Review: Jim: the Life and Work of James Griffiths is a balanced and highly readable biography
J. Graham Jones
This is a seriously heavyweight tome in more ways than one, a study to which all those interested in Welsh political history will give an exceptionally warm welcome.
The Rt Hon James Griffiths was one of the most prominent figures in the Labour Party in Wales from the 1930s right through until his death in 1975, and he served as the MP for Llanelli from 1936 until his retirement in 1970. In British politics, too, his contribution was formidable in several roles. Notably as Minister for National Insurance under Attlee, 1950-51, when he was personally responsible for many far-reaching legislative enactments, Minister for the Colonies, 1950-51, a post which saw his promotion to the Labour cabinet, and finally as the first Secretary of State for Wales under Harold Wilson, 1964-66. Small wonder that the proud, admiring people of west Wales hailed him early in his career as ‘our Jim’, one who was sure to go far.
Until recently no one had attempted the sorely overdue task of drafting a full, academic biography of this towering politician. Griffiths himself had produced an interesting, but very guarded and self-effacingly cautious, volume of reminiscences entitled Pages from Memory published by Dent in 1969. Then, in 2014, the present author, Dr Ben Rees, who had been studying Griffiths with characteristic dedication particularly from 2009 onwards, published a Welsh language biography Cofiant James Griffiths: Arwr Glew y Werin (Gwasg y Lolfa), a study which made a massive contribution and was well received.
Dr Rees is a deeply admiring, but not an idolatrous, biographer who has adopted throughout his task a warts-and-all approach to his subject.
The present offering, an English language adaptation, has very many positive strengths. Striking is the author’s personal involvement in Labour politics from his schooldays in the 1940s onwards, a commitment which keenly informs his personal research and writing. Secondly there is his personal, if spasmodic, contact with Jim Griffiths from the general election of 1959, when Griffiths ventured to Cardiganshire to speak on behalf of the then Labour candidate Loti Rees Hughes, onwards.
Thirdly, there is Dr Rees’s intimate acquaintance with the substantial James Griffiths Papers, highly revealing on many issues, deposited at the National Library of Wales. The author has also made use of many other archival groups in the custody of the National Library and elsewhere, and has read exceptionally widely on the history of the Labour Party in Wales specifically and Great Britain more generally – for this study and many others too. He was also able to speak with some of Griffiths’s closest political allies like the late Gwilym Prys Davies whom both Griffiths and Rees admired with deep conviction.
The result is a balanced, eminently fair and highly readable pioneering biography which is a pleasure to read from cover to cover. Outstandingly impressive is Rees’s understanding of the complex local history and family relationships which form the background to Griffiths’s early years and upbringing in the Amman valley with its vibrant, pulsating cultural and literary life and vigorous nonconformist activities. And one of his brothers was the well-known Welsh poet Amanwy (David Rees Griffiths) who crops up in this remarkable story from time to time.
In this area, heartland of the anthracite coal industry, Labour politics firmly took root between the wars, and, as is shown here, it was Jim Griffiths who was mainly responsible for the setting up of a branch of the Independent Labour Party at Ammanford. He and his left-wing cronies rejected the deep-rooted Liberalism which had formed the backbone of their parents’ political allegiance with their hero-worship and veneration of figures like W. E. Gladstone, T. E. Ellis and, rather later, David Lloyd George. Labour politicians like Griffiths and Nye Bevan liked to claim that, after 1945, they were extending essential tasks for which solid foundations had been laid by Lloyd George before the Great War.
There is throughout this study a finely tuned, impressive balance between the attention given to Jim Griffiths’s many political achievements and his personal and family life at Llanelli and at London, and between his contribution at Westminster and his role within his native Wales where he consistently pressed for cautious concessions to the ever-growing sense of Welsh nationhood throughout his career.
Today many Welsh devolutionists regard Griffiths as one of the fathers of the movement which led to the setting up of the National Assembly for Wales at Cardiff Bay in 1999. These two impressive biographies will, thanks to Dr Rees, ensure that Griffiths’s many achievements will now never be forgotten by a younger generation of readers inevitably much less familiar with the course of events so skilfully outlined by the author.
Not the least of this fine volume’s many strengths is an impressive collection of well-chosen photographs and illustrations, and the volume, printed by Gwasg Gomer, Llandysul, has been produced to the highest possible standards and is also well indexed. Both Dr Rees and Modern Welsh Publications have done Jim Griffiths proud.
This review was first published in Yr Angor.
You can buy Jim: the Life and Work of James Griffiths: a Hero of the Welsh Nation and Architect of the Welfare State by emailing the author at firstname.lastname@example.org