Obituary: Viscount Tonypandy
Tuesday 23 September 1997
George Thomas was the first Speaker of the House of Commons to be known by the whole nation; known, and loved too. In 1978, two years after his appointment, the BBC began broadcasting Today in Parliament and its opening call ``Order! Order!'', declaimed in Thomas's rolling Rhondda accent, became a national catchphrase.
The broadcast provided most people with their first experience of how Parliament is conducted and how Mr Speaker could exert his authority over rebellious MPs by good-humoured and witty intervention. Within a week, a star was born. Speaker Thomas had become a national institution. And it was, of course, his gratifying apotheosis, after what he had wrongly felt to be a chequered political career.
George Thomas had been a lively, eloquent, busy MP in the 1945 parliament, a member of the committee chairmen's panel and first chairman of the Welsh Grand Committee. But, unlike his fellow member for Cardiff, James Callaghan, he was not offered even junior office. Nineteen years passed before he was rewarded and even then Harold Wilson could not fulfil his intention to make him Chairman of Ways and Means and deputy Speaker. The Labour majority was only five and a deputy Speaker renounces his party vote, a loss the Government could not afford.
Thomas was consoled first with a junior post at the Home Office and then as Minister of State at the Welsh Office. Later, as Minister of State at the Commonwealth Office, he enjoyed travelling the world and proved to be rather good at sorting out difficult African leaders whose temperament was more akin to that of the warm, voluble Welshman than to that of the average reserved Englishman. It was however in the United States, in Georgia, that a preacher said it all: ``His face is white but his heart is as black as ours.''
At last, in 1968, he entered the Cabinet as Secretary of State for Wales. It was a difficult time for the Welsh Office. Welsh nationalism was growing, particularly linguistic nationalism, and there was a tiny fringe threatening violence. Thomas, like many of his compatriots, had no enthusiasm for the nationalist cause. Moreover he had an English mother, and so had not nearly enough of the Welsh language, some people felt, for a man chosen to be the Welsh Secretary of State.
The tension grew as the investiture of the Prince of Wales drew closer. Thomas's life was constantly threatened. His bungalow was plastered with Welsh-language posters and leaflets and he was attacked in religious newspapers and even from the pulpit. The Prince of Wales was due to spend a preparatory term at Aberystwyth and the academics feared that it would be dangerous. The Secretary of State had a heavy responsibility but the police were confident enough and the Special Branch did all that was necessary around Caernarvon Castle for the ceremony itself.
When Labour was re- elected in 1974, George Thomas was 65. He fully expected to return to the Welsh Office, and to the end of his days he resented the fact that Wilson and Callaghan had failed to warn him that the job was to go to a younger man, and one favoured by the Welsh speakers. The post selected for Thomas was again the Chairmanship of Ways and Means and deputy Speaker. Seeing his disappointment Wilson reminded him that Selwyn Lloyd must surely soon retire, although of course the Speakership cannot be the gift of the Prime Minister.
Mistrusted as he was by the nationalists, George Thomas was the archetypal middle-of-the-road Welsh MP of his generation, formed by the fortifying curriculum of the valley, the pit, the chapel, the temperance movement, the Co-op, the trade union and the Labour Party. He had an expansive personality, a quick mind and all the evangelical skills. Such gifts are not exactly rare in Wales but Thomas had them in profusion; above all, he had the ability to find the words, expressed in richly dramatic cadences, that would move any audience.
As a young man Thomas had delivered a free prayer in the presence of a collier who had perfected his English by learning off the entire Book of Psalms. ``You should ask yourself tonight whether God wants you to be a preacher,'' he said. Thomas got an affirmative answer and became a most active Methodist lay preacher, more eloquent even in the pulpit than on the political platform. I have remembered for years a sermon I heard him preach at the service held before the Labour Party Conference. His theme was the need to treat old people with love and respect as well as justice and he spoke sadly of the contempt he had seen them receive in a certain institution.
