Virtually no one on my Facebook timeline or twitter feed was advocating leaving the European Union. Many were being actively vocal about wanting to stay, and some had even been out in public trying to convince others to vote their way. But then I move almost exclusively in pro-European circles: young, university educated, liberal in politics and outlook, gay. I also work in similarly enthusiastic circles in academia and spend a bit of time in London, where voting Remain seemed like so obvious a choice that it was a no-brainer.

And yet. I went back to my home town of Haverfordwest a few weeks ago, and I chatted to some old friends in the pub, with their families. The atmosphere couldn’t have been more different, and it was one that friends in other non-London, non-academic places were noticing too. Almost everyone I spoke to was quite adamantly for Leave. I just assumed this was unscientific anecdotal stuff, and stuck to my guns that Remain would win with a 10 point margin, as I had been confidently predicting to the few who would listen.

Yet even before the results, and certainly after them, there was lots of talk of a ‘divide’. There were mutterings of an urban/rural divide, a young/old divide, and a class based one. I don’t think any of this quite hits the mark, however. What it’s really about is a divide between lofty and high-minded liberalism (which I am very much part of), and those who don’t have that outlook. My feel from what I’ve seen and what I’ve heard is that people voted to leave not solely because of immigration, or because of sovereignty, or because of ‘control’, but because of how a blend of these things is often communicated to them in a way that suggests less liberal views aren’t being taken seriously – as if any concern they might have is irrelevant and trifling. Like the Labour MP who took some calls on the radio in Sawley from people concerned about immigration, and, accidentally whilst still on air, complained that the people (who were probably Labour voters) were ‘horrible racists’ and that she was never going back there – ‘wherever this is’.

I’ve said it before, but there is a sense that in the areas in Wales that I work, grew up, and live in, one senses that MPs of all stripes – very much including Labour – would rather not be in the Valleys, but in some leafy Cardiff suburb (or if not in Islington) clutching an iced latte. The fact that this bubble exists and that it is potentially dangerous, was only exacerbated by those on television and on social media yesterday morning who were essentially saying that those who voted out were uninformed, stupid, driven by prejudice, and not thinking straight. My facebook feed at the moment is full of people explicitly saying that others who disagreed with them were not ‘in possession of the facts’ – and that’s one of the milder examples with the least fruity language.

One of the most significant conversations I had at home was with a friend of mine’s dad who is a retiring and pleasant kind of guy – and a plumber – who said he was definitely voting Leave because he felt if he said that his wages had stagnated for ten years partly because of the competition from immigrant labour, he wouldn’t just be ignored – he would be called a bigot, by liberal types. Now, I actually have no idea if what he says is the case or not, but people need to feel like these kind of concerns are being addressed, and that they are at very least being listened to, not dismissed out of hand

But because liberal people like me think we are on the enlightened wing of the argument, we can become peculiarly resistant to thinking less conventionally liberal views might have some clout or some validity, and I really do think that this surprising vote was a real reaction against that more than anything else.

I think it’s also worth saying that the Welsh vote, which lent towards Brexit, is all part of a pattern and a trend that I have been arguing about here and in my work generally for a while: 1) if we want to see this vote as a small ‘c’ conservative reaction against something, then that is entirely compatible with a lot of Labour voting South Wales, which returned very significant Leave votes; 2) If we want to see it as a big ‘c’ Conservative reaction against something, that is also more compatible with Welsh politics than many think. (The one very interesting anomaly was Monmouth, which I don’t know enough about to offer an easy explanation for); and 3) the Welsh vote reflected English trends, and certainly more so than it reflected anything going on in Scotland. On issues like this, I think it is becoming less, not more, relevant to talk about a unique and specific Welsh politics.

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Thank goodness I didn’t stay up through the night to watch the election results roll in. I woke up at 6.30 (normal-ish time), and saw much of the excitement happen live anyway. I’m in Hawarden at the moment in the record office there, so I wasn’t willing to sit up into the small hours.

So just some quick observations, informed by a few years of having researched welsh political history, and by a short stint volunteering in the Senedd.

