The Aneurin Bevan and Paul Robeson connection

This year’s IWA Eisteddfod lecture is being printed courtesy of a file discovered in an attic






Paul Robeson and Aneurin Bevan

Call it fate or serendipity but sometimes things fall into place as though they were meant to be. Something like this happened a few weeks ago when I was wondering how we were going to pay for publishing next Tuesday’s IWA Annual Eisteddfod lecture.

Daniel Williams, of Swansea University, has given it an alluring title, Aneurin Bevan and Paul Robeson: Socialism, Class and Identity, resonant of the last time the Eisteddfod was held in Ebbw Vale, back in 1958. Famously Aneurin Bevan spoke at the Gymanfa Ganu on the eve of the Eisteddfod that year. The event had been moved from the last Sunday to the first to allow Bevan to introduce Paul Robeson to the audience. The move was necessary so he could speak in English. Since the Eisteddfod had not been officially opened on the first Sunday there was no need to adhere to the ‘rheol Gymraeg’ (the Welsh rule). As Bevan put it in his speech to the 9,000 people packed into the Pavilion:

“I must have my say about the Eisteddfod this evening for I shall be inarticulate during the rest of the week… I want to say how much we in Ebbw Vale welcome the Eisteddfod and the visit of the people of Wales, together with our friends from overseas, to Ebbw Vale. You will find the true qualities of the Welsh people here in Monmouthshire, even though you may not always hear their sentiments expressed in the language of heaven.”

Sitting in the audience, of course, was the great African American singer and activist Robeson, along with his wife Bessie. Following Bevan’s introduction he would rise to sing John Brown’s Body, Water Boy and We are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder.

In his lecture Williams observes that while Paul Robeson is celebrated today as a socialist, he was also a key figure for Black Nationalists. He says Bevan seems to have been aware of this, for he delivered one of his most nationalistic speeches before introducing Robeson.

However, while Bevan believed the expression of Welshness and projecting Wales in the world should be confined to the cultural dimension of its identity, Paul Robeson understood the reality that Wales needed a more clear-cut political vision for its future. He argues that to some extent both confused the politics of class and identity. His lecture explores the relevance of their thinking for today’s Wales and the extent to which socialism is compatible with minority rights. Being held at 1pm on 3 August in the Eisteddfod Pagoda, it is an event not to be missed.

What about that serendipity I mentioned at the outset? Well, at the very moment I was pondering how we were going to find the money to publish the lecture, Llio Ellis, secretary of our Cardiff and Valleys Branch, walked into my office bearing a file and a cheque.

The file belonged to Alun James, Treasurer of the IWA’s Brussels Branch in the early 1990s. It contains records and minutes of the activities of the Branch during those years. Alun James, now retired to Cardiff, discovered it in his attic the other day along with details of the dormant Brussels bank account which still contained in euros an amount equivalent to £450. This was the cheque triumphantly delivered by Llio. Put together with some support from  the Centre for Research into the English Literature and Language of Wales at Swansea University, it was enough to enable us to press ahead with printing this year’s Eisteddfod lecture.

I was intrigued to see in the file a photocopy of an article written by myself in the Western Mail, dated 16 September 1989.  In those days I was writing regular columns for the paper, though I had forgotten this one, and the piece was accompanied by a mugshot giving me a full head of hair. I was writing about the forthcoming inaugural annual meeting of the Institute of Welsh Affairs, taking place a few days later. I commented that it was a rare example of an all-Wales civil society organisation achieving some success.

I reported that there were some doubters. The Welsh Counties Committee, a precursor of today’s Welsh Local Government Association, had complained that it was “an undemocratic self-appointed body made up of rich, influential people intent on undermining local democracy”. The Welsh Office had regarded it as being a “creature of the Welsh Development Agency and a stalking horse for unwanted policies.”

Despite all this the IWA was going from strength to strength. I predicted that by the end of the year it would have a full-time director with a small support staff based at the Cardiff Business School. That wasn’t to happen until 1996 when the full-time Director became myself. I also stated, “The Institute’s work is drawing attention to the need for a properly democratic Welsh form”. That had to wait ten years.

It is intriguing that 20 years ago the IWA had a Brussels Branch. It reflected the importance that the European dimension was felt to hold for Wales in those days.  Perhaps we should be thinking of reviving the Branch. That may make a topic for next year’s Eisteddfod lecture. If anyone in Brussels is reading this, get in touch.

Book a free place at the lecture here.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA