PLAID CYMRU HISTORY SOCIETY, MARCH 25, 2011
[TRANSLATION FROM WELSH]
IN THE BEGINNING …
By D.Hywel Davies B.A., M.Sc.(Econ.)
AS is appropriate for the inaugural meeting of the Plaid Cymru History Society, I wish to take you back to the earliest period in the history of the formation of the movement. But not to the famous event that was held in Pwllheli in 1925 but to another one held in Caernarfon in 1924. I’m afraid that I can’t offer a much more exciting location: the Maesgwyn Temperance Hotel was the place arranged in Pwllheli; the Queen’s Café is the best that I can offer you in Caernarfon.
It is Saturday night the twentieth of September, 1924, and quite a number of people from Caernarfon and district are walking in the direction of the Queen’s Café in the old heart of the town. It has been a year of political excitement – namely the formation of a British Government for the first time by the new Labour Party under the leadership of Ramsay Macdonald back in January. It’s a minority Government, and the talk is that there will be another General Election pretty soon. David Lloyd George has no worries about that. Caernarfon Borough is solidly behind him – and it’s certain that he is conspiring how to regain the keys to Number 10 sometime in the future. But the Labour Party is now on the rise having already achieved the status of the second party in the only Parliament they had at that time.
Britain is not the topic of conversation of those heading for the Queen’s Café tonight. Wales is the topic. The politics of Wales. A Wales without a national political body. A Wales without a nationalist movement. A Wales without sub-branches of the British parties to recognise its national status. A Wales without the Red Dragon on the towers of Caernarfon Castle.
But there is some Welsh political context. Specifically, because of its previous history as the main spokesperson for Wales at Westminster, the failure of the Liberal Party as a body to raise once more the question of devolution. The most recent development was a religious matter. The Church of England in Wales was disestablished as a part of the British state church. In its place, in 1921, the Church in Wales was established as an independent Welsh church. But with that religious devolution, it was as if the breezes had disappeared from the sails of Welsh political devolution. But not entirely.
A number of conferences were held between 1918 and 1922 to discuss devolution. They were arranged by a handful of individual Liberal Members of Parliament who invited representatives of local councils and other movements. There was very little response to the first conference that was held in Llandrindod Wells. It was agreed that ‘self-government’ would be beneficial for Wales but without it being defined. Not having received an invitation to this conference, the new Labour Party saw the whole thing as a Liberal ruse aimed at hanging on to the votes of Welsh patriots. The Labourites of south Wales declared their support for home rule in 1918 as did the North Wales Labour League in 1924. Nevertheless, as was stated by the important Labour figure David Thomas, who supported devolution, the real battle was that between labour and capital.
The most successful conference was that in 1919, again in Llandrindod Wells. It was enthusiastically agreed to call for ‘full local autonomy’, again without definition. And a Welsh Secretary of State was called for though with a smaller majority following a heated debate. The Western Mail described the agreement that was reached as ‘something in the nature of a miracle … [though it] left the question very much where it found it.’
Not much more light was provided when a small group of Liberal Members of Parliament asked the Prime Minister – the old nationalist David Lloyd George – in 1920 to create a Secretary for Wales. “Go for the big thing!” he replied, but nobody understood that. A measure was proposed by David Matthews, the Liberal MP for Swansea East, in 1921 calling again for a Secretary of State for Wales, but no one was paying attention. There were other things on the minds of the leaders of the central Liberal Party. The Labour Party in particular.
By now the Welsh inspiration was diminishing quickly. The final conference of this series was held in Shrewsbury in 1922 – ironically enough on the day of the signing of the Royal Assent for the creation of the Irish Free State. There was scant support. The few who were present failed even to support Murray Macdonald MP’s private measure, The Government of Scotland and Wales, which called for federal devolution. The Welsh Outlook magazine commented, ‘The futile Shrewsbury Conference on March 31st last and the ridiculous debate which followed it in the House of Commons on April 18th, marked the nadir of the Welsh Home Rule movement, and only a small remnant of those who supported it escaped pessimism and despair.’ Murray Macdonald’s measure failed. It was the end of an era. Devolution disappeared at Westminster.
No. Those Welsh patriots who were closing in on their cups of tea at the Queen’s Café did not have much reason for hope. But, with the enthusiasm that has been central to our movement, they would surely have responded. “Hold on! There’s an excellent group of students who have raised a great nationalist furore at Aberystwyth fairly recently. And in Bangor – there’s a student society there – The Tair G society – which is full of Welsh enthusiasm. And there’s the scholar Saunders Lewis who has kicked a hornet’s nest to annoy the respectable, hypocritical Welsh. Yes, there is hope!”
