Tories in London give up on Wales

John Winterson Richards says Cameron’s response to Silk means he can no longer be bothered to defend the UK as a unitary state

There is no satisfaction in being proved right if you happen to be a pessimist. Just check out Aeschylus and look at what actually happened to Cassandra.

Early in 2010, just before the last General Election, an article in the Institute’s Agenda predicted that the impetus for increased autonomy for Wales might come from a Conservative-led government in London. So David Cameron’s announcement granting the Welsh Assembly tax and borrowing powers – subject to a referendum which will be a rubber stamp in the absence of a properly organised and financed opposition – comes as no great surprise. Nor is it a shock that the likes of Lord Bourne, former leader of the Conservatives in the National Assembly, say they welcome the move.

Responding to Silk


This is the second of a series of articles this week on the UK Government’s response last week to the Silk Commission’s recommendations on tax and borrowing powers for the National Assembly.


Tomorrow: Peter Jones says the granting of tax powers to Wales could alter the course of the Scottish referendum.


It is still a very significant moment for Wales, for the Union, and for the Conservative party. It means in effect that the most Unionist of the main political parties can no longer be bothered to defend the United Kingdom as a unitary state. The London media, far from protesting, barely covered the story.

Only the politically naive will buy the line that this will attract ‘moderate devolutionist’ voters in Wales to the Conservatives. If a substantial body of such voters exists – which is itself questionable – it is mainly among Labour supporters, and therefore beyond the reach of the Conservatives whatever they do. In any case, there are already three more sincerely pro-devolution parties on the ground to which the Conservative leadership is trying to move.

No, this has nothing to do with improving the position of the Welsh Conservatives. It is, on the contrary, another confirmation that they no longer matter. Someone in London has made the brutal calculation that the loss of a handful of Welsh and Scottish Conservative MPs is a price worth paying for getting dozens of leftists from Wales and Scotland out of Westminster – at least in the longer term when the West Lothian Question is finally answered.

In the short-term, however, the mathematics may work against the Conservatives. This is because, while their newfound support for the Assembly is unlikely to win them any new friends, it is likely to add to the dissatisfaction of existing supporters with the current direction of the party.

Welsh Unionists are effectively being abandoned by the last party that even pretended to represent them. Of course, it must be stressed that the words ‘Unionist’ and ‘Conservative’ are far from synonymous. There are a surprising number of people with generally Tory values who nevertheless feel the emotional appeal of the idea of an independent Wales. Some are Plaid supporters, but others are regular Conservative voters, even party members. Equally, there are still at least some old-school centralising leftists who believe devolution a mistake but who would never even consider voting Conservative. That said, in general there has always been a strong correlation between Unionists and Conservatives. Both sides in the devolution debate make the assumption that an autonomous or independent Wales is more likely to adopt left-wing policies, which is precisely why many on the left are in favour, and why anti-socialists tend to be against it.

So it made sense for the Conservatives to view Welsh Unionists as their own niche market. After all, no one else has been competing for that target segment, and there are more potential Unionists than Conservatives. The potential Conservative vote in Wales is probably in the region of 20-35 per cent. On the other hand, the potential Unionist vote, depending on precise definition, is between 30-50 per cent, perhaps more, if it was ever properly organised and financed.

If Conservatives benefitted from Unionists, the opposite has also been true. After a chaotic start, the ‘No’ campaign in the 1997 referendum was discreetly taken over by the Conservatives, and nearly pulled off a spectacular victory against the odds. However, in 2011 the Conservatives and the ‘No’ campaign kept their distance from each other, with predictable results. The marriage now seems to be over – or at least Mr Cameron has left the marital home.

Although some have tried hard to create one, there is no unifying ideology or dogma of ‘Conservatism’. The Conservative party is no more than a pragmatic alliance of diverse ideologies and interests united only by their opposition to socialist collectivism. Elements of that alliance – including the small business community, libertarians, and religious traditionalists – are very disappointed by the Cameron administration. Unionists may now be added to that list.

David Cameron’s advisers seem to think that so long as the economy improves – and the latest reports are encouraging – the fear of a Labour government alone will be enough to keep these disappointed supporters voting Conservative.

They are badly mistaken.

