Today marks the 45th anniversary of the death of Merthyr’s longest serving Member of Parliament – S. O. Davies. In 1934 he became MP for Merthyr Tydfil and held the post continuously until his death in 1972; for the Labour Party 1934-1970 and as an Independent Socialist 1970-1972.
Stephen Owen Davies was born at 39 John Street, Abercwmboi (officially) on 9 November 1886 (some sources place his birth in 1883 or even earlier), the fourth of six children of Thomas Davies, miner and union organizer, and his wife, Esther.
After attending Cap Coch School in Abercwmboi, Davies started work in Cwmpennar Colliery at the age of twelve, but subsequently studied mining engineering at night classes, and in 1908 secured sponsorship from Brecon Memorial College to study for a BA at University College, Cardiff, with the ultimate intention of entering the non-conformist ministry. Despite Brecon College withdrawing the funding due to Davies’ reticence regarding his religious beliefs, he gained his degree in 1913.
Following his graduation, he began working as a collier in Tumble, and during the First World War was adopted as an Independent Labour Party candidate for Llanelli, and in October 1918 he was appointed the full-time agent to the Dowlais district of the South Wales Miners’ Federation, remaining in the position until 1934, entering into a formidable partnership with his counterpart for the Merthyr district, Noah Ablett.
Davies quickly developed a reputation for militant action. He became strongly opposed to the post-war demands for the nationalization of the British coal industry. He visited Russia in 1922 and became a lifelong admirer of the Soviet system. He remained loyal to the Labour Party however, despite being strongly attracted by the appeal of the Communist Party. In 1924 he was appointed Chief Organizer and Legal Adviser to the South Wales Miners Federation and also became its Vice-President in the same year. He also served on the Executive of the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain, 1924-34, as the representative of the South Wales miners, and he was elected a member of the Merthyr Tydfil Borough Council in 1931. He later became an alderman of the Council and served as its Mayor in 1945-46. He remained a member of the council until 1949.
In 1934 Davies was elected Labour MP for Merthyr. The same year he remarried, his first wife Margaret Eley (who he had married in 1919) having died two years earlier leaving him with three daughters. His second wife was Sephora Davies from Carmarthenshire, with whom he had two sons.
At Westminster, Davies consistently proved himself of independent mind, as prone to oppose the policies of a Labour government as those of a Conservative administration. Ever the watchdog for socialism, in its purest sense, as well as a rigid apologist for Soviet domestic and foreign policy whatever the excesses, he lost the whip on three occasions between 1953 and 1961 on issues relating to American bases in Britain, West German rearmament, and opposition to the Polaris submarine programme. A thorn in the side of the Wilson government between 1966 and 1970, he disagreed with its policy on public spending, wage controls, and trade union legislation. His support for the idea of Welsh self-government also often found him at variance with party policy.
Unsurprisingly, Davies was never offered government office but proved himself an excellent constituency MP. His concerns included reformation of the national insurance law in 1967, giving additional compensation to former miners afflicted with dust-related diseases.
The Aberfan Disaster in 1966 led to Davies’s final estrangement from the Labour Party. Harold Wilson’s support for the idea of using the disaster fund to contribute towards removal of the tips led Davies to boycott the ceremony bestowing freedom of the borough of Merthyr on the Prime Minister in 1970. His constituency party consequently replaced him as its candidate in the general election later that year. Refusing to accept that his political career was over, he stood as an independent socialist and, campaigning on his record, won by more than 7000 votes over the official Labour candidate. While this may say something about the historically individualistic nature of Merthyr’s politics, it also testified to his reputation and the local esteem in which he was held.
S.O. Davies died at Merthyr’s General Hospital on 25 February 1972, following a chest infection, and was buried at Maesyrarian Cemetery, Mountain Ash, in his native Cynon Valley.