Emyr Price: Historian of the early career of David Lloyd George

Wednesday 01 April 2009 00:00

The Welsh historian and journalist Emyr Price was an authority on the early life and career of David Lloyd George. He was engaged in research into the work of the Liberal statesman, his family and party, for more than 40 years, beginning with a thesis on his pre-parliamentary career which earned him an MA in 1964. His fascination with "the little Celt from Cricieth" was rooted in his conviction that Lloyd George had a strong commitment to Home Rule for Wales, and was leader of the first modern Welsh nationalist movement, namely Cymru Fydd or "Young Wales".

Whereas most English historians have tended to view Lloyd George's early career up to 1896 as irrelevant or, at best, merely the precursor to his successes at Westminster, Price took an altogether different view. His research showed that Lloyd George was passionately concerned with winning a measure of official status for Welsh, in a country where the great majority of the people still spoke the language, and with legislating in favour of the working class, often campaigning fearlessly against entrenched opinion within his own party to bring these measures about. His decision to become a careerist politician after the failure of Young Wales in 1896 was, Price argued, the only way that Welsh aspirations – for disestablishment of the Church, for example – could be realised.

Price also examined afresh Lloyd George's perception, as a Welshman, of some of the major issues that dominated his period of power at Westminster from 1908 to 1922, including the Irish question, and the way in which Welsh values, particularly the Nonconformist ones of his youth, determined his actions.

Price also had the immense advantage over historians such as John Grigg in being able to read the Welsh sources, including the family's papers and the many Welsh-language newspapers of the last two decades of the 19th century. Price saw Lloyd George as a visionary and radical reformer, the first devolutionist of modern times.

He published extensively in his chosen field, including a study of Megan Lloyd George, the politician's daughter, in 1983. Besides many articles in the Transactions of the Caernarfonshire Historical Society (which he edited between 1981 and 1984) and the Welsh History Review, he wrote knowledgeably and attractively about the winning of universal suffrage and the welfare state, in both of which Lloyd George played a prominent role.

One of the questions which exercised him was whether, from a Welsh point of view, Lloyd George should be considered a traitor or a hero, a subject which still inflames debate in the pubs of north Wales.

His pictorial history of Lloyd George's participation in the annual proceedings of the National Eisteddfod – the statesman was its president and often entertained the audience with his oratory – appeared in 2005. His last book on the subject was in English: David Lloyd George, published by the University of Wales Press as the first volume in its Celtic Radical series in 2006.

Emyr Price was born in Bangor in 1944, the year before Lloyd George died, and brought up in Pwllheli and Porthmadog. His family was staunchly radical, supporters on the distaff side of the Liberal party and, on his father's, of the Independent Labour party. Educated at the University College of North Wales, Bangor, he took his first job as head of the history department at Ysgol Brynrefail in Llanrug, staying there until 1973 when he was appointed to a lecturer's post at the Normal College in Bangor.

He was given sabbatical leave in 1979 so that he could follow a postgraduate course in Social Administration at the London School of Economics, during which he wrote a thesis on the office of the Welsh Ombudsman.

In 1983 he was appointed editor of Y Faner ("The Flag"), the most venerable and radical of all Welsh-language newspapers, though he continued to hold classes under the auspices of the Workers' Education Association and the extramural department at Bangor. In 1984 the paper took a lead in collecting money for the Welsh Language Centre at Nant Gwrtheyrn, on the tip of the Llyn peninsula, an initiative with which he remained associated for many years, and for the striking miners of south Wales. His editorship of Y Faner, however, coincided with the nadir of the paper's fortunes: he stayed only three years and, losing readers, the weekly folded shortly after the Arts Council withdrew its subsidy.

He then found work as a producer and scriptwriter of current affairs programmes for HTV, notably Canrif y Werin ("The people's century") and – with typical evenhandedness – documentaries about such luminaries as Gwynfor Evans and Cledwyn Hughes, leaders of Plaid Cymru and the Labour party in Wales, both of whom he admired greatly.

The cause of the Welsh language, which Price spoke about fluently and elegantly, was always near his heart, and it was one of the springs of his nationalism.

He stood unsuccessfully as the Plaid Cymru candidate in the Conwy constituency at the general election of 1979 and was otherwise active for the party in north-west Wales, but found himself sympathising with the Labour party, too. A percipient critic of the nationalists from a left-wing point of view, and of Labour for its reluctance to deliver devolution, he deplored the fact that Plaid Cymru had consistently failed to make common cause with the quarrymen of north Wales and the miners and steelworkers of the south, a common front which, he believed, would have brought forward self-government for Wales by decades.

A somewhat pugnacious mien and dry manner belied a sense of humour and a warm-hearted approach to both journalism and history, both of which he managed to write with integrity and in the tradition that one is "the first draft" of the other.

He gave an entertaining and trenchant account of his own life, with many insights into the motives of some of his more ambitious friends, in Fy Hanner Canrif I ("My half-century", 2002). The title is a reference to his chief leisure activity, cricket, which he played with panache, at county level as a schoolboy and for the Bontnewydd side, one of the best in north Wales. He was also a trustee of the Lloyd George Museum, situated not far from the statesman's old home at Llanystumdwy, near Cricieth.

Of his three children, his daughter Angharad Price, who teaches in the Welsh department at Bangor University, is a distinguished prose writer and literary theorist: in 2002 she won the Prose Medal at the National Eisteddfod, a triumph which filled him with the better part of pride.

Meic Stephens

Emyr Price, historian and journalist: born Bangor, Caernarfonshire, 7 May 1944; married 1969 Mair Jones (two sons, one daughter); died Bangor, Gwynedd 22 March 2009.

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