The political chameleon

Daran Hill reviews Martin Shipton’s new biography of George Thomas






George Thomas MP for Cardiff West meets residents from the Ninian Park area to discuss the trouble that took place between Cardiff City and Manchester United fans before and after the football game on Saturday - 4th September 1974 - Western Mail and Echo Ltd

“George would have done anything to advance himself. Anything. He was a man of no principle whatsoever.”

This quote by former Labour MP Gwynoro Jones sets the tone for Martin Shipton’s savage new biography of George Thomas, Political Chameleon, published last month by Welsh Academic Press. Jones’ words are emblazoned on the front cover. The chapter headings are equally illustrative – “Sexual Predator”, “Embedded Royalist” and “Freemason” give more than a flavour of the content. They are the worst crossword clues ever in a puzzle to decipher a man who was, for decades, one of the most prominent politicians in Wales.

The biography is structured semi traditionally. There are some compelling thematic analysis chapters at the end, but for most part it follows a rough chronology of Thomas’ life from the Rhondda through to his dotage and the campaign he waged against establishing the Assembly in 1997, a fight which arguably killed him just four days after the result of the vote was announced. It was the conclusion of an ideological battle in which he had been a major figure for decades as one of the most impressive anti-devolution speakers. It was almost as if his death had marked the closing of a major phase of Welsh politics as well as the opening of a new chapter.

That Martin Shipton absolutely despises his subject is clear on pretty much every page. That is both the strength of the book and its weakness. It provides a consistent, unremitting narrative which is political and analytical. Shipton has clearly done his research and his damnations are often compelling, but there are points where you feel like deleting an overused “sycophant” or inserting an interview with someone who felt differently and maybe once observed George Thomas being nice to someone. That isn’t to take anything away from Martin’s two years of research, but there are parts of the book which feels over-condemnatory to me. Some stories recounted from his former colleagues indicating he was a hypocrite in personal relations, saying one thing behind a person’s back and another to their face. This might not be the most attractive character trait but it is one I’ve found in many politicians from many parties over the years and it certainly isn’t confined to Viscount Tonypandy.

There is also the issue of the continuous hammering of monarchism. As a royalist, I don’t think every expression of that viewpoint is wrong, though I do share the author’s savaging of the tone and structure of the opening of Thomas’ own autobiography based on his account of the royal wedding in 1981. No autobiography of conviction should begin in that way. But sometimes I did get the feeling that any expression of loyalty to the crown was a sin in Martin’s eyes, not just the most sickeningly schmaltzy examples.

That is not to take anything away from the central thrust of the book which is that George Thomas was a devious and unprincipled politician. Where this case is actually strongest is not in his dealing with the Aberfan issue, which Shipton convincingly portrays as penny pinching and craven, but in his conduct as Speaker of the House of Commons between 1976 and 1983. This period is dissected with a particular precision and reveals not only was Thomas’ coolness in his relations with his Cardiff neighbour Jim Callaghan a counterpoint to the warmth of his dealings with Margaret Thatcher, but also that he saw himself in a very different way to the way many contemporaries saw him. They did not feel him above the fray and, indeed, felt that he was often politically motivated in the decisions that he took. It is the account Thomas gave in his own autobiography of the representations made to him by Michael Foot when Leader of the Commons which is the most damning evidence of all. Shipton seizes on indiscretions and quotes protocol so powerfully that the reader is left thinking that the office of Speaker was indeed demeaned by some of Thomas’ own actions and his own readiness to reveal the secrets of private meetings.

Indeed, in being so indiscrete, a particular naivety is displayed in George Thomas. This is revealed too in his trip to Greece in the 1940s which took place during a civil war he affected not to know was happening. It is also apparent in the absolute humbug of making a videocast speech at the Referendum Party conference in the year before he died. It was surely even more damning than his highly public condemnation of the idea of an Assembly in 1997 and his biased approach to the previous devolution legislation in 1978. For someone who repeatedly stated he saw himself as above politics as a former Speaker, these murky episodes do his reputation no good.

That is the point of the book. Martin Shipton has set out to write a biography which redefines one of the most significant Welsh people of the second half of the Twentieth Century. Without getting into the sexual side of the man and the allegations around that aspect of him – and there’s plenty said on that front in Political Chameleon – the short tome is an antidote to George Thomas’ own autobiography. It is by far the most brutal political biography I have ever read, but that is perhaps fitting since Thomas’ own chocolate box volume is amongst the most sugarcoated and self-serving you can buy. They balance each other out and sit next to each other on the small shelf of books about significant politicians from Wales.

 

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Daran Hill is Managing Director at Positif