To become a viable opposition, the Welsh Conservatives must shake off their anti-Welsh and anti-devolution image
At the Welsh Conservatives spring conference, the Senedd Group Leader, Andrew RT Davies, set about distancing the west-of-Offa’s-Dyke Tories from their Westminster cousins.
A blue line was tentatively being drawn between London and Cardiff.
While many people (including Tony Blair) view devolution as a mistake, acceptance of the outcome, awareness of the institution, and the amount of devolved powers have all increased in the last two decades, and particularly so in the last two years.
The pandemic highlighted and even exaggerated differences in the responses by the four nations to the biggest health crisis in a century and the way rules are set for their populations. No longer did ‘for Wales, see England’ apply.
And it is this (plus Boris Johnson’s popularity being higher in Kyiv than Kidwelly) which is at least in part likely to have stimulated ‘RT’ into taking a breakaway stance.
The Welsh Conservatives’ standpoint during the pandemic was usually to oppose the rules set by Mark Drakeford’s administration and for Wales to do things the Boris way – which sometimes led to egg on the face when London followed Cardiff into subsequent lockdowns having initially denied the need for them.
Therein lies the problem. The wider public view of the Welsh Conservatives is still ‘see England’ with the result that they are viewed as merely a branch rather than a party in and of itself, and one that is both anti-Welsh and anti-devolution. Trying to achieve a majority in Cardiff Bay with this perceived image is both alienating and masochistic.
For too long Plaid Cymru ‘The Party of Wales’ (not to mention the third party in Wales) has owned nationalistic pride, while Welsh Labour has owned devolution. A Conservative pro-Union stance is regarded as the antithesis of both these things.
Like Brexit, whether or not you voted for devolution it is here to stay. So rather than perpetuating a wrong-side-of-history image, Welsh Conservatives are becoming more centrist and pro-devolution, whilst still advocating Wales’ place in the Union.
Research by Cardiff University indicates that those who identify as British are most likely to vote Welsh Conservative, while the more strongly people identify as Welsh, the less likely a Tory will get their vote.
As such, Welsh Conservatives are now seeking their own distinctive brand. When you think of Conservatives north of Hadrian’s Wall they are viewed as Scottish Conservatives; distinct from Westminster with their own policies, recognisable leaders (Ruth Davidson, now Douglas Ross) who stand up for Conservative values but with a Scotland emphasis, and unafraid of opposing No.10.
Earlier this year Jacob Rees-Mogg (who has some Welsh ancestry) failed to name the Welsh Conservative leader, highlighting that Welsh Tories are not a highly recognisable group, even in the wider Tory party.
But it will take more than RT’s call to “pull on a red jersey” or St David’s Day to be made a bank holiday to win votes. Although the comparison is obvious, talk of ‘clear blue water’ sounds more like a pregnancy test than a political strategy.
First and foremost there is a need for the party to be the centre-right party of Wales. Or, to put it another way, how do you govern 3 million people in a non-socialist way?
Nationalists vociferously attack what they see as Westminster ‘overlords’, but those seeking Welsh independence remain in a minority. Wales overall voted in favour of Brexit, so it appears the majority of the population want to continue to be a member of a sovereign United Kingdom.
The fiscal arguments of remaining part of the UK are many, but these tend to be overlooked by nationalists. It’s pride and identity for them first and foremost, and we’ll worry about the bill later. A simple (or complex) economic argument will not win over those voters, so ‘New Welsh Conservatives’ would need to appeal to Welsh national sentiment.
There are so many devolved services and big policy areas – health and social care (new record waiting times), education (worst PISA results of the four home nations), transport (over-budget South Wales Metro) – to name a few that can be improved upon.
But pointing out the faults of the incumbents will not win a majority either. After all, the electorate has voted basically the same way since the inception of the former Welsh Assembly (and a long time before that too).
The ability to set Welsh-centric policies which positively affect people’s daily lives, while staying true to Tory values, and without having to wait for Westminster to come up with ideas, gives a genuine alternative to socialism or independence.
The Daily Telegraph this week compared Welsh Conservatives to a “sinking ship”, and it appears that party divisions at Westminster are another thing being emulated this side of the border.
The article continues to say that “the infighting in the party has become more and more toxic since Boris’ downfall, as half of the party have decided that the only way to win seats is to kowtow to the overwhelmingly Left-wing majority in Wales, taking a more centrist approach to policy”.
“The true blues in the party have rightly dug their heels in, hoping for a genuine Conservative force to return to Wales once more.”
The Welsh Conservatives have obtained the second-largest share of the vote at every general in Wales for the last 90 years, so they represent a sizable minority, but seem destined to permanently be the party of opposition.
Whilst an outright majority is currently a flight of fancy, barring any changes to the voting system, it should be incumbent on an opposition not simply to oppose everything the government announces, but to agree where it’s right for the country as a whole and, where they disagree, come up with viable policy alternatives.
As I say above, there are plenty of devolved competencies which are poorly performing. It is in the best interests of all politicians, and all citizens, that devolution is made to work effectively. Credible centre-right policies must be found.
I have previously written that Cardiff Bay needs a shake-up to improve diversity of thought and ideas, and that the education system could be improved to drive up standards of living if we embraced other nations’ policy successes.
Perhaps St David’s Day as a Bank Holiday would win some votes, but Welsh Conservatives should stay close to the Conservative brand, not simply don a red jersey as camouflage.
A distinct Conservative brand means right of centre, not a move so close to the centre that you can’t tell which party is which. (At one point I was a Conservative member who voted for New Labour as I couldn’t tell the difference.)
We have four years before the next Senedd elections, two years to the next General Election, and about six months before the brown smelly stuff really hits the cost-of-living fan.
Genuinely fighting for Wales’ place in the Union, for example by getting the next Prime Minister to agree Wales gets its fair share of HS2 monies would be a resounding victory, even if the funding came with certain caveats – that it is spent on improving infrastructure, not used on pet projects or simply squirrelled away.
Wales needs an effective government. But an effective government needs an effective opposition.
New thinking and new ideas are needed for Wales, whichever party comes up with them.
In the meantime, for a model for new Welsh Conservatism, see Scotland.
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