Dafydd Glyn Jones questions whether it is justified to speculate that Saunders Lewis moved steadily towards the right in the 1930s
In his article on ClickonWales yesterday Kenneth O. Morgan considers Saunders Lewis as one of four leaders who have ‘articulated Welsh relationships with Europe’. In his commentary he correctly distinguishes between Lewis’s admiration for the ideology of the French author Maurice Barrès and for the writings of Charles Maurras, a founder of Action Française.
Lewis had made the distinction emphatically, correcting W.J. Gruffydd in the debates of 1926-7, and Gruffydd fully accepted the point. But we should not couple Barrès with Maurras as being ‘hostile to the Republic’. Barrès was a Republican, but he loved, as he put it, a Republic that marched behind banners.
Welsh nationalism and the slur of fascism
This is the second of three articles leading up to Paid Cymru’s annual conference in Aberystwyth this week:
Tomorrow: Jasmine Donahaye investigates the antisemitic slur against Plaid Cymru.
We also need to exercise some care in representing Barrès as entirely ‘right-wing’. In some respects he was more of a socialist than many in the French politics of his time. Whether his combination of socialism and nationalism would in time have become something more sinister we cannot tell. My own conjecture is that, had he seen 1940, Barrès would have been found with de Gaulle, not with Pétain and Maurras.
Barrès shared with Maurras the three features of: (i) a Catholicism that was ideological rather than religious; (ii) anti-Semitism; and (iii) militarism. On the second aspect there has been fairly extensive discussion, in which I have taken some part, concerning the degree to which Saunders Lewis, like T.S. Eliot and others in the inter-war years, was affected. As to the militarism, the year 1914 found Barrès no worse than Lloyd George, Sir Henry Jones, the Reverend Dr John Williams and nearly all the leaders of public life in at least seven European nation-states, applauded all the way by an overwhelming majority of their electors or subjects.
Before the end of his life something had prompted Barrès to express a wish that he had thought of Europe in the way he had thought of France. This is interesting in view of Saunders Lewis’s very early commitment to the ideal of European unity. This was new and radical in Welsh and British politics, anticipating by thirty years the realisation that the British Empire had run its course.
Lewis’s ‘Europe’ was highly selective, as was pointed out by W.J. Gruffydd, Iorwerth Peate, D. Tecwyn Lloyd and others, but this does not alter the central point which should be made in a consideration of Lewis as a ‘European’. In this his call for political union is what should be stressed, rather than “a passionate European linguistic nationalism”, which to my mind is not the best characterisation. The nationalism of Lewis was both linguistic and European, but these were separate issues.
Did Saunders Lewis “move steadily right during the thirties”? Let us put it this way, was the burning of a Bombing School a typically right-wing action? Would Maurras, or Barrès, have applied that match?
After many years of considering the matter and occasionally referring to it in print, I still find Saunders Lewis’s sympathy with the Vichy régime, and the discounting of de Gaulle by one who was in many respects a natural-born Gaullist, as something of a puzzle. At best was it a serious misreading? At worst was it a case of being led by a perverse logic into a blind alley?
What is also remarkable is the case of Ambrose Bebb, who had in certain aspects been further to the right than Saunders Lewis. With the beginning of the Second World War Bebb came to see things very much as did W.J. Gruffydd. He wanted the Nationalist Party to give Gruffydd a clear run and even its support when he announced that he would be standing as an independent candidate in the by-election of 1943. D. J. Williams agreed, but the party executive decided otherwise. In the event Gruffydd emerged as the Liberal candidate. But the question has been succinctly put by Robin Chapman in his biography of Gruffydd: did the Establishment in the University of Wales adopt Gruffydd, or did he adopt the Establishment? (Using the form of a short story, Trobwynt, which can be read on Blog Glyn Adda, I have offered an interpretation of this deeply divisive by-election.)
Another question which I have asked myself over and over again is whether, had not Saunders Lewis given “hostages to fortune”, as Lord Morgan puts it, and laid his party open to the just or unjust charge of being ‘pro-fascist’ (decidedly unjust in my view), would that party have made speedier and stronger progress? I have tended increasingly towards the answer ‘no’. What Maurras and Barrès stood for, and whether they had influenced Saunders Lewis or not, proved to be of some usefulness to Liberal and Labour ideologues. However, they mattered not the slightest bit to the electorate generally. The going was hard for the nationalist party because it called on the Welsh people to do something that was simply not in them, and to be something that they were not.
The ‘fascist’ charge against Saunders Lewis and his party had two origins. First, it was concocted by the Whig-Mandarin-Unionist establishment, mainly in the University, and came to a climax in 1943. I would largely exonerate Gruffydd from this. He was a radical Liberal, inclining towards anarchism. He was quite unlike the faction which came to adopt him in 1943. They were conservative Liberals, inclined if anything towards socialism.
In the collection of his essays which I have recently edited, Eira Llynedd ac Ysgrifau Eraill (Dalen Newydd, 2013, £15), I have included Gruffydd’s article ‘Mae’r Gwylliaid ar y Ffordd’ (1941) so that today’s reader may judge. His concern, as in nearly all his articles, was “to make myself credible to my fellow-countrymen”, a motive which some of us may see as obsessive. By giving his reading of European politics in this article he simply aims to explain why he, until recently a Vice-President of the Nationalist Party, has come to disagree with its view. The argument is very different from that of the unprincipled mud-slinger Gwilym Davies in the same period.
The hunt for Welsh Fascists entered a new phase after 1945 as socialist politicians came occasionally to feel, with very little foundation, that their hegemony might be challenged. We can now read, digest and ponder Richard Wyn Jones’s new book, ‘Y Blaid Ffasgaidd yng Nghymru’: Plaid Cymru a’r Cyhuddiad o Ffasgaeth (note especially the quotation marks).
Briefly it may be said that Richard Wyn Jones finds the charge preposterous. Can anyone now, with any seriousness, answer his argument and refute his conclusion? That conclusion, briefly summarised, is that the origin of modern Welsh Fascist-spotting is to be sought in the psychopathology of Welsh Labour.
This tends to lead me increasingly to a wider question. How did it come about that the nicest people one could possibly meet anywhere on earth, the electorate of south-east Wales, has been able to elect with regularity, over eighty years and three generations, the most swinish politicians ever to have disgraced the name of democracy? Readers may, like myself, wish to exclude two or three individuals, four perhaps, from the ghastly gallery. But how do we explain the general phenomenon? What is the catalyst? That is a big question for the Welsh historian.