Welsh Conservatives: Far From a Contradiction in Terms…

by Sam Blaxland

In the first feature in a series of in-depth analyses of Wales’ major parties, historian Sam Blaxland draws on his research into the Conservative Party in Wales since the Second World War to identify why the Welsh Tories are currently endorsing deeper Westminster involvement with Wales as a key element in their Senedd election strategy.

Andrew R.T. Davies, 2016 © Senedd Cymru/Welsh Parliament (CC BY 2.0) https://bit.ly/3vUDxIM

Andrew R.T. Davies, 2016 © Senedd Cymru/Welsh Parliament (CC BY 2.0) https://bit.ly/3vUDxIM

The Conservative Party currently has fourteen out of forty MPs in Wales and it is the official opposition in the Senedd. It is certainly true that its historic failure to break through into Welsh politics in the way it does across swathes of England says something about its uncomfortable place in Welsh history and in the minds of the electorate here. However, long-held assumptions about the Tories in Wales are often wide of the mark. The great Labour politician, Barbara Castle, said in 1980: ‘Welsh Conservatives – the two are contradictory’, and the writer H. W. J. Edwards once joked that a self-professed Tory in the Rhondda was either ‘an eccentric, a loon, or a publicity seeker’.

He was right in that Valleys’ politics has long been, and still is, anti-Conservative, but many parts of Wales are not. The supposedly despised Margaret Thatcher was the person at the helm when the Tories last won their modern-day high watermark of fourteen seats, and even though she lost six of these in the following election in 1987, more people actually voted Conservative that time, despite the bruising miners’ strike having played out in the intervening period. All of this speaks to a geographically varied and socially diverse Wales, where many voters in places like Pembrokeshire, Monmouthshire, Breconshire, Flintshire, Conwy and even Ynys Môn, are willing – or happy – to put their cross next to the Tory candidate when they are in the polling booth.

The party is therefore both weaker in Wales than it would like to be, but stronger than many assume, and certainly stronger than memorable moments like the 1997 general election wipe-out suggest. Its history in the twentieth century, which I research and write about, has also been peppered with various attempts to assess and grapple honestly with its own place in the Welsh nation.

An understanding of this history, and of the party’s own support base, might help explain why the Conservatives in Wales are currently following a strategy, in the run up to May’s elections, that emphasises (more than normal) the importance of both the United Kingdom and the Westminster government. In the words of the Secretary of State for Wales Simon Hart, the UK government has ‘Wales at the heart of our ambitions’. In turn, the recently departed Conservative leader in Wales, Paul Davies, pledged to ‘respect’ both devolution as well as ‘what is not devolved’. In other words, he deliberately stressed that Westminster has a fundamental role to play in the governing of Wales.

In many ways, this strategy makes sense. Since the immediate years after the Second World War, when a young Brigadier and party worker called Enoch Powell was sent to Wales to help devise a policy ‘for the Principality’, the Conservative Party has played an active role in helping define the distinctiveness of Wales as a political unit, and of Welsh identity. Yes, it campaigned against the devolution proposals in 1979 and 1997, but it was the party that established the first Minister for Welsh Affairs in 1951. Bilingualism was given fresh impetus and government support by the Tory Peter Thomas in the early 1970s. And in the 1980s, the Welsh Office under Nicholas Edwards and Wyn Roberts introduced a series of measures to buttress the status of the Welsh language, citing this mission as totally compatible with the notion of ‘conserving’ – even though they famously made a mess of setting up S4C.

In all of this, however, the party operated within a distinctly British framework. Its research department wrote in the early 1980s that there were ‘very few’ subjects in Welsh life that weren’t actually British ones (the Welsh language being the key exception, in their eyes). Although it thought it had a problem with parachuting young English men into unwinnable Welsh seats to cut their teeth, it saw no issue with English people who had Welsh connections – like Nicholas Edwards – standing for seats in Wales, because Wales was a part of the wider British nation and that was what mattered.

If anything, a frequent complaint from the grass-roots of the party in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s was that it thought the leadership in Wales was trying too hard to emphasise its distinctive Welsh identity. Edwards’ own constituency chose him because they actively preferred the idea of a talented ‘outsider’ as opposed to an ‘indifferent local’.

While most people still see politics through a British lens, more and more consider their identity as Welsh and not British. So why do I say that the party’s strategy of emphasising its Britishness and the importance of ‘respecting’ Westminster makes sense? Why might Tories take this stance when it makes coalitions or partnerships even more unlikely in the Senedd? After all, the electoral system for Senedd elections makes it difficult even for Labour to gain a majority. The route to office for the Tories, the argument goes, is through a deal with Plaid Cymru, whose membership would already be very resistant to an alliance with a post-Brexit, Johnson-era Conservative party. The commentator Theo Davies-Lewis recently wrote in The Times that ‘ the centre ground is […] up for grabs: ripe for a pragmatic pro-devolution party to become a kingmaker or indeed the eventual party of government... There are hundreds and thousands of “small c” conservatives across Wales who would vote for it.’ Is this really the most sensible path for the Tories to take?

Let’s look at it this way. Turnout at Senedd elections is low, and many of the Tory base don’t vote. The right-wing vote is also fractured, with voters choosing between the Tories, and groups like UKIP or Abolish the Welsh Assembly. In emphasising Britishness and a partnership with the Westminster government, the party could energise that base and attract the range of ‘small-c’ conservatives’ who, far from wanting more ‘centrist’ parties, think that all the ‘mainstream’ parties look and sound too similar. This won’t win the party government, because it will make a Plaid coalition even less likely, but would it ever have won office anyway? Instead of trying to forge alliances it will never make, might Welsh Conservatives conclude that it be more sensible to mould a distinctive Tory message and use the Senedd as a platform to promote the party’s ideas, its British identity, and to consider a longer-term strategy?

