Why I’m standing down from Parliament: Elfyn Llwyd, MP for Dwyfor Meirionnydd

By 

How did you end up in Parliament?

“We’d held the seat since ‘74 so the likelihood was that I would hold it. Everybody was saying it’s a safe seat but you question that. And when you have a bad afternoon’s canvassing you think, ‘God is this going to be a struggle?’ But it was a fascinating time, the first election.

“We had snow, we had blazing sunshine, and because I was not in any leadership role in Plaid at that time I was able to devote all my time to the local area and I canvassed thousands and thousands of properties and people and I lost nearly two stone in weight. So I was really fighting fit by the time I got here.”

How did you feel on first becoming an MP?

“I could give you the blurb and say having been a lawyer and appeared at the High Court I took it in my stride but that’s not quite true. If I’m honest it was quite awesome.

“It’s quite an overwhelming experience, especially walking into the Chamber for the first time. It was an inspiring thing.”

Best of times:

“I was adamant that we’d been badly misled [over the Iraq War] and that in misleading Parliament many tens of thousands of people had lost their lives, so I felt that something should be done

“We then, together with my colleague Adam Price, and Alex Salmond, hit on the idea of impeachment. We did our research, we saw the House authorities and of course the House authorities said ‘Oh no no no, it’s fallen into disuse.’ And we said ‘No, it’s still there, it’s on the statute book so therefore it’s not fallen into disuse, with respect.’

“They just took a step back and we began the impeachment process. We were supported by members from all parties and my huge regret was we ran out of runway because an election then intervened and we should have picked it up and gone on again.”

Worst of times:

“The first few years, when we had the Maastricht debates and we were up all night three nights a week, I was beginning to question whether entering Parliament had been a sane decision.

“It was relentless, it was day after day after day. In their wisdom, the rail authorities decided to cancel the last train on Thursday nights so I then had to wait til proceedings finished and then drive home.

“I remember one day slurring, and a woman looking at me in the office as if I’d been drinking all night and I said ‘Oh sorry, I can see what’s wrong. My eyes are bloodshot and I’m slurring a bit. It’s because I haven’t slept properly for two weeks’.”

Why are you leaving?

“I’ve done 23 years. I’ve had this abiding love for law. I don’t know why, some people say it’s like smoking, you know it’s bad for you, you know you’ve got to give it up some time, but you’re not sure when. I just want to go back and practice law.

“The other reason why, my wife – she’s never stood in my way – said ‘would you consider not standing next time,’ reminding me, not that I needed reminding, that I have two wonderful grandchildren in North Wales and one equally lovely grandchild in Cardiff. I call them the orchard of my eye. All three little girls, they’re just fascinating, they’re wonderful. And I’ll be able to see them.”

Will you feel a pang on May 7 – and what are you going to do next?

“I will have a strange feeling. Obviously I’ll be at the local count with my successor. I will go and I’ll be proud to be there. She’s an excellent candidate.

“After that I will retire home, make a big pot of tea, feet up, light a cigar and just watch it. It will be the first election night since my student days when I really will be staying up all night to see the result.

“I’m appalled at the idea of retirement, it just scares me rigid. I’m lucky in that I can seamlessly move from this back into the law.”

What is your advice to future MPs?

“Find a couple of subjects that you want to specialise in, identify people who are like-minded. Do not be afraid to cross party boundaries in the interests of making changes, and do not be tribal whatever you do.

“There will be people who will offend you as with any walk of life, but they are very, very few and far between. And just realise that you have an opportunity you need to grasp.”

 
Read more MPs’ stories about why they are waving goodbye to parliament ahead of the 2015 election here

Elfyn Llwyd: the full story

With a family who had always taken a strong interest in Welsh nationalism, it felt natural for Elfyn Llwyd to join Plaid Cymru at a young age. His belief in the cause strengthened in 1965 at the age of 14 with an infamous episode known as “the drowning of Tryweryn Valley,” when a Welsh-speaking village was submerged under a reservoir supplying Liverpool.

He says: “One of the triggers was the drowning of Tryweryn Valley against the wishes of the whole of the people of Wales. That was I think a totemic moment which made people say, we need to stand up, and we need to control these things. If ever there was an example of why it was necessary, that was it.”

