When Welsh nationalism was smeared with fascism

Jasmine Donahaye investigates the antisemitic slur against Plaid Cymru

For decades Plaid Cymru has been slurred with allegations of fascism and antisemitism, in particular since it became a party that Labour had to reckon with in the 1970s. To anyone who looks at Plaid Cymru’s current position it is clear that such associations in the present are false. Even some of those who made allegations in the 1970s have modified their views. Leo Abse told me in an interview in 2002 that he had “loathed the Welsh nationalist movement as it was constituted” in the 1970s, as he had when he was young. “The picture I had”, he explained, “was influenced by my picture of Saunders Lewis – who was drenched in anti-Semitism”. But even vehemently anti-Plaid Abse had to acknowledge that “the people who came into prominence after the first devolution referendum – you couldn’t describe them as fascists; it would be silly”.

Nevertheless the allegation continues to be made. Indeed, the popular association between the words ‘nationalism’ and ‘fascism’ is so entrenched in the UK that for many the one is a synonym for the other. However, I suspect that, unlike Abse, most who make the allegation know more about the totalitarianism of the left than of the right, and associate fascism less with political or economic ideas than with authoritarianism and racism – that is, with a set of attitudes, rather than policies.

Given that in popular usage ‘fascist’ has come to mean, variously, authoritarian, humourless, rule-following, aggressive, ultra-conservative and resistant to change (‘grammar fascist’, for example), the term is a useful bit of offensive-smelling muck to throw at Plaid Cymru for reasons ranging from its position on independence to its policy on language.

But more usually the link that gets made between Plaid Cymru and fascism or antisemitism has to do with allegations against Plaid Cymru in the past. Of course, this is how smearing works – by association, not by fact. The facts themselves appear to tell a different story, as Richard Wyn Jones shows in his recent book, ‘Y Blaid Ffasgaidd yng Nghymru’: Plaid Cymru a’r Cyhuddiad  o Ffasgaeth (‘The Fascist Party in Wales’: Plaid Cymru and the Accusation of Fascism). Jones investigates the historical evidence for and against these allegations of fascism, and concludes that they are and have always been without base: Plaid Cymru was never a fascist party.

As the example of Leo Abse illustrates, allegations of fascism against Plaid Cymru are often intimately associated with accusations of antisemitism, particularly against Saunders Lewis in the 1930s, and I was particularly interested to see what new understanding Jones would bring to this issue. Usefully, and necessarily, he separates the two. He points out that while the hostile and then genocidal policy on Jews was fundamental to Nazi doctrine, it was not, for example, a part of early Italian fascism (in fact, during its early years, Italian Jews had been members and supporters of the Italian fascist party). It was also the case that hostility to Jews existed in some form right across the political spectrum in the 1930s and 1940s (as it still does). Consequently, despite the popular conflation of fascism with antisemitism, the expression of hostility to Jews, he argues, does not in itself denote fascist sympathy.

Unfortunately, how he deals with the question of antisemitism itself is less useful. Like almost all writers and historians in Wales who have considered hostile imaging of Jews, Jones relies on two unhelpful approaches. Firstly, though we might like to believe that there are common liberal understandings of what constitutes ‘antisemitism’, it is in fact the subject of very heated disagreement, particularly in the context of criticising Israel. At least a working definition would be useful, but here as elsewhere we have to rely on assumptions about its meaning and parameters. Secondly, again like many if not most commentators on the subject before him in Wales, Jones characterises antisemitism as a disease – “Mae’n haint sydd wedi difwyno bywyd ‘gwareiddiad’ y Gorllwein ers canrifoedd lawer” (“It’s a plague that has contaminated the ‘civilisation’ of the West for many centuries”).

Pestilence and infection that taints or contaminates might be rhetorically familiar and satisfying, but a set of attitudes is not a disease, contagious or otherwise. I have argued strenuously against this habit of language in Wales, because of what it permits and what it bypasses. With antisemitism characterised as a pestilence comes the inevitable trap of measuring the degree of its virulence, and this in turn enables a distracting argument over what amount of virulence constitutes antisemitism and how much hostility makes someone an antisemite (or how much praise makes a philosemite). Downplay the virulence and you can stand accused of being an apologist; overplay the virulence and you can be accused of hypersensitivity or hysteria. To characterise antisemitism as something virulent sets in train a discussion that leads inexorably away from rather than towards a deeper understanding of how and why people use negative stereotypes of Jews.

