John Osmond looks at the life of a Welsh Conservative pragmatist, anti-devolution but responsible for Cabinet government in Cardiff Bay
Political memoirs are rarely memorable or of historical importance. This is especially the case so far as Wales is concerned, not least because our political history only really began a little over a century ago. An exception, however, are the memoirs of Sir Wyn Roberts, the Conservative MP and Peer who died at the weekend.
His memoirs, cunningly entitled Right from the Start and published in 2006, focus on a crucial thirty years in Welsh political life, from the 1970s to the 1990s, and will be required reading for historians of the period. There are at least three reasons. First is because, as Opposition spokesman and later Minister in the Welsh Office, he had a ringside seat on events across more than three decades. Secondly, more than any other leading figure in that era, he carved out a distinctive position for Welsh Conservatism that prefigured its emergence in the present devolution era.
Thirdly, and most importantly so far as the historical record is concern, his memoirs are very largely based on a diary he kept from November 1974 t0 December 1999. Day to day entries form the backbone of his account of that period, and provide a fascinating insight into the events he witnessed and helped shape. As he says himself, keeping the diary was “a great help to me in digesting the meaning of events over thirty years”.
In the summer of 1980, little more than a year after becoming a Minister, Wyn Roberts was a central participant in a Welsh Office meltdown over the newly elected Conservative Government’s volte-face on its commitment to establish a Welsh fourth channel. This prompted Gwynfor Evans’ threat to fast to death unless the decision was overturned.
At first Wyn Roberts did not take him seriously. Diary entries record him concluding “the man suffered from a martyr complex”, referring to the “gladiator from Llangadog”, and recording “Gwynfor’s fast looms horribly but his water and salt diet –I read – has changed to water and glucose” (11 September). Wyn Roberts attempted persuade colleague to hold the line on their position, but his diary entries through the summer reveal their resolve steadily crumbing. On 19 June he observes:
“Gwynfor Evans’ threatened fast is having its effect on Whitehall. Willie Whitelaw [Home Secretary] called me this evening as I was about to leave the House and we went to his room. Of Gwynfor, he said, ‘I am rather fond of the old man … we must fudge the issue. Nick [Nicholas Edwards , secretary of State for Wales] saw me after Cabinet this morning … your permanent secretary is worried. We must look for a way out.”
By September, a matter of weeks before Gwynfor Evans’s fast was due to begin, the ground was being prepared for a full scale retreat. On 13 September Wyn Roberts reflects:
“What interests me most at this point is the psychoanalytical aspect. Gwynfor claims to be dying for the language. He is really dying with it as surely as a grieving widow. It’s a kind of suttee. His followers have identified themselves with him but cannot follow him to death. Extreme disorder and violence will be the substitute.
“Saunders Lewis the nationalist hero has told people to abandon television altogether. Return your sets to the makers – this is his message.
“All this emption has been translated into political terms. The government and television have ben cast as the great killers. Television studios have been attacked; slogans have been daubed on magistrates courts; some have gone to prison for refusing to pay their television licences.
“If the government is to change course yet again, then the matter must go back to Cabinet. The chancellor is known to be against the fourth channel anyway and Willie must fear that the entire argument will be reopened. Willie gummed up the works last session with the failure of the Official Information Bill. He is trying to foist the decision on Nick but the responsibility for abandoning the manifesto commitment is his and his alone. He is in a very hot seat indeed.”
Wyn Roberts regards the episode as a tragedy for the Welsh Conservative Party because it results in the government getting very little credit for the creation of S4C. As he concludes, “Our Welsh language policy would have to be rebuilt against a background of suspicion and hostility amongst those it was intended to serve.”
Wyn Roberts’ greatest achievement was that he went on to accomplish just that. His efforts culminated in the passing of the 1993 Welsh Language Act which established the Welsh Language Board. But probably his greatest achievement was to ensure that the Welsh language was given a statutory place for the first time in the school curriculum in the 1988 Education Act. This was achieved against the scepticism of Margaret Thatcher, and Wyn Roberts provides a hilarious account of a meeting with her in Number 10, at one point recording the following exchange:
“You can do what you like in your Welsh-speaking schools but look here … you define them as schools where ‘the majority of subjects are taught through the medium of Welsh’. Don’t you see that your nationalists will exploit that definition, use a bit of Welsh in teaching all sorts of subjects and claim to be Welsh-speaking schools even though their pupils are monoglot English?”
“Not a chance, Prime Minister, Welsh-medium schools are clearly identified. You can’t change a school overnight as you are suggesting …”
I was on safer ground now, but if she wanted ‘more than half’ instead of ‘the majority’ of subjects I was prepared to concede…
Wyn Roberts was always a defender of Welsh interests in Whitehall. Because of that, he was a precursor of the modern Welsh Conservative Party, one that continues a long-drawn out campaign to rid itself of the image of being an English party in Wales. By and large he was against devolution because, as he puts it early on in his memoirs, “it would mean Wales would lose influence and power in Whitehall and Westminster and ultimately resources.” However, being a Conservative he was also a pragmatist and when, following the referendum (in which he voted No), the devolution legislation was going through the House of Lords, he was responsible for grafting a Cabinet structure on to Labour’s “glorifed regional council”.