I was quite pleased by the results from the seats of the two female party leaders. I’m not particularly enamoured by the politics of either Kirsty Williams or Leanne Wood, but I think what their victories in Brecon and Radnor, and the Rhondda, both demonstrated was the continuation of a long tradition in Welsh politics: the power of localism. I’ve been writing about this (including in blog form) for a while, and I stand by it. When campaigns are fought on local issues, by entrenched local personalities, the balance can well be tipped. I’m not saying it’s the sole factor that wins a person an election, but in marginal cases, it makes a huge difference. There’s a reason why local Associations from all parties, for decades and decades, have argued for having a ‘local boy’ (and, more recently, ‘girl’) as their candidate. Leanne Wood’s campaign was fought very much on this basis, and this seems to offer a decent explanation as to why Plaid captured Rhondda over and above others (like Llanelli) that it should have won instead.

This is reassuring for anyone who doesn’t particularly like political parties treating areas as natural territories, or fiefdoms. The Conservatives do it in lots of places in England, and the Labour Party is guilty of it in Wales. UKIP, as I have written before, are a symptom of this as well. When people assumed the party was just a home for retired Conservatives who were too conservative for their former political party, lots of people were quite happy to call them out as stuffy old bigots. Now that a lot of the Welsh working class are voting for them, observers, naturally, are being more cautious about what they say.

UKIP, with its plain-talking, no-nonsense political discourse, appeals to people – particularly in industrial south Wales – who don’t like the hand-wringing liberalism of the modern Labour Party, and the discombobulating way it presents its policies. There is a sense that many senior members of the Labour Party in Wales (although not so many, I will admit, from its Assembly contingent) would rather be eating a falafel wrap or goji berry salad somewhere in Islington (or Cyncoed), instead of being in the valleys. One doesn’t get that feeling from UKIP – although we are going to learn more about them in the months to come.

There’s been some chat already about this being a bad night for the Tories, which I think is fair. It wasn’t an ideal night for Labour – which makes me think, again, that Plaid Cymru could have capitalized even more on the fact that the two ‘big’ parties are not on tip-top form.

But, yes – the Conservatives held their constituency seats, which is better than had been predicted in the run-up to polling day. But they still couldn’t take the Vale of Glamorgan, or Cardiff North; seats that have been in their hands as Westminster constituencies for a while now. And they didn’t replicate that Gower shock (or the Vale of Clwyd) that happened last May. Kirsty Williams’ local campaign also easily fought off Conservatives in a seat they hold in Westminster.

I think there are two interpretations about this. One is that whilst Corbyn’s Labour Party are supposedly in turmoil, I happen to think it’s nowhere near as damaging as what’s happening to the Conservative Party nationally at the moment. Not only is the parliamentary party fundamentally split over quite a big issue, the majority of grass-roots activists and supporters are – what’s the polite term? – cheesed off with the way the party’s leadership have handled the issue of the EU referendum. I know, because I talk to them for my research quite a lot. They are furious with David Cameron’s smoke and mirrors methods, and on maters like this they don’t particularly distinguish between the central party, and its devolved cousin. Yesterday’s election acted as a mini-referenda on how the party is doing, therefore, and voters said ‘hmm, not great’.

The second interpretation I have goes against the conventional wisdom of many political commentators and historians. I have just submitted a review of Kenneth Morgan’s very good collection of essays Revolution to Devolution, in which I took issue with his assertion that devolution has been the making of the Conservative Party in Wales. I think that many potential Tory voters actually think of the party as most suited to, and most competent in, a Westminster setting, which isn’t particularly related to devolution. They’re happy to send Conservatives to the British parliament, but less willing to trust them to be good in the fundamentally ‘Welsh’ setting. When crucial ‘swing’ voters come to cast their vote in somewhere like the Vale of Glamorgan, they think Conservatives most suit the parliament that is based in England and represents Britishness, and that the Labour Party is more suitable for a Welsh institution.

This is logical, is it not? The Conservatives represent Britishness and, to an extent, Anglicised influence in Wales. They have done historically, and despite efforts to move away from that image, they are almost certainly still supported by those who aren’t particularly enthusiastic about devolution.

But these are all just thoughts, composed very quickly from the Flintshire record office car park during a lunch break. I’d welcome disagreement.

