Lord Thomas of Gwydir: First Tory Welsh Secretary

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The Independent Online

The first ever Conservative Secretary of State for Wales, Peter Thomas had a tough act to follow, succeeding Labour's popular George Thomas. At the time of his appointment in 1970 by Edward Heath, Thomas drew criticism for not representing a Welsh constituency, but at the time the Tories had very few ministerial candidates to choose from in Wales. Thomas, a fluent Welsh speaker, soon rose to the challenges of his critics by tackling difficult issues in Wales with a pragmatic and consensual style. His career in the House of Commons extended over 30 years and he was later active in the Lords.

Thomas was very mindful of the deep political resentment in Wales in the wake of the drowning of the Merionethshire village of Capel Celyn in 1965 to create the Llyn Tryweryn Reservoir for Liverpool, and the Aberfan disaster of 1966 which had killed 144 people, 116 of them children. These episodes exposed the huge democratic deficits and problems of governance in Wales. Tryweryn also paved the way for the election of Plaid Cymru MPs in rural Welsh-speaking areas; Gwynfor Evans, the first of them, had been elected in Carmarthen at a by-election in 1966.

In the general election of that year, Thomas had lost his own seat in Conway to Labour's Ednyfed Hudson-Davies. Conway has a long history as a Labour/Conservative marginal. Thomas sought re-election in 1970 in the London seat of Hendon South; and Heath immediately appointed him to the cabinet post of Secretary of State for Wales. He held this post throughout Heath's administration.

Thomas took steps to ensure that the water resources of Wales were regulated in the public interest, by establishing the Welsh Water Authority in 1973. In effect, the WWA gave ownership of Wales's water to a Welsh Office quango. There were other problems in Wales in the early 1970s, including the miners' strikes of 1972 and 1974.

The campaign of civil disobedience and direct action for a Welsh-language television channel by the Welsh Language Society and its allied groups became a central issue in the politics of Welsh-speaking areas. Heath was unyielding on the issue, and, later, Margaret Thatcher even more so. But the Welsh Office under Thomas did respond to demands for greater status for the Welsh language with bilingual public signage on roads and other public facilities.

The fortunes of the National Eisteddfod for Wales also improved greatly under Thomas. He allowed Welsh local authorities the power to inject public funding into the Eisteddfod, which had been facing long-term financial problems. Elements in the English press, and even in the English-language press in Wales, were describing this most hallowed cultural event as a "waste of public money", but Thomas realised the significance of the Eisteddfod in Welsh life.

Thomas had been a member of the Council of Europe from 1957 until 1959, and he championed Heath's entry of the UK into the Common Market, the forerunner of the European Union. He ensured that Welsh farmers got their fair share of benefits from the Common Agricultural Policy which guaranteed a minimum price for production. Following his ministerial service, Thomas was appointed in 1974 to the Arbitration Court of the International Chamber of Commerce in Paris. He remained a committed Europeanist.

Peter Thomas was the son of a Llanrwst solicitor, and was born in 1920 into a Welsh-speaking family and community. He served in the RAF during the Second World War and was a prisoner of war for four years. After the war, he undertook legal studies and was called to the Bar at the Middle Temple in 1947. He was first elected MP for Conway in 1951 and continued in his legal career, rising to Deputy Chairman of the Quarter Sessions for Chester and later Denbighshire. Despite his flight from Wales to Hendon South in the 1970 general election, where he enjoyed a continuous and comfortable majority of over 6,000 votes, he remained loyal to Wales and the needs of Wales.

Despite Thomas's pragmatic and scrupulous approach to government, and his great sensitivity towards Welsh issues, his experience and talents did not receive a further call to ministerial office under Thatcher, and the assets of the Welsh Water Authority which he had created were later privatised. He spent his later Commons career between 1979 and 1987 serving on parliamentary procedural and regulatory committees. Through these channels, he could exercise his independence of mind.

On his retirement in 1987 from the Conservative benches in the Commons, where he had not sat comfortably under Thatcher, he was created Baron Thomas of Gwydir.

David Craik

Peter John Mitchell Thomas, lawyer and politician: born Llanrwst, Denbighshire 31 July 1920; called to the Bar, Middle Temple 1947, Master of the Bench 1971-91 (Emeritus); MP (Conservative) for Conway 1951-66, for Hendon South 1970-87; Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign Office 1961-63, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs 1963-64, Secretary of State for Wales 1970-74; PC 1964; QC 1965; Deputy Chairman, Cheshire Quarter Sessions 1966-70; Deputy Chairman, Denbighshire Quarter Sessions 1968-70; a Recorder of the Crown Court 1974-88; Arbitrator, Court of Arbitration, International Chamber of Commerce 1974-88; created 1987 Baron Thomas of Gwydir; married 1947 Tessa Dean (died 1985; two sons, two daughters); died 3 February 2008.