Source: Senedd Cymru (via. Flickr)
Conservatism, Character and Constitution

A look back at 22 years of service

The force that has motivated me most urgently in my 22 years of service in the Senedd is that Wales needs a strong Conservative Party, writes David Melding.

A Party that could win in Wales! From this springboard came the idea- steadfast and unshakeable- that Wales had become and would remain a political nation for the first time since Union in the 16th century. It was time to think creatively.

In 1999 the old Union was over. Not the belief that Britain needed a new political unity in a devolved UK state. A realisation certainly that we were on radically different ground. Our opponents wanted us to remain fixed in the old dispensation. Freedom of manoeuvre would never be found there. This idea was dominant by 2005- in the Party leadership at least- and achieved its first stunning affirmation in the near miss of the Rainbow coalition in 2007. When this disappointment was processed the Party moved boldly on and completed the devolution scheme in Wales by facilitating the referendum on legislative powers in 2011. Without the prescient leadership of Nick Bourne and David Cameron – made dynamic by the 2010 General Election victory- the Welsh Conservative Party would have faced crisis.

Some Conservative voices- well within the Conservative tradition- urged caution and control of the devolution process. But imagination and audacity led to a different destination. It was the Welsh Conservative Party that completed the devolution project and constructed institutions firmly within the Westminster model of government. Simply put a strong Welsh Government ( established in 1999 as is too often overlooked) was balanced by a moderating legislature. Responsible government has always required a supervising legislature- the essence of the Westminster model.

On this ground of Westminster model statecraft the Senedd remains. The robust leadership of Andrew RT Davies never falters on this point. It is not the institution of a Welsh Government that is the problem but the Labour Party’s control of that government! So our task is to offer the Welsh electorate an alternative vision that would allow Wales to truly flourish within the UK state. 

Above all we need the confidence to win. I have emphasised this throughout my time in the Senedd. History and culture are not insuperable barriers as we see today as our Party breaches the red wall of former Labour dominance. A new message of ambition and purpose was made possible by devolution. In Scotland this created possibilities for the SNP initially although we now see a resurgent Scottish Conservative Party offering a better alternative to a tired Labour Party and a Scottish Government obsessed by identity politics rather than sound practical government.

A great prize awaits us. Wales could lead the way and show that Conservative governments are possible in Wales and Scotland. This would mark the turn away from loose identity politics towards a realisation that a range of democratic choices are available within the devolved institutions. The Senedd and the Scottish Parliament cannot be reduced to one political option that is intent on dissolving the UK. 

I believe in Britain, the coherence and possibilities contained in a devolved UK state. We cannot secure our political vision by undermining Welsh and Scottish political institutions. Rather it is our aim to weave these institutions into the full expression of a coherent and renewed Union. We need not fear the diversity, choice and challenge that devolution has brought to British politics. After all most democratic multinational states have a devolved or federal structure.

Conservatives will win in Wales once we are confident about how we can creatively use the devolved institutions established in 1999. There is no evidence that the Welsh electorate want devolution to undermine the UK. The value of Union is widely recognised as is the happy realisation that we can have the best of both worlds – a confident Wales in a strong UK. I thought this when first elected to the Assembly in 1999 and I believe it as firmly in 2021 as I leave the Senedd.

My biggest disappointment as I look back is that my generation never quite made the Welsh Conservative Party a party of government in Wales. That is the threshold on which we now stand.

David Melding was the Member of the Senedd for South Wales Central (1999 – 2021).

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