“Keeping the politicians on track” – A personal reflection on the role of the media in effectively scrutinising both government and opposition in the digital news era
a talk by Martin Shipton, Media Wales’ Chief Reporter
Gorwel lecture at Cardiff Metropolitan University, October 12 2017 Martin Shipton’s text of the talk
It is a fact universally acknowledged that a democratically elected administration must be in want of some scrutiny.
Well one would certainly like to think so – but as time goes on, it seems depressingly clear to me that the impediments are getting greater, and there is no guarantee that the safeguards which many of us take for granted will be in place in the future.
Today I’m going to talk about how I have tried to live up to the precept outlined in my first sentence as well as the nature of the impediments I referred to – and in doing so confronting some of the negative consequences of the so-called digital age. Finally I will talk about my latest endeavour in holding a significant Welsh figure from recent history to account.
I take what my employers would now describe as a traditional view of the role of a journalist. It sometimes involves simply conveying information about events that have happened and what people of note have said. But what interests me more is analysing the significance of what has happened and what has been said, and conveying that to the reader in a thought-provoking and engaging way.
This is a generic point I’m making, and it goes beyond political journalism into broader news coverage, sport and the arts. Of course it’s important to provide straightforward information, but discerning readers want insightful analysis from writers with experience and expertise.
By the way – and let me make this point close to the outset. I aim to write for the general reader who, like me, is interested in understanding the society they live in. I want that to include as many people as possible. I am not, however, interested in entertaining, or pandering to, morons – many of whom fancy themselves as writers on social media.
So what approach have I adopted to scrutinising the Welsh Government and the National Assembly?
From before the Assembly existed, I have made no secret of my support for it as an institution. At the time of the referendum 20 years ago I worked for Wales on Sunday where, with the collaboration of the then editor Alan Edmunds, I wrote in favour of a Yes vote.
There was never any doubt on my part that such would be the case. When I previously worked for the Northern Echo, a morning paper in the north east of England, I was friendly with those behind the ill-fated campaign for a north east assembly and developed my knowledge of devolution in other European countries.
So once the Assembly was up and running, no-one could accuse me of being a maliciously motivated anti-devolutionist, sitting on the sidelines carping and seeking any excuse to attack the institution because of its very existence.
And there were people who were prepared to do that – deliberately blurring the distinction between the body itself and the executive, although of course the original corporate body model didn’t help matters in this respect.
I wasn’t in that category – although my sympathy for devolution did not dampen my determination to expose what shortcomings there might be in what in due course became known as the Welsh Government.
The Assembly’s early period was dominated, for me, by three themes: the question of securing match funding for the European aid money coming Wales’ way because of most of the country’s relative poverty, constitutional concerns about the nature of the devolution settlement and very practical problems arising out of shortcomings in the way the NHS was functioning.
In all three cases the material I wrote was inspired not by a wish to be a dispassionate recorder of events, rather like the theoretical artist-narrator mooted by Stephen Dedalus in Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, “within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails”.
Instead, I was seeking to influence the way readers thought. I was behaving like the kind of writer endorsed by Jean-Paul Sartre in his concept of la littérature engagée – engaged literature, taking a stand on issues of the day.
In the case of match funding I went a step further and stood in a Parliamentary by-election at Ceredigion under the somewhat whimsical description Wales on Sunday: Match Funding Now. Doing so was a bit of a gimmick, I acknowledge, but it gave me the opportunity to get across both in my paper and in media interviews the message that the UK Labour Government was letting Wales down by not providing match funding.
Alun Michael was ousted as the Assembly’s First Secretary days after the by-election, ushering in the Rhodri Morgan years. But the match funding was never paid. Years later, after the Freedom of Information Act came into force – another significant means, despite its limitations, by which governments can be held to account – a letter from Alun Michael to Andrew Smith, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, emerged in which the beleaguered First Secretary had pleaded for political help. None was forthcoming.
The drive for more powers has been a constant since the establishment of the Assembly, and I see no sign of it abating. It’s offered huge opportunities to hold up for scrutiny in particular the inconsistent approaches of Labour and Conservative politicians.