Hostility to Jews, or the use of negative Jewish stereotypes, is not an aberration or sickness. At the opposite extreme, admiration and praise for Jews (so-called ‘philosemitism’) does not indicate some kind of default purity. Neither term is very useful, because both sets of attitudes deploy common, long-lived, resilient and flexible stereotypes, whether positive or negative, that designate difference. Positive stereotypes about Jews always also carry their negative shadow – thus even the allegedly ‘philosemitic’ protestations by Gwynfor Evans or Harri Webb between the 1940s and the 1960s (particularly with respect to Israel) are as problematic for Plaid Cymru as are the negative images used by Saunders Lewis and others in the earlier period: in much Welsh writing in both languages, ‘the Jews’ are uniquely gifted or uniquely grotesque, and therefore usefully positioned to behave uniquely – to represent otherness.

Such attitudes and statements about Jews are complex, part of two millennia of Christian discourse. Some of this complexity is evident in current arguments about the Daily Mail’s characterisation of Ralph Miliband (see here), or about use of the term ‘Yid’ by Spurs supporters, for example. It is the subject of numerous studies, several of which focus on the highly adaptable stereotyped imaging of Jews in the various political and cultural contexts of the UK. Given its complexity, it’s a shame that the extensive research published over many years in the burgeoning field of British Jewish studies has once again been left out of consideration in discussion of these issues in Wales.

Jones argues that the occasional hostile Jewish imaging in the 1930s by some members of Plaid Cymru (and in the Plaid newspaper, Y Ddraig Goch) is not evidence that the party was in the period constitutionally antisemitic, and that such imaging did not reflect any kind of party policy or position either then or since. Not only was it not typical or representative of Plaid Cymru, he argues, but it was also the case that some English writers and politicians on both the left and the right expressed at least equal hostility to Jews in the 1930s, as did Welsh writers and political figures who had no affiliation to Plaid Cymru.

It is certainly useful to situate such imaging in this wider context, but as Jones does not also consider the particular purpose of its deployment in the unique context of early Plaid Cymru (including in its official newspaper), this argument reads as a deflection, and takes on the contours of mild whataboutery – what about Churchill, what about T. S. Eliot, what about Orwell’s statement that writers on the left were just as guilty. So why this unfair, unbalanced and out-of-context focus on statements by Saunders Lewis? It’s a familiar objection from those who would defend Israel against criticism – what about the equally damaging or worse foreign or domestic policies of all those other countries? Why single Israel out and hold it to this apparently unfair standard?

The appropriate response to that objection applies also in this case: the necessity of accountability and understanding elsewhere does not in any way change, and nor should it deflect from, the necessity of accountability and understanding here. Other people used hostile Jewish stereotypes, and English writers and political figures did so as much or more than Welsh writers and political figures. However, this doesn’t tell us anything about its unique deployment by members of Plaid Cymru in the 1930s.

It is clear that neither the party nor its founder was ever ‘drenched’ in hostility to Jews, but the allegation about antisemitism is not laid to rest by presenting hostile expressions about Jews as being, on the one hand, typical of the period and, on the other, as being exceptional for Plaid Cymru rather than representative. Richard Wyn Jones’s book should help end the slur of fascism, but until historians and critics engage with what hostile Jewish stereotypes meant and how and why they were used in the particular context of Plaid Cymru in the 1930s, someone somewhere will go on making a stink about them.


Jasmine Donahaye is a lecturer at Swansea University, a member of the Centre for Research in the English Literature and Language of Wales (CREW), and former editor of Planet. Her monograph Whose People? Wales, Israel, Palestine was published in 2012 by University of Wales Press. Excerpts of the interview with Leo Abse appeared in Planet 160 (2003). ‘Y Blaid Ffasgaidd yng Nghymru’: Plaid Cymru a’r Cyhuddiad o Ffasgaeth, by Richard Wyn Jones is published by University of Wales Press.

