Elystan Morgan’s tryst with Wales

Emrys Roberts engages with the memoirs of a key figure in 20th Century Welsh politics

Lord Elystan Morgan likens his ‘Memories of a Lifetime’ (Atgofion Oes: Elystan published earlier this year) to the reminiscences of someone looking through a bundle of photographs. The format serves him well, proving a more interesting read than a strict chronological autobiography would have done.

He gives us a lively portrait of rural life in Cardiganshire in the mid-20th Century. The twinkle was in his eye from the start. He was fond of playing tricks on his playmates – mostly fairly innocent and not too much of an embarrassment to a future judge, unless his memory has been diplomatically selective.

Nationalist politics in the 1960s

Tomorrow: J. Graham Jones praises an account of physical-force Welsh nationalism

The biggest wrench in his life came on moving from the village school to Ysgol Ardwyn Grammar School in Aberystwyth where he encountered a strong English, and even military, element for the first time – in both school and town. He began reading widely, including Saunders Lewis’s weekly column in Y Faner. This led him to Saunders’s Canlyn Arthur (In the Steps of Arthur) and the big impression made on him by the story of how the Czech leader Tomas Masaryk had come to realise that his first loyalty was to his own people, not to Austria.

This led Elystan to join Plaid Cymru while still at school. He later became secretary of the Aberystwyth college branch and met Plaid leader Gwynfor Evans. Gwynfor made a huge impression on him as someone totally dedicated to the cause of Wales. His admiration for Gwynfor transcended any subsequent disagreements, even after he decided to join Labour in 1965, having been a prominent member of Plaid for well over a decade.

At this point, what have been a series of ‘snapshot’ reminiscences of his early life give way to an apparent imperative to justify this change of party allegiance. He cites an acrimonious atmosphere in Plaid executive meetings claiming that I, though General Secretary of the party, was also the self-appointed leader of New Nation, a group he describes as a party-within-a-party.

Alas, his memory fails him on this point. New Nation was John Legonna’s brainchild after I had been sacked as party Secretary. It was a loose group, completely outside the party, which published a few discussion papers and arranged the first Cilmeri Commemorative Meeting in December 1964.

Without defining socialism, Elystan claims that he had always held socialist as well as nationalist beliefs. Plaid’s poor showing in the 1964 General Election had led him to conclude that there was greater scope for furthering the interests of Wales within the Labour Party rather than within Plaid.

Whilst this is a perfectly respectable argument, he seems to forget that he stood for election as Vice-President of Plaid in 1964. He expected to win as it was well known that he had Gwynfor’s full support. In the event, he was beaten by Chris Rees, who had been active in the protests against the drowning of Tryweryn and, like me, had gone to prison rather than join the British Army at a time when the majority of Welsh MPs had voted against peace-time conscription. Most members of Plaid assumed – rightly or wrongly – that Elystan’s defection reflected his disappointment at losing the election to Chris.

I permitted myself a wry smile when I heard of Elystan’s change of allegiance.  After all, he had complained not long before that I was more of a socialist than a nationalist. Yet, in spite of being sacked from my job – on the basis of false accusations secretly circulated about me which I had no chance to rebut – I still remained a member.

I was disappointed that a man of Elystan’s sharp, analytical mind had swallowed those accusations hook, line and sinker. Even now he seems to believe that my efforts to turn Plaid into an effective democratic political party had some sinister ulterior objective. I can attribute this only to his almost blind admiration for Gwynfor who wrongly perceived that his own position was under threat.

None of this, however, invalidates Elystan’s argument that people prepared to promote the national interests of Wales are needed in the Labour Party.  Realising that, I have never held Elystan’s decision against him and was perhaps the only Plaid member who gave him a friendly greeting when he ventured onto the Eisteddfod Field the week his defection was announced in 1965. I felt, however, that nationalistically inclined members would have little clout within the Labour Party unless Labour’s grip on Wales was threatened from the outside as well. This is why I never felt tempted to join Labour myself.

Having explained his decision to change horses, Elystan returns to ‘snapshot’ mode in relating episodes from his experiences as a backbench MP, then as a Minister in the Home Office, life in opposition, as a barrister, as a Member of the House of Lords and as a Judge.

He was a good debater and adept at turning a situation to his own advantage. One example, was his defence of a farmer and his son who had handled a bailiff rather roughly. Their command of English was not great and Elystan argued that they had misunderstood the bailiff’s intentions because they were virtually monoglot. The Chairman of the Bench had snorted that that was nonsense as there were no monoglots left in Wales. Elystan suggested that the Chairman was possibly one himself – though if he could address the court in any language other than English he would be happy to withdraw the remark.  That quickly got the jury on his side!

He also retained the ability to laugh at himself sometimes. For instance, on being made a judge he remarked that, as a barrister, he had had “some brilliant acquittals at Newport  – especially when prosecuting!” He was, of course, a very accomplished orator, which was a key asset when he set out on a political career in the mid 20th Century, though that is not so much valued nowadays.

At the time of the 1979 referendum he was speaking in a cross-party debate and came up with a stunning put-down for Neil Kinnock who, of course, was championing the No brigade – in Elystan’s view to promote himself as a future leader of the Labour Party. Elystan said: “Don’t think that you can trample the life of a nation in the mud of your own miserable self-interest”. He does not hide his dislike of the attitude to things Welsh displayed by others in his party as well, personalities such as George Thomas and Leo Abse.  (I wonder if he likes to speculate, as I do, on what Abse would have made of his company’s Welsh language adverts on S4C these days.  How things have changed!).

And so to what is the most significant part of the book: Elystan’s reflections on the way devolution has developed and his thoughts about what should be the next phases in the process.  Among his sometimes radical suggestions are:

  • That the Assembly be recognised officially as a Parliament and its powers extended to include everything not specifically excluded from its remit.
  • That the number of members be increased to 100 and a second chamber established to ensure effective scrutiny of government.
  • Consideration be given to the role of local authorities.
  • A form of dominion status for the nations of Britain with a central government having power in a small number of functions of common interest.

The suggestion that local authorities might become little more than the local administrative arm of central government, rather than local democratic decision-making bodies in their own right, seems to fly directly against the arguments he himself advanced against local authority re-organisation in the mid 1990s. I would argue that we should be considering how to de-centralise power rather than contemplating a further bout of centralisation.

The other major difficulty is with Elystan Morgan’s idea of some kind of federal government for the UK. Whatever level of sovereignty was retained by the individual nations, the central government would presumably still be responsible for matters such as foreign policy and the armed forces. In any such federation England would remain the dominant force and thus in effect would make decisions in federal matters. The English penchant for an aggressive foreign policy (usually subservient to the US) and for maintaining large forces to back it up remain anathema to the Celtic nations. We would not only be drawn into foreign adventures of which we disapprove, we would also have to contribute to the cost and that would inhibit our ability to tackle many of our entrenched social and economic problems.

In fairness, Elystan would argue that he had not intended to produce a blue-print but merely wished to highlight subjects that merit in-depth – and, indeed, fairly urgent – consideration. The history of his involvement in politics at many levels, the contributions he has made and his insightful comments will hopefully ensure that this volume helps give rise to the serious debate that these issues merit.

Emrys Roberts was general secretary of Plaid Cymru from 1960 to 1964. Atgofion Oes: Elystan is published by Y Lolfa at £12.95. This article appeared in the Spring 2013 issue of the IWA’s journal the welsh agenda

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