‘Welsh Conservatives?!? The two are contradictory!’
This turn of phrase was quipped by Barbara Castle in 1980, it reflects a long-held view in Wales and in a way stands true, especially when considered the Conservative electoral losses in both the 1995 local government election and the 1997 general election, writes Matthew Day, a third-year History PhD student based at the School of History, Philosophy and Social Sciences at Bangor University.
There does however stand both a strand of Conservatism and politicians who stand towards the centre of the Conservative Party. These are politicians who are both undoubtedly Welsh and are also undoubtedly Conservative, Lord Thomas of Gwydir or as he was otherwise known Peter Thomas is one of these Welsh Conservative figures.
Though he does not count as one of my political heroes, he is one most interesting members of the Welsh Conservatives in the twentieth century and stands as a true Welsh Political icon.
In Peter Thomas’s obituary for the Telegraph, Julian Critchley described him as one of ‘the last of the Tory democrats,’
Peter Thomas is perhaps best remembered as the first-ever Welsh Conservative Secretary of State for Wales at the Welsh Office and as an iconic character who did much to advance the cause of Wales, however, amongst political historians he remains largely understudied figure. It is therefore fitting to offer a biography in the year 2020 as this is the same year that would have been Peter Thomas’s 100th birthday.
Peter Thomas was born in Llanrwst in the county of Conwy on the 31st July 1920, to a father who was a solicitor and his mother. Though the Thomas family were Welsh speaking he was fully bilingual speaking both Welsh and English to fluency. He was first educated at the village school before moving on to Epworth College in Rhyl, a college which at the time consisted of some 18 acres, it now known as Ysgol Dewi Sant. Following in his father’s footsteps with a career in law Thomas then went on to study a degree in Law at Jesus College, University of Oxford. This was an active route taken by many Welsh Conservatives of the era, who would go from a Welsh upbringing to the epitome of the English elite, who would then go on to advance the cause of Wales. Peter Thomas was proudly Welsh and actively played into his heritage by taking an active part in the Gorsedd attending Eisteddfods under the Bardic name Pedr Conwy, or Peter from Conwy.
Upon the outbreak of World War Two in September of 1939 Peter Thomas joined the Royal Air Force as a bomber pilot. In 1941 he was shot down whereupon he would spend the rest of the war as a prisoner of the German army, moving between three different prisoner of war camps. Whilst imprisoned Peter Thomas continued his legal studies which would come to serve him well after the war, however, this also served him whilst he was imprisoned where he would defend his fellow inmates over crimes. He would also star as an actor whilst imprisoned, entertaining his fellow inmates.
After the war in the year 1947, Peter Thomas, thanks to his connections as an actor, married his wife Tessa Dean, the daughter of the film producer Basil Dean and his wife Lady Mercy Greville. They were married for 38 years before Tessa Dean died in 1985. They had 4 children between them, two sons and two daughters.
Peter Thomas is best known for his career in parliament spanning 50 years, with over 30 in the House of Commons and a further 20 years in the House of Lords. Though post-war Peter Thomas actually embarked on 2 different careers side by side. The first of his careers he started in 1947, Peter Thomas became a barrister and was called to the bar on the Wales and Chester circuit, he would continue his legal career whilst also serving as an MP, it is Peter Thomas’s career in parliament that will be focused on.
He was first elected to Parliament as the MP for the constituency of Conway in the general election of 25 October 1951, holding it until the general election in 1966 where he would lose the seat to Ednyfed Davies of the Labour party. During his first stint in parliament, he first turned down a position as an Under Secretary of State for Wales at the Home Office, though this would be his chance to serve Wales, he did this was in order to maintain his focus upon his legal career.
Though his singular focus on his law career would not last as Thomas would eventually come to work as a PPS or a Parliamentary Private Secretary between 1954 – 1959 to Sir Harry Hylton-Foster, the then solicitor general and later speaker in the House of Commons. Further promotion came when he worked as a Parliamentary Secretary at the Ministry of Labour between 1959 – 1961.
