Learning from Labour’s Welsh history

John Osmond says we would be much better off if the ancient antagonisms between Labour and Plaid Cymru could be resolved

A revealing aside in Labour’s Crisis, Andrew Edwards’ survey of Gwynedd politics in the mid 20th Century, refers to an interview he undertook in 1995 with one of the most influential, if shadowy figures behind the devolution process, Lord Gwilym Prys Davies. In the 1940s he had been active in the Welsh Republican Movement but later joined the Labour Party which he judged to be a more effective vehicle for advancing the cause of Welsh autonomy. Prys Davies was close to Jim Griffiths who became the first Secretary of State for Wales in 1964, and was also an adviser to John Morris when he was Secretary of State in the period leading to the ill-fated 1979 referendum.

However, of most interest from the perspective of Edwards’ book, was Prys Davies’ experience as Labour’s candidate in the 1966 Carmarthen by-election in which Gwynfor Evans triumphed and launched the modern era of Welsh politics. Edwards reports that, looking back from the mid-nineties, Prys Davies recalled that “campaigning in the by-election had very little to do with traditional nationalist issues but instead was a battle between two different types of Welsh nationalism, one housed in the Labour Party and the other in Plaid Cymru.”

Edwards demonstrates beyond doubt that in Gwynedd during this era Labour and Plaid Cymru represented different types of Welsh nationalism. However, the question that arises is the extent to which Labour’s nationalism in Gwynedd was felt anywhere else in Wales. Indeed, to the contrary, to what extent were Welsh national aspirations actively opposed by figures in mainstream Welsh Labour outside Gwynedd? While Gwilym Prys Davies himself hailed from Meirionnydd there were other leading personalities in southern Wales who shared his aspirations, most notably Jim Griffiths, but also the Merthyr MP S.O. Davies, and Emrys Jones, the party’s general secretary in the 1960s and 1970s. By and large, however, they were exceptions.

Generally, and certainly in the 1960s and 1970s, Welsh-speaking Labour activists in Gwynedd were viewed with deep suspicion by the party elsewhere. In particular Anglesey’s Cledwyn Hughes was widely regarded as one of a select band of Labour MPs who were “nationalists first and socialists second”, as Caerphilly Labour MP Ness Edwards put it in 1967 in a letter to Richard Crossman who was then Leader of the House of Commons. Moreover, Hughes himself was acutely aware of this perception. Edwards has had access to his diaries and quotes the following entry from November 1970:

“The Welsh Labour Group… has always been divided between those who want to do something constructive for Wales and those who don’t want to bother. The latter’s argument is that whatever you do encourages the Nationalists or is a deliberate sop to them. Some have a big chip on their shoulder because they cannot speak Welsh. They cannot admit it to themselves but they regard those who do speak Welsh as fellow travelling Nationalists more often than not. They forget that we have fought the WNs longer than they have and that the Nationalists in fact made dramatic gains in the two seats, Rhondda West and Caerphilly, where the members, Iori Thomas and Ness Edwards, had been consistently hostile to progress in Welsh matters.”

Of course, within Gwynedd classification of such attitudes according to whether you could speak Welsh or not did not apply, so in that sense politics operated on a more level playing field. In his book Edwards charts the period from the 1930s to the 1960s when a talented group of Labour activists rose to take over a Liberal-dominated territory, to be succeeded by an equally talented group of Plaid Cymru activists from the 1960s onwards (with the Conservative Party gaining a slice of the action in Conwy). These Labour and Plaid cadres were to an almost equal extent motivated by wanting to achieve greater autonomy of Wales. However, in both cases Edwards puts their success down to other factors, in the main because they were able to present a more plausible case for economic advancement for north-west Wales than their main opponents.

The leading Labour figures were Goronwy Roberts who won Caernarfon from the Liberals in 1945, and T.W. Jones and Cledwyn Hughes who took Meirionnydd and Anglesey in 1951. In the 1930s Roberts had been founder of the Grŵp Gwerin movement at the University College of North Wales, Bangor. This developed a left-wing programme rooted in Welsh priorities, including a Parliament for Wales with a Secretary of State as a precursor, action on the Welsh language, and improved communications between north and south Wales.

Yet, as Edwards points out, Labour’s success in Gwynedd in this period had more to do with Labour’s overall programme for economic development, nationalisation and the establishment of the health service, together with the weakness of the declining Liberal Party. Similarly, rather than arguments connected with self-government, Plaid Cymru’s rise in the 1970s had more to do with the evident failure of the Labour governments of the day to deliver economic progress. Plaid also articulated a more convincing economic programme, for instance its proposal for a Welsh Development Agency that was outlined in its 1970 Economic Plan.

Nonetheless, it was Wales and Welsh concerns that were uppermost in motivating the campaigns of both Labour and Plaid Cymru in these two periods. Moreover, Welsh political aspirations were intimately linked with the personalities and leadership qualities of the people at the centre of the story. Together, these are central to understanding the dynamics of the period and especially the relationship between the two parties. A major criticism of Andrew Edwards’ otherwise groundbreaking book is that he largely ignores the explanatory power that would have come from a study of the charismatic personalities that led the political movements of the time.

