A towering achievement

Dai Smith reviews ‘Revolution to Devolution: Reflections on Welsh Democracy’ by Kenneth O. Morgan.

In the Michaelmas term of 1964, Balliol College’s History Society, known after the wife of the college’s Scottish founder of 1263, one John de Baliol, as the Devorguilla, had a Welsh secretary. And so it was that the undergraduate historian Gareth W. Williams, invited the young Swansea University lecturer, Kenneth O. Morgan, to Oxford to give a talk on that Welsh Prime Minister of the British Empire, David Lloyd George, the  rascal who had so unceremoniously deposed his predecessor, that “effortlessly superior” Balliol man, H. H. Asquith, in December 1916.

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Ken Morgan’s first book, a small one on Lloyd George, had appeared from the University of Wales Press, in February 1963; his second, a big one entitled Wales in British Politics 1868-1922, came out in the summer of that year. I saw it first, pristine and intriguing, on Gareth’s then sparse bookshelves when we went up to Balliol together from Barry that autumn. Now, the following winter, thanks to Gareth’s irrepressible patriotism, I was to meet Ken Morgan himself, for the first time and in the company of his Swansea post-graduate student Peter Stead. That night we felt we were out-gunning if not quite out-numbering the English on their very own Oxonian patch.

The talk was delivered with what we would soon understand to be his characteristic combination of lucidity, scholarship and intellectual force. He made a coruscatingly effective defence of the (then) rather maligned Welsh Liberal leader who had, after all, ‘won the war’. At the time, the Oxford History syllabus had three examined courses, divided by dates to 1939, under the rubric of ‘English History’. In this closed historiographical world, about to shatter under pressure from other histories ‘from below’, including that of Wales, Lloyd George was an unwelcome interloper, albeit a British and Imperial one, the exception to the established rule. Revenge was at hand against this show of Welsh hubris when, during question time, some third year Balliol men, led by the son of the Bishop of Exeter and abetted by the future Governor of Hong Kong, lifted from the nearby dining Hall the enormous, gilt framed oil portrait of Herbert Asquith, Balliol 1870-74 and Prime Minister 1908-1916, and placed it prominently and intimidatingly behind Lloyd George’s latter day champion. Well-bred sniggerers duly sniggered. But nemesis, from Wales for Asquith, was about to strike again. Someone, a Welsh someone – was it Howard Marks perhaps? – disappeared, only to return with a silk, red Welsh rugby rosette, no bigger than a small cart wheel, and sellotaped it to the rubicund chops of Squiffy Asquith. In some beating undergraduate hearts that night an idea, that to be an historian of Wales was no small thing but a large ambition, was planted.

Fifty years later Ken Morgan, doyen of all the historians of modern Britain, and of course of Wales, now in his 80th year, is still leading the way and still planting the seeds. His latest book should be promptly placed in all our schools and colleges. It should, with a hopeful smile, be put into the hands of all our MPs and AMs. It should be made compulsory reading for all journalists who pontificate so glibly on our political life. It should be given, with a friendly grin, to all Welsh political scientists, and any other ideologues who may be lurking in the formerly objective purlieus of academia. It is a triumphant encapsulation of his historically nuanced and sophisticated understanding and analysis of Wales and its distinct political trajectory. It is a sheer joy to read: informed and balanced and shrewd, as you would expect, but also committed and passionate, with no punches pulled about where and who we are now. Ken Morgan’s dual sense of Cymru Fydd, the one that has gone and the one we need, pivots on the present life of Wales which, as he affirms, should always and ever be our true concern. Devolution, he reminds us so cogently, is not Democracy, only a potential helpmeet of that most desirable of political fates.

The book has twelve essays, and a ‘Postscript: A Tale of Two Unions’, which speculates on the kaleidoscopic shifts we may yet envisage between the UK, Europe and Wales. Whatever may, or may not, ensue in the wake of the Scottish referendum, all – brilliantly delineated in close-ups and surveys ranging across two centuries and several countries – is rooted in history. And in our responses to its imperatives. Ken Morgan is strong in his faith in the continuing ability of democratic processes to deal with what might be in store for us in Wales. His essays, some of which overlap as befits their original form as lectures, give us cameo portraits of Henry Richard, Wales’ Apostle of Peace and Aberdare’s Liberal MP from 1868, that breakthrough year for democracy in Wales, and of Lloyd George’s parliamentary genius. He shows how admired a figure Abraham Lincoln was in both Victorian and Edwardian Wales, and how the strains of internationalism have affected so much of our intellectual life. The huge importance, and effects, of both world wars on all aspects of life in Wales is underlined in three seminal pieces which also help explain the rise and continuing hegemony – for Wales do not see Scotland, here – of Welsh Labour.

But, beyond the nailed-down detail, it is the thematic nature of this book that is most impressive, and most relevant to our current travails. By an astute examination of four decades of stunning Welsh historical research and writing from its sudden emergence in  the 1960s, he is able to assess the actual diapason of Welsh lived experience: its conflict and its consensus across two turbulent, yet civically evolving, centuries. Revolution threatened, yes, whether in the 1830s or 1910s, but devolution of power, democratically conceived, arrived whether via the centralising beneficence of the 1940s or the cautious acceptance of the years after 2000. His other repeated contention is that much of what we gather around ourselves, in an institutional and cultural sense today, has its origins and its echo in the ‘golden’ years of Edwardian Liberal hegemony which had ushered in the power politics of Lloyd George himself, and brought a National University, a National Museum, a National Library, a Dis-established Church – again, for Wales do not see Scotland – and national sporting teams afloat on a euphoric wave of Welsh-based popular culture. He rescues for our attention Flintshire’s obscure Liberal MP, John Herbert Lewis, Lloyd George’s loyal if shadowy friend, to emphasise the cultural hinterland so creatively fashioned by such as Lewis in order to give heft and weight to that nascent pre-1914 democracy. The lesson and the implication for Wales, here and now, is clear and stark. It will be the creative culture of a historically-evolved society which will define us as citizens of purpose in Wales. Or not. For, as he concludes: ‘At the start of the twenty-first century the long march of the Welsh democracy is very far from over’.

And note that definite article, ‘the’, placed deliberately in front of ‘Welsh democracy’, for the latter is, for our greatest living historian, itself a living, peopled thing not a constitutionalised box or a vapid concept. In his Foreword to the book he looks back over the years and concludes that his first, important book – first amongst the many superb biographies and governmental histories and sweeping narratives which would after 1963 follow Wales in British Politics 1868-1922 from his productive pen – ‘has helped to define my career ever since’. As one who read it back then, stirred with a newly discovered excitement for the history of my country, I can truly say and not only the career of Kenneth O. Morgan. His immense contribution, as historian and as public figure, amounts to a towering intellectual achievement for which his country can be deeply grateful, and of which his people can be justly proud. Long may it continue.

Dai Smith is Chair of Arts Council Wales. Here he reviews 'Revolution to Devolution: Reflections on Welsh Democracy by Kenneth O. Morgan' which can be found at: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Revolution-Devolution-Reflections-Welsh-Democracy/dp/178316087X

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