDP per capita had surpassed that of the UK. Dublin, which remained if anything more dominant than London as a capital city, flourished as a result of a strong growth in the service industries. Growth rates for the ‘new economy’ industries such as information and communications technology were among the highest in the world. Generous tax arrangements and the city’s growing reputation as a cultural centre meanwhile helped to encourage the development of Dublin’s ‘rockbroker belt’. Even agriculture in the Irish Republic, in decline in the early 1990s, still contributed nine per cent of Ireland’s GDP, three times the European average. In the west of Ireland, it was increasingly supplemented by the growth of tourism.

Nevertheless, while the expansion of Ireland’s prosperity lessened the traditional east-west divide, it did not eliminate it. Low population density and a dispersed pattern of settlement were felt to make rail developments unsuitable. Consequently, Ireland’s first integrated transport programme, the Operational Programme for Peripherality, concentrated on improving: the routes from the west of Ireland to the ferry port of Rosslare; the routes from Belfast to Cork; Dublin and the southwest; east-west routes across the Republic. Many of these improvements benefited from EU funding. The EU also aided, through its ‘peace programme’, the development of transport planning in Britain, with infrastructure projects in, for example, the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. In 1993, the EU had decided to create a combined European transport network. Of the fourteen projects associated with this aim, three were based in Britain and Ireland – a rail link from Cork to Larne in Northern Ireland, the ferry port for Scotland; a road link from the Low Countries across England and Wales to Ireland, and the West Coast mainline railway route in Britain.

The old north-south divide in Britain reasserted itself with a vengeance in the late 1990s as people moved south in search of jobs and prosperity as prices and wages rose. Even though the shift towards service industries was reducing regional economic diversity, the geographical distribution of regions eligible for European structural funds for economic improved the continuing north-south divide. Transport was only one way in which the EU increasingly came to shape the geography of the British Isles in the nineties. It was, for example, a key factor in the creation of the new administrative regions of Britain and Ireland in 1999. At the same time, a number of British local authorities opened offices in Brussels for lobbying purposes and attempts to maximise receipts from European structural funds also encouraged the articulation of regionalism. Cornwall, for instance, ‘closed’ its ‘border’ with Devon briefly in 1998 in protest at not receiving its EU social funds, while the enthusiasm for the supposed economic benefits that would result from ‘independence in Europe’ helped to explain the revival of the Scottish Nationalist Party following devolution. ‘Silicon Gen’ in central Scotland was, by the end of the decade, the largest producer of computing equipment in Europe.

The European connection was less welcome in other quarters, however. Fishermen, particularly in Devon and Cornwall and on the North Sea Coast of England, felt themselves the victims of the Common Fisheries Policy quota system. There was also a continuing strong sense of ‘Euroscepticism’ in England, fuelled at this stage by a mixture of concerns about ‘sovereignty’ and economic policy, which I will deal with in a separate article. Here, it is worth noting that even the most enthusiastic Europhiles, the Irish, sought to reject recent EU initiatives which they felt were not in their interests in their 2001 referendum on the Treaty of Nice. Nevertheless, the growth of physical links with Europe, like the Channel Tunnel, the connections between the British and French electricity grids, and the development of ‘budget’ airlines, made it clear that both of the main ‘offshore’ islands, Britain and Ireland were, at the turn of the century, becoming increasingly integrated, both in economic and administrative terms, with the continent of Europe.

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At the beginning of 1999, however, a debate began over British membership of the euro, the single currency which was finally taking shape within the EU. Though he was never a fanatic on the subject, Blair’s pro-European instincts and his desire to be a leading figure inside the EU predisposed him to announce that Britain would join, not in the first wave, but soon afterwards. He briefed that this would happen. British business seemed generally in favour, but the briefing and guesswork in the press were completely baffling. For Gordon Brown, stability came first, and he concluded that it was not likely that Britain could safely join the euro within the first Parliament. When he told Blair this, the two argued and then eventually agreed on a compromise. Britain would probably stay out during the first Parliament, but the door should be left slightly ajar. Pro-European business people and those Tories who had lent Blair and Brown their conditional support, as well as Blair’s continental partners, should be kept on board, as should the anti-Euro press. The terms of the delicate compromise were meant to be revealed in an interview given by Brown to The Times. Being more hostile to entry than Blair, and talking to an anti-euro newspaper, his team briefed more strongly than Blair would have liked. By the time the story was written, the pound had been saved from extinction for the lifetime of the Parliament. Blair was aghast at this.

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The chaos surrounding this important matter was ended and the accord with Blair patched up by Brown and his adviser Ed Balls, who quickly produced five economic tests which would be applied before Britain would enter the euro. They required more detailed work by the Treasury; the underlying point was that the British and continental economies must be properly aligned before Britain would join. Brown then told the Commons that though it was likely that, for economic reasons, Britain would not join the euro until after the next election, there was no constitutional or political reason not to join. Preparations for British entry would therefore begin. This gave the impression that once the tests were met there would be a post-election referendum, followed by the demise of sterling.

