The Union Left Behind

The loss of Ireland to the United Kingdom was brushed aside by British public opinion, much as had been the loss of America a century and a half before. It was as if the issue had become boring. The question of Irish home rule had so towered over politics for decades that once it was answered the debate seemed over. Hamlet had lost its prince.

Home rule now went into decline, or at least was confined to addicts. During the surge in interest in the late 1800s, a Scottish Home Rule Association had been founded in 1886 by two future leaders of the Labour movement, Ramsay MacDonald and Keir Hardie. Its declared purpose was to ‘secure a Scottish legislature for purely Scottish matters, maintain Scotland’s position within the Imperial Parliament and foster national sentiment’. To MacDonald, ‘the Anglification of Scotland has been proceeding apace, to the damage of its education, its music, its literature, its genius … uprooted from its past’. These fine words saw little action.

The same largely applied in Wales. Twenty-nine of its thirty-three Welsh MPs, formally Liberals, did form a Welsh sub-party within the parliamentary Liberal Party. They had an articulate leader in Tom Ellis and included among their number a youthful Caernarvon MP, David Lloyd George. Ellis was strident in supporting the Irish cause. ‘The interests of Irishmen, Welshmen and Crofters [sic] are almost identical,’ he said. ‘Their past history is very similar and their present oppressors are the same.’ There was no sign of the Irish returning the compliment. One commenter complimented the Welsh for ‘rejecting political agitation and the grossest lawlessness’. But he pointed out that, when the Irish would summon a militant home rule rally, ‘in Wales they hold an eisteddfod’.

In 1881 Gladstone did concede the Welsh a much-demanded ban on Sunday drinking, and in 1883 Wales was granted universities in Cardiff, Bangor and later Aberystwyth. Three years later a Welsh Land League promoted tenancy enfranchisement on the Irish model. At the same time, a band of London Welsh formed a proto-nationalist group named Cymru Fydd (Young Wales), with home rule as its goal. Like Morganwg’s Gorsedd, its roots were expatriate and shallow.

Cymru Fydd should have occasioned, at very least, an upsurge of nationalist sentiment in Wales, but it was undermined by the old Welsh divisions. The South Wales Liberal Federation flatly refused to amalgamate with the north. When Lloyd George, a northerner, campaigned in Newport, Monmouthshire, in 1896, he was heckled by an Alderman Bird, who declared, ‘There are from Swansea to Newport thousands upon thousands of Englishmen, as true Liberals as yourselves, who will never submit to the domination of Welsh ideas.’ Lloyd George was furious, storming from Newport in disgust and devoting the rest of his career to national politics in London. Cymru Fydd collapsed within a decade.

The reality was that the left of the political spectrum, from which nationalist opinion had drawn most of its oxygen, was seeing the emergence of a new and different struggle. The conflict was between a declining Gladstonian Liberalism and forces arising from an expanded franchise and an increasingly well-organised trade union movement. Scotland’s Labour Party was founded by R. B. Cunninghame Graham and Keir Hardie in 1888, with a strong independence stance. But within seven years it had merged with the pan-British Independent Labour Party. Class identity trumped national identity.

Wales was a special case. It had in the 1880s and 90s seen the growth of the Glamorgan coalfields at a rate that bore comparison with America’s Klondike gold rush. The county became for a while the richest industrial centre in Britain, if not in Europe. Cardiff was the world’s greatest port by tonnage. Cardiff Coal Exchange, built in 1883, reputedly played host to more millionaires than anywhere in the world. Cardiff’s civic buildings erected at this time were, and still are, the finest in any British city.

The result was that Wales in the early 1900s was reputedly second only to America for net immigration. That is why Lloyd George’s heckler and his ‘thousands of English’ did not seem out of place. Such industrialisation and prosperity did not sit comfortably with the quainter rituals of traditional Welsh identity. To the historian Kenneth Morgan, this was ‘Wales’s Augustan age’, but nationalism ‘seemed to be as dead as the druids’.

What was not dead was Welsh industrial politics. Any downturn in coal prices or other disruption to trade instigated serious labour unrest, as was seen in the mines in 1898 and 1910. There were also prolonged strikes in the slate quarries of north Wales, notably at Penrhyn in 1900. Wales thus offered an early welcome to the emergent Labour Party. Hardie, MacDonald and Arthur Henderson all deserted Scottish politics to find safe parliamentary seats in south Wales. When elected for Merthyr Tydfil in 1900, Hardie declared himself for ‘the Red Dragon and the Red Flag’. It is a measure of the shift in Glamorgan’s demography that he distributed his election literature in English.

