Aled Eurig reviews ‘Cofiant Jim Griffiths, ‘Arwr Glew y Werin’’ by D. Ben Rees
At last, we have a well-researched and passionate biography of Jim Griffiths that does justice to one of the giants of Wales and the Labour party during the last century. While his contemporary Aneurin Bevan has been lionised, memorialised and mythologised, Griffiths has until now been allowed to fade into obscurity, his accomplishments unsung and unrecognised. Only his own autobiography, and J. Beverley Smith’s excellent and concise biography have attempted to capture the significance of Griffiths’ contribution to the Labour party, to Socialism and to Wales in the 20th century.
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This book rescues Griffiths’s reputation as one of the most effective Welsh politicians of the 20th century. His lineage was that of the colliery, the classroom, the union and Westminster and his story is the epitome of the growing power of the working class and the Labour party in the last century.
Rees traces Griffiths’ roots to his working class community in Bettws, near Ammanford. He was the son of a blacksmith, and brought up in a cultured Welsh-speaking and Nonconformist family, where education, the chapel and Sunday School, miners’ lodge and council chamber were the key influences on his development. Although he was educated in the Marxist leaning Central Labour College, and was a friend and contemporary of Ness Edwards and Aneurin Bevan, his Nonconformist roots tempered the fierceness of his politics.
He became President of the South Wales Miners’ Federation in 1935, and MP for Llanelli in 1936 until he retired in 1970. A highlight of his career was as Minister in the post-war Labour Government, when he became Minister for National Insurance, thus working closely with Bevan to create the financial architecture for the welfare state. He became the Secretary of State for Colonial Affairs for eighteen months in 1950-51 during a controversial period that saw colonies given their freedom but that also involved the British Government in Malaya adopt a ‘shoot to kill’ policy against nationalist rebels.
Throughout the 1950s, in his role as deputy chairman of the Labour party, he had a key role in attempting to maintain the unity of the party, at a time when the issue of nuclear disarmament threatened to cause a split. But his political Indian summer was undoubtedly his role as Secretary of State for Wales after the 1964 Election, and the creation of the Welsh Office. Rees tells how Griffiths fought hard to wrestle power away from Whitehall and to establish the new department with more than an advisory role.
In the late sixties, he was regarded by many young, brash Plaid Cymru supporters as one of the irrelevant old guard of Labour placemen. But this admirable biography should remind us that Jim Griffiths is possibly the key figure in the 20th century who ensured that Wales now possesses a democratic national institution.
The author, Dr. D. Ben Rees, is a one-man cultural mission. A minister of religion and a former Labour Parliamentary candidate based in Liverpool, he has produced over 30 books on the topics of history, theology, and peace. This extremely detailed and thoroughly researched book is best when it described Griffiths’ background and early development as a union activist. He pays tribute to Griffiths’ skill to maintain unity within the Labour party in the difficult period of the 1950s, but also defends his refusal to work outside the party in order to pursue devolution in the 1950s. I suspect the author is rather kind about Griffiths’ character and personality as well. Although Rees paints him as a humble and tolerant man, there is little sign of the steel and ruthlessness that Griffiths would surely have needed to survive in the murky world of smoke-filled committee rooms.