Although Mr Llwyd was active in student politics, he was forced to put his interest to the side after qualifying as a solicitor in the early 1970s, when the head of his firm told him to choose either the law or politics.

While his legal practice thrived he kept a hand in with Plaid but didn’t step up his involvement for more than a decade, when an “opportunity not to be missed” came along, as his home constituency of Meirionnydd Nant Conwy fell vacant.

He says: “I threw my hat in the room, and was lucky enough to get the nomination and was elected in 1992. It was the area where I was born and brought up and it’s been a tremendous privilege to represent.

MP for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy

“It was a fairly safe seat but it was a strange time because I’d never stood for any election. I wasn’t presumptuous.

“It was a precarious step because I was taking a pay cut, although as my wife said at the time, ‘whatever happens you’ve got to try. If you don’t get it, tough, but if you don’t try you’ll always regret it.’”

Arriving on his first day at Westminster, Mr Llwyd was one of just four members of the Plaid Cymru Parliamentary party.

He says: “Actually it was a good thing. There were two new ones and there were two experienced ones, and the two experienced ones said, ‘our door is open, whenever you want advice, just come in straight away.’

“We two came up to speed far faster than our colleagues in the larger parties, because we had the expertise available on tap, they were there to help us.”

Despite being in a minority, Mr Llwyd found Parliament a friendly place. “More so in the early days than now,” he says. “Time was you could go to the smoking room after the last vote, have a glass of scotch or a glass of wine and a chat. You’d speak with virtually anyone.

The friendly Parliament

“I remember the first Parliament, very convivial, the second one too, but it seems to have slipped away now. The so-called family friendly hours, which were anything but that, were the greatest sleight of hand that Tony Blair performed.

“I don’t know who apart from the Executive benefits. The worst feature is we don’t socialise together any more.

“I may disagree vehemently with people on policy and they undoubtedly will with me but it doesn’t prevent us sitting down and having a cup of tea and a chat.”

Mr Llwyd found he was able early on to make a difference. “I have always had a deep interest in the law relating to children. First thing I did was incorporate in domestic law one of the tenants of the UN Charter for the Rights of the Child, which is that children in a divorce situation are entitled to be heard. It was passed then in the Family Law Act 1997.

“I fought very hard to get it there because I’d seen agreements where people fought hard to agree on everything, property, even the cat and the dog, and nobody seemed to ask the children where did they think their best interests lay.

“I was the first person in Parliament to mention the need for a children’s commissioner, initially for Wales, it did come, and I’m proud of that.

“I was also on the Welsh Select Committee, had a deep interest in agricultural matters, became a campaigner against organophosphate dips, which were very, very dangerous. I was kept busy.”

Late nights over Maastricht

The early years in Parliament were tough ones, however, as John Major struggled to keep his fractious Conservative government together with a shrinking majority and in the face of a rebellion over the Maastricht treaty on further integration with Europe, leading to a long series of late-night votes

Mr Llwyd says: “Because I was the youngest of the four [Plaid MPs], I had to remain awake all night to ring my colleagues. Typically the crucial vote came around 5am, so I had to call them at 4am to get them into vote.

“I well remember leaving Parliament one night at 12.40pm to go to North Wales, getting home at 4.30am or something like that, grabbing two or three hours and then in the office.

“It was relentless. You’d have commitments all day on Friday, all day on Saturday. It would be Sunday and I’d be too blinking tired to do very much. At the time my kids were nine and 12 and it was tough for the family, no doubt about it.”

But by the time Mr Llwyd was re-elected in 1997, he was enjoying life in the Commons, so much so that he found himself the leader of his little Plaid group.

Leader in the wrong country

He says: “In 1997 three of my colleagues stood for the National Assembly for Wales. The most senior two were very likely to get elected, and my friend and colleague Cynog Dafis [the MP for Ceredigion] put his name on the regional list, for all I know to increase our vote. Careful what you wish for – he was elected.

“In the kingdom of blind men, the one-eyed man is king. We couldn’t all disappear. I agreed I would be the anchorman here, at least for the foreseeable future.”

His role placed him in the somewhat strange position of conducting his career in the country he was pledged to break away from. He says he had hoped “at some point” he might have followed his colleagues to the Welsh Assembly, but that the moment never came.

