The narrative of decline and infighting is not based in reality
The obituaries are once again being written for Welsh Toryism following the resignation of Senedd group leader, Paul Davies. Even before Davies’ resignation, Theo Davies-Lewis had already warned in these pages that the future of Welsh Conservatism looks bleak — a prognosis centred around Tory decline and infighting.
This is a judgement we’ve heard before. Little more than 12 months ago, BBC Wales declared the Welsh Conservatives’ 2019 general election campaign was “in disarray” after the resignation of the then-Welsh Secretary, Alun Cairns. A month later, the party gained six seats on a record 36% of the vote, driving Labour from its North Walian strongholds.
This narrative is undoubtedly attractive to those of a nationalist bent — but does it represent political reality?
First is the claim that Welsh Conservative views are embarrassingly out of sync with those of Wales’ voters. But the devosceptic tonal shift hardly runs counter to the sentiments of nearly two-fifths of the population, who either do not want any more powers devolved to the Senedd or who support its abolition altogether.
It is also worth noting that in a party where policy is made from the top down, no member of the Welsh Conservatives’ Senedd group has called for a rollback of the existing devolution settlement. Conflating the more extreme pronouncements of ordinary candidates and grassroots activists with the leadership’s stance is misleading.
Then there is the old chestnut of Wales’ visceral apathy to Conservatives — complete with an obligatory reference to the 1980s. This neat repackaging of history conveniently forgets the Tory electoral high water mark of 1983 — overseen by a certain Margaret Thatcher. Even the South Wales Valleys — long mythologised as impervious citadels of socialism — have started to slowly come round to Conservative candidates in recent elections, with UKIP and latterly the Brexit Party acting as gateways.
Far from being alien to Wales, small c conservatism is common currency among voters across the Left-Right divide. In 2017, the British Election Study (BES) found Welsh voters more supportive of the monarchy, capital punishment, and tighter welfare measures than their counterparts from other UK nations. On this basis, it is not outlandish to contend that it is the Left-liberal establishment that is more out of touch with the people of Wales.
Ultimately, lamenting the evolution of a Toryism that is more pugnacious on devolution and the union only makes sense if you believe there are correct (and therefore, incorrect) expressions of political Welshness — something that remains a highly contested concept. Expressing shock and outrage that the Conservative and Unionist Party seeks to represent voters who feel British and Welsh or predominantly British only feels confected. For all the nationalist froth, the Tories’ strategy will — if polling is correct — pay dividends come May.
So the next time you hear a politician or commentator suggesting that conservatism as an alien imposition on the Welsh body politic that will soon be consigned to history, don’t take their word for it. The wider indicators suggest otherwise.