Brian Arnold (1941-2023)

Writing a posthumous appreciation of Brian Arnold and his contribution to the stability and success of Plaid Cymru in Pontypridd, the Cynon Valley (to which Ynysybwl belonged administratively) and the valleys of mid-Glamorgan is an unsought privilege.

It is a privilege because he was such a steadfast and upstanding character in personal and political terms and, because, over a period of sixty years or so, it was an honour to have counted him a good friend. It is unsought for the same reasons.

It has been said in other tributes to Brian (by Heledd Fychan A.S. on-line and David Walters in Clochdar, April, 2023, pp.14-15) that his inspiration for joining Plaid Cymru in 1957, at the age of 16, was Gwynfor Evans’ leadership of the Party and the latter’s statement that Wales was a nation in its own right and so possessed of the right to govern itself.

I don’t doubt that. Indeed, I heard Brian say as much over the many years of our political friendship. However, his real mentor – ‘on the ground’ as it were – in bringing him into lifelong membership of and service to Plaid Cymru was his predecessor as the leading party figure in his home district, the late Cllr. Gernant Jones (1920-2001) and also the latter’s wife, Eluned.

I have been told there was a family-link between Gernant and Brian “rhywle yn yr achau” as we say in Welsh, though I never managed to get to the root of it. Whether true or not, Gernant was Brian’s political father within the Party and primarily responsible for encouraging him to join it. What an auspicious day that turned out to be! Gernant too is worthy of retrospective tribute on the Plaid Cymru History Society’s website and I hope to furnish such a piece at some future date.

Neither of Gernant’s sons chose to pursue a political career and so Brian became his ‘political heir’. The two remained close; and when Gernant died in June 2001, aged 81, Brian was genuinely bereaved. It was as if he had lost the father-figure he had not known within his own family (having been born at Ynysybwl on the 16 February, 1941 in unsettled circumstances at the height of WW2).

Brian was raised initially by his maternal grandparents and, when they died, by his maternal aunt, Doris, at Thompson Street, Ynysybwl. On leaving school, he took a job as a trainee chef; but it wasn’t long before he went to work as a trainee and ultimately senior figure in the stores department of the old East Glamorgan Hospital at Church Village. This was a job he came to know like the back of his hand and in which he remained until retirement in 2006.

Though dedicated to his job, Brian possessed a wider vision for the society and country into which he had been born. He pursued that vision with commitment and integrity as a community figure, as a churchman and as a political activist in Plaid Cymru until the very end.

Brian was a lifelong member, and ultimately deacon and secretary, of Zion English Baptist chapel in Robert St., Ynysybwl. He was also a founder-member and leader of several community and social enterprises in the village and its environs. Among them were the local Ramblers society; a Youth Club that ran for many years on Robert Street; the Dârwynno Outdoor Pursuits Centre and its most recent addition, ‘Caban Guto’ (which Brian officially opened on 10 July, 2021), and the Ynysybwl Regeneration Partnership of which he was director between 2007 anfd 2012.

He was first elected a Plaid Cymru member of Ynysybwl Community Council in 1986 and served without a break on that body for 26 years. He regarded his rôle there (as elsewhere) as one of serving the community as a whole, not only that section of it which had voted for him. I believe it’s fair to say that his electoral opponents, as well as the wider public, appreciated this approach to politics on his part – an approach which absolutely typified him.

Brian’s first foray into a wider political field – that of the (then) Cynon Valley Borough Council – was in 1979 when he stood for election alongside his mentor, Gernant Jones, in an attempt to limit damage to the Party’s cause arising from a decision by a former Plaid councillor, Norma Harvey, to stand as an Independent in opposition to the Party. Unfortunately, Norma’s decision resulted in splitting the Plaid vote thereby allowing Labour (temporarily) to take both borough council seats – including Gernant’s, which he had held for some years prior. It hardly needs sayng that Norma’s campaign got nowhere as she came bottom of the poll. There’s a lesson there, folks!

Brian was not politically ambitious for himself. So, when Gernant again stood for election to the CVBC in 1983, his running mate wasn’t him but Gareth Evans, Coed-y-cwm, who taught French in the Rhondda. In 1983, this time without a ‘renegade’ candidate to split the vote (though two Independents stood) Gernant was comfortably re-elected at the top of the poll and stayed there in 1986, 1987 and 1991 (with Gareth joining him on the local authority between 1987-91). During all this time, Brian was content to be a ‘back-room boy’: planning, persuading and campaigning on the Party’s behalf.

In 1995, a lead-election was held for the new Rhondda Cynon Taf local authority, formed in 1996 out of three previously existing borough councils (Cynon Valley; Rhondda; Taf-Elai). At this contest Ynysybwl was awarded a single member as opposed to the two that had previously been allocated on CVBC. Against every expectation, Gernant lost his seat by a single vote (696 to 695) to Labour’s Christine Chapman, the wife of a local GP. She was subsequently elected (1999) to the first Welsh Assembly as constituency member for the Cynon Valley.

