Review: John Jenkins: The Reluctant Revolutionary?
When Archbishop Makarios, the first leader of a newly independent Cyprus ordered the insurgents who had been fighting the British Army to come down from the island’s mountains the British authorities and the world media expected to see thousands of activists appear. But instead the Greek Cypriot guerrilla army all managed to fit on a single bus.
John Jenkins, later to be the mastermind of MAC, Mudiad Amddiffyn Cymru (the Movement to Defend Wales) happened to be in Cyprus at the time, serving with the British Army. The idea that it didn’t take that many people for an insurgency to be successful lodged deep in his mind, and this at a time when other colonies were gaining independence.
As he says “India was free. British rule in Kenya was being challenged” and “by the mid 60s, Britain had granted independence to all but a few far-flung remnants of the British Empire.”
Wyn Thomas’ book marshals many such formative experiences in the making of John Jenkins, a complex, intelligent and driven character. An illegitimate child who never knew his father, John Barnard Jenkins nevertheless had “an idyllic childhood” leading to a grammar school education in Bedwas, but it was “history that started off” his Welsh nationalism and in particular the realisation that history was selective, that it could be manipulated to serve a political objective.
As he read books about Welsh history he felt that “the people of Wales were blind to the fact that their own country, which was uniquely blessed, was facing extinction. As the years went by, my feelings intensified; leading me to believe, more and more, that it was up to me to do something about it.”
The horror of the Aberfan landslip in 1966 compounded his raw sense of betrayal and frustration just as watching the Nuremberg trials in the cinema was a turning point in the way he viewed authority, when soldiers, trained to follow orders were punished for following them “rather than refusing to do so on moral grounds.”
And another key moment in his political evolution was the flooding of the Tryweryn valley to supply water to the Liverpool Corporation, a blue touchpaper moment for Welsh nationalism both in conventional politics and militant effort.
After leaving school Jenkins worked as a blacksmith’s apprentice, then as a steelworker but ironically it was joining the Dental Corps of the British Army that gave him the opportunities to orchestrate the efforts of the various cells that made up the MAC structure. He was allowed to travel wherever he liked, checking up on supplies. The dental drills were ideal for precision bomb-making work. And on one occasion he even stored MAC explosives in a supplies’ room in an army camp.
Much of MAC’s activities are still shrouded in mystery, which helps explain the longevity of a campaign that set off 20 explosions in Wales and England between 1963 and 1969. The ones which stand out are, of course, the tragic ones, leading to the deaths of two men, Alwyn Jones and George Taylor in Abergele, on the eve of the 1969 investiture of Prince Charles and the maiming of 10 year old Ian Cox, when he trod on an unexploded device whilst on holiday in Caernarfon.
While so much of Jenkins’ and MAC’s story is fascinating – the connections with the IRA, Libya and East Germany’s Stasi – those incidents naturally cast a pall over Jenkins’s life and people’s reactions to it. As one of his two sons, Rhodri puts it “Forty years ago, when I was growing up, he was terrorist. You couldn’t even talk about him. And the two things, terrorist and freedom fighter, are very different.”
Thomas’s book, gleaned from hours and hours of interviews over a span of 15 years with the highly articulate Jenkins features claims that MAC was sometimes abetted by serving police officers and even by a snitch in the Welsh Office and suggests that future targets included the clock face of Big Ben. Jenkins also unflinchingly admits that if it came to it he would have sanctioned the assassination of Prince Charles and suggests that MAC had the means to carry it through.
The historian and expert on terrorism Professor Richard English suggests that Dr Thomas’ “somewhat sympathetic tone and approach will upset some people” and getting too close to one’s subject is always a danger for a biographer working on the life of someone who is still alive. But one also feels that Jenkins would not have been anywhere near as open with someone who did not befriend him, especially as Jenkins clearly sets great store in personal loyalty. His contributions about his marriage, homosexuality and his dismal failure as a father would not be half as forthright had Thomas not established a close working relationship between the historian and his subject.
Thus in these pages we get the psychology and the spirituality of the man, his views on Plaid Cymru – sparing little criticism when it comes to Gwynfor Evans – and politics more generally, not to mention a revelation that sticks in the mind. One day, as a young man he fell asleep in a copse of trees that didn’t, in fact, exist, a mystical epiphany which sits awkwardly alongside the more pragmatic and strategic aspects of Jenkins’ personality and thinking.
This is a morally challenging book to read especially if one agrees with many of the sentiments expressed by John Jenkins about the historical injustices meted out to the Welsh, for there is, of course a flip-side: many people suffered because of MAC, not least Jenkins’ own family. Yet there is no doubting the strength and steel of John Jenkins’ convictions.
As St James’ Palace and the royal publicity machine prepares the ground for another investiture it will be fascinating to see how the Wales Jenkins helped shape will react. He himself doubts “they would be idiotic enough to attempt another investiture…because it would be waving a red rag to a bull again.” Time will tell.
Meanwhile, in producing this biography which amplifies one of the key figures in his ground-breaking work Hands Off Wales: Nationhood and Militancy Dr Wyn Thomas has provided rare and revealing access to the mind of the mastermind behind the Sixties Welsh bombing campaign.
John Jenkins: The Reluctant Revolutionary? by Dr Wyn Thomas is published by Y Lolfa, costs £19.99 and can be bought here.