The Perils of Patriotic Politicians

Gethin Matthews warns against talk of patriotism in Welsh politics.

In December, when the new leader of UKIP visited Cardiff Bay to confer with some of his party’s Assembly Members, he gave an interesting interview to BBC Radio Wales. Having dealt with awkward questions about the internal situation of his party in the Senedd, he was offered a platform to sell UKIP to the Welsh electorate. They key pitch was that there was a need for a party to represent the interests of the ‘patriotic working class’ of this United Kingdom, and that UKIP was in a position to fill that void. The words ‘patriotic’ or ‘patriotism’ were uttered five times in the space of 90 seconds of the exchange.

This notion that there is the need for a ‘patriotic’ voice of the working class is not new in Wales. Indeed, one might draw parallels with the situation of a century ago, although the European crisis raging at that point in time was undoubtedly more severe than the current economic and political uncertainty. Two MPs in particular, Clem Edwards and C. B. Stanton, representing constituencies in the south Wales coalfield, made hay out of their patriotic credentials, and maybe their examples deserve to be better remembered. 

Clem Edwards represented East Glamorgan, a constituency centred upon Pontypridd. Historians of the labour movement might recall his name as one of the lawyers who defended the union in the Taff Vale Railway dispute, and as the representative of the miners in the enquiry into the Senghennydd disaster. Like almost every Welsh Liberal MP he was vocal in his support for the war effort on the outbreak of hostilities and, as many other MPs did, he extolled the contribution of young men from his patch. Appealing to local pride, he declared that East Glamorgan was sure to have the highest recruitment rate of any constituency.

Pride in the local recruits was also a staple of C. B. Stanton’s rhetoric post-1914, though his path to the Commons was more unforeseen than most. He had previously been notorious as a fire-breathing radical, imprisoned for six months in 1893 for firing a revolver at police during a miners’ strike. He was uncompromising in his denunciations of the coal-owners and their allies, and speaking in 1910 he declared that ‘he gloried in being called a firebrand’. Later that year he stood for Parliament as a Labour candidate against Clem Edwards in East Glamorgan, coming third in the poll.

However, on the outbreak of war, it was as though a switch had been flicked: Stanton immediately broke from Keir Hardie MP, leader of the Independent Labour Party (ILP), who was campaigning against the war. Stanton made speeches distancing himself from his previous socialist militancy – within a week of the start of the war he was declaring ‘I am first and foremost a Britisher’. On the death of Keir Hardie in 1915, there was a by-election for the Merthyr seat, and given the party-political truce that existed in British politics, neither the Liberals nor the Conservatives put up a candidate against Labour’s James Winstone. However, Stanton threw his hat in the ring as an independent candidate. Not publicly known at the time was the fact that his campaign was actually bankrolled by a group of high-ranking Conservatives. Although Winstone was a keen supporter of the war effort who had one son serving in France and another just volunteered, Stanton declared himself to be the ‘Patriotic candidate’ and accused his opponent of being ‘a friend of the Germans’. When the votes were counted, Stanton was the victor by a resounding majority.

Once in the Commons, C. B. Stanton joined Edwards as the most outspoken scourges of anyone whose commitment to the British war effort was considered less than total. One group that particularly aroused their ire was the pacifists – men whom Stanton declared ‘social lepers, not fit to breathe the free air of England’. For Stanton the ILP was ‘always against the country in which they live’ and was poisoning the minds of the workers. Edwards claimed that pacifist propaganda in south Wales was funded by ‘German gold’, and grumbled that some men were ‘going to the pits simply as a refuge from the recruiting sergeants’.

In the summer of 1917, Stanton described the peace campaigners of the ILP as ‘a dirty gang of snivelling hypocritical swindlers who engineer opposition to everything British’. In December 1917 Clement Edwards was again urging that pacifists be prosecuted under the Defence of the Realm Act, and boasted that he had led ‘a great patriotic campaign to show the world that the heart of the coalfield was sound’. He warned in the Commons that pacifist literature was ‘poisoning the minds of the men in the industrial districts’.

