Robert Griffiths, S.O. Davies: A Socialist Faith (Llandysul: Gomer, 1983)

Few figures on the Labour Left were as long lived as Stephen Owen Davies. Born sometime around 1883, he died in 1972 aged nearly ninety. That’s older than his contemporaries in the Labour Party Jim Griffiths (1890-1975) and Aneurin Bevan (1897-1960) or those with whom he worked in the South Wales Miners’ Federation such as AJ Cook (1883-1931) or Arthur Horner (1894-1968). Indeed, by the time of his death, SO Davies had been active in the politics of the South Wales Coalfield for at least sixty years. Despite his longevity, and his more than thirty years as Member of Parliament for Merthyr Tydfil, Davies has not generally attracted a great deal of scholarly interest. This is to be regretted, for SO Davies’s life and public service tells us much about the changing nature of trade union politics, the internationalist perspectives of the Labour Left, and the lingering influence of the Independent Labour Party on the left-wing of the Labour Party. As the last NUM-sponsored MP in Wales, SO Davies’s passing in 1972 was the end of entire way of political organisation that had begun in 1885 with the election of William Abraham as MP for Rhondda.

Robert Griffiths’s biography, published in 1983 and now out of print, although there are rumours of a new edition forthcoming, is the exception to that general scholarly ignorance. For that reason, it has stood as the classic work. However,  Griffiths’s interpretation is deeply problematic and, in many ways, is not about SO Davies at all; rather, it is about the politics of Welsh nationalism and the non-Labour Left in the late-1970s and early-1980s. Of course, there were few political candidates for a biography who could be shaped to fit Griffiths’s then political agenda quite so readily, and none remain alive today. As Griffiths records ‘I have concentrated upon those facts and arguments which illuminate S.O.’s standpoint in its most favourable light’. Like Griffiths, SO Davies was a Left-Nationalist, a trade unionist, and a Welsh speaker. He was a fellow traveller of the Communist Party of Great Britain without ever joining it, and had only joined the Labour Party in the early 1930s (defecting somewhat reluctantly from the more left-wing Independent Labour Party). In fact, it might be argued that through the twentieth century SO Davies was a more effective spokesman for the Left-Nationalist cause than anyone in Plaid Cymru: he doggedly pursued the cause of Welsh Home Rule after the Second World War, presented private member’s bills on devolution to parliament, and readily drew on the support of nationalists and communists alike in his re-election campaign at the 1970 general election (he had been removed as the official Labour Party candidate and stood as an independent).

Griffiths, now the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Britain, had had a varied political career in the years leading up to 1983. In 1974, he was employed as a parliamentary researcher by Plaid Cymru and for several years hence he endeavoured to reconcile a nationalist position with a Marxist one, an attempt not always welcomed by his nationalist colleagues. He was active in several Left-Nationalist ginger groups and the publications that emanated from them, too. These included Triban Coch (1974), Y Saeth (1976-1978), and then Y Faner Goch (1978 onwards). Such publications appealed to certain sections of the Welsh Left and drew support from the leading Left-Nationalist figure at that time: Dafydd Elis Thomas, the youthful MP for Meirionnydd. He wrote in the first issue of Y Saeth that only by achieving a political status for Wales could the process of ‘organising a radically different system of social relationship’ begin. This was a blizzard of ideas and theoretical potentialities that blew through Plaid Cymru, the Communist Party, the Women’s Liberation Movement, and the non-Labour Left, but which ran into the events of 1979 quite as much as the governing Labour Party did.

Having disagreed with Plaid’s campaign for a Yes vote in 1979, and lost his job after the loss of Gwynfor Evans’s seat at the general election prompted a downsizing of Plaid Cymru’s parliamentary team, Griffiths began to organise the Welsh Socialist Republican Movement (WRSM), a leftist-republican split from Plaid Cymru. WRSM published a series of pamphlets, journals and newspapers, which were both highly critical of the mainstream left, nationalist and unionist, and keen to develop an intellectual framework for Welsh republican socialism that was marriable to similar traditions elsewhere – notably in Ireland. WRSM members published pamphlets on James Connolly, John Maclean, edited a collection of Dai Francis’s writings, and it is clearly in the spirit of this movement that Griffiths’s work on SO Davies fits. Indeed, in terms of its scholarly ambition, it is the most significant writing to have emanated from that movement.

