Lord Crickhowell, who died today, was a pivotal figure in the history of modern Wales and without doubt one of the most prominent and important Welsh Conservatives for a generation. As Mrs Thatcher’s opposition spokesman on Welsh Affairs, and then her Secretary of State from 1979-1987, he had a significant hand in directing Wales – and even some form of Welsh identity – in the direction it has travelled in the past few decades. He held a key role in a pre-devolution era when an assertive Welsh Secretary could essentially be a mini-Prime Minister, especially if the real Prime Minister had little care for the nation in question.
As Welsh Secretary, Nicholas Edwards, as he was then, was responsible for rejuvenating Cardiff Bay and making it a successful example of urban renewal. He utilised the Development Board for Rural Wales and the Development Corporation for Wales to good ends. He also – although this will seem odd to many – did more to buttress the nature and the notion of Welsh identity than anyone else who held his position. Ably assisted by his lieutenant Wyn Roberts, a Welsh-speaking Welshman from north west Wales, Edwards made very significant gestures, both symbolic and tangible, to improving the fortunes and the status of Welsh, be it by introducing (under pressure from Gwynfor Evans who was threatening to starve himself to death) S4C, by increasing enormously the funds available for things like bilingual and Welsh publications, by increasing grants to the National Eisteddfod (where he was largely hated), or by rolling out more thorough guidelines on the teaching of Welsh in schools across the land.
He was the Welsh face of Thatcherism in the 1980s, a decade that was a much happier one for the party than the popular imagination might remember (14 parliamentary seats in 1983! One short of the ‘Welsh Tory rugby team’ that Mrs Thatcher had optimistically called for). Over the years, much has been made of the fact that Edwards offered a ‘softer’ version of Toryism, and he certainly had a relatively free hand to be slightly more interventionist in the Welsh economy, creating schemes and ideas like Enterprise Zones. But, ultimately, the continued wind-down of heavy industries carried on in Wales with Edwards in the Welsh Office, and the speed at which this happened without doubt left swathes of people and communities throughout Wales without work, a purpose and a sense of identity. Token nods towards economic diversification and new service-based alternative work simply did not reverse the sense of decline and depression in these places. We have to be careful, then, when thinking and talking about a ‘different’ kind of 80s-style political experience in Wales under Edwards and his team.
In 2013, when I was first sizing up the project that would eventually become my PhD thesis, I contacted Lord Crickhowell to ask if we could meet and talk. I did so because I knew he was a key figure and also because I wanted to write a case study on Conservatism in his former seat of Pembrokeshire to see if my ideas had enough weight to ensure that the history of the party throughout Wales could be told. I was invited to the House of Lords and proceeded to have what remains one of the most frightening experiences of my research career to date, which has included over 130 similar kinds of interviews and meetings. He was a formidable man: tall, direct, brusque, intense, and with a piercing stare. I realised why so much of the flak he took during his time in government was personal (‘too posh’, ‘too public school’, ‘too Anglicised’): it was easy to transpose these supposedly negative traits onto such an imposing character.
And yet I found him strangely charming. Not only was it very kind of him to offer to give tea in the Lords to a random student who was never a constituent of his because he’d been born four years too late, but he also paid for it, gave me a signed copy of his book, and listened intently to everything I had to say despite some of it being very naïve and banal (in hindsight). He sat in stony silence, hands clasped, staring at his teacup while I outlined what I wanted to talk to him about, before responding in a way that proved he had digested every word. There were no profuse ‘what a pleasure’ greetings or farewells, merely a ‘good to see you’ and a ‘good luck’ at the meeting’s beginning and end. In a world where everyone is ‘delighted’ or ‘thrilled’ to meet you, this was rather nice. When we met again a couple of years later the experience was similar, once I had reminded him for a couple of minutes who I actually was and that we’d met previously.
His role as Secretary of State was, of course, of great interest to me, but what we spoke about more than anything when we met was his time as the Member of Parliament for the Pembrokeshire seat that was called ‘Pembroke’ but was essentially drawn around the county borders. For me, this was – and still remains – the most interesting part of his career, if only because it was never meant to be. When he won it, Pembrokeshire was not particularly a Tory seat, even though it might have appeared so with its largely Anglicised populace and relatively rural profile. It was once the seat of the (admittedly rightward-leaning) Liberal Gwilym Lloyd George and from 1950-1970 it was held by a Labour MP, Desmond Donnelly. This is where Edwards appeared in the narrative. Donnelly, who had always been a maverick Labour MP, oscillating from one side of a debate to the other, broke with the Labour Party in 1968 and formed his own ‘Democrats’ movement. At the following election in 1970, he stood under this new banner, but Labour fielded its own official candidate in the form of the very likeable and decent school master Gordon Parry. What this meant, therefore, was that Labour-inclined voters had two possible options. Would they stick with their long-term eccentric MP, or with the new official – and local – party candidate? The result was that the Tories, with Edwards carrying their banner, snuck in ‘on the blind side’. Everyone, including the man himself, was shocked. As he told me when we met, he had expected Pembrokeshire to act as the constituency where he ‘cut his teeth’ – but he remained there for the next seventeen years.
How did he hold onto the seat? That was a question that pre-occupied me for a long time, especially when one considered the two 1974 general elections –which were poor results for the party nationally. On those occasions, however, there was no split Labour vote in Pembrokeshire. I think the reason he continued winning there was twofold. Firstly, the profile and demographics of the county were slowly changing and perhaps Pembrokeshire was on course to become a Tory seat regardless. But I also believe that the force of Edwards’ personality and his politics swung key marginal votes in his favour. Between 1970 and 1974 he very deliberately became ‘Mr Pembrokeshire’, which was no mean feat for someone not from a place that has a deep-rooted sense of its own locality. He attended endless farmer’s markets, wrote letter after letter on headed House of Commons paper to local people and businesses, cut ribbons at all sorts of events, and rebelled against his own party’s policy on Local Authority boundaries in an unsuccessful attempt to save Pembrokeshire from being subsumed into ‘Dyfed’: no better action to demonstrate your local, rather than your party political, credentials! He also did things that will sound odd now, but which were crucial to local politics at the time: he always campaigned wearing a red tie and a red rosette, because that was the Conservative colour in Pembrokeshire, not blue as in most other places in Britain. During my research I met and spoke with people who were delighted by such an action and what it signified.
Many of the tributes to Lord Crickhowell will rightly focus on his big achievements as Secretary of State. I concur with those who think he left a very significant mark on Welsh political life, but as a historian of contemporary politics I find his story as a new MP just as revealing in what it tells us about crucial themes and trends in voting behaviour, such as the power of localism, personal politics, and civic pride. I also find myself oddly sad at his passing, and not because he once bought me some scones. On a personal level, I obviously didn’t know him well enough to decide if liked him or not, but he was certainly a member of a gentlemanly, stoic and plain-speaking generation who said things as they saw them, firmly but politely. When all is said and done, he took a pay cut and entered politics almost certainly because he wanted to do the right thing as he saw it. He had the ability to formulate a bold vision and see it through to a conclusion. If only we could say the same about our current rulers.