In 1999, with a full-scale launch at a London cinema, Blair was joined by the Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy and the two former Tory cabinet ministers Ken Clarke and Michael Heseltine to launch ‘Britain in Europe’ as a counter-blast to the anti-Euro campaign of ‘Business for Sterling’. Blair promised that together they would demolish the arguments against the euro, and there was alarmist media coverage about the loss of eight million jobs if Britain pulled out of the EU. But the real outcome of this conflict was that the power to decide over membership of the euro passed decisively from Blair to Brown, whose Treasury fortress became the guardian of the economic tests. Brown would keep Britain out on purely economic grounds, something which won him great personal credit among Conservative ‘press barons’. There was to be no referendum on the pound versus euro, however much the Prime Minister wanted one.

Very little of what New Labour had achieved up to 1999 was what it was really about, however, and most of its achievements had been in dealing with problems and challenges inherited from previous governments or with ‘events’ to which it had to react. Its intended purpose was to deliver a more secure economy, radically better public services and a new deal for those at the bottom of British society. Much of this was the responsibility of Gordon Brown, as agreed in the leadership contest accord between the two men. The Chancellor would become a controversial figure later in government, but in his early period at the Treasury, he imposed a new way of governing. He had run his time in Opposition with a tight team of his own, dominated by Ed Balls, later an MP and Treasury minister before becoming shadow chancellor under Ed Miliband following the 2010 general election. Relations between Team Brown and the Treasury officials began badly and remained difficult for a long time. Brown’s handing of interest control to the Bank of England was theatrical, planned secretly in Opposition and unleashed to widespread astonishment immediately New Labour won. Other countries, including Germany and the US, had run monetary policy independently of politicians, but this was an unexpected step for a left-of-centre British Chancellor. It turned out to be particularly helpful to Labour ministers since it removed at a stroke the old suspicion that they would favour high employment over low inflation. As one of Brown’s biographers commented, he…

 …could only give expression to his socialist instincts after playing the role of uber-guardian of the capitalist system.

The bank move has gone down as one of the clearest achievements of the New Labour era. Like the Irish peace process and the devolution referenda, it was an action which followed on immediately after Labour won power, though, unlike those achievements, it was not something referred to in the party’s election manifesto. Brown also stripped the Bank of England of its old job of overseeing the rest of the banking sector. Otherwise, it would have had a potential conflict of interest if it had had to concern itself with the health of commercial banks at the same time as managing interest rates. As a result of these early actions, New Labour won a reputation for being economically trustworthy and its Chancellor was identified with ‘prudent’ management of the nation’s finances. Income tax rates did not increase, which reassured the middle classes. Even when Brown found what has more recently been referred to as ‘the magic money tree’, he did not automatically harvest it. And when the ‘dot-com bubble’ was at its most swollen, he sold off licenses for the next generation of mobile phones for 22.5 bn, vastly more than they were soon worth. The produce went not into new public spending but into repaying the national debt, 37 bn of it. By 2002 government interest payments on this were at their lowest since 1914, as a proportion of its revenue.

Despite his growing reputation for prudence, Brown’s introduction of ‘stealth taxes’ proved controversial, however. These included the freezing of income tax thresholds so that an extra 1.5 million people found themselves paying the top rate; the freezing of personal allowances; rises in stamp duties on houses and a hike in national insurance. In addition, some central government costs were palmed off onto the devolved administrations or local government, so that council tax rose sharply, and tax credits for share dividends were removed. Sold at the time as a ‘prudent’ technical reform, enabling companies to reinvest in their core businesses, this latter measure had a devastating effect on the portfolios of pension funds, wiping a hundred billion off the value of retirement pensions. This was a staggering sum, amounting to more than twice as much as the combined pension deficits of Britain’s top 350 companies. Pensioners and older workers were angered when faced with great holes in their pension funds. They were even more outraged when Treasury papers released in 2007 showed that Brown had been warned about the effect this measure would have. The destruction of a once-proud pension industry had more complex causes than Brown’s decision; Britain’s fast-ageing population was also a major factor, for one. But the pension fund hit produced more anger than any other single act by the New Labour Chancellor.

Perhaps the most striking long-term effect of Brown’s careful running of the economy was the stark, dramatic shape of public spending. For his first two years, he stuck fiercely to the promise he had made about continuing the Major government’s spending levels. These were so tight that even the man who set these levels, Kenneth Clarke, said that he would not actually have kept to them had the Tories been re-elected and had he been reappointed as Chancellor. Brown brought down the State’s share of public spending from nearly 41% of GDP to 37.4% by 1999-2000, the lowest percentage since 1960 and far below anything achieved under Thatcher. He was doing the opposite of what previous Labour Chancellors had done. On arriving in office, they had immediately started spending, in order to stimulate the economy in classical Keynesian terms. When they had reached their limits, they had then had to raise taxes. He began by putting a squeeze on spending and then loosening up later. There was an abrupt and dramatic surge in public spending, particularly on health, back up to 43%. The lean years were immediately followed by the fat ones, famine by the feast. But the consequence of the squeeze was that the first New Labour government of 1997-2001 achieved far less in public services than it had promised. For example, John Prescott had promised a vast boost in public transport, telling the Commons in 1997:

I will have failed if in five years’ time there are not many more people using public transport and far fewer journeys by car. It’s a tall order, but I urge you to hold me to it.