Especially interesting from a contemporary perspective would have been a sharper focus on the two key Plaid Cymru leaders in Gwynedd in the 1970s, Dafydd Wigley and Dafydd Elis Thomas. Despite the fact that Edwards interviewed Wigley for his research in 2000, we are told virtually nothing about his background, what led him into Plaid Cymru or what has sustained his remarkable political career over more than three decades. As for Dafydd Elis Thomas, his background is confined to a miserly footnote: “Thomas gained a first-class honours in Welsh at the University College of North Wales, Bangor in 1967 and worked as an interviewer on HTV Wales’ Cymru Heddiw (‘Wales Today’) programme during the late 1960s and as a university lecturer in the early 1970s.”

A powerful example of what could have been gained by greater attention to the psychobiographies of these leading figures is provided in Paul Ward’s life of Huw T. Edwards who was known in the 1950s as “the unofficial Prime Minister of Wales”.  Given his role and influence it is extraordinary how far Huw T. Edwards has slipped out of Welsh consciousness today. Yet Ward’s study and Gwyn Jenkins’ earlier 2007 biography, Prif Weinidog Answddogol Cymru, will surely restore him to his rightful place as a key orchestrator of the survival of Wales as a nation during the 20th Century.

As Huw T. Edwards himself often recounted, his life story had much of the ‘log cabin to White House’ about it. He was born on an isolated farm in the mountains of Arfon in 1892, the youngest of seven children. His mother, who taught his father to read and write, died when he was eight and henceforth he was mainly responsible for his own progress. At 14 he was working in nearby slate quarries but before long had moved to the Rhondda to work in the coalmines of south Wales. A cousin was killed in the Senghennydd explosion in which Edwards was involved in a rescue party. Following active service in World War I he returned to quarrying in north Wales, became active in union work and embarked on a life long career within the Transport and General Workers Union, rising to become its Welsh leader in the late 1930s. From that position he advanced to involvement in almost every aspect of Welsh life, becoming chair of the advisory Council for Wales and Monmouthshire that was established by the Labour government in 1949.

During the 1950s, under Huw T. Edwards’ leadership, the Council started making the intellectual case for establishing a Welsh Office and Secretary of State. It produced three memorandums that were presented and successively rejected by the Conservative government of the day. Nonetheless, this was a vital process that, along with the Parliament for Wales Campaign of the period, had the effect of convincing Labour in opposition to adopt the policy of a Secretary of State for Wales as part of its manifesto for the 1959 election. With hindsight it can be seen that this was the pivotal moment in the 20th Century Welsh devolution story that culminated in the 1997 referendum that eventually established the National Assembly.

Until now Huw T. Edwards has largely been erased in the historical accounts of these events in part at least because, in 1958 in frustration at Prime Minister MacMillan’s rejection of the case for a Secretary of State he resigned as Chairman of the Council for Wales and the following year left Labour and joined Plaid Cymru. At the time this was a sensational step accompanied by much publicity. However, Edwards’ experience in Plaid Cymru was an unhappy one and eventually, in 1966, he returned to the Labour fold. The result has been that neither party has wished to be too closely associated with his memory. As a result it has to a large extent been airbrushed from history.

Now, with the publication of Paul Ward’s excellent biography, Huw T. Edwards is being rehabilitated to his rightful place as a central figure in the Welsh devolution story (and much else besides). What is especially significant, set against Andrew Edwards’ account of the politics of Gwynedd, is the balancing in Huw T. Edwards’ life and career of the pressures of Welshness on the one hand and Britishness on the other. Both were salient, and Ward, an English academic who brings an important perspective to all of this, is right to emphasise Huw T. Edwards’ attachment to British class connections. Yet, at the end of the day, while Edwards’ British identity waxed and waned according to time and circumstance, his Welsh identity remained constant and, indeed, deepened the older he became and the more experience he accumulated. It was significant, for instance that, despite constant entreaties, he refused to stand for the many safe Labour seats he was offered in north-east Wales, to the great enhancement of his influence and impact on Welsh history.

The importance of these two studies is that together they provide some much needed historical depth to the identity dilemmas confronting contemporary Welsh politics, especially so far as the Labour Party is concerned. They also foreground the continuing importance of the relationship between Labour and Plaid Cymru for the future of Wales. They tell us that if the antagonisms of these central and closely intertwined forces in Welsh political life can be sublimated and replaced with a more constructive relationship– as was briefly achieved by the One Wales agreement they negotiated at the start of the 2007 Assembly – then our country would be much better off.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA. Andrew Edwards’ Labour’s Crisis - Plaid Cymru, The Conservatives, and the Decline of the Labour Party in North-West Wales, 1960-74 (£49.99), and Paul Ward’s Huw T. Edwards – British Labour and Welsh Socialism (£18.99) are both available from the University of Wales Press. This article appears in the current issue of the IWA’s journal the welsh agenda

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