Thursday 6 August 2015

From the Vault series: Tom Ellis—Colliery Manager and Member of Parliament

A devoted Welshman, European, a great admirer of David Lloyd George and R S Thomas, and a passionate supporter of electoral reform.

After 1992, when both of us were no longer active in politics, our paths never crossed again. We exchanged a rare phone call but I should have done more to keep in touch. How often is that the story of life—we busy ourselves with all and sundry but forget the more important human aspects.    So in the end one has to rely on some distant memories rather than more recent experiences and friendships.

It was in 1969, when I was Research and Public Relations officer for the Welsh Council of Labour (Welsh Labour Party now) that I first came across Tom Ellis. We immediately formed a bond because, other than his passion for the poetry of R.S Thomas, his political beliefs and mine coalesced.   

Tom was 46 years of age when he was elected as the Labour MP for Wrexham and I was 27—so he was considerably more experienced than I was in the ways of the Labour Party and the trade union movement.  Looking back on certain events and decisions, I wish I had taken his advice on more occasions than I did! We were also different in personality and character—I was exuberant, loud and assertive and Tom quiet, reflective and thoughtful. But we shared an awful lot in common during the SDP/Liberal Alliance days of the 1980s and had an enormous amount of fun and enjoyment!

His background was unique. This will become apparent in the interview recorded at his home in the late 1980s.  A product of a hamlet called Pant near the more famous village of Rhos close by Wrexham, his autobiography aptly titled ‘After The Dust Has Settled’ tells an interesting life-story. He was the son of a miner who was a socialist—Tom often said that he learnt ‘The Red Flag’ when a young boy! Following his time at Bangor University, where he gained a degree in Chemistry, he soon went to work underground in the mine where his father worked. I will refrain from saying anymore because it is all in the recording below and Tom tells the story much better...

In the interview he recalls the General Election of 1945 where he was active in the Meirioneth constituency and also of how he heard Lloyd George, Jim Griffiths and Aneurin Bevan speak. In 1970, he became MP for Wrexham and he soon became disillusioned with the Labour Party over its attitude towards devolution, Welsh Language, Common Market and voting reform. The last two were his passion and he became part of the Labour Party Westminster delegation to the European Parliament in Strasbourg in 1975 until direct elections in 1979. Later, he was a leading figure in the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform. On both of these matters he was outside the mainstream of Labour thinking and the support for his views was in his words ‘sparse’ and ‘opposition plentiful and vehement’—even within his own constituency party. Blind loyalty to a party was not Tom’s credo—he often used to say in speeches that one of the problems with politics in Britain was that ‘The Party’ had become too powerful and dominant. He was a free-thinking ‘backbencher’ who refused to toe the party line when it contravened his own conscience. 

In variably during the week in the Commons a group of Welsh-speaking Labour MPs would meet in the evening for a drink and a chat in the Harcourt Room, as I think it was called. Anyway, it was generally known as the Tories haunt—other than for the presence of Lord George Brown and a couple of Liberals. Stories shared in that circle were both fascinating and hilarious—with Cledwyn Hughes, Wil Edwards, Elystan Morgan, Denzil Davies and of course Tom vocal. In the recording, Tom recounts a couple of them. I tried to get him to say a few more, including a couple during his days as a colliery manager, but his response was ‘Gwynoro I can’t say them in public—God knows what you will do with the recording!’

He was there at the beginning of the SDP in early 1981 and, in fact, before then as a member of the Manifesto Group (a dozen or so like-minded moderate Labour MPs). Tom’s principled stand can best be illustrated by the fact that he was MP in a safe Labour seat and he knew full well that come the next General Election, which occurred in 1983, he would lose his seat. What did surprise me somewhat on reading the book was that he only devoted some 25 pages to the 1980s—because much of what was achieved then was often done under his watchful eye! Although I was Chair of the SDP for two terms and Joint Chair of the Alliance for the duration, not much would go on without cross-referencing with  Tom—certainly on the big issues, including how to keep the SDP office in London and David Owen at arms-length, or even further if possible!

In the 1980s Tom became chair-person of the McDougall Trust which gave grants to research workers in the fields of electoral systems and representative democracy.  Also he pursued another one of his passions which, as I said earlier, was the poetry of R.S.Thomas. Tom claims in his book that Thomas ‘stands supreme’ and that ‘ I am the proud possessor of every book of poetry he has published, from Stones in the Field in 1946 to Residues published posthumously in 2002’.

That’s a brief snapshot of Tom Ellis the man and his beliefs. Like the previous Vault feature with Mark Whitcutt and his political impersonations, this recording too was entirely unrehearsed and unedited. For many who remember Tom Ellis it will bring back fond memories...