Because of ‘Prudence’, and Blair’s worries about being seen as anti-car, Prescott had nothing like the investment to follow through and failed completely. Prudence also meant that Brown ploughed ahead with cuts in benefit for lone-parent families, angering Labour MPs and resulting in a Scottish Labour conference which labelled their Westminster government and their own Scots Chancellor as economically inept, morally repugnant and spiritually bereft. Reform costs money and without money, it barely happened in the first term, except in isolated policy areas where Blair and Brown put their heads down and concentrated. The most dramatic programme was in raising literacy and numeracy among younger children, where Number Ten worked closely with the Education Secretary, David Blunkett, and scored real successes. But unequivocally successful public service reforms were rare.

At first, Labour hated the idea of PFIs, which were a mixture of two things associated with Thatcherite economic policies, the privatisation of capital projects, with the government paying a fee to private companies over many years, and the contracting out of services – waste collection, school meals, cleaning – which had been imposed on unwilling socialist councils from the eighties. Once in power, however, Labour ministers began to realise that those three little letters were political magic because they allowed them to announce and oversee exciting new projects and take the credit for them in the full knowledge that the full bill would be left for the taxpayers of twenty to fifty years hence. In this way, spending and funding of new hospitals or schools would be a problem for a future health or education minister.

PFIs were particularly attractive when other kinds of spending were tightly controlled by ‘Prudence’. Large amounts of capital for public buildings were declared to be ‘investment’, not spending, and put to one side of the public accounts. The justification was that private companies would construct and run this infrastructure so much more efficiently than the State and that profits paid to them by taxpayers would be more than compensated for. Ministers replied to criticisms of these schemes by pointing out that, without them, Britain would not get the hundreds of new school buildings, hospitals, health centres, fire stations, army barracks, helicopter training schools, prisons, government offices, roads and bridges that it so obviously needed by the nineties. Significantly, the peak year for PFIs was 1999-2000, just as the early Treasury prudence in conventional spending had bitten hardest and was being brought to an end.

Sources:

Andrew Marr (2008), A History of Modern Britain. Basingstoke: Pan Macmillan.

Simon Schama (2000), A History of Britain: The Fate of Empire, 1776-2000. London: BBC Worldwide.

Peter Catterall (et. al.) (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books.

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‘The March of Wales’ – Border Country: A Historical Walk in the Black Mountains, following Offa’s Dyke. Part One.   Leave a comment

“I was walking the line of Offa’s Dyke in North Wales when

the slanting late afternoon winter light raked across the landscape,

illuminating the folds in the gently rolling hillside.”

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Offa’s Dyke in North Wales (foreground) with Chirk Castle in the distance.

Photo by Kevin Bleasdale, Landscape Photographer of the Year.

(www.ukgreetings.co.uk)

Bucket-lists and Border-lines:

One of the things to do on my ‘bucket list’ is the Offa’s Dyke Path, the long-distance footpath which ‘follows’ the Dark Age dyke allegedly made by the King of the Saxon Kingdom of Mercia to mark the boundary of his territory with ‘the Welsh’ territories to its west. I have done two other long-distance paths, the Pennine Way and the Pembrokeshire Coast Path, together with long sections of the South West Coast Path, between Plymouth and Teignmouth, and completed the Wessex Walk between Uphill and Wells. By comparison with these long-distance paths, only two sections of the Offa’s Dyke path, through the Black Mountains and the Clwydians, really offer the same sort of open walking country. Having completed one short section near Chirk some twenty-five years ago while staying in Llangollen, in this post, I wish to concentrate on the first of the section between Llanthony Priory and Hay-on-Wye, which I hope to tackle this summer (July 2018), fitness and weather permitting! Llwybr Clawdd Offa, as it’s known in Welsh, is Britain’s fourth long-distance path to be officially opened, runs the entire length of the border, from the Severn Estuary near the old Severn Bridge at  Chepstow to the sea at Prestatyn on the north Welsh coast, a distance of 168 miles. Throughout its length, history is brought to life, not just by Offa’s frontier earthwork, but by ancient hill forts, prehistoric trackways, old drover roads, medieval castles and by the numerous small market towns and villages which are linked by the path.

As a footpath rich in scenic variety, as well as historical and literary associations, it will have attractions not just for the seasoned walker, completing the coast-to-coast walk in two or three weeks, but also the amateur historian and archaeologist, and those seeking casual recreation. The footpath was approved by the Minister of Housing and Local Government in 1955 but little progress was made for some years in opening up the many miles of new rights of way needed. Then, in 1966, the National Parks Commission decided to give greater priority to the proposal and three years later, when it became known as the Countryside Commission, came a decision to open the path during 1971. The Offa’s Dyke Association, set up to promote conservation of the Border area along the path, and to work for the path’s completion, were naturally sceptical. But with the exception of a few sections, the route had been completed with waymarks by the target date. On 10th July 1971, the path was formally opened at an open-air ceremony in Knighton, preceded by an inaugural walk along the path north of the town over the Panpunton Hill. More recently, a connecting path to Machynlleth and on to Welshpool (Y Trallwng) has been added, called Glyndwr’s Way, which provides a circuitous historical walk from the Dyke across the Cambrian mountains.

