When campaigning in many parts of Wales, Conservative voters often express their frustration to me: ‘It doesn’t matter what happens, people always vote Labour round here.’ Labour supporters, meanwhile, ask me why I am wasting my time campaigning for the Conservative Party in Wales, writes Dan Boucher
The view that the Conservative party is a lost cause in Wales certainly gained credence in the 1997 and 2001 General Elections when not one Conservative MP was elected in Wales, while (in 1997) Labour returned 34 MPs, 4 Plaid and 2 Lib Dems.
The truth, however, was and is rather different. While the Conservatives returned no MPs in 1997 and Plaid returned 4, Plaid was not 4 times more popular than the Conservatives. Indeed, the Conservative share of the popular vote in 1997 (19.6%) was nearly twice that of Plaid (10%), (and also significantly more than that of the Lib Dems, 12.6%) demonstrating that even at this dark moment, the Conservative Party was not some alien presence but actually the second party of Wales, and so it has been for many years. Our problem was simply that the Conservative vote was spread too evenly in 1997 and 2001 to actually elect an MP, whereas the Plaid and Lib Dem votes were geographically much more concentrated within the seats they secured. Of course, since then we have bounced back, securing 14 MPs in 2019.
Senedd elections, meanwhile, have been slightly different. In the first devolved elections in 1999, Plaid Cymru came second, way out in front of the Conservatives in third, a feat repeated in 2003, although the distance was narrowed considerably. However, in 2007 the Conservative and Plaid votes were, for the first time, almost the same, with the two parties effectively coming joint second, while in 2011 the Conservatives comprehensively beat Plaid, coming second. The 2016 result, meanwhile, was more like that of 2007.
Rather than being the alien presence its opponents have gleefully sought to suggest, therefore, in General Elections the Conservative Party has been the second party of Wales and in recent Senedd elections either the second or joint second party of Wales.
Where then does the cultural perception that the Conservatives are in some ways an alien presence come from? How can it be challenged and corrected?
The roots go back a long way.
In 1536 when Wales was effectively annexed by England, and the English legal system and norms of administration were imposed, Wales, unlike Scotland through the Act of Union in 1707, lost all its own institutions. In this context where there was no institutional recognition of Wales, the Welsh language took on the central role of sustaining Welsh identity going forward and in this regard the decision to permit the translation of the Bible into Welsh, and to allow Welsh to be used in church, took on huge significance. While one could not use Welsh in any official secular context, one could use Welsh in church and so the heart of Welsh identity migrated into church where Welsh national identity was sustained, giving rise to what scholars have termed ‘the Wales as Church paradigm.’
Notwithstanding the use of the Welsh language within the established church, however, the fact that the established Church was the ‘Anglican’ Church, the Church of England, meant that the advent of non-conformism had special appeal in Wales. By the time of the 1851 census, Wales was overwhelmingly non-conformist, giving many from the working and middle classes in Wales a reason not to vote for the party of the established church, the Tory party. By contrast, the party identified with non-conformism, the Liberal party, became dominant such that in the 1906 General Election all but two Welsh constituencies returned Liberal MPs and Wales had no Conservative MPs at all. From that moment the dis-establishment of the Church of England in Wales was just a matter of time.
In truth, however, the identity between the Church of England and the Conservatives was based on the advent of the party system at the time of the Glorious Revolution in 1688, when the Tory Party was defined, first, by its loyalty to the Anglican Church and, then, to the King – in that order – which is why most Tories were forced to turn their backs on James II when he turned his back on the Anglican Church in favour of the Papal authority. Things have since moved on considerably.
In this regard the 6 May 2021, the date of the Senedd elections, in relation to which polling suggests Labour will do significantly worse than usual even as the Conservatives do significantly better, is not without wider significance. In his book, Conservatism, Lord Hugh Cecil, (then the Member of Parliament for Oxford University, son of the Conservative Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury and Winston Churchill’s best man), argues that from 1688 until 1790 all British politicians, Whigs or Tories were philosophically conservative. The advent of the Conservative Party (as opposed to the old Tory Party), Cecil claims, can be traced to a House of Commons debate on the 6 May 1790, when Edmund Burke, the Whig MP for Bristol broke with his party leader, Charles James Fox, over the French Revolution, inaugurating modern Conservatism which was neither old style Tory nor Whig. From that point, Cecil argues that the foundations of the modern Conservative Party were laid with Burke its philosopher and Pitt the Younger its first Prime Minister.
If one indulges the Cecil thesis for a moment, and it certainly has much to commend it, two thoughts immediately hit home.
First, rather than being the champion of church and monarchical state power, in the old style Tory tradition, the person credited with providing the philosophical foundation for modern Conservatism, Edmund Burke, is better known as a critic of monarchical/state power and as a champion of civil society. In this regard the fact that, Burke, this philosopher of society as ‘a community of communities’, starting with the ‘little platoons’ and moving outwards, was an Irishman, and fellow Celt, surely presents an opportunity?
Second, there would be something rather appropriate about Wales recognising the relevance of Conservatism to its future on 6 May 2021, the 331st anniversary of the advent of modern Conservatism expressed through the mouth of a Celt rather than an Anglo-Saxon.
In this regard, it must also be recognised that there is a precedent for Wales abandoning one party for another. One of the defining figures of Welsh Labour in the twentieth century was the first Secretary of State for Wales, Jim Griffiths, who initially voted Liberal. At the end of his life he wrote: ‘The radical Liberal forces of the 19th century nurtured the democratic radicalism which we in Wales have inherited. Expressing it in political action fell mainly to the Labour Party then as now. … To my comrades in Wales – who through the years have been so generous to me – my message is Guard our Inheritance.’ In other words, he argued that a time had come when the Labour Party was better placed than the Liberal Party to give expression to the Radical Welsh political tradition. If the baton of responsibility for championing this tradition can effectively be passed from one party to another once, then there is no reason in principle why it should not be handed to another party in the future, if Labour loses its way, which in 2021 it most certainly has.
Under Labour management of devolution there is a sense in which we have been presented with something that betrays the Radical Welsh political tradition for something that is, in its way, just as restricting as the ‘Wales as Church paradigm’. It is as if Labour has presented us with the ‘Wales as the State paradigm’, wherein Wales is expected to live and move and have its being in the state. In this context the Welsh Conservatives are actually best placed to pick up the baton after 22 years of Labour Government in the Wales and champion instead the ‘Wales as Wales paradigm’, something that while recognising a crucial role for the state, and indeed the churches, also recognises and embraces the full breadth and energy of Welsh civil society and the market. This makes contemporary Welsh Conservatism, far from being an alien intrusion, the best political guide for Wales in 2021.
Dan Boucher was a 2017 General Election candidate and the lead candidate in Wales for the 2018 European Parliament Election.