I try quite religiously to update this blog every month. I have just realise that I would’ve failed to do so this February if the leap year hadn’t come to my rescue. The reason I’ve gone quiet has, ironically, been due to doing so much writing elsewhere.

Most of that effort has been spent on the PhD thesis and its chapters. Wow – it is difficult work. I have written quite consistently throughout my two and a half years as a research student, but up to this point it has largely been a case of: put thoughts on paper; refine later.

My brother is a chemical engineer and works in an oil refinery, and has always told me that he, unlike me, does a proper and strenuous job. Well, I can now doff my cap to him. I understand his pain: refining is very tricky indeed.

There is something sad about this process aside from the fact that it’s difficult. It’s not just that writing requires a particular type of exhaustive concentration, or that you finish a day feeling like the work is worse than when you started and that you are your own worst enemy, nor indeed that after reading a chapter three or four times it becomes almost impossible to see what’s in the wrong place, and what isn’t. (Is this just me who thinks these things?)

No – the saddest thing is that my research is in its twilight period; the Autumn of its years. Maybe I shouldn’t say this because I don’t really want the word to get out, but researching Conservative Party history must be one of the greatest joys (in practical terms) in the field of historical research.

What else could take you so regularly to such an array of brilliant places – to the truly magnificent Bodleian Library in Oxford,  or on semi-regular trips to the Palace of Westminster? And to all of those underrated but always friendly and mostly atmospheric record offices dotted around the country. For Welsh Tory history, there are worse places to spend a day than in the Denbigh Archives in Ruthin’s old gaol. And I do have a real soft spot for the National Library of Wales, sitting up on its hill overlooking beautiful Aberystwyth.

This is quite a shallow, looks-based point of view. I understand that. But I do think that if you are going to travel somewhere to spend a week locked away amongst the grime and the dust and the parcel string and the yellow-ing newspaper clippings, it might as well be in an oak-panelled room with stained glass windows and ancient portraits hanging on the walls. I know of academics who say, for example, that they can’t stand Oxford, or the Bodleian Library. I don’t believe them!

Of course it’s not just about the aesthetics. If these places were of no use to my research, I wouldn’t go there. But they offer the double joy of housing excellent collections, whilst making you feel like a real and proper historian beavering away in what must be some of the most scholarly environments in the country. I’m sure there’s some theoretical work somewhere on the subject of how the physical environment affects mental capacities. I’ve got better things to do than to read it, but I think the general notion is true, and I might go back to some of these locations just to write there.

And in doing so I can pretend that I’m still doing the fun bit of the PhD – the bit that, in all fairness, has lasted for a very long and indulgent period and for which, even if nothing comes of it (‘nothing comes from nothing’, my scientific brother might tease),  I will be forever grateful for having had the opportunity to do so.

Anyone vaguely interested in current affairs will associate most political parties with a colour. Labour are red, the Tories blue, the LibDems yellow etc. But, as this brilliant piece demonstrates, that was not always the case. In some constituencies – usually in ones on the geographical peripheries – local party colours trumped the more conventional national ones, and they continued to do so until very recently.

And lo and behold, the same applied in Wales. This is not a new avenue of research on my part, more a filling in of a few gaps with some anecdotal examples from my own research. But I would like to ask what the discussion around local party colours tells us about how the public and politicians view ‘issues’. Should we speak of politics in the micro or the macro sense; the local drains or the latest foreign policy decisions?

Pembrokeshire, Carmarthenshire and Cardiganshire defied conventional colour schemes well into the twentieth century. Blue denoted the Liberal Party, and the Conservatives wore red. I have never unearthed a full and frank explanation as to why, although I like the suggestion that it comes from the fact that when the parties had their headquarters in Carmarthen, Liberals were based on Blue Street, and the Tories on Red Street. Another suggestion is that the House of Dynevor, an old Tory family, had red as its official colour, while the Whig House of Golden Grove rallied under a blue flag.

