Can a Tory be a Welsh Nationalist? Can a Welsh Nationalist be a Tory? What do these words even mean, and does anyone care?
After a century of electoral domination by the Labour Party, one is used to hearing the argument that Wales is a Socialist country, and that the cause of Nationalism can only triumph if it also Socialist. That argument is clearly false. In the recent Euro elections, Labour came in third place. Plaid Cymru’s share of the vote over the last twenty years has declined in tandem with their shift to the political Left.
Yet with the Conservative Party never capturing much more than a third of the vote in Wales, surely no-one can argue that Wales is Tory?
As I’ll attempt to show in this article, a lot depends on what you mean by the word Tory. It definitely isn’t the same thing as supporting the Conservatives.
What got me thinking along this line was a book I stumbled upon recently, written in 1975 by HWJ Edwards. I’d never heard of Edwards before, but it turns out was a stalwart of Plaid Cymru from the 1950s through to the 1970s. Within his circle he was often known as Harri ab Iorwerth. The title caught my attention in an instant: “Sons of the Romans – The Tory as Nationalist”.
Before I was a third of the way through the book, I’d developed enough of an appetite for Edwards’ writing that I tracked down another of his works, a pamphlet that he wrote for Plaid Cymru in 1953 entitled “What is Welsh Nationalism?”. In some ways this article amounts to a review of both volumes.
Why bother with old books at all? Surely times change, and we must change with them. Well, not exactly. No-one I’ve read has put it better than mediaeval scholar turned 20th Century literary giant, C.S. Lewis. He cautions about the danger of getting all caught up with the prejudices and blind spots of one’s own age, and advises that:
“…the only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.”
Welsh Tory ≠ English Tory
The meat of Edwards’ argument is that being a Tory is not the same thing as being a Conservative, and that being a Welsh Tory is a radically different thing from being an English Tory. He then sets about defining what he means by being Tory, and casts it in terms of the values that Tories hold. Nowhere does he set these out in a set of bullet points, but I think he’d forgive me for summarising them thus:
The Tory believes that we can only understand the present if we understand the past – as Edwards puts it, “Tyf yr hyn sydd o’r hyn fu – What is, grows from what was”. He is amused by other writers, even within Plaid Cymru, who say things like “the main industrial revolution and the beginnings of political democracy [are] the only usable past as far as party politicians are concerned” (Ioan Bowen Rees), and he himself doesn’t hesitate to draw from mediaeval or even Roman times in order to support his arguments
This may come as a surprise to those in whose mind the word Tory is an exact synonym for “selfish bastard”, but in Edwards’ mind this follows directly from the previous point and differentiates Welsh Toryism sharply from English Toryism. Edwards makes his point by speaking of pre-mediaeval inheritance practices – contrasting the Welsh practice of ‘gavelkind’, where a man’s lands were divided equally between his sons leaving no-one destitute, with the English system of ‘primogeniture’ where the whole estate went to the eldest son and the younger siblings were left to find new territory to conquer or else fall into the peasantry. In the more modern context it manifests itself in an antipathy towards means-tested benefits. No doubt he’d have found much to approve of in the concept of a citizens’ income.
Again following from the previous point, Edwards stresses the way in which a nation is built not out of an amorphous mass, ‘the people’, but out of individuals who are tied together by bonds of history and family into something which is more than the sum of his parts. He would probably have approved of Mrs. Thatcher’s famous dictum “there’s no such thing as ‘society’. There are individual men and women and there are families” – though I think he’d have appreciated David Cameron’s clarification “there is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same thing as the state” – while at the same time affirming that it is society which is the making of individuals rather than the other way around. He quotes the 18th Century French philosopher Ballanche in saying “man’s movements are imprinted on him by the whole, of which he forms the part”.
Perhaps the biggest thing that marks Toryism out from its historical opposite, “Whiggism”, is the acceptance that humanity can never be made perfect in this world and it’s futile to think that if only ‘X’ could be done, then all of humanity’s problems would melt away and we’d all live in harmony. The Christian Tory (and there are of course many) realises that it was in a perfect garden that Adam fell. Yet this is not a counsel of despair – far from it. Rather, our lot must be bettered by modest, concrete, practical steps, keeping what works and rejecting what doesn’t.
Having said all of that, nothing in the above prevents Tories from being truly radical when it is called for. Edwards also wrote a biography of Benjamin Disraeli, the pre-eminent Tory leader and thinker of the 19th Century who was responsible for a slew of radical reforms in public health, working conditions and trade union rights. It’s title: “The Radical Tory”.
A poor fit
It will be obvious to everyone that there is only the most tenuous connection, if any, between the principles enumerated above and the British Conservative and Unionist Party, which normally bears the name “the Tory Party”. So was Edwards’ understanding of Toryism defective? Hardly: his book carries a foreword by the most prominent Welsh Tory of the last 100 years, Enoch Powell. Powell describes Edwards as “a true Tory; a man whose entire thought and perception was a classic statement of Toryism. [He was] though a Welsh Nationalist, a Welsh Tory.”
