Bevan and Wales

Bevan and the ‘Welsh-speaking, Welsh-writing zealots’

Bevan and Wales

The final entry of the year into the Bevan and Wales series was supposed to be a summary of the different aspects of Bevan’s attitudes towards Wales, Welsh identity, the Welsh language and devolution. In fact, the series itself was originally only going to be a year-long one to commemorate 120 years since Bevan’s birth and 20 years since the referendum on devolution. However, two reasons have meant that this post won’t be the last.

Firstly, trying to summarise Bevan’s attitudes over a few blog posts is not sufficient. I haven’t been able to be as detailed as I would have liked, confining myself to analysing Bevan’s ‘Welsh Day’ debate contribution and his article The Claim of Wales. Just analysing these separately is not adequate to reach a final conclusion on the place of Wales in Bevan’s thought.

This leads me to the second reason as to why this post will not be a summary of what has come before. Most people will have seen the Wales Online article about one person’s claimed experience with the Welsh language. Most people will have also seen the reaction to it on social media. I felt that the reference to Bevan in the article requires a detailed response.

‘Welsh-speaking, Welsh-writing zealots’

I won’t deal with the overall argument of the article and the concerns over it – I will leave it to others to speak on this issue. For the purposes of this post, I want to address the reference to Bevan. The passage referring to him is as follows:

“But what’s really happening with the expansion of the language is exclusion. In order to engage with the political system, it increasingly seems to me that you need to have both languages.

Journalist Simon Jenkins claims the most famous Ebbw Valian Nye Bevan “used to rail against rule ‘by small pockets of Welsh-speaking, Welsh-writing zealots, with the vast majority of Welshmen denied participation in the government of their country ‘.”

This is still true today.

The founder of the NHS didn’t speak Welsh, but I’m sure no one would question his Welshness.”

What this passage does is to pick someone regarded as a Welsh political hero, and use a quote from him to support the argument being made. There are particular problems with this.

Firstly, if we were to take the Bevan quote at face-value, why does quoting Bevan instantly make an argument correct? Bevan was speaking on the ‘Wales and Monmouthshire (White Paper)’ in 1946. He was arguing that there existed in Wales an English-language Welsh culture that was under threat from a focus on Welsh-speaking Wales:

“Furthermore, I have always been very proud and very jealous of Welsh culture and Welsh institutions. I would remind my hon. Friends from North Wales and Mid-Wales that the culture and cultural institutions of Wales do not belong entirely to North Wales or Mid-Wales. There exists in the English-speaking populations of Monmouthshire, Glamorganshire, and some parts of Caernarvonshire, a culture as rich and profound as that which comes from the Welsh speaking people of North Wales. There is too great a tendency to identify Welsh culture with Welsh speaking. It has been my happy lot, in more than one place, to give encouragement and help to the English speaking Welshmen, and they have made very great contributions. What some of us are afraid of is that, if this psychosis is developed too far, we shall see in some of the English speaking parts of Wales a vast majority tyrannised over by a few Welsh speaking people in Cardiganshire”.

He argued that if there was a Secretary of State for Wales, then the role would have to be given to someone who is Welsh-speaking, meaning that the civil service would also have to be run by Welsh speakers, the result being that “the whole of the Civil Service of Wales would be eventually provided from those small pockets of Welsh-speaking, Welsh-writing zealots, and the vast majority of Welshmen would be denied participation in the government of their country”.

His argument was based on an irrational fear of losing a particular English-language culture in Wales. He said he could give examples of instances where English-speaking Welsh people from Monmouthshire were denied jobs in certain administrations. This was 1946 – it would be interesting to know what institutions that dealt with the running of Welsh life existed at that time which ran such a strict language policy.

The point is that, whether Bevan was right or wrong in his statement, simply taking a quote from an historical figure is not sufficient to support an argument. Bevan was not infallible. Just because of his legacy and reputation, it does not mean he was always correct. In fact on this issue he displayed some unsubstantiated prejudice.

Counteracting ‘universal greyness’

The other issue is how focusing on this one quote, and giving the impression that this one line represents a constant, career-long railing against Welsh-speakers, completely ignores the context of everything else Bevan said about the Welsh language.

He argued the need to take account of cultural and linguistic differences. During the Welsh Day debate in 1944, Bevan acknowledged that “Wales has a special place, a special individuality, a special culture and special claims”.

In an article entitled The Claim of Wales he began by recognising 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 stated that

“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’s attitude towards the Welsh language can be seen through his critique of capitalism, which he argued held great power over society to shape interests and values. He argued that “distinctive cultures, values, and institutions should flourish as to counteract 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”. This is an important aspect of Bevan’s thought – he wanted to create a better society and empower individuals to express their distinctiveness and not to conform to the standardisation that capitalism entailed.

Developing an understanding of Bevan and Wales

Understanding the place of Wales, Welsh identity, the Welsh language and devolution in Bevan’s thought is a task which needs to go beyond a series of blogposts, requiring a systematic engagement with Bevan’s writings and speeches on Wales (for examples of this, see Robert Griffiths’ ‘The Other Aneurin Bevan’ in Planet, Daniel G Williams’ Aneurin Bevan and Paul Robeson: socialism, class and identity and Dai Smith’s chapter ‘Ashes to the wind’ in The State of the Nation: The Political Legacy of Aneurin Bevan). It is a task I hope to complete in the future.

It is certainly a task which cannot be done through taking a single quote and applying it to try and support a particular argument. But this is what some have used Bevan’s statements for. It should not be accepted that a claim to be following the words or actions of Aneurin Bevan means that the argument has been won. As shown above, there are many complexities to the place of Wales within Bevan’s thought. Understanding them more clearly can hopefully lead us from simple namedropping of Bevan to a substantial engagement with his ideas.

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