The ambiguities of these colours was picked up by the Welsh and local press. In 1974 the Western Mail wrote that in Carmarthen a ‘true-blue tradition makes the Tories look right Reds’. At the same time in Pembrokeshire, a reporter noted that the Conservative candidate Nick Edwards wore ‘a rosette the size of a small dinner plate, exactly matching his scarlet tie (I still can’t get used to the idea of ‘True Blue Tories’ being reds under the beds in Wild West Wales)’. It’s worth noting that this reporter was not from Pembrokeshire but was, as they like to say down there, ‘an outsider’.

As time wore on, I think some people were probably rather confused by all of this, but others considered it an essential. I met a Conservative supporter in Pembrokeshire a while ago who still wears a red tie during election time. His grandmother once met John Major, and dressed up for the occasion by dressing from head to toe in red. (Major apparently commented on how nice it was to see her sporting the local Conservative hue – he’d been well briefed).

This grandmother would apparently go up to people where she lived on the Pembrokeshire/Cardiganshire border and demand to know ‘Ydych chi’n goch neu yn las?’ – Are you red or blue? – and they would know what she meant. Why is it that this happens in places like rural West Wales, as well as areas of Cornwall, East Anglia, Durham and the Scottish border?

I fear I am wading into controversial waters here, but I would at least like to preface this by saying that I don’t make such judgments from some urban sophisticate’s Ivory Tower. I was born and raised in Pembrokeshire, and am very proud to say so. The county is parochial, however. Its place at the ‘end of the line’ is not just a geographical positioning. Here, as in other parts of West Wales, politics is local. And this is a key theme of any history of a political party.

It is remarkable, looking back, at the extent to which Nick Edwards tried to ingratiate himself with his constituency after he was elected in 1970 on a thin majority which was likely to disappear. He rebelled against the government to oppose unpopular local government restructuring; he devoted all of his time to improving locals schools, and hospitals, and roads, and streetlights. His politics, at the beginning at least, was Pembrokeshire red, not Westminster blue.

When the parties chose candidates in Cardiganshire or Carmarthenshire, the one essential quality was that they were local people, with local connections. Hence the Conservatives often went with local farmers, if indeed they could find local people willing to stand.

The Western Mail used to do a fantastic series of special reports from various constituencies at each election. Their well-connected and perceptive correspondent David Rosser would tour Wales and write about the personalities and the issues in each area. The most striking thing is that in the Cardiff constituencies, or the tourist-y North Wales coast, or in Swansea ‘national issues dominate’. Not so in rural West Wales, where personality and local politics were the order of the day.

As with everything else I write about, nuance and subtlety is often needed. When asking, for example, how much ‘the Welsh Question’ meant for voters in Wales, the answer is that it depends entirely on which region you are looking at. In North West Wales, the politicisation of the Welsh language, Welsh broadcasting, and representation by a Secretary of State were hot topics in the post-War era. In Monmouth, however, they mattered not a jot. Similarly, the politics of rural Wales reflected the inescapable fact that people on the whole looked inwards here, more than outwards.

How and why the Conservatives did or did not fall into line with this mentality (failing spectacularly in Cardigan; seizing the opportunity in Pembrokeshire) is another part of the tale – it involves more than what obscure colour a candidate wore on their chest, although that was a decent place for them to start.

I have written an article for the Conservative History Journal, which can be bought here – https://conservativehistory.wordpress.com/join-us/  – if anyone is interested.

My piece concerns the events surrounding the time when Cardiff South East Conservative Association chose the strangest possible parliamentary candidate ever in the form of Ted Dexter. Dexter had no real knowledge of politics, but he was chosen to fight the Labour heavyweight James Callaghan. The seat was a marginal one at the time, so this wasn’t even a hopeless punt.

The article explores how the local Association did this, why they did it, and how events ended up panning on. Spoiler: it was disastrous.

I loved writing this article – more than anything else I’ve written so far for journals, newspapers, think tanks etc. It was such good fun to dog through the archives to work out what really happened, and I was lucky to correspond with Dexter himself, too.

I hope people get a chance to read it.

I spent last week in North Wales, doing my very best to ensure that my final thesis has as little geographical bias in it as possible when I provide working examples of the Conservative Party in Wales. So I went to the Flintshire and the Denbighshire Record Offices, which are located in Hawarden and Ruthin, respectively.