Celts, Romans, Britons and Saxons:

The History of ‘the Border Country’ goes back to Roman times when in A.D. 47 the invaders had reached westward to the Severn. On the other side of the river lay the hill country, defended by strong Celtic tribes: the warlike Silures of the south were led by their Belgic leader Caradoc (Caractacus) who had fled westward to rouse the western tribes: the Ordovices of the central border and the Deceangli of the north. Caradoc was defeated in A.D. 51, and many places along the hill margin, including ‘British Camp’ in the Malvern Hills, claim to be the site of his last battle. Strong resistance continued, however, and it was ten years before the Romans could attack the Ordovices and the Deceangli, following the establishment in A.D. 60 of the fortress and legionary headquarters of Deva (Chester). Only a year later the army had advanced to Anglesey, overrunning the hill forts. In the south, the campaign of A.D. 74 was the decisive one when Julius Frontinius fought a hard battle against the Silures, though it was four years before the Romans could move further west under Agricola.

The Border formed very much a frontier zone in the Roman expansion. Except in the south, in the Wye Valley area, and east of the hill margin, developments were essentially military in character, with no great effect on native life, which went on much as before. Roads linking the several forts that had been set up in this zone ran along the north and south coast routes, based on Deva and Isca (Caerleon), and east-west up the main valleys into the hills, the easiest into what later became Wales. A north-south road linked these roads through the hill margins. During the first century of Roman rule a number of Celtic hill forts were strengthened, for although the Celts had made use of the sharp edges of the uplands for farming, its strategic and military potential was first realised by the Romans as a base for launching their campaigns against the uplands. It was these roads and forts which first defined the border.

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With the withdrawal of the Roman Legions in A.D. 410, Celtic culture saw a renaissance in craftsmanship and bardic poetry, and a growth in political and the rise and spread of Christianity by the Celtic Church. Gradually, various Romano-British kingdoms or ‘fiefdoms’ began to emerge under separate rulers or ‘chieftains’. One of these, Ambrosius Aurelius, may have been the inspiration for the Arthurian legends, having fought a series of battles against the invading Saxons which ended with Badon Hill in about A.D. 515. Along the hill margins, the kingdom of Gwynedd covered the land north of the River Dee and west of the Vale of Clwyd. The Vale itself formed a contested territory between Gwynedd and the great central kingdom of Powys, ‘the Paradise of Wales’ as it was called by the bard who wrote the ‘saga cycle’ of Llywarch Hen. On the southern margins, Brycheiniog covered Breconshire and Gwent, Monmouthshire. Powys was the great bardic centre, from where we find the reference to Taliesin singing at the court:

I sang in the meadows of the Severn

Before an illustrious lord,

Before Brochfael of Powys…

It seems to have been usual for an official bard to be attached to each court, with some lords and princes acquiring reputations as patrons of the bards. The achievement of these early poets was considerable. They created a heroic age, a new legendary past for ages to come. As long as the Welsh tradition lasted, that is to say, for at least another ten centuries, their patrons were taken as models of generosity and courage. The poems and sequences of englynion (stanzas of three or four lines) associated with Llywerch Hen (‘the Old’) were long thought to be the work of the sixth-century prince but were later shown to be about the legendary figure, rather than being by him. They belong to the ninth-century sagas, with the narrative told in prose. Llywarch was a warrior of North Britain, who bore the severed head of his lord King Urien of Rheged from the battlefield, so that it would be buried and not humiliated. He eventually found refuge to the south, in Powys, where he again found himself having to fight the Saxon invaders, and his twenty-four sons, impelled by their own ready valour and their father’s bitter tongue, fought too. One after another they perished in their father’s pride. Gwén, the last of them, arrives late for the battle, to find all his brothers dead. There is no-one left to defend the Gorlas Ford on the River Llawen. Llywerch himself, old as he is, is arming himself for the battle. Here, as Gwén too prepares for battle, father and son enter into dialogue:

Gwén:

Keen my spear, it glitters in battle.

I will indeed watch on the Ford.

If I am not back, God be with you!

Llywarch:

If you survive it, I shall see you,

If you are killed. then I’ll mourn you,

Lose not in hardship warrior’s honour!

Gwén:

I shall not shame you, giver of battles,

When the brave man arms for the border,

Though hardship beset me, I’ll stay my ground.

Llywarch:

A wave shifting over the shore,

By and by strong purpose breaks,

Boasters commonly flee in a fight.

Llywarch urges his last son to sound the horn given to him by his uncle, Urien, if he is hard-pressed in the forthcoming fight. The way that Llywarch mentions it suggests that this horn, in the saga, may have had magical properties. But Gwén replies contemptuously, Though terror press round me, and the fierce thieves of England, … I’ll not wake your maidens! It is the mutual anger between father and son, each insulting each other’s honour, that makes any genuine precautions against tragedy impossible. Magic is irrelevant in this equation. All that matters is human folly and pride. Yet there is an over-riding sense of fate or destiny, a supernatural context in which such situations are allowed, or even willed, to take place. Llywarch is not only pitted against his own pride and folly, but also against hostile destiny – tynged in Welsh – whose design is revealed to him only gradually as his downfall proceeds. And as he grows old, the bard gives him one more opportunity to reveal himself to the in-every-sense bitter end: angry, baffled, useless to man, woman or beast, a prey to pain, remorse, lacerated vanity, and a desperate loneliness. His king, his fellow-countrymen, his Patria, his sons – all are in ruins. Where has it all gone? And where is longed-for Death? As ‘folk-history’, Welsh heroic poetry was driven into the subconsciousness by the trauma of the Anglo-Saxon conquest of the sixth century, and by what Anthony Conran, in his introduction to his own translations of it, called the cultural amnesia of the times. When it re-emerged, it became intimately connected with a whole prophetic tradition, which kept up its messianic rumblings right through to the Wars of the Roses.  

