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Tory Leaders We Have Known: Alec Douglas Home

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In what has suddenly become a series, (I wonder why?), number two of the shortest serving prime ministers is Alec Douglas Home, 1963-64. If Bonar Law was the ‘Unknown Prime Minister’, Home, Prime Minister for just 363 days, might be (in Peter Hennessy’s words) the ‘unremembered one’.

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At least until David Cameron, Home was the last genuine toff to occupy number 10. He was, from the age of 15 at Eton and Christ Church, naturally, known as Lord Dunglass; from 1951 he was the 14th earl of Home. He had the ease of manners that some genuine blue bloods do. In a thoughtful and sympathetic DNB entry, Douglas Hurd described him as one of the most courteous politicians he had ever known.

IMG_3379To add to the air of the gentleman amateur, Home spent his university days concentrating on pastimes, notably cricket. Thus he may only have got a third in History, but he has the distinction of being the only British Prime Minister to have played first class cricket: for Middlesex, Oxford and the MCC (he toured South America under Pelham Warner).

That air was misleading. One mighty imagine that his entry into politics came as part of a family tradition. In fact, they had no political tradition to speak of, though his mother was Liberal and he was an admirer of Lloyd George. However, like a number of others of his generation, the charismatic Noel Skelton drew him to Conservatism. Skelton’s Constructive Conservatism (1924) looked to a progressive Conservatism: he coined the phrase ‘property owning democracy’. By that, he looked to winning the working classes from socialism and ‘bridge the economic gulf… between Labour and capital’. Skelton’s followers, nicknamed the YMCA, included the likes of Bob Boothby, Harold Macmillan and Anthony Eden.

Another was Dunglass, who entered parliament on the back of the 1931 tidal wave. By 1936 he was PPS to the chancellor, Neville Chamberlain. He was thus PPS to the new Prime Minister in 1937 and accompanied Chamberlain to Munich. Also, in 1936, he married: one of the most stable and happy political marriages of the era. After his master’s death, Home was seriously ill, rendered immobile for two years following an operation on his spine. In that time he developed a deepened Christian faith, as well as a passionate and robust distrust of Stalin and Soviet communism.

Having been a junior Foreign Office minister in Churchill’s caretaker government, he lost his seat in Labour’s 1945 landslide; having briefly returned in 1950, it was as Lord Home that he became a junior minister in the Scottish Office, and then Commonwealth Secretary. When Macmillan moved Selwyn Lloyd to the Treasury in 1960, Home was (controversially, because he was in the Lords) given the Foreign Office.

That might normally have put him in pole position to have a shot at the succession to Macmillan, but he had two disadvantages. The first was that he was in the House of Lords, and the idea of a PM in the Lords was now unacceptable. However, this problem was now surmountable, after Viscount Stansgate (Tony Benn, as he would become) had passed a law enabling him to renounce his peerage. As luck had it, a vacant seat was available just when Macmillan was on the way out.

 

His other problem turned out to be an advantage: to wit, his low profile. Rather like John Major in 1990, Home benefitted from not being like his rivals. In the classic style of Yes Minister, Home told his colleagues he was not a candidate (though in Home’s case he probably meant it). Meanwhile, his rivals reminded their colleagues of the baggage they carried.

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The star turn was Lord Hailsham, whom Macmillan had identified as his chosen heir. However, in the weeks either side of Macmillan’s decision to resign, Hailsham was interviewed on television, paraded his wife and baby daughter and showed his brilliance in a speech to conference (when he announced his intention to renounce his peerage, it was received with wild excitement). Envy is not attractive, but it was a powerful political force in 1963, and some of his colleagues clearly resented him. To add to that, the Americans then made their distaste for Hailsham clear. Macmillan, secretly, withdrew his support.

,One cannot help but feel that the reason Macmillan adopted Hailsham, and felt able to go in 1963, was that Hailsham would stop Butler. Rab Butler was one of the great statesmen of the age. However, Macmillan and Butler had been rivals since the days of Eden. Home’s entry into the race was clearly a move by many of his colleagues to stop Butler.

Home was helped by a successful conference speech, but his cause was decided by the backing of Macmillan and most of his cabinet: when somewhat dodgy informal soundings were taken, only three cabinet members favoured Butler. The issue then was could Butler be persuaded to serve? Butler’s own sense of duty, Home’s charm and an offer of the foreign office did the trick. In winning the top prize, Home gave credence to Macmillan’s famous description of him to the queen: ‘steel painted as wood’.

