Wales’ European vocation

Kenneth O. Morgan examines how our relationship with Europe has been articulated by four political leaders across two centuries

Twenty years ago, when I was Vice-Chancellor of the University of Wales, I was very aware how much Europe mattered. Wales appeared to be overwhelmingly pro-European. The Euroscepticism widespread in much of England was almost unknown. There were opportunities for pursuing the EU relationship that I had not encountered in England, for academic and cultural resources and especially through the Motor Scheme linking Wales with the thriving regions of Baden-Wurttemberg, Catalonia, Rhônes-Alpes and Lombardy.

Conversely, the response of the Welsh Office  in Gwydr House was very erratic, from warmly pro-European Secretaries of State like Peter Walker and David Hunt to the Euroscepticism, if not plain Europhobia, of John Redwood. I was told in Brussels by the late Bruce Millan, then an European Commissioner, that he had in effect to act as Secretary of State to ensure that Wales took up its rightful share of Objective One Funding.

Welsh nationalism and the slur of fascism

This is the first of three articles leading up to Plaid Cymru’s annual conference in Aberystwyth this week:

Tomorrow: Dafydd Glyn Jones questions whether it is justified to speculate that Saunders Lewis moved steadily towards the right in the 1930s.

On Friday: Jasmine Donahaye investigates the antisemitic slur against Plaid Cymru.

But the reality is more complex than a simple picture of a strongly pro-European Wales and an inconsistent Welsh Office in London. In 2013, even though support for UKIP in Wales is put at only 6 per cent (23 per cent in England), it has one MEP. More importantly, for Wales the idea of ‘Europe’ has conveyed a variety of meanings over the decades and centuries. I want to explore this briefly by looking at four historical case studies: the Europe of David Williams, Tom Ellis, Saunders Lewis and Rhodri Morgan. What legacies have they left?

David Williams (1738 – 1816) was a remarkable man. He was a Presbyterian who developed a Deist religious creed and wrote extensively on philosophical themes. He responded passionately to the revolutions in America and, even more, in France in 1789. His was a revolutionary, radical Europe, at least at first, a Europe of reason, of nature and enlightened thought. He became friendly with the French political philosopher Condorcet  and corresponded with Voltaire who admired his writings. Like his compatriot and colleague Richard Price, he strongly attacked the anti-revolutionary views of Edmund Burke in his Reflections.

His closest friendships with the revolutionaries in France were with the Girondins and especially the republican journalist, Pierre Brissot. He attended the revolutionary convention in Paris in 1791, worked on the scheme for the new French constitution and actually received honorary French citizenship. Later he became alienated by the violence of events in France, especially the execution of Girondins like Madame Roland and his friend Brissot, and also the trial and execution of Louis XVI. In later life, his political outlook became far more conventional. For all that, he was the pioneer of a new generation of free-thinking, dissenting radicals (wrongly called ‘Jacobins’) who so influenced Welsh political life down to the 1830s. It has left us one important legacy, the National Eisteddfod, its traditions and rituals invented by that maverick free-thinker, ‘Iolo Morgannwg’, of which I myself have the honour of being a Druid!

Tom Ellis (1859 – 1899) was far more political. He became Liberal MP for Merioneth and in 1894 the party’s Chief Whip. Yet he was above all a new kind of Welsh politician, a cultural nationalist and a visionary prophet of national destiny. His was above all a Europe of nations. Like William Rees, ‘Gwilym Hiraethog’, the preacher/politician before him, Ellis’s outlook was strongly influenced by continental nationalism, Louis Kossuth in Hungary and especially Guiseppe Mazzini, the inspirational ideologue of the Risorgimento in Italy.

From Mazzini he derived the idea of a romantic secular religion of communally-focussed citizenship, a nationhood based on association and faith. He claimed that this was especially appropriate for Wales where its key concepts – indeed the very name ‘Cymru’ – implied a social, collective vision. He cherished the cult of youth – hence Cymru Fydd, the Wales that is to be, on the model of Young Italy. “Consecrate [the young] with the new religion”, he wrote. Ellis admired small communities, especially mountainous ones. An important visit for him was with an English friend A.H.D. Acland to the Austrian Tyrol in 1888: “We blessed again and again the work of Guiseppe Mazzini.”

