Early Welsh radicalism
Once again, Richard Price is a central figure as he is connected to the radicals, the group most relevant to the situation in Wales. Although the Welsh were unfamiliar with his ideas during his lifetime (1723-1791), the values for which he stood were apparent in Welsh liberalism in the 19th century.
His emphasis on freedom of press, giving the vote to more people and ensuring an accountable government laid the foundation for the kind of politics towards which the Welsh were working. Williams Jones, Llangadfan lived in the same era, and he stayed in Wales. He was well-known for supporting the French Revolution and encouraged the Welsh to move to the United States to free themselves from the grip of the British commonwealth.
Early radicalism was an academic and popular movement which developed in the 19th century as it was linked to causes such as Chartism, which asked for the vote to be given to more people. Radicalism was very popular in South Wales as it was an industrial area.
Movements such as the ‘Scotch Cattle’ were more militant and would punish workers if they were unwilling to support industrial action. Also, the Rebecca Riots occurred in the 30s and 40s of the century, where the farmers of rural Wales attacked tollgates that collected tolls for use of roads.
Nonconformity and Liberalism
The growth and influence of liberalism in Wales cannot be understood without also understanding the religious changes that had altered the nation during the first half of the 19th century.
This is the age were Nonconformity, or Ymneilltuaeth in Wales, were seen to grow. They were Christian sects wishing to break away from the Church of England and hold different services in chapels rather than Churches. One of these sects was the Unitarians, and they did not believe in the idea of the Trinity. Richard Price was a member of the Unitarians and had been very prominently for radicalism.
As well as the Congregationalists and Baptists (denominations begun in the 17th century) the Methodists were the new, powerful sect connected with the transformation of Wales into a nation of nonconformists. A Methodist ‘reformation’ occurred in the 18th century under the leadership of Howell Harris and William Williams Pantycelyn. Although originally part of the Church of England, by the beginning of the 19th century they had left and were giving new vigour to the nonconformist movement.
Behind this movement was a desire to improve the lives of the majority of the Welsh population, the working class and middle class. By the early 20th century, the ‘social gospel’ was apparent asking for social justice in the name of God.
This social, religious energy was linked by the movement leaders to the Liberal Party. That party could benefit from all the social changes and radicalism when the voting system was reformed in 1867. Wales was essentially already a ‘liberal’ nation due to its religion, politics and social beliefs. Between the elections of 1868 and 1888 (when the vote was given to yet more people), the nonconformist nation became also a liberal nation.
A Liberal Wales
Several of the era’s well-known people were part of these developments, one being Henry Richard, who became Merthyr Tydfil’s member of parliament in 1868. He believed in democracy, he supported pacifism and he spoke for the farmers of rural Wales. Pacifism was part of the liberal-nonconformist agenda. There was a new interest in politics in Wales during this period – ‘The Rebirth of a Nation’, according to the historian K.O. Morgan. The Sunday Closing (Wales) Act of 1881 was the first act to be passed by Westminster Parliament for Wales only since the Acts of Union with England back in 1542. This happened due to the influence of nonconformity, and the Temperance movement. Then the Wales Intermediate Education Act was passed in 1889, funding intermediate schools for Wales. This was the result of years of campaigning, following the successful establishment of Aberystwyth, Bangor and Cardiff Universities.
During the second half of the century, other figures became famous, and several of them, like Michael D. Jones, T.E. Ellis and the young Lloyd George, unifying their liberal ideas with nationalism also. Michael D. Jones was very critical of the British State and its impact upon the Welsh language and culture. For that reason, therefore, he was very supportive of the plan to establish a Colony in Patagonia. T.E. Ellis and Lloyd George joined Cymru Fydd, a movement formed in 1886 by some of the London Welsh originally, and they wanted to see self-government in Wales. Although there was much excitement and interest, the movement came to an end, partly due to disagreement between members in the South and North – but more likely due to the movement’s lack of deep roots and mass appeal.
Lloyd George went on to become Chancellor and Prime Minister in a Liberal government. During this period, politics was transformed. In 1910, the ‘People’s Budget’ was passed, placing significant taxes on the upper class and their land in order to fund a social welfare programme.
The ideas of Lloyd George and Welsh liberalism from this period can be seen in the work of Sir Henry Jones, a member of the ‘British Idealists’ movement. The ideas of this group were the basis for modern liberalism. T.E. Green was the most famous of them. He emphasised the fact that the individual depended upon the state and society and that care was needed ‘from cradle to grave’. He considered the role of government as an intervening one, to ensure individual development. This was the group that challenged classical liberalism, emphasising ideas such as ‘positive freedom’.
In Welsh writings by Henry Jones, Dinasyddiaeth Bur (‘Pure Citizenship’) (1911), the difference is also apparent between liberalism and the new political movement of Socialism gaining popularity in Wales. Jones asks his readers, namely the quarrymen of North Wales, not to follow revolutionary ideas that placed the needs of the working class above others. He believed that every social class needs to work together for the universal good, and that this is pure citizenship.
The death of Liberalism in Wales
The early 20th century was indeed the golden age of Liberalism as a political party in Wales, but it was also the beginning of the end for liberal influence. Socialism was a great influence in the industrial areas, of course, and the Party faced problems with Ireland and the Suffragette movement.
Then came the First World War which was a huge shock, and by the end of the 1920s, the Labour Party was the progressive party in British politics. Several famous figures went on to work for other causes, such as David Davies who worked for peace, but the Party’s influence as a parliamentary party continued in agricultural areas like Ceredigion and Powys.
Indeed, in 2017 the Party failed to return any members of parliament to Westminster for the first time in over a century. There remains one Assembly Member, Kirsty Williams, who is in coalition with the Labour Party and she holds the office of Minister for Education.
And once again, although the party has slowly declined to having hardly any influence (at the same time as the Chapels declined) the truth is that Liberalism values are an important part of Wales as a nation. It can be said that the Party declined so much as ‘liberal’ ideas had succeeded in becoming central in society.
The origin of the Liberal Party
Whilst elements of liberalism have influenced state politics throughout the 18th century, official political Liberalism did not occur in the United Kingdom until the election of 1868, when the Liberal Party was formed. But aspects of liberalism had greatly influenced the state before that.
The election of 1868 was the first election following the passing of the Reform Act in 1867, that gave the vote to men owning a house or paying rent of £10 in the boroughs. The number of voters was seen to treble, reaching over a million men for the first time.
Three groups came together – the Whigs, Peelites and Radicals – to form the Liberal Party.
The Whigs dated back to the 17th century. Unlike the opposition – the Tories – they believed that Parliament was a higher body than the Monarchy. The Peelites were a small group of Conservatives supporting Robert Peel, the party leader in 1846. Free trade was their main interest. The Radicals were a group emphasising the need to give more the people the vote, and they believed in freedom of press and supporting the poor.
During that time Wales did not have much representation, as landowners had all the influence, and many wanted to see change. It was no surprise, then, to see the nation become liberal by the end of the century, particularly after the reform act in 1884, that gave the vote to men owning a home or paying £10 in rent in the counties, also. In 1832, there were 32 seats in Wales, and 14 of them were held by Tories, 18 by the Whigs. By 1868, the Liberal Party had officially formed and had won 23 of 33 seats, and by 1885 they had won 29 of 33 seats.