Home thus became the last Conservative leader to emerge via the magic circle. It was Home that set in place the election of his successor by a secret ballot of MPs that voted for Heath. It also allowed for the possibility of annual elections and a leadership challenge: thus, inadvertently Home had a role in the fall of Margaret Thatcher 27 years later. He was also one of only three 20th century politicians to go direct from the Foreign Office to Number 10 (two other prime ministers who didn’t last too long, Eden and Callaghan, were the others)

Home had an uphill task, however. There would have to be an election the following year, and Labour held a double-digit lead in the polls. At their lowest, the Conservatives were polling in the low thirties. The Conservatives had been in power since 1951, and the later Macmillan years had seen the government’s problems pile up. It was beset by scandal, most famously the Profumo Affair. The economic problems that Macmillan’s governments and only intermittently (and mostly unsuccessfully) grappled with had seen rising unemployment and balance of payments problems. Macmillan’s flagship policy collapsed when de Gaulle said ‘non’ to British entry into the EEC.

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Home also faced a new opposition leader. Peter Hennessy sees Harold Wilson as the most effective opposition leader of modern times: sparkling, witty and incisive in the Commons; good on TV, with a modernising, upbeat message and a carefully projected man of the people image. In contrast, Home the laird could hardly claim to be a break from the patrician Conservatism of Macmillan, salmon fishing and the grouse moor. Furthermore, whilst Wilson dominated the airwaves, Home was anything but a natural on television. Famously, he once asked a make lady if she could make him look Berger on television. She replied with a curt no, adding by way of explanation that he had a head like a skull. Home thought that surely everyone’s head looked like a skull. The reply was a blunt no. His wife reckoned that his trademark horn-rimmed glasses cost him the electron. As the satirical TV show That Was the Week That Was had it, it was Dull Alec vs Smart Alec.

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He also looks like Chalky, the teacher from the Bash Street Kids, as much beloved in the Beano. Perhaps he sometimes felt like him too.

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Home may have been a toff, but he proved surprisingly effective when it came to restoring the Tories’ electoral position. The quite patently decent and honourable Home defused the sleaze issue. Furthermore, Reginald Maudling’s reckless ‘dash for growth’ looked as if it might to do for Home what Butler and Heathcoat-Amory had done for Eden and Macmillan (that is, stoked a pre-election boom, even if it damaged the economy afterwards: in Maudling’s case bequeathing Jim Callaghan a balance of payments deficit of £880m). But, it paid electoral dividends and when combined with his calm, patrician manner, it helped engender a process common in political history, the erosion of an opposition lead (and a Labour lead) as polling day approached. By polling day, a Labour score that had been as high as 50% in the polls was reduced to a vote of 44%, hardly more than in 1959.

The Conservative score had been as low as 34% in the dog days of Macmillan, and Hume managed to poll 43%. What he failed to do was to kill off a Liberal revival. After their sensational win at Orpington in 1962, the Liberal poll rating, which had been as high as 22%, had slipped back to single figures in 1964. In the end, though, an 11% vote was enough to give Labour victory (as is explained in an article on the 1964 election, here).

For Home, it was too little, too late. He had, however, turned a potential disaster into a narrow defeat. He would go on to be Foreign Secretary under Edward Heath, making one of two former 20th century Prime Ministers to subsequently occupy the Foreign Office (the other was Balfour); he was, thus, Foreign Secretary when Macmillan failed to get Britain into the EEC, and when Heath succeeded.  It also made him one of only three men to hold the office twice (one of those, Eden, held it three times).

Two anecdotes will do to finish. Years later, Home told Hailsham a hitherto unreported story from 1964. Home was staying in Aberdeen when he was followed to a friend’s house where he was staying. Lack of space meant that his security man was stationed next door. A group of students had followed him and knocked at the door. Home himself answered, and was told that the students were going to kidnap him. Home’s reply was to suppose that if they did, it would probably guarantee him a majority of two to three hundred. He then asked for a few minutes to pack, offered them beer and that was the end of the business. And Home told no one, because had the story got out his bodyguard would have been sacked.

The other story goes that once, on a train to Berwick, an elderly lady approached him to say that both she and her husband were great admirers, and that they thought he would have made a very good prime minister. He, with typical wit and good grace, replied that he had been once, but only for a very short time.

Here’s Home interviewed after the 1964 election.

