Welsh Radicalism: The political traditions of David Lloyd George and Aneurin Bevan15 December 2016
This year marks the 100th anniversary of David Lloyd George becoming the British Prime Minister. His legacy includes the disestablishment of the Church of Wales, his role during the First World War and his welfare reforms. He is still the only Welsh person to be Prime Minister.
Next year will mark another milestone for a Welsh political giant. On November 15th it will be 120 years since the birth of Aneurin Bevan, the Minister of Health who launched the NHS, leader of the left of the Labour Party during the 1950s.
Both politicians have been considered as giants of Welsh political history. As both anniversaries progress from each other, I wanted to explore their places within the history of Welsh political thought and the different traditions they represent. For the sake of brevity, I will primarily focus on their association with Wales, ignoring the ‘Britishness’ of each’s political outlooks. To do this, I will begin by looking at the debate on the coal mines bill in 1930, a debate which signified a symbolic moment in the movement from one Welsh tradition to another.
Without getting bogged down in the detail of the bill, it can be said that Bevan supported the bill as it would lead to a reduction in miners’ hours but at the same time keeping miners’ pay at its then current level. He launched into an attack on David Lloyd George for opposing the bill and using “his Parliamentary position for the purpose of trying to put new life into the decaying corpse of Liberalism”:
“On the Second Reading, because of his Celtic fervour, he went much further than he intended to go, and now it is impossible for him to support Part I of the Bill, otherwise he will have to eat all the words he said on the Second Reading…We have a right to say that, if it means slightly dearer coal, it is better to have slightly dearer coal than cheaper colliers. Hon. Gentlemen here must face the issue that when they vote against this Bill, they are voting for lower wages for the colliers, and they are voting at the same time for an increase in the number of accidents in the collieries…It is always characteristic of Liberal hypocrisy to pay lip service to these things and refuse to face the consequences that follow from them. We say that you cannot get from the already dry veins of the miners’ new blood to revivify the industry. Their veins are shrunken white, and we are asking you to be, for once, decent to the miners—not to pay lip service, not to say that you are very sorry for them, not to say that that you are very sorry that these accidents occur, not to say that you are very sorry for the low level of wages and for the conditions of famine which have existed in the mining districts since the War, and then to use all your Parliamentary skill, all your rhetoric, in an act of pure demagogy to expose the mining community of this country to another few years of misery.”
Lloyd George’s response indicated that he was perhaps slightly taken aback by this young MP from Ebbw Vale, regretting having “fallen foul of a young countryman” after listening to “a very bitter personal attack”:
“I regret that he should have marred what otherwise, if I may say so as an old Parliamentarian, was a very able speech, by imputing mean motives to other people. We are all doing our very best according to our lights—[Interruption.]—some are more shining lights than others. At any rate, we are all doing our best for those whom we represent in this House, and no one has a right to suggest that the action we are taking is simply one which is animated by unworthy, unpatriotic or mean motives, and certainly not that it is animated by cruel and callous motives.”
Nick Thomas-Symonds noted the symbolism of the exchange:
“Bevan consciously attacked the Welshman who had laid the foundations of the welfare state during the Edwardian period. There was an unmistakeable sense of the mantle of Welsh radicalism passing down a generation”
While both men can be described as radical, it is questionable how similar the two characters were to each other. As Michael Foot noted, the similarities between the two are not necessarily obvious:
“One reporter of the scene declared that ‘Lloyd George had been confronted by the ghost of his own angry youth’. No doubt that was a part of the truth, one reason why the barbs stuck so woundingly. But, indeed, Bevan was not cast in the Lloyd George mould. The comparison between them, so frequently made, had no real foundation. Apart from their power of speech, their love of their native land and their common streak of Welsh guile, there was little in the likeness…What the House of Commons saw that day was not the ghost of a young Lloyd George but an entirely new apparition”
Bevan and Lloyd George may have both come from Wales – but they represented different Welsh traditions. In A National Future for Wales, Gwynfor Evans wrote of the “Welsh radicalism”, a “mode of political thought” which “deeply influenced Lloyd George and Aneurin Bevan”. But this debate was symbolic not of the passing of a mantle but of a new tradition in Welsh political thought replacing the old. Lloyd George came from the radical, non-conformist, Welsh-speaking Wales, “the cottage-bred embodiment of y werin in power” as Kenneth O. Morgan described him. Bevan, on the other hand, was part of the working class, south Wales, non-Welsh speaking, socialist tradition that emerged out of the south Wales coalfield.
Gwyn Alf Williams noted in When Was Wales? that “however remote this working class was and is from the gwerin, however indifferent or hostile it may be to the Welsh language, it has shared many of its populist attributes. A working class community could nurture a similar sort of internal commonalty, could critically assimilate an Aneurin Bevan precisely as its predecessor did a great preacher.” However, he noted that:
“in content the worlds of the gwerin and the working class were as remote as was the Aberystwyth Restaurant in Tonypandy where they drafted the Miner’s Next Step…In order to assert its own Welshness, the working class had to break the hegemony of the gwerin and prise loose its mental grip”.
David Lloyd George and Aneurin Bevan are two fascinating characters in Welsh political history, representing two dominant traditions of Wales and this debate perhaps signifies the passing of the torch; from one giant of Welsh politics to the next; the passing from one tradition of Welsh political thought to the next; from liberalism to socialism; the gwerin to the working class tradition.
Gwyn Alf was writing in the 1980s, not long after the rejection of devolution in Wales and the rise of Thatcherism. He saw the Labour vote falling, and with it the death of the working class tradition which he argued had become “a myth” – suffering the same fate as the gwerin before it. Which traditions, if any, now exist in Wales? Has the ‘radicalism’ of Welsh political thought claimed by Gwynfor Evans survived? The old traditions of Lloyd George and Bevan perhaps still exist in some form in Welsh political life. But as Gwyn Alf Williams asked, “how many years make a tradition? How many traditions make a nation?”
By looking into the past at these two traditions and two dominating figures of Welsh political history, we can take a glimpse at the Wales that came before – and maybe doing this will help us think about the Wales that is yet to come.