Election 1997: Too old to rise, too young to retire

Alan Watkins in Llanelli with Denzil Davies, Labour's lone critic of EMU
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Indy Lifestyle Online
There was a time in 1974-79 when Denis Healey used to say that the next leader of the Labour Party would be Denzil Davies. But then, Lord Healey said the same about David Owen. Mr Davies was at that time a Treasury minister with Lord Healey as Chancellor. Most people agreed that, whether Mr Davies became leader or not, he clearly had a bright future.

But Labour lost the 1979 election. After doing some jobs for Michael Foot, Mr Davies became Neil Kinnock's shadow defence minister. The two did not really get on. All they had in common was an enthusiasm for rugby and an ability to speak in public (with Mr Davies arguably the more impressive performer in the Commons). In other respects they were at odds: West Wales against East Wales, Welsh against English, a first at Oxford against a pass at Cardiff.

Mr Davies complained that Mr Kinnock was making policy without consulting him. One summer's night in 1988, shortly after 12, he telephoned the political correspondent of the Press Association and told him he had resigned from the Labour front bench. He has not been back since.

Nor does he look like returning after 1 May, though he will come back as member for Llanelli with probably an increased majority. At 58, he is too old to gain the approval of what he refers to as "the Central Committee". And he has strong and clear views on the single currency. Almost alone, he has been to Tony Blair what assorted Angelas, a few ministers and two- thirds of his party have been to John Major.

Mr Davies took the precaution of ensuring that he had been duly nominated as candidate at Llanelli Town Hall - a fine building in a 1960s desert - before his manifesto was published. This was to forestall any attempt by the Central Committee to impose a candidate in his place, a course they had, after all, followed in other constituencies. Mr Davies did not really think they would try it on with him, in Llanelli. It was just as well to be on the safe side. He declares:

"Labour has not decided whether to join in the next Parliament. I believe we should not. Joining involves the transfer of substantial economic powers from an elected British government and parliament to unelected bankers and bureaucrats in Frankfurt and Brussels. Interest rates in Britain would be set not by the Chancellor of the Exchequer but in Frankfurt by the European Central Bank."

Evidently he can write quite well too. His constituents, however, are not very interested. Llanelli used to be both the anthracite coal centre and the tinplate headquarters of the civilised world. Who would have thought even 25 years ago that coal would be gone but tinplate survive in the Trostre works, which makes the cans for Heinz baked beans and Coca-Cola? Mr Davies's immediate predecessor before 1970, Jim Griffiths, Minister of Social Security and later Colonial Secretary in the Attlee governments, would certainly have been surprised. A great orator, Griffiths was of cautious disposition, being photographed on one of his African expeditions with a sunshade in one hand and an umbrella in the other.

Mr Davies is a bolder spirit. He even lives in the constituency, whereas Griffiths confined himself to Putney, paying occasional ceremonial visits to South-west Wales. We went canvassing near the candidate's house on the estuarial coast in Pembrey. There is a story that an atomic bomb is buried in the sands nearby: a distortion of the truth that high explosive from the old ordnance factory at Burry Port had a preliminary role in the Manhattan Project.

Defence played no part in the questioning of Mr Davies. One voter said he was a nice change from all that politics on the TV. A man complained that in Cardiff they had lost his application for a disability allowance. Mr Davies promised to look into it. A woman said that badger-baiting was going on in the Pembrey nature reserve but that "the police done nothing". Mr Davies, through his tape recorder, asked his secretary to remind him to write to the chief constable.

A self-confessed Tory, an Englishman as it happened, said that after 40 years he was going to vote Labour. Mr Davies thought the Tories were "up against it" but that Plaid Cymru might do reasonably well. Only one voter raised the single currency. He had seen some television programme which had depicted our entire stock of bullion being transported to Germany. Accordingly he did not intend to vote at all. Mr Davies then briefly outlined his own views, of which the voter had previously been unaware. He promised to vote for Mr Davies, who told me afterwards that he thought he would still stay at home.

At midday we went to Swansea for numerous interviews in English and Welsh, all about the single currency. Mr Davies said the party had not made up its mind. He intended to try to persuade it to come down against. What could be fairer than that? Returning to the office at six, he found numerous messages, including one from Newsnight. "I've said everything I've got to say," he told his agent. "Tell them I've gone to the rugby." It is a rare politician who turns down Newsnight. We ended the day happily at Stradey Park, seeing Llanelli beat Bridgend.

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