The chapel was in his blood. His mother was the daughter of a founder of the English Methodist Church in Tonypandy. Mam Thomas, as she became known, was a heroic woman. At 19, she married a Welsh-speaking miner of the same age and before they reached 30 they had two daughters and three sons. The father took to the bottle, was violent in his cups, and to everyone's relief disappeared into the Army in 1914. Afterwards he went off and acquired another family.
The first family survived intact in a squalid basement as Mrs Thomas took in washing and sewed long into the night. The daughters went into service at 13 and George's elder brother down the pit at the same age. It was this that made it possible for George to go to secondary school and then to take a teacher training course at Southampton. He remained a teacher until he was 36. Medically graded as ``C'', he was a part-time special policeman during the Second World War. This left him time to serve as a member of the national executive of the National Union of Teachers and become a runner-up for the presidency.
When he was 16 his mother married again, and happily this time, to a winder at the pit and when he died George bought a bungalow in Cardiff and lived there with her. He took her with him on many engagements and Mam Thomas became the best-known mother in Wales. She was not a clinging type. She had been a fluent public speaker and had chaired her ward Labour Party and local co-operative women's guild. She lived to be over 90 and, when she died two months before her other remaining son, George underwent a crisis of religious faith.
It took him over a year to recover. His personality was a triumph over early adversity; yet not quite a complete triumph. Now and then there would emerge a hint of malice, a touch of envy or vanity, only shocking because they came from such an affable man.
On the day they re-opened the school at Aberfan, Thomas and I were riding in the last car of the motorcade. At each stop, the housewives surged around our car and cheered him. ``I do wish the Prime Minister could see what they think of me!'' Thomas said.
In his autobiography, Mr Speaker (1985), Thomas dismayed some old friends by writing with lack of charity about such favourite sons of the party as Foot, Callaghan and Cledwyn Hughes. Why did he do it? He would later ask himself that question and say, ``I wish I'd never written that old book.'' Was he influenced by the new candour of Crossman's diary? Was he persuaded by some editor to spice up his memoirs? The book did great damage to a man who had gone through life seeking love and soaking up adoration.
It was, however, a book of some historical importance. It revealed the attempts of backbenchers and party leaders to influence the Speaker. It was, it is important to remember, the anguished parliament of 1978 in which he first served as Speaker. He was surprised to receive offensive letters from backbenchers complaining of not being called. He got up in the House, revealed these pressures and warned MPs that such conduct was counter-productive.
Another ploy of the bully boys, he said, was to create a scene if they had not been called after standing up two or three times, hoping that the Speaker would call them next time to avoid a repeat performance. After John Golding had devised the technique of putting down an open question to the Prime Minister which permitted a supplementary question to be asked on any subject, other MPs tried to apply it to other ministers. Speaker Thomas would not allow it, believing - rightly - that it would completely alter the nature of Question Time.
But the Speaker had to face a greater strain. Key people from Government and Opposition would come to sound out what his rulings would be on certain issues; sometimes they would say that a poor view would be taken if he ruled in a particular way. His response was to threaten resignation and to promise that he would explain from the back benches his reasons for doing so. An answer would then be given that nobody wanted to push him around. Some MPs who thought it right for the Speaker to reveal what goes on in general terms could not forgive him for mentioning names and quoting private conversations.
The controversy is covered amply in Michael Foot's book Loyalists and Loners (1986). On reading an extract from the memoirs, Foot wrote to Thomas to say that publication of confidential conversations was a breach of trust and could only do injury to Parliament. Thomas replied, saying that his whole purpose in writing the book was because, like Foot, he was a believer in open government; in revealing the pressures the intention was to make things easier for his successors in the chair.
The subject was aired in the Times and Foot agreed that the book could not be compared with the Crossman diaries because there was a difference between what a Cabinet minister engaged in party controversies may reveal and Mr Speaker, who is pledged to impartiality and independence. Yet Foot says that, although the book was ``grotesquely misleading'', Thomas was a very good Speaker. He had to deal with a House more narrowly poised between the parties than any of recent times. ``Yet he kept his head from the start.''