Again, I expressed my own views quite forthrightly, describing the Legislative Competence Order or LCO system under which the Assembly had to seek permission from Westminster to make laws in certain areas as “a conjuring trick designed to conceal an instrument of national humiliation”.
In my desire to hold those responsible to account, I found myself going to somewhere I’d never contemplated visiting: the three-mile long Channel island of Alderney that didn’t need permission from Westminster to pass its own laws.
After an overnight stay on the island during which I met key players including an Australian constitutional expert, I wrote a three-page report for the Western Mail in which I stated: “Opponents of full law-making powers for the Assembly have argued that it needs to walk before it runs. Yet in contrast to the 60 full-time politicians backed by an extensive civil service that makes up our Assembly, Alderney is run, and laws are made, by 10 unsalaried amateurs collectively known as the States of Alderney backed up by less than 20 civil servants.
“Comparisons that illustrate the unjust nature of Wales’ status are not restricted to the British Isles. Further afield there are small remnants of the British Empire that most people in Wales will never have heard of that also have law-making powers superior to the National Assembly.”
The third area which led to huge number of stories in the early years of the Assembly was Labour’s stewardship of the health service, and particularly so far as waiting times are concerned. In more recent years the Conservatives have used the Welsh NHS as a weapon against Labour, but in the early 2000s they were out of office and no-one beyond their own circles was listening to them.
Yet in some respects there were more shocking things to be said in those earlier years.
A combination of telling statistics and human interest can provide a compelling narrative that exposes injustice and shows up the lack of political accountability within arguably the most important and certainly the most costly public service.
Two stories given to me by Ron Davies when he was the AM for Caerphilly in the first Assembly term illustrate this well, I think.
The first demonstrated the very serious consequences of an inhuman bureaucracy and the refusal of Health Minister Jane Hutt to intervene to avert suffering.
I wrote: “The funding crisis affecting the Pain Clinic at Cardiff’s University Hospital of Wales came to light when former Welsh Secretary Ron Davies was contacted by his constituent Peter Ash. Mr Ash, 52, suffered a brain haemorrhage in 1992, since when he has been unable to work. The haemorrhage affected his brain’s ability to control pain and he constantly has it on the left side of his body. He needs a variety of treatments to help him cope.
“Since October 1995 Mr Ash has been attending the Pain Clinic in Cardiff, where about every six months he has been getting a pain-killing epidural injection. Now, because of the funding crisis at the Clinic, he has been told he can only have the injection once a year.”
Explaining that her husband would suffer severe pain as a consequence of the funding cuts, Linda Ash said they were also concerned about others who would suffer.
Jane Hutt wrote to Ron Davies saying there was an 18-month waiting list for initial outpatient appointments at the Pain Clinic. She had been advised that Mr Ash’s clinical care was “appropriate at this time” – an assertion denied by the consultant anaesthetist who was responsible for it.
Ron Davies commented: “I’m extremely angry at the way Mr Ash has been treated. It only makes matters worse when attempts are made to pretend there is no problem when in fact the issue highlights some of the grave inadequacies in the way the health service is run.”
Perhaps the greatest indictment of the way the NHS was being mismanaged at the time came with a story about a waiting list that was expanding into infinity.
Food microbiologist George Prentice, another of Ron Davies’ constituents, had suffered from polio since childhood, and one of his legs had always been weak. Recently his good leg had begun to deteriorate and he came to the conclusion that he needed at least one hip replacement.
In January 2001 his GP had referred him to an orthopaedic consultant at Caerphilly Miners’ Hospital. A full year later Mr Prentice received a letter asking him if he wanted to remain on the consultant’s waiting list.
He also received a printed sheet telling him: “All patients should not normally have to wait more than six months for a first appointment from the date of the GP referral.”
Four lines later the same note said: “You will probably be waiting more than six months.”
In April 2002 he got a further letter telling him of a pledge made by the Health Minister, still Jane Hutt. It said: “The Minister is determined that by July 2002 no-one should have to wait more than 18 months for inpatient or day care treatment anywhere in Wales.”
After seeking further clarification, Mr Prentice was told the clock did not start ticking until a patient had seen a consultant and been referred on for an operation or other treatment.
