OUTFLANKED in the Senedd and pandering to Westminster, Conservatives need to decide whether they want to participate in Welsh politics

Lord Morgan of Aberdyfi has convincingly argued that Wales’ dominant veneer of radicalism in many ways masks a nation with deeply conservative values.

Take local councils, he wrote ahead of the 2017 election, who acted as champions of the people during the depression years; or, I might add, the Welsh language: the most ancient symbol of sustaining ‘Britishness’, at least in academic form.

With Welsh Labour’s continual disinterest in supporting rural economies, more often than not Cefn Gwlad have turned to the centre-right as spokespeople, too.

It is no surprise, therefore, that Conservatives in Wales enjoy relative electoral success. (The party regularly commands at least 25 percent of the vote in general elections.)

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And despite decimating industrial communities, Thatcherism was not that unpopular: the party won 14 seats across Wales in 1983, after all. A total wipe-out at the 1997 and 2001 elections were low-points; a consequence of New Labour’s dynamism but also the centre-right’s failure to keep up with the changing winds in Welsh society.

Then again, devolution presented a unique opportunity. Pragmatists like Nick Bourne and the erudite David Melding were quick to realise, constructing an appealing liberal-conservative movement in Welsh politics.

Over time, this had a firm place in public life and brought Welsh Conservatives close to government in 2007. They looked, sounded and behaved like a modern devolved party – at arm’s length from London, with an authoritative position on issues such as housing and health, as well as being cognizant of the national mood when it came to questions of nationhood such as devolution and Welsh language provision.

This, alas, is in stark contrast to recent times. Welsh Conservatives look increasingly out-of-touch. At the Senedd election, their fortunes were (mis)placed on the apparent rising tide of devo-scepticism.

Thankfully, 'Abolish the Welsh Assembly' suffered a catastrophic collapse, to their great embarrassment. While the Tory party performed relatively resiliently – maintaining its position as the largest opposition party in Cardiff – since polling day its Senedd group has looked lost: out of ideas and lacking a coherent long-term strategy for the future.

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Take the co-operation agreement ratified by Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru, a comprehensive document spanning 46 policy areas that will radically shift Wales to the left and emphasise its distinctiveness from Westminster.

There has been little engagement with the detail of the deal, nor self-awareness from Welsh Conservatives that it reflects their growing irrelevance to decision-making in the Senedd.

Instead, parliamentarians have taken to social media to curse the influence of “separatists” and explain, crudely, if you “vote Plaid, you get Labour” and vice-versa.

The Secretary of State for Wales has joined in to reaffirm that the public will simply not “tolerate” this agreement. Perhaps. Though, of course, devolved politics has been built on coalitions and cross-party pacts since politicians first walked into Tŷ Hywel in 1999.

There has been little desire from Conservatives to comment, understandably, on pledges such as the expansion of free meals to all pupils in primary schools.

The party’s situation is best summarised by their fiercest critic, the First Minister. His tirade on the floor of the Senedd chamber – labelling the Welsh Conservative group “immature” and deserving a political life in the “wilderness” – was devastating.

Interim leader Paul Davies observed that Mark Drakeford had become “incredibly aggressive”; a lousy complaint from a politician whose party has produced the most skilful and vicious proponents of speech in British history, from Disraeli to Churchill.

There is nothing wrong with criticising the substance of the agreement. Indeed, plenty of questions remained unanswered over its delivery, in addition to its impact on Senedd business. It also has convenient omissions, like dealing with disastrous NHS Wales waiting times.

But now is an opportunity for Conservatives to be thoughtful and consider the substance – rather than “trot out all the things that come from London”, as one astute Welsh nationalist recently observed of the party’s attitude.

Clear blue water between Conservative politicians in Wales and Westminster is badly missing.

This was the case during the pandemic, as Andrew RT Davies complained incessantly about pubs in England being open as they were shut here, but also on day-to-day policy.

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Little has been said, for example, about the billions underspent on rail in Wales as Welsh taxpayers fund HS2. Internal party pressure may at least help focus Downing Street to demonstrate ‘levelling-up’ in a Welsh context.

Welsh Conservatives appear to have decided their most useful contribution to Welsh politics would be to play constitutional games.

Their desire to emphasise ‘Britishness’ (in its most political and unilateral form) and concurrently obsessively respecting Westminster may have made electoral sense, as Swansea University’s Sam Blaxland eloquently argued in Planet before polling day in May.

Six months later, however, it is an unnecessary campaign that makes Welsh Conservatives look like sniping spectators in what is becoming an increasingly powerful and provocative political hub in Cardiff Bay.

What would be most useful is honesty about the party’s purpose. Maybe, to the delight of some grassroots activists, it is to be “Boris’ bloc” in the Senedd. Such an approach is not without risk, as the growing unpopularity of the Prime Minister shows, and grants the party little more status than Downing Street's think-tank in Wales.

This strategy would also ignore our nation's continuing shift to distinctiveness as a socio-political entity, which is only set to accelerate if the attitudes of younger people are anything to go by.

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Another option is to think about what has brought it popularity and relevance previously.

The first step is to be comfortable with ongoing debates around Welsh nationhood. To be, in short, an active participant in the discussion; a constructive and pragmatic centre-right party that can be clear on systemic failings in Welsh education and health, but also firm on what its solutions are.

It has already shown maturity in policy areas such as agriculture, as its valuable interventions alongside Plaid Cymru on misguided Nitrate Vulnerable Zone rules demonstrated.

On the constitution, in particular, there is a pressing need for a serious contribution from Welsh Conservatives that goes beyond draping a Union Jack over a building in Cardiff city centre.

HWJ Edwards, the acclaimed writer, famously quipped any self-professed Tory in the Rhondda was an eccentric, loon, or publicity seeker. You can forgive some for judging the current Welsh Conservative group in a similar fashion, jokes aside.

This doesn’t have to be a hallmark for the party in the future. Simon Hart is right that the co-operation agreement offers his party the chance to be “a very clear alternative” to Mark Drakeford and Adam Price.

Yet the question of what it will stand for – a constructive and pragmatic pro-devolution group, or one hellbent on separatist soundbites – remains to be seen.

The choice is stark; either it can be a voice for Welsh conservatism, comfortable with where the nation is going and its role in public debates, or a group that simply pushes messages from SW1 in Wales. The time has come, once again, for the Welsh Conservatives to decide who they speak for. 

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