As part of the ‘Aneurin Bevan and Wales’ series, Nye Davies analyses Bevan’s 1947 article ‘The Claim of Wales’ 70 years on from its publication
Wales in Bevan’s thought
It has generally been considered that Bevan was either against or at best ambivalent towards devolution and that “the claim of Wales”, as he termed it, did not feature heavily in his political thought. Whilst it is not accurate to say Bevan was against devolution and/or the idea of Welsh nationhood/identity, a read of his 1947 article in the journal Wales certainly displays the lack of a concrete solution to the issue of Welsh devolution in his thinking.
Bevan had promised to write an article for the journal on the government’s attitude towards “Welsh devolution, policies and cultural problems” but due to the Fuel Crisis, he wrote a message to the editor saying that things were “so hectic” that he could not do better than provide an article that he had written for Tribune.
The article itself (available here through the National Library of Wales) is a reaffirmation of Bevan’s views but does not offer concrete solutions and practical steps for allaying the concerns of Welsh politicians pressing for devolution to Wales.
A distinct nation?
Bevan began by acknowledging the distinctive language and culture of Wales, writing that “People from other parts of the country are surprised when they visit Wales to find how many Welsh people still speak Welsh, and how strong and even passionate, is the love of the Welsh for their country, their culture, and their unique institutions”.
He praised this distinctive Welsh culture as it counteracted “the appalling tendency of the times towards standardisation, regimentation and universal greyness…We should lose touch with much that helps now to adorn our world if the super-state were allowed to obliterate all the differences which people have from each other”.
However, Bevan argued that economic and industrial matters which affect the UK generally should not be separated from their UK-context. Referring to the Welsh Day debates in Parliament that had begun in 1944, Bevan argued that “Consideration for specific Welsh questions was inevitably overlaid by the intrusion of subjects which are common to England and Scotland”. He claimed that industries such as coal and steel and State factories were issues relevant to the whole of the UK not just Wales.
Other questions relating to Wales, such as language and culture, should be considered and taken account of outside Parliament. He suggested that “Wales should hit on a more effective constitutional device for enabling Welsh life to be articulated on a national level”. He did not expand on what this would look like, but he did argue that it should not be through a Secretary of State for Wales.
Instead of attempting to suggest what this device could be, Bevan returned to his earlier points, reiterating his belief that Wales did have a unique identity which should be taken account of:
“she has a language of her own, and an art and a culture, and an educational system and an excitement for things of the mind and spirit, which are wholly different from England and English ways. It is in the commonality of this difference that Wales has a claim for special recognition and where she should seek new forms of national life.”
Bevan and power
Bevan’s attitude stems from his conception of power and his belief that there was a need to capture power for the working class through collective action via the state. Perhaps he was worried that devolution would damage the unity of the workers in Britain and be a hindrance to this type of collective action.
However, Bevan also stressed the importance of giving power back to the people (“the purpose of getting power is to be able to give it away”). Bevan’s acknowledgement of the need to value difference and the unique culture of Wales and its people is in keeping with a significant objective of his political thought which was to enrich the life of the individual.
If Wales was looking for a coherent and comprehensive statement on the government’s position on Wales and devolution, I’m not sure they would have been completely satisfied with Bevan’s response! But his article and the views he put forward are consistent with what he had stated previously.
Despite Bevan eventually being won over to the idea of a Secretary of State for Wales later in his career (see Kenneth O Morgan’s The Red Dragon and the Red Flag), Bevan’s article helps articulate the place of Wales within his political thought. It also demonstrates his regard for the importance of the culture, language and unique identity of Wales. However, giving recognition to that difference in a constitutional form was something that Bevan was not able to formulate clearly.