In the South West article in the series of regional constituency surveys during the 1970 general election campaign published in the Daily Telegraph (a series that was one of the key formative influences in my own interest in why seats vote the way they do), it stated that on every road at its entrance, there were signs proclaiming “North Devon is Liberal Country”; and even this Tory paper opined that “it looks like remaining that way”. Well, they were correct, if only just; the current party leader Jeremy Thorpe held on by just 369 votes, in an election when the Liberals were reduced to only 6 MPs nationwide.
This certainly is historically one of the best examples of ‘Liberal Country’ in Britain. In its form from 1885 to 1950 as the Barnstaple constituency, it was Conservative only twice – in 1922-23 (Basil Peto MP) and in 1945 (Christopher Peto MP). Since first gained by Thorpe in 1959, the Liberals or Liberal Democrats have won it 11 times, the Conservatives on only six occasions. Four of the Liberal/LD wins were very close (less than 3% of the vote) but on the other hand six have been with a majority of roughly 5,000 or more, princely by their general standards. The last three contests since 2015 have seen fairly comfortable Conservative wins, most recently a massive leap to a 14,000 majority for the seat’s first female MP, Selaine Saxby. Both Liberal and Conservative strengths here need to be explained.
North Devon is sometimes known as the county’s ‘Golden Coast’, to be distinguished from the red cliffs of East Devon, the South Hams creeks largely situated in the Totnes seat, and the ‘Devon Riviera’ of Torbay. Tourism has been established as a major part of the economy here since Victorian times, though the largest resort of Ilfracombe has gone through some very rough times despite its magnificent setting. Here are to be found the sandy beaches that attracted the holiday camp at Croyde Bay, the high rise developments at Woolacombe, the long ribbon down the valley of Combe Martin, golfers near the largest beach of all at Saunton, cricketers at North Devon CC at Instow (home club of the late umpire David Shepherd and most recently the Overton twins), where half of the boundary is the sea wall and sixes can be hit onto the beach. The politically interested tourist (cricket or otherwise) will sometimes be told that the big divide in north Devon is between the locals as Liberals and those who come in to settle or retire as Conservatives; thus the heart of Liberal (Democrat) strength has been the largest town, the surprisingly gritty and working class Barnstaple. However this analysis does not really work if local elections are seen as an alternative and more quantifiable guide, for the Conservatives tend to do best inland, in wards like North Molton, Witheridge, Landkey and Heanton Punchardon. This seat ranks around 35th in the list of agricultural employment and 26th in the surrogate category closest to employment in tourism; but it is hard to extrapolate from that into a clear political divide by economic sector. Local elections clearly have a strong personal element too, with some dominant Independent candidates. Given that Labour have been squeezed for decades in North Devon, it is certainly true that the Liberal Democrats do prosper in the lower class and more economically deprived areas.
In parliamentary elections, there has clearly been a strong personal vote, first built up by Thorpe over the twenty years between his gain in 1959 and then lost in his dramatic rejection in 1979 (the year when Auberon Waugh stood as a Dog Lovers Party candidate in this seat). However the residual Liberalism, partly West Country regional and partly the local and local government machine built up in the 1960s and 1970s was strong enough to elect Nick Harvey from 1992 to 2010 – relatively weak years for the Tories, of course. But then after Harvey had perished in the junior coalition party cull of 2015, the basis of elections here changed. It should be remembered that Nick Harvey was an unusual Liberal Democrat in his lack of fervour for the European Union. North Devon voted 57% to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum (partly perceived economic interest, partly a function of its age distribution; it is just into the top fifty for percentage of over 65s) and it is no surprise that along with the departure of Harvey as candidate it looked like a Tory safe seat in the ‘Brexit election’ of 2019.
The continued Liberal Democrat strength at municipal election level (after May 2019 they are still by far the largest party on North Devon council), and the capacity they have shown before to ‘bounce back’, suggests that they should not be written off for ever, though. North Devon seems considerably less remote than it did in 1970 – since then the A361 link road from the M5 has made access much quicker since it was opened in 1989, and the Barnstaple bypass with its spectacular new bridge (2007) has cut the time lost by the traditional traffic jam in the town. Perhaps too the politics have recently aligned more nationally; but the Brexit issue will fade, and who is to say that even the grander roads now will never again lead to Liberal country.
Owner-occupied 68.5% 267/650 Private rented 18.4% 159/650 Social rented 10.8% 547/650 White 97.9% 127/650 Black 0.2% 586/650 Asian 0.9% 542/650 Managerial & professional 27.9% Routine & Semi-routine 28.5% Degree level 22.9% 407/650 No qualifications 24.1 289/650 Students 5.4% 601/650 Age 65+ 22.2% 48/650
General election 2019: North Devon
Party Candidate Votes % ±
Conservative Selaine Saxby 31,479 56.5 +10.7 Liberal Democrats Alex White 16,666 29.9 −8.1 Labour Finola O'Neill 5,097 9.1 −3.6 Green Robbie Mack 1,759 3.2 +1.8 Independent Steve Cotten 580 1.0 +1.0