John Howell: Staunch Welsh nationalist and Plaid Cymru stalwart

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The Independent Online

John Howell was among those who contributed to the electoral progress of Plaid Cymru in the south east of Wales during the 1960s. He stood twice as a parliamentary candidate in Caerffili, in 1959 and 1966, winning only about 4,000 votes on each occasion. But his charisma attracted many young people to the nationalist cause, among them Phil Williams, who joined the party after hearing him speak at a street meeting in the Rhymni Valley. At the by-election of 1968, two years after Gwynfor Evans' victory in Carmarthen and with Phil Williams the Plaid candidate, the vote in Caerffili increased to 14,274, some 40 per cent of the total votes, which placed the party very close to winning the seat.

Howell spent the rest of his life, until multiple sclerosis overcame him, working for Plaid Cymru in Caerffili, Merthyr Tydfil and Rhondda, devoting all his physical and mental energies to the nationalist cause. He worked as an engineer at the Llanwern steelworks but spent almost all his evenings and weekends working for Plaid. An original, not to say eccentric thinker, he was a frequent broadcaster with Radio Free Wales, the clandestine radio station designed to flout the ban on the party making political broadcasts. He believed passionately that the Welsh people should control the land, industry and resources of their country, as a first step towards independence.

To that end, Howell went to farm in Cardiganshire, not far from Cynog Dafis (later a Plaid MP) and Hywel ap Dafydd. This was his way of "putting his shoulder to the wheel" (one of his favourite sayings), but he was not a success as a farmer and had to return to the south east after living for about four years in a hand-to-mouth fashion. I first met him in 1959 and got to know him and his wife Janet while sharing a house with them and the poet Harri Webb in Merthyr in 1965. Soon afterwards, Howell went back to working in industry.

Given his upbringing, Howell's commitment to Wales was marvellously staunch. He had been born in 1928 in Lahore – in India in those days, but now in Pakistan. Although his parents were both Welsh-speakers, the language of his childhood was Urdu, which he learned from his aya, a remarkable young woman whose hero, Mahatma Gandhi, became his hero too. He was fond of speaking Urdu to Pakistanis while out canvassing for Plaid Cymru and with the nurse who looked after him towards the end of his life. He never learned much of his parents' language, but saw to it that his three children attended Welsh Schools.

Howell had had a wholly English education at Aitchison College, "the Eton of India", where he excelled at boxing, rugby and hockey. Although his father was one of the pillars of the Raj in the Punjab, Howell began taking an interest in the independence movement, and this led in 1938 to his being hastily sent back to England to finish his education at Clifton College. During the holidays he lived with an aunt at Llancaiach in east Glamorgan, his people's home. He later enrolled at Bristol University, where he graduated in mechanical engineering shortly before emigrating to Canada. Once there, he worked in civil aviation and witnessed the growing tension between French and English speakers in that country. Now thinking of himself as a Welshman, he returned to Wales in 1957, almost immediately joining Plaid Cymru.

Even towards the end of his life, Howell was fond of discussing the fate of Wales. "What's the situation, then?" he would ask anyone willing to stay up all night with him. He visited the National Assembly in his wheelchair with a mixture of pride and dissatisfaction. "Wales deserves better than this," he would say with a broad grin, "but it's only a matter of time."

Meic Stephens

John Dawkin Arnold Howell, engineer and Welsh nationalist: born Lahore, India 5 October 1928; married 1960 Janet Serman (one son, one daughter and one son deceased); died Cardiff 14 May 2009.