At the same time, Peter Thomas also started to show himself as a pro Europeanist figure, serving as a member for the Council of Europe between 1957 – 1959. He would later help Edward Heath champion the entry of the UK into the EEC. The most significant acts by Thomas in this period was his sponsoring of a Private members bill that became the Eisteddfod Act of 1959, which allowed local councils to lend support to the National Eisteddfod. This serves as one of the first acts which demonstrates Peter Thomas’s support of Wales.
After this, in 1961 Peter Thomas moved from the Ministry of Labour to become an Under Secretary of State at the Foreign Office. A mere 2 years later, he was promoted to a full Minister of State for Foreign Affairs after the cabinet reshuffle following the Profumo Affair. It was at this time that Thomas focused on his parliamentary career, rather than his law career. The pinnacle of his career was highlighted in August 1963 when he travelled to Moscow with the soon to be Prime minister and then-current Foreign Secretary, Alec Douglas-Home to sign the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which banned the testing of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere.
Upon his return to Wales, in his presidential address to the 1963 National Eisteddfod in Llandudno Peter Thomas spoke about the Nuclear treaty, proclaiming that,
‘This has been an historic week for humanity.’
Thomas would remain at the Foreign Office until 1964 when the Conservative Party lost the general election to Harold Wilson’s Labour party. In spite of this 1964 would continue to be an excellent year for Peter Thomas, for he was made a privy councillor and promoted to the Privy Council in the Queen’s birthday honours.
Peter Thomas further served as a shadow frontbencher for the Conservative party, until the 1966 general election when he lost his Conway constituency to the Labour party, who won it with a slim majority of 581. This lost him some credibility as a Welsh Conservative since he would eventually have to serve Wales from a different seat, possibly even an English one. The constituency of Conway has a long history of being a Conservative-Labour marginal seat, although this is contestably a good thing to have happened as without Peter Thomas losing the seat Wyn Roberts might not have become MP.
It was during his time in opposition and exile from parliament that Thomas would once again focus on his law career. In 1965 after his 10 years in law he took the silk and became a queen’s counsel. He would then become deputy chairman of the Cheshire Quarter in 1966, he would then also become deputy chairman of the Denbighshire Quarter sessions in 1968, he served in both offices until 1970.
Politically, during this period of 1964-70 an event happened which had a profound effect on the Welsh Nation the flooding of Capel Celyn in 1965 to create the Tryweryn Reservoir for the supply of water to Liverpool. Peter Thomas was concerned and mindful over the deep political resentment in that both events would create in Wales.
The flooding of Tryweryn exposed large-scale issues with the governance of Wales, this only served to aid Peter Thomas’s pragmatic and sympathetic approach to Wales. Such concern over these events would aid the direction of Thomas’s policies when he sought re-election to parliament.
In 1970 Peter Thomas was once again elected to parliament, however, this time he fought for a relatively safe seat, he was elected as an MP for the London seat of Hendon South which had long been a Conservative-held seat. He won the seat with a majority of 6,189 votes and held it until 1987.
Soon after his re-election promotions soon followed, with Thomas being appointed as the first-ever Welsh chairman of the Conservative Party a post of which he would hold until 1972. Even more unusually he was one of the first Welsh speakers to hold a high office in the Conservative government. Thomas’s second appointment by Edward Heath was as the first-ever Welsh Conservative Secretary of State for Wales at the relatively recently formed Welsh Office.
Leading the team at the Welsh Office, it was at the same time as becoming the Welsh Secretary that Peter Thomas would receive the likes of Wyn Roberts as Parliamentary Private Secretary. He was in charge of a team that would now specifically lead Wales, he would always champion the interests of the Welsh and would hold this post at a very politically sensitive time in Wales. However, as Peter Thomas always had sensitivity to Welsh issues, he was now perfectly positioned to address them. He had already experienced this as a Queens Counsel, when he defended John Jenkins the leader of MAC, whom was charged with causing 18 explosions, and found guilty.
Peter Thomas would hold the post of Welsh Secretary throughout Edward Heath’s government. Though this was not without criticism, for even though Thomas had a strong Welsh background he drew criticism for a serving as a Welsh Secretary from an English seat. Though this is a charge that was and is still applicable to most Conservative Secretaries of State for Wales.
Though the Heath government was generally stifled in its attempts to pass reform, as Wales was very politically sensitive at this time. The Miners’ strike of 1974 would bring down the Heath Government and end Thomas’s tenure as the secretary of state for Wales.