It was this jolt – together with Gernant’s advancing years (he was 75) that spurred Brian into biting the electoral bullet in a way he had not previously sought to do. Thus, at the second RhCT borough election in 1999, Brian agreed to stand – with some reluctance as I recall – as the Party’s candidate for the Ynysybwl ward.

His reluctance was based not on any misgiving about the Party or on serving the community of which he thought so much. Rather, it was based on an entirely objective – and humble – realisation that, if he stood, he knew, without question, he would be elected – such was the respect in which he was widely (and rightly) held.

So it proved. In his initial RhCT election in 1999, Brian polled 745 votes (45.7%) to Labour’s 504 (30.9%) with an Independent on 380 (23.3%). He stood again in 2004, easily topping the poll above Labour, an Independent and a LibDem. The same was true in 2008 as he topped the poll with 51.3% of the vote, above Labour and a LibDem. In 2003-04 Brian served as Chair of RhCT local authority (a post subsequently re-designated ‘mayor’ by the Labour Party).

In all, Brian served on RhCT.CBC. for thirteen years (1999-2012); but decided as he entered his 70s to make way for younger candidates. He was by then 71, retired and had no wish to ‘hog’ the electoral stage. With Gernant and him having led the Party locally between them for at least forty years (1972-2012) a period of difficult readjustment inevitably lay ahead.

So it proved. In subsequent borough elections (2012 and 2017), Labour managed to regain the Ynysybwl seat on RhCT council (much to Brian’s disappointment); but it was not to last. To his relief, Ynysybwl (by then restored to be a two-seat ward) comfortably returned two Plaid members, Amanda Ellis and Tony Burnell, to RhCT Council in 2022 (in what was otherwise a disappointing election for the Party in the borough).

Sadly and tragically, Tony Burnell died a few months later, which meant, inevitably, a by-election. This was held in September 2022 and resulted in Paula Evans, the Plaid candidate, comfortably holding the seat against Labour, Conservative, Green and ‘Gwlad’ candidates: the latter having no chance of winning but seemingly content to put the seat at risk by seeking to split the ‘Welsh aware’ vote. (The lesson is still to be learned).

By this stage, Brian’s health was deteriorating markedly. He was becoming frailer and more susceptible to falling. Even so, while no longer able to canvass, drop leaflets or campaign on the streets, he sought to do what he could in support of Paula’s by-election contest by plastering 28, Thompson Street with her posters to show that she had his full and willing support.

Brian Arnold gave exceptionally long service to his community and to Plaid Cymru. Thus, it was fitting that in January 2022 the trustees of the Llanwynno-based Edward Thomas Charity (founded in 1678 – yes, you read that correctly) included him among those whom the Charity formally honours each year for service to the community. The ceremony is normally held annually in the ancient church at Llanwynno but had to be held on-line in 2022 owing to Covid restrictions. Nevertheless, it was a well-deserved (and appreciated) gesture by the trustees.

Plaid Cymru too readily paid tribute to Brian as one who devoted much of his time, energy and undoubted interpersonal skills to building the party and encouraging comradeship within it (sometimes in difficult circumstances it must be said!).

After he stood down from elective politics in 2012, the Party bestowed on him at its annual conference in 2013 its Outstanding Achievement Award in recognition of his long and sustained service at many levels across some fifty-five years (until then). At his passing on the 28 January, 2023, a few weeks before his 82nd birthday, Leanne Wood, a previous leader of the Party, paid him fulsome tribute for his life’s work, as did Heledd Fychan, regional A.S. for South Wales Central. in a warm tribute delivered at Brian’s funeral at Glyn-taf Crematorium on the 6th March this year.

It was a shock to hear of Brian’s decease because, somehow, he always seemed to have a busy positivism about him. It was a disappointment too that I was unable to make it to his funeral to pay my respects to someone I had known as a political colleague and friend since I first joined Plaid Cymru, aged 14, in 1962.

I met Brian soon thereafter as we campaigned for Plaid Cymru’s candidates in the Aberdare constituency (as it then was) in the general elections of 1964, 1966 and subsequently. During all that time, I can honestly say – along with probably everyone who knew him – that, while we might have argued over issues, we never quarrelled; and I, for one, will miss those occasional sessions which members of the Cynon Valley constituency party at its best would have at the Brynffynnon Inn, Llanwynno or the Old Bwl Inn as we put Wales and the world to right!

Brian was a profoundly moral individual who radiated personal and political integrity. He treated – perhaps especially – his direst political opponents (not least in the Labour Party) with respect and moderation and they respected him in return. His friends, Plaid Cymru and the cause of Welsh advancement are the better for having known him – and the poorer for his loss.

Brian served his community selflessly. That is beyond question.

The wider significance of his and Gernant’s electoral and political work is that, for years during the 1950s, ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, they proved – along with others such as Ted Meriman in Ogmore Vale, Glyn James at Ferndale and Pauline Jarman in Mountain Ash – that the Labour Party could be beaten by credible Plaid Cymru candidates representative of the communities they sought to serve.

The significance of their work lies too in the confidence this still imparts to others, and in having helped to drive the huge constitutional advance Wales has made during the past quarter of a century.

Does a journey of a thousand miles not start with a single step ?

David Leslie Davies,