One key feature to note here is that both men were allying themselves with those whom they would previously have considered as irreconcilable enemies, and turning against their former friends and comrades. Edwards spoke up for Lionel Lindsay, the Chief Constable of Glamorgan, a man characterized by later historians as being head of ‘a Coalmaster’s Army of Occupation in south Wales’. Lindsay was energetically trying to prosecute pacifists, and Edwards complained that these moves were being blocked by those in central authority. Stanton berated the elected agent of the miners of Tower colliery as being ‘pro-German’. He declared that anyone who followed this ‘Conchy’ was ‘betraying their own flesh and blood in the trenches, and insulting the memories of our glorious dead who fell fighting for the sacred cause of Liberty and Freedom and our own Empire’s future greatness.’   

Once their logic of ‘patriotism’ had trumped any other mode of thinking, then anyone who was not with Edwards and Stanton was, de facto, against them and therefore fit to be abused.

In the ‘khaki election’ that immediately followed the Armistice, both Stanton and Edwards were re-elected to Parliament, representing the National Democratic and Labour Party. In the new Aberdare constituency, Stanton trounced the Labour candidate; Edwards chose to stand for the London seat of East Ham South, where he defeated Arthur Henderson, the previous leader of the Labour party. However, by the time of the following election in 1922 both were soundly rejected by the electorate, who backed the Labour party.

Neither were elected again to office. Clem Edwards returned to practising as a barrister in London. C. B. Stanton ran a pub in Hampstead and (according to his entry in the Oxford DNB) became a bit-part actor, appearing in many inter-war British films.

If there are lessons from this little portion of Welsh history, it is that over-indulging in talk of ‘patriotism’ can be divisive and ultimately self-defeating. Thus the defender of Union rights became a persecutor of workers who saw the folly of the war; the radical miners’ leader became a poodle for the Conservatives. ‘Traitor’ was a word that Edwards and Stanton were fond of bandying about in 1914-18: what better word could their former electors have chosen to describe them from the vantage point of Depression-era Wales?

Dr Gethin Matthews is a Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol Lecturer in the Department of History, Swansea University

16 thoughts on “The Perils of Patriotic Politicians

  1. This is an erudite and enjoyable article when it sticks to history. However, the last sentence, and the unchallenged quoting of unnamed ‘historians’ who liken the Police to an ‘army of occupation,’ say something unsurprising about the state of university history departments these days.

    On the substantive issue, a distinction needs to be made between patriotism and nationalism. Patriotism is a commendable pride in one’s native land which need not have any political implications, whereas nationalism perverts that patriotism into the basis of a collectivist political ideology. If anything we do not have enough patriotism thesw days but we have far too much nationalism.

  2. A week is a long time in politics – it can also be a long time in history. I fail to see any connection whatsoever with UKIP or the UK’s current predicament in the 21st century.

  3. JWR –
    Thanks for the compliment …
    The full quotation regarding Lionel Lindsay which I abbreviated comes from a work by Prof Sir Deian Hopkin, who was himself quoting Page Arnot’s volume, South Wales Miners. The lengthier quotation refers to Lindsay’s training as part of the British Army of Occupation in Egypt. There is no question of the honesty and courage of individual members of the constabulary – much excellent recent work has shown how many brave police officers from Glamorgan served in the First World War and gave their lives for their country. However, there is no avoiding the fact that their boss Lindsay was an authoritarian and, from the perspective of, say, a striking miner or a conscientious objector, he represented the power of the state that was ranged against them.

    Is any of this relevant to today? Well, not necessarily, but if the political rhetoric continues to be ramped up so that patriotism becomes defined as a quality to which only people from one particular camp can lay claim, then I would suggest that it is highly relevant. If you think that there are lessons to be learned from studying the past, then it is surely appropriate to consider a time of heightened political tension when appeals to patriotism by MPs became highly divisive. Those judged to be unpatriotic were vilified, and the two men I focus upon went along a pathway that led them to alienate their former allies and to work against the interests of a large number of their constituents.

