“Who is Jim Griffiths?”
A question that is a sad indictment of what we – the public generally, politicians in Wales, and others who knew Jim even – should be embarrassed by.
One of the biggest political figures in Welsh and British politics over three decades in the twentieth century, not too long ago Jim Griffiths would not have gone unnoticed in this country.
Now, the above question is one that I have been recently asked a lot since starting the #CofioJim campaign.
In a bid to commemorate the legacy of one of Wales’ forgotten statesmen with a statue in Llanelli, a constituency he represented for almost four decades between 1936 and 1970 as its MP, it has been almost shocking to me that so many (including Welsh journalists, I might add) do not know much about him.
It’s partly the reason I started the campaign in the first instance: I wanted to raise awareness of Jim, who I had heard a lot about growing up in Llanelli from my grandparents, Meriel and Raymond Lewis.
As the town’s local florists now for around a century, my family have to some extent been engrained in Llanelli’s local history. As a result, I had heard from my late grandmother of Jim’s many achievements in life, and Meriel had even called for a statue of Jim a few decades ago, too, in a move that she thought would be a fitting tribute to a man we owe so much to.
I could, as many similar articles on historical figures would do, not mention these achievements: “a man who needs no introduction” and all that. However, in this decade, Jim’s life and career do need to be explained.
A prominent trade unionist, after being sent down the mines in Ammanford when he was a teenager, Jim went on to campaign for workers’ rights with organisations such as the Ammanford Trades Council between 1916-1919; the Anthracite Miners’ Association for just over a decade between 1925–1936; and was President of the South Wales Miners’ Federation in the Anthracite district of West Wales between 1934–1936.
Elected in 1936 as Llanelli’s MP, he went on to serve as Minister for National Insurance in Clement Attlee’s post-war government, introducing the Family Allowance in 1946 and becoming a key architect of the welfare state, as well as going on to become Secretary of State for the Colonies in 1950 – at a time when the British Empire was crumbling and the Commonwealth of nations began to emerge.
He was always a significant figure within the Labour movement, too, becoming Party Chairman in 1948 and Deputy Leader eight years later.
His political rise alone is rather incredible.
Yet Jim, who does not appear to have been the most obvious self-publicist, is largely overshadowed by Nye Bevan’s presence in modern Welsh history books.
The media make the mistake of painting the welfare state as a Bevanite project alone, too, which doesn’t help raise awareness of Jim’s work.
Kenneth O. Morgan, writing in The Dictionary of National Biography (2004), elaborates on Jim’s important role:
At his new department, along with his fellow Welshman Aneurin Bevan, the new minister of health and housing (with whom he always had a somewhat wary relationship), Griffiths became a foremost architect of the welfare state. He passed three extremely important measures. He introduced the new family allowances early in 1946: on August bank holiday Tuesday they were duly paid to 2.5 million families. The 1946 National Insurance Act followed the Beveridge scheme in creating a comprehensive system of social security, including unemployment and sickness benefit, retirement pensions, and benefits for maternity and widows. It became a cornerstone of welfare legislation thereafter. In 1948, in another significant measure, Griffiths passed the Industrial Injuries Act, in which he drew upon his own experience as a working miner.
Perhaps where there is little doubt is Jim’s work in establishing the Wales Office, which led to his appointment as the First Secretary of State for Wales in 1964.
Without Jim, we arguably would not have devolution or a Welsh Office or a Welsh Parliament.
It’s only right, then, that we recognise this life and career better.
Particularly now, we need to remember what Jim stood for when he introduced this office.
We have Alun Cairns’ unpopular decisions as Welsh Secretary; a House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs committee calling on a reconsideration of the role of Welsh Secretary; and even Welsh AMs, such as Alun Davies, calling the Wales Office “almost completely irrelevant”.
This is rather troubling, and Jim would be no doubt turning in his grave at recent perceptions of Wales’ most senior political representatives.
Therefore, it is even more important that people – and politicians – look at Jim’s career for some perspective.
Already the campaign has made progress. Local AM Lee Waters has backed us, as well as the town’s Mayor, and Leader of the Labour group in Carmarthenshire County Council. But we need to do more to create a movement behind this initiative.
If AMs can get behind the Rhodri Morgan statue campaign, which would cost £100,000, they should support this campaign for Jim.
The more I hear about Jim and his career the more I wish I’d met him.
For example, Gwynoro Jones, former MP for Carmarthen, recalled to me one memory of Jim which reflected Jim’s story.
Gwynoro had just been selected candidate for Carmarthen in 1967, and Jim was guest of honour at a dinner in the Smith Arms, Foelgastell.
Eager to impress at a time Wilson’s Government was facing economic difficulties, Gwynoro said: “These are difficult days Jim”. Jim replied: “Bachgen bach, I remember difficult years”.
I wonder what he would think of his country and its political situation today.
All articles published on Click on Wales are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.
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