1960s >> 1968 >> no-765-may-1968

Welsh Nationalism

Plaid Cymru—the Party of Wales—was set up in 1925 but only in the last decade or so has it become a real political force. Its basic aim is that Wales should be an independent state within the British Commonwealth. It also has a programme of vote-catching reforms ranging from “workers control” to pensions tied to the cost-of-living index. The general character of Plaid Cymru is well epitomised by the man who has been its President for over twenty years, Gwynfor Evans, recently elected MP for Carmarthen. Evans, Welsh-speaking, is a Congregationalist and a pacifist.

Wales is overwhelming anti-Tory. The great majority of Welsh people in elections vote for one or other of the radical parties—Labour, Liberal or Plaid Cymru. The reasons for this are to be found in Welsh history. Wales was joined with England in 1536. As a result of the deliberate policy of the Tudors the Welsh privileged class became English-speaking landlords with Welsh-speaking tenants. In the 18th and 19th centuries Wales, then more or less pagan, went through a religious revival. The significance of such revivals at the dawn of industrial capitalism is now well known. Protestant sects, especially Methodism served to break new workers into the ways of capitalism by encouraging hard, sustained work. Thus a further difference developed between the landlords and their tenants. Not only, did they speak different languages but they were now of different religions. The landlords were Anglicans, their tenants non-conformists. Most of the capitalists in the South—steelmasters and colliery-owners— were also non-conformists. In fact they, backed by their workers, played a prominent part in the campaign for the first Reform bill in 1832. The landowning families were of course Tories while the capitalists, tenant farmers and workers tended to support the radical wing of what was to become the Liberal Party.

In 1847 a Commission inquiring into education in Wales reported. Its report attacked Welsh as a barbaric language and implied that the sooner it disappeared the better. This incident known as the Treason of the Blue Books triggered off a wave of protest and greatly contributed to a growth in nationalist feeling amongst the Welsh-speaking middle class. Some talked of independence, most of Home Rule. In the election that followed the passing of the second Reform Act in 1867 the Liberals emerged as the dominant party in Wales. They particularly demanded disestablishment of the Church, as in Wales the majority non-conformists had to pay tithes to the minority Anglicans. The Liberal Party as a whole was too scared to call for disestablishment in England but eventually backed this for Wales. Parnell’s Irish Party, composed of Irish MP’s at Westminster, was admired by many Welsh radicals and there was talk of a Welsh Party too. Cymru Fydd (Young Wales) with which Lloyd George was associated, favoured Home Rule for Wales and the revival of the Welsh language and also supported tenant farmers against their landlords in riots, boycotts, rent and the tithe strikes. But by this time the capitalists who dominated the South Wales Liberal Federation were becoming conservative and it was they who finally came to dominate the Welsh Liberals.

In the 1906 election not a single Tory was returned for Wales. All were either Liberals or Lib-Labs from the mining areas. After trouble at the turn of the century when local councils refused to subsidise Church schools from the rates the Liberals agreed to disestablishment but this was delayed by the war and was not carried out till 1918. This ended the religious issue but the stigma of supporting a “foreign” church stuck to the Tories so that in Wales it was the Liberals who became the conservative opponents of the rising Labour Party (though between the wars the Welsh Liberal Party was not much more than the personal political machine of Lloyd George). Labour, by winning the industrial areas of the South, became the dominant party in Wales soon after the first world war. Since the last war they have won over the rest of Wales so that now the Liberals have only one seat there.

Carmarthen, which Labour won from the Liberals in 1957, fell to Plaid Cymru in 1966. In March last year in Rhonnda West, a traditionally Red mining area, Plaid Cymru came second with 10,000 votes, getting two out of every five votes cast. Are these just freak by-election results? Or is this the beginning of a process in which Plaid Cymru will replace Labour as the radical party in Wales just as Labour once replaced the Liberals? It is difficult to say at the moment. At the last General Election there was no real swing to the Nationalists. Since then, however, Labour administration. of capitalism has disillusioned many workers and the election of a nationalist MP is a breakthrough that may convince many more that Plaid Cymru could succeed. The Plaid has pursued the policy of building up its strength from the grass-roots, through local elections. Local politics in much of Wales is non-party so Plaid Cymru candidates stand and sit, like Gwynfor Evans on Carmarthen County Council, as independents. Although they have had no success in Cardiff and Swansea (where the Tories are well-organised) it is significant that in the mining valleys (where Tories and Liberals are unknown) it is Plaid Cymru that has emerged as the main opposition to Labour. Workers in these areas have begun to tire of years of unchallenged Labour rule which has turned the local Labour parties into mere machines for selecting councillors. Plaid Cymru already has its own councillors in the Rhondda and Merthyr.

If Plaid Cymru were to become the major party in Wales this would cause a problem for the capitalist class of Britain. They would be faced with the choice of breaking-up the United Kingdom (economic madness as far as they are concerned) or of accepting the consequences of refusing the demand for an independent Wales. But that is their problem. Socialists are concerned about workers in Wales. How would a “free” Wales affect them? Would it be in their interests? As elsewhere it is those who have to sell their mental and physical energies for a wage or salary who make up the great majority of people in Wales. It is for their votes that the various parties compete. Plaid Cymru has to convince workers that their problems arise from the political link of Wales with England and that a break would help solve them. They particularly play up the fact that Wales is radical while England is Tory. That political association with England is the cause of working class problems in Wales is completely false. Working class problems in all lands—and they are basically the same everywhere—arise from the fact that the means of life belong to a privileged few. Their roots are in the social rather than the political set-up. A new state would no more solve them than a change of government or Prime Minister. A social revolution, necessarily world-wide (as capitalism itself is), is what is needed. This is why the Socialist Party of Great Britain opposes Plaid Cymru.

Nevertheless, in the context of reform politics Plaid Cymru is having some success, and why not? Look at the trivial explanations offered for working class problems by the rival parties. The Tories say it is because Labour is doctrinaire and incompetent. Labour says it’s Tory callousness and misrule. The Liberals say the two big parties ignore the needs of ordinary people. So why cannot Plaid Cymru get on by blaming “English government” and the “English parties”? Whether workers in Wales vote for the Plaid because they really believe in independence for Wales or because they fed that this is the best way to air their grievances is debatable. Probably the latter, for while it is true that the decline of the Welsh language seems to have been halted there is still no sign of what nationalists would call a national consciousness. What may well happen is that as Plaid Cymru grows the other parties, and especially Labour, will make concessions: equal status for the Welsh language leading perhaps to Home Rule on the lines of Northern Ireland. This would be of no use to the working class and would give Plaid Cymru an alibi for failure. It would allow them to argue that the radical, reforming Regional government of Wales failed (as it must) not because capitalism can not be run in the interests of workers, as Socialists say, but because independence was not complete. In fact the worst fate that could befall Plaid Cymru would be to have to govern a “free” Wales. Then they would find that do matter how sincere or radical their intentions this made no difference. They would have to face the fact that capitalism (for this system would continue after independence) runs on profit and cannot be made to work in the interests of all. They would find that the problems they promised to solve did not arise, as they claimed, from the link, with England or from a conservative England holding back a radical Wales. At least that would be a useful lesson. But how much better would it be were workers to heed what Socialists say now and so avoid finding out the hard way. And independent Wales would not help solve their problems. What we must do for this is to take joint action with workers of other lands to make the means of life the property of a world community, with an end to frontiers and national states.

Adam Buick (Newbridge, Mon.)