OBITUARY: Eddie Griffiths
Friday 20 October 1995
In the high summer of 1968, the most highly charged domestic political issue related to the nationalisation of the steel industry. It was the nadir of the Wilson Government's fortunes. Nothing seemed to be going right. And then, Dick Winterbottom, master butcher by trade, the best and funniest street-corner megaphone orator I ever heard anywhere suddenly died - almost certainly largely as a result of being required to be in constant attendance in the committee room during the passage of the Iron and Steel Bill.
Out of the Welsh Blue, the party produced an apparently dream candidate for the Sheffield Brightside constituency - an industrial chemist, reared in the steel industry, who had become one of the first batch of worker directors of the British Steel Corporation. Such was the tempo of the times, that there was even talk of catapulting Griffiths into the cabinet within months, as a man who would know at first hand about recent experience at the sharp end in heavy industry - unlike all those glittering Oxford Firsts: Wilson himself, Crosland, Crossman, Healey, Jenkins, Mulley, and Stewart. The national agent, the memorable Dame Sarah Barker, thought she had manipulated a star into position - but then as James Callaghan would tartly put it "Sarah's swans do make a habit of turning into geese!" Alas this was what was to occur to Griffiths politically.
Eddie Griffiths was born in rural Flintshire with the blood of John Summers and Co, the great Shotton steel works, running in all his veins. This was particularly relevant since Summers was arguably the best-run, if paternalistic, of all British private steel companies, and caring for its workers. Griffiths told me that he did not share the adversarial attitudes found more commonly in the steel industry in south Wales, Coatbridge and Motherwell, or Sheffield. He had been born into the cosiest of all steel works. This may have provided part of the reason why he was soon on edgy terms with the Sheffield Labour Party who had hard-bitten attitudes about employers.
From Mold Grammar School, Griffiths proceeded to University College of North Wales at Bangor. Qualifying as an industrial chemist and metallurgist, Griffiths worked at Shotton and subsequently in Caerphilly and at the Dalzell works in Lanarkshire. In March 1968 he became a worker director of the British Steel Corporation. After his defeat by Geraint Morgan in Denbighshire at the 1966 general election, Griffiths was promoted by Transport House as a candidate for the vacant seat in Sheffield Brightside, and thus attended only one meeting of the BSC board.
Like Dick Winterbottom, who came from Oldham 18 years earlier, he made the promise that if selected he would live in Sheffield. Unlike Winterbottom, he did not honour the promise and remained at home in his beloved Deeside, North Wales. It was to be the seed of trouble. If candidates give undertakings of residence, woe betide them if they do not honour those promises. In the event, Griffiths won with a majority of 5,248 compared to the 19,177 majority which Winterbottom had enjoyed only two years earlier. The House of Commons is an adversarial place in the chamber and always slightly embarrassed at being lectured by maiden speakers. I vividly remember squirming when Griffiths told us:
"I can do no better than to quote from the Bible a very famous verse which I would suggest every member of Parliament should use as his yardstick to measure the motive of his contribution to any topic. 'Though I speak with the tongues of men and angels and though I have the gift of prophecy, so that I could move mountains, and have not love, I am become a sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal.' I believe that if our actions and observations are based on respect and love for our fellow men our contributions will be worthwhile." That was not quite the contribution that the beleaguered Labour Party had expected on the most contentious matter of the year.
Griffiths believed that the conservative attitude of private companies to the export market was one of the reasons why Britain's export performance was not anything like as good as it should have been. In 10 years the export increase had been something like 30 per cent whereas the import performance had shown an increase of 63 per cent. He believed that Britain had to use all the machinery available to sell abroad. He gently criticised private companies for their attitude: "To remain profitable, to give our shareholders the dividends they want, we can only afford to carry 10, 15, 20 per cent in the export market." He believed that this philosophy should go and the BSC should use every means within its power to push its export performance to its full potential.
On the question of long-term planning, he believed that there was an acceptance in the steel industry, both in the corporation and in the British Iron Steel and Kindred Trades Association, which sponsored him, that if the industry was to remain competitive it was essential that it had low- cost production units and produced not less steel but more steel.
After the 1970 general election Griffiths, in the view of his colleagues, became a little odd and a poor attender. In retrospect what we did not realise was the extent of which he had been physically hurt in a most unpleasant mugging after leaving the House of Commons late one night.
Living far away from a constituency is always likely to make a member more vulnerable to political manoeuvring within the constituency. One of the objections raised by the Sheffield Brightside party, where Eddie Griffiths had had a majority of 20,567 in the general election of February 1974, was that he had gone on living in Flintshire. However, the straw that probably broke the camel's back was a weekend Griffiths spent in Suffolk as the guest of the local Conservative MP for Ipswich, Ernle Ernle Money. Griffiths had gone there to preach at a harvest festival (he was a devout Christian). But before that he went with Money as a passionate football enthusiast to see Ipswich Town play Sheffield United. He also went to a Chamber of Commerce dinner and dance where he was photographed with Money and his supporters in a dinner jacket. Someone in Suffolk, probably a travelling Sheffield United supporter, tipped off the Brightside Constituency Labour Party and the Sheffield Star newspaper. And that was the end of Griffiths's political career.
In the October 1974 general election, the second of the year, the Brightside party adopted in Griffiths's place the charming and ebullient left-winger Joan Maynard, who cheerfully took it in her stride that she was nicknamed "Stalin's Grandmother". Joan Maynard got 18,108 votes and retained the seat for Labour. Griffiths, standing as an Independent Labour candidate, polled 10,182 votes. After that defeat he joined the Social Democratic Party. His career was one of those might-have-beens.
Edward Griffiths, industrial chemist, politician: born Flintshire 7 March 1929; MP (Labour) for Sheffield Brightside 1968-74; married 1954 Ella Griffiths (one son, one daughter); died 18 October 1995.
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