The death of Newport West MP Paul Flynn this week prompts me to re-publish here a review I wrote of his autobiography for the Welsh magazine Cambria. Flynn was always straight with the Press and, as a reporter on the South Wales Argus, I enjoyed good relations with him, though he took me to task if I wrote something that annoyed him, as well he should have. I didn’t think he was always right, either. Give and take. Civilised give and take.
PAUL FLYNN: WELSH PATRIOT, SOCIALIST AND FLY IN THE OINTMENT
NIGEL JARRETT is amused and moved by the Welsh MP’s autobiographical memoirs
The Unusual Suspect by Paul Flynn (Biteback Publishing Ltd., £19.99)
When the irrepressible MP Paul Flynn began his political career on Newport borough council in the 1970s, I turned to my South Wales Argus reporter colleague, Tom Ellis, and said, ‘We’d better not doze off while this guy’s on his feet.’
Tom, the paper’s local government correspondent, was used as I was to waiting interminably for debating councillors to get to the point; that’s if there was any debate at meetings where decisions had already been taken by powerful political groups, mostly Labour. Even with the incessant noise of rubber-stamping in the background, it was easy to see that the eloquent and often sardonic Paul Flynn was going to help us get something newsworthy out of the tiresomely unproductive.
Newport’s council committee meetings were covered religiously by the Argus in those days and, to be fair, the group generally laid out its wares clearly, albeit with an irrevocable outcome in mind. Minority opposition members achieved publicity by default, especially at the full council’s monthly meetings. Their frustration often reduced cogent argument to rant and animosity.
Tom and I soon discovered that despite group discipline Paul Flynn often espoused unusual causes and spoke out publicly if he disagreed with his Labour colleagues, either bravely at formal meetings or through contact with the Press. He’s a prolific writer – in books, in letters to the Press, as a blogger and in the public prints. He once got back at an obdurate Labour group by writing a scurrilous and pseudonymous column in a local newspaper.
As this candid, entertaining and often self-deprecating memoir recalls, his outspokenness came to a head when he opposed the demolition of a row of council houses in his ward on the grounds that it would lead to a common-enough spiral of decline in social conditions. He was thrown off the group. Other pet causes, including opposition to banning the film Last Tango in Paris, promotion of traffic-calming measures and encouragement of performance poetry, had already irritated its other members. To him they were serious but to others they must have seemed mischievous, off the point and – worse – enviably headline-catching.
Beyond group diktats, he was free to speak his mind, though he had to avoid expulsion from the party itself. He was to depart Neil Kinnock’s front bench at Westminster on two occasions (the second a retirement through fatigue compounded by arthritis) for his present position on the back benches, where he has been popping up and down for six months short of 20 years, exercising the independence of mind that got him into trouble in the first place. He’s been equally active and provocative outside the Chamber.
With regular immersion in hot water has come the fame-through-notoriety that has probably and ironically been an advantage to Labour. If you like Paul Flynn and his single-mindedness, you’ll probably like his Labour friends. The electorate’s ‘Don’t knows’ doubtlessly think that his charisma might make him worth voting for. He is a favourite of political correspondents of every persuasion and has won their formal plaudits and prizes. Canvassing once, he was tailed for the Daily Telegraph by the playwright David Hare and thoroughly enjoyed it. They both did, apparently.
In the 1970s, when the party in Wales was looking for unanimity of view on devolution itself, let alone a referendum, Welsh-speaker Flynn was in no doubt that Wales should be governed in part from within. Typically, he had few qualms about bashing Labour luminaries who disagreed. These included the manically anti-devolutionist Leo Abse, whom in other respects, as an uncompromising reformer, he most resembles.
When the vote went against devolution in the 1979 referendum, Flynn, to the astonishment of many who for perfectly valid reasons had opposed any measure of self-government, was irate, and in the book recalls his anger by saying that the No-vote ‘disgraced’ Wales on the international stage. If nothing else, this reveals a patriot, one who has come to terms with the difficult accommodation involved in being both nationalist and internationalist while supporting himself on the bedrock of Labour virtues.
Of that time he writes, ‘It is a rare event in world history for a nation to declare it does not want to have a larger say in its own affairs.’ Divisions had been rife, even in his own backyard, the ‘Gwent Against the Assembly’ movement having been funded by a £1,000 grant from the Labour-controlled county council. Anger aside, the whole issue and the fidgeting alignments of friend and foe must have been grist to Flynn’s mill.