What these newcomers did not do was identify as specifically Welsh. They had no trouble adapting to the Welsh passion for music, Nonconformity and the Labour Party, but they felt no obligation to learn the Welsh language, nor were they infused with any desire for Welsh independence. Labour did later flirt with home rule in its 1918 election manifesto, when Henderson as party general secretary wrote an article supporting ‘home rule all round’. But political reality held that a divided Britain was not in the interest of working-class solidarity. John Davies noted that Labour’s ‘role was to consolidate the process of integrating the Welsh into the British system’. In this respect it was as unionist ideologically as were the Tories.

Home rule in abeyance

The lesson of 1918–21 in Ireland was not entirely ignored. In 1918 a group of pragmatic Tory MPs professed themselves ‘deeply impressed by the need for a far-reaching system of federal devolution for the United Kingdom’. The declaration of Irish independence in 1921 raised the cause of Scottish home rule but from an insignificant base. A Scottish National League was founded by a romantic aristocrat with a love of Gaelic, Ruaraidh (Rory) Erskine of Marr (1869–1960). This mutated into the Scottish National Party in 1934, with its initial presidents the Duke of Montrose and Cunninghame Graham. The cause was chiefly ensconced in the minds of romantics such as the Lallans poet Hugh MacDiarmid. He wrote grandly that ‘He canna Scotland see wha yet/ canna see the Infinite,/ And Scotland in true scale to it’. The novelist MP John Buchan told the Commons in 1932 that ‘every Scotsman should be a nationalist’, but he acknowledged that this amounted to ‘a desire that Scotland shall not lose her historic personality’. As for Wales, an attempt in 1922 to hold a conference on Welsh devolution – in Shrewsbury – failed utterly. Glamorgan refused to send even one delegate.

Welsh and Scottish radicalism now went in one direction, into the rise of Labour. Here the dominant issue of the day was the industrial struggle of miners, railwaymen and dockers, drawing its strength from collectivity, from acting together across national boundaries. After initial ideological conflicts, discipline in the Labour Party was strong. Just as trade union power depended on unity, so did that of the party. It had little time for borders or the inherent divisiveness of nationalists.

On entering Downing Street as prime minister, first in 1924 and again in 1929, Ramsay MacDonald made no move to honour his earlier enthusiasm for Scottish home rule. Lloyd George’s successor as hero of Welsh politics, Aneurin Bevan, was equally emphatic. According to his biographer ‘any form of devolution would draw Wales away from the mainstream of British politics … and be a blow to the unity of the British working class’.

Trade union solidarity led to widespread industrial turbulence culminating in the General Strike of 1926, for which support was particularly solid in South Wales. World coal prices collapsed and mining unemployment went from 1.8 per cent in 1924 to 28 per cent a year after the strike. The subsequent Great Depression (1929–32) hit Glamorgan hardest, as it was by then almost wholly dependent on coal, new reserves of which were opening up across Europe and America. Even with economic recovery, the Welsh jobless rate rose to a devastating 43 per cent. In the 1920s and 1930s, for the first time Wales’s population fell as some 400,000 people emigrated. The Klondike days were over.

The emotional impact of the Depression on Wales was intense, etched deeper into the recollections of my Welsh grandparents than its impact on industrial Yorkshire or Lancashire. One preacher described Wales as covered by ‘the ashes of Vesuvius’. In addition, Wales found someone to blame, the ancient foe, the English and English capitalism. This in turn drove local politicians to the demolition of Europe’s most dramatic industrial architecture, that of the Merthyr valley. Yet even this did not stir the flames of nationalism. They rather stoked an adamant anti-Toryism. Labour’s sixteen Glamorgan valley seats were to remain its most solid anywhere in Britain.

What sort of nationalisation?

The first majority Labour government that took office in 1945 was unlikely to champion devolution of any sort. Its vision of welfare socialism was that of a centralised state administering services through public corporations without local variation. The concept of what would today be called a postcode lottery was to be the scourge of British localism down to the present day. Measures not just for welfare but for all forms of public service had to be uniform across the union. The language was not that of socialisation but of ‘nationalisation’, and the nation was one Britain.

The 1945 government was the most emphatically unionist ever seen. Edward I would have been proud to see the English empire reborn. Labour’s manifesto had deplored any concession to ‘sectional interest’. The historian David Edgerton describes a regime enveloping every public service and institution – the ‘commanding heights of the economy’ – in a state ownership that would eventually embrace mines, railways, docks, hospitals, airlines, shipbuilding, oil, cars and even computer manufacture. To Bevan in 1951 a one-nation Britain had assumed ‘the moral leadership of the world’, and as such was the ‘only one hope for mankind’. When a suggestion was made for a minister for Welsh affairs, Bevan called it ‘escapism’ and Attlee’s chancellor, Stafford Cripps, was adamant that, even if just from ‘the point of view of efficiency … it would be wrong’. Churchill later agreed, putting Welsh affairs under the Home Office.