From the late sixth century, the mixed peoples of eastern Britain, generically labelled ‘Anglo-Saxons’ and organising themselves in kingdoms, resumed their advance into the west. It was a long, slow, piecemeal process; some of the advances may not represent straightforward conquests and there is evidence of the transient existence of people who were literally ‘mongrels’. But it was remorseless. The foundation of kingdoms in the north opened an epoch of battles with the North Britons which were to be central to later historical traditions among the Welsh. After a battle near Bath in 577, the kings of Gloucester, Bath and Cirencester were gone and Saxon power reached the Bristol Channel, from where it was able to press on into the south-west. Ceawlin, king of Wessex, drove a wedge between the Britons dwelling between the Severn Estuary and the Irish Sea and those in Devon and Cornwall. A second wedge, driven by Aethelfrith, king of Northumbria, early in the seventh century, separated the Britons in Cumbria from their compatriots, or Cymry, further south. This effectively isolated and created Walleas, the Germanic word for ‘aliens’, or ‘North Wales’, as distinct from Cornwalleas, or ‘West Wales’ including Devon, and Cumbria and Strathclyde, the kingdoms of the northern Britons.  

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Between 650 and 670, the Saxon advance westward had reached the borders of Powys and the River Dee, while the River Wye marked the limit of the advance in the south. In the early seventh century, Northumbria was the most powerful kingdom of the Anglo-Saxon ‘heptarchy’. The ascendancy of the midland kingdom of Mercia began during the reign of the warlike, pagan Penda (623-654). Minor kings after him rose and fell in a period of civil warfare until by 731, Bede tells us, all of ‘Aengleland’ south of the Humber was subject to Aethelbald (716-756). He, therefore, referred to himself as ‘King of the southern English’. He maintained his ascendancy for thirty years until he was murdered by his own bodyguard. From the ensuing civil war within Mercia itself, Offa emerged as the key figure in the Mercian supremacy. He reigned from 757-796 and was the first king to be styled, in imperial terms, as King of the English.

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Who was Offa and why did he build a dyke?

History reveals all too little of the Mercian king whose name is forever linked to the great dyke built in the margins which had been continually disputed by the Welsh and the English. We do know that the means by which he gradually expanded his kingdom and his hegemony over the heptarchy were not always fair. In 793, Aethelbert, the Christian king of East Anglia, paid a visit to Offa to seek the hand of his daughter Aelfrida. He was murdered, either on the orders of Offa, or those of his queen. There are differing accounts of what happened, but it is most likely that Offa realised that, with Aethelbert ‘out of the way’, Mercia could take control of East Anglia, which it did. Offa was then able to deal on almost equal terms with Charlemagne who had once closed his ports to English trade for some three years.

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Above: A Victorian tile from the floor of the choir in Hereford Cathedral depicting the beheading of St Aethelbert by order of King Offa.

Throughout the first half of the eighth century a protracted struggle had gone on between Mercia and Powys as the frontier was gradually driven back from the line of furthest advance marked by various short ‘dykes’ to the more settled frontiers marked by the great running earthwork constructed under Offa, probably after the last Welsh counter-attack in 784. Around this time we can picture the English as settled farmers, with greater craftsmanship and better equipment than their sixth-century predecessors, if with less military skill. The Welsh occupied the hill territory to the west, living in kinship groups (gwelau), were dependent mainly upon the cattle they summer-pastured on the hills and over-wintered in the valley meadows.

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The line of the Dyke extends from Sedbury Cliffs on the Severn, through the Wye Valley and Herefordshire, across the Clun district of ‘Salop’, part of Shropshire today, and northwards via Chirk and Ruabon to the sea at Prestatyn, a distance of 149 miles. Of these, the running earthwork of the Dyke itself is traceable for eighty-one miles, consisting of an earth bank with a ditch, usually on the west-facing side, sometimes with ditches on both sides, and averaging in height some six feet above ground level, and in breadth almost sixty feet. While contemporary manuscripts throw little light on the making of the Dyke, the more recent detailed archaeological surveys have led to a much deeper understanding of the Border as it existed in Offa’s time. Its principal purpose was to provide a frontier between Mercia and the Welsh kingdoms and to control trade by directing it through defined ‘gateways’ in the earthwork. It may, at times, also have been used for defensive purposes, but by the time it was built this would have been largely incidental. Only in a time of relative peace between the Welsh and the Mercians could a work of such a scale be achieved. It must, therefore, have been an agreed frontier. Moreover, although it would have presented something of an obstacle to cattle rustlers, it would have offered little prevention to cattle straying across.

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Above: The course of the path from Chepstow (bottom, left) to Prestatyn (top, right), in relation to surviving dyke sections.

