We voted Labour but got Thatcher

John Osmond on the Welsh legacy of a Prime Minister who did most to deliver a yes vote in 1997

In August 1995 I interviewed Ron Davies, then Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, about the approach he was taking towards developing policy for the forthcoming general election. High on his list of priorities was creating a credible devolution scheme around which the Labour Party in Wales had some chance of uniting. I recalled that in the 1979 referendum he had been on the No side. What had brought about his change of view? Without hesitation he pointed to the 1987 general election:

“Touring my [Caerphilly] constituency the day after the vote I came across graffiti on a railway bridge in Nelson – ‘We voted Labour, we got Thatcher!’ That summed up the whole thing for me. This question of democracy – the question of Welsh representation – confronted me as a political reality that we had to address.”

It is a sentiment that sums up Margaret Thatcher’s main legacy so far as Wales is concerned. She was the most powerful force that delivered the National Assembly in the referendum in September 1997. She came to symbolise a divide between Wales and England that could only be reconciled by Wales gaining at least some control over her own domestic affairs.

This was not always the case. At the start Thatcher was a pretty popular figure in Wales. At her first election as leader of the Conservatives, the party polled 32.2 per cent of the vote in Wales, the best it has ever done before or since, and it was rewarded with 11 MPs. In the 1983 election their percentage dropped slightly to 31 per cent but the party won 14 seats, including memorably Anglesey.

After that, however, it was downhill, through 1987 (29.5 per cent and eight seats), to 1997 (19.6 per cent and no seats at all). It was only in 2010 that the Conservatives began to recover in Westminster contests in Wales, winning 26.1 per cent of the vote and eight seats.

So what happened to make the Welsh lose affection for Mrs Thatcher’s style of Conservativism? A few short words provide the answer: the miner’s strike of 1984-5. By and large, elsewhere in Britain, and certainly England, Mrs Thatcher’s confrontations with the unions and the NUM in particular, were pretty popular. But in Wales the miner’s strike was experienced differently.

To begin with the Welsh miners were against the strike, perceiving correctly that Arthur Scargill’s catastrophic leadership in refusing a ballot before the strike went ahead, was calculated to split the movement. However, once the strike was called nowhere was more militant in its support than Wales. And nowhere suffered so much in defeat.

And it was more than the miners who were defeated in the strike. It was the nation as a whole. And the lesson was internalised and learnt. When it came to the crunch the Welsh miners had no one but themselves and the support groups in communities across Wales to rely on. It seems to me indisputably the case that this was the single most important event that explains the difference between the devolution votes of 1979 and 1997.

Of course, there were other issues in which Mrs Thatcher had a hand. Over the past 24 hours all the obituaries and broadcast recollections have played time and again that clip of her at the Conservative conference in 1980:

“To those waiting with bated breath for that favourite media catchphrase, the ‘U-turn’, I have only one thing to say: “You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning.”

The clip has been played as though Mrs Thatcher never committed a U-turn in her career as Prime Minister. However, she famously did so in Wales a couple of years later, in response to Gwynfor Evans’s threat to fast until death unless the Conservative government honoured its commitment to establish a Welsh language television channel. Again this was a lesson that was internalised in Wales.

The stridency of Mrs Thatcher’s anti-European rhetoric, which eventually led to her downfall, never played well in Wales. Neither did her boosterism of the City of London and her introduction of the Big Bang deregulation measures in 1986 which led directly to the banking crash of 2008.

The poll tax was another Thatcher legacy that confirmed a sense of a lack of fair play associated with an English class structure which, in turn, accentuated a sense of Welsh difference. This was underlined on virtually every one of the rare occasions in which Thatcher set foot in Wales. During one visit, to the Rhondda with Peter Walker when he was Secretary of State in the late 1980s they unsuccessfully attempted to persuade a press conference that the economy in the Valleys was looking up. Responding to aggressive questioning about unemployment in places like Merthyr Mrs Thatcher instructed the assembled journalists to “cheer up”. Indeed, with growing intensity through the 1980s she imposed an English mask on Welsh Conservatism that has never really been removed, despite the best efforts of some politicians in the Bay.

