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Opinion

To become a viable opposition, the Welsh Conservatives must shake off their anti-Welsh and anti-devolution image

11 Aug 2022 7 minute read
Welsh Conservative leader Andrew RT Davies. Picture by Matthew Horwood.

Andrew Potts

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.

Unafraid

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.

Alternative

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.

Camoflague

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.)

New thinking

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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George
George
1 month ago

I largely agree with this. I don’t think we’ve got a Welsh Conservative party yet and current crop seems to spend half the time copying and pasting from the English-nationalist Tories in Westminster and half their time copying and pasting from right of the Republican party in USA. What does Conservative politics in Wales mean? “Wales needs an effective government. But an effective government needs an effective opposition” – probably best to define “effective” here. I’m not asking for Jose Mourinho anti-football style of opposition but more a Liverpool-Man City or Connah’s Quay Nomads-TNS race to the top with grown-up… Read more »

I Humphrys
I Humphrys
1 month ago
Reply to  George

New conservative party needed badly, but the name itself puts us off. I am now suggesting Tradition, because it presses a button a lot of people in Cymru yearn for.

Adrian Meagher
Adrian Meagher
1 month ago

I do not see why delivering St David’s Day as a Bank Holiday should be characterized as donning a red jersey or as camouflage. It is a national expectation, neither right nor left, much like equal status for Cymraeg.

Steve Duggan
Steve Duggan
1 month ago

The article states supporters of Welsh independence ignore the fiscal view – that is totally incorrect. The people who want independence in Cymru want it for a better future for the country, for their children – not for nationalist patriotic reasons. Yes, independence will not be easy but making Cymru a more prosperous country will be in the hands of people who care about the country and that will be the difference.

The Original Mark
The Original Mark
1 month ago

Why are some devolved issues not going well, could it be because the Welsh government is trying to run the country with one arm tied behind its back, The day the tories take power of the Senedd is the day Wales disappears as a country.

DAI Ponty
DAI Ponty
1 month ago

The Welsh Tories are part and parcel of the Tory party which is now an ENGLISH NATIONALIST PARTY They are the main problem there is not a Welsh Patriots bone in their body

I Humphrys
I Humphrys
1 month ago
Reply to  DAI Ponty

That’s what I mean. The very word “conservative ” is so toxic in Cymru, that any grouping for traditional values that gell our society, cannot use it any longer.

Erisian
Erisian
1 month ago

Well he’s right. But he surely doesn’t think we are going to forget all the times the so-called Welsh Tories acted exactly like the minor Branch of the London party that they have been. Do the think we are stupid?
Let’s not have the old-guard lie to our faces and promise they have changed.
Let’s have a whole new sparkling-fresh set of faces ready for the next election who will put Wales first and dogma second.

Quornby
Quornby
1 month ago

The Tories in Wales oppose everything that I aspire to and agree with everything I despise. No claims of “Welshness”
will change their hearts and minds, it will just be seen by the rest of us as the propaganda it is.

Gareth
Gareth
1 month ago

Every party can claim we need to Improve education, health and transport, and we in Cymru all agree , but when we are underfunded, and money is taken to build infrastructure in England, from our budget, none of them, including the Tory’s, will change a single thing. As stated by Erisian, until the Tory’s here are rid of the anti devolution, all things London say is right group, they won’t attract votes,they are 20 years too late, and their Brexit will kill, not cure the dying union.

Richard
Richard
1 month ago

Some useful thoughts and background on an important topic for Wales’ journey. The facts are hard to put together though due to the lack of a real central structure and the hostility of a few Tory MPs connected with David Jones. What we know is – 1. At the start of devolution the Tory Party in Wales made a huge leap from anti to almost neutral under Lord Bourne. 2. People like Glyn Davies, David Melding ,Wyn Roberts, Guto Bebb and Johnathan Evans presented well with the public in Wales reminding them it was their party who had delivered on… Read more »

Crwtyddol
Crwtyddol
1 month ago

A RT Davies, if he had any lead in his pencil should have put a metaphorical bomb under Rees Mogg and the Westminster tories for his lack of respect shown to him and his mates. He’d have earned some brownie points from this life long Plaidwr, if he’d done that. Instead….nothing. Pathetic

Mr Williams
Mr Williams
1 month ago

A very good article and I hope that the Tories take note. I would like to also add that the Tories need to stop taking it upon themselves to refuse to listen to requests from the Welsh Government and people (e.g. for the devolution of the Crown Estate, or refusal to grant a Bank holiday for St David’s Day – these requests were not unreasonable) as that just comes across as a haughty, overlord, ‘Westminster-knows-best’ mentality that is contemptuous to the Welsh people and nation. If they are genuine about becoming a ‘new’ Welsh party, that’s where, in my opinion,… Read more »

Maglocunos
Maglocunos
1 month ago

@Andrew “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.” That’s a non-sequitur. Having been misled by scoundrels like Farage and Johnson to vote for the greatest act of self-harm that is brexit cannot by any means be conflated into a vote of confidence in the United Kingdom as a sovereign state. And don’t forget the margin was a mere 82,000, or barely 5%, on a 71% turnout of electors. So hardly a ringing endorsement, and certainly cannot be claimed as the… Read more »

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