At the same time he was told there was a 140-week wait to see the consultant. Altogether, therefore, from first approaching his GP it seemed he would have to wait longer than five years to be operated on.
A further letter, however, blew even a five-year wait out of the water. Andrew Cottom, the acting chief executive of Gwent Healthcare NHS Trust, wrote saying: “The waiting time for an outpatient appointment continues to increase by a week every week.”
Mr Cottom blamed an historic shortfall in funding the orthopaedic service in Gwent, leading to a lack of operating theatres, doctors and beds to cope with the levels of demand.
Mr Prentice told me: “To learn that the waiting list to see the consultant is increasing by a week every week s just crazy. I feel like I have entered an Alice in Wonderland world. The politicians responsible for the NHS have proved they are incapable of providing a public service worthy of the name.
“Unless I get this health problem sorted out, my arthritis will reach a stage where I am unable to work. I cannot allow that to happen. I am not a wealthy man, but it seems I have no alternative but to borrow some money, cash in a pension scheme and go private.”
Holding the administration to account, then, entails seeking out the consequences of government policies for those who are impacted by them.
The Freedom of Information Act has had a positive role in accountability – there’s no doubt about that. But anyone who believed Rhodri Morgan’s assertion that his administration was the most open in the western world would have been terribly naïve. Having used the United States’ FoI Act many years before ours came on stream, I was aware of the Rolls Royce standard – or should I say the Cadillac standard, in comparison with which our later puny offering was like a Honda 50.
In 1990 I was working in the north east of England for the Northern Echo. When what turned out to be a seriously dodgy company from California wanted to open a couple of toxic waste incinerators in the region, I persuaded my editor in that pre-internet era to send me to San Francisco for 11 days to check it out. I remember going into health and environmental agency offices and being allowed to trawl through file after file of documents which had helpfully been loaded onto trolleys for my convenience.
It was a treasure trove of material and enabled me to put together a supplement for my paper which was headlined “Damning trail of incompetence”. I handed the material I gathered to objectors at a public inquiry, and they won. It was one of those rare occasions when as a journalist I could point to evidence that I had made a tangible difference.
Over here, of course, the Freedom of Information Act is not so liberating. Politicians and mandarins who want to keep material secret have plenty of opportunities to do so, using the long list of exemptions from disclosure that appears in the Act.
The juicy titbits I dug up in San Francisco would be far less likely to be released here. They’d be caught up by exemptions relating to commercial confidentiality or the likelihood of their prejudicing the effective conduct of public affairs, prejudice collective responsibility or inhibit the free and frank provision of advice or exchange of views. That could cover pretty much any information you might want to gain access to.
And in Wales and the other devolved nations we have an additional exemption to contend with, covering material that would prejudice relations between any administration in the UK and any other such administration. Another designed to catch pretty much all, one might conclude.
But there’s the public interest test, designed to put governments on the back foot and force them to justify their secret stance. Except that too often the public interest test also helps the administration get off the hook.
I was denied access to legal advice given to the Welsh Government about the extent of its power to oblige schools to provide free school breakfasts. I was told that some huge point of principle would be sullied if material covered by legal professional privilege was revealed to me.
Eventually, in something of an Alice in Wonderland judgement, I was told by the Information Tribunal that I couldn’t have the legal advice disclosed to me because I’d already guessed what it said.
The resistance shown by the Welsh Government to releasing information that in a free society ought to be in the public domain demonstrates how the old Civil Service antipathy to disclosure retains significant cachet.
Recently I became aware of a change that had been made quietly, removing an additional commitment to disclosure made in the early years of devolution.
Before the Freedom of Information Act came into force in
2005, what is now known as the Welsh Government had a Code of Practice on Public Access to Information which went further than the Act itself.
The code had a “substantial harm” test, which meant that if there were concerns among Ministers or civil servants that releasing information could be damaging to the public interest, it would be necessary to demonstrate that doing so could result in substantial harm.
Such a test was not in the Freedom of Information Act, and, as I said previously, Rhodri Morgan asserted on several occasions that his administration was the most open in the western world.
I asked the Welsh Government whether the substantial harm test was still being applied to current information requests.
