Margaret Thatcher’s mixed fortunes in Wales

In 2008, the Plaid Cymru AM Bethan Jenkns declared that plans for a portrait of Margaret Thatcher to hang in the Welsh Assembly was an “insult to the people of Wales". At the same time, the then Conservative AM and now MP for the Vale of Galmorgan Alun Cairns praised the ex PM for having “transformed the Welsh economy.”

In 2008, the Plaid Cymru AM Bethan Jenkns declared that plans for a portrait of Margaret Thatcher to hang in the Welsh Assembly was an “insult to the people of Wales“. At the same time, the then Conservative AM and now MP for the Vale of Galmorgan Alun Cairns praised the ex PM for having “transformed the Welsh economy.”

These two case studies show that the debate in Wales about Thatcher’s impact continues to this day.

Yet for all the talk of division, perhaps buoyed by a much weaker nationalist sentiment, Thatcher proved electorally far more successful in Wales than in Scotland.

Fresh off the heals of victory in the Falklands, albeit at the expense of a number of Welsh lives, and faced with a Labour Party in disarray, Thatcher managed to capitalise on the opportunities this presented, taking an unprecedented 14 seats,  turning many areas in Wales blue.

Speaking of the admiration felt for the Iron Lady, the Welsh Falklands war veteran Simon Weston who, given the injuries the war inflicted on him might have more reason than most to muster a sense of anger towards Thatcher, declared her to be a “great leader”.

Responding to her death he explained:

“I honestly feel she would [have been] the best person to see out both Gulf conflicts, certainly Afghanistan and even the banking crisis – she was so decisive. I know she wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but from somebody who was privileged to serve under her as a soldier, I felt she was the best war leader we could have had.”

Yet despite the relative success she had electorally in Wales, memories, particularly across the valleys remain strong over the devastating impact she had on many mining communities, leading to the bitter mining strikes that in many ways came to embody her steely determination.

Yet even in the midst of the collapse of the Welsh mining industry Wales still wasn’t united in the same sense that Scotland was against her programme for government.

Observance of the strike, the BBC has noted within Wales differed from north to south:

“In the north, only 35 per cent of the 1,000 men employed went on strike, and this had dwindled to 10 per cent by the strike’s end in 1985. By contrast, the south Wales coalfield contained the staunchest supporters of industrial action. At the start of the strike, 99.6 per cent of the 21,500 workers joined the action. This reduced to 93 per cent by the end. No other area retained such a level.”

“With so many men not working in an area which was almost single-industry, South Wales suffered hugely with deprivation and community breakdown. Some areas broke down irretrievably, with the effects visible for years afterwards in ghost villages in the Valleys.”

But in the face of such hostility, it was in Wales that the seeds for the end of the strikes were sown and public opinion finally shifted towards Thatcher with the death of David Wilkie. On 30th November 1984, two striking miners dropped a concrete block from a footbridge onto his taxi whilst he was driving a strike breaking miner to his workplace.

Declaring her place in the history books to be “assured”, Welsh first minister Carwyn Jones has sought to emphasise the positive, saying of Thatcher:

“Margaret Thatcher was a major force in British political life who undoubtedly had a significant influence on the political, social and economic landscape in Wales and the UK.

“There’s no doubt about her personal achievement as the first woman to become British prime minister. Her place in the history books is assured.”

His sentiments were shared by Plaid Cymru Leader, Leanne Wood who, despite her grave misgivings at the policies perused by her government nevertheless noted that Thatcher’s dominance of British politics remained “an achievement in itself regardless of one’s position on her politics and the effects of which are still felt today”.

For the former Welsh Labour minister Kim Howells, meanwhile, who during the miners’ strike worked as a research officer for the NUM, whilst a “remarkable” politician in many ways, Thatchcer remained “extremely divisive”.

But perhaps the best summary of Thatcher comes from the former first minister, the long standing Welsh grey beard Rhodri Morgan, who dubbed the former PM a “marmite” leader who those in Wales either loved or hated with very little in between.

In an age of “catch-all” politics one wonders if we will ever see such conviction politicians ever again.

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