13 thoughts on “When Welsh nationalism was smeared with fascism

  1. This is a subject that warrants a Click on Wales article. Whether an entire book is needed to debunk the basic myth is something I have my doubts about, but I’ll have to wait either until I’ve learned Welsh or someone translates it into English before being able to pass any verdict on that.

    Jasmine’s claim that “the allegation [that Plaid is a fascist party] continues to be made” is, I think, more straightforwardly wide of the mark. I looked at this subject for a short-lived online project in 2009 and couldn’t find much in mainstream political debate to endorse that allegation. Indeed, about the only such reference I could find was when the ex-Preseli Pembrokeshire AM (and infamously splenetic Plaid-hater) Richard Edwards branded former Saunders Lewis a “Mussolini fancier” in the Siambr. Go back a bit further and Llew Smith once dedicated a 2002 Westminster Hall debate in Parliament to the topic of “Racism (Welsh politics)” in which these and other similar allegations were recorded in Hansard. Nowadays, about the only place you can find these sorts of claims is in the deep recesses of what now remains of the Welsh political blogosphere.

    I also think that Jasmine has failed to give appropriate credit to those who have taken the all-important nuances out of the apparent anti-Semitic and fascist-leaning views of some of Plaid’s founders, namely Wales’s professional historians. Kenneth (K O) Morgan, John Davies and Gwyn Alf (G A) Williams have all at various times given a significant amount of credence to the Plaid-founders-as-fascist-sympathisers argument. Gwyn Alf left little room for doubt in his 1985 book When Was Wales? when he argued: “During the 1930s Plaid became even more of a right wing force. It’s journal refused to resist Hitler or Mussolini, ignored or tolerated anti-Semitism and, in effect, came out in support of Franco. In 1941 Saunders Lewis’ pamphlet “The Church and the World” explicitly rejected the war against Nazi Germany while in 1944 Ambrose Bebb condemned the plot to assassinate Hitler.” Similarly, K O Morgan claimed in a 1999 article that “Plaid’s early politics were complicated and compromised by the apparent neo-fascism of its charismatic first President, the poet and dramatist Saunders Lewis, and the sympathy for fascist-style corporatism shown by him and other Roman Catholic leaders of the party.“

    I also think it is unfortunate that the piece focuses on the narrower question of anti-Semitism, albeit by way of criticising Richard Wyn Jones’s approach in his book. I appreciate that the author has a sophisticated and interesting argument to advance about the way anti-Semitism is characterised in Welsh political writing (and, for the record, I agree with her that to characterise it as a pathology is unhelpful in understanding its currency) but the rest of the fascistic charge sheet against some of Plaid’s founders is rather more illuminating.

    It is undoubtedly true that some of Plaid’s early leaders went further and were sympathetic for much longer toward Hitler, Mussolini and Franco than other British political leaders. J E Daniel, for example, argued for a post-Rhineland deal with Hitler, suggesting for good measure that Europe’s democracies and her fascist regimes shared a common cause in opposing communism. Lewis meanwhile appeared to continue to endorse the Nazi leader as late as 1937, writing that “at once he fulfilled his promise – a promise which was greatly mocked by the London papers months before that—to completely abolish the financial strength of the Jews in the economic life of Germany.”

    As disquieting as this sentiment appears to modern eyes, the crucial part of the quote is Lewis’s criticism of the English media. Throughout the 1930s the party’s paper Y Ddraig Goch devoted much time to rebutting what its authors saw as the pro-war, pro-imperialist press (an impulse to which some senior members still sometimes succumb today).

    The party’s almost unanimous pacifism drove its polemicists – which included nearly all Plaid’s founders – into some curious and uncomfortable forms of realpolitik. It would be going to far to suggest that the frequently sympathetic views of Lewis et al towards Europe’s fascist dictators stemmed only from a desire to take issue with the English media’s jingoism, but it was certainly a significant component.

    Equally, a fulsome opposition to Wales becoming embroiled in England’s imperial conflict – regardless of the causes – acted as a powerful stimulant, leading Lewis in August 1939 to compare Hitler’s broken treaty promises to the broken word of the English “to the Arab, to the Jew, to India”. Opposing war, imperialism, and the English was almost certainly more important to Plaid’s early leaders than remaining free of the taint of being seen to endorse far more militaristic regimes. This was never clearer than when the party backed Welsh neutrality at the outbreak of hostilities in 1939.

