Those laws are notable for some aspects that would now be considered as reflecting the importance of equality and fair distribution of property. For instance, it is known – and contrary to the tendency of the times – that it particularly addresses the law of women and cases such as divorce. Joint ownership of resources, such as water mills, is also mentioned. Another typical theme is land distribution; where the laws of other people such as the Normans would usually be primogeniture – where all land would be inherited by the oldest son – the Laws of Hywel required the youngest son to divide the land into chunks so that each of the sons received some of the inheritance. Central to the process was the fact that he was given the last choice, in order to ensure a fair division – because the son with the last choice would therefore wish to ensure chunks of a similar size. Of course, the fact that the land was being divided between sons, and not daughters as well, raised fundamental questions about how fair and ‘socialist’ in form these Welsh societies were. Care must be taken therefore not to claim thoughtlessly that there was a ‘socialist’ tradition in Wales before socialism existed. However, it is important to recognise that ideas and stories and myths that have arisen in its wake have strongly influenced, and continue to strongly influence, the Welsh consideration of themselves as more ‘socialist’ people than their English neighbours especially.
These findings were corroborated by the Welsh social reality of the modern age, specifically owing to the remarkable changes following the industrial revolution. As the works and coal mines developed, hundreds of thousands of Welsh and people from other areas migrated to the areas in the south especially. It can therefore be claimed that Wales became very quickly a country of ‘working class’ due to the relatively high percentage of people living in these industrial communities – not only in the south but also the north-east, whilst the development of the slate industry in the north-west had also given rise to the growth of working class communities in those areas. In these industrial areas, particularly by the turn of the twentieth century, the ideas and practices of socialism – especially the co-operative institutions and unions –were taking firm root and would characterise those societies for close to a century.
The integral contribution of Robert Owen to the international socialist tradition has already been discussed, along with the importance of some of his fundamental principles that laid the foundations for its development. It is implied that Owen’s vision of relatively small co-operative communities (exemplified by New Lanark, which is now an UNESCO heritage site) had been inspired by his childhood experiences in Newtown – especially so his emphasis upon the relationship between man and nature and the need to respect the environment. It is also possible to interpret his optimistic, ‘utopian’ ideas, as Marx called them, as the yield of the Methodist religious tradition that had taken hold in the Wales of his childhood. ‘Millenarianism’ had heavily influenced this movement, being the idea that human society is preparing for the second coming of Jesus and realising, to all intents and purposes, heaven on earth. The optimism of early socialists, and philosophers such as Hegel and Marx, regarding the development of society towards perfectionism was considered a secular interpretation of that millenarianism, and there certainly has not been any other socialist thinker with more belief in the possibility of perfection than Robert Owen.
There is no way however of claiming that socialism took an early hold in Wales based on the activity of Owen, who had left Wales as a young boy (although wise and remarkable at ten years old). He developed a number of his more mature ideas during his period as a young adult in Manchester. Indeed, during the nineteenth century, despite the sudden growth of industrial communities, Owen’s ideas were opposed in his homeland as they refused institutional religion, and indeed that reflects a wider unwillingness to embrace an ideology that was essentially a secular interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount. It was only with the growth of these communities, the development of unionism, the expansion of the elective franchise and also the invasion of people and ideas from urban areas of England and beyond, that socialism gradually began to take hold in Wales at the close of the century. During that period, some Welsh turned towards their compatriots for inspiration.
The Labour Party and streams of Socialism in Wales
One of the most colourful and engaging figures amongst Welsh socialists by the turn of the twentieth century was R.J. Derfel, a poet and preacher living in Manchester for much of his life, who turned to socialism taking Owen as his main inspiration. He ran a Welsh bookshop there, and a related press, publishing extensively in Welsh and English. He was also one of those ensuring the early influence of the Fabian Society in Wales. A feature of his efforts was the attempt to reconcile his faith and socialism – an attempt that was increasingly easier in an age where Christian socialists were inspired by figures such as John Ruskin and William Morris.
Derfel ei hun would soon become an inspiration to twentieth century socialists such as T.E. Nicholas – ‘Niclas y Glais’ – one of several Welsh speakers active in the Labour Party with Keir Hardie. Among his peers were David Thomas, an educator and author central to the effort to establish the Labour Party in north Wales. By and large, these figures represented a stream of Welsh Socialism partly influenced by ‘intrinsic’ aspects such as Nonconformity, and actively trying to establish a Welsh Labour Party that would emphasise the Welsh language and culture, and also support autonomy, if not independence, for Wales. In the figure of Keir Hardie, the Scotsman and Methodist, they had a soulmate, but after his death and the tumultous period of the First World War, the activity of this wing of the party faded as it was increasingly influenced by those wishing to see unity with the Labour Party across Britain.
