It is barely mid-afternoon on Thursday in Y Dic Penderyn pub in the southeast Wales town of Merthyr Tydfil, and already people are mobbing the bar. Lines of men in work clothes order pints while some younger women call for shots, as the bank holiday weekend appears to be starting early.
Several of the men ask for Thatchers Gold cider. You can be sure it is not named after the Tory former prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, who died in 2013 and whose tenth anniversary is this Easter Saturday. She is still “hated” here, says one man.
Dic Penderyn, after whom the pub is named, was a coal miner. A decade on from Thatcher’s death, it is obvious in this one-time mining stronghold in the valleys 23 miles north of Cardiff that the area never fully recovered from the industrial policies of her governments.
Merthyr retains a certain rough charm, but its surfeit of shuttered shops hints at strained local trade. Young men hang on several street corners, a cliched nod to social deprivation. Government figures show economic inactivity in southeast Wales of 25 per cent, among the highest in Britain.
Thatcher will always be remembered here for the bitterness of the coal miners’ strikes of 1984-85, when action over the decline of National Coal Board pits spilled over into rancour and violence. All the local collieries closed. Yet the history of the Tories in Wales under Thatcher’s leadership is also surprisingly nuanced. The party was relatively electorally resilient in Wales, and it is also credited with policies that boosted the Welsh language.
Wales is a much more varied place than people think. But the ultimate truth was, Thatcher didn’t really care about Wales. She was perceived there as personifying a certain type of Englishness— Sam Blaxman, political historian
Sam Blaxman, a political historian at University College London, and himself Welsh, points out that the Tories won more Welsh votes in the 1987 election than in 1983.
“Wales is a much more varied place than people think,” he says. “But the ultimate truth was, Thatcher didn’t really care about Wales. She was perceived there as personifying a certain type of Englishness. It is also no exaggeration to say she is profoundly hated in the coal-mining areas. The closure of the pits left a lot of Welsh men who worked in them without a sense of identity or purpose. They were left with nothing.”
Later, the Tory party was virtually wiped out by Labour and the Welsh nationalist party, Plaid Cymru, when Tony Blair was in his pomp more than two decades ago. But in the post-Brexit era, the Conservatives staged something of a comeback. Labour has never loosened its grip on the devolved government in the Senned, but the Tories won 14 of the 40 Welsh seats in Westminster under Boris Johnson in 2019, second only to its high of 19 under Thatcher. Wales also backed Johnson’s Brexit.
Now, however, local polling suggests the Welsh Conservatives are on course for another near-wipeout in the Westminster election expected next year. Separate polls in recent weeks from YouGov and Beaufort Research put Labour on more than 50 per cent and the Tories on 19 per cent. On those numbers and assuming a uniform swing, the Tories will be lucky to hold on to two seats. Thatcher, the nemesis of Welsh miners, would be turning in her grave.
East of Merthyr, the physical scars of its coal mining heritage remain visible on the hillsides. One small surface mine remains in operation at Ffos-y-Fran. Its permit was due to run out in recent months but its owners want a three-year extension to maintain security of supply to a Tata steel plant in Port Talbot , near Swansea.
The economic scarring from the closure of the pits also runs deep in the old mining town of Rhymney. So does the emotional scarring. At the top of the town there is a bridge from which, in 1984, a concrete block was dropped by two striking miners on to a taxi taking a non-striker to work. David Wilkie, the driver, was killed.
Four decades on, the state of local housing estates suggests grim social conditions in Rhymney. The town’s only hotel, the Royal Arms, is shuttered. In Pontlottyn, the next village over, even the police station is boarded up. Fast food shops and discount stores abound.
He points to an agreement with the UK government for two new low-regulation ports to be built in Wales as a sign of hope that its economy can be ‘super-charged’
“You can see for yourself that this area has never recovered from the strikes,” said Victoria Winckler, director of the Bevan Foundation think tank and charity in Merthyr. “The older people, especially, still talk of their considerable dislike of Thatcher. It runs very very deep indeed.”
Winckler says much of the area’s manufacturing base has also disappeared, including a local Hoover plant that closed. She says the new manufacturing jobs that came in were not of the same standard. Many factories switched to eastern Europe. “You can see why this area voted for Brexit,” she said.
Despite the electoral challenge looming for the Tories in Wales, the vice-chairman of the Welsh Conservatives, Tomos Dafydd Davies, is phlegmatic about its chances. He points to an agreement with the UK government for two new low-regulation ports to be built in Wales as a sign of hope that its economy can be “super-charged”.
“I would hope that there is some fertile ground left for us,” he says.
On Thatcher’s influence, he says he is proud that under her leadership the Welsh-language broadcaster, S4C, was established. Blaxman says Thatcher tended to give her Welsh secretaries a relatively free hand. Both Davies and Blaxham also highlight the redevelopment of the port area around Cardiff Bay as another part of Thatcher’s complicated Welsh legacy.
The Bay was redeveloped after Thatcher’s government sanctioned the building of the Cardiff Bay Barrage, a huge engineering project that manually controls water levels. Archives show that Thatcher was sceptical about the spending but ultimately let it go through. Cardiff Bay was teeming with tourists on Thursday and was far busier than the city’s commercial centre.
Back in the valleys, few will stop to remember Thatcher on the anniversary of her death this Easter Saturday. They will always remember their own, however. In the mining town of Aberfan, just south of Merthyr, 116 children and 28 adults were killed when a slack heap slipped down a mountainside in 1966, burying the Pantglas Junior School and nearby houses. Thatcher was on the Tory front benches at the time, and soon afterwards became the party’s spokeswoman on for the power industry.
This week, a cherry blossom bloomed alone among the trees in the memorial garden on the site of the school. The emotional connections between the people of this area and its coal-mining heritage are complex and enduring, as is the antipathy towards Thatcher.