  4. Dr Matthews, thank you for taking the time and trouble to respond to my comment. It was interesting to learn about Captain Lindsay’s service in Egypt. Of course, it was by no means unusual for military officers or retired officers to serve as Chief Constables well into this century, the most famous example being the unfairly maligned Sir Charles Warren. This does not mean that they applied military or colonial standards in their police work. As a professional historian, you will be aware of the dangers of folklore when discussing the policing of industrial disputes in Wales.

    You have every democratic right to suggest that the two MPs were acting against the interests of a large number of their constituents, but that is a subjective opinion rather than a professional assessment. Whatever we may think of the Great War today, the historical fact seems to be that the Liberal government was probably reflecting the subjective opinions of a strong majority of those constituents in believing that it was in the national interest to declare war on Germany in 1914 and, that decision having been made, it became in the national interest to dedicate all national resources to securing a rapid victory. It would be a wholly legitimate position to have opposed the declaration but to advocate a vigorous prosecution of the war thereafter.

  5. A very interesting and timely piece and one which deserves wider coverage. Of course, there is a clear link between the views of Stanton and Edwards and those of UKIP today. I note Mr Richards usual swipe at ‘nationalism’, whereas I would argue that democratic civic nationalism is an attractive option in today’s political climate. This is of course in marked contrast to the unpleasant British nationalism preached by the likes of UKIP.

  6. @Mr Richards,

    Your distinction is essentially bogus. The ‘nationalisr’/’patriot’ divide is the same as the ‘terrorist’/’freedom fighter’ one; which term you use depends on your own preconceived position. And so it is that people who have the effrontery to dare to go further than the Millenium Stadium face-paint school in asserting their nation’s rights and identity can be dismissed as ‘nationalists’ (with, of course, appropriate innuendos regarding Le Pen (or perhaps – given that two generations of that family have been at it – that should read Les Pens), Orbán, Erdoğan, Putin and even Hitler), whereas there are of course no such creatures as British nationalists, even those whose Twitter avatars feature the Union Flag, a poppy and possibly a picture of that nice Mr Farrago; instead, they are ‘patriotic’ and so beyond reproach.

    What Dr Matthews is describing here is, of course, the latter; an officially-approved atmosphere of rah-rah and Jack-waving jingoism. Which is always going to play well in a nation which has been invaded, occupied, assimilated, deracinated and told time and again from a variety of angles (mostly obtuse) that it is a barely-tolerated ‘region’ of ‘the nation’. It was what killed Keir Hardie when his attempts to encourage the miners and metal-workers of the Valleys not to volunteer to fight the English ruling class’ colonial war were met with being drowned out by those horny-handed internationaist and socialist sons of toil singing Rule Britannia and Land Of Hope And Glory.

    Couldn’t happen today, of course…

  7. Nigel, your own analogy destroys your argument. The difference between a terrorist and a freedom fighter is not defined by one’s perception of his cause but by the nature of his methods. A terrorist is one who uses terror, that is to say he uses violence to promote a climate of fear in order to achieve his political objectives, rather than using violence to achieve strategic objectives directly. He is not exempted from the laws of war if his cause is perceived as ‘good’ or if he is working for a recognised state.

    In exactly the same way, the difference between a patriot and a nationalist is not defined by his inner feelings about his nation but by the methods by which he expresses those feelings.

    The basic question at the heart of all politics is the balance of power between the collective and the freedom of the individual. That question is the same whether you consider yourself British, Welsh, British and Welsh, English, or Mongolian. Everything else is window dressing.

    Sometimes those on the collectivist side like to dress up in patriotic colours. Thus, contemporary Welsh nationalism is basically socialism by other means.

    However, for most people most of the time, national identity is a matter of sentimental attachment, separate from this basic question of the relationship between collectivism and freedom. Liberals are still liberals and socialists are still socialists, whether their sentimental attachment is to the Red Dragon or the Union Banner or both.

    The minority for whom nationality is the basis of collective ideology really do not understand the majority in this respect. Most voters now take a ruthlessly consumerist attitude to their political choices, leaving national sentiment at the door of the polling station.

