Saturday 4 July 2015

Continuing with the series of posts 'From the vaults'—How Wales led the way 1983-88

Exciting years but at times fraught with internal struggles...

I explained in a previous From the vaults how in my judgement the Falklands War had impacted on the General Election of 1983, even though the SDP/Liberal Alliance got 25.4% of the vote and 23 MPs. In Wales the proportion was 23% with only 2 MPs.  Under PR it would have been 8 or 9! Political commentators subsequently argued that it was Mrs Thatcher that had seen off Labour – that was not actually the case, it was the birth of the SDP and the popularity of the Alliance that had upset the apple cart. It is difficult to believe that in Wales, Labour had declined from 49% of the vote in 1974 to only 38% by 1983.
When Roy Jenkins was Leader of the SDP, there was minimal intrusion from the SDP headquarters in London regarding how the SDP and Liberals were cooperating in Wales. However, when David Owen took over the leadership, the Welsh SDP expected matters to be different, but that did not prevent the increasing momentum for greater cooperation between the two Welsh parties. One of the aims was to have a joint office in Cardiff which was eventually secured. The negotiating skills and efforts of Clive Lindley, a highly respected member of the Welsh Council who was on the National Committee before me, were instrumental in achieving this aim – particularly at a time when the SDP had closed its offices in Manchester, Birmingham and Bristol!

In November 1983, history was made with the first ever joint meeting of the Welsh Liberal Party Executive and the SDP Council for Wales where it was agreed that a Liaison Committee should be established under the joint chair of Sir Winston Roddick and myself. Here, I must pay tribute to Winston’s steadfastness and vision; he was a man who always saw the bigger picture. Yet his efforts were not always appreciated by some of his Liberal colleagues.

By early 1984, there was just one office for the two parties in Wales and the Alliance Committee soon became the vehicle for promoting political activity across the country. Although the two parties continued to hold their own executive meetings and conferences, it was the Alliance Committee that was the driving force on strategy, policy and organisation. Unfortunately, this was not to the liking of a minority in both parties, who did not care much for how quickly the closer working arrangements were developing.   

Nothing like this was happening in the rest of the United Kingdom.  I often used to wonder why the parties in Scotland were not following our example, especially since both had senior and highly influential Members of Parliament. The answer became obvious as time went on as they knew that they would be confronted by David Owen at Westminster if they dared to venture down the ‘same road as the Welsh’. Whereas in Wales, Tom Ellis, Geraint Howells and I held no fear of the ‘Owenites’ in the SDP...

By now I had been on the National Committee for some four months when in March 1984, at the second SDP Wales Consultative Assembly held in Cardiff, debates became quite lively followed by voting. I just leave it to you to imagine the reaction of the London party. Both David Owen and Shirley Williams were in attendance with over 300 people present. This Assembly also debated a policy paper approved by the Alliance Committee titled ‘Wales in Europe’.

June soon came along with the European Parliament Elections at which we received 20% of the vote but no seats!  This was quickly followed by Mike Hancock’s famous victory in the by-election at Portsmouth South. In the second half of 1984, negotiations commenced over the allocation of parliamentary seats for the next General Election. The membership of the two parties in all constituencies was consulted regarding their preferred system of candidate selection and which party should take the lead in each constituency. Eventually, by September, the Alliance Committee arrived at an agreement over the seat allocation in Wales which was approved by their respective Executive Committees.  As Chair of the Council for Wales, it was my responsibility to notify Cowley Street, London of the agreement, as well as the President and Leader’s offices. Once again, as in 1983, there was a degree of unhappiness in London that Wales was seen to have jumped the gun and had laid a draft blueprint for the rest of the UK – which in fact we had!  Moreover, by publicising the details of the agreement to the press beforehand, it was assumed that the National Committee had been pushed into a corner with a fait accompli by Gwynoro and friends.

I attended an Organisation Committee and then a National Committee to argue in favour of the agreement. The leadership was extremely unhappy because the agreement contained 13 ‘joint selection’ seats. The National Committee was evenly divided in principle, but on my reckoning there was always a majority in support of the deal if pushed to a vote. However a compromise emerged to send three National Committee representatives to attend a meeting of the SDP Welsh Council to test the mood of the Council members. The Welsh Liberal Party became quite unhappy over this and it resented what they considered to be outside interference. The strength of feeling was made clear when at their October Annual General Meeting they passed a resolution which stated that the Welsh Liberal Party ‘confirms its refusal to negotiate any matters relating to the Alliance in Wales with anybody or person from outside Wales’ and that they supported the SDP in Wales in its aim of ‘developing the Alliance in Wales free from outside interference’.

