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.

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