 

 

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Some Thoughts on Tory Leaders of Yore: Andrew Bonar Law

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As the Conservatives march on towards victory, I thought it might be interesting to look at a few of the lesser lights, as some might see them, among past Tory leaders. And I thought I’d start with one many haven’t even heard of.

Andrew Bonar Law was, like his true successor Stanley Baldwin, a latecomer to political life, taking the Tory leadership just 11 years after first entering the commons. If Baldwin had little ministerial experience before becoming the leader of what was then the Unionists, Bonar Law had none. However, he had other virtues which commended him to his party.

After the landslide win in the khaki election of 1900 that saw Bonar Law enter parliament, the death of Queen Victoria allowed an ailing Lord Salisbury to retire and be succeeded by his nephew, AJ Balfour. Unfortunately for the Conservatives, Balfour proved to be a disastrous leader. This considerable cloud had a even more considerable silver lining for Bonar Law, at least.

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In the first place, he wasn’t Balfour. Balfour (above) was a Cecil, a brilliant, languid aristocrat, of Eton and Oxford, the quintessential Tory insider. Bonar Law, in contrast, was an outsider. He was born in and spent his earlier childhood years in Canada (the only British prime minister to have been born outside the British Isles), and his accent retained a Canadian twang. He was from an Ulster-Scots Presbyterian background (his seemingly dour exterior is often supposed to have been matched by a no less dour interior, (probably informed by his Calvinist upbringing, and deepened by the profound grief he felt after his wife’s untimely death in 1909).; in fact, he was a far more sympathetic and likeable man. He made his career (from a family who were not rich) in banking and the iron business. Thus, as is often the case in politics, especially Conservative politics, the fact that he was in considerable contrast to the fallen predecessor did him quite a few favours.

He was also lucky. When Balfour finally went in 1911, he left no obvious successor, and he also faced a party keen to heal past divisions, and eager to settle the leadership issue. The years of Balfour’s leadership were not happy ones for the Conservatives. In the first place, they lost three general elections on the trot ( a rate they would not suffer again until the advent of Tony Blair).

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Worse than that, under Balfour the party had torn itself apart over the issue of tariffs. In 1903, the great Liberal Unionist, Joseph Chamberlain (above) called upon his party to abandon free trade and adopt Tariff Reform. It would prove both electorally disastrous (being the main reason for the Liberal landslide of 1906) and politically disastrous for the Tories. In short, it split the party down the middle. As the divided deepened, and Balfour tried to bridge the divide, the fiercest protagonists of the tariff cause turned their attacks on they man: it got bitter and vituperative: tariffs did for Balfour wha Europe did for Major and his successors.

Bonar Law favoured tariffs, and made his name in the party as one of Chamberlain’s most eloquent and forceful advocates. This had a political advantage. When Joseph Chamberlain was felled by a stroke, Bonar Law, along with Joseph’s son Austen, became the leading spokesman of the pro-tariff wing of the party, but without the continuing enmity against Balfour that Chamberlain and others carried with them. He further cemented his reputation thanks to some robust attacks upon the free trade turncoat, Churchill.

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It got worse. The House of Lords crisis provoked by Lloyd George’s People’s Budget saw the Tory party divide again, between those who (in the end) were willing to settle, the Hedgers, and those wanted to fight top the last ditch. One of Bonar Law’s virtues was a common sense pragmatism, often disguised by fierce rhetoric.  Bonar Law saw the Ditchers as unrealistic, and sided with the majority in accepting the 1911 Parliament Act.

The whole business finished Balfour. Bonar Law was the best choice of leader, as Austen Chamberlain was unacceptable to Balfour loyalists, and Walter Long was unacceptable to Chamberlain’s supporters. Bonar Law, a man for tariffs, but who had remained loyal to Balfour, seemed the obvious choice to try and reunite a bitterly divided and demoralised party.

It was an unhappy inheritance. He was also faced with a constitutional time bomb, in the form of Irish Home Rule. It is hard for us to grasp just how convulsive an issue this was: not just in Ireland, but in British politics. Back in 1886, Home Rule had led Joseph Chamberlain to cross the floor and become a Liberal Unionist; it had led the Conservatives to rechristen themselves the Unionist Party. Unionism remained a vital issue in British politics, and opposition to Home Rule was widespread and very bitter in Britain itself. For Bonar Law, with his Presbyterian Ulster Scot and Glaswegian background, the pull of Protestant politics was strong. It also offered a political opportunity, enabling Bonar Law to revivify and energise his party.

