1859 and All That: the Conservatives, that Poll, and Wales

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I thought a few reflections on that opinion poll giving the Conservatives a healthy 10-point lead in Wales might be worthy of a little historical context. And the essence of that context is that a Conservative win in Wales would be unprecedented.
Were there to be a Conservative victory on June 8th, even if the Conservatives were to win narrowly, it would be fair to say it would be the greatest political upheaval since Labour became the largest single party in Wales in 1922.

One might go even further. The 1922 election saw Labour supplant the Liberals in a raft of seats across the country, as that election amounts to one of the key staging posts in the death of the old Liberal party. Between the coming of the household suffrage that gave the votes to around 60% of adult males and the Great War, the Liberals won every election in Wales, with the lion’s share of the popular vote and a majority of seats. At their high point, just as Tony Blair’s 1997 landslide left the Tories without a seat in Wales, so did the Liberal landslide of 1906. The Tories had last won in Wales in 1859 (and that was hardly the era of mass politics: only 2,767 votes were cast for the Conservatives across the whole of Wales to 1,585 Liberal).

Thus, since the advent of modern party politics, the Tories have never won in Wales. 19th century Conservatives were strongly identified in Wales with the upper and middle classes, as well as being seen as the English party (they were strongest in predominantly English-speaking areas), and identified with the Anglican Church. The Liberals became, for many, the authentic voice of Welsh nonconformity and the Welsh language, even of a Welsh identity in itself. In that context, popular Toryism never gained the traction it did in England and Scotland (nor did opposition to Irish Home Rule). Thus, compared to the rest of Britain, politics in Wales was heavily and consistently slanted against the Conservatives. Indeed, after the Tories won 10 seats in 1868 and 14 in 1874, they never broke the 10 barrier again when facing a dominant Liberal party. In short, a Conservative win in Wales would be something very new.

The demise of a great party in Wales would not be. If the recent collapse of Labour in Scotland should offer Labour one warning, so should the history of Labour and the Liberals in Wales.

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The death of Liberalism in Wales was hardly instant. Nor should this surprise us, the Liberals had deep roots in Welsh life. The non-conformism that remained strong gave Welsh Liberalism the fire in its political belly, and a language of politics: think of Lloyd George (a lay preacher himself, preaching in Welsh). As in the rest of Great Britain, Labour became a national party just as Liberalism was in crisis. In 1922, Labour gained the most seats in part thanks to a bitterly divided Liberalism, and thanks to the vagaries of the British electoral system: if we combined the votes for the ‘Squiffite and Lloyd George Liberals, something around 35% of Welsh voters were Liberal (the figure a hastily reunited party secured in 1923). In the Liberal calamity of 1924, when they were reduced to 18% of the UK popular votes and 40 seats, 10 of those seats were Welsh and they still polled 31% of the Welsh popular vote. Welsh Liberalism was die a lingering death: in 1945, 6 of the 12 Liberal MPs in the commons sat in Welsh seats.
And, its new leader in 1945 was the Member for Montgomeryshire, Clement Davies. From 1949, his deputy was none other than Megan Lloyd George.

Megan Lloyd George’s story is instructive. Throughout the ‘thirties she had moved to the left; her party did not. She was well known to be on good terms with Attlee, a rumours of her defection to Labour were commonplace in the ‘forties. In 1951, she lost her Anglesey seat to Labour, and defected the following year, going on to become the Labour MP for Carmarthen. Labour was the only place to go for a figure on the centre-left.

The explanation for that takes us back to the fact that position Labour won in 1922 proved impregnable. In that election, Labour won 40% of the Welsh vote, and 18 seats (the support of the Miners’ Federation was hardly insignificant). Even at their lowest points, in 1924 and 1931, they held onto 16 and 20 seats (with Independent Labour included). In 1945, Labour won 25 of Wales’ 35 seats; in 1966, they won 32 of 36. That dominance looked threatened by nationalism in the ‘sixties and ‘seventies: Plaid Cymru eroded some of Labour’s vote, but never get beyond the odd by election victory, the odd seat or two, and roughly 10% . Even though Thatcher saw the Conservatives secure the most seats since their Victorian heyday, winning 11 and 14 seats in 1979 and 1983 respectively, Labour recovered and, famously, as noted above, in Blair’s 1997 landslide the Tories won no seats at all.

Nor has Labour’s decline from that heady peak been either sudden or apparently terminal. When Brown lost in 2010, Labour’s position had slipped, but they still polled 36% and won 26 seats. In 2015, their popular vote held up. Both 2010 and 2015 saw Conservative gains: in 2015 they polled 27% and had 11 seats, but were still well adrift of Labour. There was talk of the UKIP threat to Labour, but they polled 13.6% in 2015.

It may, of course, be just one poll. But the fact that observers are seriously considering the possibility of a Tory win in Wales must send a shudder down the spine of Welsh Labour. It might seem there are three outliers that might be changing things this time round: a collapse in the UKIP vote, Brexit in a Wales that voted Leave, and Jeremy Corbyn. Might they do to Labour what war, the Lloyd George-Asquith split and the Miners’ Federation did to their Liberal forbears in 1922? And might a seismic change be coming to Welsh politics just as it has to Scotland’s? Forward, perhaps, to 1859!

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Filed under 1918 and after Archive, Britain, History in the News

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