He stressed the idea of national unity, even more than Freedom, an almost metaphysical faith of nationhood, and a lofty sense of mission. There were other ingredients in the ideas of this complicated man – Fabianism, Idealism, even the imperialism of Cecil Rhodes. His was a gentler, more culturally focussed nationalism than that of his younger colleague David Lloyd George. But Ellis was also a practical politician who saw the obstacles standing in the way of a self-governing Wales. He has left behind the beguiling legend of Wales’s ‘lost leader’, even ‘the Parnell of Wales’.

Saunders Lewis (1893 – 1985) was a nationalist of a very different era (embarking on his role in the years after 1918) and of a very different stripe from Tom Ellis. Ellis was above all a democrat. Lewis had total contempt for the nonconformist Liberal democracy in Wales prior to the First World War. He celebrated Wales before the Reformation, certainly before the Industrial Revolution. His ideas were based on his intense Roman Catholicism and his reverence for the Middle Ages, and he became first president of Plaid Cymru in 1925 to propagate these views.

He was strongly European in outlook but, unlike nearly all his countrymen, he passionately admired the right-wing ideology of the French author Maurice Barrès and the writings of Charles Maurras of Action Française, both of them hostile to the Republic, anti-Dreyfus and strongly anti-semitic. Lewis moved steadily right during the thirties, wrote sympathetically on Mussolini’s corporatism in Italy as did his Plaid colleague Ambrose Bebb, maintained an attitude of ideological neutrality during the Second World War, and sympathised with Vichy and Pétain’s regime in opposition to the Resistance which he saw as dominated by Marxist Communists whom he abominated.

Whether Lewis was himself a fascist has occasioned much debate. On balance, I do not believe that he was, but he gave many hostages to fortune by his warm embrace of Europeans in France and Italy who were effectively fascists, anti-semites and totalitarian sympathizers. For long, Plaid Cymru had to struggle with charges, resulting from Lewis’ writings, that it was a pro-fascist party. But Lewis certainly bequeathed a passionate European linguistic nationalism which, under the passionately pacifist Gwynfor Evans in the 1960s evolved into more democratic forms.

Rhodri Morgan (born 1939), First Minister of devolved Wales from 2000 to 2009, was strongly pro-European in outlook from the 1970s on. His was a Social Democratic Europe, the Europe of Jacques Delors, the TUC’s ‘frère Jacques’. He headed the European Commission office in Cardiff from 1980 to 1987, and was part of a powerful wing of the Welsh Labour Party, along with three musketeers, the Welsh-speaking Aberystwyth graduates, Hywel Ceri Jones, Aneurin Rhys Hughes and Gwyn Morgan, which tilted Labour in Wales in a strongly pro-European direction.

Hywel Ceri Jones, author of the Social Chapter in Delors’ office and inventor of the Erasmus and Socrates student exchange schemes, was a particularly important colleague. They operated at a time when the reborn Plaid Cymru was strongly pro-European and when ideas of a devolved Europe of regions/nations were being debated by some of us in seminars in Freudenstadt in Baden-Wurttemburg.

A Wales European centre was being set up in Brussels. Debate was spurred on by a volume by John Osmond and Sir John Gray, Wales in Europe (1997). Des Clifford was made Wales’s first representative in Europe, as BBC Wales reported it, for 600 years. Rhodri Morgan’s becoming first minister in 2000 was highly important for Wales’s European dimension. Wales now saw itself, not just as a recipient of European largesse for its deprived valleys, but more pro-actively. It participated in pan-European environmental policies for sustainable development, while both Maastricht and the Lisbon treaty were commended for their policies for Europe’s regions and minority languages. In the era of Rhodri Morgan’s leadership, therefore, greater devolution and European involvement marched side by side. Europe will undoubtedly be a factor in the push towards further devolution, as in the growing field of Welsh law and human rights policy.

All four strains of Europeanism have left their mark on modern Wales – the republican rationalism of David Williams, the romantic gospel of nationhood of Tom Ellis, the militant organic nationalism of Saunders Lewis, and the social democracy of Rhodri Morgan. With this varied background behind us, we now face a critical new phase for the relationship of the United Kingdom and Europe, one that goes far beyond the narrow implications of rising support for UKIP.

