Article written by Calum Davies, Deputy Chairman for Cardiff Central Conservatives
After over 20 years of Labour rule, Wales is more than just ready for change. It needs it. But how can Conservatives genuinely transform our nation without simply saying we will spend more money, or we will do things better?
The answer is this: by being distinct from other parties and acknowledging the shortcomings of Welsh devolution over the past two decades, insisting on the need to choose a new direction in areas that demand it, and, crucially, by not being afraid to be genuinely conservative.
We often talk about Conservative values. I believe in those values too but, in Wales, we must be less fearful of causing controversy and upsetting an Establishment that has failed to make Wales a better place to live. Otherwise, the Conservative Party in Wales will continue to struggle to inspire its natural voters to turnout in devolved elections and the status quo remains intact.
We need to challenge a consensus that has taken root in Welsh politics; a consensus that holds our small nation back from realising its potential. It is time to break that old consensus that has led to nowhere for our Party and our country and build a new one forged in a Conservative vision for Wales.
One of the strangest developments that has emerged over the last few years is how many in Cardiff Bay have adopted the view that devolution has become a silver bullet to solving problems. This is despite devolution leading to worse outcomes for the people of Wales across virtually every area. So why is this happening? Simple – Cardiff Bay politicians want more and more powers.
This might seem like a reasonable ambition, were it not for the fact that since devolution hospital beds have dwindled by a third, wages have consistently lagged behind all other UK nations, and our schools’ performance has fallen behind international norms.
Conservatives should not be surrendering to this narrative of one-way, absolutist devolution. We should oppose the further devolution of powers to Wales. Indeed, I have heard first-hand how disappointed members were to see the devolution to alter income tax rates achieved without any public mandate – and by a Conservative government no less. In the same way many in our party spent years saying “the answer isn’t more Europe, but less Europe”, maybe we should be saying the same in regards to devolution.
There needs to be a more dynamic settlement, with mechanisms to devolve powers to local authorities or even giving them back to Westminster. This is not taking powers away from Wales. After all, Wales has MPs in Westminster and can represent our interests there. It was bizarre to see nationalist MPs protesting the use of “English Votes for English Laws” recently when their outrage would be extreme if the English MPs were able to change the law in areas devolved to Wales.
A move to federalism in the UK must be avoided. As the Unionist party of our United Kingdom, we have a duty to uphold this institution that has shaped the world for the better. We cannot give oxygen to this gateway to independence by alienating ourselves from those who cherish the UK. These matter as we have experienced life for centuries as one country, have high-levels of trade (England is Wales’ largest “export” market), and want to maintain closeness to our families (one-in-four Welsh residents were not born here, the vast majority of those from England).
We should also oppose moves to increase the number of Members in the Senedd. There is no public appetite for this and expanding the number of politicians in Wales should not be allowed to happen without public consent.
There are several instances of wasteful money and unmandated laws that need to be wiped from political life too. We need to end the attempts of the Left to introduce votes for prisoners and scrap the pointless Welsh Youth Parliament. No inviting conspiracy theorist journalists to speak. No thousands of pounds for a carpet to showcase the name change of the Senedd.
Additionally, there is the problem that the Presiding Officer of the Welsh Parliament is able to remain a member of their party and stand as their candidate in elections. This lack of genuine impartiality has been key to locking those right-of-centre out of decision-making in Cardiff Bay. This change cannot come quick enough.
And what about those who want to scrap the Senedd? Those of this view are often portrayed as cranks or fringe figures by a media establishment that coincidentally produces candidates that stand for left-wing parties in elections later on. However, those who feel sceptical of devolution have come to that view not because they hate this country, but because they love it.
According to a recent poll, that view is more popular than an independent Wales or a Senedd with more powers. It is extremely close to being the most popular option. It has also seen more growth in support than any other constitutional settlement. Abolishing the Welsh Parliament would also comfortably beat independence in a head-to-head question. This group of voters are in the ascendancy.
They see a system that has failed to produce better outcomes as they continue to slump further behind England as it has for worker wages, school grades, and A&E waiting times. These people deserve representation and the Welsh Conservatives should aim to represent those who approach devolution from a Unionist view, with love of country at their heart. They deserve a representative voice.
As can probably be read from these ideas, they will not generate goodwill with the nationalists and socialists that govern us in Cardiff Bay if our Party were to adopt them. But where is the good-will they have shown us thus far? Labour regularly block our sensible amendments to legislation. Plaid Cymru regularly keep them in power. Both have collaborated to create a “joint response” to Brexit together rather than work with us as a bridge to London. Not that this last one was necessary – Brexit is and always should be a matter for the UK Parliament as it was the UK that voted to leave as one country.
Devolution has provided the opportunity for the Welsh arm of political parties to pursue a different path. This is totally understandable but as Conservatives in a nation that has long proven unwilling to vote for our party, we should be championing the way the UK Party as a whole has decided to pursue policy. Obviously, our Party should aim to shape things for a Welsh context but keep the approach as close to the original as possible.
We need alignment with what MPs propose or we risk allowing those who do not have an interest in keeping Wales as an integral part of the UK exploiting differences between Wales and England. This can be seen in the way Labour and Plaid often seek divergence for divergence sake. Their belief is that being worse than England is better than being like it. Such a mindset is responsible for Wales falling behind in health, education, and the economy, and most recently evident in the responses to the Coronavirus epidemic.
As loyal Unionists and loyal Conservatives, we need to place our loyalty in the UK’s institutions and the UK Party. The more we give in to the urge to pursue a different path, the easier it becomes for nationalists to make the case for independence. The more they can hollow out our attachment to the UK, the easier it becomes for them to present an argument to the public that the Union can be dispensed with. I believe in Wales and the common sense of my countrymen, but we cannot be complacent on this most intrinsic and fundamental of issues.
Is this really the Establishment we want to keep in power? No. But behind this is a mindset – the mindset outlined throughout this essay.
Our country is at a crossroads. For over two decades, three million people have been governed by a small, select group whose ideas have not improved our lives from Conwy to Cardiff, the Vale of Clwyd to the Vale of Glamorgan, Aberystwyth to Aberdare. It is not enough simply to replace those in power with those of different political stripes, but a completely different attitude.
It does not mean counter-productive radicalism, but pragmatic reform that accepts the failures of the past and the ambitions of the future. We as Conservatives are aiming to improve hospitals, schools, and more. But if that requires significant changes to the way politicians in Wales operate and our constitutional structures, then it is something that must be pursued. We need to give our natural consistency of support a reason to turn out and vote for us.
It is clear to a large and increasing section of the public and the Welsh Conservative membership that devolution is a system in decline. Political parties must recognise and react to this anxiety. They are dutybound to do so. The Welsh Conservatives must not only seize power from the cushy consensus that has built in Cardiff Bay but ensure that our Party does not fall into the same trap. Our Party can only change Wales for the better if the stagnant status quo that exists now in our political life survives no longer and we act in best interests of our country.