Winning Welsh ways

Modern Wales
December 1, 1995

Welsh history lost one of its acknowledged giants with the death last month of Gwyn Alf Williams, but this collection is happy proof that another is still alive, well and active.

They are an antithetical duo with little more in common than trade, nationality and association with Aberystwyth - and even there they were at opposite ends of the scale, Williams as an undergraduate in the 1940s, then lecturer in the 1950s, Kenneth Morgan principal from 1989 until early this academic year. Williams was a tiny, voluble Marxist from the East Wales steel town of Dowlais. Nearby Merthyr supplied him, via its 1831 riots, with his best book and a pyrotechnic tour de force of a lecture. He spent his career in Welsh or provincial universities. Morgan, rooted in rural Cardiganshire, has spent two thirds of his adult life in Oxford and has the moderation of politics and manner you might expect in the official biographer of Jim Callaghan.

This is the sort of juxtaposition, which Morgan does so well and perceptively in this book. Tom Ellis and Lloyd George, Mabon and Noah Ablett, Nye Bevan and Jim Griffiths - each epitomising competing streams in the Wales of their day. But, for Bevan and Griffiths, he enhances the received version by locating their shared ground.

He concludes of those outstanding exponents of mid-century Labourism, Bevan the radical East Walian and Griffiths the west-rooted moderate: "(They) embody different aspects of the same Welsh Labour ethic. They reflect the attachment to community and a wider internationalism of spirit, humane pragmatism and creative imagination. There was no fundamental conflict between them."

While Williams was the older by a decade - war as against national service vintage - Morgan's contribution to the study of his country is arguably longer and more consistent. His first book Wales in British Politics (1963) is habitually cited by the outstanding generation of Welsh historians of the late 1960s and early 1970s as a key influence in persuading them that their own nation was a legitimate subject for study.

An update on that pioneering study opens this collection,uniting 26 essays whose first publication dates range from 1960 to 1990. Repetition, and the issue of whether or not to update, are the potential pitfalls. Choosing not to update reveals a consistency of approach - scrupulous, thoughtful and thorough - dating from first to last and characterised by an attachment to Wales that is warm, but unsentimental.

An admirable purveyor of full-length portraits, as his work on Lloyd George shows, he is a terrific miniaturist, capable of vividly sketching the important outlines of a significant career in a few pages. The range in this volume naturally includes Bevan - shown as a highly practical social reformer as well as the firebrand of legend - and Lloyd George, not "rooted in nothing" as Keynes infamously and uncomprehendingly concluded, but a maverick even in a Welsh context. Even more valuable are the sharp portraits of largely forgotten figures like industralist-politician D. A. Thomas and a succession of Cardiganshire Liberal MPs. There are vivid walk-on parts for both a rare villain - good historian that he is, Morgan's characters mix light and shade - the "protofascist" C. B. Stanton, and for the gloriously picaresque career of the Revd Thomas Nicholas of Glais: bard, associate of Keir Hardie, war resister and nonconformist minister who, during the Second World War, "had given up the ministry for unlicensed dentistry".

Skill in portraiture encapsulates place as well as people. Little wonder Morgan enjoyed his eight years (1958-66) in Swansea as he says of it :"The political record of the town in its modest way is a hymn of praise to the kind of controlled adjustments that a tolerant and sophisticated people have been able to make, using political power to create a decent and durable community, and build to last". A crisply perceptive view of the land of my father.

Huw Richards is a reporter on The THES, and author of a forthcoming history of the Daily Herald.

Modern Wales: Politics, Places and People

Author - Kenneth O. Morgan
ISBN - 0 7083 1317 5
Publisher - University of Wales Press
Price - £40.00
Pages - 492

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