For Wales, there may be new openings and opportunities in a pluralist Europe where smaller nations, some of them ‘unhistoric’ in Marx’s sense, like the Catalans, the Flemings and, of course, the Scots, may be more assertive. The impact of the Scottish referendum on Wales in September 2014 will be important, whatever the result. The reconfiguration of the United Kingdom, whether federal, confederal or whatever, will profoundly shape the relations of its component nations with Europe. The union of the United Kingdom and the union with Europe are closely bound up with one another, including for Wales. The stresses that result are most evident in Scotland, whose political nationalism has always been sharper than that in Wales. Pro-union Scots would not want an England-dominated Britain which might cut adrift from Europe. But there could be a crisis in Wales, too, if England resolves to leave the EU in the future referendum, whatever form it takes, against the declared will of the Welsh. The relations of Wales, England and Europe, which have witnessed so many complexities since 1789, are entering a critical, but fascinating new phase.

Professor Lord Kenneth O. Morgan is a Welsh historian and author and was Vice Chancellor in the University of Wales from 1989 to 1995. This article, which appears in the current issue of the IWA’s journal the welsh agenda, is an edited version of an address he gave to a British Academy and Learned Society of Wales conference on devolution in London earlier this year.

11 thoughts on “Wales’ European vocation

  1. An interesting piece, but surely Lord Morgan would agree that historians should be cautious about drawing general conclusions from selected individual cases. Of the four in question, Williams and Lewis were very much individuals, and can hardly be cited as typical, while, by contrast, Ellis and Morgan were leaders of the Welsh Establishment of their times, and must therefore be viewed in terms of the power politics of their situations. It is true that there is an old tradition of Welsh politicians looking beyond the British Isles for alternatives to the centralising power of England, or at least allies against it – going back to Gerald of Wales and the later Welsh Princes dealing with the Papacy, and Owain Glyn Dwr with the French – paralleled by Scotland’s ‘Auld Alliance.’ Yet is this a constant thread of Europeanism or a series of individual cases of pragmatic politics? As for contemporary Wales, although pro-devolution politicians have a vested interest in playing Brussels off against Westminster, one suspects that the prevailing attitude of the majority of Welsh people to the European question is the combination of ignorance and apathy that characterises their approach to most political issues these days. The one thing on which we policy wonks of all persuasions must agree is that we are in the minority.

  2. “even though support for UKIP in Wales is put at only 6 per cent (23 per cent in England), it has one MEP.”

    UKIP got 10.5% in 2004 and 12.8% in 2009 in the European ‘Parliament’ elections so that is the level of UKIP support as far as the evil EU empire is concerned. Expect it to be higher in 2014 – perhaps significantly higher…

    The BNP also got 3% in 2004 and 5.4% in 2009 so you can add that Welsh anti-EU sentiment to your equation along with a significant proportion of Conservative and old Labour voters who are not fans of the evil empire either but chose to maintain their tribal party loyalties in the EP elections.

    Don’t fool yourself – the anti-EU sentiment is Wales is just as high as in England but, sadly, Wales has a higher proportion of public sector snouts in the trough who stand to ‘gain’ from EU membership and it is the opinion and rhetoric of those snouts in the trough which dominates the Welsh media.

    But I do wish lazy writers could be bothered to seperate Europe from the EU – they are not the same thing. Or is the confusion deliberate as per the BBC and other Europhile organisations?

  3. We also have the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about. ie shed loads of English born people now living in Wales, many of whom are aged 50 plus either escaping to the country to Walesshire or being granny farmed around the coasts, who are likely to be anti Europe

  4. Wales receives more money from the EU in structural funds and through the CAP than it contributes via its share of UK taxes. If we don’t use the money to best effect that’s our fault, not the EU’s. The UK has given up on regional policy so Wales would be considerably worse off in hard material terms outside the EU. Any Welsh elector anti EU is either ignorant or someone who doesn’t like money. Some English people can’t get their heads around the idea of shared sovereignty but why should that worry the Welsh – we haven’t had full sovereignty for 800 years or more.

  5. ‘Any Welsh elector anti EU… doesn’t like money’ sic – rather goes against the standard prejudice that people on the political ‘right’ are supposed to be overly fond of money! Of course the truth is that all sensible people should have a healthy respect for money but should not treat it as the most important thing in life. In the case of EU money, it should not bribe us to do things we would not otherwise do. It has not been made clear to most Welsh people that EU money is not ‘free money’. It comes with strings attached, usually in the form of conditions that we spend our own money on priorities set by the EU rather than those we would choose ourselves. It is the equivalent of a cut-price special offer on a product we would not necessarily buy otherwise. ‘Shared sovereignty’ is an oxymoron: sovereignty can be limited, and almost invariably it is, but it cannot be split without ceasing to be sovereignty.