The mastery of difficult terrain through which the Dyke runs suggests that the skill of its builders can only have been acquired through generations of experience. Two precedents on the ground can be found, firstly in the various short dykes that lie both to the east and west of the Great Dyke, and secondly in Wat’s Dyke which runs from Maesbury, south of Oswestry, to Holywell. A third precedent is found in the heroic poetry of the time. The short dykes found in the middle of the Border Country reinforced the most vulnerable sections of the Great Dyke where the hills of Salop are nearest to the Mercian capital of Tamworth. These dykes are similar in construction to Offa’s Dyke and are thought by archaeologists to form cross-valley screens at the head of agricultural land, while cross-ridge dykes controlled traffic along the ridge. These probably date from the time of Penda, representing the military activities of Mercia in the pre-Offan period. They are defensive in character, unlike Offa’s Dyke which represents the consolidation of the Mercian kingdom when the Saxons came to realise the limits of their ability to advance further west. Wat was a hero of Old English legend associated with an earlier Offa, a king of Schleswig and ancestor to the Mercian king. Wat’s Dyke may well have been named by Offa in commemoration of his own namesake, whose deeds were recorded in the epic poem Widsith, among them being his marking of boundaries.

As a boundary, however, Offa’s Dyke is unlikely to have been continuously manned but rather patrolled on horseback. Nevertheless, evidence reveals that it was built under the direction of men trained in military tradition. Offa himself is thought to have master-minded the work, possibly with a group of chieftains, planning both its course and its dimensions. Each landowner along its course was then consulted and subsequently made responsible for the construction of a particular section of it, depending on the extent of his lands or the labour available to him. In turn, this variation in experience and expertise, together with the willingness and size of the local workforce, inevitably resulted in differences in the quality and scale of the work. In some areas, the hostility of the local Welsh population, in particular, may have been a factor. Despite this, further evidence that it was an agreed frontier is contained in the existence of a set of laws governing the movements of both the Welsh and the English across the boundary. An early tenth-century document refers to an agreement between the English and the Welsh relating to Ergyng (Archenfield), a Welsh district between the Wye and the Monnow, now in Herefordshire, which remained Welsh-speaking into the nineteenth century and produced many Welsh ‘notables’. The same document also contains a reference to English territory north of the Wye, in Wales today, belonging to a people known as the Dunsaete. It suggests the existence of a relationship between these peoples which may well have dated from Offa’s time, deriving from Offa’s own laws for the conduct of both English and Welsh along the Border.

Offa’s laws, long thought lost, would then have provided for the setting-up of a “board” comprising both English and Welsh, the task of which was to explain the laws to their respective peoples. Included in the laws was a code for recovering livestock rustled across the Border, and another for the safe-conduct of either Welsh or Mercian ‘trespassers’ found on the “wrong” side of the Border by a specially appointed guide. However, the story that any man found ‘trespassing’ would be subjected to the punishment of losing his right hand, is an apocryphal one. Overall, the skill of the designer and eye for the detail of the landscape are remarkable. With few exceptions, even in the dissected terrain of the middle section of its length, the Dyke’s straights cleverly cling to the west-facing slopes, giving the Mercians the advantage of visual control over Welsh territories. Archaeological ‘detective work’  enabled the mapping of the Border landscape of Offa’s day. The straight alignments of the Dyke, occurring in both flat and undulating terrain, indicate a mixture of pastoral and arable farming; and in the uplands, open moorland. Small irregularities in mainly straight alignment tend to indicate the original presence of woodland. The Mercian farmers seem to have preferred sunny, south-facing slopes for growing crops, disliking the shaded north-facing hillsides which remained wooded. This is represented by alternate straight and sinuous alignments. Very irregular alignments, where the Dyke follows the contours of the landscape, occur where the terrain is especially rough, or where visibility between points was very limited.

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In profile sections, the Dyke varies considerably throughout its length. It is at its most formidable on the hilltops where ridgeways passed through, and on the valley floors where skilful use was made of the east sides, in order to allow the Dyke to descend from the ridges and cross the valleys while maintaining visual contact with the west. Here, too, cultivated clearings required protection in the tradition of short, transverse dykes. In many places, there is evidence of compromise between the Mercians and the Welsh. In some sections, the broad River Severn is left to mark the boundary, whereas, in others, the Dyke follows the slopes of the eastern hills above the Severn.

This suggests that to the south of Buttington, for example, the meadow pastures on both sides of the river were conceded to Powys, for, in The Mabinogion, it was stated that the man would not prosper with a war-band in Powys who would not prosper in that cultivated land. Likewise, in the Wye Valley, both sides of the river were used by Welsh timber traders who needed to land their boats on either bank. The Dyke is therefore high up on the eastern slope, controlling a long stretch of the river upstream to the point reached by exceptionally high tides in the Severn estuary.

For much of the length of the frontier, no trace of the Dyke has been found. From the point where the Dyke reaches the Wye west of Sedbury Cliffs to the Wye west of the Tutshill look-out tower, the sheer river cliffs would have formed a sufficient natural boundary in themselves. Between Highbury and Bridge Sollers in Herefordshire, the Wye again forms the boundary. For the next thirteen miles to Rushock Hill ancient and dense oak woods on the underlying Old Red Sandstone seem to have made the building of a section of dyke unnecessary, if not impossible. In this area, the dyke is only present on what would have been cleared land. For five miles north of Buttington on the Severn, the river again forms the boundary. However, the reason why the Dyke was not completed on the last five miles to the north coast is a matter of conjecture. Certainly, the intention was that it should reach the sea at Prestatyn. We know that towards the end of Offa’s reign the Welsh seem to have made an attempt to capture the land between the Dyke and the Dee. A Welsh legend, recorded in the plaintive lament Morfa Rhuddlan, tells of a fierce battle fought in 795, ending in Welsh defeat. Offa died a year later at Rhuddlan, and it may be that with his death went the driving force behind the Dyke.