County and county borough councils were the only tier of democratic government allowed to the Welsh or Scots. Secretaries of state appointed for Scotland (in 1885) and Wales (in 1965) did offer a nod towards Edinburgh and Cardiff, but their offices were firmly in Whitehall under the eye of the Treasury. Nationalism was tossed the occasional sop, a Welsh television channel or sports grant. The chief burden on English ministers allotted to Wales was having to learn – and sing – the Welsh national anthem.

British politics focused on Westminster was everywhere based on centrally organised parties. Their members were subject to national party discipline and received party patronage accordingly. Tory, Liberal and Labour parties contested virtually all Welsh and Scottish constituencies. While the Conservative Party was explicitly ‘unionist’, Labour was effectively so, if only through deriving much of its parliamentary strength from its Scottish and Welsh MPs. Scots ministers were prominent in both Tory and Labour cabinets.

Only Northern Ireland remained unchanged – and strangely unmentioned in British constitutional discussions. Stormont was detached from Westminster and highly federal in its remit. Local politics remained entrenched in the old religious divides. Attempts to form a Northern Irish Labour Party were abandoned in 1987. Domestic affairs were for Belfast to decide. No one thought it odd that Scotland and Wales were not entitled to follow suit. Nor was there any sign of a bond between the Scots and Welsh with Northern Ireland on the possible fashioning of a federal agenda.

Language was the one political issue grasped, at least by Welsh nationalists, as the most obvious token of identity in the absence of political devolution. Across Europe rural depopulation was driving minority languages to extinction, with Sami, Frisian, Tatar and Ruthenian among others confined to ever more isolated communities. Of British languages, Irish had by the 1950s dwindled to the Aran Islands and a few western villages heavily subsidised by the government. Scots Gaelic survived among similar groups of islanders in the Hebrides. Cornish was long gone, while the last Manx speaker died in 1974. Only in Wales did the flame of language still flicker as a political issue.

As we have seen, it had survived principally on the prosperity and continuity of Welsh rural communities. By 1926 the proportion of the population claiming to be Welsh-speaking had fallen to a third, increasingly confined to the west and north. But this decline had stirred a minor nationalist revival in 1925. The initiators were a minister and language activist, Lewis Valentine, and a Liverpool-born writer, Saunders Lewis, who together founded a new party called Plaid Cymru.

The Welsh title was intended to focus on the Welsh language not just for its own sake but as a weapon against English ‘dominion’. This was a risk. Lewis declared that language was ‘the only political question deserving of a Welshman’s attention’ and was ‘alone consistent with the aims and philosophy of Welsh nationalism’. This was greeted with hostility from non-Welsh speakers, who did not like the implication that they were not really Welsh, or that language was their only weapon against Englishness. This especially applied to the English-speakers of Glamorgan.

Valentine stood for Caernarvon at the 1929 election but failed to secure even 2 per cent of the vote. Saunders Lewis had little concern for politics, rather with ‘taking away from the Welsh their sense of inferiority – to remove from our beloved country the mark and shame of conquest’. Lewis was not ideal for this task. A Catholic convert and early fan of Hitler, he spent much of his time demanding to be allowed to speak Welsh on the BBC.

As for enforcing Welsh in schools, Lewis confronted the same problem as had O’Connell in nineteenth-century Ireland. Among rural working-class communities, not to speak English was a barrier to advancement. By imitating the Irish Gaelic League and making language – a difficult language – an obsessive symbol of identity, Plaid Cymru distracted attention from the issue of devolution generally. The party was regularly bought off with grants to Welsh-speaking projects, while the firm hand of Whitehall became ever more dominant in Welsh national government.

Even Wales’s writers seemed unmoved. Its finest twentiethcentury poets, Dylan Thomas and R. S. Thomas, were devoid of nationalist romanticism. Both wrote in English. Dylan Thomas’s sympathetic account of Under Milk Wood was of a charming but trapped and introverted people. ‘As for the land of my fathers,’ he added, ‘my fathers can keep it.’ To R. S. Thomas, who served as a village vicar in north Wales, ‘There is no present in Wales,/ And no future:/ Only the past,/ Brittle with relics … an impotent people,/ Sick with inbreeding,/ Worrying the carcase of an old song.’ It was a savage image of an ailing nation.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.org. Thank you!