Owen Smith: The end is Nye

Soon they grew bored of cheering every time a Labour gain was announced. Occasionally a victorious Labour face would flash at them from the screen, and then the room would grow quieter. Somehow those truculent Welsh faces … did not harmonise with the mood.
Auberon Waugh, A Bed of Flowers (Michael Joseph, 1972)

For much of its modern history, Mexico has been governed by an oxymoronically-entitled movement, the Institutional Revolutionary Party. One can imagine its leaders, in performing the tricky balance of supposed radicalism as against conformity, using their fieriest oratory to declaim mundanities and orthodoxies without end.

You don’t need to head ‘south of the border’, however, to see this sort of thing in action. Just log on to the website of Labour leadership challenger Owen Smith, tap in your postcode and you’ll find the nearest event to you on the Smith campaign trail.

Meantime, here are some highlights from the Smith manifesto. He is passionate about education, the National Health Service and fair pay for women – the heir not so much to Welsh Labour legend Aneurin Bevan as to George Osborne. He also wants to work towards a world without nuclear weapons, as, indeed, did Ronald Reagan. And he supports a progressive income tax, which has been the official policy of every British prime minister since the war.

One is reminded of British industry in the 1980s and 1990s, when companies would routinely proclaim their total and unwavering ‘commitment to quality’. As opposed to … what?

All this is perfectly respectable, but given Mr Smith is Labour MP for Pontypridd, rather than, say, Labour MP for a Midlands or Northern seat, it is necessary for it to be presented not as mainstream social democracy but as fearlessly radical. In others words, the sort of shtick you used to get (and may still – I have stopped listening to the programme) whenever Radio 4’s Any Questions was broadcast from Wales. A local Labourite on the panel would insist with great passion that ‘our children have a right to the very best education’, or that elderly people ‘should never die of hypothermia’, and the audience would erupt into manic applause, as if a new guru had emerged from nowhere, spreading previously unimagined enlightenment.

Well, it certainly gave the bird to the other panellists, who presumably wanted indifferent schools and a healthy annual cull of senior citizens.

You either get the temper and tempo of Welsh Labour politics or not, and I mostly don’t. Arriving in Cardiff to start journalism training in January 1980, I was aware of being in the heart of what had been, within the past twelve months, the bedrock of the British government. Key figures in the 1976-79 Labour administration who either were Welsh, or who sat for Welsh constituencies, or both, included the prime minister, the deputy prime minister, the home secretary and the foreign secretary, while the Speaker of the House of Commons sat for a Cardiff seat.*

At that time, things were going badly for the new Conservative government and there was every chance Labour’s Cambrian heartland would soon resume its place in the sun. Not that you would have gleaned any of this from the manner and general stance of those Labour politicians to whom we, the callow trainee hacks, were introduced.

In their own eyes, they were perpetual Davids battling a vast, malign yet strangely-amorphous Goliath (Margaret Thatcher’s hate-figure status was still in embryo at that time). Simply to be Labour was to be radical, right and romantic, rather as being a political grandee in Mexico carried with it the status of a revolutionary.

Just how honorary, in Labour’s case, this status proved to be can be gauged by the fact that little about the 1976-79 government was especially radical and that, when the furious reaction to this lack of radical fervour – a reaction in full spate from circa 1980 to 1982 – had run its course, the party turned to a South Walian, the rising star Neil Kinnock, to lead it back to mainstream social democracy.

None of this is remotely disreputable. Wales can be cast as the cornerstone of Labour moderation, the reservoir to which the party could always turn after an electoral drought. But that was nowhere near good enough for the Welsh Labour establishment, which took, and seems to take, a positively Mexican attitude to being (a) the status quo, and (b) the heroic challenger to it.

I think it is fair to say that few of the thirteen people in my journalism class had ever encountered anyone like the assorted Labour politicos who (unpaid, and in their own time) came to talk to us and take questions. From memory, two of our number were Welsh and a third lived in Wales with his parents but hailed from the north of England.

A majority, I would guess, were simply nonplussed by staunchly declarative statements – in relation to a proposed new school, leisure centre or other facility – such as ‘the people of’ (fill in name of Cardiff neighbourhood or Valleys town) ‘deserve the best’. Why, we would ask? To deserve something, don’t you have to have done something?

Before you all run away with the idea that these poor local politicians were being duffed up by ghastly little English Tory kids, I would guess that, of the thirteen cadets, there were two obvious Conservatives and two possibles. Given we were mostly in the 18 to 19 age-range, it may be that one or more may not have been eligible to vote in the May 1979 election.

No, the oddness was in seeing well-entrenched local politicians behaving as if they were engaged in permanent struggle on behalf of the great, supposedly-disgruntled mass of Welsh people, despite the fact that for years those to whom this same electorate had looked for sustenance, at both municipal and national level, had been Labour.


This is, of course, the world from which Owen Smith has sprung. In his duel with Jeremy Corbyn, we see the differences between a Welsh radical and the English variety. The former tries to come over as fiery and dangerous, the latter does everything possible not to do so – think Tony Benn or Mr Corbyn himself, who has been compared, not unkindly, to an amiably eccentric prep-school teacher. But the latter are radical and the former are not.

There is, of course, one Owen Smith policy that does stand out: his demand for a second referendum on European Union membership or, as an alternative, a general election after the Brexit terms have been agreed. Quite apart from the obvious objections – What would be the referendum question? How would an election result be interpreted? – there is the notable fact that Mr Smith himself is already committed to campaigning to getting Britain back into the union that it has just voted to leave whatever the outcome of the negotiations.

I ought to say at this point that I love Wales, having long thought of it as a much bigger version of my mother’s native Cornwall, with the same mixture of industry, agriculture and wild places, with a similar language and with the same fondness for naming places after saints. Whether holidaying there in my teens, visiting more recently or, indeed, taking part in that long-ago training course, I have never had anything but happy times.

But I fear that in Mr Smith’s Europe policy – fighting ‘tooth and nail’, in his own words, to nullify the results of the referendum – we see the essence of radicalism, Welsh style: reactionary conservatism and a deep contempt for the electorate presented as if it were fiery popular radicalism.

The creed, in other words, of a Partido Revolucionario Institucional – as they say in Welsh.

* James Callaghan, MP for Cardiff South-East; Michael Foot, MP for Blaenau Gwent; Merlyn Rees, born in Pontypridd; David Owen, born to a Welsh family in Devon; George Thomas, MP for Cardiff West. Note: from 1976 to 1992, all three Labour leaders either were Welsh or sat for Welsh seats, or both: Callaghan, Foot and Neil Kinnock (MP for Islwyn).

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