  8. @ John Winterson Richards
    “Most voters now take a ruthlessly consumerist attitude to their political choices, leaving national sentiment at the door of the polling station.”
    Try telling that to the patriots that voted for Brexit.

  9. CapM, those ‘Remainers’ who are still attributing their defeat to a surge of nationalist sentiment are demonstrating the disconnection from public feeling that was the real reason they lost.

    What they find it difficult to accept psychologically is that the reasonable, pragmatic, moderate middle ground swung against them during the course of the campaign because of that disconnection.

  10. @John Winterson Richards
    We clearly discussed the referendum choice with a very different set of leave voters and continue to do so.
    I wouldn’t describe myself as psychologically impaired post referendum however I have a concern that this reasonable, moderate middle ground you refer to has been planted with the seeds of delusion that Brexit fans have been told, and many believe will yield a crop of Victorian proportions,

  11. CapM, what is often ignored is that the crucial swing vote consisted largely of people who had supported, or at least accepted, the EU in the past and who could have been persuaded to vote ‘Remain’ until a very late stage if only their concerns had been treated with respect.

    Happily, the ‘Remain’ campaign believed their own caricatures, that all ‘Leavers’ were mini-Farages with Union Jack waistcoats and pet bulldogs, and offended people they might have won over.

    The delusion here is their continuing failure to come to terms with exactly why they lost.

  12. @John Winterson Richards
    You’ve stated in your last three comments
    1. “Most voters now take a ruthlessly consumerist attitude to their political choices, leaving national sentiment at the door of the polling station.”
    2. “disconnection from public feeling that was the real reason … the reasonable, pragmatic, moderate middle ground swung against them during the course of the campaign because of that disconnection.”
    3. “the crucial swing vote consisted largely of people who had supported, or at least accepted, the EU in the past….who could have been persuaded to vote ‘Remain’ if only their concerns had been treated with respect.. ”
    It’s beginning to look a bit like a Pick’n’Mix counter
    1. Those would just as likely be Remain voters don’t you think, perhaps even more likely.
    2. Again being hacked off by politicians is hardy something Leavers can claim to have a monopoly on.
    3. Surely these people would want their concerns addressed not just given respect from those you’ve pointed out they feel disconnected with.

    “offended people they might have won over. ”
    This looks like getting the excuse in early and when Brexit bites the narrative pushed by jaded Brexiters will be the Remain side was at fault, they didn’t do their job properly , heck they were so crass that they “offended people they might have won over”.

  13. CapM, there is of course, absolutely no contradiction between the three comments. The swing vote is always pragmatic and consumerist rather than ideological, and in this case it swung behind ‘Leave’ because it did not like what ‘Remain’ was selling.

    You are right that many who voted ‘Remain’ also feel disconnected – and many of them would have voted ‘Leave’ if they had not been frightened by ‘Project Fear.’

    There is no need for the winning side to make excuses. Britain made the right decision on 23 June, end of story. That said, you must not forget that many who voted ‘Leave’ did so with regret, because they were the very people who had argued or voted for the EU in previous times and were genuinely disappointed that it had not developed as they had hoped. In the end they were simply sick of calling for reform and being ignored.

    There might be an important lesson there for other organisations.

  14. JWR is so right again. Just look at the rsponses fom the left and out of touch politicos. Ukip is not racist i have met many people who support them. I have yet to meet the rabid fascists the left like to suggest supporters are. I have met many in theother parties who would easily qualify.

  15. @John Winterson Richards
    I didn’t say your three explanations for the Leave vote were contradictory. I pointed out that you had identified three different explanations. I also pointed out that two of those explanations apply to Remain voters also.
    You’ve now added another item to the pick and mix – ex fans of the EU – “that many who voted ‘Leave’ did so with regret, because they were the very people who had argued or voted for the EU in previous times and were genuinely disappointed that it had not developed as they had hoped”
    So British nationalism ranks at best fourth, fifth if you accept immigration was an issue, in your order of motivations for those who voted Leave.
    As I said to you before we clearly met with very different sets of Leave voters.

Comments are closed.

Also within Politics and Policy