Liam Byrne says the English must be less apathetic about the United Kingdom, and about the threat of Scottish independence that looms in next week’s elections
One party rule sums up the history of Welsh politics from 1945 onwards. Labour’s hegemony here has been both cultural and political with its tribal elders portraying any alternative as at best eccentric and at worst downright unnatural. This is the party of the Welsh establishment and its position has been bolstered by an accomplished grasp of the powers of patronage. Tory governments at Westminster have recognised that hegemony and governed through it. New Labour in the post-devolution era could by and large afford to forget Wales — a country in which it had rarely shown any interest. Meanwhile, Welsh Labour could get on with doing what it had always done best: fixing jobs, moaning about ‘Thatcherism’ and mouthing platitudes about Aneurin Bevan. Quite suddenly, though, these past certitudes are looking shaky. Labour is unlikely to gain a working majority in the Assembly elections on 3 May, and the prospect of a Conservative–Plaid Cymru alliance is emerging as a real alternative to take charge of the devolved government.
The party which opposed devolution most stoutly has also been its greatest political beneficiary. Tories in Wales were invariably the second-biggest party in terms of numbers of votes cast in general elections, but first-past-the-post relegated them to the margins. And the seats where they were elected tended to confirm their outsider status in Welsh cultural terms: Monmouth in the south-east and Conwy on the north coast could easily be dismissed as alien enclaves populated by an anglicised suburbia.
The rural north and west of small market towns had an electorate who would have voted Tory if placed in an English context. Farmers often did — being grateful for the subsidies which kept them in business. But most of the natural Tory voters in these regions found the party’s local product unappealing. Snobbery had much to do with it. As one local candidate put it, ‘The problem with these Welsh Tories is there’s no officer class — the sergeants’ mess has taken over.’ Some electors therefore stuck to the Welsh Liberal Democrats — a party whose stuffiness may have driven its Montgomery MP Lembit Opik into the arms of an obscure Rumanian songstress as a counter-reaction. Yet others found themselves voting for Plaid Cymru, liking that party’s defence of the language and turning a blind eye to its nostalgic fondness for economic interventionism. Meanwhile, Labour continued to record its huge majorities in the industrialised south and north-east: areas whose apathetic brand of socialist feudalism provided career-building politicians with a convenient base.
Proportional representation in devolved Wales changed the structure, but its consequences also changed attitudes — most importantly so in the case of the Tories, who now found themselves elected in decent numbers. In the last elections of 2003 they won 11 Welsh Assembly seats, in close contest for second position with Plaid Cymru on 12 seats. Labour’s defence of its 29 seats is therefore vulnerable to an advance from the two main opposition parties. It suffers from its association with the Blair-led party over the border, but it’s the fact that the Tories have now acquired a Welsh identity which gives them something of a campaigning edge.
Cultural politics is a defining feature of the Welsh political scene — and one which distinguishes it from the rest of the UK. Only a fifth of the population are competent in the Welsh language, but their heavy concentration among the professional middle classes means that a party which wants to be respectable — a key quality for a Conservative party — needs at least their assent, and ideally their support. This is why Tory ministers under both Thatcher and Major supported a raft of legislation safeguarding the teaching of the language and underwriting its position in public life. Tories cosying up to Plaid can claim to be happy bedfellows in at least this respect.
But it’s in economic policy and thinking that the post-devolution scene in Wales really depresses and alarms. This is a country which has nothing like a mixed economy and the sheer dominance of the public sector has led to its ruination in the past generation. Panglossian schemes for economic regeneration based on partnerships with deadbeat local authorities spew forth out of the immaculately designed Welsh Assembly building. Nearby there are vast acreages of empty land in Cardiff Bay — ‘Europe’s largest waterfront development’ — some ten years after its inauguration. The NHS workforce dominates the labour market, but by an irony common to socialised care, all the statistics show the Welsh population to be also among the most chronically unhealthy in Europe. Meanwhile, absurd health committees are set up by the Welsh Assembly — one for each area of the country — to consider future initiatives with predictably futile results. The vandalised housing estates of the South Wales valleys are among the most shocking sights to be seen in any region of the post-industrialised Continent, while the area’s schools produce results which are lower even than those recorded in some of England’s most deprived areas.
Campaigning styles for these assembly elections do not dwell on these unhappy truths — since all the parties share responsibility for what has happened. Even when not socialist in name or in theory, opposition parties have colluded in a form of state control by failing to argue for any genuine alternative. These Welsh elections should really be a very specific test case for the newly revived brand of Cameron Conservatism — all the more so if the Tories are going to be part of a coalition running the country. An aura of controlled benevolence has now replaced that wilful eccentricity which became the defining feature of English conservatism in the 1990s. From the point of view of their own electoral interest, Conservative party leaders should certainly cultivate a reputation for being benignly accommodating rather than needlessly provoking. This is especially true in times of economic prosperity — as has been true in England for the past 14 years. But in Wales the situation is entirely different and corresponds to what would have happened right across the UK if the Labour party had won the general election of 1979 and persisted with its brand of economic policy-making.
Wales’s politicians have certainly been amiable enough — mostly with each other — while presiding over a major socio-economic decline. They have cast envious eyes across the Celtic Sea at Ireland and that country’s economic growth. ‘Wales in Europe’ and further consequent subsidies have been cast as a solution. But it is low rates of corporation tax which have fuelled the advance of Ireland — a country where two conservative parties take it in turns to run the country. Wales’s independence is a reasonable enough aim in a continent where Estonia and Latvia have recovered their sovereignty. Perhaps it is only in those circumstances that Welsh political leaders will be able to see that liberal capitalism is the necessary future for their country’s economy. When that happens, a Conservative–Plaid Cymru alliance will have rescued Wales from a decadent state-ism and truly liberated a whole country.
Hywel Williams is a contributing editor of The Spectator.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated April 28, 2007