Undaunted, the SDP representatives, Bill Rodgers, Mike Thomas and Alex McGivan attended a Council for Wales meeting in Cardiff.   David Owen and his supporters were always under the misguided opinion, as they put it to me several times over the preceding weeks, that this was ‘Gwynoro and Tom’s agreement’ and not the Council’s as a whole.  They certainly found differently at the meeting when after listening to the 30 strong Council for over three hours a motion was passed by 26 votes to 1 declaring support for the agreement. So after five months from which the agreement had originally been approved by the Alliance Committee and the two parties in Wales, the agreement was finally ratified by the National Committee in December. It had been a titanic struggle between Wales and London, and from then on the relationship between David Owen and I became extremely strained.  This was unfortunate as I had held him in high regard from 1981, even though my main affiliation was to Roy Jenkins.  

All these events appeared in the Welsh media regularly at the time and hence the Alliance in Wales had a very high profile indeed - so much so that I remember one newspaper’s headline in particular ‘The Alliance: the most exciting force in Welsh politics’.

In the County Council elections of May 1985, the SDP and Liberals together won 645 council seats, with Alliance administrations firmly established in 7 counties and holding the balance of power in 25 others. In Wales we doubled our representation compared to four years earlier!

The exciting and exhilarating Brecon and Radnor by-election followed quickly thereafter. That campaign was the best I had been involved with at the time  - and I had done the rounds including Crosby, Hillhead, Bermondsey, Portsmouth-South and so on (not to mention a previous incarnation in Carmarthen during the early seventies!). It was as if mid-Wales was in the grip of an ‘evangelical’ revival and even better, it was a truly Welsh campaign. I heard some great oratory in packed village and town halls with David Penhaligon, Cyril Smith and Paddy in full voice. Looking back on events from a distance, Richard Livesey also cast an ‘angelic persona' on proceedings!

The First Alliance Conference in Wales, or anywhere else for that matter, was held in the Autumn 1985 where a joint policy paper was agreed on decentralisation. At the same time, Winston Roddick came up with a master stroke. He proposed that the long standing Liberal Weekend School which was an ‘ideas’ event should be changed into the Lloyd George Society. The Society was not in any way accountable to either party of the Alliance, but it became a prestigious, radical and popular grouping with its launch at Criccieth in October 1985. A ceremony was held at Lloyd George’s graveside in Llanymstumdwy and it was a very moving experience. There we were, media coverage and all, at this peaceful setting during a tranquil afternoon at the graveside of an international statesman from Wales. It reminded all present of the reasons why the Alliance was so crucial, particularly in Wales. I will never forget Lady Olwen’s answer to a question from a reporter about what advice her father would have given the two Davids – she answered that he probably would have told them ‘just to get on with it.’

Well ‘get on with it’ we did in Wales. On November 16th and 17th, the First Alliance Conference took place with the two leaders of the Alliance in attendance. There were 300 members present in the day followed by 150 at the evening’s inaugural lecture of the Lloyd George Society which was given by Roy Jenkins, including a masterclass history lesson by the maestro.  

Motions and debates on youth policy, decentralisation, defence and the economy were followed by votes. Naturally two debates attracted strong media interest, the first being decentralisation with a policy paper outlining the establishment of a Parliament for Wales, which was carried by 139 to 55 votes. In the 1980s, decentralisation was not a particularly prominent topic, but I was determined to bring it back on to the political agenda. In this period Labour, under the leadership of Neil Kinnock, was quite hostile to the subject and, for whatever reason, Plaid Cymru had retreated into its shell. I reckon that the Welshness of the Alliance in Wales took them all by surprise. Remember, I came from a firm Welsh speaking mining community ...

The second debate of interest was the one on defence which had become a point of disagreement between members of the two parties, with David Owen arguing privately that the Liberals had always been too soft on this subject. But here again, at this conference of both Liberals and Social Democrats there was no split in views, with the vote on policy being 180 in favour and 5 against. That conference sealed the bond between the two parties in Wales.    

1986 was a consolidation year and over the course of the next 12 months the Alliance won the Ryedale, Greenwich and Truro by-elections. Then came the General Election in June 1987 and, again, the Alliance vote held up at 22.6%. However, I do wonder what would have been the outcome had there been a more natural affinity between the two leaders. It was clear that they did not get on, and David Owen’s talk of coalition politics at the time - particularly the possibility of establishing one with Mrs Thatcher - muddied the waters.

By August 1987, the issue of a possible merger came to a head with the National Committee of the SDP conducting a postal ballot on its future relations with the Liberal Party. Two questions were on the ballot paper: one for a closer working arrangement, short of merger, which received 43% of the vote and one on whether to merge the two parties which received 57% support. Following that decision, David Owen resigned as Leader of the SDP.

In my judgement, for all the differences between us, I wished David had remained as Leader because he was a man of stature and gravitas. The rest, as they say, is history and on 31st January 1988 following the Liberal Party Special Assembly a week earlier in Blackpool, where there was an 85% vote in favour of merger, the SDP met in Sheffield to vote 273 to 28 in favour of a merger. Therefore, on 3rd March, the Social and Liberal Democrats were launched at the Conference Centre Westminster.

So here is a flavour of that debate in Sheffield...   
VIDEO: Week in Week Out Programme on the SDP merger debate with Liberals at Sheffield 1988