Ready to welcome them in the Queen’s Café was 24 year old H.R.Jones, a quarryman who had had to become a travelling salesman due to poor health. H.R. was from the village of Ebenezer – though he was leading a campaign at the time to bring Deiniolen back as its name. It was he who had arranged tonight’s meeting on the much greater topic of the nation’s future. H.R.Jones had been sending letter after letter to everyone he knew as patriots – far and wide, prominent and less well known. Come, he said, to set in motion an independent Welsh nationalist political movement.
H.R. was a shy man, a quiet man. But he was boiling with frustration. It was yet another conference that had particularly upset him. This one had been held during the summer by one of the small patriotic movements that were emerging briefly and disappearing like fireflies as Welsh enthusiasts sought the way forward: Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (The Welsh Language Society) – the first with that name; Urdd y Delyn (The Order of the Harp) – a foretaste of Urdd Gobaith Cymru; the enthusiastic Lady Mallt Williams of St Dogmael’s Byddin Cymru (Army of Wales) – not a weapon in sight despite its name; Undeb y Ddraig Goch (The Union of the Red Dragon) in Liverpool; Lloyd George’s brother William’s Cymdeithas Cymru Well (The Better Wales Society). This time it was Byddin yr Iaith (The Language Army) which had held its annual meeting in Llandrindod Wells. Despite its threatening title, there was nothing military about Byddin yr Iaith: members were to wear the movement’s badge, to speak Welsh as often as possible in places such as post offices and train stations, and to demand official status for the Welsh language. During the conference, another tiny movement with a big name – the Home Rule Section of the League of Welsh Nationalists – had held their own meeting. There were speeches. An appeal was issued.
H.R. was furious. He sent even more letters. It was raining H.R. letters in Wales! The Rev J.Seymour Rees was glad to receive one in Treorci. D.J.Williams was pleased when his arrived in Fishguard. Iorwerth C.Peate was delighted, though he would have a few questions. So H.R. went ahead to organise his meeting in the Queen’s Café with the aim of ‘establishing a society for young home rulers.’
It was also true that the academic and conservative Saunders Lewis – a conservative with a small ‘c’ but a pretty big ‘C’ as well! – had caused consternation only a year earlier due to a speech he gave at the National Eisteddfod in Mold. He shook long-winded patriots by calling for the establishment of camps to teach discipline. But remember that this was Lieutenant John Saunders Lewis talking, one who had served in the trenches during the Great War and who had been injured. He stated: ‘Our condition cannot be saved by a conference but by discipline and obedience. Do not seek a conference in which all the chatterboxes of Wales can deliver useless speeches, but next year form a battalion and a Welsh camp, and every Welshman who wishes to serve his country to come there to drill together for a fortnight and obey military orders so that they work together quietly and without argument, everyone prepared to obey and to be punished if he does not do so. And do this for five years, without chatter. Drilling without weapons, and so openly and without breaking the law of any country, but by this preparing ourselves to accept laws and leadership by Welshmen. If we had a hundred or fifty or only twenty in the first year to do so, this would be Wales’ most important movement since the days of Glyndŵr. I am perfectly serious’.
It was necessary for Lewis to add that last sentence. Welsh nationalists were not supposed to talk like this. But that was the kind of frustration that was to be found among the younger generation. Saunders Lewis’ particular response was unique, foreign, and he was flayed. ‘Naked stupidity,’ said the weekly Darian newspaper in the southern Valleys of his plan. ‘The most stupid of reactionaries’ was the response of the Western Mail. ‘Hotheads who propose to give the undergraduates of the Welsh colleges military training in holiday camps!’ said the South Wales News.
The only one to express similar ideas was Ambrose Bebb, Lewis’ friend and another conservative with a small ‘c’ which had larger implications. Bebb had moved on from Aberystwyth to study and lecture at the Sorbonne university in Paris. There, Bebb came under the influence of the right wing movement of Charles Maurras. He, too, was inspired to express the need for social discipline under strong political leadership in an article he wrote in 1923. With more rhetoric than reason, Bebb succeeded in linking the names of Lenin and Mussolini as the kinds of heroes that the Welsh should consider. Very quickly, Saunders Lewis and Bebb were being known as Sinn Féin people.