I was told: “The original Code of Practice on Access to Information was replaced in 2014; this was noted in a Cabinet decision report at the time.
“The ‘substantial harm’ test was taken out under our new code because it duplicated the ‘prejudice’ test that is already set out in the FoI Act.”
The Cabinet decision report said: “The First Minister has agreed to replace the Code of Practice and to change the internal administrative process for the handling of FOI requests categorised as low risk.”
Maurice Frankel, the UK’s most respected expert on the release of official information, did not agree that the “prejudice” test gives citizens rights as strong as the old code’s “substantial harm” test.
Under the prejudice test, harm created by releasing information must be “real, actual or of substance”.
An explanatory note from the Information Commissioner’s office states: “The disclosure must at least be capable of harming the interest in some way, i.e. have a damaging or detrimental effect on it. If the consequences of disclosure would be trivial or insignificant there is no prejudice. However, this does not mean that the prejudice has to be particularly severe or unavoidable.”
Frankel, director of the campaign for Freedom of Information for more than 30 years, told me: “The substantial harm test required a greater degree of harm before disclosure can be prevented than the prejudice test.”
In a devolved nation like Wales, political accountability is more complex. Since the Assembly was established, we have been living through a period of what has amounted to permanent transition, with a dynamic between the Welsh Government and the UK Government that has never been entirely harmonious, even when both were Labour-led.
With a Labour Government in Cardiff and a Tory one in Westminster, holding the powerful to account becomes a multiple process.
Journalists who cover the Assembly are the recipients of many press releases from party groups which criticise their opponents and seek to expose them for mismanagement, incompetence and deceit.
Yet it doesn’t stop at that. There is an extra layer of partisan material where the Welsh Government is seeking to hold the UK Government to account and the latter, almost invariably in the guise of the Wales Office, is seeking to do the same in reverse.
And, of course, there are instances of inconsistency between the positions adopted by politicians at the Assembly and by their own party colleagues at Westminster. We have seen, for example, Welsh Labour MPs failing to support positions on the Wales Bill and leaving the EU which are held by the Welsh Government in respect of the further devolution of powers to the Assembly and on the nature of Brexit.
Not unnaturally, when such splits occur the parties involved are not keen that they should be pointed out, and it is political opponents who go out of their way to make sure the relevant points are made.
Again, it’s important that politicians are challenged over the implications of their positions and especially over any inconsistencies that present themselves.
A common theme involves the Welsh Conservative group criticising Labour for spending cuts resulting in the loss of services; Labour’s stock answer is to blame spending cuts imposed by the Tory administration in Westminster. It’s unlikely that these tactics will change any time soon.
Much of the ammunition that enables journalists to hold the powerful to account comes from anonymous sources. Sometimes you know who the source is but they want to stay anonymous. On other occasions, documents will arrive through the post without the name of the sender or messages will come from an anonymised email account that has been specially set up for the purpose.
The view of some – often those who are associated with the organisation under fire – is that anonymous communications should be disregarded as inherently unreliable. That’s not the way I see it. Of course there are individuals motivated by malice who will seek to discredit by embellishing the truth or by straightforward lies.
But there are well-motivated people with stories to tell who believe they need to remain anonymous because it would be against their personal interests to be identified. Very often they work for public bodies or publicly funded organisations and want to expose what they see as wrongdoing by their bosses. Speaking to the media could easily be seen as gross misconduct leading to dismissal.
But there are many other people, often at a senior level within their own organisation, who fear retribution from the Welsh Government in the form of funding cuts if it became known that they were behind criticisms that were published in the Western Mail.
I don’t know if such retribution would occur in practice, but the fact that many fear it could demonstrates that we do not live in such a free society as we would wish.
So when an anonymous communication arrives, I don’t discard it as a matter of course, but read it. It’s usually possible to judge very quickly if the writer knows what they are talking about. Where there appears to be a prima facie case that there’s an issue worth exploring, I’ll make a judgement on whether any further work needs to be done, or whether the best thing is to go straight to the accused.
The response from the accused will determine what happens next. If there is a flat denial, unless there is written evidence that supports the assertions of the accuser, it’s very difficult to take the matter forward.