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We might expect it to be an issue that would have united Unionism, and to some extent it did. However, it divided too. The first problem was opposition on which terms. For some, Home Rule had to be stopped in the whole of Ireland: the true cause was Unionism. For others, the South was lost and the real issue was Ulster. Bonar Law saw the second case as the stronger (thus attracting the enmity of his rival, Walter Long, for example). Politically, the Ulster option made sense. Catholics made up the clear majority if Ireland as a whole, but in Ulster Protestants did. Not only that, but they Ulster Protestants were organised, militant, armed and well led by Sir Edward Carson (below) and James Craig.

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It was their militant resistance that propelled Ireland towards armed rebellion and Westminster towards the most dangerous constitutional crisis in our modern history. Politically, this had potentially great political dividends for Bonar Law and his party. As the crisis grew in intensity, over the two years it took to get the legislation through parliament, Bonar Law was able to rely upon his Ulster allies, and his own increasingly rabble rousing conduct in the Commons, to destabilise the government. By the summer of 1914, it looked possible that Home Rule mighty bring the government down.

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In private, towards Asquith and in the constitutional convention called by the king in 1914, Bonar Law was more conciliatory. The problem was that he was riding a tiger, in the form of the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force and the Ulster Protestant leadership. And even the leadership could not necessarily contain their own followers, let alone Bonar Law control them. In riding that tiger, he traversed dangerous ground. His famous 1912 words, uttered at Blenheim, have not aged well: ‘There are things stronger than parliamentary majorities’.

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In the end, the Kaiser put a stop to the crisis, but not before Bonar Law had led his party to the brink of becoming unconstitutional. Had the king followed them, as he had been tempted to do, and refused to give the royal assent to the Home Rule Bill, Bonar Law could have been remembered as the man who led the country away from parliamentary and constitutional politics. Had he backed down too far, he would have been a weak and failed leader in a party convulsed by crisis and division.

There is a decent argument for saying that there are three figures who saved the Conservative party from that fate. One might be the Kaiser, another was Baldwin; the most important was Bonar Law.

Politically speaking, war gave the Conservatives a way back into government. By May 1915 Bonar Law was able, in effect, to force Asquith to offer a coalition, though his ability to do that owed no small amount to the desire of Liberals such as Lloyd George for a coalition too. The weakness of his position is perhaps evident in the post he took, colonial secretary. But he was in government. His position was still not strong, and Ireland still threatened. Following the 1916 Easter Rising, Lloyd George had proposed the introduction of a temporary form of Home Rule, excluding Ulster. Bonar Law, showing the capacity to compromise he had in 1914, backed this idea (which never got off the ground): there was bitter opposition from many on his own side.

IMG_3360His growing frustration with Asquith’s leadership was a genuine phenomenon. But Bonar Law was always able to ally principle and pragmatism, even opportunism. Just as important was his growing relationship with Lloyd George, partly fostered by the relationship both men had with Max Aitken (the future Lord Beaverbrook, left). It is often asserted that Asquith was sacrificed on the altar of Lloyd George’s ambition, but little regard is given to Bonar Law’s. Throughout 1916, Bonar Law’s influence had grown, but Asquith remained distant and reluctant, and the Tory position in the government remained somewhat peripheral.

The creation of the National Government offered a chance to transform the Conservative position, and withy that Bonar Law’s. When Asquith resigned, the king (as he was constitutionally bound to do) offered the job to Bonar Law. Whether Bonar Law did or didn’t want it is unclear, but he needed Lloyd George’s support to deliver enough Liberals to make the government viable, and the best way of securing that was to make Lloyd George prime minister (he had also made a prior commitment to him). There was an element of political self-sacrifice to it, but there was also an element of political self-interest too. The new cabinet had a Liberal PM, and other Liberal ministers, but it was dominated by Tories. Apart from, Lloyd George himself, Bonar Law was its key member. The two met every morning and developed a close working relationship. Bonar Law, and his party, were back at the centre of government.

Sir James Guthrie’s Seven Statesmen of the Great War shows Bonar Law and Lloyd George.

NPG 2463; Statesmen of World War I by Sir James Guthrie

It is possible to see Bonar Law’s decision to fight the 1918 election under the coalition banner as an act of political selflessness: if it was, it was very well rewarded. Under the Coupon, the Tories won an outright majority in the Commons. Lloyd George was PM, but the Conservatives were dominant. Realistically, Bonar Law made a political calculation. Lloyd George was the man who won the war. The Coupon whereby Bonar Law and Lloyd George sanctioned Conservative or Lloyd George supporting Liberals (and a few Labour) candidates, virtually guaranteed the Conservatives a majority in the Commons, and in the government.

