The Welsh Liberal Democrats have the deepest roots of any Welsh political party. In the nineteenth century it was the first political party to recognise Wales as a political nation in its own right (the Welsh Liberal Council was founded in 1897). It was the Liberal Prime Minister William Gladstone, who lived in North Wales at Howarden, who first recognised politically that Wales was a separate nation from England. This was reflected in something of a golden age for Welsh Liberal nationalism in which the political and spiritual nature of the Welsh population were harnessed by Radical Liberals such as Tom Ellis and David Lloyd George. Welsh Liberals championed causes such as land reform, Welsh church disestablishment, education, including the foundation of the University of Wales, political reform such as the Secret Ballot and ‘Home Rule’ for Wales – causes which find a strong echo in the party’s policies today.
The zenith of Welsh Liberalism at a Parliamentary level occurred in 1906 when MPs in every Welsh constituency took the Liberal whip. No political party has ever come close to that political dominance. From then until the fall of the Lloyd George coalition government after 1922, Welsh Liberals were at the heart of the Liberal party nationally and in various coalition governments. Lloyd George became President of the Board of Trade, Chancellor of the Exchequer and then Prime Minister during the period 1905 to 1922. Reginald McKenna held the positions of Home Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer. It was Lloyd George, who famously introduced Old Age Pensions for the first time in 1909 laying the foundations for the welfare state. Whilst McKenna battled the suffragettes, Lloyd George was able to follow his beliefs and give women the vote in 1918.
After the First World War, the Liberal flame was rapidly dimmed in the industrial south and northern areas of Wales but in more rural areas, it would continue to shine brightly until just after the Second World War. The interwar years, however, were also ones of interparty warfare and splits that did little to help the party’s long term survival. In 1929 Megan Lloyd George was elected as the first female MP in Wales and became the longest serving Welsh female MP in the twentieth century. Her brother Gwilym, MP for Pembrokeshire, became the last Welsh Liberal MP to serve in government during the wartime coalition. There were notable successes in this period however, the Welsh Courts Act recognised Welsh as having equal status to English, helping to address anti-Welsh language legislation. Welsh Liberals pushed unsuccessfully for a Welsh Secretary to sit in the Cabinet but did succeed in the establishment of a ‘Welsh Day’ in the House of Commons. 1945 however, saw the death of the David Lloyd George, the dominant figure in Welsh politics for over half a century.
In 1945, the Montgomeryshire Liberal MP, Clement Davies, became the leader of the Liberal Party. Under his leadership the party survived the post war squeeze of Labour and Conservative Parties. In the same year the Liberals still had seven MPs in Wales but by 1966 this had fallen to just one, Emlyn Hooson. Hooson was determined to revive the Welsh Liberals. It was under his leadership, together with others such as Roger Roberts and Martin Thomas, that Welsh Liberals founded their own state party (under a federal Liberal UK structure) in 1966.
Over the next forty years the party built up its strength piecemeal. It gained a big boost in the 1980s when it merged with the Social Democrat Party in 1987 to form the Liberal Democrats. This merger helped breathe new life into the party at all levels of elected representation. The party advanced, but had some near misses and losses in some constituencies. Nevertheless figures such as Alex Carlile in Montgomeryshire and Geraint Howells in Ceredigion kept the flame burning. Richard Livsey won a spectacular by-election from third to win Brecon and Radnor in 1985, In 2005 the party gained its first female MP and urban seat for over half a century when Jenny Willott won Cardiff Central.
Since the 1950s the Liberals in Wales have been written off by political commentators at virtually every election. Yet in in 1999 party won six Welsh Assembly seats across Wales, representing areas it had not been active in since 1910. In 2000 the party formed a coalition government with Labour, with leader Mike German AM and Jenny Randerson AM becoming Welsh Assembly Ministers. Key manifesto commitments such as smaller school class sizes, a reduction in student top-up fees, a larger health budget and a freeze in prescription charges were agreed. The party has also played an active role running councils throughout Wales, including the capital Cardiff and in all of Wales’ major urban coastal cities and councils.
In 2008 the party, had another Welsh first: Kirsty Williams became the first female party leader in the National Assembly. Over this period, despite being the smallest party in the Assembly, the party achieved a number of key achievements. In 2011, the party agreed to allow the Welsh Government’s Annual Budget to pass on the basis, among other things, of securing the party’s flagship policy the ‘Welsh Pupil Premium’. Similar agreements were reached in 2013 and 2014 which means that schools across Wales will now receive £1,150 per pupil on free school meals.
Following the Liberal Democrats entering coalition in Westminster in 2010, the Welsh Liberal Democrats were influential in the establishment of the Silk Commission, which would look at further devolution for Wales and legislation for borrowing and tax-varying powers. The party continues to be the driving force in making progress towards its long desired aim of Home Rule for Wales.
With thanks to Professor Russell Deacon for the content. Russell is the author of The Welsh Liberals: The History of the Liberal and Liberal Democrats in Wales (2014), published by Welsh Academic Press.