John Osmond says a ballot in South Wales Central confronts Welsh Conservatives with an existential choice
In the coming few weeks Conservative Party members in South Wales Central face an existential question about the future of their party, though probably many of them don’t even realise it. Today ballot papers are being sent out for them to rank candidates on their List for next May’s Assembly election, with the contest for first place being between the present two Assembly Members, David Melding and Andrew R.T. Davies.
At present David Melding is placed first on the list and Andrew R.T. Davies, second. However, there is a widely held view within the party that this positioning could be reversed as a result of the ballot now taking place. In that event, and especially if the Conservatives win marginal Vale of Glamorgan (majority 83) in the first-past-the-post election, as seems highly possible, then Melding will be lost to frontline Welsh politics.
That would be a calamitous outcome for the National Assembly, for the future of pluralistic debate in Wales, and for the Welsh Conservative Party itself. For the Assembly it would mean the removal of one of the few figures who have genuinely grown in stature since the beginning of democratic devolution.
Much to his own surprise, Melding only just made it as second on the Conservative List in South Wales Central in the first 1999 election, and again in 2003. By the 2007 election he had achieved first place and his position was more secure. By now he had held a number of key portfolios and had emerged as an important cross-party figure whose voice consistently commanded attention in the chamber.
So far as the plurality of Welsh politics is concerned David Melding is a unique figure. Over the past eleven years he has pushed the boundaries of Welsh Conservative thinking much further than anyone imagined possible prior to the coming of the Assembly. Certainly he has been a major influence in ensuring that the Conservative Group in the Assembly will support the Yes campaign in next year’s referendum on greater powers.
Many people in the other parties regard Melding to be so far to the Left as to being virtually a social democrat in his thinking. However, this would be to misunderstand his view of the state. He is a close follower of the Conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott and is highly sceptical of the virtues of state intervention. “When the state gets involved things are liable to end in tears,” would be a typical Melding view. Or to follow Oakeshott he might say, “To be a conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.”
Crucially, however, Melding has departed from this last dictum in a series of publications on the constitutional future of Wales in Britain. Five years ago he published a series of essays bearing on the state and future of the Welsh Conservative Party which, for many of the faithful, must have had ominous sounding titles: Devolution: The Battle Lost and Won, Have We Been Anti-Welsh? An Essay on the Conservative Party and the Welsh Nation, and Unionism in a Multi-national State. These and other writings were brought together in an elegant book with a provocative title, Will Britain Survive Beyond 2020, published by the IWA last year.
Melding’s position, argued from a unionist stance, is for a federal Britain. Naturally this is a challenging prospect for many Conservatives. In his book he quotes Theodore Roosevelt, “The only true conservative is the man who resolutely sets his face to the future.” That, too, will be an uncomfortable idea for many Conservatives.
But it is precisely because the Welsh Conservative leadership in the Assembly has so resolutely faced the future in embracing devolution, and advocating that it needs to go at least another step to full legislative powers, that the party has thrived in the devolution era. This is in sharp contrast with Scotland where Scottish Conservatives have so far failed to register the mood of post-devolution Scotland and have suffered at the ballot box as a result. It was noteworthy that, during the summer a Commission set up by Scottish Conservatives to examine their problems, visited Wales and had lengthy conversations with the Welsh leadership, David Melding among them.
There is little doubt that many, perhaps most, of the Welsh Conservative membership are some way behind, if not out of step, with the direction their leaders in the Assembly are taking them. No doubt this explains why David Melding failed to be nominated as the candidate in the Vale of Glamorgan a month ago. If this is replicated in the South Wales Central ballot in the next few weeks it will throw a question mark over whether Conservatives in Wales really want to be members of a Welsh Conservative Party.