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Offa was succeeded by his son, Cenwulf, who reigned until 816. His defeat at the Battle of Basingwerk marked the beginning of the decline of Mercian supremacy on the Border. Wessex was emerging as the most powerful Saxon kingdom, and Mercia was forced to turn its attention southwards. With the Dyke established, however, a degree of stability was brought to the Border Country for a time. Whereas to the east of a line from the Pennines to Salisbury Plain, there is precious little evidence of British survival into the ninth century, even in river names. West of that line, however, and into the upland watershed, there is much evidence. Place-names remain strongly Celtic, though often transmuted; Cymraeg, as well as Brythonic dialects, survived, as did Celtic farm systems and field boundaries. Early laws of the kingdom of Wessex make specific provision for a whole British hierarchy under overall Saxon rule. Further west, Cornwall survived as a British fiefdom, and in the Borderlands of the Wye and the southern Dyke, as English settlement developed, there may have been as much fusion and integration as conflict and conquest.

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The concessions made to the Welsh along the Wye may also have aided this process, as Archenfield remained Welsh-speaking well into modern times, and there is also an abundance of surviving Celtic placenames to the west of the Wye in what is land on the English side of today’s border. Around Welshpool names like Buttington, Forden and Leighton also show gradual Mercian expansion in the Borderlands between 650 and 750 and strengthen the case for the concession of the Severn meadows to Powys on the building of the Dyke. In the Vale of Radnor, names like Evenjobb, Harpton and Cascob again indicate a retreat by the Welsh, but elsewhere on the whole land bordering the Dyke, there is evidence of linguistic retention on both sides. Llanymynych has obviously retained its Welsh name, despite being half in half in England, whereas Knighton is generally known by its English name, despite being wholly in Wales and having a Welsh name, Tref-y-clawdd, meaning ‘the town by the Dyke’. The area between Offa’s Dyke and Wat’s Dyke has remained Welsh-speaking in character until recent times. Despite these examples of variation, we know that the Dyke’s construction was resisted by the Welsh in numerous places along its route. Offa had driven his Dyke from coast (almost) to coast, and as Gwyn Williams (1985) wrote of the Dark Age Welsh, ‘foreigners’ in their own land …

This few and fragile people took the whole of inheritance of Britain on their shoulders. And late in the eighth century they were confronted with an imperial Offa, king of the Mercians, who had the effrontery to score his Dyke across their land and shut them out as foreigners. … The Welsh, as a people, were born disinherited.  

The ‘Compatriots’ (Cymry) & their Bards:

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By the ninth century, therefore, the Welsh were almost completely shut up behind Offa’s Dyke. Not unnaturally, in their ‘exile’, they turned to the stories of their old homes, in Regen, Elfed, Gododdin and the rich lands of eastern Powys – roughly Cumberland, Yorkshire, SE Scotland and Shropshire respectively, according to the later Medieval geography of Britain. This was the era in which the saga-literature was composed, in the ninth and tenth centuries, about events that took place in the sixth and early seventh centuries, during the heroic age itself. The Welsh had been cut off from their fellow countrymen in the North of Britain and in Cornwall. Only in a few pockets of rugged landscape, like ‘North Wales’ and Cumberland could the ‘Cymry’ (compatriots) be found. The sense of exile must have been further aggravated by the reappearance of Roman missionaries, in the shape of St Augustine of Canterbury, telling them that their traditional Christianity was out of step with the rest of Christendom, and demanding that they should abandon their hatred of the Anglo-Saxons and join with him in converting them. The Welsh ‘saints’ told him that they preferred the idea of the English roasting in hell forevermore!

From this point in time, the geographical centre of gravity also shifted steadily southwards and eastwards: from Mercia to Wessex and from Wessex to Normandy. With it went the Celtic influence on both Church and State as the Celts were driven more and more into the western promontories and peninsulas of Europe by the predominant Rhine-Rhone cultural axis. They were more and more in a state of siege, less and less able to move freely towards imaginative creation. The saga-literature they produced is saturated with feeling for the past. A good deal of it is lamentation of one kind or another. Sometimes it is personal, either for the death of a loved one or, as in Llywarch’s famous complaint of old age, for the speaker’s own changed state. Perhaps even more typical, however, is the lament for a ruined house that the loved one has died defending. Here the loss is by no means merely personal. Cynddylan’s Hall was the tribal centre; its overthrow represents the ruin of an entire society. In the saga of Heledd, the sister of Cynddylan, the lord of Pengwern (Shrewsbury), the English are invading the good land of Powys. They have killed Cynddylan and destroyed his home. In her Elegy on Cynddylan (the poet has composed them for the mouth of the saga’s heroine), Heledd is lamenting over the ruins.

