A trickle of blue water won’t be enough to solve the Welsh Conservatives’ identity problem
Ifan Morgan Jones
The ‘clear red water’ speech delivered by former First Minister Rhodri Morgan in 2002 has become so famous within Welsh politics that to invoke it has almost become something of a cliche.
That speech, co-written by incumbent leader Mark Drakeford, has however been the bedrock of Welsh Labour’s electoral success in Wales over the last 20 years.
After the shock first election in 1999 which saw Plaid Cymru win 17 seats, it allowed Labour to distinguish itself from a Labour government in Westminster by adopting its own distinct Welsh brand.
This morning at the Welsh Conservative conference the leader Andrew RT Davies attempted to conjure a little bit of ‘clear blue water’ between his Senedd group and the party centrally.
Andrew RT Davies clearly conceded that the party has an identity problem, although he would do so only grudgingly. He pointed a finger in the direction of the “usual suspects among the cultural, academic and political elites in Cardiff” who “say the Welsh Conservatives are anti-Welsh”.
But it has been the public at elections, not easily scapegoated political experts, that have delivered this verdict.
After gaining ground at the 2019 General Election, the Conservatives saw middling results at last year’s Senedd elections and then went backwards at this month’s local elections, losing almost half their seats and their only council.
As quantitative research by Cardiff University has shown, the Welsh Conservatives overwhelmingly get the votes of those who consider themselves British, but the more Welsh people feel the less likely they are to vote for them.
There just aren’t enough British-only identifiers to put them over the top. The research concluded that they needed to better “appeal to Welsh national sentiment” in order to win.
However, if Andrew RT Davies’ intention was to begin to create this ‘clear blue water’ then he could only manage to produce a trickle of it.
Offering his party’s support for Wales to get its fair share of rail infrastructure spending, and a St David’s Day bank holiday, was rather thin gruel.
It’s worth noting that he wasn’t even offering to deliver these things – despite his party being in power at Westminster – just a change of the Senedd group’s official policy.
The only other change was rhetorical and metaphorical – saying they needed to “pull on a red jersey” and have a “unique voice”.
It will take more than that to shake the general perception that the Conservatives have become a party bent on winning control over Wales, not in Wales.
That is a perception the Welsh Conservatives only have themselves to blame for creating. Throughout the pandemic, the Welsh Conservatives argued against anything that the Welsh Government did differently from the UK Government – despite polls showing over and over that the public was overwhelmingly siding with the Welsh Government.
The pandemic was a defining moment in Welsh politics where the public interest was at a level never seen before, and might never be again. It might take decades for the Welsh Conservative to undo the perceptions formed during that period.
On Covid, they could have easily conceded that Wales was demographically a different country and perhaps needed to take extra care as a result, rather than taking the approach that ‘England is always right’.
It may seem inevitable that as unionists, the Welsh Conservatives would be a devosceptic party – but it doesn’t have to be.
In the US the roles are reversed, with the left being the party of centralising government and the right arguing from a libertarian perspective that power to be kept as much as possible at the level of the individual states. The Republicans manage to do so without conceding an inch of patriotism to the Democrats.
In the US the Republicans regularly slam the ‘beltway elites’, In Wales the right find themselves defending a Westminster widely perceived as rotten and attacking a government and parliament that most in Wales will inevitably feel is on their side, because they alone elected it.
It’s worth the Conservatives remembering that Brexit was a kick at the establishment at Westminster as well as the EU. And there is no good reason why the Conservatives couldn’t become the, or at least a, pro-devolution party.
But instead of reframing the debate around what works electorally for them, they have largely allowed the left, and those arguing for more Welsh autonomy, to own devolution and its successes, and as a result Welshness as a political identity in and of itself.
It’s going to take more than support for a bank holiday and a grudging recognition that Wales has been hard done by on HS2 to undo that perception.
As it stands, a trickle of blue water between themselves and Westminster won’t be enough to solve the Welsh Conservatives’ identity problems, and the electoral problems that flow from that.
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