The Prime Minister surrounds himself with people like himself, with little or no grassroots political experience. They rely on polls, not doorsteps. They lack that instinct for understanding how non-politicians think – and why they vote – which comes only from practical experience. They are making the same errors that cost them the 2010 election. They do not sense the ‘plague on all their houses’ mood that hangs heavy in the air.

Support for any political party is a moral compromise. Vopters are unlikely to support the party’s whole programme, but they support it because, (i) it shares more of their values than any other party; and, (ii) because a mainstream party is in a stronger position to advance those values than any individual.

The Welsh Conservatives, apparently now bereft of distinctive values, and marginalised both in Wales and within their own party, meet neither of those criteria – so why should anyone bother voting for them?

All is not yet lost. As recent polling in Scotland has confirmed, target voters tend to like David Cameron as a man, or rather they do not actively dislike him. He does not provoke the extremes of emotion – devotion or hatred – that Margaret Thatcher did, or the undeserved derision that haunted poor John Major. That his opponents are reduced to juvenile and dated class-war attacks on his background and education shows that it is hard to find anything more substantial against him. There is a lot of sense in his line that there is such a thing as society but it should not be equated with the state. His ‘Big Society’ is a bad name for what could be a good idea. His real position on Europe seems to be one of sceptically-inclined pragmatism, which may be more in tune with the British people than UKIP’s unyielding Europhobia or the Europhilia now embraced by the parties of the left, some more sincerely than others.

The challenge for him and his party in Wales is to come up with a positive reason – beyond fear of a likely Labour government that actually looks little different from their own – why even the Tory-inclined should make that journey to the polling station to support them on election day.

If not defence of the Union, then what?

John Winterson Richards was Conservative and Unionist candidate in the Rhondda in the 1992 General Election. He left the Conservative party in 1999 and is now a political independent

7 thoughts on “Tories in London give up on Wales

  1. When working in London some years ago I would drive up on a Monday morning on the M4. About 9am or so there was a programme on Radio 4 hosted by Jeremy Paxman about recently published books. One of these was about the End of Empire. I don’t remember its title.

    The author spoke about how the English were only interested in money and the countries they “lost” the quickest and most easily were the ones they saw no profit in. The ones where they could see a profit were the ones they would hang on to the hardest. No brutality was too far for them. India is just one example of this. That’s why they called it “The Jewell in the Crown”.

    The more Unionists see Wales as a financial burden the more they want to get rid of us. They don’t like us anyway because we’re foreign.

    English politics has never sat well in Wales ijn any case. Their politics is two groups of industrial bosses fighting against each other on the basis of narrow English class bigotry. They still try to inflict this view on us, but most of the rest of the world does not share this strange class structure. It’s only existed in Wales as a forced import. As a result, when Wales is independant of England the politics of both the right and left, here, will change.

    How is another question.

    Isn’t strange how Unionists don’t like Unions?????

  2. I’m not sure it’s a case the Tories not being “bothered to defend the United Kingdom as a unitary state ” It seems to me that Margaret Thatcher and her party have done more to further the cause of Scottish and Welsh independence than the SNP or PC. I’m not up to date on the state of play in Scotland, but I do recall a poll where Scots said they were much more likely to vote for independence if they thought Cameron would win a majority. That would be the final irony for a conservative and unionist party: winning the election but losing Scotland. The consolation prize would be a permanent Conservative majority in England (and Wales?)

  3. JWR is a bit of a dinosaur. There’s a failure to realise that there has never existed a perfect union in these islands at any point since 1707. It has been in a state of flux. It’s high point was reached between 1914-45, despite the exit of most of Ireland in 1922.

    The tensions which existed within it pre-1914, when there was a strong movement for home rule in both Scotland and Wales, have re-emerged with increased vigour since 1945. The asymmetric and inadequate devolution which has taken place to date is merely evidence that the UK isn’t working. The process will continue, regardless of the outcome of the Scottish referendum. Since 1922 Wales has been governed mainly by the Conservatives, despite never having had a majority here. If one considers the neo-liberal Blair and Brown administrations, Wales has had right of centre government since 1979 without a break

    To my mind the Conservative Party is essentially an English party. Its philosophy is alien to Wales. When one considers the numbers of people who live in Wales, but who were born in England, it’s not surprising that it has a level of support, especially in anglicised areas. Neither has Wales been included in the ‘Union’ as such, which was a union of parliaments at Westminster. Wales isn’t represented symbolically in the Union either, when one considers the flag, the queen and the anthem. They were all ‘applied’ to Wales non-consensually from without. Instead, Wales underwent a process of assimilation, which thankfully has failed, much to JWR’s frustration.

