Will Edwards

Labour MP in rural Wales
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The Independent Online

William Henry Edwards, politician, solicitor and businessman: born Amlwch, Anglesey 6 January 1938; MP (Labour) for Merioneth 1966-74; married 1962 Eleri Rogers (one son, three daughters); died Wrexham 16 August 2007.

During his eight years representing the rural constituency of Merioneth, in north-west Wales, 1966-1974, Will Edwards was a devoted constituency MP and campaigner for Welsh causes and institutions. He was part of a generation of radical, Welsh-speaking, rural Labour MPs who found their inclusive cause and message snuffed out by the rise of Welsh nationalism.

Edwards was faced with the political aftermath of the creation in 1965 of the Llyn Celyn reservoir and its implications for Welsh politics. In 1957 the Corporation of Liverpool had obtained permission via a Private Bill in Parliament to flood the Merioneth village of Capel Celyn in order to build a reservoir for the city. The Private Bill device meant that the planning and scrutiny powers of the Welsh local authority – in this case, the former Merioneth County Council – were nullified. Before the village was flooded in 1965, 48 householders were forced to move out of the wholly Welsh-speaking community. Only a year later, Plaid Cymru won its first Westminster seat in an anti-Labour backlash in rural Wales that led eventually to Edwards losing his seat.

Will Edwards had been elected Merioneth's MP at the relatively young age of 28, on the retirement of T.W. Jones (later Lord Maelor), at the 1966 general election. He polled a healthy 9,628 votes, easily seeing off his Liberal challenger. He was quickly spotted as a young talent in his early Westminster days and became PPS to the Anglesey MP Cledwyn Hughes, Secretary of State for Wales.

Edwards easily secured re-election in 1970, beating Dafydd Wigley (later to become Plaid Cymru MP for Caernarfon) into second place. When Labour went into opposition in 1970, Edwards joined George Thomas (later Viscount Tonypandy) as one of Labour's spokesmen on Wales.

In 1973, the Heath government ordered a report into the future of the Cambrian Coast Railway which ran from Pwllheli and Aberystwyth, connecting the North-West Wales coast to the Midlands and London. There was a public inquiry and many investigations into the feasibility of the line. Will Edwards was a founding member and spokesman of the Cambrian Coastline Action Group, giving evidence to the public inquiry, and the fact that the Cambrian Coast Railway still operates today is a tribute to his political talents and tenacity.

Edwards had a populist and personal style of campaigning. He appealed to both Welsh speakers and non-Welsh speakers alike. The trade unions and the Labour Party were strong in Merioneth in the 1960s and early 1970s. This was Labour's heyday in rural Wales, with Welsh-speaking MPs such as Dafydd Elystan-Morgan, Cledwyn Hughes, Goronwy Roberts, Ednyfed Hudson-Davies and Megan Lloyd George. They were able to mount serious challenges to the old-guard South Wales establishment of the Labour Party. But nearly all of Labour's Welsh-speaking rural seats would fall to Plaid Cymru between 1974 and 1987.

With his political career curtailed at the age of 38 in the bitter election of February 1974, in which he lost his Merioneth seat to Plaid Cymru's Dafydd Elis-Thomas (now Lord Elis-Thomas), Edwards returned to legal practice. He attempted to regain his seat in the subsequent election of November 1974, but the three-strong Plaid Cymru contingent of Dafydd Wigley, Dafydd Elis-Thomas and Gwynfor Evans had worked quickly and effectively on developing Plaid Cymru's popular appeal in the rural Welsh-speaking constituencies.

After the election of 1979, Will Edwards secured nomination as Labour's parliamentary candidate for his native Anglesey. He was disappointed with Labour's lurch to the left under Michael Foot, the adoption of unilateral nuclear disarmament and withdrawal from the EEC as party policy and felt that he could not campaign for such policies, so he resigned his candidacy in 1982. He was not tempted, as were other Welsh Labour MPs, to join Roy Jenkins' and David Owen's SDP.

Edwards was born on Anglesey in 1938, the son of a tenant farmer and a seamstress. He knew the deprivations of rural life in North Wales in the 1940s and 1950s. He attended Amlwch Grammar School and Sir Thomas Jones' Comprehensive School, the first experimental comprehensive school in Wales. His academic talents took him to study Law at Liverpool University where he also became a student activist, during the Labour reign of Bessie and Jack Braddock in Liverpool.

When Edwards's legal career ended in the 1980s he continued with small property ventures and for some time was a hotelier. A man of huge political and personal presence, in his later years he gave much encouragement and advice to Labour politicians in north-east Wales, where he had settled.

David Craik