It must be remembered that socialism had taken root in south Wales and the north-east partly through connections with England and industry and railways and, in that respect, the increasing influence of the English language. Institutions such as the Central Labour College were very influential in developing a socialist ideology and awareness that professed the unity of the British socialist cause and opposed the concept of difference among the working class. This was circumstantiated especially by the ‘FED’, the South Wales Miners Federation, which emphasised international solidarity rooted in class identity, at the expense of the expression of an awareness of nation. After the revolution in Russia at the end of the First World War, the spread of Marxist ideas, and the increasing influence of the Communist Party in Wales, international aspects strengthened here in particular. On the whole, there was no room within this world view for specifically Welsh needs or injustices – although Communists, more than anyone else, were willing to consider the importance of Welsh identity as part of the fight against capitalism. This, of course, corresponded to the tendency amongst Liberation movements across the world to merge the nationalist and Communist, and individuals such as Niclas y Glais were very comfortable in following the pattern in the Welsh cause.
Another stream of the ideation with shortlived influence in Wales was syndicalism, influenced by figures such as Noah Ablett, chief author of ‘The Miners Next Step’ pamphlet published in 1912. Syndicalism was essentially a tradition opposing more conventional socialist tendencies that leant towards the idea of centralization of power in state. As opposed to parties, unions were considered to be the most important institutions, professing local ownership rather than industries in state hands, and a federal regime organised according to society’s economic units rather than a powerful, central state. In that respect, there are some consistencies with Robert Owen’s original vision of a series of co-operative communities, but the socialist movement in Wales, like in Britain, eventually came to depend on the Labour Party as the institution to take forward the cause.
To many, the Labour Party in Wales is embodied by the totemic figure of Aneurin Bevan. He became a Member of Parliament in 1929, by which time the party had won the electoral supremacy that has continued to this day. In the general election of 1922, it won over half the seats and since then has dominated party politics, winning over 50% of the popular vote on several occasions. Bevan is most well-known for his role as the Minister who established the National Health Service, during the Labour government of Clement Attlee, that came to power in 1945 following the Second World War, establishing the modern Welfare State that tried to ensure education, healthcare and a benefits system that would provide a much more equal society.
He was a controversial figure who split public opinion, and a feature of his career was the tendency to toe the line between being an idealist acting on principle and a pragmatic politician determined to get things done. As a result, he experienced times at party edges, and other times upon a pragmatic pathway, and he remained an influential and progressive figure until his death in 1960. Indeed, one wing of the Party – a cohort clinging to more radical left wing ideas – were by then indentified as‘Bevanites’, in the face of the party’s more moderate leadership of Hugh Gaitskell.
Bevan’s ideas were typical of a number of values and principles already discussed, bridging the more revolutionary Marxist tradition with the tradition of Socialist Democracy. Certainly, in his emphasis upon power, his understanding of the all-important influence of society’s economic structures, and his belief in the principle of nationalising the large industries, the influence of Marx, and his education at the Central Labour College, was obvious. During the 1930s when the more moderate tradition of the Labour Party was severely criticised, due to its failures and the crisis of the great recession, Bevan was one of several more open to more radical influences. On the other hand, he was loyal to the principles of democracy, the importance of freedom and the individual responsibility it allows, and these values were highlighted in his criticism of the Soviet Union’s totalitarian tendencies.
Bevan’s perspectives on Wales revealed some tension in his political and personal attitudes. As a son of a Welsh speaking poet, he valued the importance of the Welsh language and culture, especially in the face of what he considered the greyness of the American capitalist culture. On the other hand, he was a harsh critic of Welsh nationalism, considering the problems of the Welsh working class as suitable for response and policy on a British level only. In that respect, he was sometimes guilty of indulging less than friendly opinions against Welsh nationalists. Yet, his influence is acknowledged by more than one of his peers in the eventual establishment of the Welsh Office opened in 1964, which was significant in the long journey towards devolution and establishing the Senedd.
Raymond Williams and Plaid Cymru socialism
Unlike Aneurin Bevan, one of the other most notable figures of the socialist tradition in Wales was an academic – coming from Pandy, a small village in Monmouthshire on the English border. Raymond Williams studied in Cambridge and returned there as a scholar, and became known internationally for his work in cultural studies and his connection with the New Left movement. This was fundamentally a group of thinkers that tried to adapt the ideas of the Marxist tradition by reducing the emphasis on economic foundation, choosing rather to analyse the way in which aspects of culture operate and sustain the capitalist system. Williams and his like were influenced by philosophers such as Gramsci, who highlighted the heavy influence of the superstructure (aspects rather than the economy such as politics and law) upon people’s understanding and eventual acceptance of the ideas and values of that system. Through his emphasis on the influence of popular culture and mass media, Williams changed what was understood as cultural studies in more traditional forms such as literature.