[It is now 50 years since Powell, who spoke Welsh fluently alongside English, French, German, Italian and Urdu, was voted “the most admired person” in British public opinion, and three years later “the most popular politician in the country”. Like most people of my generation, I first encountered him when he was the principal bogeyman of the chattering classes, an object of ridicule and a byword for racism. In fact, I can just imagine some of the people who troll us on Twitter getting very excited and saying “look, look, I told you so, I told you they were fascists, now they’re even defending Enoch Powell”. To such people, I say: listen to this recent programme on the BBC:
The whole half hour is interesting, but the key revelation is made three minutes from the end, at 24 minutes and 30 seconds in. Go on. Listen to it. I can wait.]
What I think is clear, though, that whether they are Tory or not, the values that Edwards espouses are authentically Welsh. He saw no need to lay his Toryism aside when writing on behalf of Plaid Cymru. In his 1953 pamphlet “What is Welsh Nationalism?” he writes of Plaid Cymru having established in its early days that
“Capitalism was one of Wales’ worst enemies”
… and sets out their economic policy as being:
“…co-operative socialist, distributist and democratic:
- Co-operative socialist in advancing proposals to promote co-operative groups in Industry,
- Distributist in demanding as wide a diffusion as possible of private property.
- Democratic in proposing real workers’ control (as against control by managers in London) of the means of production”
The whole pamphlet is an outstanding case study in clinically setting out the case for Welsh Nationalism and answering head-on each of the most common objections, all in 14 tightly-scripted pages. With minimal updating it could be re-issued in our own day.
I could go on at much greater length; Edwards’s writings are fascinating and wide ranging, displaying a remarkable consistency over these two volumes written over twenty years apart. Like Saunders Lewis, he was a Catholic convert (having previously been a Quaker) but displays a deep and up-to-the-minute understanding of Welsh evangelical Christianity – citing with approval the works of Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones and Prof. Robert Maynard ‘Bobi’ Jones who at the time were at the heights of their powers.
But what I think all of this shows most clearly is that the party system that we have had in Wales till now is utterly unfit-for-purpose.
With parties who feel themselves shackled to a need for fitting somewhere along a Left-Right continuum, we’ve been presented with a Conservative Party that bears no resemblance to the Welsh Toryism espoused by Edwards or Powell; a Labour Party which long ago abandoned any interest in the well-being of working people and instead fixates on whatever cause is fashionable in North London; a Liberal Democrat party which as far as I can see has no principles at all and rushes into any niche it can find; and Plaid Cymru, which simply seems to have become indistinguishable from Labour for all practical purposes (except for when they openly give their support to the Liberal Democrats).
Never has there been a greater need for a party that refuses to be squeezed into this one-dimensional continuum, espouses authentically Welsh values, and seeks the good of Wales above all. Now there is, in the form of Gwlad.
Epilogue – a note on social integration
While I’ve come away from reading these books with a huge admiration for HWJ Edwards and a surprising new perspective on Enoch Powell, I don’t want to give the impression that I agree uncritically with everything they stood for and espoused. I do not.
In economics terms, I still think of myself as being much more a follower of Gladstone than Disraeli. But I want to say a particular word about immigration and social integration, since this is the topic over which Enoch Powell is most usually reviled by the bien pensants of our day.
I don’t believe that Powell was the least bit racist – the audio clip I cited earlier proves that conclusively, and there’s much else besides – but he was steadfastly opposed to what we nowadays call ‘multiculturalism’. His opposition to large-scale immigration (while being perfectly relaxed with small-scale immigration) wasn’t based on a supposition that foreigners were inferior people, but on a fear that if large numbers came at once and lived close to one another, then they would fail to integrate into mainstream British society. He had a loathing of sectarianism, based on his experience when serving in the army in India and seeing the regular inter-communal violence which took place between Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. It’s worth mentioning in passing that this was the man who at the beginning of WWII was the youngest classics professor in the British Empire, and at the end of the war was the youngest Brigadier in the British Army.
The danger with the sort of nationalism that Edwards espouses, where the nation is defined in terms of ancient ties of family and geography, is that it can become exclusive – a ‘blood and soil’ nationalism in which there is no place for incomers. This is not the sort of nationalism that Gwlad promotes. I myself have written in these pages that “I am in favour of immigration and Gwlad are not an anti-immigration party” and “We in the nationalist movement need to be completely clear about this: a black or Asian Welshman is a Welshman, full stop. You don’t have to be white to be Welsh.”
Nevertheless, there has to be an expectation that people are welcomed into our midst on the basis that they should respect our culture, learn our language, and adopt our customs. It insults the intelligence of people who have come from elsewhere to seek a better life, because Welsh culture and history has contrived to make Wales a better place for them than wherever they came from, if we respond by making Wales more like the places they came from. This is the case every bit as much – perhaps even more so – when the place they came from is England.