But does such presentism make for effective biography? Not in my view. It cannot make for neutral biography, either, but such an aim is not something that troubles most biographers of political figures – partisanship is an element of the trade. Nina Fishman’s biography of Arthur Horner, for instance, is at times as much about the politics of its author as the politics of its subject. Neutrality and efficacy are different things, but the more a reader is aware of the politics underlying Griffiths’s biography of SO Davies, the less comfortable a read it becomes. (Unless of course left-nationalism is your frame of reference in the first place.) It is, ultimately, something of a hollow work that cleaves primarily to those political ideas that the biographer is most comfortable with despite occasional pleas to the contrary. For all that he can be respected for his leftist stance on foreign and economic policy, many aspects of SO Davies’s political creed and point of view were wholly out of date even by the end of the 1940s, and these deserve to be dealt with in a genuinely rounded biography that sets the politician in his political context. Consider, for instance, SO Davies’s stance on the proposed relaxation of licensing laws by the post-war Labour government (a move that eventually paved the way for the emergence of the classic 1960s nightclubs):

This is a gross piece of disloyalty to the great traditions of the working-class movement in this country. […] Babylon was a capital city once upon a time, and probably the licensing of its night clubs contributed to its very unhappy ending. […] I am satisfied that there is no decent, human, or social necessity for this business. There is no need for it on the part of any working man or working woman who is pulling his or her weight in our life today.

I go further. If the only way in which we can attract tourists to this country is by this means—a means which to the mind and conscience of the movement which gave birth to this Government is a filthy idea, utterly anti-social and utterly indecent—then I am one who will not invite tourists to come here. I know of many who will agree with me when I say that we would much prefer to enjoy what we have in this country than have tourists who have to be entertained at such places until two and half-past two in the morning.

There was also SO Davies’s steady estrangement from the National Union of Mineworkers in the post-war years, particularly the NUM president Will Lawther. This estrangement was hardly unique, for Lawther regularly clashed with Aneurin Bevan, amongst others, but his attack on the Merthyr Tydfil MP was particularly severe. ‘He is’, Lawther remarked, ‘out of touch with the facts’ and the Merthyr Labour Party were urged to deselect him. There are the lacunae, for instance on the Hungarian Rising in 1956 and on the Prague Spring in 1968, where SO Davies’s public silence surely lends itself to greater speculation than Griffiths provides in his biography or in his subsequent writings. Is it enough to suggest, as he has done recently that, ‘given his [SO Davies’s] doubts about Hungary, he would probably have had considerable sympathy with the Prague Spring’. Perhaps, but at the same time whereas the South Wales Area of the NUM was similarly silent on Hungary, it did condemn the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. One wonders why SO Davies did not? After all, he would have been acting in accordance with his union had he done so.

Accessibility of files from several communist regimes in eastern Europe, together with those in Moscow, as well as declassified papers from security agencies, the United Nations, and NATO, make it possible to add in much more detail about SO Davies’s political reception internationally than was the case in the 1970s and early 1980s, to be sure, and there are tantalising glimpses in this regard in Stefan Berger and Norrie LaPorte’s study, Friendly Enemies. But the existence of these channels of source material are hardly surprising given SO Davies’s communist leanings, the manner of his internationalist engagement, particularly with East Germany and the Soviet Union, and ultimately they point the way to a wholesale revisit of the terms of the ‘proletarian internationalism’ to which SO Davies and several other leading South Walian political figures from the non-Labour left subscribed.

It would be unfair of me to complain too much about a book written with a particular purpose in mind several years before I was born. Instead, my complaint turns to the relative lack of engagement with these sources by scholars of Welsh political history, a symptom, perhaps, of its relative insularity. To write a genuine biography of SO Davies, today, would require a journey to those archives, would require a reading of newspaper material in, at the very least, German, as well as English and Welsh, and would require an awareness of the nuances of leftist, left-nationalist, and internationalist political activity across much of the twentieth century. Nor was SO Davies really unique in that regard: it would be the same if anyone was to write a biography of Dai Francis, of Will Paynter, of Arthur Horner (as Nina Fishman’s work illustrates to some degree), or even of non-communist figures such as Gwyn Thomas and Aneurin Bevan. There lies the way out of the cul-de-sac of historiographical insularity that Griffiths’s version of the ‘socialist faith’ so completely represents. Should you wish to understand something of Welsh leftism in the 1970s and 1980s, then stick this on your reading list; should you wish to understand SO Davies, his archive and library is housed at Swansea University – I’ll see you there sometime.