The practical implications of such ideas were the expansion of the battle against the regime beyond ‘the factory floor’, emphasising the importance of renouncing the oppressive structures of the capitalist state on other grounds. Specifically, the New Left tended to emphasise the importance of battles based on identity, extolling feminism and the battle for women’s equality, and the activity of minorities and people of colour in an attempt to ensure recognition and rights. Following on from this initial perspective, Raymond Williams had interesting views on the Welsh situation, and considered the implementation of the Welsh Language Society as part of the wider opposition to the regime. He was himself a member of Plaid Cymru for a time. Contrary to the mainstream tradition of the Labour Party, he considered the British state as part of the problem for socialists, because that state is linked, in his opinion, to capitalism. Furthermore, in his writings, Williams also suggests that the working class culture and Welsh language culture are both lifestyles that challenge the regime, and that the nature of Welsh society is therefore perverse to capitalism in a way that is untrue for aspects of English society – which inclines more towards serving the capitalist regime.
Williams’ work was influential among some nationalists in Wales, especially those such as Dafydd Elis Thomas, who attempted to set Plaid Cymru upon a socialist pathway in the 1970s and 1980s. Other figures such as Robert Griffiths and Gareth Miles, who would establish the Welsh Socialist Republican Movement during the 1980s, were also responsible for popularising Marxist orthodox ideas among nationalists. These essentially argued that Wales would not be able to prosper as a country and protect the interests of its people without becoming a thoroughly socialist independent state. Although they did not succeed in complete radicalisation of the party, it is true that Plaid Cymru since the 1980s has shifted to describe itself as a socialist party and placed itself clearly on the left wing of the political spectrum, partly in an attempt to challenge the dominance of the Labour Party in the industrial areas of the south.
Socialism since Devolution
From a party perspective, the Senedd in Wales has been a semi-socialist governing body since the beginning, based on the Labour Party winning around half the vote in every election, and Plaid Cymru returning around 10 or more members. But although two thirds of members therefore represent social democrat parties in name, it is uncertain to what extent Welsh policies over that period can be considered traditionally left wing – although the Labour Party has governed in coalition with Plaid Cymru between 2007 and 2011, and since then given incidental support.
During the time of Rhodri Morgan as First Minister, there is no doubt that the Labour Party used rhetoric and the occasional policy to place Labour in Wales to the left of the New Labour of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in Westminster, coining the phrase ‘clear red water’ between Wales and England, or the United Kingdom as a whole. This was an attempt to express the idea that Welsh tradition contains values which are a little more socialist, and that policy needs to reflect that, such as the decision to ensure free prescriptions for Health Service patients. An attempt was also made to renounce the New Labour tendency to try to reform parts of the public sector, such as education and health, by using private companies to offer some services, or promote competition between providers.
However, it would be very difficult to argue that some of these policies have taken Wales on a very different pathway, whilst Welsh Labour under Carwyn Jones have highlighted these alleged differences to a much lesser degree. This is somewhat attributed to the fact that the Conservatives have been in power in Westminster, and a resulting emphasis on protecting core services in Wales, but the less thoroughly socialist tendencies of Labour have been highlighted by the leadership of Leanne Wood over Plaid Cymru, and the recent arrival of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party in Westminster. The perspectives and manifestos of Plaid Cymru have recently tended to be of a more socialist tone, whilst Carwyn Jones has placed himself and Welsh Labour in opposition to Corbyn’s socialist more traditional perspectives. It seems that clear red water is now flowing in the opposite direction, in the case of the Labour Party at least.
“At heart, the Celtic people are all Communists ... with the love of the Welsh for Socialism one of their most well-known qualities.”
This quote from 1907 by Keir Hardie – leader of the Labour Party and Merthyr Member of Parliament – alludes to the reputed connection between Wales and socialism, and the suggestion that a natural relationship exists between them. In one aspect, the claim is completely anachronistic, in the sense that the concept of a socialist legacy dating back centuries is contrary to the fact that socialism is a modern ideology. The finding is likely to be based somewhat on the interpretation of Welsh society dating back to the Middle Ages, highlighted in the old native Laws of Hywel (named after Hywel Dda (880-950 AD) which were responsible for rectifying laws across the majority of Welsh territory. Indeed, in their discussions concerning the Welsh, Marx and Engels discussed their native laws and traditions.