Could Conservative gains end up boosting Welsh nationalism? A Clwydian conundrum
Writing recently on Twitter, prominent Scottish academic Professor James Mitchell stated that “Wales is emerging as the part of the UK with the most interesting and reasoned debate” on constitutional matters. This was in response to First Minister Mark Drakeford’s appearance at the House of Commons Welsh Affairs Committee, in which Drakeford cast doubt on the viability of the United Kindom in its current form.
Much of the intrigue around the Welsh question is due in part to Wales’ heterogeneity and fluidity as a nation, compared with England and Scotland. In my previous article in this series, I suggested that a soft version of British unionism probably remains an informal, “default” identity of statehood in small-town Wales, even as independence for Wales gains more traction as a formal political option.
This apparent contradiction is hardly breaking news. The Welsh-British duality can be traced back, for example, to the events of Bosworth Battlefield (in my native Leicestershire) in 1485 which was in turn wrapped up in ancient Arthurian myth. Jacob Rees Mogg’s recent contention in parliament that Welsh is a “foreign” language, is problematic precisely because Welsh “had been spoken in Britain for hundreds of years before English even existed”, as Plaid Cymru’s Liz Saville Roberts pointed out.
The entanglement of Welsh and British identities also means that a specific political development can hold more than one significance, and that multiple truths in Welsh politics may be correct at the same time. The May 1997 General Election in Wales is a clear example. Wales’ six Tory seats at the time were swept away in a uniform, British swing away from the Conservative government. There were few specifically Welsh issues involved in those six seats. However, a symbolic legacy of that UK landslide election was that the political map of Wales devoid of blue for the first time in its modern history. The “Tory-Free Zone” became an important backdrop for the Devolution Referendum four months later.
Both British and Welsh nationalisms have emerged as weapons with which to kick the political establishment, sometimes in the same locality. In 2016, Plaid Cymru came within just 650 votes (3%) of a sensational result in Labour’s traditional bastion of Blaenau Gwent constituency. Just over a month later, the same local authority area voted by almost two thirds in favour of Brexit, a right-wing project that was opposed by Plaid Cymru to its core.
The six constituencies in the former county of Clwyd have become a key battleground in the Conservative party’s power drive in post-Brexit Britain. However, further Conservative success in 2021 would have the unintended consequence of driving Labour and Plaid Cymru closer together in the next Senedd, and sharpening the battle-lines over Wales’ place in the union. This is a key example of just how complex the historically interwoven Welsh and British political dynamics have become in a global “age of hyperchange”.
The March Welsh Political Barometer Poll by the Welsh Governance Centre has projected that two of Clwyd’s six seats (Vale of Clwyd; Wrexham) might fall to the Conservatives as part of a wider equation that would leave Labour with a record low of 22 seats in the Senedd. In the extraordinary social context in which this election is being fought, I don’t feel it is unreasonable or flippant to call other seats into question. The Conservatives are second placed in the following constituencies: Clwyd South (Labour 14% lead) Delyn (Labour 15% lead) and Alyn and Deeside (Labour 35% lead).
Whilst these percentages would conventionally be regarded as safe, we should note that just 14 months ago, the Conservatives gained the Clwyd South and Delyn Westminster seats at the 2019 General Election. They came within 213 votes (0.5%) of capturing Alyn and Deeside in the siege of Labour’s “red wall” across northern England and north east Wales.
I am unable to project the exact numerical consequences in the Senedd of Labour losing more than two seats in Clwyd to an English/British-tinged pro-Boris, pro-Brexit, anti-Senedd bounce. There might be an element of compensation for Labour on the North Wales regional list. However, the numbers would take us towards the territory of Labour and Conservatives being more or less neck-and-neck for the position of the largest party in the Senedd, and an embattled Labour Party having to deal in coalition talks with an emboldened Plaid Cymru.
This is at the more unlikely end of the speculation scale. However, my thinking is influenced in general by the political whirlwind of the last five years, and perhaps more specifically by that 2016 Senedd result in Blaenau Gwent, where Plaid Cymru, with a strong local candidate, came from nowhere to record a 28% swing in their favour. (By comparison, the Conservatives “only” need an 18% swing to capture Alyn and Deeside in the Senedd). At the very least, is would be fair to say that Senedd elections have a track record of producing uneven and unexpected results in a way that we don’t see so often in Westminster elections.
I am not predicting 28% swings in Clwyd, or indeed anywhere else in Wales. However, this COVID-restricted campaign in Clwyd takes place in a context of historic and well-documented paucity of communications and media links between the north-east and the rest of the Welsh nation. Perhaps I am overplaying the issue, but to what extent will it register with many people in Saltney or Flint that there is an election taking place at all?
Candidates of all parties will also be approaching a post-lockdown population living on a scale ranging from plain ‘fed up’, to grieving for loved ones lost to the pandemic. Some families and some entire local authority wards will be emerging traumatised by various personal, social and economic factors in lockdown. Many will be angry, some will want to register a protest vote, many will not wish to endorse the political process at all. In that sense, all bets are off for each of the main parties to a certain extent. In the current febrile climate, the fate of the “soft” Labour seats of north-east Wales will be watched with hawkish anticipation by both main opposition parties in Cardiff Bay.
There is one seat which I have failed to mention yet, namely Clwyd West. Here, the long-standing MS Darren Millar is defending the only current Conservative Senedd seat in the region. Millar commands a lead of 19% over Plaid Cymru and 21% over Labour. The numbers are similar to Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire.
Whilst a Conservative hold is probably the only realistic prospect here, we would nevertheless be looking to such seats on the fringes of Y Fro Gymraeg for any signs that the record 39% opinion poll support for Welsh independence is registering any direct salience as an election issue.
Dr Carwyn Tywyn is a former Senedd Correspondent for Golwg magazine. A graduate of Strathclyde University’s politics department, Carwyn conducted his doctoral thesis under the supervision of the late Barry Jones, founder of the Welsh Governance Centre at Cardiff University. Carwyn is co-author (with Professor Rhys Jones) of “Placing the Nation: Aberystwyth and the Reproduction of Nationalism”.