Paradoxically, at the same time Mrs Thatcher was provoking the Welsh to feel more Welsh, she was undermining their sense of Britishness. During her time as Prime Minister a number of key British institutions disappeared as a direct result of her privatisation policies. The 1980s saw the end of British Coal, British Steel, and British Rail. Her successful assault on the trade unions and the diminution in their power that resulted, saw another link in the post-war definition of British identity severed.

Only the BBC, the monarchy, the NHS, and the armed forces remained following her downfall. She never got on with the BBC, disliking the liberal consensus she sniffed there. The monarchy created an issue since in Britain there could only be one queen. She famously said that the NHS would be safe in her hands, but why did she have to say it? Only the armed forces were spared her crusading revolutionary zeal to bring about change in favour of the small business people she loved, the people who worked hard and made their books balance.

So, in short, in the 20 years between the 1970s and 1990s both Britain and Wales altered radically, making the change that was responsible for turning around that four to one No vote in the 1979 referendum to the narrow Yes vote in 1997. And, indubitably the one person who, single-handed, did most to bring about that changes was Mrs Thatcher.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.

23 thoughts on “We voted Labour but got Thatcher

  1. They say that you can judge a person by the company they keep. This woman had the likes of Jimmy Saville and General Pinochet as her dining companions. Oh, and I nearly forgot about her ideology of de-industrialisation in favour of promoting London commerce and yuppie piracy. She should certainly have a state funeral because she undoubtedly left Wales in one hell of a state.

  2. The delicious irony here is that on 1st March 1979, 80 per cent of those who voted did exactly as she and her Labour Party lackeys asked. They voted four to one to ensure Wales would not have the opportunity to do things differently if their priorities differed to those elected to Westminster. Sorry to be brutal, but on March 1st 1979 Wales gave the green light to everything that followed.

  3. Wales continues to vote Labour, and has consequently had ‘sons of Thatcher’ ever since her downfall. As long as they vote Labour, Thatcherism is what they, and the rest of us here in Wales, will continue to get from Westminster.

    And Mark, don’t forget her support of the apartheid regime in South Africa, branding Nelson Mandela a terrorist. She was also a strong supporter of the Israeli Zionist regime doing little or nothing to prevent its appalling treatment of the Palestinian people.

  4. “To begin with the Welsh miners were against the strike, perceiving correctly that Arthur Scargill’s catastrophic leadership in refusing a ballot before the strike went ahead, was calculated to split the movement.”

    So why the hell did they follow the stupid fool then? They could plainly see it would end in disaster. They figured that Militancy should triumph over democracy? As you say, the Welsh sent 11 Tory MP’s to Westminster – so its not as if they didn’t have a mandate in those first two elections. I have to ask , what did they reasonably expect?

  5. According to the EU’s statistical information body Eurostat, after decades of Thatcherite Tory, and neo-Thatcherite Labour governments, Wales is now poorer than the Czech Republic and Slovakia, whilst south and west Wales and the valleys are poorer than many parts of Romania, Bulgaria and Poland. What a testament to London government!

    http://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/2013/04/08/welsh-valleys-poorer-than-parts-of-bulgaria-romania-and-poland-91466-33131774/

  6. Steve, Ultimately, they were loyal to their union and Thatcher relied on a combination of that loyalty and the blinkered leadership of Scargill to kill the union, close the mines and ultimately destroy numerous communities who never voted for her anyway. It was the speed of the closures and the vindictive way in which it was carried out that exposed the communities so brutally, and Thatcher had to ultimately take responsibility for that.

    The Tories indeed did get a significant vote in Wales and have always done so. However, just under one third is no mandate.