    Plaid’s early leadership therefore did give sustained succour to Europe’s dictators, something that is a more persuasive explanation for why the taint of fascistic sympathy lingered for so long. The fact that their reasons for doing so were largely motivated by a desire to contest what they saw as English imperialism fell by the wayside earlier than the charge itself. If Richard Wyn Jones’s book is to have value, it will hopefully address this.

  2. Richard Wyn Jones’s book does indeed address the issues raised by Adam Higgitt and I’m reliably told that an English language version will be published soon. Jasmine’s interesting and important article is clearly not a review, but an engagement with one theme within RWJ’s detailed and wide-ranging book. Adam speaks of 2002 as though it was a century ago. It’s pretty astonishing that such accusations were still being launched so recently, and of course the Welsh Mirror – created to quash a potential rise in Plaid support, and disbanded once the job was done – regularly ran ‘nationalism is fascism’ stories. It will be harder to make those claims following RWJ’s detailed engagement with the issues. The whole topic is central to the intellectual and political history of Wales and Europe, and the intelligent responses that the book has stimulated is a sure sign of its value and significance. (In addition to the pieces on Click on Wales this week, I’d draw particular attention to the very positive review by a world expert on German history, Prof Richard Evans, in this month’s Barn. It would allay Adam’s doubts about the merits of a book he hasn’t read).

  3. “The whole topic is central to the intellectual and political history of Wales and Europe”.

    I doubt this topic is central in even the recondite debates held within the Welsh nationalist academic fraternity. But I suppose one has to permit Daniel to once again cite the Welsh Mirror, a briefly lived project that has apparently held the Welsh electorate under its hypnotic spell for more than a decade after its demise.

    To be charitable, if Llew Smith felt it was relevant to quote Saunders Lewis’s in 2002, we can expect Daniel and his successors to bring up the Welsh Mirror’s quite extraordinarily pernicious reach and influence for at least another 50 years. If we’re really lucky, a sense of perspective may even have set in by then.

    P.s the last time I checked Barn was published in Welsh. If I could read that, I wouldn’t have to wait for the English translation of RWJ’s book.

  4. So with Welsh speakers being something like 4 times more likely to vote Plaid Cymru than non Welsh speakers…. would it be unjust to say that Richard Wyn Jones’ book has had somewhat of a ‘soft launch’ thus far. It seems to be getting rave reviews, but has anyone, who is not a biased, card carrying plaid cymru member, actually read it yet. I note the review in Barn, but again it seems that the vast majority of the Welsh public are being either deliberately excluded or genuinely delayed from getting involved in this debate.

  5. I’m not sure why belowlandsker is quite so hung up about the fact that the book has been published in Welsh. How dare someone publish a book in a language other than English!

    Obviously books on history, politics, philosophy, science etc published in France or Germany have no merit whatsoever until they are translated into English.

    I haven’t bought or read the book yet so I can’t comment on its conclusions, but I do know that Richard Wyn Jones is more than capable of being critical of Plaid Cymru so I guess it will be objective.

    As an author and a political academic I’m sure he wants his views to be widely read, and perhaps the interest stirred by Jasmine Donahaye’s article will help to prompt both RWJ and his publishers to publish in English in the near future.

  6. The University of Wales Press are planning to publish an english language version of Richard Wyn Jones’ book in the new year. We are hoping that the next issue of the IWA journal agenda will feature a review – sign up as a member to make sure you get a copy

  7. I thought it obvious that I didn’t mean that the particular debates within Welsh nationalism were ‘central to intellectual debates in … Europe’ . As Gwyn Alf Williams once wrote in response to a correspondent – “I’d be a damned fool if I did, and it took a fool to think I was”. To return Adam’s charity, I know he’s no fool, but there’s a resistance here to accept the legitimacy of exploring questions that are of central significance within a Welsh frame, and with Welsh terms of reference. The question and definition of fascism, the rise of anti-semitism and its role (or absence) in the rise of nationalist movements, the ways in which dominant political parties and formations describe any oppositional movements as ‘fascist’ or ‘anti-semitic’, and so on, are of great general interest and are indeed ‘central to the intellectual and political history of Wales and Europe’.