So, with the weak devolutionary conferences of the Liberals having failed, the new Labour Party gaining in strength, along with the inflammatory declarations of Lewis and Bebb, the Queen’s Café crowd had a quite a lot on their plates.
And there they are arriving at the Queen’s. Among the youngsters is Gwilym R.Jones, who would later become Editor of the important weekly newspaper Y Faner. This is how he described the assembly: ‘There were some forty of us in the meeting. There were teachers, quarrymen, ministers, a doctor – and one pale salesman,’ namely H.R.Jones himself. ‘This salesman had brought together the meeting, but he said very little. Nervous, inarticulate, bungling. He wanted an “army” to defend Wales and the language.’ In an effort to have a person of status at the helm, the patriotic doctor, Dr Lloyd Owen of Cricieth, chaired the meeting. But H.R. was the catalyst for the event.
H.R.Jones was considered an expert on the history of Ireland. It must be remembered that the bloody Irish struggle to achieve freedom from the bonds of London was the background to all the home rule discussions in Wales following the end of the Great War. According to his friends, H.R.’s view was that similar radical action, including violence, was also needed to promote the cause of Welsh nationalism. Gwilym R.Jones would later quote him stating categorically, “We will never awaken a nation that has been sleeping without sacrificing more. We must suffer … blood must be spilt. Our movement is too tame, and we are too cowardly.”
Saunders Lewis would say of him, “H.R. was the only one in our midst to whom one could imagine Michael Collins giving a post, one who could not be shocked nor frightened, one who would do anything, without caring about the consequences, if that would bring the freedom of Wales closer.”
With all of this in the background, Dr Lloyd Owen declared from the chair that though perhaps a ‘militant attitude’could be welcomed to the new nationalist movement, there would be no place for ‘violence.’ His comment was supported by at least one other who roundly criticised any suggestion of what was described by him as ‘Russian or Irish methods.’But one of H.R.’s associates, Evan Alwyn Owen, argued in return that ‘introducing a little Sinn Féin’ to the movement could be helpful. Another friend, the journalist Gwilym Williams, went as far as declaring that he supported ‘marching with guns’ and that he agreed with ‘the philosophy of [Patrick] Pearse.’
No further light was shed in the Queen’s that night, however, on the question of methods. Neither was there detailed agreement regarding what kind of home rule would be of benefit to Wales. Nevertheless, it was agreed to establish a new movement. Reflecting the feeling that what was essential was a completely committed society, it was decided to name it ‘Byddin Ymreolwyr Cymru’ (the Welsh Home Rulers’ Army) and to adopt an oath of loyalty that might ensure organisational effectiveness. The emphasis, however, was on political methods. In a note for the press, H.R.Jones said, ‘We aim for home rule today not in the ruins of the United Kingdom but through arguing rationally for our rights. We, the oldest nation in Europe, demand a Parliament and a home, by which will be organised a way for our nation to develop its life along Welsh lines.’
The fact that the Queen’s Café meeting was a public event meant that the press had plenty of material with which to be critical. The North Wales Chronicle was scathing: ‘Those present,’ it said, ‘outnumbered the famous tailors of Tooley Street, but, like the latter, their ambition has brought a touch of comedy into a movement which has as much attraction for faddists as a lamp light has for moths.’
The local Herald Cymraeg was more disappointed than aggressive: ‘The meeting of home rulers of the district that was held in Caernarfon on the Saturday before last was of no help to the movement; rather to the contrary. It was entirely irresponsible and childish. It is a great shame to move ahead with such an important movement without proper preparation, and without ensuring influential speakers.’
‘Childsplay,’ complained the Darian in the south.
Gwilym R.Jones referred to what he described as bungling. Nevertheless, a meeting was held, and a public meeting at that. Being so open – inviting people to the Queen’s Café – was a very different kind of procedure to that of another nationalist movement which had been established at the start of the same year. That was created by Saunders Lewis, Ambrose Bebb and Gruffudd John and Elisabeth Williams in Penarth, in the privacy of the Williams family home. Very few knew about it because it was a secret movement. Y Mudiad Cymreig (the Welsh Movement) was the name whispered quietly among its handful of supporters. Their aim was to remain secret for an indefinite period. That would not prove difficult because they decided to use Breiz Atao, the paper of the Breton nationalist movement, as the prime medium for their ideas. Gruffudd John Williams later said, ‘The French and Breton turned many people away.’ At least the Welsh Home Rulers’ Army had made it into the headlines in the press, and, as is claimed, all publicity is good publicity.