In the two years that followed, Bonar Law was the glue that held the Lloyd George coalition together. Nor did he actively oppose suggestions that the Lloyd George Liberals and the Conservatives might merge under the label of a Centre Party: what became known as Fusion. That idea failed to get off the ground, but the coalition continued effectively enough.

They formed an unlikely, but highly successful partnership. Lloyd George once relayed a conversation he had whilst driving along a scenic European coast. Lloyd George lauded Mozart, Bonar Law replied, ‘I don’t care for music’. Next, Lloyd George hymned the beauty of the sea on one side of them and the mountains on the other and Bonar Law retorted that he didn’t ‘care for scenery’. When Lloyd George pointed to a group of beautiful women (certainly always a matter of interest to the Goat), Law responded that he did not care for women. Finally, Lloyd George asked, ‘Then what the hell do you care for?’ Bonar Law replied: ‘I like bridge’. What Lloyd George did come to value was Bonar Law’s capacity for hard work, his political nous and his absolute integrity, and his plain speaking: the dry wit surely helped. Their mutual friend Beaverbrook said of Bonar Law, ‘I have met one honest politician’; Austen Chamberlain, twice defeated by him, described him as ‘that most loveable man’. Some of that Bonar Law can be seen in Sir James Guthrie’s study, courtesy of the National Gallery of Scotland.

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In the end, Lloyd George and Bonar Law made the ‘perfect political partnership’. But it was Bonar Law that did for Lloyd George.

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By January 1921, Bonar Law was ill, suffering from high blood pressure, and on medical advice he retired from government. It wasn’t until late 1921 that he returned to active politics, in defence of Ulster’s right to be excluded from the new Irish Free State created by the Anglo-Irish Treaty. Satisfied that it was, he remained loyal to Lloyd George.

However, the sands of the Conservative Party were shifting. In the first place, increasing numbers of backbench MPs were increasingly hostile to the coalition. Secondly, Bonar Law’s successor as leader, Austen Chamberlain, was seen as both ineffective and too close to Lloyd George. As Bonar Law returned, he was seen by many as the better alternative, and he was told so.

For the time being, he stayed publicly supportive of both Lloyd George and Chamberlain. That changed in the autumn. When Lloyd George appeared to be leading Britain towards military conflict with Turkey over the Chanak Crisis, Bonar Law had letters published in The Times and his old friend Beaverbrook’s Daily Express criticising Lloyd George: Britain could not act as ‘the policeman of the world’.

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There was something else afoot. By the autumn, there would be an election within a year, and the question of the terms upon which that election would be fought polarised the Tory Party. Many backbenchers wanted to fight it as an independent Conservative party; Austen Chamberlain (left) favoured another Coupon, or even Fusion. To press the point, Chamberlain called a meeting at the Carlton Club. The day before, a Conservative had won a by-election in Newport. At that meeting, Baldwin spoke against the coalition; Curzon made it known that he was opposed too.

The intervention that sealed its fate was Bonar Law’s. By all accounts, he made his mind up on the day itself, stating that the best way to unite the party was to ditch the coalition. He surely realised it would not only finish Lloyd George, but Austen Chamberlain too. In that case, he was the obvious alternative. Alan Clark nicknamed it ‘the peasant’s revolt’, but unlike the real thing these peasants had an alternative king to look to. Upon kissing hands, he called a general election and, with the opposition divided, 38% of the popular vote gave the Conservatives a majority of 77: the modern Conservative party was born (its backbenchers still meet as the 1922 Committee).

Bonar Law was at last able to enter Number Ten as prme minister.

Sadly, he had just ten short months, before throat cancer forced his retirement. Famously, when he was buried in Westminster Abbey, Asquith was allegedly heard to refer to him as the ‘unknown prime minister’. In truth, Asquith was broadly right. But it was what Bonar Law achieved for his party that gives him his place in British history.

And that mattered. The Conservative party reborn in 1922 would spend much of the 20th century in power: the natural party of government. Almost more importantly than that, any earlier dalliance with extra-parliamentary or unconstitutional politics were to be confined top its wilder shores, and then beyond. The viability of a constitutional parliamentary Conservative party was central to the stability of Baldwinite Britain, and its unity in the Second World War. Bonar Law’s legacy was more considerable than sometimes averred.

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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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