To be a Welsh Conservative is to be faced constantly by the dilemma of a country for which it seems impossible to craft uniform policy writes Sam Bidwell.
Amongst the many uncomfortable truths that the Welsh Government’s COVID response has laid bare, one of the most uncomfortable (particularly, I imagine, for Cardiff politicians) has been the repeated inappropriateness of their policies for anywhere north of Caerphilly or west of Pontypridd. Time and time again, new restrictions have been put in place with an eye towards a very limited part of the country, with interests and material circumstances very different from those elsewhere. Some of the responsibility for this can be placed squarely at the feet of Messrs. Drakeford and Gething, but if we take off our blue rosettes for a moment, we surely have to recognize that the task of creating one national policy for Wales is not one for the faint of heart.
Political analyst Dennis Balsom, writing in 1985, highlighted the existence of three distinct, though interdependent, models of Welshness. Balsom’s trifurcated model posited the existence of Y Fro Gymraeg, ‘Welsh Wales’, and ‘British Wales’, each broadly defined by its political and cultural allegiances. In brief; Y Fro is found mostly in Welsh-speaking west Wales, the rural and agricultural heartland of traditional Welsh nationalism, ‘Welsh Wales’ comprises the post-industrial valleys and their environs, an area that identifies as ‘Welsh’ without necessarily speaking the language, and ‘British Wales’ consists of border areas deeply interconnected with England, and towns reliant on tourism from the rest of the UK. Traditionally speaking, suggests Balsom, voters in these areas have found natural homes in Plaid Cymru, Labour, and the Conservatives (and to a lesser extent, the Liberal Democrats) respectively, in part because of their divergent interests and perspectives.
Balsom’s model is a good starting point for understanding the scale of the challenge, but the reality is actually far more complicated. My own corner of the world, in northeast Wales, seems to have more in common with the “Red Wall” towns on the other side of the border, but its political fate is deeply interwoven with that of the surrounding countryside and its farming communities, and with nearby seaside towns, in all of their faded Victorian glory. In the last 35 years, gulf between these areas has only become more apparent. Cardiff has emerged as a competitive metropolitan hub, and our university towns have taken on their own character. While some communities have renewed and regenerated themselves, others have fallen by the wayside, losing many of their businesses and community institutions to the ruthless march of modernization. The idiosyncrasies have only intensified, but our attempts to address them have not.
So how, then, do we cut this particularly knotty Gordian knot? How do we account for all of these local needs, desires, and interests in our nation-wide vision? How do we create one policy which satisfies those in Brynmawr, Betws-y-Coed, and Buckley, all at once?
The answer, simply, is that we don’t, and we can’t. Crucially, though, we also don’t need to, and any attempt at uniform policymaking is destined to be at best a blunt instrument which achieves broadly the right outcomes and at worst, materially damaging. The answer lies in local solutions. If we recognize that to create one national policy is often to necessarily ignore the needs of one group or area, we must accept that the solution might lie in tailoring our solutions to these specific needs.
If Conservatives cannot offer a coherent, consistent, and attractive vision at the local level, Wales’ shift rightwards will be consigned to history, one more temporary political trend to be scoffed at by the psephologists of the future. Not only this, but thinking in terms of uniformity prevents us from realizing the country’s potential in every sense, and consigns even good policies to the status of ‘qualified success’. Part of the challenge is organizational – encouraging likeminded individuals to run for election in their communities, giving more support to our local councillors, even floating the idea, as unpopular as it is, of better pay for councillors, as a means to attract intelligent professionals who would otherwise be attracted to more lucrative jobs further afield. Another, more difficult question is that of what our substantive approach ought to be – how, exactly, should we be making these tailored local decisions?
I propose a vision which focuses on three key ideas: community, quality of life, and tradition. Put these ideas at the core of our local decision-making, keep them in focus, seek to promote them first and foremost, and a culture of conservative localism is sure to follow. Though our application of these ideas will necessarily be as varied as our communities themselves, bearing them in mind will help to create a consistent through-line of conservative policy at the local level.
In terms of concrete application, a few examples will help to highlight the kind of approach that we need. In terms of community, we not only need to think about the importance of supporting events and institutions which tie the community together, and get people talking to their neighbours – local markets, village fetes, town jubilees -, but about protecting and promoting local character, whether in terms of supporting locally-based, locally-sourced businesses, or in terms of new developments. This is not to say that we ought to reject every new housing proposal – quite the contrary, in many cases -, but that we should carefully consider things like architectural styles and the viability of existing public services. When we do develop, we need to make sure that we develop in a way that enhances the community’s prospects and identity, rather than in pursuit of what might be economically optimal according to an economist’s spreadsheet.
On quality of life, we should not only be thinking about providing high quality public services and fair financial support for those that need it (and yes, sometimes, this will mean spending money), but about promoting our communities as pleasant places to be for those that live in them. The positive impact that a thriving high-street, open-air seating, and a community centre running courses in the arts, language, and music could have on so many in Wales simply cannot be understated.
And finally, underpinning all of this, is that natural support for tradition that most Conservatives identify so strongly with. Whether advertising a local museum, championing new Welsh-medium services, or setting up an Eisteddfod in town, keeping local traditions alive and taking them from strength to strength binds our communities together in shared cultural experience. Generally, aside from a marginal few irrationally hostile to the promotion of the Welsh language, this is where Conservatives are already doing their best work, but it always pays to redouble our efforts.
This renewed vision for localism does not necessarily mean the devolution of expansive powers to local councils, but entails the construction, maintenance, and extensive use of a new lens through which we view our local communities. This will require a cultural change, in how we think about and act in local government, and the hunt for a panacea policy to enable such a change will prove to be a most elusive white whale. Cultural changes are always the most difficult to achieve, but also the most rewarding and long-lasting.
Of course, we cannot ignore the fact that these communities are interconnected. Wales is, after all, not simply a collection of disconnected villages in a small but beautiful corner of the world. It is a cohesive, brilliant nation, united by history, by geography, by culture, and, yes, by economy. Maintaining and deepening this cohesion between the different and disparate parts of Wales is the role of national policy. In our national curriculum for education, we should be seeking to give the next generation of children common cultural touchstones – historical, literary, linguistic – that can tie all of these communities together. Across the board, we need to be approaching the challenges of national policymaking through the prism of the local.
If Conservatives can manage this, then Wales will be held up the world over as a model for how to respond to the challenges of modernity, accounting for local needs in an increasingly interconnected world. For the cynics among you, curious about the electoral implications of it all, worry not. For one, believe it or not, people tend to quite like political parties that make their lives better at the tangible, local level – people notice how their own patch has changed over the past decade more keenly than they notice the slight fluctuations in the national economy that we all have such a terrible tendency to fret over. Not only this, but a renewed focus on the granularity of community politics will go a long way towards tackling the root cause of much of the political dissatisfaction that we now see. At the core of frustration with Brussels, Westminster, or Cardiff is the feeling that we have lost control of our own destiny. Create a culture in which we regain this sense of control over our own affairs, and YesCymru will soon be waving goodbye to most of their core support.
Wales’ local variety is part of what makes it so wonderful. Like the most beautiful tapestry, all of the various threads complement one another, and to ignore the condition of any one would be to destroy the whole. I am a ceaseless advocate of the parochial. I love living in a country of slate-roofed little villages with their chapels, developing market towns, and the 19th century brilliance of central Cardiff, all united by a shared love of the things that make us unique. If Conservatives recognize this and act on it, the world might not be our oyster, but one of the best parts of it certainly will be.
Sam Bidwell is a Conservative Party member and activist living in northeast Wales, and a law student at the University of Cambridge.