  7. Clearly, we are where we are. However if the miners had won, and a democratically elected government had been defeated, where would we be then?! The 1970’s was not a good time for UK, and governments dominated by trade unions, and cars manufactured here falling to bits off the production lines. The interesting thing is that a) power supply workers, b) railway workers and c) steel workers did not support miners, and our own Mr. Kinnock was pretty ‘lukewarm’, as Scargill was out to destroy freedom as we knew it. People forget the strike by ship workers, and Wilson’s comment about ‘tightly knit politically motivated men’ which was just as dangerous as it threatened our balance of trade. The closure of steelworks in Ebbw Vale by Mr. Michael Foot seems to have been erased from history. All our woes seem to be loaded on to Baroness Thatcher, who was MOBBED in Moscow when she stood up the the communists, and will be remembered as a world statesmen. As far as we are concerned it is not accepted by everyone that the Labour Party changed its attitude to devolution for altruistic reasons, rather they wanted POWER in Wales for their own sake, and who can doubt that since 1999. We are slowly seperating us from England, as has been the long term aim of Welsh nationalists, and the impact of our a) freedom, b) economy, c) public services and d) life chances for young people will have to wait for the march of time. In discussing our current situation with friends, most of whom are out of the charmed circle, there is great doubt as the capacity of Welsh democracy/government to grasp the real world and its challenges. It is only my limited opinion, but we (the Welsh), seem to yearn for a return to 1945, with its state socialism, whilst world economic conditions have changed dramatically, and not to our benefit. Lets pray there are gas reserves which by fracking we can release and provide more money for our social services which will collapse in next 10 years when public funding is cut to a realistic level.

  8. I am not here to defend the Labour party; I can assure you of that. I also accept that the economy in the 1970’s was hardly a bed of roses but with respect, it’s not too clever at present after 34 years of Thatcherite policies, is it? Change was certainly on the agenda in 79, but there is managed change and there is ideological pillage. Thatcher chose the latter, removing the manufacturing base and replacing it with the financial and service sector. A renewal of the manufacturing sector would have been a wise choice, but not one that she made. The foreign investment used to fill the gap in Wales soon left when there were better offers and much of Wales was left high and dry. Devolution was most certainly delivered on the back of a hatred for Thatcherism and part of the current problem, is that the dominant part still relies on that negative zeal to get votes, rather than any form of constructive policy ideas. This has of course been in marked contrast to Scotland.

    I will most certainly not be partying on the death of Thatcher, nor will I be wearing black next Wednesday. However, I would like to see a move away from blame politics and instead an injection of new and progressive ideas; at least on this side of the border.

  9. John Osmond suggests that Margaret Thatcher’s popularity in Wales declined markedly during her period of office – yet the facts do not bear this out. Under Mrs Thatcher the Conservative vote hardly fell at all (from 32.2% to 29.5%) over three General Elections – a remarkable achievement. By contrast, Labour’s share under Tony Blair fell much further (12.1%) over his three General Elections, admittedly from a higher base. Mrs Thatcher’s 1987 share of 29.5%, which Jon Osmond points to as evidence of her slide from popularity, was still the Conservatives’ 4th best electoral performance in Wales since the emergence of Labour as a real electoral force – only Harold Macmillan in 1959 – at 29.6% – comes between Mrs Thatcher and a clean sweep of top Tory Welsh performances.

    If the last 36 hours have shown anything it is that Margaret Thatcher’s legacy is a complex one that does not lend itself easily to generalisations about supposedly differing Welsh and English sensibilities. John Osmond claims that the Welsh public were turned off by Thatcher’s Euroscepticism, yet modern opinion polls indicate that it is hard to put a cigarette paper between Welsh and English attitudes to Europe. Likewise, while the cause of the miners undoubtedly enjoyed more solid support in the South Wales coalfield than in any other part of Britain, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives still largely held their share of the vote in seats such as Caerphilly, Cynon Valley, Islwyn, Rhondda and Aberavon just two years after the strike.

    Mrs Thatcher’s role as a catalyst for devolution was, in fact far more significant in how she motivated her opponents than any lasting impact on Welsh popular opinion. Labour adopted devolution as a political response to Thatcherism and then capitalised on Tony Blair’s extraordinary personal popularity to squeeze the subsequent referendum through. There was a conversion of the political elite to devolution as a result of Mrs Thatcher – at no point was this a response to popular pressure.

