Jim: The life and work of the Rt. Hon. James Griffiths by D Ben Rees
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Cyhoeddiadau Modern Cymreig Cyf
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Biography of the Labour MP James Griffiths 1890-1975
He was born in the predominantly Welsh-speaking village of Betws, near Ammanford in Carmarthenshire. The youngest of ten children; his father, William Griffiths was the local blacksmith. He spoke no English until he was five. Educated at Betws Board School, he left at the age of 13 to work at Ammanford No. 1 colliery (Gwaith Isa'r Betws), where he eventually became Lodge Secretary. Griffiths was a pacifist and while campaigning against the Great War met Winifred Rutley, whom he married in 1918. His brother (David Rees Griffiths, 1882–1953) was a notable Welsh poet who took the bardic name of 'Amanwy' after his native valley.
Griffiths continued his education by attending night school and became an active socialist. He helped establish a branch of the Independent Labour Party in Ammanford in 1908 and soon became its secretary. Later he occupied the powerful post of secretary of the newly formed Ammanford Trades Council (1916–1919). At the age of 29, he left the colliery on a miner's scholarship (1919–1921) to the Central Labour College, London, where at the same time Aneurin Bevan and Morgan Phillips were studying.
On returning home, Griffiths worked as Llanelli Labour Party agent (1922–1925), before becoming an agent for the Anthracite Miners' Association (1925–1936), and President of the powerful South Wales Miners' Federation – known locally as the Fed – in the Anthracite district of West Wales (1934–1936). In 1936, he was elected Labour Member of Parliament (MP) for what was then safe seat of Llanelli. Three years later he continued his rise through the Labour movement by getting elected to the party's National Executive Committee.
Following Labour's victory at the 1945 general election, he was made a Privy Counsellor and Minister for National Insurance by Prime Minister Clement Attlee. In this role he was responsible for creating the modern state benefit system. He introduced the Family Allowances Act 1945, the National Insurance Act 1946 and the National Assistance and Industrial Injuries Act 1948. Along with Bevan, he was one of the chief architects of the Welfare State. He served as Chairman of the Labour Party (1948–1949), and in 1950 he became Secretary of State for the Colonies. Within two years, though, the Labour Party was out of office.
During the long period in opposition, Griffiths became deputy leader of the Labour Party (1955–1959), and spokesman on Welsh affairs. He used his good relationship with Hugh Gaitskell to commit the Labour Party to a measure of devolution. Amid the Suez Crisis of 1956, he made an important speech opposing the underhanded tactics of the then Prime Minister Anthony Eden in which he stated "This is for our country a black and tragic week... an unjustifiable and wicked war". This was said to sum up the mood of many at the time.
Given Griffiths' determination in having campaigned for a Secretariat of State for Wales ever since the 1930s, Harold Wilson persuaded him to delay retirement and serve as the first Secretary of State for Wales following Labour's 1964 general election victory. At Wilson's instigation, Griffiths established the Welsh Office and laid the foundations for the role until the 1966 general election, whereupon he returned to the backbenches. He was appointed a Companion of Honour.
Though by now suffering from ill-health, Griffiths avoided resigning from the House of Commons, because he feared that if he did so, Labour would lose a by-election in Llanelli. Plaid Cymru had captured the neighbouring seat of Carmarthen in 1966; and the popular Llanelli Rugby coach Carwyn James was poised to stand for Plaid Cymru in a by-election, had Griffiths stood down. He remained in Parliament until 1970 and was succeeded in Llanelli by Denzil Davies, who fended off the Plaid Cymru challenge. The previous year, Griffiths had published his autobiography, Pages From Memory (London: Dent, 1969).