    I have no doubt that there are people in Wales who hold right of centre political views. Wales would be better served if it had a party independent of the Tory party, to represent their views, as would be the case if and when Wales itself becomes independent.

    Just a little point, there was no such thing as a No campaign in 2011, simply a tiny group of activists who didn’t have the guts to become the official campaign. Oddly enough if I remember, they were mainly Labour members or supporters.

    The Jurassic Age has passed, it’s now time for these unionist dinosaurs to open their eyes and realise that the glory days of the Union, if they ever existed, have passed into history, thank goodness.

  4. Dave,

    You are spot on about the lack of a right-of-centre voice here. At the very simplest level, it narrows the debate. Perhaps we need some extra-party mechanism that allows for such views to be aired and to explore more political possibilities in Wales.

  5. I firmly support the right and indeed duty of the Welsh people to govern themselves in matters that affect them alone. Despite what ‘unionists’ (really colonialists) like JWR say, and what political nationalists say, too, that is perfectly compatible with remaining within the union of the UK. I concede the home-rule government we have has generally been second-rate. That will continue until Welsh voters pay attention, stop voting tribally and judge governments on their performance. Democracy does not work without a readiness to “throw the rascals out”. We will know Welsh democracy functions when the government changes after an election.

  6. William, the tide of history seems to be running in favour of Margaret Thatcher, as this year confirmed, but many in Wales would rather stick to their own caricatured image because it is necessary to support their world view.

    Gwyn, the same is true of the British Empire. Its history is too complex to be summed up in a radio interview: the good, the bad, and the ugly are all there, but on balance it probably did more good than harm, and was certainly preferable to any other option on offer in its time. It is undeniable historical fact that Wales was England’s first imperial conquest, but also historical fact that pre-Conquest Wales was more anarchy than Arcadia, and that Welsh people embraced the imperial project from the start and, on the whole, did quite well out of it. So imperialism gave us no right to wallow in victimhood. The collapse of Empire was equally complex, but it is fair to say that, after two World Wars and a Labour majority, both the money and the political will necessary to sustain it were gone. The end very came quickly once the British Establishment did its sums, and that may one day also be said of the Union.

    Dave, apart from silliness like Blair-Brown being ‘right of centre,’ you do make some good points. As the article itself makes clear, Unionists are indeed in retreat and, unless there is a dramatic and unexpected change, tomorrow belongs to the nationalists. Yet being out of fashion does not make Unionists wrong. The original dinosaurs are remembered far more fondly than the nondescript era that succeeded them. For all its many imperfections, the United Kingdom has been, by almost any measure, a relatively successful polity. The burden of proof is on those seeking to abandon it to show that they will replace it with something better. They have yet to do so.

  7. “For all its many imperfections, the United Kingdom has been, by almost any measure, a relatively successful polity. The burden of proof is on those seeking to abandon it to show that they will replace it with something better. They have yet to do so.”

    I agree, the UK has been a successful polity for a) the economy of London and the SE b) The English language and its culture c) the privileged classes wherever they may be. And what matters here is relative measures of success not absolute measures.

    I think what you miss JWR, is that the huge imbalances in wealth (both in terms of economic and cultural capital) in the UK as it has been constituted up to now, provide monumental ‘burdens of truth’ that it is dysfunctional from a redistributive perspective. In the absence of totalitarianism, no state can hope to survive for very long if it does not distribute wealth (in all its forms) equitably.

    Whilst centralists cling on in denial to that basic flaw in the UK system, the ‘burden of truth’ grows and the decentralists make hay.

    Most political theorists essentially align nowadays on the idea that nationalism is largely a function of uneven processes of modernization. If you don’t get that, you’ll be tilting at windmills forever and a day, whilst the UK construct falls into a thousand pieces.

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