Stand out, maids, and look on the land of Cynddylan; the court of Pengwern ia ablaze; alas for the young who long for their brothers!

Cynddylan the bright buttress of the borderland, wearing a chain, stubborn in battle, he defended Trenn, his father’s town. …

How sad it is to my heart to lay the white flesh in the black coffin, Cynddylan the leader of a hundred hosts.

Heledd has seen all her brothers killed in an unavailing defence of the townships of Powys against the English invader; she has reason to blame their destruction on herself: By my accursed tongue, they are slain!  In the original Welsh, these are superb, tragic images, according to Conran, though perhaps somewhat lost even in his translation, here rendered into verse:

Stafell Gynddylan ys twywyll heno,

Heb dán, heb wely;

Wylaf wers, tawaf wedy.

(Dark is Cynddylan’s hall tonight,

With no fire, no bed;

I weep awhile, then am silent.)

Heledd’s laments are at once heart-rending and fiercely controlled, and many of the englynion on the hall of Cynddylan, the Eagle of Pengwern, the Eagle of Eli (the River Meheli in Montgomeryshire), the chapels of Bassa (Eglwysau Basa, or Basschurch) and the White Town, have the tone of great Welsh poetry. They are of a profoundly dramatic and emotional nature, but were part of a body of saga whose more direct narrative was presented in prose. Our knowledge of these sagas is unsure, for all we have are the fragments that were preserved. We must reconstruct the content of the vanished prose from the preserved verses:

The hall of Cynddylan is dark tonight, without fire, without light; longing for you comes over me.

The hall of Cynddylan, its vault is dark after the bright company; alas for him who does not do the good which falls to him!

Hall of Cynddylan, you have become shapeless, your shield is in the grave; while he lived you were not mended with hurdles.

The hall of Cynddylan is loveless tonight, after him who owned it; ah, Death, why does it spare me? …

The hall of Cynddylan, it pierces me to see it, without roof, without fire; my lord dead, myself alive …

They are enshrined in high dramatic utterance, not the merely ruminative mode of elegy. And as the elegy continues, the lamentation is raised, seemingly, not so much for one man’s death as for the ending of a way of life:

The chapels of Bassa are his resting-place tonight, his last welcome, the pillar of battle, the heart of the men of Argoed …

The chapels of Bassa have lost their rank after their destruction by the English of Cynddylan and Elfan of Powys …

The white town in the breast of the wood, this is its symbol ever – blood on the surface of its grass.

The White town in the valley, glad is the kite at the bloodshed of battle; its people have perished …

After my brothers from the lands of the Severn round the banks of the Dwyryw, woe is me, God! that I am alive …

I have looked out on a lovely land from the gravemound of Gorwynnion; long is the sun’s course – longer are my memories …

The theme, in common with the other sagas of Llywerch Hen, is that of the intertwining of both private and tribal disaster, where the facts of history are interpreted as the workings of fate and the nemesis of human pride. We leave Heledd, ‘the Proud Maiden’ and bereft Princess of Powys in her thin cloak, driving her solitary cow over the mountain pasture. In the soil that moulded her brothers, they now moulder, but she must go on living. Likewise, the Welsh went on living behind the Dyke, and the ninth to the eleventh centuries saw various attempts to create a wider unity within Wales itself, with varying degrees of success, as from time to time powerful leaders emerged: Rhodri Mawr, for instance (844-878) and Hywel Dda, his grandson, who brought together the various areas he had consolidated under the Law of Hywel Dda (the Good). But these two and a half centuries are almost without any surviving poetry. They were also punctuated by long periods of chaos, partly the result of continual Viking raids around the coasts and up the river valleys.

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The early decades of the eleventh century were troubled times when usurpers like Llywelyn ap Seisyll (1018-1023) seized power. With his son Gruffudd ap Llywelyn, the whole of Wales came under a single ruling family for the first time. On the eve of the Norman conquest, Harold Godwinson defeated Gruffudd ap Llewelyn, the king of Gwynedd. With Gruffudd’s death in 1063, Wales was disunited once more, but Harold, on succeeding Edward the Confessor on the English throne, was unable to take advantage of this weakness, as he had to put all his efforts into the defence of his own crown against the claims of William of Normandy. During the last decades of the eleventh century, Welsh independence grew more and more precarious. For many years prior to the Conquest, Anglo-Saxon kings had claimed lordship over Wales and this loose relationship had been widely accepted by the Welsh princes; Earl Harold’s devastating campaign of 1063 had forcibly reminded the Welsh of the military strength of their English neighbours. As king of England, William I inherited this claim to Wales but, faced with problems in England and Normandy for some years after his victory at Hastings, he had little inclination to involve himself directly in Wales.

(to be continued…)

Posted June 29, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in Anglo-Saxons, Archaeology, Assimilation, Britain, British history, Britons, Celtic, Celts, Christian Faith, Christianity, Church, Civilization, clannishness, Colonisation, Commemoration, Conquest, Dark Ages, Empire, English Language, Ethnic cleansing, Footpaths, History, Humanities, Immigration, Imperialism, Integration, Leisure, Literature, Medieval, Mercia, Mythology, Narrative, Nationality, Old English, Recreation, Remembrance, Renaissance, Romans, Saxons, south Wales, Uncategorized, Wales, Warfare, Welsh language, West Midlands

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