Peter Thomas was still able to pass meaningful reform for Wales. He was still aware of the sensitivity of the issue of Water in Wales, especially after the flooding of Capel Celyn and so whilst serving his stint as Welsh Secretary he presided over the creation of the Welsh Water Authority in the 1973 restructuring of the water authorities in both England and Wales. Its creation was meant to protect a politically sensitive area of Wales, though in reality it was a Welsh Office Quango that was later privatised under the Thatcher government in 1989.
In another move to protect other sensitive areas of Wales, since Welsh language issues were always apparent, and both the governments of Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher maintained an uncompromising outlook on any language provision. At a time when the Welsh Language Society were active with their campaign of direct action and civil disobedience.
The Welsh Office under Peter Thomas responded to the campaign of civil disobedience and direct action by creating bilingual signs for roads and other public provisions across Wales, though this would not serve to quell the rising nationalist sentiments it did take the steam out of the arguments. This it is an important step of Welsh language provision in the 20th century, for if as Joe Moran argues that roads are the ‘cathedrals of the modern world’ then road signs could serve as the modern religious text.
However, possibly his greatest achievement during his stint as the Secretary of State for Wales at this time was the reorganisation of local government in 1974. Peter Thomas’ proposed that the 181 existing local councils in Wales should be reorganised into a two-tier system with 7 new county councils with 36 district councils underneath them. Though this would later become 8 county councils, with one established just for Cardiff. Though little could he realised that he had unwittingly helped to contribute to the Conservative governments demise in Wales across the 1990s.
Though Ted Heath lost the 1974 general election Thomas would continue on as Welsh spokesperson. He would then leave the office for good in 1975 when Margaret Thatcher became the leader of the Conservative Party.
Though Thomas was a first fervent supporter of Ted Heath he eventually came to throw his support behind Thatcher and would return to her government once again in 1979. This time though he was always considered with suspicion, as he was a fervent Heath supporter, he would never again hold any ministerial posts under any of the Thatcher governments.
Therefore, his focus once again switched back to his law career as a crown court recorder from 1974 to 1988, he also sat as an arbitrator on the court of arbitration of the international chamber of commerce in Paris. Though he did not hold any ministerial position, he was not inactive in parliament between 1979 – 1987. He would go on to serve on several committees, including the commons Foreign Affairs Committee, where he made a wide contribution. Peter Thomas was also active with the Conservative friends of Israel in the 1980s, during which he served as the president of the group.
Peter Thomas retired from the commons in 1987 general election, at the age of 67, though he knew from as early as 1985 that he no intention to contest his Hendon South seat. In Thatcher’s 1987 general election peerage list Peter Thomas was granted a life peerage and entered the House of Lords as the Baron Thomas of Gwydir, of Llanwrst in the county of Gwynedd.
As the new Lord Thomas of Gwydir, Peter Thomas continued to serve Welsh interests from the House of Lords. In the lords he would be active on committees, he welcomed the INF arms limitation agreement with Russia, he also rejected a report by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission which if passed would have force national breweries to sell up to 22,000 pubs.
He was also active on Lords issues relating to Wales, such as Wyn Roberts’ Welsh Language Act of 1993, or on the Government of Wales Bill in 1998, where he reflected on how the debate was similar to a motion of Welsh home rule in his debating society at school. How little he could have known as a schoolchild that he would come to debate the same subject of devolution 60 years later in the House of Lords.
Lord Thomas of Gwydir died aged 87 on the 3rd February 2008.
A committed Europeanist, but also a cultural Welsh nationalist, and a one nation tory. He was a quintessential Conservative typical of the world war two caste.
Peter Thomas’ legacy remains one that is both understated and understudied in the history of Wales.
A true Welsh Political Icon.
Matthew Day is a third-year History PhD student based at the School of History, Philosophy and Social Sciences at Bangor University. His doctoral research focuses on the fledgling history of the Conservative Party in Wales, and more generally on the political history of Wales. His thesis focuses on the life of Sir Wyn Roberts or Lord Roberts of Conwy and analyses his many contributions and advances to Wales as a nation.