The greatest hullabaloo came on the Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries Bill. When after a long and bitter procedure the Government won by one vote, there was a suspicion that somebody had broken a pair. The Welsh began to sing the "Red Flag" and Michael Heseltine seized the mace. Thomas suspended the House for 20 minutes and on the resumption suspended it again until the following morning. Thus the storm was stilled.
In spite of these difficulties, the Speaker's popularity grew. He adored the ceremonial and people who were invited to the Speaker's House found the experience a delight. He was not just the host but also the animator of the party. He entertained the most eminent in the land and also many humble people from Wales, for whom it was the treat of a lifetime.
The Conservatives kept him as Speaker until 1983. Then he became Viscount Tonypandy, with a hereditary title. This was not appreciated in Wales - although, since he had no heir, it did not matter very much. His coat of arms depicts an open Bible and a miner's lamp flanked by daffodils and the leek. The motto is old Welsh, Bid Ben Bid Bont, ``Who would lead, let him be a bridge'', from the Mabinogion.
George Thomas took his place, as a former Speaker should, on the cross- benches of the House of Lords. He suffered from cancer of the throat which then broke out elsewhere. After he collapsed at a party at Guildhall to celebrate his 80th birthday, we thought it would be the end. But a few days later, it became known that he was in a private nursing home in Wales, receiving the Prince and Princess and fulfilling one or two public engagements.
- John Beavan
George Thomas enjoyed an astonishing Indian summer in public life, living and making the cheerful best of it, as he put it, on "borrowed" time, writes Tam Dalyell.
He professed himself vastly amused that he had been granted these extra years, and deduced that the extension bestowed on him was proof that his Methodist Almighty had a wicked sense of humour. How he would have chuckled benevolently, had he known that his obituarist John Beavan had predeceased him by three years.
As Speaker, Thomas was my least favourite of those under whom I have sat - Sir Harry Hylton-Foster, Dr Horace King, Lord Selwyn Lloyd, Lord Weatherill and Madam Speaker Betty Boothroyd. He was capricious and concerned to ingratiate himself to the Prime Minister. He abused the position of Speaker to suppress dissenting opinion on the Falklands War as he judged what was good for Britain; and his judgement coincided with that of Margaret Thatcher. (Some of us could not quite get it out of our minds that Thomas himself had been the Minister of State in the Commonwealth Office when relations with Argentina could have been resolved and weren't.)
No memoirs in recent years have generated such hurt and then incandescent anger among former friends, particularly MPs sitting for Welsh seats and Welsh Labour activists, as those of Mr Speaker Sir, the memoirs of Viscount Tonypandy. They said that they thought George had been a friend and "then we discovered what he thought of us!" Nor did his endorsement of Sir James Goldsmith's political forays on the European issue endear him to many of his erstwhile colleagues. Though, in his last years, his British nationalism which had always been there came out uninhibited.
The last time I chatted to Tonypandy - he was a tremendous gossip - was outside St Margaret's, Westminster, following the memorial service for Wing Commander Grant Ferris, his long-serving deputy, in July. Tonypandy raised the subject of devolution and expostulated - he always used his hands - that he was quite appalled. He hissed to Cardinal Basil Hume and me (the famous familiar voice of Mr Speaker had long gone): "I love that place" - he pointed to the Commons - "and I've given pounds 100 to the `Vote No' campaign."
At that moment, the government car which he was rightly given whenever he ventured out drew up. As he clambered into it, Tonypandy's last words to me were "Devolution - abomination, I call it."
As a funeral eulogy speaker Tonypandy was much in demand and superb. Those who were there speak of his moving tribute to Wilson in the Scilly Isles speaking of how he burnt himself out in the service of his fellow countrymen. Tonypandy in his last decade did the same.
John Beavan (Lord Ardwick) died 18 August 1994.
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