I’ve said it many times in these blog posts, and I’ll say it again: it’s worth studying the Conservative Party purely for the archives and the other places to go for your primary material. How many PhDs are constructed from the fruits of labouring in the Bodleian Library, the British Library, the Houses of Parliament, the National Library of Wales, and all these fantastic little record offices scattered around the country? Flintshire’s Record Office was in a wonderful old building, whose reading room was all big bay windows, and views of the gardens, and portraits on the wall. In Ruthin, the archive is inside the old gaol! You walk through narrow stone corridors to reach the reading room, and several of the study facilities are in former cells. It’s fantastic. Most unfortunately, I got everything I needed to do here done! With the Bodleian, where I will never totally finish seeing everything that might be of interest, I will always have an excuse to return. Sadly, I probably won’t go back to Ruthin gaol.

As ever, neither of these archives were a let down in terms of their content deposited material, wither. They provided me with the usual anecdotal and analytical research nuggets. But I also got a different form of education while I was there. I’m very much a south Wales man, despite many parts of the north being childhood holiday destinations and therefore some of my favourite places in the world. I grew up in Pembrokeshire, lived for years in Cardiff, and now work in Swansea. I have no intrinsic feeling about the society or the culture of north Wales as I do with these areas.

But working in Hawarden and Ruthin for a week, strolling around the towns, eating in the cafes, and talking to some of the locals (and one of the area’s former MPs Robert Harvey), at least gave me the smallest of flavours about these places. I need this kind of experience, because large swathes of both counties were significant Tory territory in post-War Wales. Denbigh was the seat of Geraint Morgan, and West Flint of Nigel Birch and then Sir Anthony Meyer. These two seats stayed Conservative in 1966 – along with Barry – when all else fell to Labour, including Monmouth and Cardiff North.

I know when I walk around Pembrokeshire, or the northern suburbs of Cardiff, or parts of western Swansea why these places might have been areas where the Conservative Party could find success. They tick many of the boxes: material signs of relative affluence, pleasant housing etc. Similarly, it is easy to understand why the once industrial eastern end of Swansea, or the docks in the south of Cardiff, never lent Conservatives enough votes to mean the party could represent them in Westminster.

Places like Hawarden and Ruthin ooze the kind of qualities that one naturally associated with Conservative representation. Walking around the centre of Ruthin and snacking on the produce from the lovely bijou delicatessen I felt like I could have been in deepest middle England: in, say, Whitney, or a Berkshire market town.

This is hardly an academic analysis. The interviewee who I met for a drink and a chat put it rather opaquely, but, simply enough for anyone to understand, when I asked him who his core voters were in this part of Denbighshire. He gesticulated in the direction of Ruthin town square outside the window and said ‘these kinds of people’.

I think one has to know this kind of thing to do a good political history – like the one I am attempting. I now have a tiny but invaluable bit of experience about one or two of the settlements that were probably contributing to Conservative Party success in Wales, even in, and especially during, its darker hours. Whilst the archival material, the ‘hard facts’, and the experiences of people is what should rightly drive my conclusions, I think I am all the better for having gone and experienced what these places are like, and the kind of atmosphere and aura they give off. Why people vote for parties, after all, is the end result not just of their rational thoughts and their dispassionate weighing up of what’s on offer. It is also very much about political socialisation – in other words, class and how you identify with a party you think represents you, your area, and your community. The fact that Conservatives tend to represent places like these tells us a great deal about the party, and its voters.

I have written an article about Conservative politicians who have Welsh roots, focusing particularly on Lords Howe, Heseltine and Howard.

Here it is:  http://www.walesonline.co.uk/lifestyle/nostalgia/welsh-history-month-senior-tory-10333334

I wrote this before Geoffrey Howe died. I met him two years ago, and  when I did all that had been written about him being a gentleman seemed true to me. We didn’t have the best of interviews. I was working off no sleep, and he was very frail. It was precisely because of that, though, that I learnt a great deal from the meeting. He didn’t divulge any gems for my research, but I learnt about how age eventually trumps power. He could have been any elderly gentleman, without an ego, or without any sense of having once been one of the most powerful men in the land. Considering how frail he was when we spoke, the fact that he made time for me was the most moving thing of all.