    Jasmine Donahaye is respected within the field of British Jewish Studies, was recently a keynote speaker at Berkeley, California, and is making a specific contribution to the cultural history of Wales. It is depressing to feel that one has to make this point, but it is actually possible to address Welsh cultural issues while also engaging with questions of a much broader and, yes, central significance.

    It might amaze ‘belowlandsker’ to know that there’s a vibrant intellectual world that conducts itself through the medium of Welsh. Those of us who contribute to it often face pretty harsh critiques from our Welsh speaking colleagues. We also contribute to debates elsewhere, too, bringing what is often a valued Welsh perspective to bear. Richard Wyn Jones has published several of his most significant works in Welsh and is also a well established and widely interviewed expert on constitutional affairs in Britain, Europe and beyond.

  8. It’s puzzling to be told – in response to a comment by me about an episode in Plaid Cymru’s history published on a website dedicated to discussing Welsh affairs – that I am in some way resistant to exploring significant matters within a “Welsh frame”.

    In fact, other than objecting to my suggestion that accusations of fascism against Plaid no longer feature in mainstream Welsh political discourse I’m even more puzzled about Daniel’s argument, which simultaneously berates me for refusing to set a Welsh cultural manifestation in its wider setting and yet grossly exaggerates the importance of that manifestation.

    Daniel appears to suggest that the process of dominant parties describing Plaid as a fascist or anti-Semitic movement conforms to some sort of European pattern, which is itself of central importance to European political history. That’s quite a stretch for Europe as a whole. For Wales, with all due respect, it is nonsense. The reason that accusations of fascist sympathies lingered around Plaid is not some Gramscian hegemonic conspiracy. Instead – as I suggested– it has straightforwardly to do with its early leaders’ extended and sustained tacit support for Europe’s fascist dictators. I have explained why I think this stance was driven by realpolitik as opposed to innate sympathy.

    Beyond this there is a quite different complaint that Welsh nationalism displays certain negative, intolerant and atavistic characteristics and which people sometimes describe as “fascist”. But this is nothing more than a certain cheapening of the word, usually by people who call traffic wardens “fascists” and have a poor grasp of what that term means. To argue that either of these manifestations is significant in the broader sweep of public affairs is poppycock. The first was never a strong feature and is anyway now absent. The second is just un-sophisticated and crass political abuse. Anyone who thinks this has been a defining feature of Welsh politics has, I suggest, lost perspective in quite a bad way.

  9. That doesnt amaze me one bit Daniel! The only thing that amazes me is that many self-styled intellectual Welsh nationalist politicos (lets call them SIWNPs) seem to think that, on account of this book, the subject is now ‘case closed’. I was merely musing over whether anyone other than a SIWNP had actually read it?

  10. belowlandsker says:
    “That doesnt amaze me one bit Daniel! The only thing that amazes me is that many self-styled intellectual Welsh nationalist politicos (lets call them SIWNPs) seem to think that, on account of this book, the subject is now ‘case closed’. I was merely musing over whether anyone other than a SIWNP had actually read it? ”

    Well, Jasmine Donahaye for one.

  11. Belowlandsker – I certainly don’t consider the case closed. I’m very pleased that the volume’s generating a debate. And I don’t agree with all RWJ’s conclusions either, which is why I particularly welcomed Jasmine’s thoughtful piece.

    Adam – we’ll have to continue this after you’ve read the book. I didn’t use the phrase ‘defining feature’, but Rhodri Morgan’s recent piece in the Western Mail, where he traced his commitment to Labour back to a debate regarding the Spanish Civil War that his father T J Morgan (Prof of Welsh at Swansea) had with Saunders Lewis, suggests that some of these debates have cast a long shadow.

  12. @ Alun

    Jasmine Donahaye is an intellectual who writes articles for a Welsh politics website and according to her twitter feed was present at the Plaid Cymru Party conference last week. I believe, thats all the boxes ticked so perhaps you have another example for me.

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