There are occasions, however, where the response of the accused organisation effectively confirms the substance of the complaint. Its communications team then becomes involved in mitigating reputational damage. In these instances, the anonymous individual who provided the information in the first place has performed a public service.
Sometimes such tip offs relate to the Welsh Government, but there is a surprisingly large number of people within all political parties who are prepared to spill the beans about their own organisation’s failings when things go wrong.
Accurate stories which stem from sources who do not wish to be identified enable journalists like me to do our jobs better. By providing inside knowledge, they can help us to put their powerful employers on the back foot, forcing them to engage in areas they would far rather steer clear of. This is extremely important in the task of holding powerful public sector bodies like the Welsh Government to account.
Shortly I shall give my views on how changes in the newspaper industry are impinging on the public interest role of journalism, but firstly I’ll talk about a long-running story which has raised passions on both sides and illustrated the difficulties that can be encountered by journalists determined to ask awkward questions.
The Circuit of Wales is a project that promised to create 6,000 jobs in Blaenau Gwent, one of the poorest areas in Wales and indeed Western Europe. There are even parts of Eastern Europe that are more prosperous.
The existence of such poverty creates a kind of desperation on the part of politicians who want to make lives better. It sometimes makes them engage in what Coleridge described in a literary context as the “wilful suspension of disbelief”.
A leading lobbyist for the scheme to build a motorsport racetrack on moorland above Ebbw Vale was former Labour leader Lord Kinnock, who encouraged other Labour politicians to back the Circuit of Wales.
I first became interested in the project after watching a BBC Wales programme about the hopes that had been raised and the lack of progress on bringing it to fruition.
The more I looked at it, the more concerned I became. The job creation numbers seemed difficult to stack up, it became apparent that those behind the project were investing very little in it, that private investors were reluctant to come forward, and that the Welsh Government was being expected to risk hundreds of millions of pounds on it by providing a loan guarantee, without which private investors would walk away.
I wrote quite a few stories about the project, some based on leaked documents which showed, for example, that the publicly funded company taking the Circuit forward had been billed for £35,000 worth of gardening work done at the main director’s home. He claimed the wrong company had been invoiced.
It was also demonstrated that Michael Carrick, the main director, had signed a contract with himself granting a lucrative consultancy contract worth nearly £1m using public funds to a company that he – Mr Carrick – wholly owned.
These stories were a variation on public interest journalism. They involved holding the Welsh Government to account for the way it had handled the project, costing taxpayers more than £9m. But they also held to account a businessman who wanted access to more than £200m of the Welsh Government’s money.
Mr Carrick didn’t like any of these stories. But a further article angered him in particular. David Davies, the MP for Monmouth, had met Mr Carrick and one of his colleagues at his constituency office in Usk in July 2016.
Davies had not previously been impressed by Mr Carrick and decided to tape-record the meeting covertly. During the meeting Mr Carrick falsely claimed that he was getting financial backing for another big project from the engineering giant GE, and his colleague Martin Whitaker falsely claimed that BMW was planning to build a theme park adjacent to the Circuit of Wales in Ebbw Vale.
We ran stories in the Western Mail and on WalesOnline which accused them of making statements that weren’t true.
I kept uncovering facts of discredit to the project, and found myself dealing increasingly with Mr Carrick’s solicitor.
One day, a few months ago, I received an email from Mr Carrick’s solicitor, an Evangelical Christian called Jonathan Coad, threatening me with a writ for malicious falsehood over stories I had written. Strangely enough my employer, Media Wales, a subsidiary of Trinity Mirror, did not receive a similar threat.
As a lay official of the National Union of Journalists, I rarely find myself praising Trinity Mirror, but on this occasion they did the right thing and paid for me to be represented by an external solicitor.
Mr Carrick’s allegation of malice did not stack up, and my solicitor wrote a brilliant letter demolishing the spurious arguments used against me. He made it clear that we understood what they were up to. They were trying to gag me in the period up to the crucial meeting of the Welsh Cabinet in June at which it would be decided whether the £210m loan guarantee would be approved or not.