The Queen’s Café, however, was a process not an event. H.R.Jones had set in motion an activity that would be of central importance in the development of our national movement. There was a great deal of discussion regarding the first night at the Queen’s. The problem was that there had been no clear agreement on objectives. Indeed, the Welsh Home Rulers’ Army almost came to an end, just another small, short-lived society. Some argued in favour of merging with the Bangor university student movement, namely the Tair G (the Welsh Nationalist Society). But this was opposed by the Home Rulers’ treasurer, Evan Alwyn Owen. Evan’s aim, like that of H.R., was to establish an independent nationalist party. It was agreed to meet again at the Queen’s Café on December 20 to discuss matters further. On that occasion, Evan proposed that the title Welsh Home Rulers’ Army should be dropped in favour of Plaid Genedlaethol Cymru – the Welsh National or Nationalist Party. He said that this party should raise funds, adopt parliamentary candidates, cooperate with nationalists in Scotland, and declare that Welsh membership of the League of Nations was its objective. And so it was agreed. Three months after it was established, the Welsh Home Rulers’ Army disappeared being reconstituted immediately as the Welsh National/ist Party. The place of the Queen’s Café was safe, well fairly safe, in the history books.
The Rev Lewis Valentine M.A., a Baptist minister, was chosen as President of the new National/ist Party and H.R.Jones, of course, became its Secretary. H.R. proceeded at once to try to attract more patriots from all parts of the land to join the Blaid Genedlaethol. It appears that he had heard something of the existence of the shy Mudiad Cymreig in the south, and Saunders Lewis duly received one of his letters. Wasting no time, the small, new, independent Plaid Genedlaethol began with its activities which were entirely political in nature. The Blaid protested against the Government’s aim to split up the Central Welsh Board of Education and to close the regional office of the Department of Pensions in Cardiff; it called for Welsh speaking judges for the courts of north Wales; politicians were contacted calling on them to support Welsh home rule. Central to the new Plaid was the idea that the government of Wales should be organised with the nation as its basis and that the Welsh language should be accorded respect. Specifically with regard to linguistic considerations, the pioneering fact was that Welsh was the language of this new political party, formed as it was in Caernarfon. It was through the Welsh language that it was established and began its campaigning.
Central to everything now was the need to expand membership and to place the Blaid on a national footing. The discussions between H.R.Jones and Saunders Lewis were all-important in that process. It was no easy matter to deal with Saunders Lewis. At this early stage, he insisted on a full clarification with regard to two fields of policy in particular before agreeing to join the Nationalist Party, namely regarding the status of the Welsh language and the mode of political action.With regard to language status, Lewis agreed that ‘Gorfodi’r Gymraeg’ [trans. Welsh being made compulsory] should be the language policy, as H.R.Jones had noted, but he insisted that this had to mean that Welsh would be the administrative language of local councils, and the language of schools. With regard to the nature of political action, Saunders Lewis also agreed with the aim of ‘Breaking every link with the political parties of England and Wales.’ But he went further. He insisted as well that all links should also be broken with the ‘English Parliament’ through a declaration that the Blaid would choose to work solely through the local councils of Wales. ‘Nothing will ever come to Wales through the Parliament of England,’ he said, ‘Now, if you fully adopt these two principles, I will join with you immediately.’
H.R.Jones was not one to delay. Before Saunders Lewis received a response, there was a leaflet in his hand declaring that he was already vice-president of the new party. A furious Lewis demanded an explanation. But to his friends in the secret Mudiad Cymreig, he soon stated his satisfaction that all their ideas had been accepted. They could work like a‘bloc national’ – in Saunders’ French – within the new party that had appeared so unexpectedly, so ensuring that it kept to their principles. ‘As you see,’ he said, ‘without them knowing, they are all members of our movement.’
One other matter remained. Saunders Lewis insisted that a meeting should be held to place the Blaid Genedlaethol on a national basis. The Queen’s Café, Caernarfon, had performed the inaugural miracle. Saunders Lewis would comment, ‘I believe it correct to say that H.R.Jones established the Welsh Nationalist Party.’ H.R. now went ahead to arrange a small, private meeting for seven* representatives to meet at the Maesgwyn Temperance Hotel, Pwllheli, during the National Eisteddfod of August 1925. But that’s another story.
*Only six made it to the Pwllheli meeting, D.J.Williams having missed his train.