Review: Whose Wales? argues that it was Labour – not Plaid Cymru – who drove Welsh devolution
For anyone interested in Welsh politics, or indeed even a passing interest, Whose Wales?: The battle for Welsh devolution and nationhood 1880-2020 by Gwynoro Jones and Alun Gibbard is a must read.
Devolution and the Senedd is now a part of everyday life in Wales. However, reading the first chapters readers might be surprised to learn that as democracy developed during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Wales was all but ignored – with very few exceptions.
Much of the political history of Wales, especially of the twentieth century, has invariably addressed the social and political issues of industrial Wales, concentrating on the growth of socialism, trades unions and the Labour Party. However, during the late eighteenth and much of the twentieth, what is interesting is the extent to which Home Rule became and remained an issue, albeit varying in interest and support over time, but never quite going away.
The various movements and individuals involved makes for interesting reading, not least the extent to which Home Rule was – on and off – an issue for leading members of the Labour Party
For those interested in the accidents of history one section is particularly revealing. Lady Megan Lloyd George, the sitting M P for Carmarthen in 1966, was known to be seriously ill. Nevertheless, the party decided to allow her to remain the party’s candidate for the 1966 general election. Her death a little while later led to the now-famous Carmarthen by-election.
And here is another twist; the local Labour Party chose the (relatively) weak and unknown Gwilym Prys Davies as candidate instead of the popular son of Cynwyl Elfed Denzil Davies. Whilst not explicit, the narrative suggests that if the latter had been the candidate, the result would have been very different and so too perhaps the history of Wales.
One consequence of that Carmarthen result was that many members of the Labour Party who favoured some form of Home Rule were regarded with suspicion by many other Labour Party members. These tensions were to come to the fore during the 1979 referendum.
Understandably Jones (who defeated Gwynfor Evans to retake Carmarthen for Labour in 1970) spends some time describing the febrile atmosphere in Carmarthen and the bad blood of the 1970 and 1974 elections in what he calls the “Carmarthen Cauldron.”
Gwynfor Evans – in Jones’ telling – was anything but the great man and did less work than his party’s propaganda suggested. There was palpable dislike, even hatred between the local parties especially after the by-election through the seventies and even into the eighties, with Plaid Cymru describing Gwynfor Evans as “the member for Wales” – which he clearly wasn’t.
Whether intentionally or not, the book makes a very strong case that devolution and the growth of Welsh democracy were driven not by Plaid Cymru, but by the Labour Party. A strong case is made that it was Labour that carried the flag of Home Rule long before the Carmarthen by-election and the (limited) growth of Plaid Cymru before and indeed since.
An interesting insight presented by the book is that Plaid Cymru it seems has never actually been in favour of independence; moving between accepting very limited devolved power to Home Rule and Dominion Status.
In many ways, there is a sting here. Those of us working for Plaid Cymru then and after believed that the party’s leadership really was committed to independence, but although the party produced various materials (I recall a leaflet on Dominion Status for Wales in the late 60s) the drive for independence was in practice not taken particularly seriously.
Although the book makes a fascinating read as to how we got here, it also provides an interesting insight into devolution today. In discussing the 1997 referendum, Jones points out that it was the late John Smith who was the driving force behind Labour’s commitment to devolution and that Tony Blair was unenthusiastic. This commitment and subsequent acceptance of the principle of devolution was perhaps the final step on the long tradition of Labour Party support for Home Rule.
The book concludes with a look to the future – it ends with two well-argued articles, although each coming from a different direction. David Melding sees a UK federal future with significant devolution. The other by Glyndwr Cennydd Jones takes the idea even further, arguing for confederation, as close as possible but just short of independence.
Devolution and the democracy it represents is here to stay. Whether powers suggested by these two writers will come about or indeed whether this will be enough for the growing independence movement remains to be seen. But that’s another book, maybe.