Andrew Tettenborn

Welsh Tories would be wise to split from the Conservatives

Welsh Tories would be wise to split from the Conservatives
Boris Johnson on a campaign trip to Wales (Credit: Getty images)
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Conservatives in Wales are jumpy. Seeing Boris’s name as poisonous on the doorstep, a number of them have suggested disaffiliating from the national party and forming their own Welsh Conservatives as the party of the right west of Offa’s Dyke. Some in the central party in London are, perhaps unsurprisingly, aghast: one unnamed Tory MP has referred apocalyptically to the Balkanisation of the Conservatives. At least one very vociferously unionist Senedd member, James Evans, is also furious.

They should not be worried. Why? Because the break-up of the Tory party is actually rather a forward-looking idea, beneficial in the long term to Conservatism. CCHQ should welcome this plan with open arms.

For one thing, the union issue is a red herring. True, Tories both inside and outside Wales have, for good reason, always been the strongest opponents of the nativist pretensions of Plaid Cymru; but there is no inconsistency between a support for political union and a formal separation between their organisations on both sides of the border. 

Northern Ireland is a case in point. While technically the Tories do operate there under the name of the NI Conservatives, they are not a serious force. Unionism has been, and is, traditionally preserved by alliances with local groups (as indeed was the case before partition, when the Irish Conservative party was a separate, though closely allied, organisation). There is equally no reason why a formal separation between the Conservative party and Ceidwadwyr Cymreig should present any threat whatever to unionist solidarity, or create any misgivings in supporters of union.

There are a number of reasons to think a split between the Welsh Conservatives and the London party would even prove to be a positive electoral asset. This isn’t simply a matter of Boris’s leadership being a negative quantity outside south-east England, something which in any case could, and many Tories hope will, become academic by autumn. 

In both Scotland and Wales, it’s worth recalling that dislike of dictation from London is not limited to progressives and swivel-eyed nationalists. The Scottish Conservatives got their very creditable result in the General Election of 2017 in large degree because their then leader, Ruth Davidson, was noticeably Scottish-centred in her approach to politics: she was clearly not beholden to the views of MPs in London, and was known to be her own woman on matters like immigration and Brexit. 

There is no reason to think right-leaning Welsh voters are any different, and that they would not prefer a party which, while broadly staying in line with CCHQ in London, was prepared if necessary to take a different view on specific areas of policy. It would also give the Welsh Tories a useful bonus, in the form of a stick with which to beat Welsh Labour, which remains nothing more than a branch of the national party and subject to its dictation.

Furthermore, there are areas of policy where there is a very distinct Welsh dimension to tap into. Industries such as steel remain iconic in South Wales in a way they are not east of the Severn, which has a knock-on effect on beliefs about industrial policy. 

In education, again, priorities are different: there is, for example, no call for a return to grammar schools of the kind seen in various parts of England, which means that Welsh MPs will necessarily have a different approach. Transport too remains a big issue, with a strong feeling that Wales is losing out on high-speed links: something which a couple of weeks ago put the Welsh Tory leader at odds, at least briefly, with Boris. A party able to formulate its own policies on such matters, while remaining firmly committed to the Tory agenda generally, would have very distinct advantages. It might even attract a few votes from conservative nationalists who would otherwise have supported Plaid, but are put off by its tiresome left-wing image.

Perhaps monolithic nationally-based parties might even be passing their sell-by date. Even if the Welsh only voted for their own assembly in 1997 by a cigarette-paper margin of 6,700, devolution is firmly there to stay (and has been since extended, to general approval). Areas like education, transport, housing, health, and social services – the matters that are of greatest importance to most voters – are now seen naturally as the responsibility of Cardiff and not London. With this in mind, right-leaning and unionist voters may well increasingly see it as odd that their political representation at the centre should have to be through a London-based party. 

They may equally wonder whether the voice of Wales, whose entire population is well under half that of London, will be adequately represented within it. Rather better, one might have thought, that political activism should follow government. If, as is now accepted in many European countries, government is seen not as an entirely top-down exercise, but as a co-operation between federated entities, why not say the same for political activism?

The Conservatives have a long history of bending to the times by embracing policies they might once have opposed: in the nineteenth century, this led to the extension of the franchise in the second Reform Act and Lord Salisbury’s embrace of factory legislation. In the twentieth century, the party backed the creation of the NHS. They can now do the same with their party organisation. If the Welsh party plays its cards right, and CCHQ co-operate, the Tories will be able to show that, at least in this instance, they are ahead of the game.

Written byAndrew Tettenborn

Andrew Tettenborn is a professor of law at Swansea Law School

Topics in this articlePolitics