So far as I was concerned, the stories I wrote about the Circuit of Wales were about redressing the balance. In the main, with the honourable exception of BBC Wales’ Week In, Week Out programme, the coverage of the project had been unctuously positive: how lucky we are to have this businessman come in from outside Wales who is going to provide us with thousands of jobs.
And that’s another leitmotif in Wales: the pathetic gratitude shown to anyone who makes promises, however unlikely they are to be kept.
But there’s a need to hold to account such promise makers, especially when – as I was able to reveal – the frontman and his wife stood to be paid £46m in cash and shares for a project that couldn’t exist without considerable financial backing from the public sector.
If I hadn’t been working for one of the biggest media groups in the UK, I very much doubt whether a lot of the stories I have written about the Circuit of Wales would have been published.
A small paper or a blogger would most likely have caved in under the threats and taken the line of least resistance. People want to believe that huge number of jobs are going to be created, and adjust their mindset accordingly.
There are still enough good people at Media Wales to make sure there’s a space for decent stories.
However, it would be disingenuous of me to suggest that the future is looking bright from a newspaper perspective. It’s not.
The fateful decision made years ago to give newspapers’ content away free of charge digitally was a monumental error. It conditioned readers to believe they could get news for nothing. Newspaper circulations continue to plummet – but they remain an indispensable part of the big groups’ revenue streams.
Yet the business model we now exist within is focussed predominantly on digital material.
Since there is no pay wall, the digital revenue must come entirely from advertising. And the model is based on persuading potential advertisers to buy advertising space on our website. Because advertising rates are much lower online in print, it’s down to volume.
The way to achieve that is by maximising the number of readers clicking on our stories.
And it’s how high growth in the number of clicks is achieved that causes me deep concern.
Traditional news values have to a considerable degree been jettisoned as relics from a former time when journalists had the arrogance to dictate what they thought it was important for readers to know about.
Instead, newsrooms are told to be ruthless in their choice of stories for the website to ensure the maximum number of clicks.
This is – let me put it gently – less likely to include policy analysis than a story about the new autumn menu at Wetherspoon’s pubs.
Brands like Wetherspoon’s, Greggs and Burger King are popular with Trinity Mirror’s digital gurus because they are recognisable and popular across the UK. Any mention of them brings many clicks – and the beauty is that you can publish a story about Wetherspoon’s autumn menu across all Trinity Mirror titles.
If you maximise material of this kind, getting easy hits on the click front with generic material which can be published in all your titles and on all your websites, you don’t need to employ so many journalists.
The days are to a large extent gone when a team of journalists used their instincts and experience to work out what readers should be told about because it is important. Now trivia is all important because it brings in the clicks.
Publishing promotional material for food and drinks companies is less problematic and expensive than taking on the likes of the Circuit of Wales. You won’t have to engage solicitors at a cost of more than £300 an hour. And the fact is that more people will click on stories making outlandish claims about job creation in fantasy projects than those which question such claims.
Each Trinity Mirror centre is set click targets to attain per month. The targets are achieved by producing material that attracts the maximum number of clicks. We have a screen in our newsroom which displays a league table of stories with the most clicks. Top of the chart when I looked the other day was an item which simply gave information about the kick-off time for the Wales-Ireland football match.
News about the National Assembly rarely figures on the chart. To do so it has to be something out of the ordinary, like Neil Hamilton accusing Leanne Wood and Kirsty Williams being members of Carwyn Jones’ harem.
Putting Assembly coverage on the website is not high priority, although such stories continue to appear in the Western Mail, which continues for now to provide a good service to those who take news seriously. There is a commitment to do so, but we need enough paying customers to secure the paper’s future. Please buy it. If the Western Mail ceases to exist, Wales will be the worse for it: believe me.
A few years ago I got to the point where I wanted to take my holding power to account a stage further. In 2011 Poor Man’s Parliament, my account of the National Assembly’s first 10 years was published.
Now my second book is out. Political Chameleon: In Search of Thomas holds to account a 20thCentury Welsh politician who represents in my opinion a pernicious side of the Welsh psyche which some don’t see as a problem and which others would like to bury through invective.
I’m going to finish by reading an extract from the final, summing-up chapter – and then I’ll be happy to take questions on the entirety of what I’ve said.
