Conservatism, Character and Constitution

From the Students’ Union to the Senedd: My Days at Cardiff University

Outgoing Conservative MS David Melding reflects on his time at Cardiff University and his tenure in the Cardiff University Conservative Association.

When I received my degree in 1984, Lord Elwyn Jones declared to the graduates and guests, “the young look forward, the old look back, the middle aged look around feeling slightly confused”. Parents in particular laughed but I recall those words today in late middle age myself! Elwyn Jones had served as Lord Chancellor during the Labour government of 1974-79 which was one of the most turbulent periods in British politics. He was the embodiment of the grand, patriotic Labour tradition built in South Wales that included Nye Bevan, Jim Callaghan and George Thomas. He had served as junior British Counsel at the Nuremberg Trials and for many years sat as MP for West Ham in London. Yet this tradition had been eroded by increasing hard left extremism and had turned many like myself to another political tradition.

My political life really started in the Gwent and Morganwg bars of the Students’ Union. Ian Grist, the scholarly Conservative MP for Cardiff Central until 1992, called the Union building Lubyanka which was not architecturally accurate but did convey the ugly massiveness of the edifice. Cardiff’s tribute to Soviet modernism was still a cause of controversy in his constituency. Others, only slightly more charitably, referred to the brown mega-block as the most expensive railway bridge in history! Some of the older staff would from time to time whimsically talk about the old days when the Union was located on Dumfries Place and a certain Neil Kinnock was once president.

Student politics was intense and rarely focused on genuinely educational issues. Rather there was a  world to put to rights. In the Great Hall, that vast echoing chamber, the General Meeting debated the issues of the day and issued its prescriptions. Nuclear disarmament was perhaps the most urgent subject of debate as cruise missiles were being deployed by NATO in western Europe and Britain was in the process of commissioning Trident to replace Polaris warheads on its nuclear submarines. Winston Churchill’s grandson, also Winston Churchill, led a campaign to defend the nuclear deterrent until multilateral disarmament was achieved and he visited Cardiff to promote the cause. At the University he was shouted down by opponents who then impeded his exit by a feigned mass MAD “death” with scores of demonstrators prostrating themselves on the floor. It was a low point for free speech and vigorous debate.

Ted Heath and Ken Clarke at least got a polite hearing when they visited. I had the pleasure of hosting Mr Heath’s visit and I will never forget the sight of a packed Great Hall waiting for the great man’s peroration. Despite his reputation for being gruff at times he had been on good form at lunch in the senior dining room. He was visibly pleased when he walked into the Great Hall and the audience warmed to his theme that day to promote international development. The Brandt Commission, on which he served, had recommended that 0.7% of the GDP of industrialised nations be devoted to the economies of what was then called the third world. Nearly 30 years later David Cameron made this noble aspiration government policy.

Kenneth Clarke was an up and coming Minister of State when he visited, but few of us doubted he was destined for great things. After his speech, delivered with humour and panache, he took questions while puffing away on a cigar! This was a habit he declared to be “puerile but enjoyable”. I still wonder what the Party missed out on when he failed on three occasions to become leader.

The University Conservative Association was one of the strongest in the UK at this time. Although student politics was generally dominated by the left we managed to hold our own in student union elections, including winning one of the top sabbatical offices in the same year as Mrs Thatcher’s 1983 general election victory. In this respect we reflected the nature of Cardiff as politically speaking very much a swing city. This often surprised English students who had visions of South Wales as intractably Labour. Some of the characters of local politics generously supported the University Association. None was more striking than Stefan Terlezki, a successful businessman, county and city councillor. Stefan had been born in the western Ukraine and had experienced Soviet and Nazi tyranny as a boy. After the war, in which he was a slave labourer in Austria, he settled in Britain and he cherished the freedom that we too often take for granted. I remember one speech in particular when he told us students “Russia says it wants peace, but I ask how big a piece of the free world!?”

The highpoint of my days in student politics was definitely the 1983 General Election. Stefan stood in Cardiff West which had never been won by the Conservative Party. This did not put Stefan off however. “I am going to win” he declared at pre-election meeting in the University. And win he did though few of us really thought it likely. It was a fitting culmination to Stefan’s political career- the first Ukrainian elected to Parliament. Later I had the pleasure of helping Stefan with his memoirs “ From War to Westminster” which immediately became a success and won outstanding reviews. The Welsh launch was held in the National Assembly in 2005 and the guest speaker was Rhodri Morgan who defeated Stefan in Cardiff West in 1987. It said something rather worthwhile about our political culture that opponents had met again to celebrate this publishing event. Unfortunately Stefan died shortly afterward, but his was a great life and he related wonderfully to students perhaps because such youthful freedom had been so viciously denied to him under the death shadow of totalitarianism.

While I recall 1983 with warmth later I suffered the cold blast of electoral defeat in Cardiff Central when I was the Conservative candidate in the nadir of 1997. When I arrived in Cardiff Central it was a marginal; when I left after the election it was a safe Labour seat! In fact I limped in third. But that astonishing Labour victory paved the way for the National Assembly. Cardiff was turned into a political as well as national capital and in 1999 I found myself one of the inaugural members of the new institution. One of my most satisfying duties since as a member for South Wales Central has been to represent Cardiff University in the Senedd. The University occupies a pivotal place in Welsh educational and economic life. It has also done much to promote the public understanding of devolution through the Welsh Governance Centre. I am immensely pleased that over these years there has been a strong Conservative presence in the student body. Long may it continue!

David Melding was the Chairman of the University Conservative Association in 1982-83 and is a Member of the Senedd for South Wales Central.

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