Wayne spoke to the Western Mail about the remarkable life of Morgan Jones and how he researched his new biography of the former MP for Caerphilly.
What inspired you to write this book?
Since the days when I was a history student, I knew of Morgan Jones. But in December 2014 the Speaker of the House of Commons decided to hold a series of lectures to commemorate the First World War. In order to have balance, he asked me to give a lecture on the first conscientious objector to be elected to Parliament – Morgan Jones. In preparing for the lecture on the MP for Caerphilly from 1921 to 1939, I undertook some basic primary research and soon I realised what a fascinating man Morgan Jones had been. The lecture I gave turned into a paper, then the paper turned into a pamphlet, then the pamphlet turned into this book.
What interests you most about Morgan Jones? What is your opinion of him as a person?
Morgan Jones was very much a product of his society. He was born in 1885 in Gelligaer in the Rhymney Valley and he represented Bargoed as a local councillor. The whole area was dominated by the coal industry and exploitation, inequality and unfairness were all around him. He therefore became a socialist and was drawn to the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and the Labour Party. But he was also deeply influenced by religious non-conformity. His mother, who had a huge influence on him, was a Welsh Baptist and believed that disagreements should never be resolved by force. This profound commitment to always seeking to maintain peace led to Morgan Jones becoming a Christian pacifist. This is why Morgan Jones opposed the First World War and went to prison for his beliefs. To endure what he did in Wormwood Scrubs – solitary confinement, abuse and a diet of bread and water – showed that Morgan Jones had strong principles and a tremendous strength of character. It is important to remember that most people in the Valleys were firmly behind the war effort and had little sympathy with conscientious objectors.
Has he influenced you as a politician in any way?
The answer is ‘yes’. Although he died 80 years ago, he has reminded me that politics is about principle. He stood up for his beliefs, even when they were very unpopular, but he was never a dogmatist. He always recognised that others held legitimate opinions. Importantly, he was also prepared to change his views when it was necessary so to do. He changed his views on how best to oppose the First World War and he also changed his views about pacifism when he came to realise that the only way to stop fascism was through “defensive” military action. This combination of principle and pragmatism was Morgan Jones’ hallmark.
What are the main points about him you wanted to get across in this book?
Essentially, I have sought to describe and explain Morgan Jones’ life story. He was a man of strong views, but he also grappled with his conscience when his beliefs were being challenged. This is what happened in the 1930s, and Morgan Jones was brave enough to recognise that the evil of fascism had to be stopped – by the use of force if necessary. In the book I have tried to explain that Morgan Jones argued for the League of Nations to be given more powers and the military means to prevent the spread of totalitarianism.
I also wanted to convey that, despite the pressures of politics, Morgan Jones still found time to devout to his family. He married a woman from Merthyr who shared his political and religious views and his two daughters were the light of his life.
How did you go about researching this book?
I was lucky in that a good base was provided by an unpublished paper by Morgan Jones’ son-in-law. I then delved into a wide range of disparate sources. But the most important sources were Morgan Jones’ own speeches in the House of Commons and newspaper reports. I was also lucky to have the recollections of Morgan Jones’ youngest daughter, Margaret, before she sadly passed away last year. Her son, Nick, has been wonderful in providing important nuggets of information and some wonderful photographs, which are reproduced in the book.
Did your research uncover anything interesting? Was there anything that surprised you?
There are so many interesting things about Morgan Jones. Before he became an MP, Morgan Jones served on his local council in Gelligaer. Here he became Chairman of the Housing Committee, which oversaw the building of nearly 1,000 council houses in the area – a remarkable achievement. Morgan Jones was elected to Parliament in a by-election in 1921. This was an amazing by-election. The National Liberal candidate alleged that as a Conshie Morgan Jones was not fit to be an MP, and the recently formed Communist Party also threw its hat into the ring, calling Morgan Jones a class traitor. Morgan Jones beat them both comfortably.
When he was an MP, Morgan Jones became a great champion for education. He was a Labour Education Minister on two occasions, but his biggest contribution to education came in the 1930s when he led the way in developing a policy for what we would now call ‘comprehensive’ education.
This information was quite new to me but, perhaps most interestingly I didn’t realise that Morgan Jones believed strongly in what we now call devolution. When he was a junior Education Minister in 1924, he argued for a distinct Welsh education policy, and in 1938 he led a cross-party deputation to meet the Prime Minister to argue the case for a Secretary of State for Wales. At the time, these arguments fell on deaf ears, but Morgan Jones, perhaps more than anyone else, sowed the seeds for Welsh devolution.
What was the biggest challenge in writing this book?
Finding the time. Today’s politics are demanding and time consuming. Researching and writing this book has meant that I have had very little free time for the last four years. I am grateful that my wife has been so understanding.
What did you enjoy about writing it?
Writing this book has been a journey of discovery. Along the way, I have got to know Morgan Jones’ family quite well and it has put into perspective the issues which politicians face today. Today’s issues are of course vitally important, but cannot be compared to the life and death issues that Morgan Jones faced.
I believe history is a fascinating subject and we should always be prepared to ‘learn from the past’. This is because if we don’t learn the lessons of the past, then all too often we repeat the mistakes which are forebears have made.
What do you hope people will get out of reading it?
I hope that all readers will gain an appreciation of a remarkable person. Someone who grew up in the area he represented and who always sought to do what was right, even when his health suffered as a consequence and he was criticised and pilloried by many of those he was closest to. At the end of the day, Morgan Jones teaches us that public representatives should always do what they believe to be right and not take the easy option and do what is expedient.
Morgan Jones: Man of Conscience is published by Welsh Academic Press and copies can be purchased through their website: www.ashleydrake.cymru