Extract from Political Chameleon: In Search of George Thomas by Martin Shipton (Welsh Academic Press, 2017):
Why Understanding George Thomas is Important
A friend whose opinion I respect asked me why I was writing a biography of George Thomas, saying there are more major Welsh politicians to write about.
That may be so, but my view is that Thomas represents a kind of politics that persists to this day and should be consigned to history.
Some have dismissed him as a kind of one-off pantomime villain whose significance doesn’t merit further study. Such an approach is, I believe, misguided.
His legacy lives on in the Brexit vote and the rise of the populist Right.
Understanding George Thomas, and the appeal he had for many people, helps us understand why achieving a fairer, more equal society remains so difficult to this day.
Much is made of the poverty of his upbringing in Tonypandy, and he was certainly not averse to mentioning it himself throughout his career. But his circumstances were more complicated than the norm. His maternal grandfather had migrated to South Wales from the west of England, and made a reasonable living from his building business. It was the dissolute behaviour of his father that made life for the family tougher than it need have been.
He saw his mother mistreated by his father, a Welsh speaker from West Wales. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the troubles of his childhood not only led him to idolise his Mam, but bred a suspicion of the Welsh language and the kind of Welshness associated with it that he could never shake off.
His love for his mother made him into a loyal member of both the Methodist Church and the Labour Party, but the Church’s opposition to alcohol, let alone homosexuality, forced him to dissemble, and concealment became an essential part of his make-up.
He had the capacity to be a charming companion, but he also had a malicious side and bore grudges.
Having flirted with pacifism, he probably came to the conclusion that becoming a conscientious objector while Britain was fighting Hitler would not assist him in a political career. He nevertheless managed to avoid military service thanks, he claimed, to an unspecified and unexplained medical problem. There is a strong suspicion that strings were pulled behind the scenes to keep him out of the army.
Intent on becoming an MP once the war was over, he harboured a secret resentment towards Jim Callaghan for decades over the way the future Prime Minister breezed into the safe Cardiff seat he was ambitious to represent. The resentment took hold even though he had no difficulty getting selected for the seat next door.
Once in Parliament he gravitated to the left of the party. He went on a hazardous fact-finding mission to Greece under the auspices of a Communist front organisation and became involved with a group of MPs who were manipulated by the Soviet Union and its satellite countries in Eastern Europe.
Both at the time and years later when he was writing about these experiences, he sought to give the impression that he had been no more than naïve. Yet there is evidence in Thomas’ archive which shows he was wholly aware of the group’s links with Warsaw Pact embassies, from which he also received copious quantities of propaganda that he kept.
It is also fanciful to imagine that Stalin would have been prepared to fly a number of Labour MPs from Moscow to meet him at a Black Sea resort for no more than a casual chat.
Thomas only distanced himself from the group after receiving warnings from senior Parliamentary colleagues that his career would be damaged if he carried on.
During the long years of opposition after Labour lost the general election in 1951, he concentrated on building up his reputation as a good Parliamentary performer.
He gained respect for the dogged way he pursued the cause of leasehold reform, an issue which caused much hardship and stress to leaseholders across South Wales when their leases expired and they had to choose between paying large sums of money to the freeholder or giving up their home. Eventually his patience was rewarded when greater statutory protection was afforded to leaseholders, but the victory took more than 20 years to secure.
In terms of social reform, the fellow MP who rescued him when he got into scrapes because of his sexuality – Leo Abse – was in a different league, as the backbencher who steered divorce and homosexual law reform through the Commons.
By the time Thomas became a Minister when Labour returned to power in 1964, his credentials as a left-winger were somewhat ragged. He’d attended meetings with fellow MPs about the creation of what became the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, but when the body was launched didn’t actually join it. There was no coherent explanation offered as to why not.
The Aberfan disaster in 1966 was a testing moment for him, and he let the community down badly at its time of need. Putting to one side his wholly inappropriate slavering over the Royal Family, into which he tried to draw a grieving mother, his acceptance of the Government line that the benefit fund for the village should pay towards the cost of removing the tip was grossly insensitive and unjust.