He was born in Cardiff. His father, a machine-gunner throughout the Great War, was shot in the leg but later deprived by the government of his ex-serviceman’s pension. Flynn’s picture of a man vainly trying to sell full sets of encyclopaedias to scrape a living in the 1930s is heart-rending. The father’s example of heroism, determination and disappointment has been the son’s political inspiration.
His mother is equally lovingly portrayed. Kathleen Flynn came up with a sophisticated analysis of the Welsh that went beyond the glib, north-south division favoured by those eager to describe sarcastically a nation of irreconcilable polar opposites. Perhaps only a Cardiffian from the melting-pot of Grangetown could have understood it. There were three grades, she averred: the Cardiff-Irish-Spanish-Italian but Wales-born ‘mongrels’; sing-song Valley types who were ‘Real Welsh’; and the northern Welsh speakers, who were ‘Proper Welsh’ (deeply Protestant and probably extra-terrestrial).
The first Flynn to attend a grammar school, he went to St Illtyd’s, an establishment for good Irish Catholic sons, where his interest in the Welsh language, ‘a lifelong delight’. was sparked by teacher Glyn Ashton. Perhaps the often lone-furrowing Flynn, a man with a roving intellectual curiosity and keen sense of injustice, was interested in languages because their embodiment of ideas can often be usefully exclusive. At any rate, on two separate occasions he famously addressed the Commons in Latin and in Chaucerian English. He also encouraged pioneering parents in their 1960s mission to have Welsh taught in schools.
He became Newport’s first Welsh-speaking MP in 1987 (actually for the sub-divided constituency of Newport West) and was invited the following year to be a Llywydd y Dydd when the National Eisteddfod came to town. Preparing his presidential address, he was urged by the BBC’s Huw Edwards to amend a quote by Hungarian writer István Széchenyi from ‘a nation living in her language’ to ‘a nation living through her language’ (drwy’r iaith). The niceties of words. In a characteristic resolution of self-assurance after doubt, he stuck with Széchenyi’s original metaphor.
To say he’s done his bit for Wales is an under-statement. The language passion was channelled into the clamour for a Welsh fourth channel, but Gwalian concerns stand beside an infinite variety of other issues spreading outwards from his ‘infatuation’ with Newport, where he has worked, lived, brought up a family, been re-married after divorce and suffered grievous personal loss, all recounted with candour and absence of self-pity. Being a stroke victim doesn’t appear to have staunched his wit and invective.
Backbenchers are able to make waves but the wave that breaks around the leader of the party and gets him uncomfortably drenched is possibly the ultimate in revolt from below. As Flynn’s fulminations have been trained on proponents of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, animal dissection in schools, criminalisation of drugs, mortgage and pensions mis-selling, cavalier attitudes to boxing injuries, homosexual inequality, bull-bars on 4 x 4s, to name just a few targets across a wide range, it is perhaps no surprise that Tony Blair should have been in line for a soaking. There’s no love lost between them.
And if anyone thinks an MP in his seventies who has suffered a stroke and been possibly enervated by years of campaigning should have become less vociferous or more forgiving, let them be warned that retirement from politics would for Paul Flynn cause painful withdrawal symptoms. He’s been in Parliament for a ‘mere’ 22 years and is ‘just settling in’. As a late developer, he senses that the best is yet to be.
So no-one, least of all the Labour hierarchy, should expect immunity from ire and coruscating appraisal; at the same time, those who may not like him should be pleasantly surprised by his generous good nature and jibes both well- and ill-intentioned. He says his judgements of other politicians are inspired by admiration and hero-worship, ‘spiced with a little malice’. The last is uppermost when Lembit Opik, Kim Howells and George Thomas get it in the neck; Anne Widdecombe (Flynn’s beloved ‘Doris Karloff’) probably ducks with a smile on her lips; Ann Cryer, Stephen Pound and Gordon Prentice are wreathed in adulation. But the party is still being called to account, it having ‘wallowed in the easy victories and the comforts of power’. Austerity, thrift and concern for the fragile human habitat lie ahead.
There’s still work to be done, too, at the lone crusader level : the introduction of daylight saving, hounding the Church Commissioners over blood sports on Anglican lands and investment in the arms trade, among others. On his suggestion of making St David‘s Day a bank holiday, he has never taken John Major’s ‘No!’ for an answer. It may yet come to pass if the old Grangetown mongrel – or Labour’s ‘Welsh Terrier’, as one BBC journalist called him – keeps his teeth in good nick.