We’re no better or worse, just different

John Osmond remembers Tom Ellis who took on the Welsh gainsayers

In the opening pages of his 2004 autobiography After the Dust Has Settled Tom Ellis, who died in April aged 86 (obituary here), writes poignantly how in his early youth in Rhosllanerchrugog he lost the Welsh language in which he had been fluent at the age of three. This was because he was sent to the Wern Anglican school which, unlike the other two primary schools in the village, taught exclusively through the medium of English. After he had been in the school a few weeks the headmistress wrote to his parents asking them to speak English with him so he might come to understand the lessons. They concurred unquestioningly and at a stroke, and henceforth, the Ellis hearth became English-speaking, except when neighbours called.

However, in the fifth form at Ruabon Grammar school Tom Ellis resolved to relearn the language in order to join in with half of the boys from Rhos and Poncia from the west end of the village who spoke Welsh. This was because there was such a vivid contrast between them and the others, made up of non-Welsh speaking boys and immigrants. As Tom Ellis recalled, “The difference between the two groups was striking, with the Rhosites possessing the assertive self confidence of their village. They tended to lead in all aspects of communal school life, in sport, the annual eisteddfod, drama, the occasional concert and more intangibly, in the easy naturalness of their intercourse with the teaching staff, a striking characteristic for that age of deference.”

It is hard not to conclude that the pattern of Tom Ellis’s unusual political career was determined by this ‘Rhos magnetism’, as he puts it, that led him to identify with the culture and language of his community. As a result Tom Ellis became a Welsh European who found himself completely at odds with the Parliamentary Labour Party he joined as Wrexham’s MP in 1970. As he makes clear in his autobiography his three main political preoccupations were electoral reform, European integration and devolution. All led him away from Labour, eventually to become a mainspring in the launch of the breakaway Social Democratic Party in the early 1980s.

Before that, in the mid 1970s, he managed to be elected by the Parliamentary party to be among Labour’s delegation to the European Parliament at Strasbourg. He was much more comfortable there than at Westminster. Ahead of a debate on ‘European culture’ he resolved to make his contribution in Welsh. When he attempted to do so he was ruled out of order and after some uproar fell back on English to make a spontaneous impassioned plea for the rights of minority nationalities. Surely, he said, this was at the heart of the meaning of European culture. It was why, as a socialist, he was both an ardent European and a fervent supporter of Welsh devolution.

The emergence of small nations and regions into political prominence in the last quarter of the 20th Century was part of a movement that was gathering pace across the continent, from Brittany and Alsace to Frisia and Schleswig-Holstein to Catalonia and the Basque Country. “It is not some little whimsy,” he declared. “It is so general that there is something very profound happening and what the profundity stems from basically is that ordinary people are beginning to sense that economics are not enough – that mechanistic materialism is not enough”.

This speech, which is quoted at length in his autobiography, encapsulates the underlying philosophy that drove Tom Ellis’s thinking and actions. He was an organic intellectual who grew out of his community in north-east Wales where he was a miner and colliery manager before becoming an MP. These experiences gave him a penetrating sensitivity to the importance of place and roots for human civilization. In one of the 1970s devolution debates in the House of Commons he clashed with Leo Abse as follows: “When my hon. Friend the member for Pontypool said at a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party that to him as a socialist, a coal miner in Senghenydd was exactly the same as a coalminer in St Helens or Timbuktu, I told him that he was talking through his hat. I am not the same. I am no better and no worse than an English coalminer, but I am different. My hon Friend talks of the ‘evil of ethnocentricity’. It is not an evil, nor is it a virtue. It is a fact. One cannot be human without a sense of nationhood”.

This article appears in the current issue of Planet magazine.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.

2 thoughts on “We’re no better or worse, just different

  1. Tom Ellis was speaking to Leo Abse, a jew and therefore someone with an affiliation that cut across or transcended modern nationalism, apart from the Zionist element anyway. Abse would also have been acutely conscious of how jews had suffered at the hands of aggressive nationalism in Europe. It is no wonder they did not see eye to eye.

  2. I knew Leo Abse quite well. I don’t think his attitude towards identity politics was affected a great deal by his own Jewish background. He was certainly hostile to Zionism, and famously took it on at a televised debate in jerusalem. I think he had his generation’s conventional hostility to the nationalism, or rather imperialism of Hitler’s Third Reich. He struggled to come to terms with Germany and the Germans in his 1994 book Wotan, My Enemy which, he told me, was the most difficult assignement he attempted. It is noteworthy, too, that in 2008 near the end of his life, in a television programme with the late Patrick Hannan, he conceded that he had come round to devolution, probably as a defence mechanism against the depredations of the Thatcher and Blair governments.

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