The Case of Jack White: Nationalisms, Socialisms and Transnational History

Syd Morgan (Swansea University) discusses his research on Captain Jack White’s attempt to secure support in Wales for Irish nationalism.

In late April 1916, after the Easter Rising, Captain Jack White [i] – a supporter of James Connolly and first Commandant of the Irish Citizen Army – entered Wales to rouse the supposedly revolutionary miners of its strategically-important ‘Admiralty’ coalfield to insurrection in an attempt to save Connolly from execution.  After all, this was the epicentre of the Great Unrest (1908-1914), most famously characterized by the Tonypandy Riots. Even during the War, its miners went on strike, an action proclaimed illegal under the Munitions of War Act.

But, two weeks into his mission, he was betrayed, tried and goaled for three months for causing “disaffection” under DORA. My developing evaluation of White’s mission reveals new details of his activities in Glamorgan and adds further evidence to the response of the Labour movement in Great Britain to the Easter Rising. I place this within the context of Labour’s fundamentalist parliamentarianism and its 1914 wartime accommodation with the UK state.  British Labour overwhelmingly followed the European imperialist norm in eschewing international socialist solidarity, with the PLP voting in favour of a “war of empires’” the movement’s super-active involvement in military recruitment, and it contributing eight ministers to wartime coalition governments. Perhaps bizarrely, the earliest of latter was William Brace MP, Monmouthshire miners’ agent and President of the South Wales Miners Federation, in whose membership Jack White had placed such revolutionary faith. Brace joined the Home Office under Asquith and, inter alia, initiated harsh work camps for conscientious objectors.

The consequence of the War – reinforced by the Rising –  was Great Britain Labour’s “Faustian Pact” with British nationalism[ii] in parallel with it gaining domestic political ascendancy. One can characterise its core value as “socialism in one country”, pre-dating Stalin. The picture of White’s “fortnight in Wales” is still, probably substantially, incomplete due to the disappearance of his list of “names and addresses of men . . most of whom were well known of their extreme views”.

 Towards the end of his life, while living in Broughshane, Co. Antrim, White engaged with Wales again. He corresponded with Dr. Noëlle Davies (née Ffrench of Co. Roscommon), by then a leading intellectual in the Welsh Nationalist Party, assisting with her short biography, Connolly of Ireland: Patriot & Socialist [iii]. Following this collaboration, Davies publicised in Welsh nationalist circles White’s angry conclusion “Connolly was shot by a British firing squad and socialism was murdered in Ireland with the connivance and negative assistance of British Left-wing socialists”. Davies and White also exchanged views on the post-War international situation, specifically the influence of the Great Powers on the United Nations and the diplomatic isolation of Ireland following its policy of positive neutrality, which was shared by the Welsh Nationalist Party. White engaged too with other Welsh nationalists and the peace movement within Great Britain during this supposedly fallow period of his life[iv].

 My work on the White Case places these activities within the context of the wider relationship between Irish and Welsh nationalists, republicans and socialists in the early and middle 20th Century and the parallel development of the New Nationalism[v] on both sides of the Irish Sea. For while the influence of Irish nationalism on its Welsh counterpart is recognised in histories of the latter’s foundational phase, my research proves continuing and, sometimes, reciprocal policy exchanges.

White is a further example of where, in this dialogue, socialism and other ideologies come into play, creating a much more nuanced transnational picture. I also add further evidence to the predominantly negative response of the British Labour movement to Irish independence and its indifference to Partition and the governance of Northern Ireland as a trade-off to making economic and social progress within post-1921 UK State structures.[vi] This accommodation, which included imperialist norms, was in marked contrast to the values espoused by the new Welsh Nationalist Party formed as a consequence of the demise of UK Home Rule all-round.

This analysis of White’s ideas and activities provides new insights into these opposing World-views, confirming the value of transnational study, the role of key individuals, the wider perspectives gained from using previously untapped Welsh sources and the new pathways into which they lead researchers.

[i] * 22nd May 1879 (Richmond, Surrey); + 3rd February 1946 (Belfast, NI).

[ii] I am grateful to Professor David Marquand for this insightful phrase.

[iii] Published in 1946 by Plaid Cymru, Caernarfon.

[iv] See Leo Keohane (2014), p.240; Angus Mitchell (History Ireland, March-April 2015); David Convery (2015), Saothar 40, pp. 45-56.

[v] I use the phrase New Nationalism as Wilsonian self-determination manifested in the creation of new States, as opposed to the Home Rule variant in which state-power is merely devolved – and thus retained – by existing States or Empires.

[vi] See my forthcoming The Labour Party and the British State, 1914-1924.

Syd Morgan is a part-time PhD candidate at Swansea University. He was awarded a 2016 British Association for Irish Studies postgraduate bursary to further his research in this field.

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