Desmond Donnelly, mercurial but doomed

Tuesday 9 April 2013, 15:44

Phil Carradice Phil Carradice

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If ever there was a man who promised much but failed to live up to his massive potential it was Desmond Donnelly, member of parliament for Pembrokeshire from 1950 until 1970.

Born in Sibsagar in India on 16 October 1920, Desmond Louis Donnelly was the son of a tea planter. His family was Irish, something that later caused him to remark, after he was first elected to Parliament that he was "An Englishman with an Irish name sitting for a Welsh seat."

Donnelly and his mother returned to Britain in 1928 when he began his schooling. He and his mother seem to have just lost touch with his father after that, a strange and dysfunctional situation that certainly affected his character as an adult.

After leaving the Bembridge School on the Isle of Wight, Donnelly chose not to go to university but became an office boy in a London business. He was deeply interested in sport, playing rugby and founding the British Empire Cricket XI.

In 1939, on the outbreak of war, he immediately enlisted in the RAF, becoming a flying officer with Bomber Command and, later, flying as a flight lieutenant in the Desert War and the Italian Campaign.

Donnelly had joined the Labour Party in 1936 when the writings of William Morris began to fascinate him. Following the war he stood as a candidate for Evesham, not for Labour but for the short-lived Commonwealth Party. He fought an energetic campaign, being narrowly beaten into third place.

After the elections, the Commonwealth Party soon dissolved and Donnelly rejoined Labour. After a period writing for Town and County Planning and lecturing at the RAF Staff College, in 1950 he was chosen to contest the Pembrokeshire seat for Labour.

Pembrokeshire had long been a Liberal stronghold and in 1950 was represented by Gwilym Lloyd George, the son of Welsh legend and former prime minister David Lloyd George. Gwilym had a huge personal following in the county but Donnelly, as energetic as ever and campaigning on the issue that the Liberals were no more than Tory supporters, won the seat by 129 votes.

Over the next 20 years Desmond Donnelly gradually built himself a massive following in Pembrokeshire, almost equal to that of Gwilym Lloyd George. His seat might not ever have been totally secure but his popularity in the county was never in question.

Initially allied to Aneurin Bevan, Donnelly soon became violently anti-Soviet Union, a stance that only hardened after he made several trips to the USSR. He disagreed with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and, having fallen out with Bevan over the issue of German rearmament - which Donnelly believed was essential for world peace - he became a great supporter of the new Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell and of entry into the Common Market.

When Gaitskell died in 1963, Donnelly switched his allegiance to George Brown. It was the wrong horse; Harold Wilson became Labour leader and when the 1964 election was duly won, Donnelly received nothing, no office or portfolio. It was the beginning of the end for him.

In the late 1960s Donnelly increasingly became a thorn in the side of the Labour Party whips. He called for an alliance of Labour and Liberal, an anathema to the party faithful. He was opposed to plans to nationalise the steel industry and was so vociferous in his opposition that a decision within the party had to be delayed until the next election had been won.

The government decision in 1967 to withdraw from defence commitments east of Suez infuriated Donnelly and he consequently resigned the Labour whip in parliament. Wilson and the Labour Party retaliated by expelling him from the party on 27 March 1968.

Firmly believing in the power of his personal popularity, Desmond Donnelly promptly formed his own party - the Democratic Party - and contested five seats at the election of 1970. They simply did not have the financial backing to succeed and lost each one. Included in those losses was Donnelly's own seat of Pembrokeshire.

Donnelly had been a political correspondent for the Daily Herald and News of the World for many years. He had written novels and articles for different papers and was chairman of several significant companies. But his political views had been constantly shifting to the right and in 1971 he suddenly announced that he was joining the Conservative Party.

Several attempts to secure nominations as a Tory candidate for seats at by-elections met only with failure and, with the recession that hit business in the 1970s, Donnelly's financial situation was beginning to look bleak. He became seriously depressed and on 3 April 1974 he took his own life in a hotel at Heathrow.

It was a squalid end for a man who had promised so much. As MP for Pembrokeshire there was no denying his popularity and, if George Brown had won the race for leadership of the Labour Party rather than Harold Wilson, it might have been a very different story.

As it is, Desmond Donnelly has to go down in history as one of those men who missed the boat and perished in the attempt to get back on board.

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    Comment number 1.

    What a sad story, what a waste. Has nobody ever considered writing a novel or a play about the man? It would be a winner, bound to be.

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    Comment number 2.

    What a sad end for the man whose popularity as MP from Pembrokeshire seemed to have no bounds in the 1950s. I know that members of my family who had previously voted Liberal switched allegiance to Donnelly. I have no doubt Phil, that in elections in the 1950s, you will remember as I do, every house seeming to sport a Donnelly poster. Certainly our whole village was festooned with them. One election I sneakily put up a Plaid poster in our front room window, as a prank to stir the political scenery up a little. Dear me, did I get into trouble for doing that! When I got home from school for lunch, my mother gave me a terrible row. She’d had people calling, telling her they were surprised at her, most disapproving that she wasn’t supporting Donnelly. Which of course she did. That evening one of my uncles called and I had another row. They were deadly serious, but the ironic thing was I was far too young to vote anyway and I’d only put the poster up as a bit of fun!
    I do believe Phil, that it was Desmond Donnelly who cut the first turf when our school was being built in about 1954.

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    Comment number 3.

    I certainly do remember those elections. As you say, every house had its Donnelly poster. My Uncle Fred next door - a Labour councillor - campaigned for him and had us kids walking around chanting "Vote, vote, vote for Desmond Donnelly!" My father, true blue as he was, didn't speak to Uncle Fred for weeks.


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