Post-war politics in the Welsh valleys: ‘socialists by birth and background’

Today, Emma Peplow, co-ordinator of the History of Parliament’s oral history project and co-editor of the new collection of extracts from the project, The Political Lives of Postwar British MPs: an Oral History of Parliament, contributes to our local history focus for September with this blog about the political leanings of Welsh MPs in Glamorgan and the Welsh Valleys…

By the 20th century the historic county of Glamorgan included several parliamentary constituencies, ranging from the Gower and Swansea, up to the mining valleys, across to Cardiff beyond what is now the Vale of Glamorgan. Several MPs interviewed for our oral history project were either born in the region or represented it in Parliament. Their memories reveal a strong Welsh political culture.

Llin Golding, Baroness Golding
Parliament official portrait, 2019

Many of our interviewees’ first memories were from the 1930s, and given the industrial nature of much of Glamorgan at that time it is unsurprising that many remembered economic hardships. Geoffrey Howe, later Conservative cabinet minister, told us he was aware above all of the long queue outside the Labour exchange, the dole queue’ in his native Port Talbot. Partly because of this, Howe and other Welsh-born Conservatives in our archive, such as Michael Heseltine, grew up in an area that was politically dominated by the Labour party. Several later MPs told us that growing up in this area meant it was ‘natural’ that their views were left-wing. Ted Rowlands, MP for Cardiff North (1966-70) and Merthyr Tydfil (1972-2001), told us ‘I wasn’t conscious of it in my very early years but it was the natural political environment I was brought up in. I was a socialist by birth and background, whether I liked it or not.’ As for Llin Golding, later MP for Newcastle-under-Lyme (1986-2001) who grew up in the Rhymney valley:

This atmosphere was also felt by those whose family circumstances were more middle class. Ivor Richard (Labour MP for Barons Court, 1964-74), who grew up just outside Swansea but later went to school in England and University in Oxford, remembered flirting with the Conservatives at university:

The Welsh Conservatives we interviewed may have ‘cut their teeth’ by standing for election early in their career in Welsh safe Labour constituencies, but they made their careers in England. The Labour members who went on to represent South Wales constituencies often had similar backgrounds. Donald Anderson, MP for Monmouth (1966-70) and Swansea East (1974-2005), remembers how the profile of Welsh MPs changed:

Donald Anderson, Lord Anderson
Photographed by Barbara Luckhurst for the History of Parliament Oral History Project, 2012

Certainly the Welsh MPs interviewed for our archive had very strong ties to the local area. Win Griffiths, MP for Bridgend (1987-2005), told us that he would probably have turned down a seat in another part of the country. These MPs often knew each other well and some developed close friendships: Ted Rowlands and Allan Rogers (MP for Rhondda 1983-2001) shared a flat in Pimlico when Rogers was first elected, for example. Many we interviewed had known Neil Kinnock, Labour’s leader between 1983 and 1992, for many years – Allan Rogers’ daughters babysat for the Kinnocks, and Win Griffiths met him and his wife Glenys at university. Several were given positions on Labour’s front bench during Kinnock’s leadership.

That is not to say that all was harmonious: there were also rivalries, some of which went back years in local politics. Whilst most were grouped on the centre-left of the Labour party, significant disagreements emerged over Welsh devolution. The 1979 referendum on a Welsh Assembly – rejected by a margin of 4:1 – saw MPs such as Donald Anderson vote against his own party’s proposals: ‘Neil [Kinnock] and I were part of the so-called ‘gang of six’, Labour MPs who were pretty critical of devolution proposals’. When Labour returned to power in 1997 and re-introduced the issue some still had ‘grave doubts’, in the words of Allan Rogers. Win Griffiths, in the Welsh office at the time and part of the campaign for the Welsh Assembly, told us that ‘machinations’ within Welsh Labour led to the Assembly’s powers initially being limited. He would ‘have preferred [the bill] to be stronger’ but as others said it was ‘a process and not an event’. The Welsh Assembly was established after a marginal victory in September 1997 and increased its powers after a significant victory in a further referendum in 2011, adding a new dimension to Welsh political life from then on.

EP

To learn more about the political lives of postwar British MPs check out Emma Peplow and Priscila Pivatto’s new book based on our oral history project.

Emma and Priscila will be in conversation with Rob Perks, lead curator of oral history at the British Library, live on Zoom on 27 October. Click here for details and to register for this free event.

Find our previous local history blogs discussing Glamorgan and the surrounding areas here.

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