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

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