A fundamental barrier will be faced when offering an analysis of the influence of Conservatism in Wales, because very few academic sources deal with the subject. The academic situation reflects a wider situation in this regard, namely the perception that Conservatism is an English, alien tradition. Writing about the Conservative party or Conservatism in general therefore is, at best, a minority action. However, there is a danger that this can lead to a perception which marginalises the Conservative tradition in a way that does not match its relative significance in Wales throughout the modern period.

  • The historic Tories in Wales

    The term 'Tory' has its origins in the seventeenth century, and the turbulent period that began with the English civil war. The word comes from the Old Irish, and the term tóraidhe (a brigand or a thief) and it was originally used to describe the Irish who continued in their opposition to Oliver Cromwell's reign at the end of the Civil War. More recently, the term was used to describe the Members of Parliament who supported James the Second's right to succeed his brother, Charles the Second as king. James had turned to the Catholic Church at a time when Protestantism was rapidly gaining ground.

    This direct link with Catholicism did not continue, but Toryism remained in other forms, and the tradition is now known as the forerunner of the modern Conservative and Unionist Party formed in 1834 under the leadership of Robert Peel. The cornerstones of the Tory tradition were strong support for the Monarchy, suspicion of radical social reform, and support for the Church of England. By the end of the eighteenth century these ideas had been coupled with the more liberal views of the Whigs, influenced by figures such as Edmund Burke, and Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger. This is the period in which modern Conservatism was formed in the United Kingdom.

    The second half of the nineteenth century proved to be a challenging time for the Conservative Party as it wrestled with the consequences of the UK democratisation process. The franchise was gradually expanded through a series of important reform laws in 1832, 1867 and 1884 and this had a major impact on the support for the party and its status, particularly in Wales. Since the introduction of the Acts of Union in the nineteenth century, Conservative landowners had dominated the politics of the country, holding the majority of parliamentary seats. However, this changed from the 1860s onwards as more and more ordinary men gained the right to vote and extended their support to the Liberal Party. An event often cited as a symbol of this great change was the victory of the Liberal, Henry Richard, in Merthyr Tydfil in the 1868 election. Indeed, by 1906 there were no Conservative MPs left in Wales.

  • Robert-Peel.jpg
    Robert Peel
  • The Conservatives in Wales 1885-1997

    The Conservatives did not disappear from Welsh politics during the twentieth century. However, the party did not come close to regaining its status from the pre-democratic period. Indeed, at the end of the century in 1997 there was another election where the party did not win a single electoral seat. Given this background - alongside the fact that the Conservative Party has consistently secured a vote in Wales that was some 10% lower than in England - you can understand how the perception developed that Conservatism has not been a relevant tradition in the discussion of Welsh politics.

    Indeed, some structural factors may have contributed to limiting the appeal of Conservatism to electors in Wales. For example, as individualism and property tend to be values that have greater significance for middle- and upper-class voters, it may not have been surprising that a country with higher percentages of the population belonging to the working class vote mainly for left-wing parties. Another factor that has been highlighted in trying to explain the relative failure of the Conservatives is the fact that some of the old features that go back to the Tory period - such as Anglicanism, love of the monarchy and wealth - have contributed to maintaining the perception that the Conservative party was essentially an English party.

    However, despite these factors, care should be taken not to conclude that Conservatism has been irrelevant in Welsh politics. During the second half of the twentieth century, the party secured a foothold in a number of constituencies beyond the industrial areas. Indeed, in 1983 the party secured 14 of the 38 parliamentary seats in Wales. Most of these seats were in rural and relatively anglicised areas such as Pembrokeshire, the Vale of Glamorgan, the north coast and those areas bordering England - the areas described by political scientist Denis Balsom as 'British Wales'.

    Yet, Welsh Conservatism in the twentieth century should not be interpreted as only an English and British force. Significantly, Conservative politicians contributed to many of the policy developments seen in relation to the Welsh language from the 1970s onwards. For example, the Secretary of State, Nicholas Edwards was key to the discussions that ultimately led to the establishment of S4C in 1980. More importantly, Sir Wyn Roberts, a former Member of Parliament for the Conwy constituency and a deputy-minister in the Welsh Office, was absolutely crucial to developments such as the 1988 Education Act (which led to the establishment of Welsh as an essential subject in the curriculum and to the establishment of the practice that pupils in Wales study a different education curriculum to England), the establishment of the Welsh Language Board, and also the 1993 Welsh Language Act which contributed to ensuring more prominent public status for the Welsh language.

    Conservatism in the era of devolution

    Although the Conservatives campaigned against the establishment of the National Assembly devolution offered the party the opportunity to re-establish a presence in Welsh politics following its great losses during the 1997 Westminster election. The party’s level of the vote and the number of seats in the Assembly increased in all elections between 1999 and 2011. Indeed by 2011 it succeeded in ousting Plaid Cymru as the main opposition party in Cardiff Bay.

    During this period there was a deliberate attempt to try to adopt a more positive attitude towards devolution and also to try to give the party's image a more Welsh flavour. Nick Bourne, leader of the Conservative group in the Assembly between 1999 and 2011, was key to this move. Another important figure in the context of the development of Conservatism in Wales during the post-devolution period is Assembly Member David Melding. In a series of striking essays, Melding has argued for further devolution for Wales and also the need for fundamental constitutional reform across the UK including the adoption of full federal arrangements. Indeed, Melding's arguments reflect elements of Traditional Conservatism figures such as Burke and Oakeshott, in particular the assumption that major political and social changes should not be resisted, but rather embraced in a pragmatic way in order to lay stronger foundations for the future. The presence of individuals such as Bourne and Melding in the ranks of the Conservative party in Wales was all important during the post-2007 Assembly election period. At that time the possibility of establishing a 'Rainbow coalition' between the Conservatives, Plaid Cymru and the Liberals was raised to oust the Labour government that had been in power since the beginning of devolution in the late 1990s. This is another example of the pragmatic approach that characterises the politics of many Welsh Conservatives.

    Of course, the rainbow coalition was not established in the end. The reality was that there were deep doubts about the idea to be found among the ranks of the three different parties. In this respect, it is worth pausing for a second to consider the different attitudes to the scheme expressed by Plaid Cymru members. As a party that, since the early 1980s, has positioned itself firmly on the left of the political spectrum and which, on several occasions, has described itself as a party that professes a form of 'democratic socialism', it was no surprise that many of its members expressed considerable discontent about the idea of establishing a coalition which would involve working with Conservatives. At the same time, many other members were receptive to the idea. This highlights the fact that nationalist organizations can encompass individuals who have a range of different perspectives along the left-right spectrum.

    Indeed, in the case of Wales, it is important to note that the National movement’s ideas have included a notable Conservative tradition. A key figure in this context was Saunders Lewis - a poet, playwright and leader of Plaid Cymru during its early years. In his numerous writings Lewis regularly combines nationalist beliefs with a romantic form of Conservatism. This can be seen, for example, in his famous political essay, the Principles of Nationalism, where he argues that Welsh life and culture should be interpreted as part of an old European tradition and that efforts should be made to conserve this heritage through reversal of the great industrialization experienced by Wales during the nineteenth century. Similar romantic features also appear in some of the ideas of philosopher J.R. Jones, who published several influential articles on nationalism and the connection between language and identity during the 1960s. In these essays there is an echo of Jones' desire to return to a past life, one that was free from the influence of the shallow Anglo-American culture which, by the 1960s, was rapidly gaining a foothold across the most Welsh areas of Wales through the media and TV. It was the threat to the Welsh tradition and organic society that Jones was most concerned about.