The Conservative Party in Wales: Justifying my Research

The Conservative Party in Wales: Justifying my Research

This is a guest post by Sam Blaxland, a PhD student within the department  who has been kind enough to talk about his research into the Conservative Party in Wales.

I am sometimes asked at a social gathering, or over a pint, what I am researching for my PhD. Depending on the audience, I occasionally ask – perhaps quite pompously – my own question in return. I ask my questioner(s) who has been the most successful political party in Wales since the Second World War. If asked to clarify I say that I define ‘success’ as number of parliamentary seats won in Wales, or the highest proportion of the popular vote gained at General Elections. Always with slightly narrowed eyes, presumably expecting a ‘gotcha’ moment, people answer ‘…Labour’. Correct, I say. In fact, for most of the twentieth century the Labour Party has performed rather brilliantly in Wales. Since the war, their share of the popular vote has rarely dipped below 50%, and they have taken as many as 32 out of 36 seats in particularly impressive showings, such as the result which followed the 1966 General Election. The current Senedd in Cardiff has as many Labour Assembly Members in it as all of the other parties combined.

The next question is perhaps a little bit trickier. Who, for most of this same period, was Wales’ second most popular political party as defined by the same criteria? Here, the answers I receive vary as much as they realistically can. Most people answer ‘Plaid Cymru’, which is not a bad guess. Plaid have done relatively well in Wales since the 1960s, but their appeal has been clearly limited to quite specific regions of Wales, notably in the Welsh-speaking north-west. Some say the Liberals, but their heyday was in the late nineteenth century. Very few people give the correct answer, which is the Conservative Party. Some people have gone as far as to suggest I am joking when I reveal this answer. The Conservatives have never, surely, had any real foothold in Wales! They are the English Party, aren’t they? The Welsh hate Margaret Thatcher! They’re far too radical and left-wing to vote Tory! All are common assumptions. And they are all misleading.

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The figures make surprising reading even for people familiar with Welsh history. The Conservatives have certainly had some rather disastrous electoral performances in Wales. The 1966 election I referred to above returned only three Conservative MPs to Westminster (for the seats of Barry, Denbigh and Flint West), and in the 1997 General Election the Party was wiped out entirely. These dismal performances, however, betray a wider picture. In 1983, the high watermark for Toryism in Wales, the Party secured 14 out of 36 seats, and this was far from the only strong performance. If Montgomery had stayed Conservative in 1983, one would have been able to drive from Anglesey in the north to Bridgend in the south without leaving Tory territory. Some of these areas were not traditional Conservative territory, yet the Party, for various reasons, gained a significant foothold there.

And yet people’s assumptions about the fundamental weakness of Conservatism in Wales are not to be sneered at. There is a fundamental lack of material on the topic. Deirdre Beddoe opened her very effective and pioneering article from 1981 in the journal Llafur about the lack of Welsh women’s history by mulling over what an alien would think if she arrived on Earth, went to Wales, took out a library card and delved into Welsh history books. The alien, Beddoe suggested, would wonder how the Welsh pro-created, so invisible were women in the historiography. I would like to suggest that this same extra-terrestrial would be just as in the dark about this thing called the Conservative Party. The literature on the Conservatives in Wales is sporadic at best. Much of it comes from very interesting, but sometimes rather inward-looking musings from former or serving Welsh Conservative politicians. So many of Wales’ excellent historians, who claim to write comprehensive and well-rounded histories of the nation, ignore the fate and fortunes of the Party entirely. They fail to ask who it was who voted in such great numbers for the Conservatives, and what this tells us about modern Wales.

So, in a roundabout way, I come to the justification for my research. Although work on the Labour Party in Wales is by no means complete or comprehensive, the tradition of labour history (which focuses on trade unionism, strikes, industrial conditions, and the Labour Party), has dominated Welsh historiography. Professional historians, influenced perhaps by the History From Below Movement, flooded academic institutions in Wales in the last several decades, and have written a history which by its very nature tends to side-line the middle class, and, to an extent, their political representatives.

This makes my topic, then, rather different. An area of study which from the outset is involved with something as relatively comfortable as the Tory Party, local politics, and the middle-class, compared to the radical traditions of Welsh history, is itself quite exciting, refreshing and, perhaps, in its own way, radical. The topic has been ignored for too long, and my intention, under expert supervision here at Swansea University, is to begin redressing this significant imbalance.

And if you are reading this, and you think you have advice, or pointers, or tips, for my research, I would be delighted to hear from you. I always talk to a variety of people from lots of different locations and backgrounds, about Conservatism in Wales, which is becoming an extensive oral history project. I would love to include more. Similarly, if you have any suggestions about source material I can use from anywhere in Wales then this could prove invaluable. My email address is blaxlandsam@gmail.com and I tweet about my research and academic business at @SamBlaxland.