A dragon at war

Paul Flynn’s life and political career have been carried on amidst so much turmoil and at such a frenetic pace the main impression is of a perpetual battlefield. The (still) Labour MP for Newport West, now in his mid 70s, remains constantly at war, whether it be with Tony Blair, the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, his party, the Parliamentary whips, the Tories, betrayals of his nation, the monarchy, nuclear power, the refusal to legalise drugs, foxhunting, bull bars on 4X4 vehicles, the Common Agricultural Policy, the manifold stupidities of bureaucracy, banal political ambition, or, and most poignantly of all, the trials of his personal life, including his longstanding arthritis affliction, the brave struggle of his wife Sam against cancer, and the inexplicable suicide of his daughter Rachel aged just fifteen.

This article is from the current issue of the IWA’s journal Agenda, issued three times a year. To receive Agenda and get unlimited access to the IWA’s online archive, click here.

As his memoirs The Unusual Suspect, published earlier this year reveal, to all these struggles and torments Flynn brings the same combination of irreverence, candour, humour, sheer bloody-mindedness and raw guts. Certainly, Flynn has an uncertain eye for political advancement which, undoubtedly, is why it has never happened to him in any conventional sense. Naturally, too, he is never one to pull a punch.

He first came to widespread attention in January 1995 when he fell out with one of the earliest expressions of New Labour project. This was Tony Blair’s decision to send his son to London’s Oratory school, a grammar school in all but name. As Flynn told him at a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party:

“You have betrayed the ideals of our party and undermined the struggle that our party is having in the country. We cannot preach against privilege and then insist on it for our own families.”

“Tony Blair looked shocked”, Flynn records. “That was the end of the friendly relations that I had enjoyed with him since 1987 when we were both junior shadow ministers”. Henceforth, “The role of conscience of the party had been bestowed on me. It was to be mine for a long time.”

Flynn’s acerbic judgements are not confined to the Labour leadership. Lembit Opik is dubbed “a clown and a turkey whose specialty is valuing mindless political populism over intelligence”. Tory Nigel Evans is “a tabloid newspaper made flesh”. Nicholas Soames is “a serious politician struggling to emerge from his globular mountainous shape”. Labour MPs Richard Caborn and Ian McCartney, who were given donations from the nuclear industry, received “cash for comrades”. Peter Hain is compared with Shapeshifter, a Star Trek character “who liquefies at the end of each day and sleeps in a bucket to emerge in any chosen shape the following morning”. Former Defence Secretary John Hutton trained himself to be a Blair clone: “He dressed like Blair and abided by the commandments of Blairism. He even started to imitate the way that Blair speaks, starting every other sentence with ‘Look’!”

Apart from Iraq and Afghanistan, Flynn’s main ire is reserved for betrayals over devolution. As he puts it, describing his feelings when Blair unilaterally announced in 1996 that there was to be a referendum before the Welsh Assembly could be established:

“For more than a century the hopes of Wales had been sabotaged by English politicians, by our own Welsh quislings seduced by Westminster, or by internal jealousies. Who had betrayed Wales this time? Was it the voices of anti-devolutionist MPs who were close to Blair? Whatever the truth, the lesson was that Blair had contempt for the mass of Welsh and Scottish MPs and our shadow secretary of state, Ron Davies. There had to be some protest. John McAllion, the best of the Scottish frontbench team resigned. Had Ron Davies resigned, whoever replaced him would not have been an improvement. So disturbed was Blair’s judgement it could have been the candidate from hell, the anti-devolutionist Kim Howells.”

Paul Flynn is that rarest of creatures, if not an endangered species, a Welsh nationalist inside the Labour Party. To understand him you have to explore his roots in the Catholic Irish Grangetown community of southern Cardiff, described with fond attention in his memoirs. “My mother defined Welshness in three grades,” he recalls. “We the Cardiff Irish-Spanish-Italian mongrels were Welsh, because we had all been born in Wales. Those from the Valleys who had sing-song accents which bore the imprint of the cadences of the Welsh language were the ‘Real Welsh’. The mysterious Welsh speakers from the far north were the ‘Proper Welsh’ – deeply Protestant, and not only strangers but probably extra-terrestrial”.

He learned Welsh because by “a hairbreadth” he gained a scholarship to St Illtyd’s College in Splott. There he came into contact with teacher Glyn Ashton who inspired his interest in the language which became “a lifelong delight”.  He devotes a chapter to why a nation lives through her language, declaring, “To truly love a language, it’s vital to know more than one. The monoglot usually accepts language as little more than a means of communication. Bilingual speakers constantly compare the endless delights in the unique personalities of languages they know.” After he gave the Llywydd y Dydd (President of the Day) address at the 1988 Eisteddfod in Newport he received a “sulphuric letter” from Carmarthen Labour MP Alan Williams denouncing him because “you have given your blessing to all the illegal activities of Cymdeithas yr Iaith and the Welsh Nationalists”.

In many ways Paul Flynn is more a journalist than a politician. What success he has had in his many campaigns has often been down to his talent in coining a phrase, manipulating the press, and grabbing a headline. When a Newport and Gwent councillor in the 1970s he wrote a column for a local paper under the pseudonym Penderyn, designed to get up the nose of his colleagues. For several years in the mid-1980s he was Euro MP Llew Smith’s press officer and penned a monthly Euro Diary for weekly newspapers that reached 200,000 readers. As he puts it at the opening of The Unusual Suspect, “If I had known what fun it was I would have written my first book when I was twenty-two not sixty-two.”

For the last ten years he has sustained one of the most visited political websites, and since 2007 a daily blog – with more than 1,000 posts, 10,000 comments, and 270,000 hits. As he admits, it has become addictive but believes in future the blogosphere will be the main platform for political debate:

“Blogging was like learning to swim or ride a bike at an advanced age. A delicious thrill. I hesitated before starting. Blog pope Iain Dale, speaking ex cathedra, opined that most MPs think that their colleagues who blog are ‘clinically insane’. Those MPs will be the average timid career-hungry boring MPs who are terrified of saying anything interesting”.

Famously, his account of the stitch-up of the election of Alun Michael as Labour’s leader in 1998 ahead of the first National Assembly elections, entitled Dragons Led by Poodles, was first published online, with readers invited to help write the final printed version. On the first day 15,000 hits on the site were recorded. Within three days the total passed 33,000.

Why is it that, despite everything, Flynn has remained in the Labour Party? It is difficult not to conclude that it is simply because it provides him with a platform to pursue his various vendettas. Foremost amongst these today is his unrelenting opposition to the Afghan war. He was the lone opposition voice in a 2006 Parliamentary debate on troop deployment there, when Defence Secretary John Reid foolishly claimed that the mission would last three years “without a shot being fired”. As Flynn himself said about Afghanistan, writing in the run-up to the 2010 general election, “My solitary campaign convinces me I have a continuing individual role to play in Parliament. It drives me on to a new election a decade after retirement age”.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA. Paul Flynn’s The Unusual Suspect is published by Biteback at £19.99.

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