There is frustration on the right with devolution. A recent poll suggested that 14% of those asked would abolish the Senedd altogether (in that particular poll, this was one percentage point higher than those saying they wanted independence, despite the YesCymru sticker-binge!). Perhaps motivated by the way the Welsh Government has exercised its own powers in the Covid era, there is clearly some appetite for the brakes to be applied on the process of devolution from within the Conservative grass-roots. ‘Devo-sceptic’ candidates have been placed on the regional lists for the forthcoming Senedd elections by the membership. Michael Evans, who styles himself as ‘WalesTory’ on Twitter, is far from alone in seeing devolution as ‘a cycle of powers devolved, misused and further powers demanded. It is a process … that only goes one way. Destination: separation’.

The fact that the Conservatives did so disastrously under the leadership of Rod Richards in the 1999 Assembly elections, winning only one constituency and eight regional list seats, led to many concluding that Conservatism in Wales does not fare well under a right-wing leadership that advocated ‘wrapping the party up’ in the union flag. The project to make the party feel more moderate and ‘more Welsh’ under the urbane Nick Bourne, which went hand-in-hand with improved electoral fortunes, seemed to prove that correct. The cerebral and historically astute David Melding was a major intellectual driver of this strategy, building on years of work in the party’s research department, and research in its archives, where the evidence suggests that decades of grappling with how to make the party feel more compatible with Welsh nationhood has worked in its favour. I have looked at these same archives and it is certainly possible to draw this conclusion.

However, the 1999 Conservative performance in Wales could just as legitimately be presented as part of the UK-wide rejection of a party at the end of a long period of rule, the final years of which were perceived as disastrous. If the strategy in 2021 is to energise the base in Wales, something that has long struck me is just how fond many Conservative members were of Richards and his brief time at the helm.

Admiration for Richards’ brand of politics goes further than just ‘devo-scepticism’. This should encourage us to widen the discussion and ask some fundamental questions about the nature of conservatism, with a small ‘c’, in Wales. Studies of Welsh history hardly mention the fact that the Tory grass-roots, and chunks of the electorate more generally, have long been a great deal more socially and culturally conservative than its political classes. One senior Conservative Central Office worker touring Wales in the 1960s was taken aback to find ‘almost 100%’ support amongst local activists for the retention of the death penalty, and this topic resulted in the loudest cheers at rallies for Donald Box, the then MP for Cardiff North, when he said he was in favour of it.

Time obviously moves on. Enthusiasm for the rope is no longer one of the most important talking point amongst conservatives, and the party has shape-shifted a great deal since the Second World War; the Toryism of Macmillan, Thatcher and Cameron are significantly different from one another. Welsh society has also changed a great deal and making comparisons between time periods is rarely straightforward. Nonetheless, the general point stands: strategically the party still might benefit from stressing ‘old fashioned’ issues like law and order. It was Thatcher, with her brand of radical Toryism, clamping down on trade union power, stressing individualism, and riding high on victory in the Falklands, who won over many voters in Wales (as well as alienating others).

Conventional wisdom again has it that David Cameron dragging the party into the liberal centre ground – like Bourne did in Wales – helped attract people to the Tories in the late 2000s. But this strategy didn’t win the party a majority against Gordon Brown, and it alienated many traditional voters, including those who de-camped to UKIP. Meanwhile, a lot of liberals looked at the Cameron project, shrugged, and stuck with the already existing liberal and left-of-centre parties. In contrast, Boris Johnson’s straightforward message on the European issue was more popular in England and in Wales, winning the party a convincing majority in Westminster for the first time since 1987, and prompting a particularly strong performance by Welsh standards both in terms of seats and the share of the vote. There are many traditional left-wing arguments for leaving the EU, but it is hard to deny that ‘Brexit’ was essentially a conservative project – and, of course, a popular one in Wales.

People see Senedd and Westminster elections differently. But there are surely lessons for the Welsh Conservatives to learn from 2019. In this respect, Welsh Tory leader Andrew RT Davies – a robust Brexiteer and straight-talker, and a good representative of a certain strata of the Anglicised middle-classes – is well placed to convey these messages. However, his profile will never be as high as the Prime Minister’s, especially because of the way most voters still consume politics via London-based broadcasters or newspapers. Johnson is in so many ways a liberal, but his Brexit legacy and position as a resolutely Westminster figure who gets so much more coverage than any Welsh politician are the reasons I expect him, and figures like the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, to be prominent on the campaign trail in the run up to May’s elections (and not because Johnson once stood for a Welsh constituency!).

There is canny good sense, then, for the Conservatives in Wales rallying their apathetic base, and trying to appeal to ‘devo-sceptics’. They could also find greater success in further courting small-c conservative opinion and use their platform in the Senedd to promote a message that won’t win them office, but which will strengthen their identity as a party of (British) government, whilst not rejecting devolution as part of that framework. Such things might horrify the ‘cadres of Twitter’ as Simon Brooks nicely put it once on Planet Extra. But as we should regularly remind ourselves, Twitter is not real life. And not liking the party’s strategy isn’t the same as saying it doesn’t have some sort of compelling logic. In fact, it draws on important aspects of the Conservatives’ history in Wales, and it could well be their best of a series of imperfect options, even if a by-product of such an approach would be the adding of fuel to an already raging culture war.