With its bright yellow cover and unassuming image of a chapel – named Bethesda, of course – amidst a Welsh town, you could be forgiven for thinking that this is as sleepy as the seaside town that forgot to shut down that Morrissey complained about in his song, Everyday is like Sunday. (The place in question was Borth in Ceredigion.) And for those without the means of reading Welsh, the text is quite likely to pass you by, which is a shame. For this is the most important book yet written about Plaid Cymru and the only one published in recent years which, in my view, has much intellectual depth to it – Richard Wyn Jones’s slim The Fascist Party of Wales? aside. In tackling the ideological shifts of the Welsh nationalist party, Wyn Jones sets out to explain its very clear transformation from a party dominated by figures from the right to one led from the left. It’s worth adding that the book was written prior to the ascension of Leanne Wood but that confirms rather than confounds the trajectory established in these pages.
With its echoes in Wyn Jones’s chapter on Gwynfor Evans’s political thought, first published in the journal Efrydiau Athronyddol (Philosophical Studies) in 2000, this is the first part of what was originally conceived of as a two volume work and comprises linear studies of the ideological changes within the three major periods of Plaid Cymru’s development from its foundation in 1925. Each era is identified with a particular leader: Saunders Lewis (1925-1945), Gwynfor Evans (1945-1970s). and Dafydd Elis Thomas and Dafydd Wigley (1970s onwards). These roughly coincide with predominantly conservative, liberal, and social democratic, pro-European phases of nationalist ideology in Wales. In the case of Dafydd Elis Thomas one might almost be tempted to suggest there was a third-and-a-half phase since in his period of emergence in the 1970s, he courted the post-1968 new left and spoke in terms of liberation for sexual minorities, racial minorities, and women, as well as the usual Plaid Cymru narrative of political and economic self-determination. As uncomfortable as it might be for the present Plaid Cymru leadership, without Dafydd Elis Thomas and the changes he and those who accompanied him brought to the party there would be no real room for them in a post-Gwynfor, quasi Liberal political party. And without those reforms, I cannot imagine the women’s liberation movement in Cardiff insisting, as they did in 1979, that their members should vote Plaid Cymru. Although it was only temporary because by 1983, Thatcherism had pushed them back into the Labour fold!
Making these phases of development overt from the outset is one of the most important features of this book, for it places in clear context the attempt by Gwynfor Evans to effectively ‘turn the page’ on the period of Saunders Lewis’s leadership and to re-establish Plaid Cymru as an heir to the Lloyd George mantle of radical liberal-nationalism. It can be no surprise that, in his career as a politician, he sought to win a seat in parliament first in North West Wales, in traditional Lloyd George territory, and then successfully in Carmarthenshire where he took over the seat held by Megan Lloyd George (far more of an heir to David Lloyd George than her brother, Gwilym, albeit that he reached the heights of the Home Office). That act of ‘turning the page’ meant greater acceptance of the ideas of DJ and Noëlle Davies, which had certainly been a current of inter-war Welsh nationalist thought but not the current, which was dominated primarily by Saunders Lewis and his crew. This process continues today, particularly amongst a particular generation of writers on Plaid Cymru’s history. It is quite understandable – and thanks to Rhys Evans’s biography, we know now rather more about the difficult relationship between Gwynfor Evans and Saunders Lewis that contextualises this process – that the often politically dodgy instincts of cultural conservatives like Lewis should be sidelined in favour the far more palatable Davieses and Gwynfor Evans, but we are also reminded that the Labour Party has long learned to accept that it was once home to Oswald Mosley.
Much is often made of Gwynfor Evans’s victory in the Carmarthen by-election in 1966 on the sudden surge in support for Welsh nationalism in the late-1960s and 1970s, although I’m a sceptic of its long term political significance compared with the transformations that were taking place further east. It was, after all, in Merthyr Tydfil and the Rhymney Valley that Plaid Cymru gained their first chance to run a local authority and the practical experience that flowed from that. Dafydd Wigley was first a councillor in … yep, Merthyr Tydfil. (He worked for Hoover.) And it was in the Cardiff constituency branches that many of the motions that pushed Plaid Cymru towards campaigning for gay rights, women’s liberation, and racial equality, and to a better understanding of class politics. In a sense, the final chapter of this book is called ‘the two Dafydds’ but it could also be called ‘capturing the South’ since it’s really about the surge in influence of the South Wales Coalfield, with all of its labour (and Labour) radicalism, on the upper echelons of the nationalist party.
Some ten years after it was first published, and this is a point raised in some reviews of the book at that time, there is surely a need to see this translated into English to enable those audiences who do not read Welsh to engage with the ideas presented. Nevertheless it is a testament to the readability of the Wyn Jones’s prose that those who are not fluent Welsh speakers can engage properly with it. It also stands to reason that this book should prompt – eventually – a comparable volume on the political ideas of the Labour Party in the twentieth century (a companion to Martin Wright’s recent book). Not that Wyn Jones is necessarily the person to undertake such a challenge, for his sympathies do not lie there, nor is it one that I would lay at his office door! This need is all the more apparent for Sam Blaxland’s work on the Conservative Party in Wales, when it emerges as a book, will provide a balance from the right and Russell Deacon’s writing provides some form of intellectual anchoring for the Liberal Party. This is a book, if I may conclude in these terms, that makes me think more carefully about my own perspective on twentieth-century Welsh politics, even as it makes me more certain!