  6. In light of Kenneth O Morgan’s article, readers may be interested to read a joint Report by the Learned Society of Wales and the British Academy on ‘Wales, the UK and Europe’ – a report of two joint conferences that took place in May 2013. Kenneth O. Morgan was a speaker at the event hosted by the Academy:

    The report analyses Welsh devolution from a multitude of perspectives, looking at the historical and social ties between Wales, the rest of the United Kingdom and Europe as well as analysis of the key differences in social attitudes around the UK on, for example, EU membership.

    The report also looks at the constitutional future of Wales and the UK, Welsh legal identity, a broader European perspective and the unpredictable future of public spending in a further divided nation. Using other European nation-states and regions as examples, this report considers potential governance changes and scenarios between Wales and the rest of the UK.

  7. John Winterson Richards – ‘ It has not been made clear to most Welsh people that EU money is not ‘free money’. It comes with strings attached, usually in the form of conditions that we spend our own money on priorities set by the EU rather than those we would choose ourselves.’

    How very, very true!

  8. T.E. Ellis is a personal favourite not only because of his contribution to the political consciousness and confidence of the werin, but also as a touchstone for change agents who succeeded him such as Owen M Edwards. Edwards may not have fulfilled expectations as Ellis’ political heir, but was influential nevertheless in the fields of education and popular history- both considered essential building blocks of nationhood and identity at the time. Things may have worked out differently for Wales had Ellis lived longer, but the fulfillment of his political vision is likely to have been dashed to pieces by the First World War and the Irish Revolution.

    The early influences on Ellis are interesting lines of inquiry. There is the standard story of a privileged education in a local grammar school followed by Oxford. But is goes further to a combination of family circumstances, non-conformist radical liberalism as it evolved in Penllyn, Edeyrnion and the Clwyd Valley, Professor John Rhys at Oxford, and the legacy of Henry Richard. Indeed, Richard might stand as a candidate for consideration as a transitional agent in Welsh political thought between David Williams and Tom Ellis, and a direct link with liberal thought in Europe.

    Gwyn Griffiths (Henry Richard: Author of Peace and Welsh Patriot,) and Dai Ben Rees (The Life and Work of Henry Richard) are better versed than I to answer the question about the European influence on Richard. But having read a very old and tattered book of Richard’s letters recently it struck me that he rubbed shoulders with leaders in Europe with the big political ideas including de Tocqueville.

    As to Ellis’ other influences, Rhys received academic training in Germany where he would have been exposed a range of political views associated with the social and economic changes brought about by Germany’s industrial revolution which developed later than in England and Wales. I also suspect that liberal ideas from Europe mattered to people like Thomas Gee, editor and publisher of Y Baner, and that he incorporated his interpretation of them into his articles and editorials.

    Non-conformism and disestablishment of the Church burdened the radical liberal vision of a new Wales. It is a matter of debate as to whether or not Tom Ellis would have succeeded in righting the situation to bring better balance to the argument, but Professor Lord Morgan rightly brings him to the fore as an original thinker.

  9. John Winterson Richards either proves my point that some English people can’t get their head around shared sovereignty or proves that some Welsh people can’t either – depending on his own nationality. Any time a sovereign body signs a treaty with another each to limit their freedom of action in a common interest, and to set up a third party body to monitor their behaviour they are pooling or sharing sovereignty. The UK agrees to abide by the trade regulations of the WTO, it agrees to abide by various UN declarations banning things like chemical weapons. The EU differs in degree not in principle from those cases. The UK can withdraw from all such associations if it chooses and no-one disputes that.

  10. Tredwyn, with respect, and ignoring politely your gratuitous ethnic slurs, it is impossible for someone to get his head around what does not exist. Sovereignty is the supreme source of political authority within a given state. Therefore, by definition, it can limit itself, for example by treaty, but it cannot be split without ceasing to be sovereignty. If you have reputable legal sources to the contrary, please cite them.

  11. Dear Mr Richards.
    The Plaid Cymru party does not campaign for sovereignty for Wales on its own. It also demands Socialism. Just as did the party in charge of Pre-War Germany!
    Peter Davies

Comments are closed.

Also within Politics and Policy