The party is confused by devolution, and embarrassed by its leader
For all the talk of a ‘devolution revolution’ from Paul Davies, the leader of the Welsh Conservatives, he is not leading by example. Reports emerged last night that he and his top lieutenants were drinking alcohol in the Senedd before Christmas (allegedly until 2am), days after a ban on serving it in pubs took effect.
Davies is “profoundly sorry” but growing numbers of candidates and activists are calling on him to resign — angered not only by the breach of the ‘spirit’ of Covid restrictions, but incensed that their leader was enjoying himself with a Labour member in the ‘Cardiff Bay Bubble’ that growing numbers of Welsh Tories want to destroy.
As the former first minister Carwyn Jones pointed out, there’s the question of who gave the story to the press. Is this a coup attempt by those within the party who are hellbent on putting devo-scepticism at the top of the Welsh Conservative agenda?
The embarrassing episode has shone a spotlight on the future direction of the party, which is already at a crossroads on the question of devolution, four months ahead of the Senedd election.
Historically, Tories are not so welcome in Wales. The legacy of the British party still haunts parts of our nation vividly – especially the Valleys, where the impact of Margaret Thatcher’s confrontation with the mining industry is reflected in the poverty that plagues post-industrial towns. The Conservatives’ role in devolved Wales has been debated at length too. ‘Have we been anti-Welsh?’, asked David Melding in his now infamous 2005 essay. The question is just as relevant today as it was back then.
While most of the Conservative Party in Wales (as it was once known) opposed devolution, figures like Lords member Nick Bourne made a concerted effort to shift the party to a more ‘Welsh’ stance in the first decade of this century. Mr. Melding, the party’s policy guru and manifesto writer, even floated a potential re-name to Ymlaen (Welsh for ‘forward’).
That didn’t happen, but devolution was accepted after 1997. The new Welsh Conservatives adopted a quasi-Disraelian outlook: preserving Wales’ place in the union, while at the same time embracing a distinct vision for social reform and encouraging mass Welsh democracy at a devolved level.
But where has that Welsh conservatism gone in more recent years? Paul Davies has spoken of a radical change of direction — and some Senedd candidates have made their outright anti-devolutionism clear. To put it mildly, as Mr. Melding does so well, the recent Tory Senedd candidate selection process was “not kind to liberal Conservatives”, with experienced and moderate politicians being left off key lists.
As the party shifts to embrace the abolitionist wings in its ranks, there are now increasing questions over what the ‘Welsh’ Conservatives stand for. They are becoming a peculiar beast: a political party standing candidates for election to a parliament they want to dismantle.
Dismantling (but drinking with) the Cardiff Bay cartel, sparking a meaningless devolution revolution, and abolishing the Senedd. This new age of Conservatism in Wales is a sad era for the centre-Right. Once again, the party must ask itself: “are we anti-Welsh?”.