“At the end of the day this is where the legislation is made,” he says of the Westminster Parliament. “We’re only just bordering on the full legislative powers in Wales now. And remember that in the early days of the National Assembly it was quite a toothless body.”

Iraq and the impeachment of Tony Blair

In 2003, in his role as party leader, Mr Llwyd was able to play a leading role in the opposition to the looming war in Iraq.

He says: “I had come to the conclusion that we were badly misled even at the time. The dodgy dossier [which made the case for war, written by Number 10 head of communications, Alastair Campbell] was probably the least persuasive document in British political history. It was complete nonsense.

“Anybody who’s able to read would be able to come to that conclusion, despite the special pleading from Tony Blair; the supreme actor.”

After the invasion, when the promised Weapons of Mass Destruction failed to materialise, Mr Llwyd and his fellow nationalists felt strongly enough that they began impeachment proceedings against Tony Blair.

The move led to some awkward moments, particularly during his biennial visits to the Cenotaph when he took his turn representing the nationalists at the Remembrance Sunday events alongside the other party leaders. The Prime Minister would nod at him, but did not discuss the case.

He regrets that the impeachment process was allowed to die away at the 2005 election, and is not confident about the likelihood of the Chilcot Inquiry providing closure when it finally reports back after the current general election.

“I believe Tony Blair has a lot of answers – we need a lot of answers from him – and whether or not Chilcot delivers is another thing. Don’t hold your breath.

“I think his undoing was to hitch his wagon train to [US President George] Bush far too early in the process and then there was a momentum and he couldn’t jump off.

“That mistake led to hundreds of thousands of innocent lives being lost and killed. I think he’s a war criminal. At its inception it was a mistake, but then he should have been man enough to realise it was a mistake and to jump off the wagon train and say look George no, there are no WMDs so therefore there’s no imminent threat, so therefore there’s no lawful intervention of regime change, it’s unlawful under international law.

“My colleagues in the Labour Party and in the Conservative Party who voted for the war, 90 per cent of them now regret it bitterly.

“They were taken by Tony Blair’s polished rhetoric. But I do not criticise those who voted the other way. They did it for the best of motives and it was a difficult decision to make and some are still wrestling with their consciences.”

Leaving on a high

Mr Llwyd final years in Parliament have proved among his most productive and enjoyable.

He says: “I’ve had two laws passed in the past five years, and I’m beginning to think I should just hang on and not stand down.

“In 2010 I had the stalking law through, and last Monday I had the coercive control element of domestic violence go through. Those two will make a difference I think, might save lives in actual fact, so I’m pretty proud of that. It’s nice to go out on a pretty high note.

“The other high point: the first foreign holiday my wife and I had was to Greece. It was a lovely holiday. I remember standing in front of the Greek Parliament and looking up and thinking, ‘now this is the cradle of democracy’. It electrified me looking at this place.

“I’m proud to say that in March this year I spoke in the Greek Parliament building. I represented the Justice Select Committee in a conference of chairs of Justice Committees of European Parliaments. I’m quite proud of that. It was a great feeling.”

As he prepares to leave Parliament to return to his legal practice, Mr Llwyd is looking forward to finally getting the chance to spend some quality time with the people of Wales.

Going home

He says: “I was at a cattle market some six or seven months ago, I went to the café and one of the guys there shouted at me: ‘They say you’re retiring, how old are you?’ I said ‘I’m 63.’ ‘Too young to retire; you lazy or something?’ And someone in the corner said: ‘Oh, no, don’t do that, whatever else he is he’s not lazy.’

“So he said: ‘Why are you giving up, then?’ ‘Well,’ I said, ‘it’s just I fancy doing a day’s work in the courts, and coming back, sleeping in my own bed,’ and he said: ‘So whose bed you in, in London then?’ I just didn’t have an answer, I was red as a beetroot, everybody just fell about.”

Mr Llwyd confesses that he will however miss Parliament. “I will,” he says. “I’ve made alliances with people in every party. I’ve probably been able to get things done here because I’m a people person. And in so-doing I’ve also made a lot of friends with a lot of people.

“It would be foolish of me to say I won’t miss it. I will miss it but I’ve also gained a heck of a lot by going as it were back home.

“In my maiden speech I mentioned that I was unusual in that I’d come to London in order to go back. And now is the time to go back.”

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s