    This all matters, because Mrs Thatcher’s impact on Wales went far beyond her role in provoking devolution. Her capture and retention of a larger chunk of Welsh support than any of her predecessors or successors have managed, speaks to a Wales far more closely aligned to the British political mainstream than post-devolution analyses care to acknowledge. The policies on which she stood – council house sales, privatisation, a strongly Atlanticist stance against Communism – spoke to the aspirational, blue collar electorate in Wales as they did in England.

  10. How much of the venom and vitriol directed at Thatcher is down to gender?

    None!

    Thatcher was stabbed in the back by the Conservative Cabinet because it finally dawned on the majority of them that she believed in her God-given right to rule – she’d become a tyrant. She could never understand what happened and still believed that she should have been in charge to her dying day. There came a point when her tyranny was no longer of use to them and they chopped her.

    This also explains the great contrast of opinion toward her – personality cult to hatred. Just like the likes of Gaddafi, Saddam and Assad etc.

    The English have never really liked democracy and prefer a “strong” leader. Code for “Tyrant”.

  11. Colin Miles: I would estimate roughly none. Mrs T certainly faced a good deal of prejudice on the grounds of gender when she started but her personality was marked enough and the effect of her policies for good and ill great enough for her to excite vitriol (and adulation) in her own right. I don’t think right-wing Tories revere her for her gender so why suppose frustrated socialists detest her for it?

  12. Adam Higgit: don’t fall into your opponent’s trap of assuming Wales is homogenous. Sure there is a part of the Welsh electorate ‘strongly aligned to the British mainstream’. They are the ones who vote Conservative and they are a large minority among those who vote Labour. A small majority of Labour voters, nearly all Lib Dems and all Plaid voters are not so aligned. That’s why devolution is popular, or at least more popular than the alternative, despite the very indifferent performance of the Welsh government so far.

  13. I sometimes get the strangest feeling that most people in Wales would have preferred to be governed by the likes of Scargill and Hatton rather than Thatcher.

  14. Mmm. I’m sure a very large majority would pray that they never have to make such a choice.

  15. Scargill stood for election to the National Assembly for Wales, and received 2.2% of the vote.

  16. I agree with most of this but you’ve missed the class dimension. Wales is mostly “traditional” (!) working class and a relatively progressive (but apparently not “traditional”?) middle class. Unlike in England and even Scotland to a lesser extent, there is no large group which would have identified with the constituency she so blatantly championed. As a result, for the Welsh in particular, her spiteful war on the working class was a war on them.

  17. True. The middle class in Wales (at least my role in it) was more about making progress than about class itself. That is, the middle class had no antecedents in British history (apart from a small minority) and even relatively well-off people were new rich – in contrast to the English nineteenth centurt success stories. Although they initially supported Thatcher (somewhat carefully) this support rapidly gave way to disillusion, rather more quickly than in England.

    In that sense, we can perhaps claim that the class dimension in Wales was weakened by Thatcher; in effect, she created a unifying national sentiment that had not been there before. Previously, the middle class (as elsewhere in the regions of the UK) had felt some affinity with the English centre of political power: with Thatcher, that was more or less destroyed.

    Plaid Cymru!

  18. The miners’ strike. Thatcher’s conduct of it not so popular in the north of England, even now, to judge by the comments I’ve seen.

  19. Very clear and helpful, how the reviver of “Great Britain’ diminished it.

  20. If the Labour Party recently misjudged the mood of the in-work working class towards benefits cuts, the tories have misjudged wider British feeling towards Mrs T. They hoped to make a political show funeral out of this, but the blogs, papers and broadcast phone-ins are jammed with contributors angry at being expected to revere a woman whose legacy has left GB with no way to produce wealth. I know many who voted for MT at the time but, with hindsight are a lot more circumspect about her achievements. The tory party has failed to grasp that her former popularity, among the middle-ground, middle-class has not endured-but the hatred has.

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