He should have put up stronger resistance when Harold Wilson, the Prime Minister, argued in favour of a contribution from the fund, but his loyalty to Wilson, to whom he owed his career advancement, was for Thomas the more important factor.
For many Welsh nationalists, Thomas’ ultimate sin was his involvement with the Investiture of Prince Charles as Prince of Wales in 1969, when he was Secretary of State for Wales. Yet while he enthusiastically embraced the Investiture, and the opportunity it provided to celebrate the Union at a time when Plaid Cymru had recently had its first MP elected, it was not his idea. He inherited the concept from Cledwyn Hughes, whom he succeeded as Secretary of State for Wales the previous year.
What is undeniable is that a large majority of the people of Wales supported both the monarchy as an institution and the Investiture as a ceremony. As well as opinion polls from the time showing around three quarters of the population backed the Investiture – although almost a half were concerned about the expense – many people wrote personal letters to Thomas in which they expressed their support for it.
There was also very strong opposition to the bombing incidents undertaken by fringe nationalists that led to an RAF warrant officer and a 10-year-old schoolboy suffering life-changing injuries. While Thomas himself did not accuse Plaid Cymru of involvement in this criminal activity, some of those who wrote to him tarred all nationalists with the same brush.
His period as Secretary of State for Wales was defined by the Investiture, and after the Conservatives unexpectedly won the 1970 general election, Thomas never held government office again.
When Labour bounced back in February 1974, he was bitterly disappointed when his sponsor, Harold Wilson, failed to reappoint him as Secretary of State. Wilson had been persuaded that Thomas’ perceived anti-Welsh stance was losing the party support and seats. Thomas was furious, believing Wilson had misread the political runes.
The huge defeat of the pro-devolutionists in the first referendum to establish a Welsh Assembly five years later suggests that Thomas was perhaps more attuned to the mood of the nation as a whole than his Labour colleagues.
He was unforgiving towards the party that had given him his political career. During his time as Speaker, Thomas was antagonistic towards Labour, as well as becoming a cloying admirer of Margaret Thatcher. He was comfortable to join the ranks of the Establishment and cosy up further to the Royal Family, several of whose members he had got to know at the time of the Investiture.
His acceptance of an hereditary peerage at the time of his retirement as Speaker represented a new low for those on the left who had watched his political trajectory to the Right with dismay.
For Thomas, however, it was an honour that enabled him to live the myth of a poor boy who was able to attain high rank by working hard.
We know from the patronage he extended to those wanting recognition in the honours list, and to young men whose causes he took up, that reality was different from the myth.
In his final years he became a strange thing for a Welshman – a Little Englander whose simultaneous hatred for the European Union and Welsh devolution became almost pathological.
At the same time he was happy to extend helping hands to the likes of the soon-to-be-disgraced Tory MP Jonathan Aitken, while turning down pleas to assist more deserving campaigners in his home city of Cardiff.
A politician who began his career with radical credentials, Thomas eventually became an apologist for reactionary views wrapped up in the Union Jack.
If the narrow victory of the Yes campaign in the second devolution referendum in 1997 prompted Thomas to die, as his friends believe, the vote for Brexit in June 2016 gave him some posthumous vindication.
Our society continues to have too much ‘cap-doffing’ to our perceived ‘betters’ and a craving to ingratiate ourselves with them for social and career advancement. There remain, to this day, too many politicians like George Thomas, who combine a self-seeking ambition with the readiness to pretend that Britain persists in being a great power built on the remnants of an empire that makes it superior to all other European countries.
It’s a populist tactic which works, and which prolongs an unrealistic view of the world among so many of our fellow citizens.
However, publicity associated with the 50th anniversary of the Aberfan disaster exposed his betrayal of the community to a younger generation that is not so deferential as its predecessors.
Even more damaging is that in an age which has woken up to the evils of predatory sexual behaviour towards the young, Thomas’ carefully cultivated mage of an upstanding Christian of strong moral rectitude can be seen as a sham.
Restrained by his fear of exposure, he may not have been the most prolific of sexual predators but he was certainly one of the most hypocritical.
George Thomas may have been dead since 1997, but his legacy – as a sycophant supreme – has yet to be extinguished. His personal reputation, however, now lies in ruins.